Soren Aabye Kierkegaard

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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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KIERKEGAARD, SØREN (1813–1855), Danish philosopher.

Søren Aabye Kierkegaard is often referred to as the father of twentieth-century existentialism, though his reputation in his own time was that of a writer and culture critic. The legacy of Kierkegaard's writing took time to expand beyond its local origins, for while most of his illustrious contemporaries in the "golden age" of Danish art, letters, and science sought a response in German culture, he himself, like his contemporary Hans Christian Andersen (1805–1875) addressed a native readership, writing exclusively in Danish, a language he claimed was particularly well suited to his creative powers. Presenting himself as a "poet" or writer rather than a scholar, Kierkegaard combines many authorial categories, defying conventional boundaries between philosophy, theology, psychology, literary criticism, and fiction. His writings display considerable erudition as well as a wealth of original psychological insight.

Born in Copenhagen, Kierkegaard was the youngest of seven children, five of whom, along with their mother, died before he was twenty-one. Kierkegaard was brought up strictly both at school and at home, where his father, once in feudal bondage but having at the age of forty-one retired as a highly successful tradesman, attended personally to his family's upbringing. After his father's death in 1838, Kierkegaard and his surviving elder brother inherited a considerable fortune. Kierkegaard completed his long-delayed theological studies, became engaged, and received his doctorate with a dissertation On the Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates (1841). Immediately afterward he broke off his engagement and, renouncing an academic career, left for Berlin where, on the first of four visits to that city, he began the pseudonymous authorship on which his international fame chiefly rests.

Apart from a first publication, From the Papers of One Still Living (1838), in which he criticizes a novel by Hans Christian Andersen, and the doctoral dissertation three years later, Kierkegaard's main authorship is divided into two series: the pseudonymous works and the signed religious discourses, which he entitled "edifying" (or "up-building") and, later, "Christian." The two series were written in parallel, at times works from both being published simultaneously. Kierkegaard's first pseudonymous work, Either/Or, published in 1843, was an immediate success. It was quickly followed by Repetition and Fear and Trembling, both published in that same year. In 1844 there followed Philosophical Fragments and The Concept of Anxiety, and in 1845 Stages on Life's Way. Kierkegaard intended to bring the pseudonymous series to a close with the lengthy Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments (1846).

Following a famous self-provoked feud with a satirical weekly, and dropping vague plans of retirement to a country pastorate, Kierkegaard took up his pen once more. Notable among the several publications that ensued were the signed Works of Love (1847) and two further pseudonymous works. The former expounds an ideal of unselfish, Christian love, while the first of the latter two, The Sickness unto Death (1849), offers a systematic analysis of progressively deliberate renunciations of a Christian form of human fulfilment, all of them characterized as forms first of despair and then of sin. Practice in Christianity (1850) resumes the theme of the paradox of the Incarnation (that the eternal should have become historical), central in the earlier Philosophical Fragments. Through its emphasis on the degradation suffered by Christ, and against the background of what Kierkegaard saw as an absence of any corresponding self-denial in the Danish clergy, this reworking of the paradox theme paved the way for an open attack on the Danish state church, provoking a conflict that was at its peak at the time of Kierkegaard's death, in 1855, at the age of forty-two.


The lengthy Postscript (whose pseudonymous author, Johannes Climacus, is also the author of

the much shorter Philosophical Fragments) is the most explicitly philosophical of the pseudonymous works. Often regarded as a locus classicus of anti-Hegelianism, Concluding Unscientific Postscript can also be read as a polemic against the German Romantics. Protagonists of the Romantic movement opposed a tradition based on a belief in the superiority of reason as a guide to all knowledge as too abstract and formal to fully capture reality. They sought a richer experience of reality through artistically creative but also religious experience, with an emphasis on subjectivity. Focused on Christianity, Postscript aims to demolish any belief in the possibility of arriving at a saving truth, whether achieved through objective means (history, idealist philosophy, or the mere test of time) or in the form of some truth-guaranteeing quality of experience (subjectivity). Although Christian truth is indeed available only to the individual as such, or to someone who can think subjectively (the person who, in philosophical reflection, does not forget or abstract from the fact that he or she is an existing individual confined to time and facing an open future), grasping that truth requires an act of faith that has no support in any form of evidence or authority, objective or subjective. The true believer is one who, willingly and passionately embracing the paradox of the Incarnation, personally bears the burden of responsibility for acknowledging its revelation.

The pseudonymous works from Either/Or to Postscript appear to be measuring out the steps that need to be taken, and the distance in self-understanding traversed, before a person arrives at a point where his or her situation calls genuinely for a religious solution and thus for the faith outlined in Postscript. Readers familiar with the facts of Kierkegaard's own life will readily detect the relevance of these for the themes that emerge in these works, among them Either/Or's "choice of oneself" and Fear and Trembling's "suspension of the ethical." The notion of a life-view is central. It is to be found in Kierkegaard's earliest publication and later developed into that of the three stages, presented in Stages on Life's Way and defined in later sections of Postscript. The aesthetic and ethical stages are first presented in Either/Or and offered as alternative life-views for the reader to choose between. These are gradually supplemented in the later works by the religious stage (in fact two stages, referred to as A and B).

Postscript indicates for the subjective thinker where one must stand to find the object of a faith that is specifically Christian (the paradoxical religiousness B), but at the same time makes it clear that someone truthfully adopting a Christian point of view can no longer use a shared language to convey what it means to adopt it. This might indicate that little or nothing can be said from the point of view of religiousness B itself. The requirements of a religious and of a Christian life-view are nevertheless cogently and movingly expressed in the edifying and Christian discourses published in parallel with the pseudonyms. By conveying the distance between shallow and conciliatory readings of scripture and the hardness of their teaching when literally interpreted, these, too, bear witness to a dialectical aspect in Kierkegaard's writings. Thus, in its more than three hundred and fifty pages, Works of Love presents a paradigm of unselfish love that makes ordinary human attachments appear self-serving and therefore not properly forms of love at all.

Kierkegaard's reputation as one of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's (1770–1831) most devastating critics rests on certain isolated but crucial passages including that, in the early part of Postscript, where the author rejects the possibility of an "existential system" on the grounds that it cannot capture the forward movement of existence (Tilværelse—a Danish near-equivalent of the German Dasein, made famous in the early work of Martin Heidegger). Kierkegaard is said to have had Hegelian sympathies in his student days and his later thought owes much both in structure and substance to Hegel. In this he resembles that other reputed archcritic of Hegel, Karl Marx (1818–1883), who also had a Hegelian past, and whose covertly Hegelian background of his later thought first came clearly to light with the late discovery of his early writings. In broad philosophical terms Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Marx can all be labeled "dialectical" thinkers. For them, reality reveals itself most cogently and truthfully in the form of opposites, or "contradictions," whose resolution it is then the task of such a thinker to formulate and help us to envisage as humankind's proper goal. For Hegel such resolutions occur in our understanding as it converges ideally on a vision of absolute knowledge as reason. For Marx the tensions are to be found in the working arrangements of society, and the corresponding resolutions require political action on the part of those collectives best placed to bring them about. The tensions that Kierkegaard brings to mind concern dilemmas faced by individuals in their confrontation with life, independently of the political situation (though it may be argued that they become salient only under certain political conditions).

Kierkegaard's influence on European thought came late. Where Marx's writings led quickly to revolutionary politics and to an explosive development in the field of social economics, the impact of Kierkegaard's writings was first felt in the comparatively esoteric circles of "dialectical theology," in which Karl Barth (1886–1968) and others stressed human isolation from God and the need for grace. In the early 1920s Kierkegaard was translated into several languages, including Russian, and was widely read in both academic and literary circles in Germany, where as a student the Hungarian and later communist apologist György Lukács (1885–1971) was an admirer (and later critic). But it was not until the 1920s and 1930s, through the intermediaries of Karl Jaspers (1883–1969), Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980), the second of whom is heavily indebted to the Danish thinker, that Kierkegaard became a familiar point of reference among intellectuals and was heralded as the "father of existentialism."

By the end of the twentieth century, having long been cultivated on the American side of the Atlantic, not least by Lutheran academics in the Midwest, Kierkegaard had attracted a new audience, more perceptive to his focus on and deployment of irony. Some commentators have been inclined to read Kierkegaard as a prophet of post-modernism, though others will claim that his authorship is modernist at core. In his campaigning for what he called "Christianity within Christendom," the latter read Kierkegaard as replacing the Hegelian absolute with another (kind of) single truth upon which all understandings converge. Yet it cannot be denied that, with their diverse vantage points and differently shaded vantage points and "life-views," Kierkegaard's pseudonymous writings show considerable affinity with postmodern styles and attitudes.


In a posthumously published work (The Point of View for My Activity as an Author; 1859) Kierkegaard claimed to have been "from first to last" a religious writer. Although the claim can be (and has been) questioned as an attempt to stage-manage his own future reputation, given a generous interpretation it is one that finds corroboration in the journals as well as in the texts themselves. If to some present-day admirers Kierkegaard's declared religious intention reduces the general relevance of the content of the writings themselves, others may see in him a resource for a regeneration of religiosity beyond postmodernism. Thus recourse to the "dialectic" that inspired Barthian theology, with its emphasis on God's "otherness," can help to break anthropomorphic habits of thought, such as incline us to believe that God must have a "cause" that we can serve, and that since (as many have claimed) human reason is inherently goal-directed, then any idea we have of being in God's service must be one of fulfilling a divine "purpose," rather than, say, that of performing daily tasks and fulfilling normal obligations in God's spirit and presence. The question of whether or how far such suggestions are in Kierkegaard's spirit must remain a matter of textual interpretation, but its doing so would testify to the continuing power of the thought of a writer whom the twentieth-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once described as the nineteenth century's "most profound thinker."

See alsoDenmark; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Marx, Karl.


Primary Sources

Kierkegaard, Søren. Kierkegaard's Writings. Edited and translated by Howard V. Hong, Edna H. Hong, Henrik Rosenmeier, Reidar Thomte, et al. Projected 26 volumes. Princeton, N.J., 1978–1997.

——. Fear and Trembling. Translated by Alastair Hannay. New York, 1985.

——. The Sickness unto Death. Translated by Alastair Hannay. New York, 1989.

——. Either/Or: A Fragment of Life. Translated by Alastair Hannay. New York, 1992.

——. Papers and Journals: A Selection. Translated by Alastair Hannay. New York, 1996.

——. A Literary Review. Translated by Alastair Hannay. New York, 2001.

——. Kierkegaard's Journals and Notebooks. 11 vols. Edited by Alastair Hannay et al. Princeton, N.J., 2005–.

Secondary Sources

Garff, Joakim. Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography. Translated by Bruce M. Kirmmse. Princeton, N.J., 2005.

Hannay, Alastair. Kierkegaard: A Biography. New York, 2001.

Hannay, Alastair, and Gordon D. Marino, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard. New York, 1998.

Kirmmse, Bruce H. Kierkegaard in Golden Age Denmark. Bloomington, Ind., 1990.

Kirmmse, Bruce H., ed. Encounters with Kierkegaard: A Life as Seen by His Contemporaries. Translated by Bruce H. Kirmmse and Virginia R. Laursen. Princeton, N.J., 1996.

Matustίk, Martin J., and Merold Westphal, eds. Kierkegaard in Post/Modernity. Bloomington, Ind., 1995.

Rée, Jonathan, and Jane Chamberlain, eds. Kierkegaard: A Critical Reader. Malden, Mass., 1998.

Stewart, Jon. Kierkegaard's Relations to Hegel Reconsidered. New York, 2003.

Alastair Hannay

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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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Danish philosopher and theologian, influential Protestant thinker of the 19th century, commonly considered the precursor of existentialism; b. Copenhagen, May 5, 1813; d. Copenhagen, Nov. 4, 1855.

Early Formation. Søren was the seventh and last child of an elderly couple. His father, who had started life as a shepherd lad in the Jutland moors, retired at the age of 40 from a prosperous hosier business in Copenhagen. In his later years he was given to melancholy, particularly after losing his wife and five of his children within two years. This melancholy left a deep impression on the young Kierkegaard, as did the strict pietistic education he received at home. A secret guilt in his father's life, which he discovered as a theology student, affected Søren profoundly. A later diary entry about an unidentified man records: " the terrible thing about this man, who once when he was a small boy, as he tended his sheep on the Jutland heath, suffering greatly, starving and in want, stood up upon a hill and cursed Godand this man was unable to forget it when he was 82 years old." When confronted with this text after Kierkegaard's death, Peter, his only surviving brother, exclaimed: "This is the story of our father and ourselves."

After this "great earthquake" in his life, Kierkegaard became convinced that a curse rested upon his family, that it was to be "wiped out by the powerful hand of God." A period of dissipation and estrangement from his father followed. Four years later, a religious conversion coincided with a family reconciliation. Shortly afterward Kierkegaard passed his final examinations in theology and wrote a doctoral Dissertation On the Concept of Irony (1841); in contrast to his later works, this betrays the strong influence of hegel.

Along with his father's influence, another event was to determine Kierkegaard's spiritual evolution. In 1840 he betrothed himself to a 17-year-old girl, Regine Olsen. A year later, realizing that he was psychologically unfit for marriage, he broke the engagement. This unhappy love affair initiated one of the most prodigious literary careers in history. Initially Kierkegaard tried to clarify his personal problems and to understand their meaning in the larger context of human existence. All his early works allude to his relationship with Regine and contain cryptic messages for her.

Published Works. In 1843 he published Either-Or, a compendious work in two volumes. Although it appeared under a pseudonym, the book made its author famous immediately. In the next three years 14 more works followed: Repetition (1843), Fear and Trembling (1843), The Concept of Dread (1844), Prefaces (1844), Philosophical Fragments (1844), Stages on Life's Way (1845), Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846), and seven sets of Edifying Discourses, published under his own name to accompany the other pseudonymous writings. After 1846 Kierkegaard's creativity slackened, although he was still to publish three major works: The Works of Love (1847), Sickness Unto Death (1849), and Training in Christianity (1850). During this period he also wrote the greater part of his diary.

In 1846 he came under attack from the Corsair, a Copenhagen satirical weekly that he had challenged in a newspaper article. For almost a year the ridicule and low wit of the Corsair made him an object of derision all over Denmark.

Kierkegaard's last two years were marked by a violent conflict with the Danish National Church, which he felt had betrayed the message of the Gospel by its compromising attitude. He carried on his onslaught in a self-published periodical, the Instant. In the middle of this attack he fainted on the street and was brought to the Frederikshospital, where he died from an unknown disease in the spinal marrow.

Freedom and Choice. Kierkegaard has rightly been called the father of modern existentialism. Man for him is essentially freedom, and he constitutes himself in his free choice. Already in his first major work, Either-Or, Kierkegaard describes life as a choice between an aesthetic attitude in which man drifts along from one pleasure to another, and an ethical one in which freedom determines itself by a self-imposed acceptance of law and duty. The aesthete refuses to commit himself to anything permanent (marriage, a profession) lest he limit the infinite possibilities of his self; but since the real self of a free being can be constituted only by a self-choice, he does not "exist" in the full sense of the word. The ethical man, on the contrary, accepts the limitations of his choice and thus becomes a real person.

Yet, as Kierkegaard shows in his two subsequent works, Repetition and Fear and Trembling, the ethical choice is not final. Sooner or later the ethical man will be faced by the predicament of a transcendent power that prevents him from fully realizing his freedom. Just as Job, in spite of his exemplary life, lost all his possessions, so man in his striving toward self-realization has to cope with powers beyond his control. How will he do this? He cannot simply ignore them. Much less can he abandon his moral autonomy by forfeiting his freedom in blind resignation. But to maintain simultaneously both freedom and transcendence would seem to be a task that is impossible.

Faith and Subjectivity. This is made even more difficult by freedom's intrinsic deficiency. In accordance with the Protestant interpretation of the original sin, which he analyzed in The Concept of Dread, Kierkegaard claims that man is essentially unable to fulfill the law of his own being. The ethical attitude, therefore, cannot be final in the constitution of the self. This fact is illustrated by the Biblical story of Abraham, who received a divine order to sacrifice his son and thus to "suspend" the ethical law. The realization of the ethical universal, the immanent law of a nature identical for all men, cannot be the highest achievement of freedom, as Hegel claimed. Only religious faith enables man to reconcile immanent freedom with the acceptance of a transcendent reality placing him in a position of dependence, for in faith alone can he consistently assert his insufficiency and the certainty to overcome this insufficiency with the help of a higher power. It was faith that allowed Abraham to ascend Mt. Moria, and yet to believe that in his posterity all generations would be blessed. The ultimate stage in the constitution of the self is, therefore, not the mere choice of the self, but a choice that includes the self's dependence on the transcendent. To become an authentic self, man must commit himself to God; for he is, in his very essence, a dynamic relation to God. To choose or not to choose is no longer the only alternative for freedom; a more basic one is to choose or to choose "before God." In Stages on Life's Way, Kierkegaard thus describes the three possible attitudes of man with respect to his self: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious.

In his most technical works, Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard further elaborates the relation between freedom and faith. If the self is essentially freedom, then its highest truth must be subjective; that is, a truth that is not entirely given but becomes true only after having gone through an appropriation process of the will. That existential certainty is acquired only through personal commitment is illustrated by the attitude of Socrates, who staked his life for an objectively uncertain affirmation. But this is precisely what faith does: the transcendent by its very nature is never objectively certainyet it is an integral part of man's relation to himself. Man therefore must make it certain by his subjective commitment to it. Since the highest existential truth is the most subjective, and since subjectivity increases as objective certainty decreases, Christian faith is the highest existential truth, for its object is not merely uncertain to objective reasonit is repellent. Indeed, according to Kierkegaard's Protestant interpretation, Christianity teaches that man is untrue in his very being, and consequently, that even his subjectivity is bound to be unauthentic. While natural faith is paradoxical, Christianity is absolutely paradoxical, or, from the point of view of reason, absurd. Yet, by the same token, Christianity is the highest truth of existence, for it brings man to an inwardness that is deeper than his own subjectivity.

Influence and Critique. Kierkegaard is one of the most provocative of Christian thinkers. His influence on philosophers, particularly Heidegger and Sartre, and on theologians, Protestant and Catholic alike, can be compared with that of Augustine and Pascal. His most important contribution to modern thought is his definition of the self as freedom, by which man becomes a self-constituting being. Yet equally important is his insistence that this self is, in its very center, dependent on God. For Catholics, the most objectionable part of his thought is his radical individualism. Catholics also find themselves unable to accept a notion of sin that totally disconnects the link between Creator and creature, and the subjectivism that this implies in the theology of faith.

See Also: existentialism; irrationalism; existential theology.

Bibliography: Danish Editions. Samlede Vaerker, ed. a. b. drachmann et al., 20 v. (3d ed. Copenhagen 1962); Papirer, ed. p. a. heiberg et al., 20 v. (Copenhagen 190948). Breve og Aktstykker vedr φrende S φren Kierkegaard, ed. n. thulstrup, 2 v. (Copenhagen 195354). English Translations. Almost all of Kierkegaard's works have been translated into English; complete and up-to-date bibliography of these translations can be found in w. lowrie, Kierkegaard, 2 v. (New York 1962). Secondary Studies. j. d. collins, The Mind of Kierkegaard (Chicago 1953). h. diem, Kierkegaard's Dialectic of Existence, tr. h. knight (Edinburgh 1959). l. k. duprÉ, Kierkegaard as Theologian (New York 1963). h. roos, S φren Kierkegaard and Catholicism, tr. r. m. bracket (Westminster, Md.1954). d. f. swenson, Something about Kierkegaard, ed. l. m. swenson (rev. and enl. Minneapolis 1945). e. hirsch, Kierkegaard-Studien, 2 v. (Gütersloh 1933). w. ruttenbeck, Sören Kierkegaard: Der Christliche Denker und sein Werk (Berlin 1929). p. mesnard, Le Vrai visage de Kierkegaard (Paris 1948). j. wahl, Études Kierkegaardiennes (2d ed. Paris 1949).

[l. duprÉ]

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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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Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813–1855) was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, on May 5. A prolific author, he produced an impressive series of books devoted to philosophical and religious themes, including a parallel series published under various pseudonyms. He is perhaps best known for his critical engagement with the guiding values of Protestant Christendom in the mid-nineteenth century. Fearing that Christianity had become dangerously enmeshed in the bourgeois malaise sweeping Europe at the time, he urged his readers to aspire to lives of greater passion, intensity, inwardness, and faith. In a sustained provocation that won him few contemporary admirers, he vowed to reintroduce the practice of Christianity into Christendom.

Kierkegaard's most influential pseudonymous work, Fear and Trembling (1843), challenges the primacy assigned to the universality of ethical life. With specific reference to the biblical story of Abraham on Mount Moriah, Kierkegaard raises the possibility that some religious obligations may actually trump the recognized ethical obligations of contemporary Christian practice. As indicated, supposedly, by the trial of Abraham, the pursuit of faith may eventually oblige individuals to seek the truth of their existence beyond the ethical universal, in the religious sphere. Through his pseudonym, Johannes de silentio, Kierkegaard alleges that the "greatness" of Abraham remains an anomaly within contemporary Christian belief and practice. Abraham can be considered "great" only by virtue of his faith, and the most compelling expression of his faith was his decision to obey his God's command to sacrifice his only son Isaac. If Johannes is correct in his analysis, then the "greatness" of Abraham is inextricably linked to his willingness to perform what Johannes calls a "teleological suspension of the ethical," that is, an abrogation of his moral obligations in the service of a higher, religious obligation.

Some readers insist at this point that Kierkegaard simply misidentifies or exaggerates the "greatness" of Abraham. Still others allow that Christians continue to honor Abraham only as a symbol of their Judaic prehistory. Yet, the point Kierkegaard raises bears further consideration: Do people not, at least occasionally, admire individuals who exempt themselves from acknowledged moral conventions? If so, how can people persist in their avowed allegiance to ethical universality as the highest expression of human flourishing? Do people not in fact reserve an even higher status for those "knights of faith" who, like Kierkegaard's Abraham, sacrifice morality for a supposedly higher purpose?

As these questions indicate, Kierkegaard's critical engagement with conventional morality was motivated in large part by the overriding value he attaches to the life of authentic individuality. Although conventional morality serves most people, most of the time, as a perfectly adequate expression of their humanity, it proves to be inadequate, and even inhospitable, to those who seek an authentic, singular existence. The individuals whom Kierkegaard most admired find the truth of their existence not outside themselves (for example, in public expressions of the ethical universal), but within themselves, in the passion and spirit that constitute their essential inwardness. The greatest expression of inwardness, he further believed, is faith, wherein the individual is raised above the ethical universal and placed in an absolute relationship to God. Kierkegaard thus concluded that conventional morality may actually pose a formidable obstacle to the pursuit of a life of faith.

Kierkegaard rarely commented directly on the rise of modern technology, but his writings are peppered with insights into the subtle ways in which emerging technologies contribute to the overall leveling of social life. The busyness that defines life in the modern epoch is both supported and exacerbated by the introduction of technological wonders, which enable modern people to distract themselves ever more effectively from their spiritual emptiness. While not the cause of the spiritual poverty that Kierkegaard detects around him, technology encourages people to postpone indefinitely the difficult regimen of self-examination and introspection that he prescribed.

Toward the end of his life, Kierkegaard engaged in an increasingly vituperative attack on the Danish state church, which, he believed, had fallen captive to the dispassionate values of bourgeois modernity. Owing in part to the fallout from this attack, he died in disrepute on November 11. Since the time of his death, however, his philosophical reputation has grown steadily. In the early twenty-first century he is widely read for his pioneering contributions to depth psychology; his prescient criticisms of the spread of bourgeois values; his fresh interpretations of Christian faith and practice; his astute observations on contemporary political life; his challenge to ethical universality; and, perhaps most prominently, his spirited defense of authentic individuality.


SEE ALSO Alienation; Existentialism.


Arbaugh, George E., and George B. Arbaugh. (1967). Kierkegaard's Authorship: A Guide to the Writings of Kierkegaard. Rock Island, IL: Augustana College Library.

Hannay, Alastair. (2001). Kierkegaard: A Biography. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kierkegaard, Søren. (1985). Fear and Trembling, trans. and introduction by Alastair Hannay. New York: Viking Penguin.

Kierkegaard, Søren. (1989). Sickness unto Death, trans. and introduction by Alastair Hannay. New York: Viking Penguin.

Kierkegaard, Søren. (1997). Christian Discourses: The Crisis and a Crisis in the Life of an Actress, ed. and trans. with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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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 (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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