Blog-Post: Kierkegaard on Losing Oneself in Busyness


Barney Riggs is a CEP member, and PG-student in the department. He mainly works on the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, and is concerned with developing an account of Kierkegaard’s concept of busyness, as both a personal-religious and a socio-political critique. Read more about his research below!

“How are you?” you ask your friend you haven’t seen in months.
“Good thanks, busy!” they reply. “How about you?”
“Same,” you reply. “Very busy!”

We’ve all had conversations like this. Busyness it seems is an inescapable part of twenty-first century capitalist culture. But what is so great about busyness? Why are we so eager to let people know how busy we are?

To be busy in and of itself does not seem to be an overly good thing. For example, busyness is seen as detrimental to our physical and mental health. There is also the concept of the busyness trap which causes us to be unreflective, dishonest, and unfocused. A recent report even blames busyness and the haste of modern life for a decline in sexual activity. Despite this, research suggests that many people view being busy as aspirational in order to demonstrate their important status and popularity. With a finite amount of time and theoretically infinite possible tasks to complete, as technology improves and our capacity for productivity increases, it seems that busyness is here to stay. So, how might we avoid losing ourselves in busyness?

A century and a half ago, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) had much to say about busyness. Writing at the dawn of our present age, Kierkegaard saw first hand the rapid changes to our society and culture: the rise of industrialism, the spread of democratic reform, the emergence of the daily press and increasingly fluid communication, the shrinking of the world and the birth of global capitalism. He also – in witnessing these drastic changes – spoke with remarkable prescience about the direction our society was headed. The appearance of a society of (what Kierkegaard would have called) absent-minded busyness was one of his greatest concerns.

A busy, or rather restless individual himself – and writing under a myriad of pseudonyms – Kierkegaard throughout his authorship expresses a dismay towards the characteristic busyness of his age. For example, in his first major work, Either/Or (1843), Kierkegaard writing under the aesthetic pseudonym ‘A,’ writes:

“The most ludicrous of all ludicrous things, it seems to me, is to be busy in the world, to be a man who is brisk at his meals and brisk at his work. […] What after all do these busy bustlers achieve?”

Kierkegaard sees busyness as amounting to a waste of time, quite literally. The nihilistic ‘A’ finds the busy people comical because busyness does not achieve anything worthwhile over the course of one’s life; yet these “busy bustlers” devote their lives to busyness. Hence busyness is considered by ‘A’ as a waste of one’s life.

Kierkegaard repeats this sentiment, as himself, in his Letters(1848), where he decries the high price his age places on productivity and busyness, that it devalues those who cannot keep up with the pace of busyness, and that ultimately, the “busy, busier, busiest haste of busy-ness” that people aspire to, is merely being “busy with wasting life and losing oneself.” Busyness causes us to waste our lives and lose our very selves in our busyness.
In this way, busyness for Kierkegaard is an inauthentic way to escape our very selves and our lives, and a way to avoid reflecting on our choices, and deciding what it is we want to do, and who it is we want to be. In The Sickness Unto Death (1849) – Kierkegaard’s psychological account of the self – busyness is described as a “diversionary means” to avoid confronting oneself, and becoming oneself. Similarly, just two years prior in Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits(1847), the busy person is described as carrying the “mirror of possibility” with them – a metaphor for self-reflection – but, in their busyness they rarely have time to look in this mirror, and if they do, they forget the image they see in their haste. In their busyness the image is too blurry; the authentic self that they could become remains only a possibility.

So, how do we avoid busyness? In Works of Love(1847) Kierkegaard makes a distinction, relevant I believe to how we ought to consider our preoccupation with busyness today. Kierkegaard asks:

“What is it to be busy? Ordinarily we think that the manner in which a person is occupied determines whether he is to be called busy. But this is not the case.”

Instead, Kierkegaard diagnoses busyness as dependent on the object of one’s busyness. That is, busyness is not defined by the way in which the task is approached (i.e. by a characteristic restlessness, or haste), but rather, the type of task it is, and its relation to the individual. He suggests that:

“To be busy is to occupy oneself, divided and scattered […] with all the multiplicity in which it is impossible for a person to be whole […] to occupy oneself with what makes a person divided and scattered.”

Kierkegaard sees being busy as being divided and scattered; one is involved with a multitude of different things and rushes rapidly through them. This fragmentation of attention results in a kind of absent-mindedness, loss of focus, and lack of direction in the individual resulting in a waste of one’s life and a loss of one’s self.
If we are to avoid this, for Kierkegaard, absent-minded busyness requires a religious response. One must “stand still,” or “halt” in order to find a tranquillity that allows for self-reflection. Kierkegaard, referring in his Journals to the Jutland heath of his ancestral home, alludes to such a response:

“The [Jutland] heath must be singularly well adapted for the production of strong minds. Here all lies naked and exposed before God, and there is no place for the many distractions, the many nooks and corners where consciousness can hide itself and from which it is often difficult even for serious persons to recapture their dispersed thoughts. Here consciousness must be shut up within itself tightly and decisively. ‘Whither can I flee from thy presence?’ can truthfully be said here on the heath.”

Only by standing still in silence and tranquillity can one properly see the image reflected in the mirror: see what one could do, and who one could become. One thereby avoids busyness by focusing on one thing rather than the multifarious distractions that modernity presents us. In Kierkegaard’s case, that one thing is “the eternal,” that is, God. This focus on one thing, however, might be construed secularly as something meaningful for the individual who pursues it (though for Kierkegaard himself, it is not clear that anything secular could sustain the kind of meaningfulness that this focus would require). With this new-found focus, one can then pursue one’s specific task with restless devotion. Restlessness, in opposition to busyness, is a tireless commitment to a single task. Paradoxically, then, for Kierkegaard one can be busy in manner and appearance without technically being “busy;” it just requires that the task one busies oneself with – and the self that is busy with it – is the right one!