Identity in an Industrialised world

The Sickness Unto Death (Kierkegaard's Writings, Volume 19) - Søren Kierkegaard, Edna Hatlestad Hong

This book seems to simply ramble on with only a vague structure to it. The reason I say a vague structure is because the first part deals with despair and the second part deals with the nature of sin. However within both parts Kierkegaard doesn't seem to actually be moving in any specific direction, nor does he seem to come to any particular conclusion – if I were marking this as an essay, I would probably give it good marks in relation to content (which I why I gave it such a high rating, because in amongst all of the ramblings, he makes some very insightful statements) but give it an very low mark in regards to structure. However, as I have mentioned, I am more interested in the content than in the structure.

Kierkegaard (which, by the way, means graveyard in Danish) is considered to be the father of existentialism. It wasn't that one day he decided to sit down an write a new philosophy, but rather he was writing in response to the changes that he was seeing going on around him and building upon the philosophies of those that came before him. Kierkegaard was also a Christian, and had studied for the priesthood, however we wasn't connected with any specific church. This is not surprising because at the time Denmark had a state church, and with all state churches, if one does not tow the line, one does not get to speak.

The situation that Kierkegaard is writing about is the destruction of the self that was coming about with modernisation. As people began to move from the country to the cities, people's individuality, and identity, were beginning to disappear. This was also happening within industrialisation, as the skilled person was being replaced with a multitude of unskilled workers. Where previously a nail would be individually made by a blacksmith who was skilled in making all sorts of items, nails were now made by a team who were required to work on only one part of the nail. As such, the identity of the skilled blacksmith was being replaced by the workers, who in effect had no identity at all.

This, as Kierkegaard suggests, is the progenitor of despair. Further, this loss of identity also created a loss of purpose, and when one's purpose is removed, it goes on to add to the despair. Maybe this is why depression is so common in the developed world today because we have effectively lost our identity, and simply find ourselves as being one of the crowd. For instance, as in my case, I like to review and comment on books, but so do hundreds of other people, and as such I find myself competing with hundreds (or even thousands) of other people for readership of my commentaries, and if twenty of them have picked up a large following then I feel, in the end, that I have been left behind, and as such all of my work means nothing – I have lost my purpose, and in the end there is nothing left but despair.

So the question that arises is: what is existentialism? It is the idea that we define who we are rather than letting other people define ourselves. This is the essence of despair because if I base my ability to write a commentary by the number of likes that I get then I find that I am letting others define who I am. Instead, if I let define myself as someone who likes to read, and then write about what I have read, and the thoughts and ideas that I have while I have been reading, then it does not matter what other people think, because I have given myself my own definition. It is also the case outside of this particular sphere because if you let people define who you are 'David, I can see that you are this type of person' then we open ourselves up to despair because we give our identity to others to enchain us with their opinion. How would one respond to that? Me, I simply ignore that person, and go and find somebody else to spend time with, somebody who is not going to attempt to define me, but allow me to define myself.

I guess that is what Kierkegaard is trying to do (and I don't really think he does it well in my opinion, because this book is very dense, and also hard to follow his argument) and that is to empower us to escape from the cycle of despair and to make us realise that in God's eyes we are actually somebody, and while we may have a meaningless, dead-end job, we can escape that by giving ourselves our own identity and our own definition. Another example from my own life is that in my previous role I let it define me, and because I let it define me, it depressed me. This time I just acknowledge that I do work, and I work for an insurance company, but then try to move away from that to talk about other things so that my job does not define me, but rather I define myself. Look, it isn't easy, and people really don't like it when you empower yourself like that, but as Nietzsche said, that which doesn't kill you, only makes you stronger (and he was also an existentialist philosopher).