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Born: 1813, Copenhagen, Denmark

Died: 1855, Copenhagen, Denmark

Major Works: Either/Or (1843), Fear and Trembling (1843), Philosophical Fragments (1844), Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846), Sickness unto Death (1848)

Major Ideas

As human beings, we are often in situations in which we must choose between incompatible alternatives.

God may place us religiously in paradoxical situations of anguished choice as a test of faith.

There are objective problems, but they cannot be answered objectively for the person, who must decide about his or her subjective relation.

We live aesthetically without commitment, but ethical situations demand decisions from us that are decisive.

The individual is more important than the universal.

Uncertainly permeates human life and is only overcome by human decisiveness.

Paradox stands at the center of all human existence.

The essential self lives inwardly in ways that cannot be given full outward expression.

Sometimes known as the "melancholy Dane," Soren Kierkegaard was a local celebrity in what he liked to call a provincial town. He seldom traveled outside Denmark and did not like Berlin, the great philosophical center, when he did go. His fame comes partly from opposing Hegel, the dominant philosopher of the time, for his rebellion against the established church as lifeless, and for his championing of the individual against "mass man." He is acknowledged as the father of "existentialism," which became well known only a century later when popularized and developed by French writers (such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus) in novels and plays. He broke off a love affair with a young girl and never married, saying his disposition was too melancholy. Although he wrote profusely, he never worked but lived comfortably on his inheritance.

As much as with any philosopher, Kierkegaard's own life figures prominently in his writing. He comments on his broken engagement, his unhappy childhood, and his loneliness as an isolated figure. He claimed to be inwardly unhappy, although he was a known and somewhat celebrated local figure. He opposed the notion of "progress" and maintained that all human beings stand where everyone before them has stood. The advances of science, and even of civilization, do not take the burden of decision off the individual.

Kierkegaard struggled all his life with the idea of becoming a country parson, but never did. He died in conflict with the church, denouncing it for making faith and the religious life too easy and too respectable (see The Attack on Christendom). He felt that, ultimately, each individual stands alone.


"Subjectivity" is the concept most often associated with Kierkegaard. He develops this in relation to the interpretation of Scripture (primarily in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript). There is a "scholarly, historical" approach that attempts to determine the facts and make judgments based on the evidence. Such objectivity is necessary, Kierkegaard claimed, but most important are a person's relationships to these factors. Each individual must decide how he or she stands in relationship to the evidence and what resolving these questions means. These are objective questions, but the individual also has subjective concerns. These two approaches cannot be reconciled, and we must all learn to live in that tension. Kierkegaard's approach opposes the Hegelian notion of the dialectic, a synthesis between thesis and antithesis. Kierkegaard sees no synthesis, no reconciliation between life's oppositions. A person can allow decisions to be made for him or her, but that means a loss of individuality.

God places the religious individual in a similar situation, demanding faith in a situation of unrelieved anxiety. Faith for Kierkegaard is not a safe, contented matter but one of constant anxiety. In Fear and Trembling, he stresses the concept of "dread," which is different from physical fear. Dread has no specific object and reflects essentially the emptiness of the self. The self is not born; it is made; constituted by the many decisions that must be made. But the task fills a person with dread upon realizing how difficult it is. Such freedom is thrust upon one and is pot necessarily what one chooses. Consequently, we may seek escape from responsibility and let someone else choose for us.


In Either/Or, Kierkegaard celebrates the aesthetic life as one in which one lives and enjoys the present moment. All decisions and seriousness are set aside. One avoids commitments as restrictive. However, just as there is a subjective as well as an objective problem, so there are times of ethical demands when a choice cannot be avoided; one is then forced to decide between incompatible alternatives. We seek to avoid such decisions when we can, Kierkegaard acknowledges, but they add seriousness and stability to life. The personality grows in choice and declines in indecision. We seek support, but that means giving up our autonomy to the group. Yet it is wrong to say that Kierkegaard despises the aesthetic. There really is a lot we should enjoy. The issue is just not to avoid decision by continued enjoyment.

In his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard wants to oppose historical understanding by saying that the future is more important than the past and is not controlled by the past. We make the mistake of seeing the past as finished and then treating the future as if it were just as fixed, whereas human futures are open and contingent and subject to decision. Necessity appears as we look at the fixity of the historical record, but we really need to take the openness of the future and use that as our model for understanding how the past came to be. We need to discover our freedom by discovering how the past need not determine the future. And if outer circumstances seem fixed, that is because we have not understood how different our inner life is.

Kierkegaard's writing style is often unusual, with a dramatic or literary flair. This is partly because he worries a great deal about communication; he thinks it very difficult to make one aware of the truth. Like Socrates, whom he admires, he believes in indirect techniques that allow the other person a freedom of determination. The writer's job is not to convey truth, which on the subjective level Kierkegaard thinks is impossible, but to awaken the reader to an awareness of the problems involved. Thus, awareness is the goal, not conversion to a point of view. The author needs to keep a distance from the reader so that the reader develops a sense of how she or he relates to that question; the author's aim is to shift the burden of decision onto the reader.

"Chance" and the "moment" are important concepts for Kierkegaard, because everyone wants to escape necessity and stay free. Recognizing the role of chance in life helps one to see how much is contingent and how little overall control there is. If we can cut ourselves free and stand in the moment only, we can be happy, unburdened by the past. But we can also get free of past lines of determination and exercise our options, if we do not let the right moment for decision go by. In action we may not be so aware of the importance of chance, but if we see the unstructuredness of our inner lives, then we see better how little is determined for us. Uncertainty is a state we live in constantly, if we are not fooled by an outward appearance of fixed states. (This is the fundamental theme of Kierkegaard's Sickness unto Death.)

Kierkegaard borrows the midwife image from Socrates. The author/philosopher's job is not to convince or to put ideas into people's heads but simply to assist them in bringing to birth thoughts of their own. This requires passion; no originality is easy and no decision obvious. Thus, one reason to write is to try to stir up passion in order to facilitate decisiveness. Kierkegaard is not "antirational," as is sometimes said, but he does believe that unaided reason cannot often bring the individual to decide about matters of life importance, particularly ethical problems and religious matters. The birth of a decision is not an easy process. It requires a teacher in the sense not of one who lectures, but in the sense of one who raises the level of awareness and intensity. An age that lacks passion, as Kierkegaard thought was true of his time, cannot act decisively in the midst of uncertainty.

God figures prominently on all of the pages of Kierkegaard's writings. It is struggling with religious problems that brings Kierkegaard to his novel philosophical ideas. He says that the self becomes a self only in relationship to God. This is partly because we begin as blank entities and need the challenge of a strong personality to draw us along. But God is always a paradox for Kierkegaard, always a challenge, and always the one who disturbs the individual most. To deal with God is difficult but necessary, so that Kierkegaard does not really see the possibility of religion's unimportance. He takes its centrality in life for granted. His was a religious age but he thought it lacked inner commitment.

Kierkegaard often speaks of the poet and surely sees himself in that role. A poet has an inner suffering, he feels, that can be expressed in beautiful words, but only symbolically and indirectly. Philosophical truth is like poetry in its form, for both the poet and the philosopher are in conflict with existence. But struggle is necessary and nothing is learned by smooth passage. Truth cannot be directly stated, or at least the truths important to living individuals cannot be. No one can be an authority for another or guide that person to truth. One can be a witness but cannot say what is true for another. Thus the beauty of poetry and its impact is a good image for Kierkegaard of how philosophy should go about influencing people.

In writing a little review of his life as an author (in The Point of View), Kierkegaard sees himself as a religious writer who wants to make people aware of life's dilemmas. He argues that there was a single plan to his whole written production, but this statement was no doubt made partly tongue in cheek, since the writings are so vastly different and so heterodox in nature. Kierkegaard stresses that life is understood backwards, although it must be moved forward. Understanding is retrospective but in many ways deceptive, since actions do not develop logically from their origin. However, Kierkegaard's is primarily an "inner rebellion," since he thinks the inner life is where the crucial battles must be fought. Hegel makes life progress from inward to outward manifestation. Kierkegaard thinks the inner and the outer will always be a conflict of irreconcilables. But these tensions are what give life its meaning-but also its dread.

Further Reading

Arbaugh, George. Kierkegaard's Authorship: A Guide to the Writings. Rock Island, Ill.: Augustana College Library, 1967; An essay systematizing Kierkegaard's prolific writings.

Lowrie, Walter. Kierkegaard. New York: Oxford University Press, 1938. This work by the translator of Kierkegaard remains the most solid and reliable introduction to the genius of Kierkegaard.

Malantsckuk, Gregor. Kierkegaard's Thought. Translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971. A scholar's impressive and successful attempt to add structure to Kierkegaard's often paradoxical, dialectical, and poetic writings.

Sontag, Frederick. A Kierkegaard Handbook. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1979. An introduction to the key concepts in Kierkegaard's writings.

Thomte, Reidar. Kierkegaard's Philosophy of Religion. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1948. Philosophy of religion is the key to much of Kierkegaard's wider philosophical writings.

Thulstrup, Niels. Kierkegaard's Relationship to Hegel. Translated by George Stengren. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980. Kierkegaard's rebellion against Hegel's systematic thought is helpful in the attempt to understand what Kierkegaard is trying to say and in what way it is novel and illuminating.
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Publication:Great Thinkers of the Western World
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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