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Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855)

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Themes, Arguments, and Ideas

Søren Kierkegaard lived the majority of his life alone. He left his native Copenhagen only three times—each time to visit Berlin—and never married, though he was engaged for a short time. Despite his solitary existence, Kierkegaard’s writings are some of the most impassioned and controversial in all of philosophy. He is sometimes called a “poet-philosopher” in honor of both his passion and his highly literary experiments in style and form. Kierkegaard is known for his critiques of Hegel, for his fervent analysis of the Christian faith, and for being an early precursor to the existentialists.

Kierkegaard was born in 1813, the year Denmark went bankrupt. Although Kierkegaard’s father had personally managed to escape financial ruin, Denmark as a nation struggled for much of the early to mid-1800s. The people put increasing pressure on the monarchs to institute a democracy, and a free constitution was finally established in 1848. The changes leading up to the governmental restructuring resulted in an explosion of wealth and learning and afforded citizens like Kierkegaard the leisure and environment necessary to pursue a life of writing and thinking. However, democratization also helped inspire one of Kierkegaard’s most enduring philosophical themes: freedom could actually lead to fear. While the new religious and social freedoms available in Denmark brought many positive changes, they also had psychological repercussions that deeply concerned Kierkegaard. He felt that having the freedom to choose inevitably involved feeling anxiety over which path to choose, even as it simultaneously inspired joy. Kierkegaard also worried that too many people squandered that freedom by blindly following public opinion. Kierkegaard was born into a wealthy and respected family, the youngest of seven siblings. His mother was an unassuming figure: quiet, plain, and not formally educated. Kierkegaard’s father, on the other hand, was melancholic, anxious, deeply pious, and fiercely intelligent. Kierkegaard’s father believed that a youthful denunciation of God had brought a curse upon his family and that all his children would die before the age of thirty-four (a fate that only Søren and his brother Peter escaped). Kierkegaard ended up inheriting a great deal of his own intellectual and psychological character from his father. In 1830, he enrolled at Copenhagen University and began to study theology, per his father’s wishes. His mother died while he was at university, and despite keeping a remarkably detailed set of journals, Kierkegaard never mentioned her death. He didn’t take his theological studies very seriously, though he was reading a great deal of literature and philosophy. Kierkegaard was highly social during this period, attending dinners, concerts, and the theater, and becoming well known for his wit and good humor. When his father died in 1838, however, Kierkegaard settled down and devoted himself to the study of theology.

Kierkegaard received his doctoral degree in theology in 1840. He had inherited a large sum of money from his father, and as a rich, accomplished, young man, Kierkegaard was considered one of Copenhagen’s most eligible bachelors. He became engaged to the beautiful Regine Olsen, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a politician, but later broke their engagement. Despite their deep love for one another, Kierkegaard apparently believed that his life as a thinker made him unsuitable for marriage, particularly to a young, inexperienced girl. Kierkegaard had strong feelings for Olsen throughout his life, despite her having married another man and leaving Copenhagen with him. His relationship with Olsen—like his relationship with his father—is a major biographical influence on his philosophical work.

After breaking his engagement with Olsen, Kierkegaard retired to a solitary life of writing, publishing a prodigious amount of work over the next several years. At first he felt that his books weren’t being noticed outside elite literary circles, which was rendering his work politically and socially ineffectual. To bring attention to his books, he tried to provoke the satirical paper The Corsair to attack him in its pages. Kierkegaard succeeded in 1945, though The Corsair focused their criticisms mainly on his personal rather than intellectual life. Kierkegaard was lampooned in The Corsair for years, which significantly damaged his social standing. It did, however, spur him into a highly productive phase of writing and publishing. Kierkegaard published his first major book, Either/Or, in 1843 and his last, The Changelessness of God, in 1855, the year of his death. Between these two books, Kierkegaard produced over 30 volumes of philosophy, theology, and criticism.

One of the driving forces behind Kierkegaard’s work was a desire to refute the tenets of Hegelian philosophy. Hegel was a German philosopher who wrote during the late 1700s and the early to mid-1800s and whose work had come to dominate European philosophical thought. Hegel’s major philosophical project was developing the notion of a “historical dialectic.” Generally speaking, the dialectic is a logical, argumentative method that philosophers like Plato and Socrates employed in their attempts to ascertain the truth. In the dialectic, one person proposes an idea or belief. His or her partner refutes that idea, pointing out the argument’s flaws. This allows a new, more convincing argument to be advanced. The process continues until all misconception has been cleared away and only the truth remains. Hegel believed that the evolution of human societies could be explained according to the dialectical model. According to him, societies’ ideas develop collectively. Society begins with one notion of the world and eventually comes to refute it, leading to a new, collectively accepted model. A culture’s ideas naturally and inevitably progress according to this dialectical pattern. The historical dialectic would eventually lead a culture to God, who was, according to Hegel, the foundation of the logical structure of the universe. (See chapter 12, Hegel.)

Kierkegaard, on the other hand, didn’t think that God could be understood or reached through logic. God was greater than, not equivalent to, logic. The only way to reach God, according to Kierkegaard, was through faith—the opposite of reason—for it requires one to embrace the absurd and the unexplainable. While Hegel spent his life trying to explain how to reach God, Kierkegaard spent his life obscuring the path to prove to people that God was beyond intelligence. Kierkegaard greatly admired Hegel but believed Hegel had committed a great wrong by claiming to have genuinely reached the truth.

In addition to his attacks on Hegelianism, Kierkegaard is often noted as being the “father of existentialism,” though his work long predates the term itself. Briefly, existentialism is the belief that the world has no intrinsic meaning or purpose and, consequently, that individuals alone bear the responsibility for their actions and decisions. Kierkegaard rejected Hegel’s historical dialectic, which Kierkegaard felt was overly systematic and deterministic. Kierkegaard—like the existentialists who followed him—stressed that each individual must negotiate his or her own relationship with God without any mediation from the church, the government, or other thinkers (including himself) (see chapter 19, Sartre).

Kierkegaard was heavily influenced by the ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Socrates and by the rhetorical methods they adopted to convey their arguments. Socrates believed that the knowledge of most “experts” and “wise men” was based on poor reasoning. To expose these misconceptions, Socrates would pretend not to understand them, forcing these wise men to explain and examine their own beliefs. Often, when applying this tactic, Socrates would find that these people had simply adopted the dogma from earlier generations without properly questioning this received wisdom. In this way, Socrates highlighted the discrepancy between the appearance of possessing wisdom and actually possessing it. In his texts, Plato often employed dialogues, wherein various characters would debate all sides of an issue, often not coming to a coherent conclusion. The purpose of Plato’s dialogues was much the same as Socrates’ method of relentless questioning: to get readers or listeners to consider the issue for themselves. Instead of claiming to know the answers, Plato and Socrates sought to find the proper questions. Kierkegaard employed similar tactics in his writing. He didn’t believe he had all the answers, but he wanted to engage and provoke his readers so that they, in turn, would seek answers for themselves. Kierkegaard employed satire, parody, and irony in his writing as well as techniques that disoriented and potentially confused readers. Kierkegaard wanted his readers to question his authority as much as anyone else’s.

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