Both Either and Or

Alastair Hannay

Ph.D., Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, Department of Philosophy, Classics, History of Art and Ideas, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway.

Address: P.O. Box 1020 Blindern, N-0315 Oslo, Norway.

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Abstract: Encouraged by remarks from its pseudonymous editor’s preface, some commentators on Søren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or have read the work as offering two independent life-views, the choice between them being left to the reader. Not only are the two parts inseparably (or ‘dialectically’) interrelated, a closer reading of the last few pages reveals the work as a whole to be a teeing-off for the further pseudonymous writings. A wider-angled perspective on the work thus reveals not only the interdependence of its parts but the inseparability of the work as a whole from Kierkegaard’s developing promotion of the category of the single individual. In this light, we can detect an underlying address-cum-confession to the reader that the purpose of the work is simultaneously to excuse and promote the role of the exception with regard to both personal and social unity.

Key words: choice, despair, exception, individual, Kierkegaard, marriage, selfhood, universal.

Received at September 26, 2019.

How to cite: Hannay, Alastair (2019). Both Either and Or. Researcher. European Journal of Humanities & Social Science. 4 (2), 95–106.


Copyright © 2019 Authors retain the copyright of this article. This article is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


The very title of Kierkegaard’s first major work suggests that it would be misguided to discuss or examine either of its two parts independently of the other. They are presented not as random options selected from other possibilities but as strict and exhaustive alternatives. If we assume this is also how they are intended to appear, then grasping what is said in one of the two parts must depend on the reader seeing what needs adding to or subtracting from the other ― whichever part it is. To free the text of ‘Or’ from its disjunctive ‘Either’, for example, leaving the latter out of the picture, would be to risk losing sight of how and where the work aims at finding and enlightening the reader.

There are arguments against this view. One, supported by the pseudonymous editor’s prefatory remarks, is that it was Kierkegaard’s intention that the two parts stand out as genuine disjuncts, each to be judged on its own merits independently of the other, possibly even in the reverse order, and the choice made between them as they stand personally, since no resolution is offered in the text and, as far as the reader is concerned, the aesthete’s scattered effusions may even have been written after receiving the letters sent to him by the judge in the second part (Kierkegaard 1992, p. 36). Another counter-argument is that it is due to their appearing as water-tight alternatives that the two life-views endure as interesting options today, supporting irreducibly opposed factions with no dialectical or dialogical linkage between them: ‘fragmentalists’, on the one hand, as we might call those who support the ‘Either’, and on the other those who champion the civic virtues of the ‘Or’. There is also the further, pragmatic though not altogether unimportant point that, with its insidious hold on our imaginations, the ‘Either’ has from the very beginning received more than its share of exclusive attention. If only to redress the balance, we may owe it to the real author to pay some compensatory attention to the ‘Or’.

But exclusive attention? There is some asymmetry here. It will seem obvious that we can grasp the aesthete’s contribution to Either/Or without referring to the judge. Indeed, that possibility probably accounts for much of the first part’s continuing attraction. Pointing in no particular direction beyond itself, it can be developed in ways other than those that strike many as the obsolete bourgeois ideals and attitudes of a minor court magistrate. When, on the other hand, it comes to the latter’s admonitions and recommendations to his young friend, these are framed against the background of the judge’s ‘judgment’ about what the aesthete’s life lacks. This will seem obvious when we see that the very objections against which the judge’s view is defended are those that he puts in the mouth of his young friend. At least in Judge Wilhelm’s own eyes, that view should be seen as answering to needs that come to light in an aesthete whose aestheticism has come to the point at which the disadvantages of the aesthetic life are apparent even to the aesthete, so that if he or she can face up to them they will be seen, as Wilhelm claims, to be a form of despair (Kierkegaard 1992, p. 513).

To contemporaries and some recent commentators this sounds as though both parts of Either/Or might be brought together under a quasi-Hegelian embrace. This, of course, if supportable would dispel the appearance of asymmetry that leaves the ‘Either’ open for free interpretation and also the possibility of the order being reversed. Instead, on a Hegelian reading, inner contradictions in the aesthetic life-view, once revealed, lead inexorably to the ethical life-view represented by the judge for their resolution. The ‘Either’ leads unerringly to the ‘Or’ ― except that the Hegelian engine of reason has been replaced by Wilhelm’s choice of ‘self’, a choice that has to be made in the face of a human’s ‘natural’ strategies of self-deception.

Revelation of Life

Kierkegaard himself has a simpler account of the relation between the two parts of his first major work. He says that the topic of Either/Or is ‘the revelation of life’. If what that means is not instantly clear, reading the text in the light of this remark should help us to fill out the content of the claim. The remark is not one made looking back from the end of Kierkegaard’s writing career, it comes quite soon after he had finished the work. What the journal entry in question says is that ‘[T]he second part begins with marriage because that is the most profound form of the revelation of life’. The implication is that the life of the aesthete is one of non-disclosure and, as the pseudonymous editor points out, it is ‘scarcely possible’ to convey a unified aesthetic life-view’ (Kierkegaard 1992, p. 36).

To non-skeptical readers this answers ― if sketchily ― two questions: (1) what is the book about? Answer: revelation of life; (2) why does the second part focus on marriage? Answer: it is what reveals life in its greatest depth. As for our own other question, (3) how is the second part related to the first? The answer here is Wilhelm’s, he says that ‘ “It is every man’s duty to become revealed” is ‘the opposite of the whole first part’, and the ‘aesthetic’ is ‘always hidden’. In further clarification we are told that in the first part the ‘inner being’ of ‘A’ (the aesthete) is ‘only hinted at’ and Wilhelm in the second part lets us see only the ‘exterior with which [‘A’] is usually deceiving people’ (Kierkegaard 1996, p. 165). As for any further elaboration on the contrast between what is revealed and what hidden, we as readers may decipher quite a lot for ourselves, for instance the significance of that fictitious group, the ‘Symparanekromenoi’ that ‘A’ is frequently addressing. The title can be translated ‘fellowship of buried lives’, which is not to say they are dead as some have assumed, but that they are lives dedicated to concealment, the lives of those who, as the text says, raise their glasses to the setting rather than the rising sun.

That same journal entry about marriage being the most profound revelation of life, adds that it is ‘so ingenious [sindrigt] to have Jupiter and Juno called adultus and adulta [mature], teleios, teleia [complete] with regard to tracing marriage back to them’ (Kierkegaard 1996, p. 165). The topic, then, is human fulfilment and marriage here is to be grasped as something more than the bourgeois arrangement entered into then as now for all sorts of reasons that include respectability, personal security as well as propagation, reasons which Wilhelm himself enumerates and decries in the first of his two letters (or ‘treatises’). It is, according to Kierkegaard’s own report of what he himself had in mind at the time (though we can bear in mind this qualification ‘at the time’ for what follows), the way to human fulfilment.

That such a large book as Either/Or should have such a big theme may not seem strange. But that it should launch marriage as the medium of human fulfilment is a little unexpected, or would be if we did not have independent knowledge of facts about Kierkegaard’s own life. Knowing these facts, we might conclude rather disappointingly that the claim is motivated for personal reasons rather than philosophically for the good of humankind. In what follows I suggest that indeed there is a personal motivation but that there is also a case for allowing something of philosophical significance to emerge from Kierkegaard’s treatment of this theme in the ‘Or’, something that in his later pursuit of the theme of fulfilment overrides the personal motivation or gives that motivation a more than personal aspect.

A Hegelian Project

To begin at the beginning. On arriving back in Copenhagen from Berlin in March 1843, the first thing Kierkegaard did was to get to work on the first of the two treatises in the ‘Or’: an aesthetic defense of marriage (‘Marriage’s Aesthetic Validity’). The theme was not just of personal interest. Ever since it became a central topic in Romanticism, marriage had been a much-discussed issue. One climate of opinion held that, strictly speaking, marriage was impossible. It was not just the difficulty of combining love and propagation, the problem was its seeming incompatibility with the ‘development’ of a person in the open-ended and hitherto orphan subjectivity to which Romanticism was so greatly attached. The problem of combining nature and duty in the cases of love and marriage had earlier been addressed by both Kant and Fichte. The former saw marriage as merely a legal affair, while the latter argued that the law in this case should be made to conform with nature. The seemingly irreducible duality of marriage and its consequent lack of any grounding or ‘validity’ had been much in the air and became the themes of writers such as Beaumarchais in Figaro and Goethe in Wahlverwandtschaften (Elective Affinities). It would seem natural to assume that, in the treatise Kierkegaard wrote to tell his friend Emil Boesen that he was writing in Berlin, he should be attempting some kind of Hegelian reconciliation of the notions of nature and duty, a reconciliation in which nature in the form of human experience is enriched by duty. It is, after all, a defense of the ‘validity’ of marriage in ‘aesthetic’ terms that the reader is offered through Wilhelm’s pseudonymous pen. Marriage deepens love by giving it the dimension of time and making it possible for love to acquire a history without which it cannot survive, not in the sense of simply enduring, but lasting and becoming enriched in doing so.

After his own scandalous treatment of Regine Olsen, the superficial thought would be that Kierkegaard would choose to attack rather than defend the institution of marriage, or at least leave it alone and put his mind to something else. But the assumption here would be that Either/Or was a project born of the immediate past, something he had thought of on the spot when finally released from a matrimonial future that, apart from any more private complications, would deprive him of his future as a writer.

The indications are, and these include Kierkegaard’s own words, that quite the reverse is true. This was a project he had kept in mind all the while that he had been collecting his experiences and encapsulating them in his journals. Cruel though the thought is, what he had done to Regine was pre-meditated in the sense that he had been thinking over a longer period of marriage as a release from various forms of suffering but was unable to free himself from the thought that it was the suffering itself that meant most to him. That this should include the thought of the suffering of another was only, in a sense, a logical extension of his disengagement. Having made Regine and himself suffer in this way, far from escaping the thought of marriage, for Kierkegaard marriage was now a topic that he could think properly through rather than endure personally. With its hazards no longer in prospect, as a metaphorical monk isolated from the world (in the guise of Victor Eremita, or the triumphant loner), like Hegel’s ‘owl of Minerva’, which could only take flight in the dusk, he could now spread his wings.

It would appear that Kierkegaard at that time had no real reason to suppose that marriage itself was not ‘valid’, and certainly not that it could be ‘bettered’ by becoming a hermit or a monk, however nearer the cloister brings one to God. Wilhelm’s criticisms of the ‘monastery movement’ can be read as Kierkegaard’s and are indeed taken straight from his own notes on the subject. Nor is there, in spite of the later diatribes against existing bourgeois customs including its marital practices, any indication at least at this time that Kierkegaard regarded marriage itself as an outdated institution. It was simply that marriage would not do for him.

There was still a personal interest in showing to himself and others concerned that marriage was an important institution. He was to be, after all, the exception to the rule that people should marry. It was therefore quite reasonable that he should offer a defense of marriage so high-minded and so convincing to those attuned to such high-mindedness, that it was not at all unlikely that some should fail the test. They would fail not because they were too immature in the way Wilhelm insinuates is true of ‘A’ but because they were in some way over-mature (too ‘spiritual’) and too little natural to be able to fulfil the standard marital requirements.

Wilhelm’s Reservation

Looking closely at Either/Or’s text allows us, then, to discern an inherent tension in Wilhelm’s defense. It is a defense of marriage, yes, but as a state for those who have the spiritual as well as physical strength to support it. Having that strength, however, exposes one to dilemmas of the spirit of the kind Kierkegaard frequently refers to as ‘collisions’ and which force people to choose between doing ‘the right thing’ and pursuing some project better suited to their talents and possibilities of personal fulfilment. Ideally, marriage is not just the civic situation established by following certain conventions and rituals. Having followed the conventions, you still have the ideal before you. Those who see this, and the difficulty it poses, should not take the step. Yet even for those who cannot enter into it, marriage remains something of which one should wish one were capable.

That indeed is how Wilhelm puts it at the end of his second treatise. It is easy for the reader of Either/Or to glance only briefly at the notion of exceptionality with which the judge concludes his defense of marriage. He notes that someone who wants to ‘realize the task that everyone is assigned ― that of expressing the universally human in his individual life’ can [stumble] on difficulties’ (Kierkegaard 1996, p. 586). To fall back on the ‘monastery theory’ or some aesthetic equivalent would be a matter of vanity or a self-congratulatory exclusivity. In a brief passage anticipating but at the same time inverting the later pseudonym Anti-Climacus’s more elaborate exposition of forms of despair in The Sickness unto Death, Wilhelm then swiftly charts the course of one who manages to escape such self-serving expedients before admitting, finally, that although he sees the idea as quite foreign to himself, he can still imagine such an exception. But the mental turmoil of being such an exception must be a ‘purgatory’, so that ‘[p]eople should therefore not be so eagerly ambitious to become something out of the common, for being that means something else than a capricious satisfaction of one’s arbitrary desire’ (Kierkegaard 1996, p. 589).

Wilhelm even goes so far as to allow that some form of redemption may be in store for the exception. A person truly ‘convinced in pain’ of being ‘uncommon is reconciled with the universal again through ‘sorrow at being [uncommon]’: ‘One day he may experience the joy that what caused him pain and made him lowly in his own eyes proves to be an occasion for his being lifted up again and becoming an uncommon man in a nobler sense’. An exception in this more noble sense will nevertheless ‘always admit that it would be more perfect still to take possession of the whole of the universal’ (Kierkegaard 1996, p. 589).

Looking Forward

It was suggested at the beginning that it would be inadvisable to focus on one of Either/Or’s two parts to the exclusion of the other. An objection that quickly comes to mind against doing so is that without the limitations that one part places on plausible readings of the other, more readings are possible than can possibly be relevant. But there is an opposite objection against reading Either/Or itself, as a whole, in isolation from the later pseudonymous works. The three pages out of several hundred that Wilhelm devotes to exceptionality can sound like a parenthetical afterthought, but to readers of the continuing pseudonymous authorship their importance becomes obvious. They are a teeing-up for the later pseudonyms.

Perhaps then the ‘Or’ contains a concealed message or even one that is its main burden? The message would be that it is from the exception’s vantage-point point that we first see what true fulfilment requires. We may, if we wish, read this as not just a message but also a personal plea, a piece of wishful thinking: as if saying: ‘Let this be so, for otherwise my exceptionality has no merit’. But that it should have merit is perhaps Kierkegaard’s greatest claim to a place in our cultural or spiritual history.

From the varied vantage-points of the later pseudonyms, as well as from the hint in those final pages of Either/Or (as well as the brief ‘Ultimatum’ or ‘Last Word’ concluding that work), we know that the judge’s view is also provisional. Unlike Either/Or’s first readers, we know that the assumption that the individual finds fulfilment in an established universal is very quickly subverted in Fear and Trembling’s highlighting, in its treatment of the story of Abraham and Isaac, the implications of placing the individual above the universal. We could suppose that Kierkegaard’s admission that he was metaphorically a monk while writing his defense of marriage suggested some intentional irony in his portrayal of Wilhelm, but his own comment suggests otherwise: he says that the judge’s first ‘treatise’ is ‘what you would expect from a married man who champions marriage with ethical enthusiasm’.

This, of course, does not mean that Kierkegaard was equally enthusiastic; what it suggests is that Kierkegaard here offers a skillful reconstruction of how a representative of a vanished bourgeoisie would defend ideals that a prescient Kierkegaard was himself in the process of discarding. The interpretation seems at first glance strongly confirmed the more we allow ourselves to discern a continuity rather than a radical revision between the ‘Or’ and what Kierkegaard has to say on the subject of marriage more than ten years later.

In a typically abrasive journal entry from that later time, Kierkegaard speaks not only of marriage but of egotism, being a monk, and of ‘realizing the universal’ ― all of them themes to be found in Wilhelm. But Kierkegaard now, in a piece of conceptual acrobatics, connects the idea of realizing the universal with that of being an exception: ‘[N]ow at long last I see the exceptional for me is what Christianity would call the universal, the normal, that Christianity insists on the single state and rather makes marriage the exception [det Særlige]’. Pointing to Luther, a married monk, Kierkegaard has him saying ‘not being all that eager for the bridal bed’, instead of letting ‘that whole swarm of prolific people or breeders’ follow his lead and ‘assume that getting married is part of true Christianity’, he might ‘just as well marry a doorpost’ (Kierkegaard 1996, p. 528).

The message is that but for the grace of God, Kierkegaard (1996, p. 591) would have succumbed to a similar fate:

[I]f I had not once and for all run aground on the. singular, I too would have been married’ but ‘[n]ow at long last I see that what was singular for me is what Christianity would call general, the normal, that Christianity insists on the single state and makes marriage, rather, the exception…

The Noble Exception

Many have supposed that in the year just prior to his death Kierkegaard had gone mad or at least become ‘ecstatic’. Several circumstances speak against this but also against the more sympathetic idea that he had radically changed his mind. One such circumstance is a remaining Wilhelm-like core in these very un-Wilhelm-like remarks. It is still unclear from Kierkegaard’s later comments that he is now denying that a marriage properly entered is the most profound revelation of life. His disparaging remarks on marriage can still be read as directed at the kind of marriage Wilhelm too disparages. Certainly, the ideal of marriage may now be seen to involve some further element, a difficulty not evident to Wilhelm and such that if it had been evident to him, he would have had to undergo that ‘purgatory’ that he mentions and might himself have ended up as an exception. Nor should we suppose, as some might, that what distinguishes Kierkegaard’s Wilhelm from the later Kierkegaard himself is that a supposedly Hegelian view has been replaced by something else. The reason is that there is much less Hegel in Wilhelm than some have thought. It would be wrong, for example, to take Wilhelm’s notion of realizing the universal to be a matter of incorporation within an already existing universal in the form of state institutions. Unlike Hegel, for whom the universal does reside in the latter, Wilhelm insists, again in those closing pages, that the universal is itself merely abstract; it is the individual’s choice that clothes the individual in a particular instantiation of the universal and can clothe others in it too.

If post-Wilhelm choices are harder and profounder and make (true) marriage exceptional, the basic idea is the same and may be read in both cases as a polemic as much against any Kantian as Hegelian ethics. The universal for Kant lies outside the individual in the form of a law, while in Hegel the universal is already available as a social fact to which the originally abstract individual adds its name. It may sound as if, for Kierkegaard, a dispensation or good excuse was required to sanction the individual case. Against that we can see it as elevating it to the level to which Wilhelm, when talking of the exception (Undtagelsen), ascribed nobility. Luther, says Kierkegaard, should have told his wife that his marriage was an exceptional act, a defiance of ‘Satan, the Pope, and the world at large’ (Kierkegaard 1996, p. 528). Failing to do so, Luther led everyone to believe that Christianity was ‘purely and simply’ that ‘sugary trifle’, the ‘idyll of begetting children, etc.’ (Kierkegaard 1996, p. 625). His compromise spawned all those defective marriages entered into for the wrong reasons listed by Wilhelm in the first of his two treatises which included marrying ‘in order to contribute to the propagation of the race’. The distance from Wilhelm’s enthusiastic defense to Kierkegaard’s savage attack need not, accordingly, be as great as first appears. The acerbic outpourings of the later Kierkegaard can be those of a reborn Wilhelm chastened by the not fully foreseen but later explicit implications of his concept of noble exceptionality.

Is this far-fetched? At least it is one perspective and not so very implausible. An alternative focus is on short-term psychology and points to why Kierkegaard at the time of writing would rather attack than defend the institution of marriage. But even if, as a committed bachelor, Kierkegaard’s thoughts concerning marriage while writing the second part of Either/Or were of the kind expressed in his later journals, he still had good reasons for not expressing them at that earlier time. It would have appeared self-serving, just an excuse, to attack marriage as if there were some valid justification for breaking his engagement. Reasoning of such an impersonal kind would also have inflicted further suffering on Regine and further hurt his already dented reputation. It would, in shorty, have been self-defeating in terms of any polemical purpose that expressions of such good reasons might serve. If to appear in the role of noble exception he had, on the contrary, to present marriage as something to be wished for. For unless his rejection of marriage could be seen as a sacrifice on his own but also Regine’s part, there would be no justification for his preference for the life of a writer. Had he trumpeted the virtues of an unmarried life too early, no one at that time would have taken him seriously. What makes the distance between the early and the late Kierkegaard so little is the fact that they both have essentially the same view about marriage. In Wilhelm Kierkegaard contrived a figure who could provide an apology for marriage couched in the very terms that he had already thought of conferring upon Wilhelm’s last-pages creation, the noble exception. We might guess that the fact that this theme tellingly obtrudes on the defense of marriage’s very last pages indicates where the true but only partially revealed message of the second part of Either/Or lies.

A Concluding Choice

We are left, then, with an either/or of our own. Either we read Wilhelm as a spokesman for what Kierkegaard would want to say about marriage if he were facing up to it as a real possibility: or Wilhelm’s perspective on ethics is designed for protective reasons to conceal Kierkegaard’s interest, both then and in what was to come, in using his own failure to justify exceptions to the established positive morality of a society.

Both alternatives bring Either/Or into the vicinity of current moral philosophy although not as close as some commentators of Kierkegaard suppose. Many attempts have been made to pin a moral philosophy on Wilhelm, but moral philosophy is a theoretical enterprise designed to identify rational principles implicit in moral behavior; it evades the question of why one should be moral in the first place. For Kierkegaard, like Hegel, ‘ethics’ means a positive morality, that is to say an existing and functioning morality where that question is implicitly answered and in force. As such, it is an untidy set of practices with varied legitimation and only limited claims to internal consistency. Attempts to pin a moral theory on any or all of Kierkegaard’s texts can have little more value than class-room exercises[1]. On the other hand, there is much in Kierkegaard’s texts that can point to ways in which moral theorists can revise and indeed complicate their theories. That might help them to bear some relation to the moralities that we have and, if it comes to that, provide some hands-on guidance for their revision. But if we give the personal element its due we may read Kierkegaard more profitably in a way that provides insight in matters of unity of selfhood and of society that are unusually pressing in our own time and of which Kierkegaard, a career outsider by nature, made himself presciently aware[2].

[1] For reference points to particular theories, see Alastair Hannay, Kierkegaard, Søren, in Hugh LaFollette (ed.), The International Encyclopedia of Ethics, Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013, vol. 5. pp. 2910–2917.

[2] For a systematic account of diachronic selfhood based on Kierkegaard’s distinction between recall and recollection, see Patrick Stokes, The Naked Self: Kierkegaard and Personal Identity, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. Kierkegaard’s personal concern with unified selfhood and its implications for society are the theme of Alastair Hannay, Kierkegaard: Existence and Identity in a Post-Secular World, London: Bloomsbury Academic, forthcoming 2020.


Kierkegaard, S. (1992). Either/Or: A Fragment of Life, abridged, translated and with introduction by A. Hannay, London: Penguin Books.

Kierkegaard, S. (1996). Papers and Journals: A Selection, translated with introduction and notes by A. Hannay, London: Penguin.

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