Stephen G. Walangare
Stephen G. Walangare

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The Individual Existence in Modernity & Liquid Modernity: A Sociological Analysis on Kierkegaard's Modes of Existences

1 Februari 2018   21:30 Diperbarui: 1 September 2018   22:29 1105 0 0

This article explores Kierkegaard’s modes of existences through a sociological framework. By applying macro-historical analysis, the author attempts to trace how societal structure is corelated with the individual experience. As ideological thought in society reinforces the notion of social exclusion, the individual would experience different form of despair: the ethicist experience conscious despair and of lacking infinitude and possibility in modernity, the aesthete experience despair of ignorance and of lacking finitude and necessity in liquid modernity. Based on these premises, the author attempts to describe the sociological correlation between ideologies, social institution, and the individual existence in the society.

Keywords: Modernity, Liquid Modernity, Ethical Individual, Aesthete Individual, Existential Despair


The objective of this paper is to explore the existential relation between the individual and society. The individual mode of existence is parallel with the societal mode of thought. And it is the aim of this article to describe the individual existential condition by tracing its effect from the collective experience of the society. In order to achieve this aim, the author employs a similar Kierkegaardian analysis towards modernity and liquid modernity by using various sociological terms to capture the external societal context and imputing existential terms to diagnose the internal existential condition of the individual.

Kierkegaard has criticized Hegel, chief of socio-historical analyst, for his objective systemisation on the society and yet have sacrificed the analysis of the human individual – a typical commentary of modern society (Kierkegaard, 2009: 161-165, 294-295; Paula in Stewart, 2011: 34). It may be concluded that the objective analysis has “dehumanized” the subject, and thus the accumulation of abstract knowledge does not have the qualitative capacity to transform the individual; it is  the subjective – the personalisation of knowledge in a concrete existential sense, is a matter of relevance. However, by focusing the discursive spotlight on the individual, Kierkegaard was less concern to extend his existential reading into the collective crowd. If Kierkegaard claims that every individual should be detracted from the crowd and reflects subjectively for his own existence, then the author would like to argue that it is also important for the individual to know the crowd to distinguish the properties of the self and the society.

One implication of such premises is to personalise knowledge into the personal existence. As this paper applies an existential sociological analysis, the author attempts to analyse the relation between the two poles: the objective (ideology) and subjective (individual experience).  It does not deny the classical tradition to describe the ontological existence of social facts but complements it by adding personalising effect on the individual experience (Tiryakian, 1965). Ideology is contingent with the individual modes of existences. Every type of society is governed by a certain form of knowledge, and the collective thought is not only cognitive in nature, but it is also relevant to the individual’s inner experience within a structural situation (Mannheim, 1936: 240, 261; Speier, 1985). It changes how one perceives the society, how one psychologically perceives oneself, and how one lives and act in accordance to the existential nature of his being. The personalisation of sociological knowledge, can be analised by imputing Kierkegaard’s existential categories “The Aesthete” and “The Ethical” to the individual’s socio-historical setting. 

The author has selected a certain historical timeframe to see the shifting pendulum of ideological change in the Western hemisphere. The historical timeframe acts as a typological ideal-type to capture the Aesthete and Ethical existential state of the individual. The two modes of existences can be further understood by comparing individual mindset in the modern pre-World War period and liquid modern post-World War period. As each ideological-existential property has reached its peak, the society would experience inertia by using up its previous resources and finding a new form of resource (Botta, 2016). To the individual, one would experience “micro-inertia”, known as despair. Modernity utilises the resources of scientific-rationalism and productivity; liquid modernity utilises the resources of emotional-network and consumerism. 

Furthermore, this paper proposes that the individual existential despair is parallel to ideologies. Social alienation is governed by constructed ideologies. The construction of “the ideal self”, its formula of would also inevitably exclude “the unwanted other”, thus reinforcing such discrimination through institutional structure within the society. The sense of alienation is not only a sociological one, but its practice is supported by various social institutions, rippling psychological waves into the existential person. Through the interrelated discussion of existentialism and sociology, the author suggests that we would be able to further comprehend the framework of ideologies, social institutions, and their correlation towards the individual’s structure of existence. Based on this presumption, the author would like to briefly discuss the two questions in this article: 1. How does modernity produces conscious despair in the ethical mode of existence? 2. How does liquid modernity produces ignorant despair in the aesthete mode of existence?


This paper applies a macro-historical approach to describe the idiographic traits of society. The style of analysis is derived from the sociology of knowledge which employs the framing of an ideal-type to pinpoint the general perspective (Weltanschauungen) of a particular culture and epoch (Kettler, 1967). This ideological characteristic is later reflected from the observer’s point of view. The method of generalization is limited into a certain historical period. And later, the author continues to describe how the certain ideal-types (modernity or liquid modernity) are practised and maintained through various social institution. In this case, the author attempts to employ this method in the Western hemisphere: Modernity, ranging from the Industrial period of The Enlightment to the World War period; and Liquid Modernity ranging from the Post-World War period to the mass technological usage of social network. The author uses various literatures to support this description.

Furthermore, this paper also applies a method of subjective analysis to raise the issue: how certain socio-historical setting is relevant towards the individual’s mode of existence. Kierkegaard often proposes a dialectical reading of the abstract-objective issue through the method of double reflection to relate the objective (society) and subjective (individual) (Kierkegaard, 2009: 62-69). Sociological analysis is functioned capture the exterior relations between groups and individuals. In this article, the author would like to penetrate the description of the ideological and institutional component into the interior structure of individual’s existence, thus imputing the categorical terms: “The Ethical”, which is parallel to the communal norm in modern society; and “The Aesthete”, which is parallel to the individualised lifestyle in liquid society. 

A Kierkegaardian conceptual framework on society

Kierkegaard’s philosophical thought is strongly influenced by two streams of tradition: the intellectual tradition of Hegelianism during his particular period of time, and the religious tradition of Lutheran Pietism. The Hegelian dialectics is originally used to explain world history in a philosophical system. However, Kierkegaard have made strong critic towards Hegel in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript for its totalising philosophical system in viewing human history, and yet omitted philosophical reflection of the individual. 

Kierkegaard’s critic on Hegel can be traced to his religious upbringing whereby Lutheran Pietism has stressed the importance of the individual. Pietism is a religious tradition that challenges the objectified theological system, de-objectifies the dogmatic structure and allows emotional internalisation of values into the subject (Berger, 1967: 59; Weber, 1930: 81). It may be stated that Pietism has placed the individual faith as the sole focus of religious life, and that though this method, one would experience transcendence and have a clearer view on the object of analysis. Although Kierkegaard does not completely deny traditional orthodoxy, his neo-orthodox hermeunitic has allowed the “personalising effect” in reading both religious and non-religious discourses. 

As Kierkegaard attempts to reformulate his own dialectic to describe the individual’s phases of existential life, he combines both Pietism and Hegelianism. His Lutheran reading on Hegel found that the individual would pass through three existential stages: The Aesthete begins with the consumeristic and unexamined repetitive lifestyle, continues with The Ethical who abandoned his previous stage and began making choices and commitments which conforms to the ideal communal norms, and at the end, the individual, very rarely perhaps, would reach the religious stage whereby the individual by religious faith would transcend the ethical norms of his society and have a personal encounter with The Eternal Thou. In some sense, Kierkegaard reversed Comte’s three stages of society, from the positivistic into the religious, in clarifying the individual mode of living.

The epistemological structure of Kierkegaardian thought can be categorised into two distinctive types: it is knowledge about something or self-knowledge. Kierkegaardian philosophy points towards the relationship between the society and the self. However, his philosophical thought has once again placed greater emphasis towards the individual. It may be argued that knowledge about “something” comprises of objective scientific knowledge of society and individual. Knowledge of society is not only external, but it has relevance towards the individual in an existential manner: social context produces individual experience. It is by this ground that the connection between sociology and existential philosophy can be achieved (Jakway, 1998). At the same time, Jackway argued that Kierkegaard’s philosophical writing can be associated with symbolic interactionism and Marxism. The former emphasises the individual’s accumulation of social consciousness in the social context, the latter emphasises the ideological critique towards the society.

The significance of ideology critique is located in the birth of existential despair. As ideologies signifies the norms of society and its standard of successful living, therefore the same ideologies also signify the standard of failed living. In other words, every individual is experiencing daily anxiety that existentially threaten anyone who do not conform towards the communal norms of the crowd. Social meaning is derived from ideologies, or cultural mentality, as Sorokin suggested has impact towards individual personality (Jeffries, 2005). By describing the experience of such anxiety in individual, we are able to capture to what extend that certain ideology is or not authentic for the individual and social existence. Ideologies tend to over-idealise itself and thus it is crucial for one to be an “existential Marxist” to observe and avoid the potential decline society, being temporarily detracted from unauthentic crowd. However, unlike Marx who focused on the social-political group relation, Kierkegaard invites individuals to reflect the on psychological effect of modernity (Paula in Stewart, 2011: 37). Through the instrumental lense of negavity (via negativa), one is able to detect the limits of socio-political project and its decline (Golomb, 1991: 71). It is as Westphal argues that there are no political theory or any established order that is self-sufficient. (Tilley in Stewart, 2015: 485). 

Sociologically, this conceptual framework is aimed to provide a general critique towards ideologies by relating it with individual existential experience. The method of criticising ideologies is not limited to the macro-abstract dimension, but it should be related into micro-existential level. The effect of ideologies produces differing existential states. In this case, modernity produces the Ethical individual, liquid modernity produces the Aesthete individual. Social context is parallel to individual experience. Just as how the historical transition from modernity to liquid modernity (Pre-World War to Post-World War period) depicts socio-cultural standards for successful living, individual experience would also show different existential properties and existential despair (Westphal, 1996: 20-34). 

The relevance of structure & social changes to the individual

In the previous section, the author has described about the sociological framework of Kierkegaard’s philosophical themes. In this section, the author attempts to survey previous literatures on societal structure and social changes as the ground (social context) to support existential analysis of the individual. In this article, social structure can be differentiated into three major components: ideological, institutional, and individual. Sociological analysis is mainly focused on the macro (structural) and meso (institutional) level of analysis. The structural level of analysis is comprised of the societal values which regulates the society on the normative plane. The institutional level of analysis is supported by various social institutions which makes concrete of the societal values into everyday practices. On the individual level of analysis, it discusses the  relevance of ideology and institution into individuals’ psychological-experiential condition, also known as the existential analysis. 

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