Soren Kierkegaard was
born in Copenhagen into a strongly pietist family. He entered the theology faculty at Copenhagen
University but, having doubts about orthodox Christianity, studied philosophy
and literature. He underwent a 'conversion'
experience in 1838, and after passing his theological examinations determined
to become a Lutheran Minister. In 1840
he became engaged but, feeling that marriage would be incompatible with his
'calling', he broke off what was already a somewhat tense relationship. He then became something of a recluse and
devoted his life to philosophical and theological writing, much of which was
directed against the established Danish Church.
 The primary motivation behind Kierkegaard's thought was his
objection to Hegelianism, which he had encountered as a student. He argued that abstract, speculative thought or conceptualization
ignores what actually exists the real, concrete particular [a]. Hegel's system threatens human uniqueness and
individuality. One's individuality is
not to be achieved through any absorption of the particular into a One or
Universal of any kind be it social, ideological, philosophical, or indeed
religious. Accordingly Kierkegaard
rejected Hegel's treatment of Christianity as a set of rationalized dogmas. He also rejected Hegel's
'ontological' argument and his obscuring of the qualititative distinction
between God and man. For
Kierkegaard the gap between man and the transcendent God has to be overcome by a 'leap of faith'
not through conceptual, speculative
thought [b]. Arguably the emotional turmoil of what seems
to have been a somewhat neurotic personality at this early stage of his life
may have coloured his perception of the human condition, which he supposed to be characterized by such
human responses to feelings as 'anguish', 'guilt', 'dread' (Angst), all of which are associated with
his approach to religious faith [c]. Throughout his
writings he stresses authentic existence. Philosophy, he says, should be inseparable
from life and man's 'existential situation' [d].
Although he rejected the content of
Hegelian idealism, he appropriated the 'dialectic', albeit radically
modified. For him it is not one of categories or ideas spun in a
web of theses, antitheses and syntheses. Rather it is one of universality to particularity, a dialectic of
commitment, will and choice, not one of
speculative thought. Broadly three
stages of the dialectic [e] may be discerned
though Kierkegaard is not always consistent in his presentation of them.
1. The aesthetic stage [se especially Either/Or]. He initially contrasts the aesthetic way of life
with the ethical. The aesthetic man has
no regard for moral standards or religious dogmas. He is guided by imagination, emotion,
impulse, and the senses. He seeks to
overcome and transcend all forms of limitation on his individuality, and to
achieve 'self-dispersal' at the sensual level, thereby expressing his
freedom. However, the quest for the
unlimited or infinite proves illusory and futile, and leads to despair. He must
therefore either remain in this condition or choose to commit himself make
the 'leap' to the next level.
2. The ethical stage [Either/Or and, later, Concluding Unscientific Postscript in
which religion comes to cover the ethical]. The individual accepts moral standards and duties grounded in
universal reason but for Kierkegaard as much felt intensely as accessed
through consciousness. This commitment
involves renunciation of his impulsive, sensual self; and he may become the
'tragic-hero'. But ethical man, while
seemingly affirming his self-sufficiency, may come to recognise that he is
after all inadequate and has failed to overcome his inherent sinfulness and
guilt [see Sickness unto Death].
3. The stage of religious
faith. Man by means of a further
'leap' commits himself to the personal, transcendent God the Absolute Thou. God, according to
Kierkegaard, is not revealed through speculative reason, or by any
rationalizing of Christianity, but is implicit in man's awareness of his
fallibility and guilt, and his need to
overcome his finitude and alienation from God. Faith is identified
with subjective or religious truth [f] "an objective uncertainty held fast in an
appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness". This is, he says, the highest truth
attainable for an existing individual.
Kierkegaard is thereby indicating the uneliminable tension between 'inwardness'
and 'objective uncertainty'.
The transition from one
stage to another is not entirely irrational, in so far as one has reasons to
move beyond the aesthetic to the ethical and hence to the level of religious
truth. But the rational will is subordinated to, though realized in
the act of choice and commitment [g]. The
significance of Kierkegaard's emphasis on the existential is clear in his view
of man as actively, consciously striving to commit himself at every moment of
his life. This is not a once and for all
transition through the three dialectical stages. The authentically existential man is thus
always in a process of becoming, driving forward to realize or make himself in
relation to God. Man is an actor not a
spectator, an agent not a speculative thinker. He remains open to
the possibility of freedom; and as such he is both attracted towards what has
not yet been achieved, namely, self-realization in relation to God, and
repelled by it in so far as he sees himself leaping into the unknown or
renouncing what he has hitherto held dear. This is what he
means by 'dread' [h]: he calls it "a sympathetic antipathy and an
antipathetic sympathy" [see The Concept
Kierkegaard's philosophy, such as it is, is notable for its critique
of 'objective' speculative systems (especially Hegel's, which he sees as
threatening human individuality), and on the other hand (and complementing this
view) for his emphasis on 'subjective thinking', faith, and commitment. He is generally regarded as the first
'existentialist' philosopher his key concept being 'dread'. He has been criticized for his apparently
total subordination of reason to faith. Commitment might therefore be regarded as irrational and hence arbitrary. He certainly provides no adequate treatment
of the traditional faith-reason debate. What justifies choice? Kierkegaard seems to regard reason as having value only to the extent
that it can recognise paradox, and that this very paradox is the only criterion
on which commitment the 'leap' can be based.
Kierkegaard: [of many writings] Enten-Eller:
Et Livs Fragment (1843) (Either/Or: A Fragment of Life); Philosophiske
Smuler (1844) (Philosophical Fragments); Begrebet Angest (1844) (The Concept of Dread); Afsluttende uvidenskabelig Efterskrift
til de Philosophiske Smuler (1846) Concluding Unscientific Postscript); Sygdommen til Doden (1849) (Sickness unto Death). Most of these books are available in English
translation either by W. Lowrie, D. F. & L. M. Swenson, or H. V. & E. H. Hong; Sickness unto Death is also translated
by A. Hannay. There is a selection
edited by L. M. Hollander. See also J.
Rée and J. Chamberlain (eds), Kierkegaard: A Critical Reader.
A. Hannay, Kierkegaard.
G. Pattison, G., The Philosophy of Kierkegaard.
A. Hannay & G. D. Marino (eds), The Cambridge
Companion to Kierkegaard.