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Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye (1813–1855)


Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher and religious thinker, frequently considered the first important existentialist, was the youngest son of Mikaël Pederson Kierkegaard and Anne Sørensdatter Lund, born when his father was fifty-six years old and his mother was forty-four. His early childhood was spent in the close company of his father, who insisted on high standards of performance in Latin and Greek, inculcated an anxiety-ridden pietist devotion of a deeply emotional kind, and awakened his son's imagination by continually acting out stories and scenes. Kierkegaard thus felt early the demand that life should be at once intellectually satisfying, dramatic, and an arena for devotion. Confronted with the Hegelian system at the University of Copenhagen, he reacted strongly against it. It could not supply what he needed"a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die " (Journal, August 1, 1835). Nor could contemporary Danish Lutheranism provide this. He ceased to practice his religion and embarked on a life of pleasure, spending heavily on food, drink, and clothes.

The melancholy that originated in his childhood continued to haunt him, however, and was increased by his father's confiding in him his own sense of guilt for having somehow sinned deeply against God. For Kierkegaard, the question of how a man can be rescued from despair was consequently intensified. He resolved to return to his studies and become a pastor. He finished his thesis On the Concept of Irony (1841) and preached his first sermon. He became engaged to the seventeen-year-old Regine Olsen. But as he became aware of the uniqueness of the vocation that he felt within himself, he found himself unable either to share his life with anyone else or to live out the conventional role of a Lutheran pastor. For him, breaking off his engagement was a decisive step in implementing his vocation. (This cosmic view of the breach does not appear to have been shared by his young fiancée, whose natural hurt pride and rejected affection led to her marriage to Fritz Schlegel, afterward governor of the Danish West Indies.) From then on Kierkegaard lived a withdrawn life as an author, although he did involve himself in two major public controversies. The first followed his denunciation of the low standards of the popular Copenhagen satirical paper The Corsair. The Corsair in turn caricatured Kierkegaard unmercifully. The second sprang from his contempt for the established Danish Lutheran Church, and especially for its primate, Bishop Mynster, who died in early 1854. When Mynster's about-to-be-appointed successor, Professor Hans Martensen, declared that Mynster had been "a witness to the truth," Kierkegaard delivered a series of bitter attacks on the church in the name of the incompatibility he saw between established ecclesiastical conformism and the inward and personal character of Christian faith. He died shortly after refusing to receive the sacrament from a pastor. "Pastors are royal officials; royal officials have nothing to do with Christianity."

Kierkegaard's biography is necessarily more relevant to his thought than is the case with most philosophers, for he himself saw philosophical inquiry neither as the construction of systems nor as the analysis of concepts, but as the expression of an individual existence. The epitaph that he composed for himself was simply, "That individual." From his own point of view, any verdict on his thought can only be the expression of the critic's own existence, not a critical assessment which could stand or fall according to some objective, impersonal standard. Hence all attempts at an objective evaluation of his thought were condemned by him in advance. He predicted and feared that he would fall into the hands of the professors. Moreover, the initial difficulty created by Kierkegaard's subjectivism is compounded by his style and manner of composition. Although he attacked G. W. F. Hegel, he inherited a large part of Hegel's vocabulary. Passages of great and glittering brilliance tend to alternate with paragraphs of turgid jargon. Both types of writing often prove inimical to clarity of expression. A great many of his books were written for highly specific purposes, and there is no clear thread of development in them. One device of Kierkegaard's must be given special mention: He issued several of his books under pseudonyms and used different pseudonyms so that he could, under one name, ostensibly attack his own work already published under some other name. His reason for doing this was precisely to avoid giving the appearance of attempting to construct a single, consistent, systematic edifice of thought. Systematic thought, especially the Hegelian system, was one of his principal targets.

The System, the Individual, and Choice

In Hegel's philosophical system, or rather in his successive construction of systems, the linked development of freedom and of reason is a logical one. Out of the most basic and abstract of concepts, Being and Nothing, there is developed first the concept of Becoming and the various phases of Becoming in which the Absolute Idea realizes itself during the course of human history. Each phase of history is the expression of a conceptual scheme, in which the gradual articulation of the concepts leads to a realization of their inadequacies and contradictions, so that the scheme is replaced by another higher and more adequate one, until finally Absolute Knowledge emerges and the whole historical process is comprehended as a single logical unfolding. It is this comprehension itself that is the culmination of the process, and this point was effectively reached for Hegel in his own philosophy. Thus, in The Science of Logic he was able to write that he was setting out not merely his own thoughts, but the thoughts of Godthe idea of God being simply an anticipation of the Hegelian conception of the Absolute.

In the Hegelian view, both moral and religious development are simply phases in this total process. In The Phenomenology of Mind, Hegel described the moral individualism of the eighteenth century, for example, in terms of a logical progress from the hedonistic project of a universal pursuit of private pleasure, through the romantic idealization of "the noble soul," to the Kantian scheme of duty and the categorical imperative, trying to show how each was brought into being by the contradiction developed by its predecessor. In terms of the Hegelian view, an individual is essentially a representative of his age. His personal and religious views must give expression to his role in the total moral and religious development of humankinda role that is imposed upon him by his place in the historical scheme. He can at best express, but not transcend, his age.

For Kierkegaard, Hegel dissolved the concreteness of individual existence into abstractions characteristic of the realm of concepts. Any particular conceptual scheme represents not an actuality but a possibility. Whether a given individual realizes this possibility, and so endows it with existence, depends upon the individual and not upon the concepts. What the individual does depends not upon what he understands, but upon what he wills. Kierkegaard invokes both Aristotle and Immanuel Kant in support of his contention that Hegel illegitimately assimilated concepts to individual existence; he praises in particular the manner of Kant's refutation of the Ontological Argument. But Kierkegaard, in his doctrine of the primacy of the will, is, in fact, more reminiscent of Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullian or Blaise Pascal.

Kierkegaard buttressed his doctrine of the will with his view of the ultimacy of undetermined choice. He maintained that the individual constitutes himself as the individual he is through his choice of one mode of existence rather than another. Christianity is not a phase in the total development of man's religious and moral ideas; it is a matter of choosing to accept or to reject God's Word. But choice is not restricted to this supreme decision; it is the core of all human existence. The Hegelian view that human existence develops logically within and through conceptual schemes is not merely an intellectual error. It is an attempt to disguise the true facts, to cast off the responsibility for choice, and to find an alibi for one's choices. Moreover, speculative system building falsifies human existence in another way, for it suggests that although those who lived prior to the construction of the system may have had to make do with a partial and inadequate view of reality, the arrival of the final system provides an absolute viewpoint. But according to Kierkegaard, such a viewpoint must be an illusion. Human existence is irremediably finite; its standpoint is incorrigibly partial and limited. To suppose otherwise is to yield to a temptation to pride; it is to attempt to put oneself in the place of God.

This conclusion is only a special case of Kierkegaard's general doctrine that his intellectual opponents are guilty fundamentally not of fallacies and mistakes, but of moral inadequacy. That Kierkegaard should have thought this not only reflects his unfortunate personality; it was a necessary consequence of his doctrine of choice. Another necessary consequence was his mode of authorship. On his own grounds, he cannot hope to produce pure intellectual conviction in his readers; all that he can do is to confront them with choices. Hence he should not try to present a single position. This explains Kierkegaard's method of expounding incompatible points of view in different books and using different pseudonyms for works with different standpoints. The author must conceal himself; his approach must be indirect. As an individual, he must testify to his chosen truth. Yet, as an author he cannot conceal the act of choice. From these views, it is apparent that Kierkegaard used a special concept of choice.

The essence of the Kierkegaardian concept of choice is that it is criterionless. On Kierkegaard's view, if criteria determine what I choose, it is not I who make the choice; hence the choice must be undetermined. Suppose, however, that I do invoke criteria in order to make my choice. Then all that has happened is that I have chosen the criteria. And if in turn I try to justify my selection of criteria by an appeal to logically cogent considerations, then I have in turn chosen the criteria in the light of which these considerations appear logically cogent. First principles at least must be chosen without the aid of criteria, simply in virtue of the fact that they are first. Thus, logical principles, or relationships between concepts, can in no sense determine a person's intellectual positions; for it is his choices that determine the authority such principles have for him. Is man then not even limited by such principles as those that enjoin consistency and prohibit contradiction? Apparently not. For even paradox challenges the intellect in such a way as to be a possible object of choice. The paradoxes that Kierkegaard has in mind at this point in his argument are those posed by the demands of ethics and religion. He is prepared to concede that in fields such as mathematics the ordinary procedures of reason are legitimate. But there are no objective standards where human existence is involved.

The Aesthetic and the Ethical

In Either/Or: A Fragment of Life (1843), the doctrine of choice is put to work in relation to a distinction between two ways of life, the ethical and the aesthetic. The aesthetic point of view is that of a sophisticated and romantic hedonism. The enemies of the aesthetic standpoint are not only pain but also, and above all, boredom. As Kierkegaard wrote of the protagonist of aestheticism in Purify Your Hearts!, "See him in his season of pleasure: did he not crave for one pleasure after another, variety his watchword?" The protagonist tried to realize every possibility, and no possibility furnishes him with more than a momentary actuality. "Every mood, every thought, good or bad, cheerful or sad, you pursue to its utmost limit, yet in such a way that this comes to pass in abstracto rather than in concreto ; in such a way that the pursuit itself is little more than a mood." But just because boredom is always to be guarded against, so its threat is perpetual. In the end, the search for novelty leads to the threshold of despair.

By contrast, the ethical constitutes the sphere of duty, of universal rules, of unconditional demands and tasks. For the man in the ethical stage "the chief thing is, not whether one can count on one's fingers how many duties one has, but that a man has once felt the intensity of duty in such a way that the consciousness of it is for him the assurance of the eternal validity of his being" (Either/Or, II, p. 223). It is important to note how intensity of feeling enters into Kierkegaard's definition of the ethical stage. He thought that what his own age most notably lacked was passion; hence one must not be deceived by the Kantian overtones of his discussions of duty. Kierkegaard's categorical imperative is felt rather than reasoned. He is an heir of such romantics as the Schlegel brothers in his attitude toward feeling, just as he is the heir of Hegel in his mode of argument. Kierkegaard is a constant reminder of the fact that those who most loudly proclaim their own uniqueness are most likely to have derived their ideas from authors whom they consciously reject.

In Either/Or the argument between the ethical and the aesthetic is presented by two rival characters: an older man puts the case for the ethical, a younger for the aesthetic. The reader, as we should expect, is allegedly left to make his own choice. But is he? The description of the two alternatives seems heavily weighted in favor of the ethical. The difficulty is that Kierkegaard wished both to maintain that there could be no objective criterion for the decision between the two alternatives, and to show that the ethical was superior to the aesthetic. Indeed, one difference between the ethical and the aesthetic is that in the ethical stage the role of choice is acknowledged. Kierkegaard frames this criticism of the man who adheres to the aesthetic: "He has not chosen himself; like Narcissus he has fallen in love with himself. Such a situation has certainly ended not infrequently in suicide." Remarks like this suggest that in fact Kierkegaard thinks that the aesthetic fails on its own terms; but if he were to admit this, his concept of interested choice would no longer apply at this critical point. In one passage Kierkegaard asserts that if one chooses with sufficient passion, the passion will correct whatever was wrong with the choice. Here his inconsistency is explicit. According to his doctrine of choice, there can be no criterion of "correct" or "incorrect," but according to the values of his submerged romanticism, the criterion of both choice and truth is intensity of feeling.

This inconsistency is not resolved; rather it is canonized in the thesis that truth is subjectivity. On the one hand Kierkegaard wants to define truth in terms of the way in which it is apprehended; on the other he wants to define it in terms of what it is that is apprehended. When inconsistency results, he is all too apt to christen this inconsistency "paradox" and treat its appearance as the crowning glory of his argument.

Kierkegaard is not consistent, however, even in his treatment of inconsistency. For he sometimes seems to imply that if the ethical is forced to its limits, contradiction results, and one is therefore forced to pass from the ethical to the religious. "As soon as sin enters the discussion, ethics fails for repentance is the supreme expression of ethics, but as such contains the most profound ethical contradiction" (Fear and Trembling, p. 147, footnote). What is this but Hegelianism of the purest kind?

Kierkegaard describes the transition from the ethical to the religious differently at different periods. In Either/Or the ethical sometimes seems to include the religious. By the time the Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846) was written, the religious seems to have absorbed the ethical. In Fear and Trembling (1843), the passage from the ethical to the religious is even more striking than that from the aesthetic to the ethical. One of the heroes of this transition is Abraham. In demanding from Abraham the sacrifice of Isaac, God demands something that, from the standpoint of the ethical, is absolutely forbidden, a transgression of duty. Abraham must make the leap to faith, accept the absurd. He must concur in a "suspension of the ethical." At such a point the individual has to make a criterionless choice. General and universal rules cannot aid him here; it is as an individual that he has to choose. According to Kierkegaard, however, there are certain key experiences on the margins of the ethical and the religious through which one may come to censure oneself as an individual. One such experience is the despair that Kierkegaard describes in The Sickness unto Death ; another is the generalized fear and anxiety that is characterized in The Concept of Dread (1844). Despair and dread point in the same direction. The experience of each forces the individual to realize that he confronts a void and that he is, in fact, responsible for his own sick and sinful condition. In the state of despair he is brought to recognize that what he despairs of are not the contingent facts (such as the loss of a loved one) that he claims to be the objects of his despair; the individual despairs of himself, and to despair of oneself is to see oneself confronting an emptiness that cannot be filled by aesthetic pleasure or ethical rule-following. Moreover, it is in order to become conscious that one has brought oneself to this point. In analyzing despair, we recognize guilt; so too with dread. Kierkegaard contrasts the fear that has a specific and identifiable object with the dread that is objectless; or rather he identifies the fear that is a fear of nothing in particular as a fear of Nothing. (The reification of negatives into noun phrases is typically Hegelian.) In the experience of dread I become conscious of my bad will as something for which I am responsible, and yet which I did not originate. Original sin is seen as a doctrine deduced from the analysis of experience.

In these works of Kierkegaard it is plain that the existentialist philosophy of choice is in some danger of being submerged in the romantic philosophy of feeling. But the testimony of feeling serves as a propaedeutic to the encounter with Christianity.


Kierkegaard regarded his own central task as the explanation of what is involved in being a Christian. Apart from Christianity, the only religions he discusses are those of the Greeks and the Jews, and those only as a foil to Christianity. At first sight, Kierkegaard's doctrines of choice and of truth stand in an uneasy relationship to his allegiance to Christianity. For surely Christianity has always claimed to be objectively true, independently of anyone's subjective commitment, and Kierkegaard recognized this. "Not only does it [Christian revelation] express something which man has not given to himself, but something which would never have entered any man's mind even as a wisp or an idea, or under any other name one likes to give to it" (Journal, 1839).

If what we believe depends on the believer's own ultimate choice of rational criteria, then surely all beliefs have an equal moment, or rather equal lack of moment, for claiming objective truth. Kierkegaard, however, tried to evade this conclusion and continued to argue both that ultimate choice is criterionless and that one choice can be more correct than another.

Unfortunately, Kierkegaard never considered the issues raised by religions other than Christianity; for it would clarify our view of his position considerably if we could know what he would have said about an account of Islam or Buddhism that was logically parallel to his account of Christianity, in that it made their claims rest on a doctrine of ultimate choice. But the choices that Kierkegaard discusses are always those that might arise for an educated Dane of the nineteenth century. The foil to Christianity is not another religion, but secular philosophy.

This particular contrast is most fully elucidated in the Philosophical Fragments (1844), in which Kierkegaard begins from the paradox posed by Socrates in Plato's Meno. How can one come to know anything? For either one already knows what one is to come to know, or one does not. But in the former case, since one already knows, one cannot come to know; and in the latter case, how can one possibly recognize what one discovers as being the object of one's quest for knowledge? Plato's answer to this paradox is that in coming to know, we do not discover truths of which we had hitherto been totally ignorant, but truths of which we were once aware (when the soul preexisted the body), but which we had forgotten. These truths lie dormant within us, and to teach is to elicit such truths. So Socrates makes the slave boy in the Meno aware that he knows geometrical truths which he did not know that he knew.

Suppose, however, Kierkegaard asks, that the truth is not within us already. It will then be the case that we are strangers to the truth, to whom the truth must be brought from outside. It will follow that the moment at which we learn the truth and the teacher from whom we learn the truth will not stand in a merely accidental relationship to us. On the Socratic view, one may learn geometry from this teacher or that, but the question of the truth of a geometric theorem is independent of the question from whom we learned it. Not so, on Kierkegaard's view. There are two possible conceptions of the truth that we must choose between, and the Socratic view represents only one alternative. It is important to note that in the Philosophical Fragments (1844) Kierkegaard does not say, as he says elsewhere, that one view of the truth is appropriate in matters of geometrical truth, but another is appropriate in matters concerning moral and religious truth. He speaks of two alternative views of the truth, which apparently cover every kind of subject matter, although for the rest of the book he discusses only religion.

Following Kierkegaard's preferred view of the truth, if the truth is not within us, it must be brought to us by a teacher. The teacher must transform us from beings who do not know the truth to beings who are acquainted with it. It is impossible to conceive any greater transformation, and only God could bring it about. But how could God become the teacher of man? If He appeared as He is, the effect on man would be to overawe him so that he could not possibly learn what God has to teach. (Kierkegaard cites the story of the prince in the fairy tale who could not appear to the swine girl as a prince because she would not have come to love him for himself.) Thus, Kierkegaard argues that if God is to be the teacher of man, He must appear in the form of a man, and more specifically, in the form of a servant. From the standpoint of human reason, the idea that God should come as a teacher in human form is an impossible paradox that reason cannot hope to comprehend within its own categories. But according to Kierkegaard, it is in encountering this paradox that reason becomes aware of the objective character of what it encounters.

To be a Christian is thus to subordinate one's reason to the authority of a revelation that is given in paradoxical form. The Christian lives before God by faith alone. His awareness of God is always an awareness of his own infinite distance from God. Christianity initially manifests itself in outward forms, and Kierkegaard reproaches Martin Luther for having tried to reduce Christianity to a pure inwardnessa project that has ended in its opposite, the replacement of inwardness by an ecclesiastical worldliness. Nonetheless, an inward suffering before God is the heart of Christianity.

As previously mentioned, Kierkegaard saw his own age as lacking in passion. The Greeks and the medieval monastics had true passion. The modern age lacks it, and because of this, it lacks a capacity for paradox, which is the passion of thought.

Criticisms of Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard used Friedrich Trendelenburg's exposition of Aristotle's logic to criticize Hegel. But he never took the question of the nature of contradiction seriously, and hence he never explained the difference, if any, between paradox (in his sense of the word) and mere inconsistency. But without such a clarification, the notion is fatally unclear. The lack of clarity is increased by Kierkegaard's failure at times to distinguish between philosophy, as such, and Hegelianism. Kierkegaard sometimes seems to have thought that any philosophy that claims objectivity must consist solely of tautologies (Papirer III, B, 177).

His doctrine of choice raises at least two fundamental questions: Are there criterionless choices? And is it by such choices that we either can or do arrive at our criteria of true belief? Actual cases of criterionless choice usually seem in some way to be special cases. Either they are trivial, random selections (as of a ticket in a lottery) or they arise from conflicts of duties in which each alternative seems equally weighted. But none of these are choices of criteria. Such choices arise precisely at the point at which we are not presented with objective criteria. How do we arrive at such criteria? They appear to be internally connected with the subject matter of the relevant beliefs and judgment. Therefore we cannot choose our ultimate criteria in mathematics or physics. But what about morals and religion? Can one choose to consider the gratuitous infliction of pain a morally neutral activity? We are strongly inclined to say that an affirmative answer would indicate that the word morally had not been understood. But what is certain is that Kierkegaard's fundamental positions must remain doubtful until some series of questions such as this has been systematically considered. Kierkegaard himself never tried to ask them.

See also Absolute, The; Aristotle; Being; Existentialism; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Hegelianism; Kant, Immanuel; Luther, Martin; Ontological Argument for the Existence of God; Pascal, Blaise; Schlegel, Friedrich von; Tertullian, Quintus Septimius Florens.


works by kierkegaard


Papirer, 20 vols. Edited by P. A. Heiberg, V. Kuhr, and E. Torsting. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 19091948.

Samlede Vaerker, 2nd ed., 14 vols. Edited by A. B. Drachmann, J. L. Heiberg, and H. O. Lange. Copenhagen, 19201931.

Texts in English Translation

The following listing is in order of original date of publication.

Either/Or, 2 vols. Vol. I, translated by D. F. Swenson and L. M. Swenson. Princeton, NJ, 1941. Vol. II, translated by W. Lowrie. Princeton, NJ, 1944.

Fear and Trembling. Translated by R. Payne. London: Oxford University Press, 1939. Also translated by W. Lowrie. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1941.

Repetition: An Essay in Experimental Psychology. Translated by W. Lowrie. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1941.

Philosophical Fragments: Or, A Fragment of Philosophy. Translated by D. F. Swenson. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1936.

The Concept of Dread. Translated by W. Lowrie. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1944.

Stages on Life's Way. Translated by W. Lowrie. Princeton, NJ, 1940.

Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Translated by D. F. Swenson and W. Lowrie. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1941.

The Sickness unto Death. Translated by W. Lowrie. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1941.

The Point of View. Translated by W. Lowrie. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1941.

Training in Christianity. Translated by W. Lowrie. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1944.

Purify Your Hearts! Translated by A. S. Aldworth and W. S. Fine. London: C. W. Daniel, 1937.

For Self-Examination. Translated by W. Lowrie. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1941.

The Present Age. Translated by A. Dru and W. Lowrie. London: Oxford University Press, 1940.

Christian Discourses. Translated by W. Lowrie. London: Oxford University Press, 1939.

Works of Love. Translated by D. F. Swenson. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1946.

The Attack upon "Christendom." Translated by W. Lowrie. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1944.

The Journals of Søren Kierkegaard: A Selection. Edited and translated by A. Dru. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1938.

works on kierkegaard

Anthologies, Biography, and Critical Studies

Bretall, R. A Kierkegaard Anthology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1946.

Geismar, E. O. Lectures on the Religious Thought of Søren Kierkegaard. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1937.

Hohlenberg, J. E. Søren Kierkegaard. London, 1954.

Jolivet, R. Introduction to Kierkegaard. London, 1950.

Lowrie, W. Kierkegaard. New York: Oxford University Press, 1938.

Lowrie, W. A Short Life of Kierkegaard. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1942.

Swenson, D. F. Something about Kierkegaard. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1941.

Wahl, J. Études Kierkegaardiennes. Paris, 1938.

Additional Background

Barrett, W. Irrational Man. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1958.

Blackham, H. J. Six Existentialist Thinkers. New York, 1952.

Collins, J. The Existentialists: A Critical Study. Chicago: Regnery, 1952.

Grene, M. Introduction to Existentialism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959.

Shestov, L. Athènes et Jérusalem. Paris: J. Vrin, 1938.

Alasdair MacIntyre (1967)

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