Born May 5, 1813 Died November 11, 1855
Kierkegaard was born in 1813 in Copenhagen. The name Kierkegaard can be broken down into gaard, which means a farm, and kierke, which means being close to the village church. His father was a wool merchant and was fifty-six when Soren was born. His father had done quite well for himself and had retired by the age of forty. But he was a pessimistic father figure, his first wife having died childless after two years of marriage, and Soren's mother being the housemaid that his father married after his first wife.
When Kierkegaard's father was a young Shepard boy, he cursed God for his misfortunes. He tells us in his journal:
"as a small boy tending sheep on the Jutland Heath, suffering many ills, famished and exhausted, stood up on a hill and cursed God! And that man was never able to forget it, not even at the age of 82." After his father cursed God for his misfortunes, his fortunes changed and became wealthy in a short time frame. Both men, Soren and his father, believed a great deal of irony in this, and that the family actually lay under a curse. Before Soren was twenty one, four of his siblings and his mother had died, and neither he nor his father believed that any of the other seven siblings would live past 34, (the year that Christ died.) Thus Soren inherited his father's despair. This is believed to have been what fuelled Kierkegaard's drive for writing so much in his younger years, and is also attributed to his anxious personality.
At 27, Kierkegaard enrolled in the University of Copenhagen, focusing his studies on theology, philosophy, and literature. It was here in 1834, four years after he enrolled, that he made the first entry into his famous journal. His mother's death prompted the entry.
Kierkegaard's rhetoric includes irony, satire, parody, humor, polemic, and his method of "indirect communication." All his works are supposed to arouse the reader's passion with existential issues. His dialect is him writing under various pseudonyms and each one carries a different point of view, and like Plato's dialogues, Kierkegaard does not speak to the reader directly. This is more for Kierkegaard's benefit. In 1835, as his journal indicates, he decides that before he can know what to do with his life. Juxtaposing various pseudonyms against one another is an ingenious way to look at one's self from various points of view, which is exactly what Kierkegaard does until the culmination of his work in Concluding Unscientific Postscript.
He has many notable works, including The Concept of Irony and From the Papers of One Still Living. At the time that Kierkegaard was writing, he was double publishing his works. On one hand, he would have publish one work under a pseudonym and then publish another work under his real name. This began in 1843 on February 20 when Kierkegaard published a pseudonymous work entitled Either/Or. In Kierkegaard's pyseduonymous works from Either/Or until February 27, 1846, (when he publishes Concluding Unscientific Postscript), he tries to undermine Hegel's "system," and emphasize his beliefs about the importance of the individual and the subjective nature of truth, and in his later works, what Stare would later present as angst. It is because of his conflict with Hegel that he began to write in pseudonyms. When the Hegelians tried to depersonalize philosophy, Kierkegaard viewed philosophy as being born from the individual efforts and strivings of the individual philosopher. Thus why none of his pseduonyms agree with one another.
Kierkegaard's signed works were very religious, and that is what Kierkegaard regarded himself as more than anything: a religious poet. Kierkegaard was a serious Lutheran pietist and from this sect of Christianity, Kierkegaard takes the sin, guilt, and suffering, and individual responsibility. Church dogma is insignificant to Kierkegaard; for him faith is the most important task for a human to strive for. It is our lives that God uses to judge us for all eternity. It must be our individual passion to want to live well and faithfully.
Now develops the existential burden of responsibility, that the choices we make eternally save or damn our souls. Huge existential choices are now coupled with dread an angst, for such choices are some of the most important choices the individual can make. As William McDonalad describes it, "Anxiety is a two-sided emotion: on one side is the dread burden of choosing for eternity; on the other side is the exhilaration of freedom in choosing oneself. Choice occurs in the instant, which is the point at which time and eternity intersect — for the individual creates through temporal choice a self which will be judged for eternity."
His Aesthetics, Ethics, and Religion
-- The Three Spheres of Existence
Kierkegaard uses his pseudonyms to take the reader through various existential stages: the first being the aesthetic, the second being the ethical, and the third being religious. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "The aesthetic stage of existence is characterized by the following: immersion in sensuous experience; valorization of possibility over actuality; egotism; fragmentation of the subject of experience; nihilistic wielding of irony and skepticism; and flight from boredom." In his first work, Either/Or, Kierkegaard presents a reflective aesthete. This pseudonym uses situations and people to find out more about himself, finds pleasure in mental engineering pleasure, and thus can find a new joy for otherwise tedious and mundane activities. However, this focus on the aesthetic deters from the individuals real responsibility to ethics.
As we've established, Kierkegaard believed that the existential choices we make directly affect our place in the Christian afterlife. Thusly, Kierkegaardian ethics lie solely in God's ethics. He criticizes Hegelian ethics which states that ethics come from social norms. Kierkegaard argues that one's obligation to God and acting as God wants us to overrides social norms. Kierkegaard cites the story of Abraham killing his son Isaac not for social norms, but actually defying them by killing his innocent son for God.
So one must know God better in order to understand Christian ethics in the purest sense. This lies in faith. One achieves faith through the repetition of faith. Kierkegaard finds it comical that there is mediation, such as a priest, between the individual and God, like in Catholicism and Hegelism. How can one meditate with God if one is communicating with a mere man? So the repetition of faith is how oneself relates to the power that constitutes it, thusly the repetition of faith is the self, the focus on the human condition.
Kierkegaard's central problem was how to become a Christian in Christiandom, or the state's Christianity. In his time, the education institutions tended to produce like minded thinkers rather than let individuals find their unique identities. Also, Denmark was turning from a feudal society to a capitalist society. This changed the social hierarchy from a rigid ladder to a more horizontal model. Now it was difficult to find one's unique identity for two reasons: because social identities were now more fluid and because new elementary education was more focused on producing like individuals. Given these circumstances, Kierkegaard thought there was a need to change communication so that it would not produce stereotyped individuals. According to the Stanford Enyclopedia of Philosophy, his rhetoric had to do three things: "...force people back onto their own resources, to take responsibility for their own existential choices, and to become who they are beyond their socially imposed identities."
Kierkegaard, like the modernists before him, had a problem with the criteria of Christianity. A devout man, he was disgusted with the corruption of the Church and the apathy of the Christians around him.
Kierkegaard also had a big problem with the new Hegelian philosophy. Kierkegaard was a big supporter of personal immortality, whereas Hegel had taken God and turned Him into an "Absolute Spirit," and argued that true human individuality is found in the submission to an evolving state. Kierkegaard challenged this theory, and when he Hegelians tried to reform and depersonalize the Absolute Spirit, Kierkegaard discovered that philosohpies are born from one philosopher, thus biasing the theory. It is because of his conflict with Hegel that he began to write in pseudonyms. When the Hegelians tried to depersonalize philosophy, Kierkegaard viewed philosophy as being born from the individual efforts and strivings of the individual philosopher. Thus why none of his pseduonyms agree with one another.
Anxiety, Despair, and Dread
In Kierkegaardian philosophy, anxiety leads to dread. Anxiety has five main points: first that anxiety proceeded Adam's sin. The entire spectrum of choices available to us produces anxiety in the soul. Secondly, this anxiety is not sin, it is natural. Thus, Kierkegaard states that man as free to not sin as he is to sin. Thirdly, we are responsible for our own sin. Just as Adam brought sinfulness upon himself, man does so as well. So we are perpetually in a state of freedom and sinfulness. So, fourthly, sinfulness produces anxiety, which is compounded by freedom. It can be this anxiety which brings the individual back to God, so anxiety can be saving through faith. We are all born into this world with the same amount of freedom and anxiety, (the same freedom that Adam possessed), and like Adam, we take a leap from freedom into sinfulness. This is the fifth point of anxiety. It is not necessitated by existence or freedom, so it's a leap more than anything. Once we are in the realm of sinfulness, it is anxiety that drives us to understand God better, thus becoming Christian rather than being a Christian.
As Kierkegaard describes under his pseudonym Anti-Climacus, dread is essential to "the self." First, we should make the distinction between "the self" and "human being." "Human being" is a synthesis, one made between the infinite and the finite, freedom and necessity, body and soul. The self is the acceptance of this and trying to maintain a degree of balance between the synthesis. However, this cannot be done by the mind alone. As you may have guessed, Kierkegaard says that acceptance of God as the unifying element to the human being synthesis is key (faith). This is how we alleviate despair. Willing to be a self is itself a form of despair. Not willing to be a self is also a form of despair. Being unaware of the possibility of being a self is also a form of despair. The only way one can become aware of the self is through sin-consciousness, which presupposes God-consciousness. The ultimate form of despair is despairing over one's own sins, which leads to the rejection of God's forgiveness, thus eliminating any possibility to get into Heaven.
As described above, the Kierkegaardian leap is from sinlessness into sinfulness, (this is described in his work The Concept of Anxiety.) But there is a second qualitative leap of faith. Kierkegaard was concerned that this leap is never easy or probable. Faith is difficult to attain because we have no sensory proof of God, of the resurrection, etc. This casts us in to fear, doubt, and ultimately, sin. This leap has no levels, no degrees, and is mediated. When Lucifer sinned against God, he did so of his own volition; and we do so in the exact manner. The leap in to sin is instantaneous, and so is the leap back into faith.
Faith for Kierkegaard
Man has no knowledge of God, empirically or rationally. Kierkegaard establishes that the only way that man can know God is through faith. And ultimately, faith is ones ability to accept the inherent paradox of Christianity: the fact that Jesus was both fully man and fully divine. Such a creature is impossible for us to comprehend, and since essential truth is impossible for us to achieve, it is presented as a paradox. So we cannot understand it, so we dismiss it. Typically, faith is dismissed as silliness because we automatically call such a paradox impossible or crazy. However, this paradox is essential to Christianity. So, the paradox creates within each person offense. Offense is, as Kierkegaard describes it, "...like standing at the crossroad. From the possibility of offense, one turns either to offense or to faith, but one never comes to faith except from the possibility of offense.... Offense...relates to the God-man and has two forms. It is either in relation to the loftiness that one is offended, that an individual human being claims to be God, acts or speaks in a manner that manifests God...or the offense is in relation to lowliness, that the one who is God is this lowly human being, suffering as a lowly human being.... The God-man is the paradox, absolutely the paradox. Therefore, it is altogether certain that the understanding must come to a standstill on it".
Kierkegaard's Method (according to Storm): Kierkegaardian dialect is difficult for the reader. Many times, the reader must be absolutely sure that the pseudonym that Kierkegaard is writing under is the voice of Kierkegaard himself, or a fallacious argument that may arise, or if he posing a view point, etc. Kierkegaard called this method of writing "indirect discourse."
Kierkegaard is most commonly associated with the existentialist philosophers. According to D. Anthony Storm and Peter Angeles, Kierkegaardian dialect is concerned primarily with the following aspects of existentialism:
- "Truth is subjectivity."
- "Abstratctions can never grasp nor communicate the reality of individual existence."
- Philosophy must concern itself with the human predicament and inner states such as alienation, anxiety, inauthenticity, dread, sense of nothingness, and anticipation of death."
- Individuals have complete freedom of the will.
- Individuals cannot help but make choices. (in part)
- Existence proceeds essence. (in part)
Some philosophers have called Kierkegaard's contribution to philosophy into question because, like Nietzsche, he was not a systematic philosopher. He never presents a stance and was more content to argue against Hegel. His driving force is "subjectivity is truth."
Kierkegaard believed Socrates, one of his heroes, to be one of the first men to demand that his conversing partners subject themselves to the problem, rather than fall back on unrationalized and fallacious arguments. And so Kierkegaard pictured himself for his contemporaries, no so much a philosopher, but one who demands that one question a philosophy, (specifically, Hegel's ideas and the idea of "Christianity,") rather than accept it's premise based on well worded arguments.
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)
- Storm, D. Anthony. D. Anthony Storm's Commentary on Kierkegaard. Available at http://www.sorenkierkegaard.org/. Accessed February 06, 2007.
- Soren Kierkegaard (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). 2006. McDonald, William, Stanford University. February 06, 2007 <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kierkegaard/>.
- Soren Kierkegaard [The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2006. McDonald, William, University of New England, Australia. February 06, 2007 <http://www.iep.utm.edu/k/kierkega.htm>.
- Soren Kerkegaard. September 2001. Lee-Yang, Jiou, TPM Online. February 06, 2007 <http://www.philosophers.co.uk/cafe/phil_sep2001.htm>.
- "Subjectivity in Kierkegaard: A Reassesment." Lemke, Steve. Presented at the Eastern regional meeting of the Society of Christian Philosophers at Salem College. <http://www.nobts.edu/Faculty/ItoR/LemkeSW/Personal/kierkegaard.html>.
- Soren Kierkegaard. Liukkonen, Petri. Pegasos. <http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/kierkega.htm>