Søren Kierkegaard, who lived in Denmark and wrote during the first half of the nineteenth century, was the first and possibly the greatest of all the modern existentialist philosophers. This sample essay provided by Ultius is the second post in an ongoing blog series on existentialism, and it will focus on the works of Kierkegaard.
The essay will have four main parts.
- The first part will consist of a biographical overview to Kierkegaard the man; this is essential as his life and his work are intertwined to an extent that is extraordinary even for an existentialist.
- The second part will outline the general arc of Kierkegaard’s works.
- The third part will consider some of the main ideas and concepts for which Kierkegaard has become famous over time.
- The fourth part will reflect on Kierkegaard’s status a s a Christian, and his tumultuous relationship he had with the Christianity of his contemporary society.
Biographical overview on Søren Kierkegaard
Kierkegaard was born into a deeply pietistic family, with his relationship with his father constituting an important psychological thread over the course of his life. As a young man, he proved himself to be a brilliant student who almost effortlessly mastered all of the philosophy of his day. A major crisis point in his life, though, emerged when he was 29 years old and became engaged to a young woman named Regine Olsen (see Garff).
Kierkegaard eventually forced himself to break off this engagement, for reasons that are still not clear to the modern inquirer; and this proved to be a traumatic experience for him. This broken engagement provides a well-nigh obsessive focal point in several of his works, with some of his most profound philosophical emerging from his ruminations of the morality of his action within this troubling romantic situation.
The end of the first part of Kierkegaard’s first work Either/Or, for example, consists of a section known as “The Seducer’s Diary,” in which he portrays the pitiless machinations employed by a man in order to get a young and innocent woman to sleep with him. The contemporary public generally condemned the immorality of this work—which would seem to be exactly what Kierkegaard wanted. More specifically, Kierkegaard wanted Regine to read the work and to assume that he had manipulated her in the same way that the seducer in his work is shown to manipulate the young woman.
This would actually seem to be the furthest thing from the truth: it would seem that Kierkegaard deeply loved Regine, and had his own deeply personal reasons for breaking his engagement with her. But he wanted Regine to believe the opposite, so that she would more easily be able to get over him. This is an excellent example of how Kierkegaard’s works are intertwined with his life in such a way that he is a rare case in which an awareness of his life meaningfully enhances an appreciation of his works.
Another major crisis in Kierkegaard’s life occurred later on and has gone down in history as the Corsair Affair. The Corsair was a satirical newspaper within the city of Copenhagen; and after Kierkegaard virtually dared them to attack him, they took up the challenge and mocked him with the pages of their paper in a rather merciless way. By this time, Kierkegaard had seriously considered giving up writing and moving to the countryside to become a pastor.
But this public confrontation provoked a resurgence of his creativity and led to the production of some of his late and greatest works. It would be fair to wonder, with Kierkegaard’s biographer, Garff, whether Kierkegaard almost intentionally sought out conflicts like this one, for the simple reason that his creativity functioned most effectively under such circumstances.
General arc of Kierkegaard’s works
Kierkegaard’s works can be divided up into two main arcs. On the one hand, there are the works that he signed under various pseudonyms: these include virtually all of his philosophical works and especially the ones that have earned him a lasting claim to fame. Kierkegaard, though, refused to sign these works under his own name, for strong aesthetic reasons. The result is that the set of Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous works can almost be considered as a kind of meta-novel, with the various “characters” each expressing somewhat different perspectives across the works.
One implication is that one must be rather careful when trying to cite Kierkegaard. One cannot, for example, argue that Kierkegaard contradicts himself between Fear and Trembling and Philosophical Fragments—for the simple reason that these two works are actually signed by different “authors”. In general, though, it is possible to somewhat ignore the game of pseudonyms and simply attribute main ideas to Kierkegaard himself, especially with certain pseudonyms (such as Johannes Climacus) who are rather transparently just stand-ins for the author himself.
The second arc of Kierkegaard’s works consists of religious sermons that he directly signed under his own name. These works are less well-known than the pseudonymous philosophical works; but they are quite beautiful in their own right; and moreover, their tone differs markedly from those of the pseudonymous works. The pseudonymous works tend to be polemical and ironical in nature, with Kierkegaard often taking careful aim at what he considers to be the delusions of his day.
A directly signed sermon such as his Works of Love, on the other hand, contains a far greater level of emotional appeal, with Kierkegaard trying to persuade and provoke the reader into an immediate vision of Christian living. In general, the purpose of his pseudonym game becomes more apparent when one considers the fundamental differences of tone and content between the pseudonymous works on the one hand and the works Kierkegaard signed with his own name on the other.
Key ideas and concepts of Kierkegaard
Most people who have ever heard of Kierkegaard probably associate his name with the theory of the sphere of existence. To be honest, though, this schema is probably overrated; in any event, it does not play as strong a role in Kierkegaard’s thinking as one might have come to expect. Kierkegaard does clearly believe that there is a fundamental difference between the aesthetic mode of existence on the one hand, and the ethical mode of existence on the other.
The former is characterized by the egotistical pursuit of interesting experiences and fleeting pleasures; the latter is characterized by a deepened subjectivity and a passionate commitment to becoming a certain self and engaging in a certain mode of living. According to the traditional schema, there is a religious sphere above the ethical sphere; but even in his major work Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard is relatively unclear about where the line between the ethical and the religious is, insofar the religious is just characterized by an even further deepening of subjectivity, interiority, and passion.
Another famous idea of Kierkegaard’s is the knight of faith, developed in his work Fear and Trembling. This is closely connected to the concept of the teleological suspension of the ethical. Essentially, Kierkegaard (under a pseudonym) suggests that the biblical Abraham was justified in trying to kill his son Isaac, even though murdering one’s own son would generally be condemned as deeply unethical, due to the fact that Abraham had a duty to obey God, and that duty “suspended” any lower ethical obligations he may have ordinarily had.
In an age of religiously inspired terrorism, this notion would seem to have rather disturbing implications. However, Kierkegaard handles the matter in a highly sophisticated way that makes clear that the knight of faith is essentially a man who walks alone, and is self-consciously aware of the fact that no one but God himself would ever be able to understand the logic of his actions.
This dovetails into another key concept of Kierkegaard’s philosophy, which can be summarized by his aphorism (found in Concluding Unscientific Postscript) that subjectivity is truth. What he means by this is that existential truth can only be found in the subjective experience of passion, and not in any kind of objective formula: such a formula, even if it could exist, would be utterly devoid of meaning unless the person hearing it were to internalize the formula and subjectively make it his own.
This implies, for example, that any attempt to objectively “prove” the existence of God would be utterly ridiculous—for the only person who can really know that God is real is the one who enters into a passionate, subjective engagement with God within the depths of his own heart. This point calls attention to the need to reflect on Kierkegaard’s own status as a devout Christian.
Kierkegaard the Christian
There can be no doubt whatsoever that Kierkegaard considered himself a devout Christian, and that this was utterly fundamental to his entire work as an author. The modern, secular world has often tried to avoid this aspect of his thought; but in truth, it would be impossible to really understand Kierkegaard if one were to neglect the essential religiosity of virtually all of his writings. Kierkegaard’s Christianity, however, has almost nothing to do with the Christianity that most people grow up with through the dominant churches of society.
Indeed, Kierkegaard’s literary career culminates with a direct call for people to not go to church, for the simple reason that in his opinion, God could not be found there. If Kierkegaard is a Christian, then, this would imply that the vast majority of self-proclaimed “Christians” within his society were not really Christian at all. In short, he radically reinvented the entire concept.
In a way, the suggestion can be made that Kierkegaard’s vision of being a Christian is highly primitive in nature (in the good sense of the word) and hearkens back to the prophetic tradition with the Bible. Jesus himself, for example, consistently condemned the Pharisees—that is, the leaders of the established temples of his time—on the grounds that they had no concept of the living spirit of God and focused instead on literalist technicalities that had little to do with God himself.
Kierkegaard could likewise be understood as a prophet in his own time who condemned the “Pharisees” who were in charge of the Church of Denmark. Kierkegaard, for example, railed against the notion that one was a Christian simply because one was baptized as an infant. This idea seemed like the height of absurdity to him, for the reason that according to him, one cannot actually be a Christian until one makes the mature and subjective decision to become a Christian. To him, it all had nothing to do with paperwork, rituals, or external expressions of any kind.
To him, being a Christian only had to do with the subjective, direct, and passionate relationship with God within the depths of the individual heart. In this sense, Kierkegaard’s Christianity is fully consistent with—and is even the culmination of—the broader premises and concepts developed over the course of his general existential philosophy.
In summary, this essay has consisted of a discussion of the life and work of the existential philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. The essay has provided a biographical overview, discussed the general arc of his works and some of the main ideas/concepts found within his works, and reflected on his status as a Christian. This concludes the present part of this series of blog posts on existentialism. The next post in this series will be dedicated to Friedrich Nietzsche: a man whose ideas will be shown to have surprising affinities with those of Kierkegaard, even as they diverge sharply from the latter in significant ways.
The Bible, King James Version.
Garff, Joachim. Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography. Trans. Bruce M. Kirmmse. Princeton: Princeton U P, 2005. Print.
Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton U P, 1992. Print.
Kierkegaard, Søren. Either/Or, Part I. Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton U P, 1987. Print.
Kierkegaard, Søren. Fear and Trembling/Repetition. Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton U P, 1983. Print.
Kierkegaard, Søren. Philosophical Fragments. Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton U P, 1985. Print.
Kierkegaard, Søren. Works of Love. Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton U P, 1983. Print.