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.
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.
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.
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.