Søren Kierkegaard Kierkegaard, Søren - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Søren Kierkegaard 1813–1855

(Full name Søren Aabye Kierkegaard) Danish philosopher and theologia. See also Either/Or: A Fragment of Life Criticism.

Because of his rejection of the traditional approaches of philosophy to existence, reason, and faith, Kierkegaard is often referred to as an "anti-philosopher." Kierkegaard's opposition to the tradition of Western philosophy, represented by the rationalistic system of G. W. F. Hegel, is rooted in Kierkegaard's concern with the existence of the individual. Whereas Hegel and others focused on the search for universal truths, Kierkegaard emphasized that reason and universal truths are limited. Kierkegaard believed that only the individual, through faith and self-renunciation, could begin to perceive the Absolute, God. Kierkegaard's emphasis on the individual and personal responsibility in discerning appropriate courses of action has come to be viewed as a cornerstone of the twentieth-century Existential movement. Kierkegaard's prolific writings have a decidedly poetic, imaginative bent to them. He penned many of his works under a variety of pseudonyms and made much use of irony, subtlety, and paradox. For these reasons, one of the most controversial areas of modern debate is the issue of how one should read Kierkegaard and his pseudonymous works. Additionally, the themes of the nature of existence and faith recur repeatedly in Kierkegaard's authorship and continue to be scrutinized by modern critics.

Biographical Information

Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen two months after his parents were married. His father, Michael, a deeply religious man, was a retired merchant, and his mother had formerly served in the Kierkegaard household as a maid to Michael Kierkegaard's first wife. After graduating in 1830 from a local school, Kierkegaard enrolled in the University of Copenhagen with plans to become a Lutheran minister. Kierkegaard's mother's death in 1834 was followed, four years later, by the death of his father. While Kierkegaard passed his theological examination with distinction in 1840, he decided not to enter the ministry. That same year, he proposed to Regine Olsen, who accepted his offer of engagement. During 1841, Kierkegaard finished his dissertation, Om Begrebet Ironi med stadigt Hensyn til Socrates (On the Concept of Irony, with Special Reference to Socrates), for the

Master of Arts degree from the Royal Pastoral Seminary. Shortly after his well-attended public dissertation defense, Kierkegaard broke off his engagement to Olsen and embarked on a trip to Berlin, where he began work on Enten/Eller (1843; Either/Or). He wrote prolifically during the next several years, publishing Gjentagelsen (1843; Repetition), Frygt og Baeven (1843; Fear and Trembling (1843), Philosophiske Smuler (1844; Philosophical Fragments), and Stadier paa Livets Vej (1845; Stages on Life's Way), among other works. The satirical journal Corsair began lampooning Kierkegaard in 1846 after Kierkegaard published a letter under the pseudonym Frater Taciturnus, in which he criticized the journal for what he viewed as unscrupulous tactics. The Corsair attacks on Kierkegaard continued for about six months and contributed to Kierkegaard's reputation as an eccentric. In 1854 and 1855, Kierkegaard, in a series of pamphlets, reacted to what he believed was an unmerited tribute to a church official by condemning the church's compromise with public and political interests as well as the hypocrisy and complacency of Christians. The pamphlets were republished in 1855 as Hvad Christus dömmer officiel Christendom (Kierkegaard's Attack on "Christendom") and were met with public scorn. Later that year, Kierkegaard suffered a stroke and died shortly thereafter.

Major Works

In several works, including Either/Or, Fear and Trembling, and Stages on Life's Way, Kierkegaard identified three modes, or "spheres," of living: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. While these works focus on the presentation of these modes, the concept pervades Kierkegaard's other works as well. Either/Or, written under the pseudonym Victor Eremita, focuses on the choice between the aesthetic mode, in which novelty and pleasure are one's motivation, and the ethical mode, which is identified with marriage, responsibility, and self-appraisal. Within the ethical mode, the individual discerns a rational system of universal moral rules. Kierkegaard maintained that the foundation for this way of life is entirely subjective, as there exists no objective criterion for determining what is rational. Both Fear and Trembling (written under the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio) and Stages on Life's Way (written under the pseudonym Hilarius Bogbinder) are concerned with the religious mode. Kierkegaard stressed that the road to this way of life, which offers spiritual peace, involves a "leap" to faith. Universal ethical truths are to be disregarded, in favor of turning to God as the basis for resolving moral questions. In Fear and Trembling, the pseudonymous author de Silentio discussed the biblical story of Abraham, who is called on by God to sacrifice his son Isaac. De Silentio used the story as a way of conveying the necessity of subordinating rational, universal ethical truths to faith. Kierkegaard admitted that in this sense, Christianity is "irrational."

Kierkegaard's other most significant works include those written under the pseudonym Johannes Climacus, including Philosophical Fragments and Afsluttende uvidenskabelig Efterskrift (1846; Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments). In these works, Climacus reacted against Hegel's abstract systematic philosophy and derided Hegel's glorification of reason. Through Climacus, Kierkegaard attacked the notion of objectivity, maintaining that an individual is not comprised of pure reason alone; history and heredity condition an individual's consciousness. Instead, Kierkegaard advocated the search for subjective truth and personal validation through choice.

Critical Reception

Kierkegaard's use of pseudonyms, irony, subtlety, and paradox, among other devices, make reading and analyzing his work especially challenging. Many critics have outlined various methods for Kierkegaard interpretation. Patrick Goold notes that Kierkegaard "writes so as to discourage the lazy reader and to perplex those with an unreflective cast of mind." Goold observes that many critics are often misled by taking Kierkegaard too literally, making his work seem self-refuting, while others mistakenly view his work as entirely ironic. A more appropriate approach, Goold argues, is to identify general themes in Kierkegaard's writings and to observe similarities in the treatments of such themes in order to discern those views that can be regarded as Kierkegaard's own. C. Stephen Evans also discusses three ways to read Kierkegaard: the philosophical approach (which ignores the significance of the pseudonyms); the literary approach (in which the ironic structure undermines the philosophical content); and a combination of the two approaches, which Evans favors. In this approach, Evans argues, the pseudonyms and literary structure are taken seriously. However, Kierkegaard's subversion of traditional philosophical arguments is viewed by Evans as an opportunity for the reader to more freely encounter the text philosophically.

Kierkegaard's views on the nature of existence are also an area of his work that receives much critical attention. Patrick Gardiner reviews Kierkegaard's aesthetic, ethical, and religious modes of existence, describing Kierkegaard's approach as poetic and creative. John D. Caputo analyzes another aspect of Kierkegaard's views on existence. Caputo explains that the traditional philosophical approach, beginning with Plato, takes the side of "thought" and "Being" over "existence" and "becoming." Caputo explains that this traditional view emphasizes a recovery or return to the realm of "primordial Being and pure presence." Kierkegaard, on the other hand, argues for "repetition," or kinesis, that is, forward motion. With repetition, Caputo maintains, eternity is not something lost, but rather, a goal to be attained. In examining Kierkegaard's views on fiction, Gabriel Josipovici reveals some of Kierkegaard's views on existence. Josipovici observes that to Kierkegaard, the world was one of gossip and rumor. When a writer writes, he implies that he has escaped the world of gossip and rumor to reach a transcendental source of authority. Kierkegaard claims that the authority on which most writers write is false; they have attained no such transcendence. Furthermore, Josipovici notes, Kierkegaard contended that an individual's life is "infinitely precious" as one's own and not as part of some larger pattern.

Kierkegaard's beliefs about the nature of existence are closely tied to faith issues. Several critics have analyzed the Kierkegaardian "self" and its relation to God. Sylvia I. Walsh, in her discussion of the "feminine" and "masculine" forms of conscious despair presented in Sygdommen til Døden (1849; The Sickness unto Death), demonstrates that both forms of despair result from an individual straying from the "pathway to selfhood," a path in which self-consciousness and self-analysis leads the way to a relationship with God. C. Stephen Evans studies the way Kierkegaard treated the unconscious in his works and notes in particular the way in which the development of the unconscious self affects one's relationship with God. Evans comments that to Kierkegaard, "all selfhood depends ontologically on God, and genuine selfhood depends on a conscious relation to God, for which individuals may substitute a relation to what is less than God. All of this presupposes a developing 'pre-self,' which is formed through relations with other persons and which is a significant element in the identity of a mature, healthy self." Similarly, Julia Watkin argues that to Kierkegaard, one's relationship to God is so significant that it requires total self-renunciation. Watkin explains that this belief influenced Kierkegaard, especially in his later years, to the point that he could not fully endorse marriage and procreation.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Om Begrebet Ironi med stadigt Hensyn til Socrates (treatise) 1841
[On the Concept of Irony, with Special Reference to Socrates, 1966]

Enten/Eller. 2 vols, [as Victor Eremita] (treatise) 1843
[Either/Or: A Fragment of Life. 2 vols., 1944]

Frygt og Baeven [as Johannes de Silentio] (treatise) 1843
[Fear and Trembling: A Dialectical Lyric by Johannes de Silentio, 1939]

Gjentagelsen: Et Forsøg i den experimenterende Psychologi [as Constantin Constantius] (essay) 1843
[Repetition: An Essay in Experimental Psychology, 1941]

Opbyggelige Taler (essays) 1843-44
[Edifying Discourses, 1943-46]

Begrebet Angest [as Virgilius Haufniensis] (treatise) 1844
[The Concept of Anxiety, 1944]

Philosophiske Smuler [as Johannes Climacus] (essay) 1844
[Philosophical Fragments; or, A Fragment of Philosophy, 1936]

Stadier paa Livets Vej [as Hilarius Bogbinder] (treatise) 1845
[Stages on Life's Way, 1940]

Tre Taler ved taenkte Leiligheder (essays) 1845
[Thoughts on Crucial Situations in Human Life: Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions, 1941]

Afsluttende uvidenskabelig Efterskrift [as Johannes Climacus] (essay) 1846
[Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments, 1941]

*En liter air Anmeldelse. To Tidsaldre (criticism) 1846
[Two Ages: The Age of Revolution and the Present Age, a Literary Review, 1978]

†"Bogen om Adler" (criticism) 1846-47
[On Authority and Revelation: The Book on Adler, 1955]

Kjerlighedens Gjerninger (essays) 1847
[Works of Love, 1946]

Opbyggelige Taler i forskjellig Aand (essays) 1847
[Edifying Discourses in a Different Vein, 1938]

Christelige Taler (essays) 1848
[Christian Discourses, 1939]

Krisen og en Krise i en Skuespillerindes Liv [as Inter et Inter] (essays) 1848
[The Crisis and The Crisis in the Life of an Ac tress, 1967]

Sygdommen til Døden [as Anti-Climacus] (essay) 1849
[The Sickness unto Death, 1941]

Tre Taler ved Altergangen om Fredagen (essays) 1849
[Three Discourses at the Communion on Fridays, 1939]

Tvende ethisk-religieuse Smaa-Afhandlinger [as H. H. Moreover] (treatises) 1849
[Two Minor Ethico-Religious Treatises, 1940]

Indøvelse i Christendom [as Anti-Climacus] (essay) 1850
[Training in Christianity, 1941]

Om min Forfatter-Virksomhed (criticism) 1851
[On My Work as an Author, published in The Point of View for My Work as an Author: A Report to History, 1939]

Til Selvprøvelse (essay) 1851
[For Self-Examination, 1940]

‡Hvad Christus dömmer om officiel Christendom (criticism) 1855
[Kierkegaard's Attack upon "Christendom," 1854-1855, 1944]

§Synspunktetfor min Forfatter-Virksomhed (criticism) 1859
[The Point of View for My Work as an Author: A Report to History, 1939]

Papirer. 20 vols, (collected journals, memoirs, note books, and letters) 1909-48
[Søren Kierkegaard's Journals and Papers. 7 vols., 1967-78]

Samlede Vaerker. 20 vols, (collected works) 1962-64

Kierkegaard's Writings. 26 vols, (collected works) 1985-88

*The Present Age, a partial translation of En lilerair Anmeldelse. To Tidsaldre, was published in 1940.

†Written in 1846-47; published in Papirer, vol. 7.

‡Originally published in 1854-55 as nine pamphlets entitled "Øjeblikket" ("The Moment").

§Written in 1848.

Theodor W. Adorno (essay date 1962)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Concept of Existence," in Kierkegaard, Konstruktion des Asthetischen, 1962, published as Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic, translated and edited by Robert Hullot-Kentor, University of Minnesota Press, 1989, pp. 68-85.

[In the following essay, originally written in 1962, Adorno critiques Kierkegaard's doctrine of existence, focusing on the philosopher's concern with paradox, ambiguity, and subjectiveness.]

Existence and Truth

Of all of Kierkegaard's concepts, that of existence is currently the most prominent. If his struggle with "official Christianity" has lost its urgency for a mentality in which the established...

(The entire section is 9228 words.)

Jean-Paul Sartre (essay date 1972)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Kierkegaard: The Singular Universal," in Between Existentialism and Marxism, 1972, reprinted in Modern Critical Views: Søren Kierkegaard, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1989, pp. 75-98.

[In the following essay, Sartre appraises Kierkegaard's work, commenting in particular on Kierkegaard's views on history and subjectivity. Sartre also examines the way Kierkegaard was influenced by his environment and notes the relevance of Christian dogma to Kierkegaard's thought.]

The title of our colloquium is "The Living Kierkegaard." It has the merit of plunging us to the very heart of paradox, and Søren himself would have appreciated this. For if...

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Sylvia I. Walsh (essay date 1987)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "On 'Feminine' and 'Masculine' Forms of Despair," in International Kierkegaard Commentary: The Sickness unto Death, edited by Robert L. Perkins, Mercer University Press, 1987, pp. 121-34.

[In the following essay, Walsh reviews the two types of conscious despair as discussed by Kierkegaard (under the pseudonym Anti-Climacus) in The Sickness unto Death. Walsh analyzes Kierkegaard's views on feminine despair ("despair in weakness ") and masculine despair ("despair in defiance"), and the relation of such despair to selfhood and to God.]

Of the two forms of conscious despair, despair in weakness (not willing to be oneself) and despair in defiance (willing to...

(The entire section is 5414 words.)

Merold Westphal (essay date 1987)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Kierkegaard and the Logic of Insanity," in Kierkegaard's Critique of Reason and Society, Mercer University Press, 1987, pp. 85-103.

[In the following essay, Westphal explores the relationship between faith and insanity (or "divine madness ") in Kierkegaard's writings, observing that faith appears to be opposed to reason, not merely beyond reason.]

Feigned madness can be a valuable asset. King David once used it to escape from the Philistines (1 Sam. 21), and a twentieth-century king, Pirandello's Henry IV, used the same trick on a modern philistine culture. Thrown from his horse and struck on the head while on his way to a masquerade party dressed as the Henry...

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John D. Caputo (essay date 1987)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Repetition and Kinesis: Kierkegaard on the Foundering of Metaphysics," in Radical Hermeneutics: Repetition, Deconstruction, and the Hermeneutic Project, Indiana University Press, 1987, pp. 11-35.

[In the following essay, Caputo examines Kierkegaard's Repetition (written under the pseudonym Constantin Constantius), maintaining that Kierkegaard argued against philosophy and metaphysics in favor of the concept of "becoming" over "Being." In other words, according to Caputo, Kierkegaard defended movement or kinesis, which philosophy, since Plato' time, has denied.]

For Kierkegaard, the question is whether movement in the existential sense is...

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Patrick Gardiner (essay date 1988)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Modes of Existence," in Kierkegaard, Oxford University Press, 1988, pp. 40-64.

[In the following essay, Gardiner studies the three "modes," or "spheres," of existence identified by Kierkegaard (the aesthetic, ethical, and religious). Gardiner explains that in the works in which Kierkegaard discusses these modes, he takes an indirect approach in demonstrating the three perspectives.]

There can certainly be no dispute that all the early 'aesthetic' works—Either/Or, Repetition, Fear and Trembling, and Stages on Life's Way—exemplify the 'indirect' approach to which Kierkegaard attached such importance. Not only do they set out to present opposed outlooks and...

(The entire section is 8499 words.)

C. Stephen Evans (essay date 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Kierkegaard's View of the Unconscious," in Kierkegaard: Poet of Existence, 1989, reprinted in Kierkegaard in Post/Modernity, edited by Martin J. Matuštik and Merold Westphal, Indiana University Press, 1995, pp. 76-97.

[In the following essay, Evans studies the role of the unconscious in Kierkegaard's writings. In particular, Evans analyzes the way in which the unconscious informs Kierkegaard's "relational" view of the self.]

No informed observer of the twentieth century world of letters could fail to notice the significance of the concept of the unconscious in psychology, psychiatry, literature, and even in philosophy. We live in the age of depth...

(The entire section is 10264 words.)

Patrick Goold (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Reading Kierkegaard: Two Pitfalls and a Strategy for Avoiding Them," in Faith and Philosophy, Vol. 7, No. 3, July, 1990, pp. 304-15.

[In the following essay, Goold argues that many critics of Kierkegaard's writing read him in a manner that is either overly literal or overly ironic. Goold notes the error of such readings and suggests a more suitable method of approaching Kierkegaard's authorship—that is, searching out general themes and conclusions in the philosopher's works in an effort to gain "views both true and profound."]

Kierkegaard has much to teach us. On the nature of religious faith, for example, there is no author since Paul who is more profound...

(The entire section is 5399 words.)

M. Jamie Ferreira (essay date 1991)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Surrender and Paradox: Imagination in the Leap," in Transforming Vision: Imagination and Will in Kierkegaardian Faith, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1991, pp. 85-113.

[In the following essay, Ferreira explores the relationship between faith and imagination in the writing Kierkegaard produced under the pseudonym Johannes Climacus, arguing that the imagination allows for the suspension of standard ethical judgment, a suspension necessary for one to make the "leap" to faith.]

'Faith', Climacus tells us, 'has in fact two tasks: to take care in every moment to discover the improbable, the paradox; and then to hold it fast with the passion of...

(The entire section is 12385 words.)

C. Stephen Evans (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "On Reading Kierkegaard and Johannes Climacus," in Passionate Reason: Making Sense of Kierkegaard's Philosophical Fragments, Indiana University Press, 1992, pp. 1-12.

[In the following excerpt, Evans uses Kierkegaard's Philosophical Fragments, written under the Johannes Climacus pseudonym, to demonstrate that of the three basic approaches to Kierkegaard's writings (a straight, philosophical approach; a literary approach; and a literary-philosophical approach), the literary-philosophical approach provides the best means for making sense of Kierkegaard's indirect discourse.]

Philosophical Fragments is generally agreed to be one of...

(The entire section is 5273 words.)

Howard A. Slaatté (essay date 1995)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Problems of Reason," in A Re-Appraisal of Kierkegaard, University Press of America, 1995, pp. 27-38.

[In the following essay, Slaatté argues that contrary to what some rationalists have charged, Kierkegaard did not "scorn" reason. Rather, Slaatté maintains, Kierkegaard's writings suggest that reason does make up one part of human existence, but it does not reflect the entirety of one's selfhood.]

1: Reason and the Reasoner

Existentialist thinkers have been influenced by Kierkegaard, directly or indirectly, upon recognizing that "existence precedes essence." This implies that it is erroneous to speak of man as a rationally...

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Julia Watkin (essay date 1997)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Logic of Søren Kierkegaard's Misogyny, 1854-1855," in Feminist Interpretations of Søren Kierkegaard, edited by Céline Léon and Sylvia Walsh, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997, pp. 69-82.

[In the following essay, Watkin contends that despite the negative remarks Kierkegaard makes about women in his Journals, remarks which seem to contradict his earlier, more favorable views on marriage and sexuality, the later writings are not aimed solely at women and are not, in fact, inconsistent with his earlier statements. Watkin further explains that Kierkegaard's beliefs regarding the relationship of the self to God made it nearly impossible for him to square marriage...

(The entire section is 7077 words.)

Roger Poole (essay date 1998)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Unknown Kierkegaard: Twentieth-Century Receptions," in The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard, edited by Alastair Hannay and Gordon D. Marino, Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 48-75.

[In the following essay, Poole surveys the treatment Kierkegaard has received at the hands of contemporary and modern critics. Additionally, Poole outlines the characteristics of Kierkegaard's "indirect communication " and comments on how this indirect approach has contributed to misreadings of the philosopher.]

Søren Kierkegaard wrote his books for "that individual, whom with joy and gratitude, I call my reader." He opposed the ruling philosophical system...

(The entire section is 10713 words.)

Gabriel Josipovici (essay date 1998)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Kierkegaard and the Novel," in Kierkegaard: A Critical Reader, edited by Jonathan Rée and Jane Chamberlain, Blackwell Publishers, 1998, pp. 114-28.

[In the following essay, Josipovici discusses Kierkegaard's views of fiction and fiction writers, illuminating the parallels between these views and Kierkegaard's doctrine of existence.]

My intention is not to write here about Kierkegaard as novelist, though that would be an interesting subject. After all, each of his pseudonymous works is in a sense an attempt to extend the range of fiction, and I can see no good reason why they should be dumped in a box marked 'Philosophy', while Sterne's Tristram Shandy,...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Beabout, Gregory R. Freedom and Its Misuses: Kierkegaard on Anxiety and Despair. Milwaukee, Wisc.: Marquette University Press, 1996, 192 p.

In seven chapters, discusses Kierkegaard's views on anxiety, despair, and freedom, based on a reading of Kierkegaard's The Concept of Anxiety and Sickness unto Death.

Bové, Paul A. "The Penitentiary of Reflection: Søren Kierkegaard and Critical Activity." In Kierkegaard and Literature: Irony, Repetition, and Criticism, edited by Ronald Schleifer and Robert Markley, pp. 25-57. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984.

After examining how...

(The entire section is 650 words.)