In The Dialectical Self: Kierkegaard, Marx, and the Making of the Modern Subject, Jamie Aroosi argues that the philosophies of Søren Kierkegaard and Karl Marx work in tandem to address key problems with philosophical freedom. The comparison of the two philosophers centers on their conception of the self, each of which critically departs from Hegelian subjectivity. Aroosi argues, “whereas [Georg Wilhelm Friedrich] Hegel understood his philosophical approach as primarily descriptive, Kierkegaard and Marx borrowed an essentially Hegelian conception of selfhood but used it prescriptively” (5). The goal of philosophy, for both Marx and Kierkegaard, is not merely to describe the world but to actively change the world. The difference between the two philosophers is that “Marx understood this at the universal level of political transformation, while Kierkegaard understood it at the individual level of personal transformation” (5). Aroosi sees the division between these two projects as a crucial issue in political philosophy that must be addressed. Therefore, the goal of The Dialectical Self is to “articulate the idea of selfhood that unites Søren Kierkegaard and Karl Marx,” which ultimately suggests that “understanding the self and understanding freedom are one and the same” (10).
In order to compare Kierkegaard and Marx, Aroosi focuses on a number of key concepts for each thinker that, although not immediately apparent, share significant common ground. Two of the most important concepts are the distinction between politics and religion, and their conceptions of despair and alienation. One crucial impediment to comparison of Kierkegaard and Marx is that Kierkegaard viewed religion as a key element to the personal transformation lacking in his Danish society. Marx famously viewed religion as a balm to soothe the oppressed masses into political inaction. Kierkegaard similarly criticized politics as an endeavor that ignores the root problems of the self. Aroosi argues that this impasse is in fact “a dialectical opposition,” for “just as Marx validates the content of religion while criticizing it, Kierkegaard also validates the content of politics—its ‘most beautiful dream’ of ‘human equality’—while criticizing it” (9). Thus, while Marx and Kierkegaard seem entirely opposed, their respective philosophies suggest two sides of the same dialectical self. The combination of their philosophical contributions provides a pathway to emancipatory politics grounded in freedom.
The strongest comparison Aroosi offers is that between Kierkegaard’s understanding of despair and Marx’s understanding of alienation. Kierkegaard’s treatment of sin traces the development of human freedom from childhood to adulthood, with reference to the biblical Adam and Eve narrative. Anxiety and despair result from the transition from childlike (edenic) innocence to free responsibility for one’s actions and the knowledge of good and evil. Kierkegaard’s critique of ethics assumes a free, self-conscious human subject who subsumes their freedom under societal beliefs. The goal of Kierkegaard’s philosophy is emancipation of the self from these external beliefs. Marx’s theory of alienation works similarly, though translated into an explicitly political context. In a capitalist society, capital subsumes the worker’s labor time, such that the worker no longer works as a free, self-conscious subject. In this sense, “Kierkegaard’s critique of the ethical fits within Marx’s critique of political emancipation.” However, “Marx increasingly focused on the systematic analysis of the inequalities these beliefs masked, Kierkegaard’s focus remained on helping individuals overcome their subservience to these beliefs” (79). They nonetheless share a remarkably similar structure of the self, freedom, and emancipation––and by combining their insights, they offer a vision of the dialectical self that substantiates both individual and collective emancipation.
While Aroosi builds a strong argument for uniting the philosophies of Kierkegaard and Marx, there are nevertheless weaknesses to the book. One weakness is that the book’s brevity (which is, in itself, a strength) limits engagement with the lengthy reception traditions of the two philosophers. This becomes an issue when Aroosi compares Kierkegaard and Marx on the topic of freedom and history. Aroosi writes, “for Kierkegaard, the past could have happened other than it did, while the possibilities for the future remain ever open,” which Aroosi positively compares to Marx’s understanding of history (112). The relationship between human freedom and history is a contested space within the various branches of Marxist tradition, and Aroosi’s argument would benefit from further substantiation.
Another weakness follows from this, in that Aroosi quickly ties together contestable themes with brief references to other major scholars. For instance, in a short section Aroosi identifies the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre as “the natural place to turn for further insight into the problem posed by Kierkegaardian freedom and Marxist history” (137). Similarly, the concluding chapter introduces the life and thought of Martin Luther King, Jr., as an exemplary figure who combines the insights of Marx and Kierkegaard. The examples may work, but they nonetheless feel like hasty additions that deserve further consideration.
Overall, Aroosi presents a compelling argument for uniting the philosophies of Marx and Kierkegaard. Though their projects differ in perspective and in their prescriptions for overcoming societal problems, Aroosi shows that the philosophies of Marx and Kierkegaard can work in tandem. The Dialectical Self has some minor weaknesses, but those do not detract from this overarching thesis.
Michael Laminack is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Denver/Iliff School of Theology.
Date Of Review:
March 28, 2020
Jamie Aroosi is Senior Research Fellow in Kierkegaard Theology at St. Olaf's College.
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