Søren Kierkegaard

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Søren Kierkegaard
Western Philosophers
19th-century philosophy

Søren Kierkegaard
Full name Søren Aabye Kierkegaard
Birth 5 May 1813
(Copenhagen, Denmark)
Death November 11, 1855 (aged 42)
(Copenhagen, Denmark)
School/tradition Continental philosophy, Danish Golden Age Literary and Artistic Tradition, precursor to Existentialism, Postmodernism, Poststructuralism, Existential psychology, Neo-orthodoxy, and many more
Main interests Religion, Metaphysics, Epistemology, Aesthetics, Ethics, Psychology
Notable ideas Regarded as the father of Existentialism, angst, existential despair, Three spheres of human existence, knight of faith,
Signature

Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (pronounced [ˈsœːɐn ˈkʰiɐ̯kəˌɡ̊ɒˀ], but usually Anglicized as [ˈkɪəkəgɑːd, ˈkɪɚkəgɑɹd]; Listen ) ( 5 May 1813 – 11 November 1855) was a prolific 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian. Kierkegaard strongly criticized both the Hegelianism of his time, and what he saw as the empty formalities of the Danish church. Much of his work deals with religious themes such as faith in God, the institution of the Christian Church, Christian ethics and theology, and the emotions and feelings of individuals when faced with life choices. His early work was written under various pseudonyms who present their own distinctive viewpoints in a complex dialogue. Kierkegaard left the task of discovering the meaning of the works to the reader, because "the task must be made difficult, for only the difficult inspires the noble-hearted". Subsequently, many have interpreted Kierkegaard as an existentialist, neo-orthodoxist, postmodernist, humanist, individualist, etc. Crossing the boundaries of philosophy, theology, psychology, and literature, Kierkegaard came to be regarded as a highly significant and influential figure in contemporary thought.

Life

Early years (1813–1841)

Søren Kierkegaard was born to an affluent family in Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark. His mother, Ane Sørensdatter Lund Kierkegaard, had served as a maid in the household before marrying Søren's father. She was an unassuming figure: quiet, plain, and not formally educated. She is not directly referred to in Kierkegaard's books, although she affected his later writings. His mother died on July 31, 1834, age 66.

His father, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard, was a melancholic, anxious, deeply pious, and fiercely intelligent man. Convinced that he had earned God's wrath, he believed that none of his children would live past the age attained by Jesus Christ, that of 33. He believed his personal sins, such as cursing the name of God in his youth and possibly impregnating Ane out of wedlock, necessitated this punishment. Though many of his seven children died young, his prediction was disproved when two of them surpassed this age: Søren and Peter Christian Kierkegaard, a Lutheran bishop several years Søren's senior. 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). 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.

Kierkegaard's father died on August 9, 1838 at the age of 82. Before his death, he asked Søren to become a pastor. Søren was deeply influenced by his father's religious experience and life and felt obligated to fulfill his wish. Two days later, on August 11, Kierkegaard wrote: "My father died on Wednesday. I had so very much wished that he might live a few years longer, and I look upon his death as the last sacrifice which he made to his love for me; ... he died for me in order that, if possible, I might still turn into something. Of all that I have inherited from him, the recollection of him, his transfigured portrait ... is dearest to me, and I will be careful to preserve [his memory] safely hidden from the world."

Kierkegaard attended the School of Civic Virtue, where he excelled in Latin and history. In 1830, he went on to study theology at the University of Copenhagen, but while there he was drawn more towards philosophy and literature. At university, Kierkegaard wrote his dissertation, On the Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates, which was found by the university panel to be a noteworthy and well-thought out work, but a little too wordy and literary for a philosophy thesis. Kierkegaard graduated on October 20, 1841 with a Magister Artium, which today would be designated a Ph.D. With his family's inheritance of approximately 31,000 rigsdaler, Kierkegaard was able to fund his education, his living, and several publications of his early works.

Regine Olsen (1837–1841)

Regine Olsen, the love of his life, and a muse for his writings.
Regine Olsen, the love of his life, and a muse for his writings.

Another important aspect of Kierkegaard's life (generally considered to have had a major influence on his work) was his broken engagement to Regine Olsen (1822–1904). Kierkegaard met Regine on 8 May 1837 and was instantly attracted to her, and she to him. In his journals, Kierkegaard wrote about his love for Regine:

Thou sovereign of my heart treasured in the deepest fastness of my chest, in the fullness of my thought, there ... unknown divinity! Oh, can I really believe the poet's tales, that when one first sees the object of one's love, one imagines one has seen her long ago, that all love like all knowledge is remembrance, that love too has its prophecies in the individual. ... it seems to me that I should have to possess the beauty of all girls in order to draw out a beauty equal to yours; that I should have to circumnavigate the world in order to find the place I lack and which the deepest mystery of my whole being points towards, and at the next moment you are so near to me, filling my spirit so powerfully that I am transfigured for myself, and feel that it's good to be here.

Søren Kierkegaard, Journals ( 2 February 1839)

On 8 September 1840, Kierkegaard formally proposed to Regine. However, Kierkegaard soon felt disillusioned and melancholic about the marriage. Less than a year after he had proposed, he broke it off on 11 August 1841. In his journals, Kierkegaard mentions his belief that his "melancholy" made him unsuitable for marriage, but his precise motive for ending the engagement remains unclear. 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 Schlegel refused.

Soon afterwards, 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 was buried near Kierkegaard in the Assistens Cemetery in Copenhagen.

First authorship (1841–1846)

Although Kierkegaard wrote a few articles on politics, women, and entertainment in his youth and university days, many scholars believe Kierkegaard's first noteworthy work is either his university thesis, The Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates, which was presented in 1841, or his masterpiece and arguably greatest work, Either/Or, which was published in 1843. In either case, both works critiqued major figures in Western philosophic thought (Socrates in the former and Hegel in the latter), showcased Kierkegaard's unique style of writing, and displayed a maturity in writing from his works of youth. Either/Or was mostly written during Kierkegaard's stay in Berlin and was completed in the autumn of 1842.

Kierkegaard's manuscript of Philosophical Fragments.
Kierkegaard's manuscript of Philosophical Fragments.

In the same year Either/Or was published, Kierkegaard found out Regine was engaged to be married to Johan Frederik Schlegel. This fact affected Kierkegaard and his subsequent writings deeply. In Fear and Trembling, published in late 1843, one can interpret a section in the work as saying: 'Kierkegaard hopes that through a divine act, Regine would return to him'. Repetition, published on the very same day as Fear and Trembling, is about a young gentleman leaving his beloved. Several other works in this period make similar overtones of the Kierkegaard-Olsen relationship.

Other major works in this period focus on a critique of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and form a basis for existential psychology. Philosophical Fragments, The Concept of Dread, and Stages on Life's Way are about thoughts and feelings an individual may face in life, existential choices and their consequences, and whether or not to embrace religion, specifically Christianity, in one's life. Perhaps the most valiant attack on Hegelianism is the Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments which discusses the importance of the individual, subjectivity as truth, and countering the Hegelian claim that "The Rational is the Real and the Real is the Rational".

Most of the works in this authorship were philosophical in nature and written using a pseudonym and indirectly, representing different viewpoints and ways of life. However, Kierkegaard published two or three theological discourses, written under his own name, for each of the respective philosophical works. Kierkegaard wrote these discourses to clarify philosophical aspects of the pseudonymous work, discuss the theological aspects of the work, and edify the reader.

Corsair affair (1845–1846)

On 22 December 1845, Peder Ludvig Møller published an article critiquing Stages on Life's Way. The article gave Stages a poor review, but showed little understanding of the work. Møller was also a contributor of The Corsair, a Danish satirical paper that lampooned people of notable standing. Kierkegaard wrote a response in order to defend the work, ridicule Møller, and dress down The Corsair, earning him the ire of the paper and its editor, Meïr Aaron Goldschmidt.

The only two articles that Kierkegaard wrote in response to Møller were Activity of a Traveling Esthetician and Dialectical Result of a Literary Police Action. The former focused on insulting Møller's integrity and responding to his critique. The latter was a directed assault on The Corsair, in which Kierkegaard openly asked to be satirized.

With a paper like The Corsair, which hitherto has been read by many and all kinds of people and essentially has enjoyed the recognition of being ignored, despised, and never answered, the only thing to be done in writing in order to express the literary, moral order of things—reflected in the inversion that this paper with meager competence and extreme effort has sought to bring about—was for someone immortalized and praised in this paper to make application to be abused by the same paper ... May I ask to be abused—the personal injury of being immortalized by The Corsair is just too much.

Søren Kierkegaard, Dialectical Result of a Literary Police Action

Over the next few months, The Corsair took Kierkegaard up on his offer to "be abused", and unleashed a series of attacks making fun of Kierkegaard's appearance, voice, and habits. For months, he was harassed on the streets of Denmark. In an 1846 journal entry, Kierkegaard makes a long, detailed explanation of his attack on Møller and The Corsair, and also explains that this attack made him quit his indirect communication authorship:

The days of my authorship are past, God be praised. I have been granted the satisfaction of bringing it to a conclusion myself, understanding when it is fitting that I should make an end, and next after the publication of Either/Or I thank God for that. That this, once again, is not how people would see it, that I could actually prove in two words that it is so. I know quite well and find [my authorship] quite in order. But it has pained me; it seemed to me that I might have asked for that admission; but let it be. If only I can manage to become a priest. However, much of my present life may have satisfied me: I shall breathe more freely in that quiet activity, allowing myself an occasional literary work in my free time.

Søren Kierkegaard, Journals ( 9 March 1846)

Second authorship (1846–1853)

Kierkegaard's manuscript of The Sickness Unto Death.
Kierkegaard's manuscript of The Sickness Unto Death.

Whereas his first authorship focused on Hegel, this authorship focused on the hypocrisy of Christendom. It is important to realise that by ' Christendom' Kierkegaard meant not Christianity itself, but rather the church and the applied religion of his society. After the Corsair incident, Kierkegaard became interested in "the public" and the individual's interaction with it. His first work in this period of his life was Two Ages: A Literary Review which was a critique of the novel Two Ages (in some translations Two Generations) written by Thomasine Christine Gyllembourg-Ehrensvärd. After giving his critique of the story, Kierkegaard made several insightful observations on the nature of the present age and its passionless attitude towards life. One of his complaints about modernity is its passionless view of the world. Kierkegaard writes that "the present age is essentially a sensible age, devoid of passion ... The trend today is in the direction of mathematical equality, so that in all classes about so and so many uniformly make one individual". In this, Kierkegaard attacks the conformity and assimilation of individuals into an indifferent public, "the crowd". Although Kierkegaard attacks the public, he is supportive of communities where individuals keep their diversity and uniqueness.

Other works continue to focus on the superficiality of "the crowd" attempting to limit and stifle the unique individual. The Book on Adler is a work about Pastor Adolf Peter Adler's claim to have had a sacrilegious revelation and to have suffered ostracisation and expulsion from the pastorate as a consequence. According to biographer Walter Lowrie, Kierkegaard experienced similar social exclusion which actually brought him closer to his father.

As part of his analysis of the "crowd," Kierkegaard realized the decay and decadence of the Christian church, especially the Danish State Church. Kierkegaard believed Christendom had "lost its way" on the Christian faith. Christendom in this period ignored, skewed, or gave mere 'lip service' to the original Christian doctrine. Kierkegaard felt his duty in this later era was to inform others about the shallowness of so-called "Christian living". He wrote several criticisms on contemporary Christianity in works such as Christian Discourses, Works of Love, and Edifying Discourses in Diverse Spirits.

The Sickness Unto Death is one of Kierkegaard's most popular works of this era, and although some contemporary atheistic philosophers and psychologists dismiss Kierkegaard's suggested solution as faith, his analysis on the nature of despair is one of the best accounts on the subject and has been emulated in subsequent philosophies, such as Heidegger's concept of existential guilt and Sartre's bad faith.

Around 1848, Kierkegaard began a literary attack on the Danish State Church with books such as Practice in Christianity, For Self-Examination, and Judge for Yourselves!, which attempted to expound the true nature of Christianity, with Jesus as its role model.

Attack upon Christendom (1854–1855)

Søren Kierkegaard's grave in Assistens Kirkegård
Søren Kierkegaard's grave in Assistens Kirkegård

Kierkegaard's final years were taken up with a sustained, outright attack on the Danish People's Church by means of newspaper articles published in The Fatherland (Fædrelandet) and a series of self-published pamphlets called The Moment (Øjeblikket). Kierkegaard was initially called to action after Professor Hans Lassen Martensen gave a speech in church in which he 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.'

Before the tenth chapter of The Moment could be published, Kierkegaard collapsed on the street and was eventually taken to a hospital. He stayed in the hospital for over a month and refused to receive communion from a pastor, whom Kierkegaard regarded as merely an official and not a servant of God.

He said to Emil Boesen, a friend since childhood who kept a record of his conversations with Kierkegaard 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 Frederik's Hospital after being there for over a month, possibly from complications from a fall he had taken from a tree when he was a boy. He was interred in the Assistens Kirkegård in the Nørrebro section of Copenhagen. At Kierkegaard's funeral, 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.

Thought

"My only definite impression was of [Kierkegaard's] appearance, which I found almost comical. He was then twenty-three years old; he had something quite irregular in his entire form and had a strange coiffure. His hair rose almost six inches above his forehead into a tousled crest that gave him a strange, bewildered look." -Hans Brøchner recalling his impression of Søren Kierkegaard at the wedding party for Peter Kierkegaard in 1836. Pictured: Søren Kierkegaard in the coffee-house, a sketch in oils by Christian Olavius, 1843
"My only definite impression was of [Kierkegaard's] appearance, which I found almost comical. He was then twenty-three years old; he had something quite irregular in his entire form and had a strange coiffure. His hair rose almost six inches above his forehead into a tousled crest that gave him a strange, bewildered look." - Hans Brøchner recalling his impression of Søren Kierkegaard at the wedding party for Peter Kierkegaard in 1836. Pictured: Søren Kierkegaard in the coffee-house, a sketch in oils by Christian Olavius, 1843

Kierkegaard has been called a philosopher, a theologian, the Father of Existentialism, a literary critic, a humorist, a psychologist, and a poet. Two of his popular ideas are "subjectivity", and the "leap to faith," popularly referred to as the "leap of faith." The leap of faith is his conception of how an individual would believe in God, or how a person would act in love. It is not a rational decision, as it is transcending rationality in favour of something more uncanny, that is, faith. As such he thought that to have faith is at the same time to have doubt. So, for example, for one to truly have faith in God, one would also have to doubt that God exists; the doubt is the rational part of a person's thought, without which the faith would have no real substance. Doubt is an essential element of faith, an underpinning. In plain words, to believe or have faith that God exists, without ever having doubted God's existence or goodness, would not be a faith worth having. For example, it takes no faith to believe that a pencil or a table exists, when one is looking at it and touching it. In the same way, to believe or have faith in God is to know that one has no perceptual or any other access to God, and yet still has faith in God.

Kierkegaard also stressed the importance of the self, and the self's relation to the world as being grounded in self-reflection and introspection. He argued in Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments that "subjectivity is truth" and "truth is subjectivity." This has to do with a distinction between what is objectively true and an individual's subjective relation (such as indifference or commitment) to that truth. People who in some sense believe the same things may relate to those beliefs quite differently. Two individuals may both believe that many of those around them are poor and deserve help, but this knowledge may lead only one of them to decide to actually help the poor.

Kierkegaard primarily discusses subjectivity with regard to religious matters, however. As already noted, he argues that doubt is an element of faith and that it is impossible to gain any objective certainty about religious doctrines such as the existence of God or the life of Christ. The most one could hope for would be the conclusion that it is probable that the Christian doctrines are true, but if a person were to believe such doctrines only to the degree they seemed likely to be true, he or she would not be genuinely religious at all. Faith consists in a subjective relation of absolute commitment to these doctrines.

Indirect communication and pseudonymous authorship

Either/Or, one of Kierkegaard's works, was authored under the pseudonyms "A" and "B," or Judge William, and edited under the pseudonym Victor Eremita.
Either/Or, one of Kierkegaard's works, was authored under the pseudonyms "A" and "B," or Judge William, and edited under the pseudonym Victor Eremita.

Half of Kierkegaard's authorship was written behind the mask of several pseudonymous characters he created to represent different ways of thinking. This was part of Kierkegaard's indirect communication. According to several passages in his works and journals, such as The Point of View of My Work as an Author, Kierkegaard wrote this way in order to prevent his works from being treated as a philosophical system with a systematic structure. In the Point of View, Kierkegaard wrote: "In the pseudonymous works, there is not a single word which is mine. I have no opinion about these works except as a third person, no knowledge of their meaning, except as a reader, not the remotest private relation to them."

Kierkegaard used indirect communication to make it difficult to ascertain whether he actually held any of the views presented in his works. He hoped readers would simply read the work at face value without attributing it to some aspect of his life. Kierkegaard also did not want his readers to treat his work as an authoritative system, but rather look to themselves for interpretation.

Early Kierkegaardian scholars, such as Theodor W. Adorno, have disregarded Kierkegaard's intentions and argue the entire authorship should be treated as Kierkegaard's own personal and religious views. This view leads to many confusions and contradictions which make Kierkegaard appear incoherent. However, many later scholars such as the post-structuralists, have respected Kierkegaard's intentions and interpreted his work by attributing the pseudonymous texts to their respective authors.

Kierkegaard's most important pseudonyms, in chronological order:

  • Victor Eremita, editor of Either/Or
  • A, writer of many articles in Either/Or
  • Judge William, author of rebuttals to A in Either/Or
  • Johannes de Silentio, author of Fear and Trembling
  • Constantin Constantius, author of the first half of Repetition
  • Young Man, author of the second half of Repetition
  • Vigilius Haufniensis, author of The Concept of Anxiety
  • Nicolaus Notabene, author of Prefaces
  • Hilarius Bookbinder, editor of Stages on Life's Way
  • Johannes Climacus, author of Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript
  • Inter et Inter, author of The Crisis and a Crisis in the Life of an Actress
  • H.H., author of Two Ethical-Religious Essays
  • Anti-Climacus, author of The Sickness Unto Death and Practice in Christianity

Journals

The cover of the first English edition of The Journals, edited by Alexander Dru in 1938.
The cover of the first English edition of The Journals, edited by Alexander Dru in 1938.

Kierkegaard's journals are essential to understanding him and his work. He wrote over 7000 pages in his journals describing key events, musings, thoughts about his works and everyday remarks. The entire collection of Danish journals has been edited and published in 13 volumes which consist of 25 separate bindings including indices. The first English edition of the journals was edited by Alexander Dru in 1938.

His journals reveal many different facets of Kierkegaard and his work and help elucidate many of his ideas. The style in his journals is among the most elegant and poetic of his writings. Kierkegaard took his journals seriously and even once wrote that they were his most trusted confidant:

I have never confided in anyone. By being an author I have in a sense made the public my confidant. But in respect of my relation to the public I must, once again, make posterity my confidant. The same people who are there to laugh at one cannot very well be made one's confidant.

Søren Kierkegaard, Journals ( 4 November 1847)

His journals are also the source of many aphorisms credited to Kierkegaard. The following passage is perhaps the most oft-quoted aphorism from Kierkegaard's journals and is usually a key quote for existentialist studies: "The thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die." It was written on August 1, 1835.

Although his journals clarify some aspects of his work and life, Kierkegaard took care not to reveal too much. Abrupt changes in thought, repetitive writing, and unusual turns of phrase are some among the many tactics he uses to throw readers off track. Consequently, there are many varying interpretations of his journals. However, Kierkegaard did not doubt the importance his journals would have in the future. In 1849, he wrote:

Only a dead man can dominate the situation in Denmark. Licentiousness, envy, gossip, and mediocrity are everywhere supreme. Were I to die now the effect of my life would be exceptional; much of what I have simply jotted down carelessly in the Journals would become of great importance and have a great effect; for then people would have grown reconciled to me and would be able to grant me what was, and is, my right.

Søren Kierkegaard, Journals (December 1849)

Kierkegaard and Christendom

Kierkegaard mounted an attack on Christian institutions in his final years. He felt the established state church was detrimental to individuals.
Kierkegaard mounted an attack on Christian institutions in his final years. He felt the established state church was detrimental to individuals.

As mentioned above, Kierkegaard took up a sustained attack on all of Christendom, or Christianity as a political entity, during the final years of his life. In the 19th century, most Danes who were citizens of Denmark were necessarily members of the Danish State Church. Kierkegaard felt this state-church union was unacceptable and perverted the true meaning of Christianity. The main points of the attack include:

  • Church congregations are meaningless: The idea of congregations keeps individuals as children since Christians are disinclined from taking the initiative to take responsibility for their own relation to God. Kierkegaard stresses that "Christianity is the individual, here, the single individual."
  • Christendom had become secularized and political: Since the Church was controlled by the State, Kierkegaard believed the State's bureaucratic mission was to increase membership and oversee the welfare of its members. More members would mean more power for the clergymen: a corrupt ideal. This mission would seem at odds with Christianity's true doctrine, which is to stress the importance of the individual, not the whole.
  • Christianity becomes an empty religion: Thus, the state church political structure is offensive and detrimental to individuals, since everyone can become "Christian" without knowing what it means to be Christian. It is also detrimental to the religion itself since it reduces Christianity to a mere fashionable tradition adhered to by unbelieving "believers", a "herd mentality" of the population, so to speak.

If the Church is "free" from the state, it's all good. I can immediately fit in this situation. But if the Church is to be emancipated, then I must ask: By what means, in what way? A religious movement must be served religiously - otherwise it is a sham! Consequently, the emancipation must come about through martyrdom - bloody or bloodless. The price of purchase is the spiritual attitude. But those who wish to emancipate the Church by secular and worldly means (i.e. no martyrdom), they've introduced a conception of tolerance entirely consonant with that of the entire world, where tolerance equals indifference, and that is the most terrible offence against Christianity. ... the doctrine of the established Church, its organization, are both very good indeed. Oh, but then our lives: believe me, they are indeed wretched.

Søren Kierkegaard, Journals (January 1851)

Attacking the incompetence and corruption of the Christian churches, Kierkegaard seemed to have anticipated philosophers like Nietzsche who would go on to criticize the Christian religion.

I ask: what does it mean when we continue to behave as though all were as it should be, calling ourselves Christians according to the New Testament, when the ideals of the New Testament have gone out of life? The tremendous disproportion which this state of affairs represents has, moreover, been perceived by many. They like to give it this turn: the human race has outgrown Christianity.

Søren Kierkegaard, Journals ( June 19, 1852)

Criticism

Some of Kierkegaard's famous philosophical critics in the 20th century include Theodor Adorno and Emmanuel Levinas. Atheistic philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and agnostic philosophers like Martin Heidegger mostly support Kierkegaard's philosophical views, but criticize and reject his religious views.

Adorno's take on Kierkegaard's philosophy has been less than faithful to the original intentions of Kierkegaard. One critic of Adorno writes that his book Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic is "the most irresponsible book ever written on Kierkegaard" because Adorno takes Kierkegaard's pseudonyms literally, and constructs an entire philosophy of Kierkegaard which makes him seem incoherent and unintelligible. This is like confusing William Shakespeare with Othello and Dostoevsky with Raskolnikov. Another reviewer mentions that "Adorno is [far away] from the more credible translations and interpretations of the Collected Works of Kierkegaard we have today".

Levinas' main attack on Kierkegaard is focused on his ethical and religious stages, especially in Fear and Trembling. Levinas criticizes the leap of faith by saying this suspension of the ethical and leap into the religious is a type of violence.

Kierkegaardian violence begins when existence is forced to abandon the ethical stage in order to embark on the religious stage, the domain of belief. But belief no longer sought external justification. Even internally, it combined communication and isolation, and hence violence and passion. That is the origin of the relegation of ethical phenomena to secondary status and the contempt of the ethical foundation of being which has led, through Nietzsche, to the amoralism of recent philosophies.

Emmanuel Levinas, Existence and Ethics, (1963)

Levinas points to the Christian belief that it was God who first commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and that it was an angel who commanded Abraham to stop. If Abraham was truly in the religious realm, he would not have listened to the angel to stop and should have continued to kill Isaac. "Transcending ethics" seems like a loophole to excuse would-be murders from their crime and thus is unacceptable.

On Kierkegaard's religious views, Sartre offers this argument against existence of God: If existence precedes essence, it follows from the meaning of the term sentient that a sentient being cannot be complete or perfect. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre's phrasing is that God would be a pour-soi [a being-for-itself; a consciousness] who is also an en-soi [a being-in-itself; a thing]: which is a contradiction in terms.

Sartre agrees with Kierkegaard's analysis of Abraham undergoing anxiety (Sartre calls it anguish), but Sartre doesn't agree that God told him to do it. In his lecture, Existentialism is a Humanism, he says:

The man who lies in self-excuse, by saying "Everyone will not do it" must be ill at ease in his conscience, for the act of lying implies the universal value which it denies. By its very disguise his anguish reveals itself. This is the anguish that Kierkegaard called "the anguish of Abraham." You know the story: An angel commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son; and obedience was obligatory, if it really was an angel who had appeared and said, "Thou, Abraham, shalt sacrifice thy son." But anyone in such a case would wonder, first, whether it was indeed an angel and secondly, whether I am really Abraham. Where are the proofs? A certain mad woman who suffered from hallucinations said that people were telephoning to her, and giving her orders. The doctor asked, "But who is it that speaks to you?" She replied: "He says it is God." And what, indeed, could prove to her that it was God? If an angel appears to me, what is the proof that it is an angel; or, if I hear voices, who can prove that they proceed from heaven and not from hell, or from my own subconsciousness or some pathological condition? Who can prove that they are really addressed to me?

Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism

In Kierkegaard's view, Abraham's certainty had its origin in that 'inner voice' which cannot be demonstrated or shown to another ("The problem comes as soon as Abraham wants to be understood"). To Kierkegaard, every external "proof" or justification is merely on the outside and external to the subject. Kierkegaard's proof for the immortality of the soul, for example, is rooted in the extent to which one wishes to live forever.

Influence and reception

The Søren Kierkegaard Statue in Copenhagen.
The Søren Kierkegaard Statue in Copenhagen.

Kierkegaard's works were not widely available until several decades after his death. In the years immediately after his death, the Danish State Church, a major institution in Denmark at the time, shunned his work and urged other Danes to do likewise. In addition, the obscurity of the Danish language, relative to German, French, and English, made it nearly impossible for Kierkegaard to acquire non-Danish readers.

The first academic to draw attention to Kierkegaard was his fellow Dane Georg Brandes, who published in German as well as Danish. Brandes gave the first formal lectures on Kierkegaard and helped bring Kierkegaard to the attention of the rest of Europe. In 1877, Brandes also published the first book on Kierkegaard's philosophy and life. The dramatist Henrik Ibsen became interested in Kierkegaard and introduced his work to the rest of Scandinavia. While independent German translations of some of Kierkegaard's works began to appear in the 1870s, academic German translations of whole portions of Kierkegaard's work had to wait until the 1910s. These translations made it possible for Kierkegaard to begin exerting his enormous influence on 20th-century German, French, and English thinkers and authors.

In the 1930s, the first academic English translations, by Alexander Dru, David F. Swenson, Douglas V. Steere, and Walter Lowrie appeared, under the editorial efforts of Oxford University Press editor Charles Williams. The second and currently widely used academic English translations were published by the Princeton University Press in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, under the supervision of Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. A third official translation, under the aegis of the Søren Kierkegaard Research Centre, will extend to 55 volumes and is expected to be completed sometime after 2009.

Many 20th-century philosophers, both theistic and atheistic, and theologians drew many concepts from Kierkegaard, including the notions of angst, despair, and the importance of the individual. His fame as a philosopher grew tremendously in the 1930s, in large part because the ascendant existentialist movement pointed to him as a precursor, although he is now seen as a highly significant and influential thinker in his own right. Kierkegaard is commemorated as a teacher in the Calendar of Saints of the Lutheran Church on November 11.

Philosophers and theologians influenced by Kierkegaard include Hans Urs von Balthasar, Karl Barth, Simone de Beauvoir, Niels Bohr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Emil Brunner, Martin Buber, Rudolf Bultmann, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Karl Jaspers, Gabriel Marcel, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Reinhold Niebuhr, Franz Rosenzweig, Jean-Paul Sartre, Joseph Soloveitchik, Paul Tillich, Miguel de Unamuno. Paul Feyerabend's epistemological anarchism was inspired by Kierkegaard's idea of subjectivity as truth. Ludwig Wittgenstein was immensely influenced and humbled by Kierkegaard, claiming that "Kierkegaard is far too deep for me, anyhow. He bewilders me without working the good effects which he would in deeper souls". Karl Popper referred to Kierkegaard as "the great reformer of Christian ethics, who exposed the official Christian morality of his day as anti-Christian and anti-humanitarian hypocrisy".

Contemporary philosophers such as Emmanuel Lévinas, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jacques Derrida, Jürgen Habermas, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Richard Rorty, although sometimes highly critical, have also adapted some Kierkegaardian insights. Jerry Fodor has written that Kierkegaard was "a master and way out of the league that the rest of us [philosophers] play in".

Kierkegaard has also had a considerable influence on 20th-century literature. Figures deeply influenced by his work include W. H. Auden, Jorge Luis Borges, Hermann Hesse, Franz Kafka, David Lodge, Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Rainer Maria Rilke, and John Updike.

Kierkegaard also had a profound influence on psychology and is more or less the founder of Christian psychology and of existential psychology and therapy. Existentialist (often called "humanistic") psychologists and therapists include Ludwig Binswanger, Viktor Frankl, Erich Fromm, Carl Rogers, and Rollo May. May based his The Meaning of Anxiety on Kierkegaard's The Concept of Anxiety. Kierkegaard's sociological work Two Ages: The Age of Revolution and the Present Age provides an interesting critique of modernity. Kierkegaard is also seen as an important precursor of postmodernism. In popular culture, he has been the subject of serious television and radio programmes; in 1984, a six-part documentary presented by Don Cupitt (see Sea of Faith: Television series featured a programme on Kierkegaard, while on Maundy Thursday in 2008, Kierkegaard was the subject of discussion of the BBC Radio 4 programme presented by Melvyn Bragg, In Our Time.

Kierkegaard predicted his posthumous fame, and foresaw that his work would become the subject of intense study and research. In his journals, he wrote:

What the age needs is not a genius - it has had geniuses enough, but a martyr, who in order to teach men to obey would himself be obedient unto death. What the age needs is awakening. And therefore someday, not only my writings but my whole life, all the intriguing mystery of the machine will be studied and studied. I never forget how God helps me and it is therefore my last wish that everything may be to his honour.

Søren Kierkegaard, Journals ( 20 November 1847)

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