Imagination, Suffering, and Perfection: A Kierkegaardian Reflection on Meaning in Life

History of Philosophy Quarterly 38 (4):337-356 (2021)
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Engaging the thought of the Danish thinker Søren Kierkegaard, I challenge a tendency within the analytic tradition of philosophy on the subject of meaning in life. Taking as a starting point Kierkegaard's insights about meaning in life, the striving needed to attain an imagined ideal self, and his paradoxical conception of the perfection available to human life, I claim that meaning in life is a function of an individual's striving for an ideal self. This continuous effort to achieve myself is marked by suffering, an indispensable part of Kierkegaard's project of identity formation. The imagined grasp of a possible ideal self is essential to this process but insufficient for it because the imagination can only ever glimpse a kind of static perfection, not the lived perfection that only results from willed actualization of an ideal self. The meaning of a human life, then, consists in the suffering that results from a struggle to actualize the ideal I aspire to become in the process of identity formation. I contrast this view with a tendency shared by many contemporary analytic philosophers of meaning in life, for whom meaning in life is constituted by achievement of valued goods, without much attention to one's relation to the process of achieving them. In that respect, I will focus on the position of Iddo Landau. After clearing a number of his misconceptions about Kierkegaard's philosophy, I claim that, for a life to be meaningful, valued goods in life must be complemented by a conscious enactment of the process of the formation of one's identity that includes striving to attain a kind of perfection. I conclude that Kierkegaard's paradoxical account of perfectionism makes him more of an ally to Landau than an opponent.



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Meaning in Life and Why It Matters (Markus Rüther).Susan Wolf - 2011 - Philosophischer Literaturanzeiger 64 (3):308.
Happiness and Meaning: Two Aspects of the Good Life.Susan Wolf - 1997 - Social Philosophy and Policy 14 (1):207.
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Happiness and meaning: Two aspects of the good life.Susan Wolf - 1997 - Social Philosophy and Policy 14 (1):207-225.
On Luck, Responsibility and the Meaning of Life.Berit Brogaard & Barry Smith - 2005 - Philosophical Papers 34 (3):443-458.

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