existential primer

Søren Kierkegaard
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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:

Work; Author, p. Page


Biography

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 father.

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, pp. 30-31

The Engagement

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 and write.

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 existence.

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.

Religious Calling

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 the clergy.

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 funeral service.

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

 


Chronology
1813 May 5 Søren Aabye Kierkegaard born in Copenhagen, Denmark.
1819 Brother, Michael, dies at age 12.
1821/22 Sister, Maren, dies at age 24.
1830 Enters the University of Copenhagen to study theology.
1832 Sister, Nicolene, dies at age 33.
1833 Brother, Niels, dies in America.
1834 Mother and last sister die.
1835 Learns that his father, many years earlier, had cursed God. Kierkegaard comes to believe that his family is cursed.
1838 Father dies.
1840 Receives master’s degree from the University of Copenhagen.
1841 Breaks engagement to Regine Olsen and retreats into a life of seclusion.
1841 Publishes thesis, The Concept of Irony.
1841 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 Upbuilding Discourses.
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.
1846 Publishes Two Ages, The Book on Adler.
1847 Publishes Works of Love.
1848 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.
1849 Publishes On My Work as an Author.
1850 September 25 Publishes Practice in Christianity.
1851 Publishes The Point of View for my Work as an Author.
1851 Publishes For Self-Examination.
1852 to 1854 Kierkegaard published nothing until December of 1854.
1854 December 18 Begins formulating his opinions on the Church.
1855 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.

Works


Commentaries

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

Uncertainty

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.

Multiple Personas

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 his secret.

Christian Existentialist

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 of sin.

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 of despair.
- 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.

The Creator

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.

The Individual

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 truths.

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.

 


Quotes

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)

Either/Or

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, 1978)

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)

Miscellaneous

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)

 


Bibliography

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]

Kaufmann, Walter; Existentialism: From Dostoevsky to Sartre (New York: Meridian, Penguin; 1956, 1975, 1989) ISBN: 0-452-00930-8 [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, 1989)

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.

Complete source list.

Books: Søren Kierkegaard


Kierkegaard, Soren. Attack Upon Christendom. Trans/ed. H. A. Johnson and Walter Lowrie. Princeton University Press Sep, 1944. 0691019509 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. The Book on Adler. Trans. Howard V. Hong. Princeton University Press, Mar 1998. 0691032270 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. Christian Discourses the Crisis and a Crisis in the Life of an Actress. Trans. Howard Vincent Hong. Princeton University Press, Sep 1997. 0691016496 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. Concept of Anxiety. Trans/ed. Howard Vincent Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton University Press, May 1980. 0691020116 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin. Trans/ed. Howard Vincent Hong and Reidar Thomte. Princeton University Press, Apr 1980. 0691072442 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. Concluding Unscientific PostScript to Philosophical FragmentsTrans/ed. Howard Vincent Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton University Press, Mar 1992. 0691020833 [Amazon.com] 0691020825 [Amazon.com] 0691020817 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. The Corsair Affair: And Articles Related to the Writings. Trans/ed. Howard Vincent Hong and E. Hong. Princeton University Press, Dec 1981. 0691072469 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. The Diary of Soren Kierkegaard. Trans/ed. Peter P. Rohde. Citadel Press, Jul 1990. 0806502517 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. Early Polemical Writings. Trans/ed. Julia Watkin. Princeton University Press, May 1990. 0691073694 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses. Trans. Howard Vincent Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton University Press, May 1992. 0691020876 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. Either/Or: A Fragment of Life. Trans. Alastair Hannay. Penguin Books, Dec 1992. 0140445773 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. Either/Or. Trans/ed. Edna H. Hong. Princeton University Press, Dec 1987. 0691020426 [Amazon.com] 0691020418 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling. New York: Penguin, May 2006. 0143037579 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Jul 2006. 0521612691 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling. Trans/ed Robert Payne. Green Integer, Oct 2001. 1931243085 (Not easy to order, despite recent date) [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren, Fear and Trembling. Trans/ed. Soren Kierkegaard and Alastair Hannay. New York: Penguin Books, Jan 1986. 0140444491 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling and the Book on AdlerTrans. Walter Lowrie. Everyman's Library, Apr 1994. 0679431306 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling/Repetition. Trans/ed. Howard Vincent Hong. Princeton University Press, May 1983. 0691020264 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. For Self-Examination: Judge for Yourself. Trans. Howard Vincent Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton University Press, Apr 1991. 0691020663 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. For Self-Examination: Judge for Yourself. Trans/ed. Howard Vincent Hong. Princeton University Press, Feb 1990. 0691073686 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. Gospel of Suffering. James Clarke Company, Oct 2000. 0227674685 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. Johannes Climacus: Or: A Life of Doubt. Trans/ed. T. H. Croxhall and Jane Chamberlain. Serpent's Tail, Aug 2001. 1852426691 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. The Kierkegaard Reader; Trans. Jane Chamberlain. Ed. Jonathan Ree. Blackwell Publishers, Jan 2001. 0631204679 [Amazon.com] 0631204687 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. Letters & Documents. Trans/ed. Henrik Rosenmeier. Princeton University Press, Sep 1978. 0691072280 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard Trans. W. H. Auden. New York Review of Books, Sep 1999. 0940322137 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. The Moment and Late Writings. Trans. Howard Vincent Hong. Princeton University Press, May 1998. 0691032262 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. Papers and Journals: A Selection. Trans. Alastair Hannay. New York: Penguin Books, Nov 1996. 0140445897 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. Philosophical Fragments, Johannes Climacus. Trans/ed. Edna H. Hong. Princeton University Press, Aug 1985. 0691020361 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. The Point of View. Trans. Howard Vincent Hong. Princeton University Press, Jun 1998. 0691058555 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. Practice in Christianity. Trans/ed. Edna H. Hong. Princeton University Press, Nov 1991. 0691020639 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. Prayers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, May 1996. 0226470571 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. The Present Age: And, of the Difference Between a Genius and an Apostle. Trans/ed. Walter Kaufmann. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Jul 1986. 0061300942 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard. Trans/Ed. Charles E. Moore. New York: Orbis Books, Oct 2003. 1570755132 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. Provocations: Spiritual Writings. Trans. Charles E. Moore. Plough Publishing House, Jan 1999. 0874869811 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. Purity of Heart. Trans/ed. Douglas V. Steere. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Jul 1986. 0061300047 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. The Seducer's Diary. Trans. Howard Vincent Hong. Princeton University Press, Oct 1997. 0691017379 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. The Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Edification and Awakening. Trans. Alastair Hanny. Penguin Books, Aug 1989. 0140445331 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. The Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening. Trans/ed. Howard Vincent Hong. Princeton University Press, Sep 1983. 0691072477 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. Sickness Unto Death. Trans/ed. Howard Vincent Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton University Press, Nov 1983. 0691020280 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. Soren Kierkegaard: The Mystique of the Prayer, Trans, Lois S. Bowers. CSS Publishing Company, Aug 1996. 0788003011 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. Soren Kierkegaard's Journals and Papers. Trans/ed. Howard Vincent Hong and Edna H. Hong. Indiana University Press, Dec 1978. 0253182468 [Amazon.com] 025318245X [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. Soren Kierkegaard's Journals and Papers. Trans/ed. Howard Vincent Hong and Edna H. Hong. Indiana University Press, Dec 1978. 0253182441 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. Soren Kierkegaard's Journals and Papers. Trans/ed. Howard Vincent Hong and Edna H. Hong. Indiana University Press, Dec 1976. 0253182433 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. Soren Kierkegaard's Journals and Papers. Indiana University Press, Dec 1976. 0253182425 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. Soren Kierkegaard's Journals and Papers. Indiana University Press, Dec 1970. 0253182417 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. Soren Kierkegaard's Journals and Papers. Indiana University Press, Dec 1967. 0253182409 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. Stages on Life's Way: Studies by Various Persons. Trans/ed. Howard Vincent Hong. Princeton University Press, Feb 1989. 0691020493 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions. Trans. Howard Vincent Hong. Princeton University Press, Jul 1993. 0691033005 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits. Trans. Howard Vincent Hong. Princeton University Press, Jul 1993. 0691032742 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. Without Authority. Trans. Howard Vincent Hong. Princeton University Press, Jun 1997. 0691012393 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. Works of Love. Trans. Howard Vincent Hong ane Edna H. Hong. Princeton University Press, May 1998. 0691059160 [Amazon.com]

Kierkegaard, Soren. Works of Love. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Jul 1986. 0061301221 [Amazon.com]

Palmer, Donald D. Kierkegaard For Beginners. For Beginners, Aug 2007. 1934389145 [Amazon.com]

Polk, Timothy. The Biblical Kierkegaard: Reading by the Rule of Faith. Mercer University Press, Jun 1997. 0865545391 [Amazon.com]

Strathern, Paul. Kierkegaard in 90 Minutes. Ivan R. Dee Publisher, May 1997. 1566631521 [Amazon.com]


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