Kierkegaard’s Notion of the Self
Soren Kiegkegaard (1813 – 1855) has a great deal to teach university students about being themselves and, especially, resisting peer pressure. For Kierkegaard, every human being is meant “to be a self;”1 that is, to be spirit or a self-conscious, free and responsible person. 2
The Crowd in the Proper Sense
Of course, it is not wrong to belong to a group or worthwhile organization. In fact, psychologically speaking, the desire to belong is normal, because human beings, by nature, are social creatures, needing to connect with and by accepted by others. A group, then, is the answer to a human being’s natural need to belong to others.
Peer Pressure: The Crowd in the Improper Sense
However, when an individual within a group goes astray, even when the group itself goes astray, engaging in wrong kinds of behavior, then the “I,” the true self, must emerge, refusing to go along with the crowd.
For Kierkegaard, one of the important aims of being human, that is, a person, is “to be that self one truly is.”3 However, to go along with others when they are wrong, to succumb to the “weight” of being pressured by them, is to be untrue to oneself. The usual justification for giving in to peer pressure is “Everyone is doing it.” For example, “Everyone I know is a doing drugs; so why shouldn’t I?” Again, “Everyone close to me has lost his or her virginity; so why shouldn’t I?” Still again, “Everyone I hang around with is smoking; so why can’t I?” However, the Kierkegaardian response to such reasoning is
“‘I am not ‘everyone.’4 Rather, I am someone; that is to say, a particular, concrete, here-and-now, unique person. Therefore, do not expect me to conform to what everyone is doing.”
To Stand out from the Crowd
It takes, then, an authentic self to resist peer pressure. However, it is emotionally painful, because what a human being really wants and needs is to be accepted by others. That is why Kierkegaard laments,
“This I know and I also know what it has cost, what I have suffered, which [is] …: I was never like the others. Ah, of all the torments in youthful days, the most dreadful, the most intense: not to be like the others.”5
Therefore, a self needs — in the existential sense of the term — to exist (from the Latin existere), meaning to “stand out” or “stand forth.” To exist, then, as an authentic self, a person, is to be outstanding. That is why, sometimes, a human being is not meant to fit in with others but to stand out from them. In doing so, he or she becomes a true self, real person.
1. C. Stephen Evans, “Kierkegaard, Soren Aabye,” in Baker Encyclopedia of Psychology, ed. David G. Benner (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Book House, 1985), p. 622.
3. Soren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1941), p. 29. Italics are mine.
4. C. Stephen Evans, Faith Beyond Reason: A Kierkegaardian Account (Grand Rapids, MI.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), p. 121.
5. Soren Kierkegaard, The Moment and Late Writings, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 344.