Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

“It is impossible to exist without passion, unless we understand the word “exist” in the loose sense of a so-called existence. . . . Eternity is the winged horse, infinitely fast, and time is a worn-out nag; the existing individual is the driver. That is to say, he is such a driver when his mode of existence is not an existence loosely so called; for then he is no driver, but a drunken peasant who lies asleep in the wagon and lets the horses take care of themselves. To be sure, he also drives and is a driver, and so there are perhaps many who—also exist.” –Søren Kierkegaard


  • Kierkegaard was born the seventh child of a deeply religious father who believed that he and his family had been cursed by God because of a momentary denunciation of God.
  • When Kierkegaard’s mother died, his father remarried the family maid, deepening his guilt and sense that his family would be cursed.
  • A number of brothers and sisters subsequently died, increasing Kierkegaard’s father’s despair.
  • A biography by Gardiner captures how Kierkegaard felt about his father: “…his feelings towards the man… were ambivalent: he was fascinated by his father’s vivid if morbid imagination, appears to have been impressed by his intellect and powers of argument, and always remained bound to his memory by some profound emotional affinity that involved a strange mixture of love and fear.”
  • When his father died, Kierkegaard seemed to inherit his father’s morbidity. He wrote in his diary, “I suspected that my father’s ripe old age was not a divine blessing, but rather a curse; that our family’s excellent mental gifts served only to excite us mutually; I felt the stillness of death rise around me when in my father I saw a doomed man destined to survive us all, a cross on the grave of his own hopes. A guilt must be weighing on our entire family; God’s punishment must be upon it; our family was to vanish, swept aside by God’s mighty hand, blotted out, erased like an experiment goen wrong.”
  • He famously broke off an engagement with a woman he deeply cared about, torn between his feelings for her and his desire to be alone.
  • Kierkegaard sufferd abuse in Copenhagen because of a conflict with a fellow philosopher. This led to unflattering writings and caricatures about Kierkegaard in some of the most-read papers in the city.
  • It’s somewhat difficult to understand Kierkegaard because of his unusual writing style. Kierkegaard’s early work was written under various pseudonymous characters who present their own distinctive viewpoints and interact with each other in complex dialogue. He assigns pseudonyms to explore particular viewpoints in-depth, which may take up several books in some instances, while Kierkegaard, openly or under another pseudonym, critiques that position.
  • During his life, he battled to defend and then to reform the Church.
  • He is considered the father of Existentialism.

Christian Existentialism

  • Kierkegaard believed in a Creator, and in Christianity. However, he recognized that he was faithful by choice, not out of logic. The Existential aspect of this is the anguish caused by two aspects of Christianity: (1) You do not really meet the Creator until death yet suicide is not an option or everyone would try it. (2) Freedom is a punishment, not a reward, yet mankind relishes this freedom.
  • Consider the following paradox from Kierkegaard’s notes: Adam probably never thought about eating the fruit of knowledge until he was prohibited from doing so. At the moment Adam was commanded not to eat the fruit, he realized he could eat the fruit and it might even be worth eating. The Creator, knowing human nature so well, must have known temptation was a strong force. Why then did the Creator give man a test Adam was almost certain to fail? Was Adam meant to fail in order to allow human development?
  • Existentialism is, in large part, the idea that life is a series of usually poor alternatives. Even a “good” decision has negative aspects. Adam realized not eating the fruit of knowledge would keep him from being more like the Creator, who possessed knowledge. Eating the fruit was certain to anger the Creator. Adam made a choice — regardless of any external force, the choice was really his and his alone. Adam could have refused Eve and the serpent had he wanted. We always have choices, no matter what we might use as an excuse.

Three Stages of Life

One of Kierkegaard’s major contributions to philosophy was his theory that life was experienced in three distinct stages, with the caveat that not everyone would experience every stage.. These stages are: aesthetic, ethical, and religious. Simplified, these are the pursuit of pleasure, the assumption of duty to society, and the obedience to a Creator.

  • Aesthetic individuals are concerned with only experiences or abstract data. The aesthetics of experience include Hedonism, Materialism, and other life approaches dedicated to pleasure or personal gratification. These individuals think life is to be enjoyed and experienced in the here and now, without regard to long-term consequences. Often, these individuals seek sexual pleasures or artificial stimuli such as narcotics.
    • The aesthetic interested in abstract data is a Rationalist or Relativist, not wanting to make difficult choices. For these individuals, everything is relative to the individual, without greater meaning. The abstract intellectual observes the world in a detached and objective manner, as if what has happened in the past does not affect the present.
    • Aesthetic life eventually becomes a source of boredom. For the Hedonist, there are only so many experiences, and each must be better than the last. For the intellectual, once all is abstracted into nothingness, there is no reason to go on living. If everything just is, without purpose or relation, then despair takes hold.
  • Ethical individuals recognize the despair of aesthetics, and are compelled to find greater meaning in life. Ethical individuals develop a system by which they will make choices and build relationships. The act of making decisions and developing and ethical system brings one closer to self-awareness. This process is similar to phenomenological reduction, in that learning about others and what they think helps one learn about the self, the ego.
  • Religious individuals experience both suffering and faith. Only at this level does one truly understand the self. Julian Baggini argues that “Kierkegaard believed that both the aesthetic and ethical spheres of life were important parts of human existence, but that neither by itself is sufficient to fully explain it. He did not believe that these two spheres could be rationally reconciled, but that a leap of faith could bring together these conflicting spheres of human existence. In Christ, Kierkegaard saw the aesthetic and ethical reconciled: finite man and infinite God coexisting in the figure of Jesus, not as something that can be rationally explained, but as something that can only be embraced by going beyond rationality and into the realm of faith.”

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. Faith is not a decision based on evidence that, say, certain beliefs about God are true or a certain person is worthy of love. No such evidence could ever be enough to pragmatically justify the kind of total commitment involved in true religious faith or romantic love. Faith involves making that commitment anyway.
  • Professor Robert Solomon argues that Kierkegaard’s s basic point was “to be religious is to make a passionate, individual choice, a “leap of faith” against all evidence, even against reason itself. Faith is something personal, not a matter of doctrine, churches, social groups, or ceremonies.
  • Kierkegaard 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 one’s beliefs about God; the doubt is the rational part of a person’s thought involved in weighing evidence, without which the faith would have no real substance.
  • Someone who does not realize that Christian doctrine is inherently doubtful and that there can be no objective certainty about its truth does not have faith but is merely credulous. 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.
  • As Kierkegaard writes, “doubt is conquered by faith, just as it is faith which has brought doubt into the world”.
  • Rather than leading to atheism, Kirkegaard argued, the absurdity of the universe should lead one to faith.

The Individual

  • The individual, the self, was everything to Kierkegaard. According to Kaufmann, Kierkegaard hoped to elevate the individual to a new philosophical level. The self is a series of possibilities; every decision made redefines the individual. This concept was further developed by Sartre. The knowledge that “I” define the “self” results in “the dizziness of freedom” and “fear and trembling.” It is a great responsibility to create a person, yet that is exactly what each human does — creates a self. This self is independent from all other knowledge and “truths” defined by other individuals.
  • Kierkegaard contended that living is the art of the existentialist, while previous philosophies engages only in thought. Philosophers were studying concepts, but not the individual behind the concepts — that was limited to the nascent realm of psychology. Kierkegaard did not believe in universal truths, only truth as seen by one individual.
  • Existentialism accepts that truth is subjective. Kierkegaard further stated that the highest form of subjectivity was passion. To think like an Existentialist is to contemplate the self, the Creator, and the universe with passion. According to this philosophy, all objective truth is to be questioned, as the Creator is the only entity with knowledge of absolutes.
  • SK: “God does not think; He creates; God does not exist; He is eternal. Man thinks and exists, and existence separates thought and being.”

Objective Madness

The existentialist philosopher, Kierkegaard, writes about people who suffer from what he calls ‘objective madness’. People with objective madness do not really exist because they have completely lost themselves to objectivity by preoccupying themselves with facts: they even consider themselves to be just another fact. Kierkegaard contrasts ‘objective madness’ with ‘subjective madness’, what is commonly understood as madness. For Kierkegaard, the person who suffers from objective madness is far less human, has far less soul, than a person who suffers from subjective madness. The subjective madman is all too human, his madness reveals his living soul.

A good example of a subjective madman is Don Quixote. A good example of an objective madwoman is former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, although most politicians would fit the bill. In a sense, Don Quixote is far more real as a fictional character than Thatcher is as a factual character. Kierkegaard writes, ‘One shrinks from looking into the eyes of a madman [with subjective madness] lest one be compelled to plumb there the depths of his delirium; but one dares not look at a madman [with objective madness] at all, from fear of discovering that he has eyes of glass and hair made from carpet rags; that he is, in short, an artificial product’