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“Johannes Climacus” and the Need for Existential Doubt

In his brilliant work, “Johannes Climacus”, Soren Kierkegaard breaks from most philosophers in regards to his belief in existential doubt.

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By Emily Merrell | United States

Around 1842, Soren Kierkegaard began writing one of his most complex philosophical works – De Omnibus Dubitandum Ext. or Johannes Climacus. However, he never completed the text, as he Kierkegaard died extremely young, at age 42. The text is a narrative and has become an extremely important discourse of Western Philosophy, which it engages itself with. The narrative shows the idea of that if life is filled with doubt, it will always end with despair. Thus, it is a counter-argument to many modern and ancient philosophical claims about doubt.

What is Doubt?

In Johannes Climacus, doubt is considered to be a zone between actuality and abstraction. When in doubt, one will experience a border between existence and nonexistence. Doubt brings us to many places in our lives and brings us in and out of reality, but with new sets of guidelines.

Kierkegaard mentions that ancient philosophers’ doubt was the product of interest and the psychology of perception and that apathy can eliminate doubt. Apathy, in a sense, disengages us with doubt. Where Cartesian doubt attempts to disengage us with existence, apathy attempts to bring us back to reality.

A Break from Descartes

Johannes Climacus is the case of what would be considered Kierkegaardian doubt. Kierkegaard’s existential version of doubt completely disengages us with Cartesian doubt. Descartes, from whom the name comes from, considers doubt a natural form of reason. As a result, he believes that the mind will thus meditate and awaken.

Climacus’ doubt, however, is an anti-epistemological doubt. Climacus is a lover of freedom of abstraction and pure thought. So, he becomes aware that his doubt is an unnatural system for him. Johannes longs to belong to complete abstraction of thought, as this idea grounds modern philosophy. And, of course, his doubt is his completely non-ideal nature of existence. Climacus wants freedom from doubt, but Descartes believes doubt is our grounds of freedom of thought.  This is the ground difference between Cartesian doubt and Kierkegaardian doubt.

Johannes also questions how doubt is possible. He concludes that doubt is the grounding of thought within existence, and is in complete contrast with other philosophers. Often times, they believe it brings thought into nonexistence. Within Climacus’ state of doubt, he brings himself closer into existence, bringing his thought with him.

Existential Doubt

The difference between existing thought and Climacus’ world of thought has to do with Descartes and the virtue of the existential doubt. Johannes differentiates from this idea of virtue. In his view, his doubt isn’t speculative and disinterested in reality, it is the reality. Whereas the Cartesian doubt ideals that thought elevates from nowhere, existential doubt to Climacus is the building block of pure thought.

These combined ideas bring us to two different points: existential doubt brings us into our existence, and Cartesian doubt moves us into the domain of pure thought. This, hence, is a non-stop cycle. It is impossible for us to eradicate our doubt, as it is the building block of thought.


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