Metaphor and Metaphysics in Søren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or 

This is the final essay I wrote for Kierkegaard Summer Course at University of Copenhagen. I have pasted the introduction here. 


Søren Kierkegaard’s existential insight sometimes eclipses his literary achievement. His command of metaphor, in particular, is part of his overlooked literary gift: his writing style involving pseudonyms and fragmentary, inconsistent personal accounts has perhaps perplexed many, but one can hardly deny his genius in constructing vivid metaphors that serve an indispensable role throughout his authorship. In addition to initiating an existential mood, Kierkegaard’s metaphors help his readers imagine a profound, exquisite reality rich in personal details and feelings. In his early major work Either/Or, for example, metaphors play a s-ren-kierkegaard-orig.jpegpredominant role. They appear to function on two levels: first, a localised, micro level that involves individual metaphors serving specific purposes, and second, an aggregate, macro level that allures a reader to approach Kierkegaard’s Either/Or as one giant theatrical metaphor. Meanwhile, Kierkegaard emphasises that Either/Or contains no concrete information or well-circumscribed interpretations (EO 35,36).⁠1 Under the pseudonym of Victor Eremita,⁠2 he posits himself as the witty editor for the two fictional characters instead of their creator (EO 29-33). He asks his readers to approach Either/Or on the whole as “the work of one man” (EO 36), or an endless dialogue between two contrasting attitudes towards human existence, namely the aesthetic and the ethical attitudes.

There is undoubtedly an element of Socratic indirectness associated with metaphorical descriptions in Either/Or and in Kierkegaard’s authorship at large. Kierkegaard does not systematically nor clearly defend his arguments in Either/Or like other European intellectuals of his time. One might reasonably wonder why Kierkegaard has to write metaphorically in a philosophical book. Would Either/Or be less impactful, literally or existentially, if Kierkegaard wrote it in a more conventional, argumentative manner? If so, what is so special about metaphors that makes them most suited for an existential work like Either/Or? Most intriguingly, what are the existential and metaphysical implications of writing and reading metaphors? 

As a start to answer those questions, one can argue that writing metaphorically has practical purposes (Daise 23, Lorentzen 16-7): it engages readers in an absorbing mood without triggering their critical lenses. On a personal level, readers can relate to or even resent A’s melancholic struggles and B’s somehow prescriptive tone. Most readers would likely prefer a metaphorical writing to an argumentative essay, especially when the essay is addressing existential themes on a personal level. Metaphors help readers immerse themselves intimately with Either/Or, making Either/Or an exceptionally enchanting volume to read and re-read. 

Interestingly, these practical considerations seem to address human psychology and entail some existential and metaphysical reasons to write metaphorically. After all, why do people find metaphors existentially engaging? In her short critique on systematic metaphysics Literature and Metaphysics, Simone de Beauvoir notices a blurred boundary between literature and metaphysics while arguing for an existentialist conception of metaphysics. To do metaphysics, according to Beauvoir, is to be metaphysical, or “to realise in oneself the metaphysical attitude, which consists in positing oneself in one’s totality before the totality of the world” (273), to confront personal, raw experiences and emotions prior to cognitive elucidation (270). By totality, Beauvoir thinks of one’s body, emotions and senses in addition to cognitive faculties although very often only the latest is emphasised in the western philosophical tradition. The traditional conception of systematic metaphysics, in contrast, is merely a “false naturalistic objectivity” (Beauvoir 275), if not a brutal simplification ignorant of nuanced human conditions. Beauvoir comments that Kierkegaard’s The Seducer’s Diary “offers the original experience in its dramatic singularity” (274), expressing the otherwise inexpressible. Kierkegaard uses 81DehLAzXOL.jpgboth theoretical treatises and metaphorical fictions throughout his authorship as an attempt to “reconcile the objective and subjective, the absolute and the relative, the timeless and the historical” (Beauvoir 274). Although Kierkegaard might accuse Beauvoir of imposing philosophical significance on his work that is really about nothing, it is interesting to read Kierkegaard through Beauvoir’s existentialist metaphysics. That is, Beauvoir illustrates how the literary aspect of Kierkegaard’s authorship is indispensable to his existential project that presupposes his metaphysical views on self and the physical reality. The Kierkegaardian metaphor and metaphysics therefore converge philosophically besides sharing a common prefix. Metaphor manifests an overlooked aspect of metaphysical experience: subjective, singular, dramatic and ambiguous, which cannot be grasped by rationality or intellect alone. 

This essay makes the leap from the metaphorical to the metaphysical. Inspired by Beauvoir’s existentialist conception of metaphysics, this essay first contextualises some of Kierkegaard’s enchanting metaphors within the existential mood of his early major work Either/Or. I shall first divide localised metaphors into A’s aesthetic imagination and B’s (or Judge Vilhelm’s) ethical thought experiment before analysing their metaphysical implications separately. Among A’s aesthetic imagination, Kierkegaard often borrows images from nature, or the physical reality, to express something deeply inside. Among Vilhelm’s ethical thought experiments, Kierkegaard keeps coming inwards to address the ontology of selfhood when he crafts thought experiments situated in the physical reality. Rather paradoxically, Kierkegaard’s metaphors of one’s inner experience connect to his metaphysical view of nature and the physical reality, and his metaphors of the external world reveal his metaphysics of inner selfhood. Through Kierkegaardian metaphors, the inward and the outward, the subjective and the objective, the contingent and the necessary work in existential harmony in Either/Or. 

Finally, I consider the postulate of Either/Or being one theatrical metaphor and the existential implications of such hypothesis, namely how existence can be seen as an endless, painful struggle that demands to be felt but not necessarily rationalised, and how Either/Or on the whole feels like a sincere and affecting prayer. I argue that metaphors in Either/Or question the attainability of the absolute truth and the possibility of metaphysics; they function as an ultimate philosophising agent. 

1 References to EO are to Either/Or (trans.Hannay, 1992)

2 For consistency, this essay attributes all of Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms (namely Victor Eremita, A, Judge Vilhelm in Either/Or) back to him. This essay will use Kierkegaard as the subject whenever a writing process is described as the main action.

Kierkegaard’s Grave Stone, Copenhagen

Works Consulted

Beauvoir, Simone de, and Margaret Simons. Philosophical Writings. University of Illinois Press, 2005.

Chen, Derong. Metaphorical Metaphysics in Chinese Philosophy: Illustrated With Feng Youlan’s New Metaphysics. Lexington Books. 2011

Creel, Herrlee G. What Is Taoism? And Other Studies in Chinese Cultural History. 1972.

Daise, Benjamin. Kierkegaard’s Socratic Art. Mercer University Press, 1999.

Garff, Joakim. ‘The Esthetic Is above My Element’ (Stacey E. Ake, Trans.). New Kierkegaard, edited by Elsebet Jegstrup. Indiana University Press. 2004.

Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich. ‘Presence Achieved in Language (With Special Attention Given to the Presence of the Past)’. History and Theory, vol. 45, no. 3, 2006, pp. 317–27.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript (Alastair Hannay, Trans.). Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Either/or: A Fragment of Life (Alastair Hannay, Trans.). London: Penguin, 1992.

Kierkegaard, Søren. ‘Either/Or Part I: Kierkegaard’s Writings III’. Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Kierkegaard’s Journals and Notebooks, Volume 1: Journals AA-DD. Vol. 1, Princeton University Press, 2015.

Kierkegaard, Søren. The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air: Three Godly Discourses. Princeton University Press, 2016.

Kierkegaard, Søren. The Sickness unto Death: A Christian Exposition of Edification and Awakening (Alastair Hannay, Trans.). London: Penguin Books, 1989.

Laozi, et al. Tao te ching. Kyle Cathie. trans. 1989.

Leung, Wing Sze. ‘The Ethical Importance of the Beautiful: Wordsworth’s Revision of Hume’s Associationist Aesthetics in the 1805 Prelude’. Interdisciplinary Literary Studies, vol. 17, no. 1, Mar. 2015, pp. 86–109.

Lorentzen, Jamie. Kierkegaard’s Metaphors. Mercer University Press, 2001.

Söderquist, K. Brian. ‘Irony’. The Oxford Handbook of Kierkegaard, edited by John Lippitt and George Pattison. Oxford University Press. 2013. pp. 344–64.

Strelis, Anna. ‘The Intimacy between Reason and Emotion: Kierkegaard’s’. Res Philosophica, vol. 90, no. 4, 2013, pp. 461–80.

Parker, Robert Dale. How to interpret literature. 2008.

Pierce, April Elisabeth. ‘Towards a New Romanticism: Derrida and Vico on Metaphorical Thinking’. Thesis Eleven, vol. 123, no. 1, Aug. 2014, pp. 17–40. 

Weston, Michael. Kierkegaard and the Metaphysical Project. Kierkegaard and Modern Continental Philosophy: An Introduction. Routledge. 1994. pp. 11-32.

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