Soren Kierkegaard

I. Brief Biography

Like Augustine, Kierkegaard’s understanding of the place of ethics in life grew out of some very traumatic and lasting experiences. For us to understand his ideas we need at this point to see how they grew out of several crises in his life. These crises were the influence of his father, his self-destructive relationship with Regine Olsen, his public humiliation in the journal, The Corsair, and his attack against the established Danish Church.

1. The influence of his father. Søren Kierkegaard lived a relatively short life, 1813 to 1855, living most of it in his hometown of Copenhagen with a few trips to Berlin. He was the last of seven children born to Michael Pederson Kierkegaard and Anne Sørensdatter Lund. Although attractive in his face he was born with a hunchback and very weak legs. There was great sadness in his family. Five of the children died early. SK grew up around death. To provide structure and hope in such a melancholy atmosphere, Michael conducted a rather strict practice of Christian piety in the home, which SK considered at the time cruel and insane. SK was his favorite, and when SK was twenty-two years old he revealed some of his deepest anxieties to him, influencing SK for the rest of his life. Before moving to Copenhagen Michael was poor farmer, and one day cursed God was the misery of life. From that point on Michael felt tremendous guilt for the blasphemy, thinking that God had put a curse on him and that the untimely death of his children was a direct result of the curse. This feeling was passed on to SK to the point that he struggled all his life with depression, a feeling of dread, and a melancholy. On many occasions he wrote of how out in society he was the life of the party but would then go home and contemplates suicide. He is called the "Melancholy Dane."

Furthermore, Michael’s first wife died and he began a sexually promiscuous affair with Anne who was his house servant during the first marriage. She got pregnant and eventually Michael and she married. After Michael revealed this to SK he felt shame. He never mentions his mother as an influence upon him. It is always Michael who seems to have shaped him the most, which means that Michael’s own inner turmoil and melancholy was passed on to SK. Later in SK’s life he spoke very favorably and fondly of his father, because even though he was strict and depressing, SK knew of his love and sincere religious affections.

2. Concerning Regine Olsen. SK first met her in 1837 when she was fourteen and he was around twenty-four. He courted her for three years and finally proposed, which she gladly accepted. But at this time some deep-seated remorse settled into SK’s own self-consciousness. He began to think he would be the ruin of her. He often gives different reasons in his Journals for this assumption--his physical state, his own melancholy, his religious calling. Whatever finally convinced him to end the engagement, he tried to convince her to dissolve their relationship, which she would not do. After several pleas, SK felt they only way to force her to accept the finality was to publicly shame her. This mortified her and belittled him in the eyes of their friends and families, but SK felt he had to do it. Eventually Regine married a close friend of SK’s. He wanted to stay close with her but after she moved out of the country he did not see her. He dedicated many of his books to he, and in his will left her what money he had left. She never left his thinking, taking on a paradigmatic status of the struggle for authentic existence. He always felt he would get her back somehow, but he first had to lose her. The process of giving up what is most dear to regain it more truly in the future becomes a theme running throughout his writings.

3. The Corsair Affair. By the 1840’s SK had grown cynical towards the intellectual elite and how the Danish Church was compromising its theology to adopt to it. Hegelianism dominated the intellectual life of Europe at the time. Hegel was the brilliant philosopher of Berlin who in a speculative metaphysical system contended that he had reconciled life’s paradoxes into a coherent philosophical system. This system, he maintained, was based upon human self-knowledge and was internally driven towards metaphysical comprehensiveness by its own logic. In the system human consciousness and the external physical world are brought together in philosophy’s self-reflection upon its own course of knowing; the individual and society are harmonized into the political state; the sinner and God are reconciled by the philosophical idea of Truth is the Whole, articulated in a fully comprehensive philosophical system of ideas. SK thought the system and the elite’s fixation on it were silly. The system misses the point of the intransigently paradoxical nature of life. Opposites are not so easily joined and harmonized. For example, sinners do not want God, period, and Hegel’s system does not admit that. This animosity to Hegel’s system is continual polemic for SK, which he carries on in almost every page of his works.

P. L. Møller was a literary critic who negatively criticized one of SK’s books (Stages on Life’s Way). SK replied, and in his retort he mentioned Møller’s connection to a gossipy tabloid, The Corsair. Its editor Meyer Goldschmidt took this occasion to ridicule and abuse SK. Week after week article came out mocking SK’s ideas (he had published several books by then) and even his physical looks. No one defended him. He felt totally alone, an individual against the world, alienated from society’s ruling ideology (Hegelianism) and rejected by its literary elite. This feeling of alienation reinforced his emphasis on the existential individual and on the necessity for the solitary individual to come her own subjective truth, because society with its ideology contorts the true issues of life and thus cannot be trusted.

4. His attack on Christendom. In SK’s eyes the leaders of the Danish Church has committed the unforgivable sin--they sold out the radical demands of the Gospel to make the theology more platable to the bourgeoisie society. SK’s indignation was particularly poured out on Hans Lassen Martensen (1808-1884) who took the See of Zealand in 1854. Martensen had been a student of Hegel’s in Berlin and in SK’s eyes tried to out-Hegel even Hegel himself in his Dogmatics in which he removed all Christian doctrines not capable of rational support (i.e., Hegelian reasoning). In a matter of ten months he wrote thirty articles and pamphlets criticizing Martensen, his theology, and the Church for appointing him. His furor culminated in his vitriolic Attack Upon Christendom (1854-1855) in which he threw down the gauntlet and cross the point of no return with the Church. He went so far as to recommend to the public not to participate in the Church, saying that its ministers were corrupt and duplicitous with a pagan theology. They turned discipleship from a leap of faith into the utterly transcendent God into a philosophical system, which makes the Christian life and its view of God rational and predictable, without any passion and suffering. In October, 1855, he was stricken down with paralysis, and upon his death bed he refused to see his sole remaining brother, who had become a royal official of the State Church, nor take Communion from the Priest. He died on November 11th, and was buried with the Established Church’s rites, much to the protests of SK’s sympathetic nephew.

We need to be clear about SK’s reasons for protesting so vehemently. It was not that he had become an atheist. In fact, by this time he had become more ardently devoted to the biblical depiction of God in Christ and of the nature and cost of discipleship. Even though his rhetoric and polemic paints him as a religious iconoclast, he was rejecting the facile theology and preaching of the Danish Church and any other theologian and Church, which resembled the Danish Church. He felt he had a prophetic mission, a calling which he felt come upon him back in 1838 and to which he was trying to be faithful, even to this ridicule and alienation. He was convinced that Christendom had severed itself from its foundation. Reider Thomte makes an interesting observation at this point. "Kierkegaard regarded ‘the individual’ as his own peculiar category so wedded to his name that it would be a fitting inscription upon his grave [Papierer, VIII A 108, 286, 482, 551]. This category he had learned from Socrates who had operated with it dialectically to disintegrate the sophistry of paganism. In a similar manner Kierkegaard used ‘the individual’ with the purpose of destroying the sophistry of Christendom in an age where everybody regarded himself as a Christian." One wonders what he thought as he died, whether he had accomplished his calling.

II. A Brief Comment About Sources

Kierkegaard is a challenge to interpret. Not only was he extremely polemical (e.g., against Hegelianism and the Established Church), not only was he constantly referring to his personal experiences (e.g., Regine as the symbol for finding God), not only did he write in a very elliptical style, he used pseudonyms for most of his writings, names like Judge William, Johannes de Silentio, and Johannes Climacus. He mainly used them for what he calls his Aesthetic writings (e.g., Either/Or, Fear and Trembling, and Concluding Unscientific Postscript), and then for what he calls his Edifying writings, he uses his own writings. In his later writings he would often challenge some the ideas in the pseudonymous writings, a fact which should put us on guard in thinking that if we understand one of them that we understand all of what SK thought about the issue. But he never repudiated them nor forgot them. They were purposively written and given false names. Why?

This is an interesting issue in the Kierkegaardian scholarship. James Collins mentions three possible answers. First, SK had personal motives in writing under a pseudonym and often challenging it. He was always a trickster who did not want to be easily figured out. Writing under a pseudonym kept his reader off balance, forcing them to read him very carefully. Second, using pseudonyms reflects SK’s belief that Truth can only be got at indirectly. A head on assault would both miss it because it is so grand (especially religious truth) and that people are too entrenched in their own viewpoints that a direct questioning of their views and presuppositions would be pointless. SK always considered himself to be a gadfly, like his philosophical mentor, Socrates, and realized that he could best get people to question to their own ingrained ideologies by criticizing them indirectly. Third, SK had a religious purpose in that he felt that religious truth is best established by showing the failures and/or inadequacies of other viewpoints about the nature of the self and its purposes. In his eyes people had shrunk religious truth into either an ethical or aesthetical way of living. These ways need to be exposed, and SK sought to do the exposing as a friend, an insider to those ways, before he could offer his own edifying discourses about what is really the truth.

Because of these possible reasons for the pseudonymous writings, we need to use them cautiously, taking into account that SK had a plan for them all along and that their purpose lies outside of their own ideas.

III. Bibliography

Either/Or 1843, The Concept of Dread 1844, Stages on Life's Way 1845, Fear and Trembling 1846, Philosophical Fragments 1846, Concluding Unscientific Postscript 1846, Edifying Discourses in Various Spirits 1847, Works of Love 1847, Christian Discourses 1848, Training in Christianity, For Self-Examination and Judge for Yourself1850-1852. and Attack Upon Christendom 1854-1855.

IV. Basic Ideas and Polemics

A. Attack on Objectivity

1. SK rejected the pretense of Hegelian philosophy of establishing scientific, objective knowledge through a rational ordering of culture. SK maintained that Hegel (and science itself) does not bridge the gap between the world and the knowing self and that it ignored the role and importance of inward passion in knowing the truth. He thought that if Hegel had only said his overall system were joke, then he would have been recognized as the greatest philosopher, which means for SK that most philosophy was not about anything.

2. The real issue is how to live authentically, as an individual and this cannot be objectified--"An existential system is impossible." Reason is limited in accounting for individuality and the conflicts of life. It cannot lead to belief about what is important; only passion can do this.

a. he rejects the "historical point of view" and the "speculative point of view"

b. if they are wrong, then the subjective point of view must be right.

B. Truth is Subjectivity

1. SK poses the issue with a thought experiment--who is closer to the truth: an orthodox believer who prays superficially without passion or a pagan who prays with absolute fervor and passion?

2. "The objective accent falls on WHAT is said, the subjective accent on HOW it is said." The key to truth is having the proper relationship to it. Truth is "an objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness is the truth."

a. one can only truthfully know a paradox because it demands a truth relationship


V. Stages in Life--Aesthetical, Ethical, and Religious

introduction--this progression occurs as one tries to become an individual; he writes about each stage in different ways in different books--Stages in Life's Way, Either/Or, and Concluding Unscientific Postscript.

1. Aesthetical Stage--the drive for pleasure and/or beauty ends up in sensual exploitation and the degradation of others. This stage is epitomized in three operas--Figaro, The Magic Flute, and Don Juan (Don Giovannie). In each the chief value is consumption where operates by seduction and forgetfulness because one cannot stay with one commitment too long. But this leads to boredom and emptiness.

2. Ethical Stage--authenticity is secured in universal, moral commitments, which are serious and influential. Marriage is the highest ethical commitment because the universal is found in a particular, which causes seriousness and reflection. But this stages leads to despair because we are not emotionally equipped to continue perfectly moral commitments. We become guilty and feel the loss of self.

3. Religious Stage--to move out of despair and to hope to gain wholeness, one must make the "leap of faith." We become convinced that we are the problem of individuality, not reality or God. Abraham is the example of this leap, because to find faith he makes the "teleological suspension of the ethical". This is a move from the "Knight of Infinite Resignation" in which one tries to find selfhood by denying life to the "Knight of Faith" in which one finds selfhood in a passionate relationship with the ultimate paradox. "For faith is this paradox, that the particular is higher than the universal. . . . Faith is precisely this paradox, that the individual as the particular is higher than the universal, is justified over against it, is not subordinate but superior."