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Søren Aabye Kierkegaard

Søren Aabye Kierkegaard

The Danish philosopher and religious thinker Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was the progenitor of 20th-century existential philosophy.

Søren Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen on May 5, 1813. His father, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard, was a self-made man who had amassed a considerable fortune as a wool merchant. At the age of 40 he retired and devoted himself exclusively to the intellectual life. His house became a meeting place for university professors, prominent clergymen, and writers of the day. Søren, the youngest of seven children, had a slight physical handicap. He was sickly, and frail, yet highly gifted, and his father's favorite. He was brought up in a house where discussion and debate were as familiar as the furniture.

At the time of Søren's birth Michael Kierkegaard was 57, a highly respected and rather formidable patriarch who attempted to instill an austere and demanding Christianity into his children. The young Søren idolized his father, who in bad weather used to take him for imaginary walks up and down his study, discoursing all the while on make-believe sights. This no doubt helped develop the inexhaustible power of imagination which is a hallmark of Kierkegaard's writing. He agreed with his father's wish that he study theology and entered the University of Copenhagen in 1831.

On his twenty-second birthday Kierkegaard records in his Journals a shattering experience, "the great earthquake"—a sudden and terrifying disillusionment about his father. Kierkegaard had long wondered about the causes for the gloom and depression that always hovered around his father. He had thought it was bereavement, for the old man had lost his wife and five children within a few years. But his father told him that his gloom was actually guilt feelings about two grave misdeeds. As a young boy, he had cursed God for his ill fortune. Still worse, shortly after the death of his first wife in pregnancy, he had conceived a child by a female servant. Overwhelmed with guilt, he married the girl, and she became the mother of his seven children.

The highly sensitive and idealistic Søren was shaken. He stopped coming home for meals, neglected his studies, and finally left home altogether, determined to lead the life of an esthete, as a deliberate reproach to the stern training his father had given him. He began to live in high style, carousing and drinking, and even had, while drunk, an encounter with a prostitute—which built up in him a guilt equal to his father's. After 6 months of estrangement, he returned home in response to his father's agonized entreaties. They were reconciled, and a year later the father died. But Søren was haunted throughout his life by the idea of a curse on the family and by a profound inner melancholy.

At the age of 27 Kierkegaard became engaged to Regine Olsen, who was 10 years younger than he and the daughter of a prominent government official. A beautiful girl of modest intellectual gifts but endowed with a warm and open nature, she was dazzled by the sparkling conversation of her suitor, who usually managed to cover up his melancholy with wit and affability. Two days after his proposal had been accepted, he "saw that he had blundered." He could not ask her to take on his burden of guilt and melancholy. He began to look for some way out which would do the least damage to Olsen. He now deliberately played the aloof and cynical dandy in an effort to break her affection for him and so free her. But the bewildered girl only grew more fascinated. Partly suspecting what lay behind his reversal, she sought to heal him of his fear and scruples. But he was unable to accept this, and finally, after 13 months of pain and heartbreak, he forced her to break off the engagement.

Kierkegaard sailed for Berlin, still agonizing over his decision. Olsen, basically a healthy-minded and uncomplicated person, recovered quickly and within 2 years had accepted an earlier suitor and married. Characteristically, Kierkegaard was now furious at her "unfaithfulness." Yet even after her marriage, he still hoped for some form of relationship with her—a platonic friendship—so that he could publicly honor her with his books. What he had wanted all along was a muse, not a wife. Many of his writings, especially of the early period, contain quite open allusions and appeals to Olsen, justifications of his strange behavior, and pledges of his continuing faithfulness. Apparently she never acknowledged these strange appeals.

His Writings

Kierkegaard had gone to Berlin to study philosophy and for a short while followed F. W. J. von Schelling's lectures with increasing disenchantment. But then he discovered his true vocation: to be a writer. The creative energy which had been building up in him throughout the long struggle with his father and Olsen now burst forth in a torrent of writings. The first of these, Either/Or (1843), confronts the reader with an existential choice between two incompatible attitudes toward life: the esthetic and the ethical. The book does not present arguments but rather character portraits, situations, vignettes—written with remarkable verve and psychological insight. The author does not judge between the attitudes. His point to the reader is: each one must choose for himself and no one will find a convincing proof for his choice.

Kierkegaard's own choice is made clear in the two following works, published in the same year. He rejects both alternatives in favor of a third. Fear and Trembling and Repetition, through the figure of Abraham and his sacrifice of Isaac, reflect on his own experiences with his father and Olsen while outlining a third fundamental attitude: the religious—an attitude of unconditional obedience to God. In the first of these books Kierkegaard describes what is entailed by faith: the acceptance of paradox, sacrifice, and suffering. In the second he discusses the psychology of the believer. Still in the same year he brought out three volumes of Edifying Discourses. In these he spoke in his own name directly to the reader. The other works were published under various pseudonyms. In all, he used 19 distinct pseudonyms in his work according to an elaborate private plan. This was not to hide his identity—everyone knew who the author was—but to indicate that these were possible lifestyles, not necessarily his own.

The following year brought another creative burst of six more works, of which the common theme is a resistance to certain features of G. W. F. Hegel's philosophy, in particular, to Hegel's tendency to mediate all oppositions and to hold out the prospect of complete understanding. Hence, Kierkegaard deliberately plays up the surd, suprarational character of Christianity and its demand for a radical choice (not a mediation) between good and evil. The two most important books of 1844 are the Philosophical Fragments, which shows that freedom is the necessary condition for Christianity and that freedom is the necessary condition for Christianity and that freedom cannot be understood or proved, and The Concept of Dread, which shows that it is in the experience of dread or anxiety that man apprehends his freedom to choose and hence his responsibility.

The year 1845 saw two more large-scale works: Stages on Life's Way, in which he once more went over the ground covered by Either/Or, this time making plain that religion forms a special sphere of existence; and Concluding Unscientific Postscript, a detailed attempt to show, against Hegel, that it is impossible to understand human existence intellectually. The truth about one's own life is not to be attained in conceptual thought; it is a truth that is chosen, and lived in fidelity to that choice. With this tremendous labor completed in less than 4 years, Kierkegaard believed he had finished his task. He was ready to put down his pen and now began to wonder if, as his father had wished, he should not accept ordination and a parsonage in the country.

Conflicts with Society

All these works had been published at Kierkegaard's own expense, out of his inheritance. Apart from a brief flurry, mostly favorable, over Either/Or, there had been virtually no public response to his work. Now there appeared a generally favorable review but in a new journal, the Corsair, which, though eagerly read, was widely regarded as scurrilous and lacking in taste. Sharing this opinion, Kierkegaard wrote a sarcastic letter saying that in such a journal he would rather be abused than praised. The response of the editor was to launch a sustained and merciless series of cartoons depicting the writer. His hunchback and eccentric dress made him an easy mark for the cartoonist. For a whole year he was satirized and lampooned. He found strangers gaping and giggling at him wherever he went in Copenhagen, then still a small, enclosed town. Deeply hurt, he moved to counterattack. He began to write furious denunciations of the power of the press, of mindless public opinion, even of the concept of democracy. Some of these opinions he confided only to his Journals; others were published as The Present Age (1846). Ordination was now out of the question.

Conflict with the Church

The Danish State Lutheran Church, in which Kierkegaard had thought of taking orders, was presided over by Bishop J. P. Mynster, an old friend of his father. As Kierkegaard's work became more and more critical of the notion of an established and comfortable Christianity, the bishop grew alarmed. Kierkegaard's Training in Christianity (1849) set very high standards for anyone claiming to be a Christian and was widely taken as a slap at the bishop. Many in and out of the clergy were incensed.

In early 1854 Mynster died, and Kierkegaard, who had been holding back certain charges out of personal respect for the man, now felt free to speak out. At his death Mynster had been called "a witness to the truth." This phrase, originally used of the Christian martyrs, was the last straw for Kierkegaard. He exploded with a frontal assault on the establishment. Using his erstwhile enemy, the press, Kierkegaard issued a series of broadsides, 21 in all, in which he condemned the compromises of the Church, the comfortable and worldly lives of the clergy, and the watered-down doctrine. The main burden of all these attacks was not that men failed to live up to the severe demands of Christianity—he admitted this was impossible—but rather the pretense of doing so. Hypocrisy was his target.

Exhausted by these labors and the overwork of a dozen years, Kierkegaard collapsed on the street with a paralyzing stroke. He lingered for a month, refusing to take communion unless from the hands of a layman, and died on Nov. 11, 1855. Nearly 70 years passed before his work began to be known outside Denmark, but he has become one of the strongest influences on 20th-century thought.

Further Reading

Kierkegaard reveals himself in nearly all his writings, but most directly in his Journals. An English selection of these numerous volumes was published in 1938; the first volume of a new, complete translation appeared in 1967. The secondary literature on Kierkegaard is voluminous. Peter Preisler Rohde, Søren Kierkegaard: An Introduction to His Life and Philosophy, translated by Alan Moray Williams (1963), is a good place for the student to begin. Another introduction to Kierkegaard, with an emphasis on his religious thought, is Hermann Diem, Kierkegaard: An Introduction, translated by D. Green (1966). George Bartholomow and George E. Arbaugh, Kierkegaard's Authorship: A Guide to the Writings of Kierkegaard (1968), is a very helpful guide to all of Kierkegaard's writings.

Additional Sources

Lebowitz, Naomi, Kierkegaard, a life of allegory, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985.

Encounters with Kierkegaard: a life as seen by his contemporaries, Princeton, N.J.; Princeton University Press, 1996.

Collins, James Daniel, The mind of Kierkegaard, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983. □

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Kierkegaard, Søren

Kierkegaard, SØren

Søren Kierkegaard was born on May 5, 1813, in Copenhagen, Denmark, and died there on November 4, 1855. Kierkegaard is recognized to have, in the nineteenth-century, reawakened philosophy to its basic mystery, that the human being exists in the anticipation of death, and that the subjectivity of death anxiety is the source of consciousness and spirituality.

Kierkegaard grew up with the tyranny of his father's severe and gloomy religious obsessions. His mother and five siblings died in quick succession. The meaning his father gave to his misfortune and grief was that because he had once cursed God, and God was cursing him back. Learning of his beloved father's curse was a "great earthquake" in Kierkegaard's life. He described his horror and dread as "the stillness of death spreading over me" (Kierkegaard 1958, p. 39).

Kierkegaard proposed marriage to Regina Olsen, whom he deeply loved, but broke off the relationship, a confounding event that was extremely significant to the rest of his life. His writing was greatly influenced by mourning this sacrifice. During the two years following the end of his betrothal in 1841, he wrote Either/Or, Three Edifying Discourses, Fear and Trembling, and Repetition. Kierkegaard's writings are full of references and innuendoes that indicate how he had internalized this relationship and the breakup as a narrative imbued with powerful affect that is an integral part of his philosophical thinking. He also internalized his relationship with his father this way. While his journals and some other writings suggest subjective meanings of his life, he said that after his death no one would find in them a clue to his truth. His inwardness was an engagement with himself or with God, both disclosed and hidden in his writings. His public life was marked by a series of scandals, including being savagely mocked in a popular magazine, his broken engagement, and his death bed refusal of either the sacrament or a visit from his brother. The Danish public ridiculed and scorned him.

In his works, Kierkegaard emerges hidden in pseudonyms, irony, paradox, parody, and satire. The scholar Sylviane Agacinski recognized him to be thoroughly ironic. Louis Mackey observed that "his texts exhibit an almost perfect recalcitrance to interpretation" (1986, p. xxiii), and advanced an understanding that Kierkegaard is a philosophical poet. Others have also noted that Kierkegaard's autobiography and public "lived presence" are part of his indirect communication. Kierkegaard is a master of indirect language. His extremely ironic language and his psycho-philosophico-religious thinking provided the groundwork for post-Hegelian and postmodern philosophy. Kierkegaard's writing continues to sharpen the blade of the cutting edge of philosophy; and the meaning of his writing and his existence is as unsettled as his writing is startling, provocative, and unsettling. His writing calls into question rather than answer questions. He raises the question of death by calling into question our very existence, which is a radically new question in the history of philosophy; a question that has had a profound impact on Western thinking.

The story of his life, on the one hand, and his philosophical, theological, and psychological writings, on the other, are complexly braided expressions of his particular "existence." The philosopher appears in the text, but in an ironic and masked way. Subjectivity is realized in anxiety, in dread, and in fear and trembling, which are presentations of death and of God and of nothing. Kierkegaard introduced Western thinking to a new meaning of the term existence as a psychological-philosophical-religious term for unique, passionate, temporal subjectivity, deeply associated with dread and anxiety. His writings on existence gave birth to existential philosophy, theology, and psychology. For example, the German psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers's psychology is inspired by him; Martin Heidegger's and Jean-Paul Sartre's philosophies borrow basic concepts from him; Dietrich Bonhoeffer's theology is deeply indebted to him.

Kierkegaard's work explains man's spiritual flight from mortality and inwardness. He introduces into modernity an awareness of death anxiety as the existential touchstone of religious experience and of philosophical thinking. In Concluding Unscientific Postscripts (1846), the unique, subjective individual exists only in the certainty of his death. Death is the temporal being of existence. Through a "silent understanding of anxiety," which is a philosophical and religious reflection on the subjective certainty of death, Kierkegaard introduces a way of philosophizing that has inspired existentialism and postmodern philosophy. The most astonishing and concealed subjective truth of existence, death, with its infinite responsibility, presents itself in fear and trembling before God's call. Kierkegaard has greatly influenced the emergence of death as a central question of philosophy, theology, and psychology.

Kierkegaard's use of the term faith often pokes fun at and aims at shattering varieties of shallow faith, objectivity, and universality. As a Christian, he vigorously attacks Christian religion that lacks existential faith. Faith is also the paradox he employs against Hegel's philosophical system; that is, the paradox that the individual is higher than the universal.

In Fear and Trembling, the paradox is that in taking the leap of faith one regains what has been infinitely resigned as lost. Who so makes the leap of faith is a hero, "knight of faith." Faith is an absolute obedience to God; that is, a "leap of faith" in which obedience to God overrules human love and ethical norms. The irony of the knight of infinite resignation, as the pseudonymous author Johannes de Silentio (Søren Kierkegaard), or John the Silent, does not lead to the resolution of mortality anxiety, which is achieved by the book's hero, the knight of faith. Fear and Trembling centers on an infinitely paradoxical analysis of Abraham, knight of faith, called by God to sacrifice his son. A fool shouts out what de Silentio keeps silent about: "O Abominable man, offscouring of society, what devil possessed thee to want to murder thy son?" The paradox of this pathos is in the terrifying absurdity of Abrahamic faith in God. De Silentio lays out the complex argument of Fear and Trembling, yet, as the reader tries to chase down his paradoxes, de Silentio is, in the manner of his name, infinitely resigned to silence.

Kierkegaard is a most extraordinary maker of existential puzzles. The knight of infinite resignation, existentially certain of his death and the loss of the other, no longer believing he will get back what is lost, becomes ironic: He who has not the faith that God gives back what he takes is the knight infinitely resigned. Yet, de Silentio's ironic language gives back and takes away at the same time.

See also: Anxiety and Fear; Rahner, Karl; Terror Management Theory


Agacinski, Sylviane. Aparté: Conceptions and Deaths of Søren Kierkegaard. Tallahassee: Florida State University, 1988.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Papers and Journals: A Selection, translated by Alistair Hanney. Harmondsworth: Penguin Press, 1996.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript, translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Kierkegaard, Søren. The Concept of Irony, with Constant Reference to Socrates, translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Sickness unto Death, translated by Alistair Hanney. Harmondsworth: Penguin Press, 1989.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Either/Or, translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. 2 vols. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Fear and Trembling, translated by Alistair Hanney. Harmondsworth: Penguin Press, 1985.

Kierkegaard, Søren. The Point of View for My Work As an Author, translated by Walter Lowrie. New York: Harper and Row, 1962.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Edifying Discourses, translated by David F. Swensen and Lillian Marvin Swenson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1958.

Kierkegaard, Søren. The Journals of Kierkegaard, translated by Alexander Dru. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1958.

Kierkegaard, Søren. The Concept of Dread, translated by Walter Lowrie. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Repetition, An Essay in Experimental Psychology, translated by Walter Lowrie. New York: Harper and Row, 1941.

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

Mackey, Louis. Points of View: Readings of Kierkegaard. Tallahassee: Florida State University, 1986.

Ree, Johnathan, and Jane Chamberlain. Kierkegaard: A Critical Reader. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998.


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Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye

Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (sö´rən ôb´ü kyĕr´kəgôr), 1813–55, Danish philosopher and religious thinker. Kierkegaard's outwardly uneventful life in Copenhagen contrasted with his intensive inner examination of self and society, which resulted in various profound writings; their dominant theme is that "truth is subjectivity." Kierkegaard argued that in religion the important thing is not truth as objective fact but rather the individual's relationship to it. Thus it is not enough to believe the Christian doctrine; one must also live it. He attacked what he felt to be the sterile metaphysics of G. W. Hegel and the worldliness of the Danish church.

Kierkegaard's writings fall into two categories—the aesthetic and the religious. The aesthetic works, which include Either/Or (1843), Philosophical Fragments (1844), Stages on Life's Way (1845), and The Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846), were all published under pseudonyms and interpret human existence through the eyes of various poetically delineated characters. In those works Kierkegaard developed an "existential dialectic" in opposition to the Hegelian dialectic, and described the various stages of existence as the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. As the individual advances through these stages he becomes increasingly more aware of his relationship to God. This awareness leads to despair as the individual realizes the antithesis between temporal existence and eternal truth. The specifically religious writings include Works of Love (1847) and Training in Christianity (1850). Kierkegaard also kept an extensive journal that contains many of his deepest insights. Although practically unknown outside Denmark during the 19th cent., he later exerted a tremendous influence upon both contemporary Protestant theology and the philosophic movement known as existentialism.

See N. Lebowitz, Kierkegaard: A Life of Allegory (1985); J. Walker, Kierkegaard: The Descent into God (1985); A. Hannay, Kierkegaard (1982) and Kierkegaard: A Biography (2001); J. Garff, Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography (2004); W. Lowrie, A Short Life of Kierkegaard (2013).

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Kierkegaard, Søren

Kierkegaard, Søren (1813–55). Denmark's best-known and widely influential contributor to modern religious thought. For his psychological and philosophical writings he is widely regarded as the father of existentialism. A prolific and playfully elusive writer, Kierkegaard indicates in The Point of View for my Work as an Author that all his work is dominated by the single issue of how to become a Christian in Christendom, where one automatically assumes oneself to be a good Christian if one is simply a good citizen. In all his writings on the topic, Kierkegaard stressed that to become a (true) Christian entails personal decision and individual commitment, born of risk in the face of ‘objective uncertainty’. He attacked the idea of Christendom at first indirectly and then, in the last year or so of his life, increasingly directly and publicly.

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Kierkegaard, Søren

Kierkegaard, Søren (1813–55) Danish philosopher and theologian, regarded as the founder of modern existentialism. He believed that the individual must exercise free will, making deliberate decisions about the direction of his/her life. Critical of Hegel's speculative philosophy, he argued that religious faith was, at its best, blind obedience to an irrational God. His books include Either/Or (1843) and Philosophical Fragments (1844).

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