Søren Kierkegaard Critical Essays


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Kierkegaard’s earliest literary works, including his dissertation, should be regarded as apprentice pieces that are of greater interest to specialists than to general readers. This is also true for his religious works, which strongly attest to the author’s personal faith and theological background, but which exhibit neither the literary sophistication nor the philosophical subtleties that characterize his pseudonymous oeuvre.

The chief formal characteristic of the pseudonymous works is Kierkegaard’s use of a large number of different fictitious characters that both serve as the putative authors or editors of entire books or parts of books and function as literary characters in dialogue with each other. This technique allows Kierkegaard to both make his works aesthetically attractive and to present his ideas in a lively and engaging manner.

Without question, the two-part Either/Or (1843) is Kierkegaard’s most important literary work, although Concluding Unscientific Postscript is his most significant work of philosophy. Kierkegaard pretends that Either/Or has been edited by a certain Victor Eremita, who, like Kierkegaard himself, lives in Copenhagen. On a certain occasion Eremita discovers a manuscript in a secret compartment in a desk that he has recently purchased, and he publishes it with the title Either/Or. The first part contains writings of an aesthetic nature, while the second part consists of ethical rejoinders written by a judge named William.

Either/Or emphasizes the need to make choices in human relations and brings the aesthetic and the ethical approaches to life into dialogue with one another. The dialectical aspect of the text is elevated to a major principle of organization in Kierkegaard’s next book, Fear and Trembling, which is subtitled Dialectical Lyric and is supposed to have been written by one Johannes de Silentio (Silent John) as an inquiry into the story of Abraham in the Hebrew Bible. Its main purpose is to arrive at an understanding of faith as a phenomenon. His final pseudonymous work of 1843 is Repetition, which was supposedly authored by an aesthete named Constantin Constantius.

The following year, 1844, saw the publication of three more pseudonymous works, Philosophical Fragments by Johannes Climacus, The Concept of Dread by Vigilius Haufniensis, and Forord: Morskabslæsning for enkelte Stænder efter Tid og Leilighed (1844; Prefaces: Light Reading for Certain Classes as the Occasion May Require, 1989) by Nicolaus Notabene. While the first of these works considers the serious philosophical question of how to anchor an eternal consciousness in a historical point of departure, the form of Philosophical Fragments is reminiscent of that of vaudeville or opera. Fear and Trembling appears to be a serious inquiry into the concept of original sin, but its form is that of an inquiry along the lines of Hegelian phenomenology. Prefaces is a collection of prefaces to books never written. Literary devices such as these leave the reader unable to draw a firm line between seriousness and irony in Kierkegaard’s texts.

When Stages on Life’s Way appeared in 1845, Kierkegaard returned to both the technique and the concerns of Either/Or by offering several different studies in developmental psychology through a compilation of various texts made by a character named Hilarius Bogbinder. The first segment, “In Vino Veritas,” is authored by the pseudonym William Afham (William by Him) and brings a number of previously introduced pseudonyms together for an imaginary banquet. At the end of their banquet they come across Judge William, known as “B” in Either/Or, who provides further reflections on marriage in a manuscript that is stolen from him. “Skyldig?”/“Ikke-Skyldig?” (“Guilty?”/“Not Guilty?”), supposedly written by a certain Frater Taciturnus, next discusses whether it is ethically defensible to break an engagement. The book concludes with a long letter to the reader in which Frater Taciturnus discusses the religious implications of the previous section.

At least formally, Concluding Unscientific Postscript is a postscript to Philosophical Fragments and therefore supposedly written by Johannes Climacus. There is a serious lack of balance between the lengths of the two works, however. Clearly, the Postscript part of the title is ironically meant, while the Concluding part is not, for Kierkegaard was summing up his philosophical beliefs by proposing that the truth about being is something that each individual has to obtain. In a final explanation appended to Postscript, Kierkegaard also formally acknowledged what most people in Danish literary circles already knew—that he was the author of the works produced by his various pseudonyms.

Kierkegaard returned to the use of a pseudonym, however, when he published The Sickness unto Death, a catalog of despair and sin, under the name Anti-Climacus. The same pseudonym was used the following year, when Training in Christianity was published. Anti-Climacus was given a name that gives him priority over Johannes Climacus, as Kierkegaard wanted to emphasize that religion was more important than philosophy and literature.


First published: Enten-Eller, 1843 (English translation, 1944)

Type of work: Essays

By juxtaposing a series of aesthetic essays...

(The entire section is 2290 words.)