Søren Kierkegaard, along with Friedrich
Wilhelm Nietzsche, is one of the fathers of existentialism. Kierkegaard
was very productive as a writer, publishing a wide variety of works during
his 42 years. Students of philosophy are fortunate, as Kierkegaard kept
several journals, most of which survive in print to this day. I strongly
advise students to read these works, as they often present a better view
than the traditional publications.
Revising Never Ends, Nor Should It…
Do not use this site as a study
guide. The Existential Primer is a “living” academic
project, unlike a static text. This primer is only a shallow introduction
to the thinkers profiled. The incomplete nature of this website might result
in misunderstanding the profiled individuals.
These pages are revised often because scholarship is never ending. Consult any citations
included because within them is where you will find the experts.
Read their works!
NOTE: Citations are not in MLA or APA format to prevent “borrowing”
from The Existential Primer. Full lists of citations appear at the end of each page. Present tense is used when referencing a published work, while past tense is favored on these pages because the major figures are… dead. Inline citations take the form (Author p. page) with no year. A title is included if there might be confusion as to the work. Quoted long passages appear indented with the <blockquote> tag and cited in the format:
Author, p. Page
Born 5 May 1813, Søren Aabye Kierkegaard was the seventh
and youngest child of Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard. Søren’s father, Michael,
was retired at the time of his son’s birth, having achieved a relatively
comfortable position in his community.
Michael had risen from serfdom to
the new merchant class of Europe. Michael had been a shepherd, with little
in the way of possessions. Michael’s success came from his work as a wool trader. Having been a shepherd,
he had a keen understanding of wool, which he parlayed into success as
an exporter. He amassed a fortune quickly, something he considered proof
he was cursed… a theme running throughout his life and that of his children.
However, Michael did want to use his wealth for good causes and for his family.
As part of this new middle class, Michael wanted his sons to attend universities
and prove even more successful.
His Mother, the Maid
Kierkegaard’s mother was Michael’s second wife, a former
maid to the family. This second marriage took a great toll on the religious
Michael. He had consumated the relationship with his maid shortly after
his first wife died. He believed this act of “weakness” further angered
God and increased the punishments he and the Kierkegaard family would experience.
Michael never forgave himself — or his second wife — for the transgression.
Michael dominated his wife, treating her like the servant she had been.
Michael also dominated his children, as if they existed to serve him. The
elder Kierkegaard was a devout Lutheran who valued order and self-discipline
above other values. He punished himself and those around him for his sins,
believing all he did was held against his family’s name.
Michael Kierkegaard was not emotionally stable. Though Søren did not originally
know why, his father was certain there was a curse upon the family. Michael’s
religious devotion increased with each year, as he tried to combat the
curse against the Kierkegaard name with faith. Søren was certain the curse
was a figment of his father’s imagination; Kierkegaard even wrote of his
father’s “insanity” infecting the family. Michael’s certainty of a curse
was reinforced by the deaths of five of his seven children.
A young son named Michael died, at the age of 12, in 1819. The loss of
his namesake devestated the elder Kierkegaard. In 1821 (or 1822), his daughter
Maren died, at the age of 24. Michael increasingly believed he would outlive
all his children. Nicolene died in 1932, at the age of 33. A year later,
Niels died while in America. Michael's depressed moods increased. In 1834
he lost another daughter and his wife. Michael was left with his sons
Peter and Søren.
No matter how odd his father’s preoccupation with death and the family
curse, Søren both admired and feared his father.
…his feelings towards the man… were ambivalent: he was fascinated by
his father’s vivid if morbid imagination, appears to have been impressed
by his intellect and powers of argument, and always remained bound to
his memory by some profound emotional affinity that involved a strange
mixture of love and fear.
- Kierkegaard; Gardiner, p. 3
While in school, Kierkegaard developed a spirited — and sometimes vicious
— wit. His biting sarcasm and insults were in response to bullying by larger
boys. Kierkegaard was often ill and not a physical match for the other
children. However, his journals and the notes of others indicate his comments
could bring a larger classmate to tears.
At the age of 17, in 1830, Kierkegaard enrolled in the University of Copenhagen,
complying with his father’s wishes (or demands). During his first year
at the university, Kierkegaard excelled, much as his older brother Peter
had done. Kierkegaard was a promising student during most of his early
studies. Records indicate Søren was a student of “distinction” at the university.
The Original Sin, Revealed
In 1835, Søren learned why his father was an unusually
devout Christian. (Michael was paranoid of God’s wrath against him.) Many
years ago, while a shepherd in the freezing hills of Denmark, Michael cursed
the name of God, a sin he thought condemned his family forever. Søren did
not help his father’s mental state by descending into a life of debauchery.
Kierkegaard spent money without care on clothes, food, drinks, and a general
pursuit of pleasure. As he ran up large debts, his father was forced to
settle the bills. The young Kierkegaard’s behavior isolated him from his
The death of his mother, the calming influence in the household, likely
served as a catalyst for Søren’s rebellion. The young Kierkegaard was unable
to form a close relationship with another person.
Kierkegaard’s journals indicate he was not content with life, despite
trying to purchase pleasure. Journal entries indicate Kierkegaard believed
his life lacked any greater purpose. He envied “great men” who pursued
interests with great success, while he lacked focus. Kierkegaard described
himself as a spectator in life, someone learning about the views and theories
of others while contributing nothing himself to the greater base of knowledge.
Søren Kierkegaard’s sense of inadequacy persisted throughout his life.
He wrote in his journals that his works would someday be important, yet
that confidence did not improve his self-image.
Michael Kierkegaard died suddenly in 1838. The effect on his young son
was extreme. Søren seemed to embrace his father’s superstitious nature,
believing his father died as some form of sacrifice for Søren’s sins. During
the next two years, the young Kierkegaard dedicated himself as never before
to the completion of his theology degree. He returned to his former studious
nature, receiving his degree in theology in July 1840.
I suspected that my father’s ripe old age was not a divine blessing,
but rather a curse; that our family’s excellent mental gifts served only
to excite us mutually; I felt the stillness of death rise around me when
in my father I saw a doomed man destined to survive us all, a cross on
the grave of his own hopes. A guilt must be weighing on our entire family;
God’s punishment must be upon it; our family was to vanish, swept aside
by God’s mighty hand, blotted out, erased like an experiment goen wrong.
- The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard; Kierkegaard,
In September 1840, Kierkegaard announced his engagement
to Regine Olsen, the daughter of a civil servant. Her family was well-placed,
and Kierkegaard himself was in the best of society, due in large part to
his inheritance. As Kierkegaard entered a seminary in November, it appeared
he was headed for a career within the church or at the universities. A
proper marriage would cement his position within Danish society.
Assuming Kierkegaard’s diaries and his confessions to friends are honest,
the engagement to Regine was the most difficult year of his life. Kierkegaard
seems to have been torn between the idea of marriage and his need for solitude.
After a year, Kierkegaard broke the engagement. Regine attempted to appease
Kierkegaard and win his heart, even after his unusual treatment of her,
but he rebuffed her advances.
Kierkegaard claimed he wanted to force Regine away from him, so she would
marry another man. It is possible he did not think himself worthy. It is
also possible he did not want to deal with the emotions associated with
romance. Regardless, he tried to be “indifferent” and drive Regine out
of his life. In later years, Kierkegaard called his destruction of the
relationship a “self-inflicted wound” that caused him a great deal of misery.
If he cared for Regine, as many believe Kierkegaard did, his need to avoid
a relationship is not easily understood by most people. Intellectually
brilliant, yet emotionally unwilling to deal with ties to others, Kierkegaard
wanted to be alone and isolated from much of society. Nothing would tie
him to society more than marriage.
Fork in the Road
During his engagement to Regine Olsen, Kierkegaard was
beginning to refine his writing style. While many individuals might have
been distracted during the engagement and associated emotional strains,
Kierkegaard buried himself in his words. In less than a year, Kierkegaard
wrote On the Concept of Irony, his master’s thesis. The writing
style was like nothing the professors had read before; some were less than
impressed while others were stunned. The writing was as complex and convoluted
as the author himself. Although the university awarded the degree to Kierkegaard,
records indicate it was not an easy decision for the professors accustomed
to more traditional works.
Kierkegaard had spent the year pondering what career would best suit him,
while honoring his family. His father had hoped he would work within the
church, but Kierkegaard wanted to “produce something of value.” Kierkegaard,
though committed to Christianity, did not believe the Lutheran Church was
where he could be most productive and contribute to the collective knowledge.
Recognizing the opportunity provided by his father’s estate, Kierkegaard
opted to write. He was free to do as he wanted — and he wanted to think
After determining his career would be that of a gentleman thinker, Kierkegaard
decided he had to better understand the popular thinkers of his day.
The center of philosophy during the nineteenth century was Germany; in
1841, Kierkegaard left Copenhagen for Berlin. Kierkegaard’s quest was to
attend a series of lectures by Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775–1854),
who was known for his opposition to the ideas of Georg
Hegel. Schelling had been closely associated with Hegel; Kierkegaard
was interested in Schelling’s evolution as a thinker.
Schelling contended that Hegel had attempted to reduce the concrete to
a never-ending series of concepts. As a result, Hegel had failed to distinguish
between essence and existence. Listening to Schelling’s lectures, Kierkegaard
began to develop his own ideas, which would later contribute to existentialism.
Unfortunately, as Schelling’s lectures turned from a critique of Hegel
to an exploration of Schelling’s own ideas, Kierkegaard became exasperated.
Kierkegaard decided to return to Copenhagen and record his own view of
Kierkegaard would not travel far again, remaining close to home after
his aborted studies in Germany. Since he liked solitude, remaining in Denmark
was comfortable for Søren.
Either / Or and More
Kierkegaard’s response to Hegel — and Schelling — was Either
/ Or. The work was a massive undertaking, covering philosophy,
literature, and psychology. The work was published in two volumes at
the beginning of 1843. Within months, Kierkegaard published Repetition and
then Fear and Trembling. In June 1844, Kierkegaard published Philosophical
Fragments and The Concept of Anxiety. This period
of productivity extended several years. In 1845, Stages on Life’s
Way was published. Concluding Unscientific Postscript was
published in 1846. In addition to these works, Kierkegaard published
eighteen Edifying Discourses, a set of religious writings.
Most of Kierkegaard’s works were published under pseudonyms, but the Discourses appeared
under his own name.
December 1845 marked the beginning of a very difficult period in Kierkegaard’s
life. That month, a former acquaintance published an essay critical of Stages
on Life’s Way — and Kierkegaard’s personal life. The essay’s author,
P. L. Møller, revealed how Kierkegaard had treated Regine Olsen, claiming
Kierkegaard was cruel at best. Kierkegaard was so angered by Møller’s essay,
he wrote a response, published in a local journal. In his response, Kierkegaard
revealed Møller worked anonymously for a disreputable newspaper known as The
Corsair. Kierkegaard also endeavored to reveal other character flaws
of his critic.
Kierkegaard’s essay ended with a challenge to The Corsair,
a newspaper known for its attacks against Copenhagen’s elite. The result
was predictable: Kierkegaard became one of the newspaper’s favorite targets
for derision. Illustrations mocked Kierkegaard’s appearance, while articles
insulted his intellect. Among the general population, the newspaper had
great influence — much as do modern tabloids. Kierkegaard found himself
publicly humiliated; he could go nowhere in Copenhagen without being insulted.
Even the butcher's boy almost thinks himself justified in being offensive
to me at the behest of The Corsair.... The least thing I
do, even if I simply pay a visit, is lyingly distorted and repeated everywhere;
if The Corsair gets to know of it then it is printed and
is read by the whole population.
- The Journals of Søren Kierkegaard; Oxford
University Press, p. 161
A demoralized Kierkegaard complained he should only associate with those
he disliked, since he wanted no others to endure the agony he felt. Kierkegaard's
desire for solitude was undoubtedly increased by this experience.
According to biographer Patrick Gardiner, Kierkegaard eventually regarded
his confrontation with Møller as a moral victory of sorts.
Not only had he made a stand against the threat posed by a certain kind
of prying journalism; he had been prepared to undergo the consequences
of doing so in his own person. Furthermore, he had been made aware at
first hand of the cowardice with which people were ready to submit to
the majority opinion and the lack of respect for the integrity of the
individual was the corollary of this.
- Kierkegaard; Gardiner, p. 11
Challenging a popular journal and public opinion, Kierkegaard found
how much power he derived from his self -- the "self" was superior
to the group. In terms of "existentialism," this was possibly
the most important event in the movement's history. As Nietzsche was
only a year old in 1845, it is reasonable to state Kierkegaard was the
first "existentialist" when he formalized the view free will
was certain to cause anxiety, yet one must accept the consequences of this
freedom. Kierkegaard's contemporary, Fyodor
Dostoevsky, was approaching a very similar conclusion, causing many
to consider Dostoevsky an existentialist. These men shared a sense of alienation
from society; Kierkegaard through public opinion while Dostoevsky was literally
imprisoned and exiled.
After The Corsair affair, Kierkegaard determined
his role was that of religious educator for society at large. Kierkegaard
decided he would use his skills as a writer to defend Christianity and
Christian morality. So, while he had decided six years earlier to forego
a formal role in the church, Kierkegaard settled upon defending its religion.
From 1846 to 1850, Kierkegaard published a series of works examining what
it meant to be a Christian and follow the teachings of Jesus. These works
compared what the New Testaments stated and how Christians actually lived.
Kierkegaard believed the practices of the church and its members fell far
short of "Christian" ideals. Training in Christianity,
published in 1850, is a summation of Kierkegaard's interpretation of what
it means to follow the teachings of the Bible; the book does not impress
Calm and Storm
For several years after the publication of Training
in Christianity, Kierkegaard did not publish many works. Many
biographers and critics consider the period from 1850 through 1854 a "calm
before the storm" in Kierkegaard's life. He spent these years relaxing,
enjoying his inheritance. He would take rides in the country and have
fine foods delivered to his apartment. It seemed he was content.
Apparently, Kierkegaard merely needed a catalyst to return him to writing.
In 1854, Danish religious leader Bishop Mynster died. Mynster was succeeded
by Hans Martensen, who assumed the role of the ranking religious leader
in Copenhagen. Martensen had been a university tutor to Kierkegaard and
Kierkegaard thought well of his mentor -- at least he did until Mynster's
During the eulogy, Martensen referred to Mynster as "a witness to
the Truth." Kierkegaard was stunned. Kierkegaard considered the deceased
Bishop far from the ideal Christian. Despite the obvious irony of judging
a dead man in the name of Christianity, Kierkegaard felt compelled to correct
his former tutor publically. In December 1854, Kierkegaard published an
article critical of Martensen for speaking highly of Mynster. The article
was more than an attack upon Martensen -- Kierkegaard lashed out at the
church and all its power.
Kierkegaard challenged the church with all his wit -- and his money. The
writer established a journal, The Instant, which he used to
criticize the church. Kierkegaard charged the church with becoming a secular
institution, more interested in power and political intrigues than the
teachings of Jesus. He used his periodical to wage a war of words against
the church's apparent desire to collect material wealth and political influence.
Kierkegaard would fight the church until his death. Throughout the debate,
Kierkegaard did not wish to destroy the church or anyone's faith; Kierkegaard
wanted the church to simplify and emulate the teachings and life of Jesus.
According to Kierkegaard, it was odd priests would take vows of poverty
yet live in the best buildings in town.
The war to reform the church was short and without victory. In early October
1855, Kierkegaard collapsed while taking a walk. He died a few weeks later,
on 11 November 1855. Despite his criticisms of organized religion and the
clergy, Søren's older brother, Peter, conducted a funeral ceremony at Copenhagen
Cathedral. During the service, Peter dismissed his brother as "confused" during
his final days. In fact, it is likely that Kierkegaard was more certain
than ever of his meaning and his works.
After my death no one will find among my papers a single explanation
as to what really filled my life (that is my consolation); no one will
find the words which explain everything and which often made what the
world would call a trifle into an event of tremendous importance to me,
and what I look upon as something insignificant when I take away the
secret gloss which explains it all.
- Journals; Kierkegaard, p. 85
I think these words best summarize Kierkegaard’s view of life:
It is quite true what Philosophy says: that Life must be understood
backwards. But that makes one forget the other saying: that it must be
lived—forwards. The more one ponders this, the more it comes to mean
that life in the temporal existence never becomes quite intelligible,
precisely because at no moment can I find complete quiet to take the
backward- looking position.
- The Diary of Soren Kierkegaard; Kierkegaard,
pt. 5, sct. 4, no. 136
1813 May 5
Søren Aabye Kierkegaard born in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Brother, Michael, dies at age 12.
Sister, Maren, dies at age 24.
Enters the University of Copenhagen to study theology.
Sister, Nicolene, dies at age 33.
Brother, Niels, dies in America.
Mother and last sister die.
Learns that his father, many years earlier, had cursed God. Kierkegaard
comes to believe that his family is cursed.
Receives master’s degree from the University of Copenhagen.
Breaks engagement to Regine Olsen and retreats into a life of seclusion.
Publishes thesis, The Concept of Irony.
Moves to Berlin to study.
1843 February 20
Publishes Either / Or.
1843 May 16
Publishes Two Upbuilding Discourses.
1843 October 16
Publishes Fear and Trembling, Repetition and Three
1843 December 6
Publishes Four Upbuilding Discourses
1844 March 5
Publishes Two Upbuilding Discourses
1844 June 8
Publishes Three Upbuilding Discourses.
1844 June 13
Publishes Philosophical Fragments.
1844 June 17
Publishes The Concept of Anxiety and Prefaces.
1844 August 31
Publishes Four Upbuilding Discourses.
1845 April 29
Publishes Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions.
1845 April 30
Publishes Stages on Life's Way.
1846 February 27
Publishes Concluding Unscientific Postscript.
Publishes Two Ages, The Book on Adler.
Publishes Works of Love.
Publishes Phister as Captain Scipio.
1848 April 26
Publishes Christian Discourses.
1849 May 14
The Second edition of Either/Or is published.
1849 July 30
Publishes The Sickness Unto Death.
Publishes On My Work as an Author.
1850 September 25
Publishes Practice in Christianity.
Publishes The Point of View for my Work as an Author.
Publishes For Self-Examination.
1852 to 1854
Kierkegaard published nothing until December of 1854.
1854 December 18
Begins formulating his opinions on the Church.
Kierkegaard’s critiques of the Church become widely known.
1855 September 3
Publishes The Unchangeableness of God.
1855 November 4 or 11
Dies in Copenhagen. Both dates are cited in biographies, because
he was burried one week after death.
The Concept of Irony, Essay: 1841; English 1966
Either/Or, Essay: 1843
Fear and Trembling, Essay: 1843
Philosophical Fragments, Essay: 1844
Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Essay: 1846
Søren Kierkegaard died almost a decade before Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground appeared
in print, but Dostoevsky never heard of nor did he read the works of Kierkegaard.
There is no evidence Nietzsche read Kierkegaard's
works, either. Kierkegaard stood very much apart from the other fathers
of existentialism, until Karl Jaspers linked
Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to form what would be called "existentialism."
Often compared to Dostoevsky, who was a literary revolutionary, Kierkegaard
differs via his choice of narrators. Kierkegaard's narrators mirror his
own beliefs; Dostoevsky dares to use characters in direct opposition to
his own ideals. While Kierkegaard's literary style was experimental, even
to the extent it startled his professors, the words of his narrators were
still traditional. Kierkegaard's writings are a call for Christian morality;
a defense of faith and religion. While a reader must separate Dostoevsky
from his most intriguing characters, Kierkegaard's beliefs are always the
primary focus of his works, regardless of the name on the book's cover.
Writes critic and biographer Walter Kaufmann:
If it is the besetting fault of Dostoevsky criticism that the views
and arguments of some of his characters are ascribed, without justification,
to the author, the characteristic flaw of the growing literature on Kierkegaard
is that the author is forgotten altogether and his works are read impersonally
as one might read those of Hegel. Nothing could
be less in keeping with the author's own intentions.
- Existentialism; Kaufmann, p. 15
According to several biographers, it helps to understand
Søren Kierkegaard's philosophies and his life by acknowledging Kierkegaard
might have been a manic-depressive with other psychological problems. The
proceeding statement might seem rather bold, but judging by his behavior,
Kierkegaard was not a stable man. Many philosophers cite the effect of
Kierkegaard's writings on their own ideas and theories. Since he often
contradicted himself, it should be no shock that almost any school of thought
can find something to like about Kierkegaard. At times religious, other
times dedicated to an egocentric individualism, Kierkegaard was not always
sure of his own beliefs.
Beyond his emotional state, Kierkegaard was "multiple
personalities" via a number of pseudonyms. Kierkegaard claimed this
was to protect his secret. Oddly, whatever the secret might have been is
never revealed. Even his journals only hint at a “unique relationship”
with God and the mind. Kierkegaard wrote that it was important to keep
everyone at a distance, so he could better write in isolation, guarding
Kierkegaard believed in a Creator, and in Christianity.
However, he recognized that he was faithful by choice, not out of logic.
The Existential aspect of this is the anguish caused by two aspects of
Christianity: (1) You do not really meet the Creator until death yet suicide
is not an option or everyone would try it. (2) Freedom is a punishment,
not a reward, yet mankind relishes this freedom.
Consider the following paradox from Kierkegaard's notes: Adam probably
never thought about eating the fruit of knowledge until he was prohibited
from doing so. At the moment Adam was commanded not to eat the fruit, he
realized he could eat the fruit and it might even be worth eating.
The Creator, knowing human nature so well, must have known temptation was
a strong force. Why then did the Creator give man a test Adam was almost
certain to fail? Was Adam meant to fail to allow human development?
Existentialism is, in large part, the idea that life is a series of usually
poor alternatives. Even a "good" decision has negative aspects.
Adam realized not eating the fruit of knowledge would keep him from being
more like the Creator, who possessed knowledge. Eating the fruit was certain
to anger the Creator. Adam made a choice -- regardless of any external
force, the choice was really his and his alone. Adam could have refused
Eve and the serpent had he wanted. We always have choices, no matter what
we might use as an excuse.
Three Stages of Life
One of Kierkegaard's major contributions to philosophy
was his theory that life was experienced in three distinct stages, with
the caveat that not everyone would experience every stage. In effect, there
stages were a system maturity model, reflecting the mental and spiritual
growth of individuals. These stages are: aesthetic, ethical, and religious.
Simplified, these are the pursuit of pleasure, the assumption of duty to
society, and the obedience to a Creator.
Aesthetic individuals are concerned with only experiences
or abstract data. The aesthetics of experience include Hedonism, Materialism,
and other life approaches dedicated to pleasure or personal gratification.
These individuals think life is to be enjoyed and experienced in the here
and now, without regard to long-term consequences. Often, these individuals
seek sexual pleasures or artificial stimuli such as narcotics.
The aesthetic interested in abstract data is a Rationalist or Relativist,
not wanting to make difficult choices. For these individuals, everything
is relative to the individual, without greater meaning. The abstract intellectual
observes the world in a detached and objective manner, as if what has happened
in the past does not affect the present.
Aesthetic life eventually becomes a source of boredom. For the Hedonist,
there are only so many experiences, and each must be better than the last.
For the intellectual, once all is abstracted into nothingness, there is
no reason to go on living. If everything just is, without purpose or relation,
then despair takes hold.
Ethical individuals recognize the despair of aesthetics,
and are compelled to find greater meaning in life. Ethical individuals
develop a system by which they will make choices and build relationships.
The act of making decisions and developing and ethical system brings one
closer to self-awareness. This process is similar to phenomenological reduction,
in that learning about others and what they think helps one learn about
the self, the ego.
Religious individuals experience both suffering and faith.
Only at this level does one truly understand the self. According to Kierkegaard,
the despair leading individuals from one stage to another was the despair
Sin is this: before God, or with the conception of God, to be in despair
at not willing to be oneself, or in despair at willing to be oneself.
Thus sin is potential weakness or potential defiance: sin is the potentiation
- The Sickness Unto Death
Faith, spirituality, is expressed via authenticity and integrity. When
one admits to all that he or she thinks, expresses, or does, the individual
is spiritual. This openness can be compared to St. Augustine's Confessions;
admissions free one of guilt and despair.
At all times, Kierkegaard remained focused upon his religious
beliefs. While some might consider this illogical, clouding his thought,
Kierkegaard openly admitted that religion was illogical, and in fact a
paradox was the center of his faith. This paradox was the Christ.
The "Absolute Paradox" of Christianity was that a temporal being
would take physical shape and allow itself, or at least a part of itself,
to die a terrible death. Furthermore, the Trinity itself was a paradox,
unless it is accepted that any son is his father through reproduction.
To accept the paradox of Christian faith was to embrace something without
relying upon abstraction, something beyond basic duty to society.
Kierkegaard's existentialism follows a progression from
existence to a pursuit of pleasure, to a pursuit of society, and finally
a pursuit of spirituality. In basic terms, the existence precedes the awareness
of self. As in phenomenology, existence precedes the essence of self. Jean-Paul Sartre embraced this concept of existence in
his writings. By concentrating on the individual, Kierkegaard was laying
the foundation for future existentialists.
The individual, the self, was everything to Kierkegaard. According to
Kaufmann, Kierkegaard hoped to elevate the individual to a new philosophical
level. The self is a series of possibilities; every decision made redefines
the individual. This concept was further developed by Sartre. The knowledge
that "I" defines the "self" results in "the dizziness
of freedom" and "fear and trembling." It is a great responsibility
to create a person, yet that is exactly what each human does -- creates
a self. This self is independent from all other knowledge and "truths" defined
by other individuals.
One of the major requirements of Kierkegaard's existentialism was the
abandonment of G. W. F. Hegel's Absolute
Idealism. Kierkegaard regarded Hegel's work as purely aesthetic, the sign
of an underdeveloped, immature individual. Hegel sought to find truth through
rational systems -- his triads, while Kierkegaard accepted paradoxical
In effect, Kierkegaard did not mind, in fact embraced, logical gaps and "leaps
of faith." When a truth was apparent to an individual, according to
Kierkegaard, that was the truth regardless of evidence to the contrary.
Truth is an internalized concept, influenced by outside factors but not
dictated by them. Kierkegaard bristled at the notion that a man could define
or even find the logic of a system forming reality. His theory held that
only the Creator could understand reality, as humans are in a constant
state of change. To try to find an absolute reality was ludicrous.
An existential system cannot be formulated.... Existence itself is a
system -- for God; but it cannot be a system for any existing spirit.
System and finality correspond to one another, but existence is precisely
the opposite of finality.
Kierkegaard contended that living is the art of the existentialist, while
previous philosophies engaged only in thought. Philosophers were studying
concepts, but not the individual behind the concepts -- that was limited
to the nascent realm of psychology. Kierkegaard did not believe in universal
truths, only truth as seen by one individual. This theory of truth relates
to Edmund Husserl's phenomenology.
Existentialism accepts that truth is subjective. Kierkegaard further stated
that the highest form of subjectivity was passion. To think like an Existentialist
is to contemplate the self, the Creator, and the universe with passion.
According to this philosophy, all objective truth is to be questioned,
as the Creator is the only entity with knowledge of absolutes.
God does not think He creates; God does not exist, He is eternal. Man
thinks and exists, and existence separates thought and being.
The Concept of Irony
Philosophy always requires something more, requires the eternal, the true,
in contrast to which even the fullest existence as such is but a happy
moment. The Concept of Irony, Introduction to part 1 (1841)
Irony is a disciplinarian feared only by those who do not know it, but
cherished by those who do. He who does not understand irony and has no
ear for its whispering lacks eo ipso what might called the absolute beginning
of the personal life. He lacks what at moments is indispensable for the
personal life, lacks both the regeneration and rejuvenation, the cleaning
baptism of irony that redeems the soul from having its life in finitude
though living boldly and energetically in finitude. The Concept of
Irony, part 2, "Irony as a Mastered Moment. The Truth of Irony" (1841)
It requires courage not to surrender oneself to the ingenious or compassionate
counsels of despair that would induce a man to eliminate himself from the
ranks of the living; but it does not follow from this that every huckster
who is fattened and nourished in self-confidence has more courage than
the man who yielded to despair. The Concept Of Irony, part
2, "Irony as a Mastered Moment. The Truth of Irony" (1841)
I do not care for anything. I do not care to ride, for the exercise is
too violent. I do not care to walk, walking is too strenuous. I do not
care to lie down, for I should either have to remain lying, and I do not
care to do that, or I should have to get up again, and I do not care to
do that either. Summa summarum: I do not care at all. Either/Or,
vol. 1, "Diapsalmata" (1843)
What is a poet? An unhappy person who conceals profound anguish in his
heart but whose lips are so formed that as sighs and cries pass over them
they sound like beautiful music. Opening lines of Either/Or,
vol. 1, "Diapsalmata" (1843)
If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power,
but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever
young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility
never. And what wine is so sparkling, what so fragrant, what so intoxicating,
as possibility! Either/Or, vol. 1, "Diapsalmata" (1843)
Marriage brings one into fatal connection with custom and tradition, and
traditions and customs are like the wind and weather, altogether incalculable. Either/Or,
vol. 1, "The Rotation Method" (1843)
In addition to my other numerous acquaintances, I have one more intimate
confidant.... My depression is the most faithful mistress I have known
-- no wonder, then, that I return the love. Either/Or, vol.
1, "Diapsalmata" (1843)
I divide my time as follows: half the time I sleep, the other half I dream.
I never dream when I sleep, for that would be a pity, for sleeping is the
highest accomplishment of genius. Either/Or, vol. 1, "Diapsalmata" (1843)
There are, as is known, insects that die in the moment of fertilization.
So it is with all joy: life's highest, most splendid moment of enjoyment
is accompanied by death. Either/Or, vol. 1, "Diapsalmata" (1843)
Far from idleness being the root of all evil, it is rather the only true
good. Either/Or, vol. 1, "The Rotation Method" (1843).
How absurd men are! They never use the liberties they have, they demand
those they do not have. They have freedom of thought, they demand freedom
of speech. Either/Or, vol. 1, "Diapsalmata" (1843)
Since boredom advances and boredom is the root of all evil, no wonder,
then, that the world goes backwards, that evil spreads. This can be traced
back to the very beginning of the world. The gods were bored; therefore
they created human beings. Either/Or, vol. 1, "Rotation
of Crops" (1843)
I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations -- one can either
do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it
or do not do it -- you will regret both. Either/Or, vol. 2, "Balance
between Esthetic and Ethical" (1843)
Doubt is thought's despair; despair is personality's doubt... Doubt and
despair... belong to completely different spheres; different sides of the
soul are set in motion.... Despair is an expression of the total personality,
doubt only of thought. Either/Or, vol. 2, "Balance between
Esthetic and Ethical" (1843)
Fear and Trembling
Not just in commerce but in the world of ideas too our age is putting
on a veritable clearance sale. Everything can be had so dirt cheap that
one begins to wander whether in the end anyone will want to make a bid. Fear
and Trembling, Preface (1843)
Faith is the highest passion in a human being. Many in every generation
may not come that far, but none comes further. Fear and Trembling, "Epilogue" (1843)
Journals & Diaries
God creates out of nothing, wonderful, you say: yes, to be sure, but he
does what is still more wonderful: he makes saints out of sinners. The
Journals of Søren Kierkegaard: A Selection, no. 209, 1838 entry.
(Ed. by Alexander Dru, 1938)
Spiritual superiority only sees the individual. But alas, ordinarily we
human beings are sensual and, therefore, as soon as it is a gathering,
the impression changes -- we see something abstract, the crowd, and we
become different. But in the eyes of God, the infinite spirit, all the
millions that have lived and now live do not make a crowd, He only sees
each individual. The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard, part 5, sect.
3, no. 127, entry for 1850. (Ed. by Peter Rohde, 1960)
The more a man can forget, the greater the number of metamorphoses which
his life can undergo, the more he can remember the more divine his life
becomes. The Journals of Søren Kierkegaard: A Selection, no.
429, entry for 1842. (Ed. by Alexander Dru, 1938)
Since my earliest childhood a barb of sorrow has lodged in my heart. As
long as it stays I am ironic -- if it is pulled out I shall die. The
Diary of Søren Kierkegaard, part 1, no. 26, 1847 entry. (Ed. by
Peter Rohde, 1960)
At the bottom of enmity between strangers lies indifference. The
Journals of Søren Kierkegaard: A Selection, no. 1144, entry for
1850. (Ed. by Alexander Dru, 1938)
At one time my only wish was to be a police official. It seemed to me
to be an occupation for my sleepless intriguing mind. I had the idea that
there, among criminals, were people to fight: clever, vigorous, crafty
fellows. Later I realized that it was good that I did not become one, for
most police cases involve misery and wretchedness -- not crimes and scandals. Journals
and Papers, vol. 5, entry no. 6016 (Ed. by H. Hong and E. Hong,
How ironical that it is by means of speech that man can degrade himself
below the level of dumb creation—for a chatterbox is truly of a lower category
than a dumb creature. The Last Years: Journals 1853¯55 (Ed.
by Ronald G. Smith, 1965).
Because of its tremendous solemnity death is the light in which great
passions, both good and bad, become transparent, no longer limited by outward
appearances. The Journals of Søren Kierkegaard: A Selection,
no. 328, entry for 17 July 1840. (Ed. by Alexander Dru, 1938)
The most terrible fight is not when there is one opinion against another,
the most terrible is when two men say the same thing -- and fight about
the interpretation, and this interpretation involves a difference of quality. The
Journals of Søren Kierkegaard: A Selection, no. 1057, 1850 entry.
(Ed. by Alexander Dru, 1938)
Destroy your primitivity, and you will most probably get along well in
the world, maybe achieve great success -- but Eternity will reject you.
Follow up your primitivity, and you will be shipwrecked in temporality,
but accepted by Eternity. The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard,
part 6, sect. 3, no. 196, 1854 entry. (Ed. by Peter Rohde, 1960)
Truth always rests with the minority, and the minority is always stronger
than the majority, because the minority is generally formed by those who
really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed
by the gangs who have no opinion—and who, therefore, in the next instant
(when it is evident that the minority is the stronger) assume its opinion...
while Truth again reverts to a new minority. The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard,
part 5, sect. 3, no. 128 entry from 1850. (Ed. by Peter Rohde, 1960)
The paradox is really the pathos of intellectual life and just as only
great souls are exposed to passions it is only the great thinker who is
exposed to what I call paradoxes, which are nothing else than grandiose
thoughts in embryo. The Journals of Søren Kierkegaard: A Selection,
no. 206, entry for 1838. (Ed. by Alexander Dru, 1938)
The truth is a snare: you cannot have it, without being caught. You cannot
have the truth in such a way that you catch it, but only in such a way
that it catches you. The Papers of Søren Kierkegaard, vol.
11, part 1, sect. 352 (Ed. by P. A. Heiberg and V. Kuhr, 1909)
Nowadays not even a suicide kills himself in desperation. Before taking
the step he deliberates so long and so carefully that he literally chokes
with thought. It is even questionable whether he ought to be called a suicide,
since it is really thought which takes his life. He does not die with deliberation
but from deliberation. The Present Age (1846)
Anderson, Susan Leigh; On Kierkegaard (Belmont, Calif.:
Wadsworth, 2000) ISBN: 0-534-57601-X [Amazon.com]
Gardiner, Patrick; Kierkegaard (New York: Oxford University
Press; 1988) ISBN: 0-19-287642-2 [Amazon.com]
Kierkegaard, Søren; Fear and Trembling, and the Sickness Unto Death Trans. Lowrie, Walter (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1954)
Kierkegaard, Søren. Selections from the Writings of Kierkegaard Trans. by Hollander, Lee
M. (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1960)
Kierkegaard, Søren. The Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological
Exposition for Edification and Awakening Trans. by Hannay, Alastair (London: Penguin Books,
Kierkegaard, Søren, and Oden, Thomas C.; Parables of Kierkegaard (Princeton,
N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978)
Lowrie, Walter; Short Life of Kierkegaard (New Jersey: Princeton
University Press; 1942, 1970) ISBN: 0-691-01957-6 [Amazon.com]
Palmer, Donald; Kierkegaard for Beginners (New York: Writers
and Readers, 1996) ISBN: 0-86316-192-8 [Amazon.com]
Strathern, Paul; Kierkegaard in 90 Minutes (Chicago: Ivan
R. Dee, 1997) ISBN: 1-56663-152-1 [Amazon.com]
On the ’Net
D. Anthony Storm’s Commentary
On Kierkegaard at: http://www.sorenkierkegaard.org/
This site is one of the most complete resources on the Internet. If you
are interested in my pages, Mr. Storm's site is very rewarding. It is a
more artistic site than my own, with excellent use of browser capabilities.