Kierkegaard, the true granddaddy of modern psychology

Kierkegaard profileI’ve loved Kierkegaard for 2 decades and have managed to read nearly everything he wrote, many two or three times. Yesterday during my second run through of The Concept of Anxiety I was struck by a passage that spells out the task of psychology in a way I’ve never heard it; something that I apparently missed the first time through, which is not entirely surprising. I find that many things jump out at me a bit differently now that I’m a therapist.

I can’t help but wonder how this man was able to gain the insights he did in his rather brief life, insights profound in a way that psychology has yet to produce an equivalent. His psychological writings are even more amazing when one considers that, so far as we know, he was not a therapist and preceded modern psychology (if one begins with Freud) by at least 50 years.

I would suggest that the reader interested in psychological observation or therapeutic tact make several trips through this passage. Each trip is bound to reveal a new layer of brilliance. It is a truly astounding piece.

I will quote it in full so as to retain the profundity and spirit with which he delivered it (minus paragraph breaks provided for readability). Please let me know in the comments if you have any questions or observations. I would most especially love to hear from my fellow therapists and armchair philosophers.


It is not my intention to write a learned work or to waste time in search of literary proof texts. Often the examples mentioned in psychologies lack true psychological-poetic authority. They stand as isolated notarialiter [notarized facts], and as a result one does not know whether to laugh or to weep at the attempts of such lonely and obstinate persons to form some sort of a rule.

One who has properly occupied himself with psychology and psychological observation acquires a general human flexibility that enables him at once to construct his example which even though it lacks factual authority nevertheless has an authority of a different kind.

The psychological observer ought to be more nimble than a tightrope dancer in order to incline and bend himself to other people and imitate their attitudes, and his silence in the moment of confidence should be seductive and voluptuous, so that what is hidden may find satisfaction in slipping out to chat with itself in the artificially constructed nonobservance and silence. Hence, he ought also to have a poetic originality in his soul so as to be able at once to create both the totality and the invariable from what in the individual is always partially and variably present. Then, when he has perfected himself, he will have no need to take his examples from literary repertories and serve up half-dead reminiscences, but will bring his observations entirely fresh from the water, wriggling and sparkling in the play of their colors. Nor will he have to run himself to death to become aware of something. On the contrary, he should sit entirely composed in his room, like a police agent who nevertheless knows everything that takes place.

What he needs he can fashion at once; what he needs he has at hand at once by virtue of his general practice, just as in a well-equipped house one need not carry water from the street but has it on his level by high pressure. If he were to become doubtful, he is so well-oriented in human life and his eyes are so inquisitorially sharp that he knows where to look to discover easily a suitable individuality who can be useful to the imaginary construction.

His observation will be more reliable than that of others, even though he does not support it by references to names and learned quotations—such as, that in Saxony there once lived a peasant girl in whom a physician observed, that in Rome there was once an emperor of whom a historian relates, etc.—as if such things happen only once in a thousand years. What interest could psychology have in that? No, such things happen every day, if only the observer is present.

His observation will have the quality of freshness and the interest of actuality if he is prudent enough to control his observations. To that end he imitates in himself every mood, every psychic state that he discovers in another. Thereupon he sees whether he can delude the other by the imitation and carry him along into the subsequent development, which is his own creation by virtue of the idea. Thus if someone wants to observe a passion, he must choose his individual. At that point, what counts is stillness, quietness, and obscurity, so that he may discover the individual’s secret. Then he must practice what he has learned until he is able to delude the individual. Thereupon he fictitiously invents the passion and appears before the individual in a preternatural magnitude of the passion.

If it is done correctly, the individual will feel an indescribable relief and satisfaction, such as an insane person will feel when someone has uncovered and poetically grasped his fixation and then proceeds to develop it further. If it does not succeed, it may be because of a defect in the operation, but it may also be because the individual is a poor example.

3 thoughts on “Kierkegaard, the true granddaddy of modern psychology

  1. In the passage above he seems to be describing emotional manipulation of the patient. I prefer a rational problem solving approach.

    He is mostly too wordy and flowery for me. But he does seem to observe things well.

    Here is a quote of his from Wikipedia:
    “What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.”

    I think it was Mark Twain who said something similar; something to the effect of:
    “The two important days in a man’s life are the day he was born and day he realises what he was born for.”

    I prefer Mark Twain’s way of saying it. It is simpler. And I am a simple man.

  2. I just saw your question on my blog. I did not know wordpress had that function.

    At the time I made that comment, I was probably referring to the two final two paragraphs.

    It is easy to lead someone by delusion. I don’t know exactly what Kierkegaard meant by his words in those two paragraphs as he does not give clear examples, but I see psychs and counsellors lead others by delusion all the time. And they do it to manipulate others to join their way of thinking and to make them feel good, not to genuinely help them.

    I think the preceding paragraphs apply to any intelligent person who knows their subject thoroughly. Few psychologists know their subject, though. Kierkegaard points that out then, and it is even more true today.

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