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Encyclopedia > Soren Kierkegaard
Søren Kierkegaard
Søren Kierkegaard

Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813 - November 11, 1855), a 19th century Danish philosopher, has achieved general recognition as the first existentialist philosopher, though some new research shows this may be a more difficult connection than previously thought.[1] (http://www.stolaf.edu/collections/kierkegaard/newsletter/issue46/46002.htm) Philosophically, he bridged the gap that existed between Hegelian philosophy and what was to become Existentialism. Kierkegaard strongly rejected both the Hegelian philosophy of his time, and what he saw as the empty formalities of the Danish church. Much of his work deals with religious problems such as the nature of faith, the institution of the Christian church, and Christian ethics and theology. Because of this, Kierkegaard's work is sometimes characterized as Christian existentialism. Kierkegaard's work can resist interpretation, since he wrote most of his early work under various pseudonyms, and often these pseudo-authors will comment on the works of the earlier pseudo-authors.



Søren Kierkegaard was born to an affluent family in Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark. His father, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard, was a strongly religious man. Convinced that he had earned God's wrath, he believed that none of his children would live to the age of 34. The sins necessitating this punishment, he believed, included cursing the name of God in his youth, and possibly impregnating Kierkegaard's mother out of wedlock. In fact, his predictions were realized for all but two of his seven children.

This early introduction to the notion of sin, and its connection from father and son, laid the foundation for much of Kierkegaard's work (particularly Fear and Trembling). Kierkegaard's mother, Anne Sørensdatter Lund Kierkegaard, is not directly referred to in his books, although she too affected his later writings.

Despite his father's occasional religious melancholy, Kierkegaard and his father shared a close bond. Kierkegaard learned to explore the realm of his imagination through a series of exercises and games they played together.

Another important aspect of Kierkegaard's life that is generally considered to have had a major influence on his work, was his broken engagement to Regine Olsen. Kierkegaard's motive for ending the engagement remains mysterious. It is generally believed that the two were deeply in love -- perhaps even after she married Johan Frederik Schlegel (1817-1896), a prominent civil servant (not to be confused with the German philosopher Friedrich von Schlegel, 1772-1829). For the most part, their contact was limited to chance meetings on the streets of Copenhagen. Some years later, however, Kierkegaard went so far as to ask Regine's husband for permission to speak with her, but was refused. Soon afterward, the couple left the country, Schlegel having been appointed Governor in the Danish West Indies. By the time Regine returned, Kierkegaard was dead. Regine Schlegel lived until 1904, and upon her death she was buried near Kierkegaard in the Assistens Cemetery in Copenhagen.

Kierkegaard's final years (1854-1855) were taken up with a sustained attack on the Danish State Church by means of newspaper articles published in The Fatherland (Fædrelandet) and a series of self-published pamphlets called The Moment (Øieblikket). Kierkegaard was initially called to action by a speech by Professor Hans Lassen Martensen, which called his recently deceased predecessor Bishop Jakob P. Mynster a "truth-witness, one of the authentic truth-witnesses." Kierkegaard had an affection towards Mynster, but had come to see that his conception of Christianity was in man's interest, rather than God's, and in no way was Mynster's life comparable to that of a 'truth-witness.'

On 2 October, 1855, before the tenth number of the Moment could be published, Kierkegaard collapsed on the street and was taken to hospital. He stayed in hospital for nearly a month and refused to recieve communion from a priest of the church, who Kierkegaard regarded as merely officials and not servants of God. He said to his friend since boyhood Emil Boesen, who kept a record of is conversations and was himself a pastor, that his life had been one of great and unknown suffering, which looked like vanity to others but was not. Kierkegaard died in Frederick's Hosital after being there for over a month, possibly from complications from a fall he had taken from a tree when he was a boy.

At Kierkegaard's burial at Assistents Cemetery, his nephew Henrik Lund caused a disturbance by protesting that Kierkegaard was being buried by the official church even though in his life he had broken from and denounced it. Lund was later fined.


The Present Age

Alienation: [A] wide variety of phenomena. These include: any feeling of separation from, and discontent with, society; feelings that there is a moral breakdown in society; feelings of powerlessness in the face of the solidity of social institutions; the impersonal, dehumanised nature of large-scale and bureaucratic social organisations. (http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/cgi-local/DHI/dhi.cgi?id=dv1-06)

Kierkegaard recognizes and accepts the notion of alienation, although he phrases it and understands it in his own distinctly original terms. For K, the present age is a reflective age—one that values objectivity and thought over action; lip-service to ideals rather than action; discussion over action; publicity and advertising to reality; fantasy to reality. For Kierkegaard, the meaning of values has been sucked out of them by a lack of authority. Instead of the authority of the past or the Bible or any other great and lasting voice, we have emptiness and uncertainty.

We have lost meaning because the accepted criterion of reality and truth is objective thought—that which can be proven with logic, historical research, or scientific analysis. But humans are not robots or computer programs or amoeba—they need reasons to live and die for; what truly gives meaning to human life is something that cannot be formulated into mathematical, historical or logical terms. We cannot think our choices in life, we must live them; and even those choices that we often think about become different once life itself enters into the picture.

For Kierkegaard, the type of objectivity that a scientist or historian might use misses the point—humans are not motivated and do not find meaning in life through pure objectivity. Instead, they find it through passion and desire and moral and religious commitment. These phenomena are not objectively provable—nor do they come about through any form of analysis of the external world; they come about through inward reflection, a way of looking at one’s life that evades objective scrutiny.

Instead, true self-worth originates in a powerful desire for something outside human thought. Something that transcends human powers, which brings humans in contact with something that provides a meaning because it inspires awe and wonder and demands total and absolute commitment in achieving it.

Kierkegaard’s analysis of the present age uses terms that resemble but are not exactly coincident with Hegel and Marx’s notions of alienation. From Kierkegaard, we hear instead about a phenomenon called leveling—as part of this leveling, we find the public, the media, and publicity and advertising.

Kierkegaard and Marx on Alienation

To clarify Kierkegaard's undertsanding of alienation, we can compare it to Marx's.

The importance of this is to see that Kierkegaard has identified what he believes is a sickness at the heart of modern society. Being a Christian, he believes that this sickness originates in sin, personal and communal sin. His notion of sin is such that individuals are the origin of sin, but the social and cultural environment also becomes sinful as time goes on… through an accumulative process of individual sins and their effects on our human and natural environments.

For Marx, on the other hand, alienation occurs in the social, cultural and economic spheres alone. Humans attain their ultimate meaning from this-world activities. For Marx, work is key to a human being’s worth and self-understanding. Alienation occurs when the work that a human performs is taken out of their hands and put into the interests and service of those who exploit the working class in the interests of power and gaining money.

To oversimplify, for Marx, the ultimate meaning of human life under capitalism becomes money—money forms the self-identity, meaning, and overall goal of all individuals. This is alienating; it distances a human being from their true nature and their true humanity. For the true meaning of humans is individual and social integration—that is, attaining all those ideals expounded by poets, religions, philosophers throughout the ages, except that the attainment and use of them will occur in the here and now. In many respects, Kierkegaard has affinities with this Marxist critique of modern society. Yet, his emphasis is on the spiritual and religious dimension of human life and aspirations. These have a reality in terms of individual needs and self-worth. Modern conditions, however, make it more difficult for individuals to reach a truly authentic religious self-realization.


"The abstract leveling process, that self-combustion of the human race, produced by the friction which arises when the individual ceases to exist as singled out by religion is bound to continue, like a trade wind, and consume everything." --Soren Kierkegaard, _The Present Age_

Key to both Marx’s and Kierkegaard’s critique is the mention of money—they both call it an abstraction. What do they mean by this? An abstraction is something that only has a reality in an ersatz reality. It is not tangible, and only has meaning within an artificial context, which ultimately serves devious and deceptive purposes—for Marx, the interests of the ruling class. It is a figment of thought that has no concrete reality, either now or in the future.

How is money an abstraction? Money gives the illusion that it has a direct relationship to the work that is done. That is, the work I do is worth so much, equals so many dollars. In reality, however, the work I do is an expression of who I am as a person; it expresses my goals in life and its ultimate meaning. As a person, the work I perform is supposed to be an external realization of my relationship to others and to the world. It is my way of making the world a better place for myself and for others. What reducing work to a monetary, abstract value does is to replace the concrete reality of my everyday struggles with the world to give it shape and form, to wrest order from chaos, to give form to the world so that it attains meaning—the dumb formless mass of nature is molded into a shape and form that makes the world more livable, more understandable, more human.

In this notion of abstraction, Kierkegaard and Marx agree. Yet, Kierkegaard’s analysis of the Present Age sees that the solution to the problem of abstraction and alienation resides not in purely social or economic terms. He starts with the individual—the individual has an eternal meaning which religion is an expression of. The impulse towards an awareness of a transcendent power in the universe that gives human life meaning is what religion is supposed to stand for. For Kierkegaard, religion has a social and an individual [not just personal] dimension. But it begins with the individual and his or her awareness of sinfulness…

On a social level, religion fosters an environment in which the individual experience as a believer trying to work out his or her eternal destiny can occur. But, again, the emphasis is on the individual. Without the individual, without a proper understanding of the religious individual’s experience in life is, religion itself will decay. With the loss of the true understanding of the individual believer and religion’s decay, society itself begins to decay.

Kierkegaard’s critique of the modern age, therefore, is about the loss of what it means to be an individual. Modern society contributes to this dissolution of what it means to be an individual. Through its production of the false idol of the Public, it diverts attention away from individuals to a mass public that loses itself in abstractions, communal dreams, and fantasies. It is helped in this task by the media, which purveys various inane diversions to keep its attention and boredom distracted. The mass production of products keeps the individual occupied as well. We are what we own.

It’s important to realize that religion is not necessarily the cause of a good society. You might have a society in which religion was strong and even controlled it. Indeed, this was true in Kierkegaard’s own time, where the Lutheran Church was the de facto state religion. For Kierkegaard, it is not religion as an institution that must be strong within a society; it is individuals who are aware of their relationship to the source of religion that marks the strength of both a religion and a society.

A religion, could, for Kierkegaard subvert and sabotage the individual’s awareness of and experience of the truth for which religion must stand. In the same way, a society can subvert the individual’s awareness of his or her true self. Ultimately, in his later writings, Kierkegaard will attack institution of Christianity altogether. He does this from a social, as well as a religious perspective. Socially, he attacks the church for its participation in the state as a simple mouthpiece of political stratagems. Religiously, he attacks the church because it teaches a lie about the true meaning of Christianity. For Kierkegaard, the true meaning of Xtianity is the individual standing alone before and in the presence of a transcendent God.

The Individual

These assertions obviously beg the question about what Kierkegaard means by the individual. In many of his writings, he opposes the individual to the crowd—subjective truth to objective truth. What could this possibly mean? We can understand Kierkegaard’s emphasis on the individual by looking at what I have said about abstraction, as well as his description of the Public.

An individual person, for Kierkegaard, is a particular that no abstract formula or definition can ever capture. Including the individual in a group or subsuming a human being as simply a member of a species is a reduction of the true meaning of life for individuals. What philosophy or politics tries to do is to categorize and pigeonhole individuals by group characteristics instead of individual differences. For Kierkegaard, those differences are what make us who we are.

For Kierkegaard, true individuality is called selfhood. Becoming aware of our true self is our true task and endeavor in life—it is an ethical imperative, as well as preparatory to a true religious understanding. Individuals can exist at a level that is less than true selfhood. We can live, for example, simply in terms of our pleasures—our immediate satisfaction of desires, propensities, or distractions. In this way we glide through life without direction or purpose. To have a direction, we must have a purpose that defines for us the meaning of our lives.

Spheres of Existence

Kierkegaard calls living in the immediate moment an aesthetic life. By this he does not necessarily mean a life lived in devotion to art—although many artists do also live at this level of existence. There are many degrees of aesthetic existence—at the bottom, one might see the purely consumerist lifestyle. At the top of this spectrum, we could find those lives which are lived in a truly anarchic, irresponsible way. At the limits of this type of existence, there is a consciousness that life is meaningless and has no purpose. The person lives simply for possibilities—and arranges his or her life around a rich fantasy life; at the same time, however, there is immense pain and despair.

The second level of existence is the ethical. This is where an individual begins to take on a true direction in life and begins to assert an awareness of good and evil. One’s actions at this level of existence have a consistency and coherence that they lacked in the previous sphere of existence. For society, this level of existence begins when one takes on the greater obligations of marriage and other social duties. For K, the ethical is supremely important. It calls each individual to take account of their lives and to scrutinize their actions in terms of universal and absolute demands.

These demands are made in such a way that each individual must respond—to be authentic—in a truly committed, passionate consciousness. Any other type of response is shirking the demands of responsibility and running away from those universal duties. What responsibilities there are, are known to everyone, yet they cannot be known in such a way that they are simply followed as a matter of course. They must be done subjectively—that is, with an understanding that doing or not doing them has a direct result on who I will see myself as a person—whether a good or bad person.

The ethical and the religious are intimately connected—you cannot have one without the other. Both ethics and religion rest on the awareness of a reality that gives substance to actions but which is not purely reducible to natural laws and functions. Now, one can reach an awareness of these through conscience and reason. But again, these are subjective occurrences—not something that is imposed from outside or merely a matter of doing what others say I must do. Ethics is something I do for myself, with the realization that my entire self-understanding is involved. The meaning of my life comes down to whether or not I live out these beliefs in an honest, passionate, and devoted way.

Religion is the highest stage in human existence. Kierkegaard distinguishes two types within this stage. One type is symbolized by the Greek philosopher Socrates, whose passionate pursuit of the truth and individual conscience came into conflict with his society. Another type of religiousness is one characterized by the realization that the individual is sinful and is the source of untruth. Through revelation and in direct relationship with the paradox that is Jesus Christ in time, the individual begins to see that his or her eternal salvation rests on a paradox—God, the transcendent, coming into time in human form to redeem human beings. For Kierkegaard, the very notion of this occurring was scandalous to human reason—indeed, it must be, and if it is not then one does not truly understand the Incarnation nor the meaning of human sinfulness.


To understand Kierkegaard’s concept of the individual, it is important to look at what he says regarding subjectivity. What is subjectivity? In very rough and simplistic terms, subjectivity refers to what is personal to me—what makes me who I am in distinction from others. It is what is inside—what I see, feel, think, imagine, dream, etc. It is often opposed to objectivity—that which is outside me, which I and others can feel, see, measure, and think about.

Scientists and historians, for example, study the objective world, hoping to elicit the truth of nature—or perhaps the truth of history. In this way, they hope to predict how the future will unfold in accordance with these laws. In terms of history, by studying the past, I can perhaps elicit the laws that determine how events will unfold—in this way I can predict the future with more exactness and perhaps take control of events that in the past appeared to fall outside the control of humans.

In most respects, Kierkegaard did not have problems with science or the scientific endeavor. Where the scientist or historian finds certainty, however, Kierkegaard noted very accurately that results in science change as the tools of observation change.

But K’s special interest was in history. His most vehement attacks came against those who believed that they had understood history and its laws—and by doing so could ascertain what a human’s true self is. That is, the assumption is that by studying history I can come to know who I really am as a person.

For Kierkegaard, this is a ridiculous argument at best, a harmful and pernicious notion at worst. It undermines the meaning of what a self is. For Koerkegaard, I come to know who I am by an intensely personal and passionate pursuit of what will give meaning to my life. As an existing individual, who must come to terms with everyday life, overcome its obstacles and setbacks, who must live and die, I have a life that no one else will live. In dealing with what life brings my way, I must encounter them with all my psycho-physical resources.

Subjectivity is that which I have and no one else does. But what does it mean to have something like this? It cannot be understood in the same way that car is had or a back account. It means to be someone who is becoming someone—it means being a person with a past, a present, and a future. No one can have my past, my present or my future. We all experience these in various ways—these experiences are mine, not yours or anyone else’s.

Having a past, present, and future means that I am an existing individual—that I find my meaning in time and by existing. I do not think myself into existence, I am born. But once born and past a certain age I begin to make choices in life; now those choices can be mine, my parents’, society’s or whatever. The important point is that to exist I must make choices—I must decide what to do the next moment and on into the future. What I choose and how I choose will define who and what I am—to myself and to others.

The goal of life, according to Socrates, is to know thyself. Knowing myself means being aware of who I am, what I can be and what I cannot be. The search for this self, is the task of subjectivity. This task is the most important one in life. Why is it important? Isn’t it obvious? If I do not know who I am then I am living a lie, and living a lie, for most people is wrong.

Subjectivity comes with consciousness of myself as a self. It encompasses the emotional and intellectual resources that I am born with. Subjectivity is what I am as a human being.

Now the problem of subjectivity is to decide how to choose—what rules or models or whatever am I going to use to make the right choices? What are the right choices? Who defines right? To be truly mine, to be true to myself my actions should in some way be expressed so that they describe who and what I am to myself and to others.

The problem, according to K, is that we must choose who and what we will be based on subjective interests—I must make choices that we will mean something to me as a reasoning, feeling being. For Kierkegaard, the most important part of this effort is the emotional or pathetic part of my being. Why is this important?

Pathos (Passion)

Yet for Kierkegaard, in order to apprehend the absolute the mind must radically empty itself of objective content;

"it must «lock everything out of its consciousness» (S V 3 6, 46]; the understanding must be «put out of action» (entlediget) (S V 3 6 , 58). This emptiness of determinate content is what Eckhart called «poverty ». What supports this radical emptying, however, is the understanding's desire for the absolute. Kierkegaard names this desire, this eros, «passion» (Lidenskab). The understanding is able to renounce itself or «will its own downfall» only through the desire to «discover that which cannot be thought.» (SV3 6, 38)" (Kangas (http://www.bib.uab.es/pub/enrahonar/0211402Xn29p119.pdf))

Now we can begin to see why K finds objectivity a dead end street when it comes to attempts to use it to define who and what we are. Objective truths do not take my individual history into account, nor do they provide a framework for how I must deal with everyday events.

Objective truths come from the outside; define things in completely inhuman terms. They do not engage my emotions or passions but simply my rational part. Nor do they in any way elicit the type of belief that is necessary to sustain me in my everyday struggles with joy, happiness, sorrow, and despair. They attempt to provide me with certainty and absolute calculability. But the human soul cannot live on these—it needs dreams, aspirations, and ideals to live by, in other words faith, something that lies outside of time which spurs to ever increasing demands and never be defined in quantitative or purely rational terms.

According to Kierkegaard, the human self desires that which is beyond reason. Desire itself appears to be a desire for the infinite, as Plato once wrote. Even the desire to propagate, according to Plato, is a kind of desire for immortality—that is, we wish to live on in time through our children and their children.

Erotic love itself appears as an example of this desire for something beyond the purely finite. It is a taste of what could be, if only it could continue beyond the boundaries of time and space. As the analogy implies, humans seek something beyond the here and now.

The question remains, however, why is it that human pathos or passion is the most precious thing? In some ways, it might have to do with our status as existential beings. It is not thought that gets us through life—it is action; and what motivates and sustains action is passion, the desire to overcome harships, pain, and suffering. It is also passion that enables us to die for ideals in the name of a higher reality. While a scientist might see this is as plain emotion or simple animal desire, Kierkegaard sees it as that which binds to the source of life itself. The desire to live, and to live in the right way, for the right reasons, and with the right desires, is a holy and sacred force.

One can also look at this from the perspective of what the meaning of our existence is. Why suffer what humans have suffered, the pain and despair—what meaning can all of this have. For Kierkegaard, there is no meaning unless passion, the emotions and will of humans, has a divine source. Passion is closely aligned with faith in k’s thought. Faith as a passion is what drives humans to seek reality and truth in a transcendent world, even though everything we can know intellectually speaks against it. To live and die for a belief, to stake everything one has and is in the belief in something that has a higher meaning than anything in the world—this is belief and passion at their highest.

They thirst for the infinite in everything. Human reason itself seeks this type of infinity. Yet humans, because they are finite, cannot attain this type of infinite existence.


"Kierkegaard, Primary Sources"
"Kierkegaard, Links to Online Resources"
"Kierkegaard, Wikipedia Reviews of Works"

External links

  • Søren Kierkegaard Newsletter (http://www.stolaf.edu/collections/kierkegaard/newsletter/) edited by Gordon D. Marino
  • Library (http://sage.stolaf.edu/Kierkegaard) Online Library Catalog at St. Olaf College; select Kierkegaard Library from the menu to search for books and articles
  • Christ of Faith and History (http://christoffaithandhistory.blogspot.com)
  • Open Directory Project: Kierkegaard, Søren (http://www.dmoz.org/Society/Philosophy/Philosophers/K/Kierkegaard,_S%C3%B8ren/)
  • Kierkegaard's Narrative (http://ceh.kitoba.com/hook/kierkegaard.html): An existential humanist plot outline
  • Provocations (http://www.bruderhof.com/e-books/Provocations.htm): Spiritual Writings of Søren Kierkegaard
  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Søren Kierkegaard (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kierkegaard/)
  • Religion After 911 (http://religionafter911.blogspot.com)
  • Wikiquote - Quotes by Søren Kierkegaard (http://wikiquote.org/wiki/S%C3%B8ren_Kierkegaard)

  Results from FactBites:
Søren Kierkegaard - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (4216 words)
Kierkegaard’s analysis of the present age uses terms that resemble but are not exactly coincident with Hegel and Marx's theory of alienation.
Kierkegaard was devoted to aesthetics, and is sometimes referred to as the "poet-philosopher" because of the passionate way in which he approached philosophy.
For Kierkegaard, it is not religion as an institution that must be strong within a society; it is individuals who are aware of their relationship to the source of religion that marks the strength of both a religion and a society.
Island of Freedom - Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1302 words)
Søren Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher and religious thinker who wrote literary and philosophical essays that reacted against Hegelian philosophy and the state church in Denmark, setting the stage for modern existentialism.
Kierkegaard went to study philosophy and theology at the University of Copenhagen, where his personal despair grew, leading him to the therapeutic decision to become a cleric and marry his fiancée Regine Olsen, the daughter of a treasury official.
Kierkegaard begins to see that there are three spheres, though he doesn't state it explicitly; the third sphere is the "religious," higher than the ethical.
  More results at FactBites »



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