Article abstract: Kierkegaard’s challenge to neat systems of philosophical thought, such as that propounded by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, has highlighted his philosophical influence. His predominant assumption, that existence is too multiform to be systematized, created the fabric around which existentialism, and indeed much of Continental philosophy, have been woven.
Søren Aabye Kierkegaard was the last of seven children born to Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard and his second wife, Ane Sørensdatter (Lund); she had been the maid of Michael’s first wife, who died childless after two years of marriage. The elder Kierkegaard, an affluent businessman, had himself been born in poverty and virtual servitude, rising by dint of hard work and good fortune to the comfortable status the family enjoyed at Søren’s birth.
Despite such prosperity, the Kierkegaard household was haunted by early death. Two of Søren’s siblings died before he was nine; his mother and three more siblings died in a span of less than three years before his twenty-first birthday. Michael was never able to overcome the belief that these deaths were punishment for the unpardonable sin he committed when, as a boy of eleven, tending sheep and bitter at his lot, he cursed God.
The influence of the somber elder Kierkegaard upon his gifted son is certain, but the extent to which it permeated Kierkegaard’s character and influenced his writings throughout his life is difficult to estimate. A key passage from Kierkegaard’s journals suggests that his father’s inadvertent revelation of some past misdeeds permanently altered their relationship:
An affair between the father and son where the son finds everything out, and yet dare not admit it to himself. The father is a respectable man, God-fearing and strict; only once, when he is tipsy, he lets fall some words which arouse the most dreadful suspicions. Otherwise the son is never told of it and never dares to ask his father or anybody else.
Regarding this incident, Frederick Sontag says that it thrust Kierkegaard into a “period of dissipation and despair,” causing him for a time to neglect completely his theological studies at the university.
In addition to his father’s influence, Kierkegaard was indelibly marked by his engagement to Regina Olsen. He met her for the first time at a party, when she was fourteen. She was captivated by his intellectual sagacity; he later admitted that that had been his design. They both endured a difficult period of waiting until she was nearly eighteen before they became engaged. Yet, having endured such a lengthy period of waiting, within days after the engagement had been effected Kierkegaard was convinced that it was a mistake. Some years after he had broken the engagement, he wrote in his journal:
I said to her that in every generation there were certain individuals who were destined to be sacrificed for the others. She hardly understood what I was talking about. . . . But just this spontaneous youthful happiness of hers, set alongside my terrible melancholy, and in such a relationship, must teach me to understand myself. For how melancholy I was I had never before surmised; I possessed no measure for conceiving how happy a human being can be.
In 1841, not long after breaking his engagement, Kierkegaard successfully defended his doctoral thesis and departed for Berlin, where he stayed for several months attending lectures. Within two years, he published his first books, the product of an intense period of creativity, and his career was fully launched.
Kierkegaard was a powerful and prolific writer. The bulk of his corpus was produced within a period of about seven years, spanning 1843-1850....
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Appreciative readers of Kierkegaard’s writings can be thankful for the voluminous groundswell of production which came in his early thirties, for he died a young man of forty-two. During the course of his writing career, he pursued several recurring themes; it would be misleading, however, to treat his work as though he had systematically moved from one arena to another in a planned, orderly fashion.
Indeed, Kierkegaard’s decided distrust of the systematizing of Hegel had pushed him in the direction of an existential methodology which would be expressive of his whole personality. Rather than creating a system for the whole of reality which was necessarily linked by chains of reasoning, Kierkegaard created in his writings psychological experiments centered on persons confronting life situations. By so doing, he avoided both the strict rationalism and the Idealism so characteristic of analytic philosophers, and pulled his readers into existential consideration of life’s dilemmas.
Kierkegaard considered his life and cojointly his works as an effort to fulfill a divinely appointed task. This conviction had led to his breakup with Regina because of what he called his destiny “to be sacrificed for the others.” It also led him to the realization that his vocation was to confront his contemporaries with the ideal Christian life. He saw that as his purpose in life and consequently chose to lay aside every weight that would hinder him from “willing that one thing.”
Denmark had appropriated Hegelianism as the proper mode of informed thinking. Indeed, Kierkegaard’s countrymen had even allowed Christianity to be absorbed into the Hegelian system. Hence, the Christian ideal of individuals choosing Christ was lost: Every person in Denmark was nominally a Christian. When applied to the Church, the totalizing attempt prefigured in Hegel made everyone a Christian by birth. It was within this context, and for the purpose of confronting this attitude, that Kierkegaard arose to do battle in print. He described himself as a “midwife,” helping to bring forth authentic individuals. His goal was nothing short of arousing his age from its complacence. Whereas Hegelianism might encourage rigors of thought, it made things easy through its promise of certainty. Kierkegaard, on the other hand, made things difficult by thrusting the individual into the fray, thereby teaching him what it truly means “to become a Christian.”
An important aspect of many of Kierkegaard’s works had to do with his method. For his philosophical works, he used a variety of often-flamboyant pseudonyms, such as Victor Eremita, Constantine Constantius, Virgilius Haufniensis, Johannes Climacus, and Anti-Climacus. At the same time, under his own name, he produced a number of devotional works and religious meditations. Kierkegaard’s indirect communication has caused not a little bewilderment. He himself addressed what he referred to as his “polynymity” rather than “pseudonymity” in an appendix to Afsluttende uvidenskabelig Efterskrift til de Philosophiske Smuler: Mimisk-pathetisk-dialektisk Sammenskrift, existentielt Indlœg (1846; Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 1941, 1968). Given his consistent and unwavering emphasis upon “choice,” it is reasonable to assume that Kierkegaard believed that this method of presentation enhanced his ability to confront the reader. As long as pseudonyms were used, his readers were not free to see what “Kierkegaard the authority” had to say about the issues. The reader would thus be thrown back upon himself, having to choose an interpretive stance for himself.
Since Kierkegaard was a difficult writer, ahead of his time, he received little income from his writings, depending largely on his substantial inheritance. Moreover, as a brilliant, acerbic, and uncompromising critic of his society, he was frequently embroiled in controversy; in his later years, he worked in great isolation. Near the end of his life, Kierkegaard wrote several books which dealt explicitly with Christianity. Til Selvprøvelse (1857; For Self-Examination, 1940) challenged his readers to view themselves in the light of New Testament descriptions of Christianity rather than simplistically accepting the terms which the established church was propounding. His final book, Hvad Christus dømmer om officiel Christendom (1855; What Christ’s Judgment Is About Official Christianity, 1944), views the relationship between the state and Christianity. He shows that the official Christianity of which every Dane partook was far from New Testament Christianity.
On October 2, 1855, Kierkegaard collapsed while walking in the street. The nature of his final illness is not certain. He was hospitalized, accepting his fate with tranquillity. He died on November 11, 1855.
At the time of his death, and for a long period thereafter, Søren Kierkegaard’s works were little known outside Denmark. Both his striking originality and the fact that he wrote in Danish delayed recognition of his achievement. By the early twentieth century, however, a wide diversity of thinkers reflected his influence, which has continued to grow since that time; he is often hailed as “the father of existentialism.”
Even Kierkegaard’s most explicitly philosophical writings, it should be noted, bear an undeniable theological character. In Philosophiske Smuler: Eller, En Smule Philosophi (1844; Philosophical Fragments: Or, A Fragment of Philosophy, 1936, 1962), he plumbs the epistemological depths of how a historical consciousness can confront an eternal consciousness and come away with what one might call “knowledge.” In other words, to what degree can eternal truth be learned within the categories of time or space? In Concluding Unscientific Postscript, he confronts the objective problem of the truth of Christianity. The issue involved here is often referred to as “Lessing’s ditch.” Gotthold Ephraim Lessing believed that there exists an intellectually impossible leap from the contingent truths of history to the necessary truths of divine revelation. Kierkegaard looked at this problem and concluded that “a leap of faith” was required for the individual bound by finiteness and historical necessity to encounter eternal truth. This assertion has caused most to claim that Kierkegaard equated truth with subjectivity.
Blackham, H. J. “Søren Kierkegaard.” In Six Existentialist Thinkers. New York: Macmillan, 1952. A brief but incisive treatment of Kierkegaard’s championing of individuality and inwardness as opposed to Hegel’s notion of abstract system building. Emphasizes Kierkegaard’s claim that any true philosophy confronts the intellectual, the aesthetic, and the ethical arenas in terms of the existing individual’s life situations. Further alludes that faith is a fourth category, not to be confused with any of the others.
Duncan, Elmer H. Søren Kierkegaard. Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1976. Surveys Kierkegaard’s thought for the stated purpose of “making him more accessible to all of us.” Ties the theme of Kierkegaard’s corpus to traditional problems of philosophy. Emphasizes Kierkegaard’s lasting contribution of categories, such as “absolute paradox,” “absurdity,” and “angst,” which have been used by the main voices of existentialism, as well as the key figures of contemporary theology.
Evans, C. Stephen. Kierkegaard’s “Fragments” and “Postscript": The Religious Philosophy of Johannes Climacus. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1983. Provides a thorough and serious conceptual look at Kierkegaard’s writings through the two books that he pseudonymously attributed to Johannes Climacus. Its intent is that of a “companion” to the two works. Provides as much elucidation as would a good commentary.
Lowrie, Walter. Kierkegaard. 2 vols. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1970. This is a definitive biography of Kierkegaard, written by one of the most prominent translators of his writings. Followw Kierkegaard’s life chronologically, providing a list of dates for major events and publications. Also includes a helpful fifteen-page synopsis of Kierkegaard’s works.
Sontag, Frederick. A Kierkegaard Handbook. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1979. Sontag provides for Kierkegaard’s works what Kierkegaard himself conscientiously avoided: a systematic approach. Sontag intended this dialectical study of key concepts as a companion reader for the student of Kierkegaard’s corpus.