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Kierkegaard, Søren


KIERKEGAARD, SØREN (18131855), was the most outstanding writer in the history of Danish letters and one of the leading religious philosophers of the nineteenth century. Kierkegaard's novel interpretation of the structure and dynamics of individual selfhood formed the basis of his radical critique of European cultural Protestantism and its philosophical counterpart, Hegelianism. His innovative ideas have remained extremely influential.


Søren Aabye Kierkegaard was a person of unusual complexity whose outward life was relatively uneventful. Having received a substantial inheritance, he never needed to secure a regular professional position. He devoted most of his short life to the production of an immense body of philosophical and religious literature. The formative events in Kierkegaard's life centered around two individuals: his father, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard, and his one-time fiancée, Regine Olsen; and two public conflicts: the Corsair affair, and his celebrated attack upon the Danish church.

Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard was a successful Copenhagen businessman who retired at an early age to pursue his theological interests. The elder Kierkegaard was a sober, brooding man who was possessed by a profound sense of personal guilt. In an effort to come to terms with his malaise, he became deeply involved in the Protestant Pietism that was then sweeping Denmark. Michael subjected his favorite son, Søren, to a rigorous and austere religious upbringing. The psychological and intellectual complexity of the father-son relation left a lasting impression on Kierkegaard and indirectly informed much of his theological reflection.

The other personal relationship that was decisive for Kierkegaard was his brief engagement to Regine Olsen. Shortly after proposing marriage to Regine, Kierkegaard precipitated a break with her. The apparent reason for this unexpected reversal was twofold. In the first place, Kierkegaard discovered an unbridgeable gap between his own introspective, tormented personality and the seemingly innocent, inexperienced Regine. Second, Kierkegaard became convinced that his religious vocation precluded marriage and family life. Many of Kierkegaard's most important works focus on issues raised by his perplexing relation to Regine.

The two major public events in Kierkegaard's life involved him in bitter controversy. Late in 1845, Kierkegaard published a criticism of the Corsair, a sophisticated Danish scandal sheet, in which he exposed the association of several leading intellectuals with this notorious journal. The embarrassed authors and editors responded by unleashing an abusive personal attack on Kierkegaard in which he was held up to public ridicule. This episode marked a turning point in his life. After 1846, Kierkegaard's writings became more overtly Christian. The full implications of this shift emerged clearly in Kierkegaard's attack on the Danish church. Kierkegaard believed that God had chosen him to expose the scandal of a society that espoused Christian principles but in which citizens lived like "pagans." In a series of articles titled The Moment, Kierkegaard argued that the Christianity preached in the established church of Denmark was actually the opposite of the religion practiced by Jesus. His penetrating criticisms of church and society created a public furor. In the midst of this controversy, Kierkegaard died (November 11, 1855).


Few authors have written as wide a variety of works as Kierkegaard. Most of his writings can be grouped in four major categories.

(1) Pseudonymous works

Between 1841 and 1850, Kierkegaard wrote a series of works under different pseudonyms. These are his best-known books: Either-Or (1843), Repetition (1843), Fear and Trembling (1843), Philosophical Fragments (1844), The Concept of Anxiety (1844), Stages on Life's Way (1845), Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846), Crisis in a Life of an Actress and Other Essays on Drama (1848), The Sickness unto Death (1849), and Training in Christianity (1850). Not until the last pages of Concluding Unscientific Postscript did Kierkegaard publicly claim responsibility for his pseudonymous writings.

(2) Edifying discourses

It was Kierkegaard's custom to accompany each of the pseudonymous texts with one or more religious works published under his own name. He frequently complained that while his pseudonymous writings received considerable attention, his religious works were virtually ignored. Two kinds of works make up the edifying discourses: ethical discourses and Christian discourses. While the ethical discourses consistently exclude Christian categories, the Christian discourses explore religious life from the perspective of Christian faith. The former are more common before 1845 and the latter more numerous after that date. The most important Christian discourses are: Works of Love (1847), Christian Discourses (1848), The Lilies of the Field and the Birds of the Air (1849), For Self-Examination (1851), and Judge for Yourself (18511852).

(3) Polemical tracts

Since he understood himself as a necessary "corrective" to "the present age," Kierkegaard remained an irrepressible polemicist. As was the custom in Denmark at that time, he presented his views on current intellectual and social matters in the public press and in pamphlets that were directed to a general audience. Kierkegaard's most important polemical writings appeared in a newspaper, The Fatherland, and his own publication, The Moment. These articles provide a glimpse of Kierkegaard's immediate impact on Danish society.

(4) Journals and papers

Throughout his life, Kierkegaard kept a detailed journal, which he knew would be published after his death. The journal, which runs to twenty volumes, contains a wealth of information about Kierkegaard's personality, writings, and his views of other philosophers and theologians.

Two important books do not fall within this general grouping. The Concept of Irony, with Constant Reference to Socrates (1841) was Kierkegaard's dissertation for the master of arts degree. This work presents an early version of his critique of Hegel and leading nineteenth-century Romantics. In addition, the analysis of Socrates developed in this book forms the basis of Kierkegaard's understanding of his own role as an author. This becomes obvious in the final text that deserves mention: The Point of View for My Work as an Author (written in 1848 and published posthumously in 1859). In this short book, Kierkegaard insists that in spite of appearances to the contrary, his diverse writings form a coherent whole that is constantly guided by a religious purpose.


Kierkegaard's sense of religious mission informs all of his writings. The overriding goal of his work is nothing less than "the reintroduction of Christianity into Christendom." Since Kierkegaard believes that authentic human existence is decisively revealed in Christianity, he is convinced that the struggle to lead a Christian life involves the attempt to realize true selfhood. Kierkegaard's writings represent a sustained effort to provide the occasion for individuals to make the difficult movement of faith. The most important part of Kierkegaard's carefully conceived strategy is his intricate pseudonymous authorship. The pseudonymous writings can best be understood by considering three interrelated assumptions that they all share: the notion of indirect communication, the understanding of the structure of selfhood, and the theory of the stages of existence.

Kierkegaard's method of communicating indirectly through pseudonyms reflects his effort to address problems peculiar to nineteenth-century Denmark and expresses his general conception of the nature of religious truth. He repeatedly insists that most of his fellow Danes were simply deluding themselves when they claimed to be Christians. The established Lutheran church had so domesticated Christian faith that the spiritual tensions that characterized original Christianity had all but disappeared. In this situation, Kierkegaard views his task as inversely Socratic. Rather than engaging in a rational dialogue that is supposed to uncover the truth implicitly possessed by all human beings, Kierkegaard tries to bring individuals to the brink of decision by offering them the opportunity to discover the errors of their ways. Each pseudonym represents a different point of view that reflects a distinct form of life. Kierkegaard presents these works as mirrors in which people can see themselves reflected. The self-knowledge that results from this encounter with the text creates the possibility of decisions that redefine the self.

Kierkegaard's method of communication is also a function of his conviction that religious truth is subjectivity. In contrast to Hegel's speculative approach to Christianity, Kierkegaard maintains that religious truth cannot be conceptually grasped but must be existentially appropriated through the free activity of the individual agent. In matters of faith, there can be neither knowledge nor certainty. Human existence in general and religious belief in particular always involve absolute risk. Kierkegaard's aim is to serve as a "midwife" who can attend but not effect the birth of the authentic self.

This understanding of indirect communication presupposes a specific interpretation of the structure of human selfhood. In The Sickness unto Death, Kierkegaard ironically employs Hegelian language to formulate an account of selfhood that overturns Hegel's understanding of subjectivity. The self, Kierkegaard argues, is a structure of self-relation that is created and sustained by the wholly other God. Each human being is called upon to relate possibilities and actualities through the exercise of his or her free will. This view of the self forms the basis of Kierkegaard's penetrating psychological analyses. In The Concept of Anxiety, Kierkegaard defines anxiety in terms of the subject's recognition of the possibilities opened by its own freedom. Despair is the subject's failure or refusal to be itself. Anxiety and despair combine to disclose the self's responsibility for itself.

The analysis of the structure of selfhood forms the foundation of the theory of the stages of existence. Although each person is irreducibly individual, Kierkegaard maintains that it is possible to discern recurrent patterns amid the variety of human lives. He identifies three basic stages of existence: aesthetic, ethical, and religious. Each stage represents a distinct form of life that is governed by different assumptions and expectations. Taken together, the stages provide an outline of the entire pseudonymous authorship. While Kierkegaard examines aesthetic existence in the first part of both Either-Or and Stages on Life's Way, the second section of each of these works is devoted to a consideration of ethical experience. The analysis of the religious stage is more complex. In Fear and Trembling, Philosophical Fragments, and Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard approaches questions and dilemmas posed by religion from the perspective of nonbelief. The Sickness unto Death and Training in Christianity, by contrast, are written from an avowedly Christian point of view. Finally, the third part of Stages on Life's Way is a tortuous account of the inner struggle of an individual who is caught between belief and unbelief.

These three stages of existence are not randomly selected and arbitrarily presented. Rather, the stages are carefully ordered in such a way that as one advances from the aesthetic through the ethical to the religious, there is a movement toward authentic selfhood. Generally conceived, this progression charts the subject's advance from undifferentiated identification with its environment, through increasing differentiation from otherness, to complete individuation, in which the self becomes a concrete individual, eternally responsible for itself. The aesthetic stage of existence is characterized by the absence of genuine decision. The lack of free resolution results from either unreflective immersion in sensuous inclination and social life or the dispassionate absorption in abstract reflection. From the ethical point of view, the self has an obligation to become itself through free activity. Deliberate decision marks an essential moment in the process of individuation and forms a crucial stage in the journey to selfhood. The ethicist, however, is insufficiently sensitive to the self's radical dependence on God. The ethical actor eventually realizes that he actually divinizes the social order by regarding moral obligation as divine commandment. The "infinite qualitative difference" between the divine and the human creates the possibility of a conflict between obligation to other people and obedience to God. Kierkegaard labels this collision a "teleological suspension of the ethical." This clash between religious and moral responsibility effectively overturns ethical life.

The religious stage of existence represents the full realization of authentic selfhood. Kierkegaard's analysis of the self culminates in the paradoxical coincidence of opposites created and sustained by the faithful individual's absolute decision. Faith is the free activity of self-relation in which the self becomes itself by simultaneously differentiating and synthesizing the opposites that make up its being. In this critical moment of decision, a person who is fully conscious of his responsibility for his life constitutes his unique individuality by decisively distinguishing himself from other selves and defining his eternal identity in the face of the wholly other God. The qualitative difference between God and self renders impossible any immanent relation between the divine and the human. Left to himself, the sinful individual cannot establish the absolute relation to the absolute upon which genuine selfhood depends. The possibility of the proper relation between God and self is opened by the incarnate Christ. The God-man is an absolute paradox that can never be rationally comprehended. This absolute paradox poses an irreconcilable either-or: either believe, or be offended. Faith is a radical venture, an unmediated leap in which the self transforms itself. By faithfully responding to the absolutely paradoxical divine presence, the self internalizes the truth of the God-man. In this moment of decision, truth becomes subjective and the subject becomes truthful. Such truthful subjectivity is the goal toward which Kierkegaard's complex authorship relentlessly leads the reader.


Largely ignored in his own day, Kierkegaard's writings emerged during the early decades of the twentieth century to become a dominant force in theology, philosophy, psychology, and literature. Kierkegaard's theological impact is evident in Protestant neo-orthodoxy. Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann developed many of the themes that Kierkegaard had identified. In the thought of Martin Buber, Kierkegaard's influence extends into the domain of Jewish theology.

Kierkegaard's work also forms the foundation of one of the most important twentieth-century schools of philosophy: existentialism. Kierkegaard set the terms of debate for major Continental philosophers such as Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, and Jean-Paul Sartre. By underscoring the importance of the problems of individual selfhood, authenticity, transcendence, absurdity, temporality, death, desire, guilt, despair, anxiety, and hope, Kierkegaard's texts provided rich resources for an entire generation of philosophers.

Less often recognized is Kierkegaard's role in modern psychology. His groundbreaking analyses of the psychic states of the individual self have been expanded and extended by psychologists such as Ludwig Binswanger and R. D. Laing. The psychological theories that have arisen from the work of Kierkegaard tend to complement and correct currents in traditional Freudian analysis.

Finally, it is important to stress Kierkegaard's influence on twentieth-century literature. The hand of Kierkegaard can be seen in the works of creative authors as different as Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, John Updike, and Walker Percy.

This summary can only suggest the extraordinary importance of Kierkegaard's work. The insights of this lonely Dane pervade contemporary thought and shape the way many people now understand their lives.

See Also



Primary Sources

The standard Danish editions of Kierkegaard's writings are Søren Kierkegaards Papirer, 11 vols., edited by P. A. Heiberg et al. (Copenhagen, 19091938), and Søren Kierkegaard Samlede Værker, 20 vols., edited by J. L. Heiberg et al. (Copenhagen, 19621964). The best English translations of these works are Søren Kierkegaard's Journals and Papers, 7 vols., edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong with Gregory Malantschuk (Bloomington, Ind., 19671978), and Kierkegaard's Writings, edited by Howard V. Hong (Princeton, 1977).

Secondary Sources

There is an enormous body of secondary literature on Kierkegaard. Emanuel Hirsch's Kierkegaard-Studien, 2 vols. (Gütersloh, 1933), remains the most comprehensive intellectual biography of Kierkegaard. Gregor Malantschuk's Kierkegaard's Thought (Princeton, N.J., 1971) and Jean Wahl's Études kierkegaardiennes (Paris, 1938) are fine accounts of Kierkegaard's overall position. James D. Collins's The Mind of Kierkegaard (Chicago, 1953) provides a good introduction to Kierkegaard's thought. For a helpful examination of the importance of Kierkegaard's pseudonymous method, see Louis Mackey's Kierkegaard: A Kind of Poet (Philadelphia, 1971). Stephen Crites's In the Twilight of Christendom: Hegel vs. Kierkegaard on Faith and History (Chambersburg, Pa., 1972) and my own Journeys to Selfhood: Hegel and Kierkegaard (Berkeley, Calif., 1980) analyze the complex relationship between Kierkegaard and Hegel.

Mark C. Taylor (1987)

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