Søren Kierkegaard

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Søren Kierkegaard

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was a Danish philosopher, theologian, poet, and social critic who is widely regarded as the founder of existentialism, a philosophical movement that emphasizes the individual’s freedom and responsibility to create meaning in life (Wikipedia, n.d.). Kierkegaard challenged the dominant philosophical, religious, and cultural trends of his time, such as Hegelianism, rationalism, and Romanticism, and proposed an alternative way of thinking that focused on the subjective experience of existence, the role of faith, and the ethical dimension of human action (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, n.d.). Kierkegaard’s original and provocative ideas have influenced many thinkers and writers across various disciplines, such as psychology, literature, theology, and education. In particular, his notion of existential stages, which describe different modes of living and relating to the world, can inspire social pedagogues to reflect on issues such as dignity, self-determination, authenticity, and community (Pedagogy for Change, n.d.).

The life of Søren Kierkegaard

Søren Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen to a wealthy and devout family. His father, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard, was a self-made man who had risen from poverty to become a successful merchant. He was also a deeply melancholic and guilt-ridden man who had experienced a traumatic event as a child: cursing God for his misery while standing on a hill. He believed that God had punished him by taking away his first wife and five of his seven children (Kierkegaard, 1849/1983). Søren was the youngest and the only surviving son. He inherited his father’s melancholy, intelligence, and religious fervour.

Kierkegaard’s life was marked by several crises that influenced his philosophical outlook. The first was the death of his father in 1838, which left him with a sense of loss and anxiety. The second was his broken engagement with Regine Olsen in 1841, which he regarded as a sacrifice for his vocation as a writer. He later confessed that she was the only woman he ever loved and that he never recovered from the separation (Kierkegaard, 1846/1992). The third was his conflict with the established church and the public opinion in Denmark, which he criticized for their complacency, hypocrisy, and lack of authentic faith. He challenged the dominant Hegelian philosophy of his time, which he saw as abstract, rationalistic, and devoid of existential relevance. Furthermore, he also attacked the literary and journalistic culture of his day, which he accused of being superficial, sensationalist, and irresponsible. He used various pseudonyms, genres, and styles to convey his complex and paradoxical ideas, which often confused and provoked his readers.

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Kierkegaard’s main philosophical themes include the concepts of subjectivity, freedom, choice, anxiety, despair, faith, and individuality. He argued that human existence is not a matter of objective truth, but of subjective relation to the truth. He stressed the importance of personal responsibility and commitment in making ethical and religious decisions. In addition, he also explored the different stages or modes of existence: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. He described the aesthetic stage as a life of pleasure, boredom, and indifference; the ethical stage as a life of duty, morality, and social conformity; and the religious stage as a life of faith, passion, and inwardness. He regarded the religious stage as the highest and most authentic way of being human, but also the most difficult and paradoxical. Furthermore, he distinguished between two types of religiousness: Religiousness A, which is based on general historical faith, and Religiousness B, which is based on personal existential faith. He associated the latter with Christianity, which he defined as “the paradoxical religion” (Kierkegaard 1844/1980).

Some of Kierkegaard’s most famous quotes are:

  • “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” (Kierkegaard 1843/1992)
  • “The most common form of despair is not being who you are.” (Kierkegaard 1849/1980)
  • anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” (Kierkegaard 1844/1980)
  • “Faith is a passion.” (Kierkegaard 1843/1992)
Kierkegaard’s influence on existentialism

Kierkegaard influenced many aspects of existentialism, such as the concepts of authenticity, freedom, dread, absurdity, the leap of faith and the three stages of existence: the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious. He also developed a distinctive style of indirect communication, using pseudonyms, irony, humour, dialogue and literary forms to convey his ideas. Some of his most influential works include Either/Or, Fear and Trembling, The Concept of anxiety, The Sickness Unto Death and Concluding Unscientific Postscript.

Kierkegaard wrote: “The whole of my work as an author is related to Christianity…to the problem of becoming a Christian” (Kierkegaard 1998: 5). He also wrote: “My life is absolutely meaningless. When I consider it closely…I can find no ground for living” (Kierkegaard 1980: 37).

Kierkegaard’s influence on existentialism and other fields of thought is immense. He has been called “the father of existentialism” (Reasons to Believe 2016), “the most popular philosopher in the entire Western world” (ibid.), “a major influence on Protestant theology in the 20th century” (Britannica 2021) and “a trenchant critic of Hegel and Hegelianism” (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy n.d.). His writings have inspired many thinkers, writers and artists, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Karl Barth, Franz Kafka and Ingmar Bergman.

Major publications
Either/Or

One of the most influential works of Søren Kierkegaard, is Either/Or, which was published in 1843 under a pseudonym. The book presents two contrasting views of life: the aesthetic and the ethical. The aesthetic view is based on pleasure, sensuality, and individuality, while the ethical view is based on duty, morality, and commitment. Kierkegaard argues that one must choose between these two views, as they are mutually exclusive and incompatible. He also suggests that there is a third option, the religious view, which transcends both the aesthetic and the ethical by relying on faith in God and His grace (Wikipedia, n.d.).

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Kierkegaard illustrates the main themes and conclusions of Either/Or through a series of letters, essays, and aphorisms written by fictional characters who represent different aspects of the aesthetic and ethical views. For example, in the first part of the book, titled “The Diary of a Seducer”, a young man named Johannes describes his seduction of a young woman named Cordelia, showing his cynical and manipulative approach to love and relationships. Johannes exemplifies the aesthetic view of life, as he seeks only his own enjoyment and satisfaction, without regard for the feelings or wellbeing of others. He writes: “I have no conscience about anything; I laugh at everything because I don’t take anything seriously” (Kierkegaard, 1843/1987, p. 150).

In contrast, in the second part of the book, titled “The Judge’s Papers”, an older man named William addresses a series of letters to Johannes, trying to persuade him to abandon his aesthetic lifestyle and adopt an ethical one. William represents the ethical view of life, as he values responsibility, fidelity, and social norms. He argues that the aesthetic view is ultimately empty and unsatisfying, as it leads to boredom, despair, and self-destruction. He writes: “The unhappy person is one who has his ideal, the content of his life, the fullness of his consciousness, the essence of his being in some manner outside himself” (Kierkegaard, 1843/1987, p. 253).

Kierkegaard’s Either/Or challenges the reader to reflect on their own choices and values, and to consider the implications of living according to either the aesthetic or the ethical view. He also hints at the possibility of a higher mode of existence, based on faith in God and His will, which he develops further in his later works. Either/Or is a seminal work of existentialism, as it explores the meaning and purpose of human existence in a complex and ambiguous world.

Fear and Trembling

One of the main themes and conclusions of Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling publication is that faith is a paradox that requires one to embrace the absurd. The absurd is beyond human comprehension and often requires one to believe in two parts of a paradox simultaneously. For example, Abraham, the biblical patriarch, had to believe that God would both demand him to sacrifice his son Isaac and also fulfil his promise of making him the father of a great nation through Isaac.

Kierkegaard calls this the teleological suspension of the ethical, meaning that Abraham had to suspend his moral duty for a higher purpose that only God could reveal. Kierkegaard argues that Abraham is not a tragic hero, who expresses the ethical by giving up everything in the movement of infinite resignation, but a knight of faith, who expresses the religious by making a leap of faith and trusting God’s incomprehensible will.

Kierkegaard writes: “The tragic hero still remains within the ethical. He lets go of the particular in order to grasp the universal… But the knight of faith would say: I believe nevertheless that I shall get her – in virtue, that is, of the absurd, in virtue of the fact that for God all things are possible” (Kierkegaard, 2006, p. 74). Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling challenges the reader to question their own understanding of faith and what it means to truly have it.

The Concept of anxiety

The Concept of anxiety is a philosophical work by Søren Kierkegaard, written in 1844, that explores the nature and origin of anxiety, as well as its relation to sin and freedom. Kierkegaard argues that anxiety is a psychological phenomenon that arises when a person faces the possibility of choosing freely. anxiety is not fear, which is a response to a specific and concrete danger, but rather a vague and indeterminate feeling of dread that accompanies the awareness of one’s own freedom and responsibility. Kierkegaard writes: “anxiety is neither a category of necessity nor a category of freedom; it is entangled freedom, where freedom is not free in itself but entangled, not by necessity, but in itself” (Kierkegaard, 1980, p. 42). anxiety is thus a paradoxical condition that reveals the human potential for both good and evil, as well as the need for faith and grace.

One of the main themes of The Concept of anxiety is the distinction between anxiety and sin. Kierkegaard claims that anxiety is not sin itself, but rather the condition for the possibility of sin. Sin is the act of turning away from God and choosing unauthentically, while anxiety is the feeling that precedes and accompanies this act. Kierkegaard explains: “anxiety is freedom’s actuality as the possibility of possibility … Sin is consummated in anxiety; however, anxiety reveals nothing about its origin but only about its direction” (Kierkegaard, 1980, p. 61). Therefore, anxiety can also be seen as an opportunity for growth and salvation, as it invites the individual to face their freedom and make a leap of faith.

Another theme of The Concept of anxiety is the concept of hereditary sin, which Kierkegaard criticizes as a dogmatic and irrational doctrine that contradicts the idea of individual freedom and responsibility. Kierkegaard argues that hereditary sin implies that human beings are born sinful and guilty, without having any choice or agency in the matter. He rejects this notion as absurd and unjust, and proposes instead that sin is always an individual act that requires a personal decision. He writes: “The doctrine of hereditary sin is therefore contrary to reason … It makes sin something external to man … It abolishes man’s eternal responsibility for himself” (Kierkegaard, 1980, p. 101). Kierkegaard suggests that the true meaning of hereditary sin is not a literal transmission of guilt from generation to generation, but rather a symbolic expression of the universal human condition of being born into a world where sin and evil exist.

In conclusion, The Concept of anxiety is a profound and original work that examines the psychological and existential aspects of anxiety, as well as its ethical and religious implications. Kierkegaard offers a nuanced and insightful analysis of the human condition, as well as a challenge to overcome anxiety through faith and authenticity.

The Sickness Unto Death

The Sickness Unto Death is a philosophical work by Søren Kierkegaard, written under the pseudonym Anti-Climacus, that explores the concept of despair as a symptom of the human condition and a form of sin. According to Kierkegaard, despair is the result of not aligning oneself with God or God’s plan for the self, which leads to losing one’s true self. The self, for Kierkegaard, is not a substance or an essence, but a relation between the finite and the infinite, the temporal and the eternal, the freedom and the necessity. The self is thus a dynamic and dialectical process of becoming, which requires faith and commitment to God.

Kierkegaard identifies three types of despair: despair of not being conscious of having a self, despair of not willing to be oneself, and despair of willing to be oneself. The first type is a form of ignorance or indifference, the second type is a form of defiance or rebellion, and the third type is a form of pride or self-sufficiency. All three types are manifestations of the sickness unto death, which is not physical death but spiritual death. Kierkegaard argues that only by acknowledging one’s despair and surrendering to God can one overcome this sickness and attain true selfhood. He writes: “The formula that describes the state of the self when despair is completely rooted out is this: in relating itself to itself and in willing to be itself, the self rests transparently in the power that established it” (Kierkegaard, 1849/1989, p. 81).

Concluding Unscientific Postscript

One of the main themes of Søren Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846) is the distinction between objective and subjective truth, and the primacy of the latter for human existence. Kierkegaard argues that objective truth, which is based on logical reasoning and empirical evidence, is insufficient to grasp the meaning of life and the reality of God. He claims that subjective truth, which is based on personal experience and faith, is the only way to achieve authentic existence and a genuine relationship with God. He writes, “Subjectivity is truth” (Kierkegaard, 1846/1992, p. 203).

Another theme of the Postscript is the critique of Hegelianism, the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, which Kierkegaard sees as a system that reduces human freedom and individuality to abstract concepts and historical necessity. He challenges Hegel’s claim that philosophy can provide a comprehensive and rational account of reality, and he exposes the contradictions and absurdities of Hegel’s dialectical method. He writes, “Hegel constructs the whole of actuality by thinking, but he forgets that there is a little gap which he cannot get across by thinking” (Kierkegaard, 1846/1992, p. 88).

The Postscript is not only a philosophical work, but also a literary one, full of irony, humour, and paradoxes. Kierkegaard uses various pseudonyms and styles to convey his message and to invite the reader to engage in a personal and existential reflection.

Conclusion

Søren Kierkegaard is widely regarded as the founder of Christian psychology and of existential psychology and therapy (Wikipedia, n.d.). His philosophy influenced the development of existential psychology, which focuses on the human condition as a whole, including themes such as freedom, anxiety, authenticity, and meaning (Wikipedia, n.d.). Kierkegaard explored these themes in his writings. He challenged the prevailing rationalism and idealism of his time and emphasized the subjective, concrete, and relational aspects of human existence. He also criticized the established church and the religious authorities for misrepresenting the highest task of human life, which he saw as becoming a true self before God (Britannica, n.d.).

Some of his quotes that illustrate his influence on psychology are:

  • anxiety is the dizziness of freedom” (Kierkegaard, 1844/1980, p. 61).
  • “The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself” (Kierkegaard, 1849/1983, p. 13).
  • “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards” (Kierkegaard, 1843/1992, p. 37).
References

Britannica (2021). Søren Kierkegaard | Danish Philosopher & Existentialist | Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Soren-Kierkegaard

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (n.d.). Kierkegaard, Søren. https://iep.utm.edu/kierkega/

Kierkegaard, S. (1980). The Journals of Søren Kierkegaard: A Selection Edited and Translated by Alexander Dru. Oxford University Press.

Kierkegaard S. (1980). The concept of anxiety: A simple psychologically orienting deliberation on the dogmatic issue of hereditary sin (R. Thomte & A.B. Anderson Trans.). Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1844)

Kierkegaard S. (1983). The sickness unto death: A Christian psychological exposition for upbuilding and awakening (H.V Hong & E.H Hong Trans.). Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1849)

Kierkegaard S. (1992). Concluding unscientific postscript to philosophical fragments (H.V Hong & E.H Hong Trans.). Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1846)

Kierkegaard S. (1992). Either/or: A fragment of life (H.V Hong & E.H Hong Trans.). Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1843)

Kierkegaard S. (1998). The point of view for my work as an author: A report to history (W Lowrie Trans.). Harper Perennial Modern Classics. (Original work published 1849)

Kierkegaard, S. (1987). Either/or: A fragment of life (V. Eremita & A. Hannay Eds.). Penguin Books. (Original work published 1843)
Wikipedia. (n.d.). Either/Or. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Either/Or

Kierkegaard, S. (2006). Fear and trembling. (A. Hannay, Trans.). Penguin Books. (Original work published 1843).

Kierkegaard, S. (1980). The concept of anxiety: A simple psychologically orienting deliberation on the dogmatic issue of hereditary sin (R. Thomte & A.B. Anderson, Trans.). Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1844).

Kierkegaard, S. (1989). The sickness unto death: A Christian psychological exposition for upbuilding and awakening (H. V. Hong & E. H. Hong, Trans.). Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1849)

Kierkegaard, S. (1992). Concluding unscientific postscript to Philosophical fragments (H. V. Hong & E. H. Hong, Trans.). Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1846)

Pedagogy for Change. (n.d.). Søren Kierkegaard. https://www.pedagogy4change.org/soren-kierkegaard/

Reasons to Believe (2016). Christian Thinkers 101: A Crash Course on Søren Kierkegaard. Retrieved from https://reasons.org/explore/blogs/reflections/christian-thinkers-101-a-crash-course-on-soren-kierkegaard

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophy_of_S%C3%B8ren_Kierkegaard

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Influence and reception of Søren Kierkegaard. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Influence_and_reception_of_S%C3%B8ren_Kierkegaard

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