Author: Nathan Johnson
What does the life of Søren Kierkegaard reveal about Scandinavian history?
Søren Kierkegaard was a nineteenth-century Danish philosopher and novelist, who has also been called the first and most influential existentialist - existentialism being the study of existence. He is one of the leading philosophers and writers in Scandinavian history, with his work being studied all over the world up to the present day. Born in Copenhagen on May 5, 1813, Kierkegaard lived a relatively quiet life, although his thoughts and ideas were not without controversy. He is well-known for his criticisms of the Hegelian system, stressing the importance of subjectivity over objectivity, and his questioning of Christianity - in particular, its role and set-up in Denmark and the rest of the world. He is also acclaimed for his emphasis on the individual, similar to many other nineteenth-century thinkers. Kierkegaard died suddenly in Copenhagen on November 11, 1855, at the age of forty-two. His works have become more popular since his death, and have influenced many existentialists in the years since. Kierkegaard was the youngest of seven children, born to ageing parents Michael Pederson Kierkegaard who was fifty-six, and Anne Sørensdatter who was forty-four. His mother and all his siblings (except one) died before Søren was twenty-one, and he began to believe that he, too, would die early. His "domineering" father had a large impact on his childhood and adolescence. Michael was devoutly religious, and a strong intellectual, with an expectation of his son to follow in his footsteps. Although Søren at times rebelled against his father, he came to the belief that his life was destined to be one of intellect. He enrolled at the University of Copenhagen in 18301, taking on a degree in theology. Kierkegaard spent the best part of a decade studying at the University (in many disciplines other than theology), where he began to rebel against the system there. He believed it did not supply him with "a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die."2 Still, he excelled in theology, and accepted his degree in July 1840.3
The early 1940s was a significant period for Søren Kierkegaard. In 1837, he had met and fell in love with Regine Olsen. After Kierkegaard has obtained his degree, they announced their engagement in 18404 when Regine was only seventeen. By this time, however, Kierkegaard realised that he wanted something in his life which he could "live and die for".5 His father had since died, and Søren was intent on making his own name - quite separate from the successes of Michael Pederson Kierkegaard. He had decided that his future lay in writing, so that he could share his Christian and philosophical ideas with the world. Whilst Kierkegaard clearly loved Regine, he had broken off the engagement the following year and set about his work. This event was important, however, as "...there can be no doubt as to its significance for his later thought and writings."6 That same year, in 1841, Kierkegaard received a doctorate for his work entitled The Concept of Irony, based on the works of Socrates. This was his first significant piece of work, and was to be followed by many more pieces in the proceeding years.
From 1841, Kierkegaard "...devoted himself instead to living as a writer on the very comfortable income he had inherited from his father's estate."7 In the early part of the decade, he wrote several famous texts - many of them being a reflection on his own private life, including his break-up with Regine. He also wrote many of these books under different pseudonyms, as he liked to draw upon his previous writings and either debate them or put forward a different point of view. Texts such as Either/Or (1843), Fear and Trembling (1843), Philosophical Fragments (1844), Stages on Life's Way (1845) and Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846)8 are all examples of Kierkegaard's early work, which is still studied globally today.
Kierkegaard began to see "philosophical enquiry neither as the construction of systems nor as the analysis of concepts, but as the expression of an individual existence."9 This summarises his philosophical beliefs completely, and his ideas conflicted with the earlier ideas of the German philosopher, Hegel. In fact, "Kierkegaard devoted an inordinate amount of space at levelling scorn on ... G.W. Hegel."10 Under a Hegelian point of view, an individual only represents his age, and his point in time in the whole historical process. For Kierkegaard, there is no absolutes, and an individual is open to make the best and most appropriate choice for him or her. He takes it further by claiming that "Hegel dissolved the concreteness of individual existence"11, giving it an existentialist viewpoint. Thus, Kierkegaard dismissed Hegel's idea of an absolute and supreme view of the world, leaving the avenue of choice to the individual. In this way, according to Kierkegaard there is no objective view of the world. There is no definite and objective idea about Christianity and what it is, for example, and is open to subjective viewpoints. In his writings, Kierkegaard was wary of Hegelian thought and merely confronted his readers by ... awakening them to the possibility of subjective self-determination and change."12
Another of Kierkegaard's prominent ideas was his three stages of human development, as outlined in Either/Or. The stages are the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious. (Existentialists since have been mainly concerned with the first two only.) The book uses two different fictitious characters to portray the aesthetic and the ethical. The idea is that every individual has the choice between two contrasting ways of life. An individual choosing the aesthetic line is selecting a life of being concerned with pleasure and the beautiful to one's own satisfaction. The ethical line, however, "constitutes the sphere of duty, of universal rules, of unconditional demands and tasks."13 Kierkegaard has been criticised for his apparent siding with the ethical side. He makes a good point, though, that by selecting the ethical way of life pertaining to foreign rules and obligations, an individual choice is still being made:
For although moral requirements must of necessity be treated as authoritative, they are not apprehended as deriving from a source "Foreign to the personality", but are instead experienced as springing or "breaking forth" from the latter's essential nature.14
The third phase, the religious, is treated differently by Kierkegaard at different times in his career. In Either/0r, the religious stage is included within the ethical framework. As his feelings and ideas on Christianity changed over time, however, so did his viewpoint on religion itself.
In the early 1840s, Kierkegaard was a devout Christian, and even conducted his own sermons. In fact, he "regarded his own central task as the explanation of what is involved in being a Christian".15 The notion of objectivity came into light again, however, as the Church insisted that Christianity was the absolute truth. Kierkegaard's emphasis on individual choice soon conflicted with this, as he believed it was "...the individual's own relation to God that was paramount, assuming precedence over all other considerations."16 He stated that the demands of the Church could have damaging effects on individuals, and that faith was a personal issue. Fundamentally, "Kierkegaard's central aim was to assign Christianity to its proper sphere, freeing it from what he considered to be traditional misconceptions."17 Unfortunately, Kierkegaard only ever wrote about Christianity, and his views on other religions were never put into print. His anger towards the issue exploded in 1854, when he verbally attacked the Church of Denmark 18, labelling several ministers as "hypocrites". By this time, Kierkegaard "...now saw clearly [the Church] as the real root and bastion of spiritual complacency and compromise."19 The accusations prompted surprise and anger in Christian quarters and also the media. The tensions soon subsided, however, as only a year later on October 2, 1855, Kierkegaard collapsed and died soon afterwards of a lung infection.20 Before he died, he was asked if there was anything else he wanted to say, to which he replied:
... My life is a great, and to others unknown and incomprehensible suffering; it all looked like pride and vanity, but it wasn't. I'm no better than others ... I had my thorn in my flesh, and therefore I did not marry and could not take on an official position.21
The main criticism of Søren Kierkegaard's work is in his contradictions. At times, he does appear to contradict himself, and simply labelled any inconsistency as a "paradox". With this in mind, his thoughts and ideas lose a degree of credibility for some as he never directed his efforts or attention to these inconsistencies. Still, Kierkegaard is regarded as being the first existentialist, and he anticipated a number of issues concerning the idea of existence which were only studied many years after his death. The notions of the individual, subjectivity and different stages of existence have influenced many existentialists and philosophers in the years since. His works are regarded both within and outside of Scandinavia to the present day.
The life of Søren Kierkegaard, however, reveals relatively little about Scandinavian history. Whilst his ideas and thoughts were directed at the everyday nineteenth-century Scandinavian person, they are universal in nature. Further, he led a fairly solitary life, free to conduct his research and writing. Still, his work does address what he regarded as problems in his day, including the Hegelian system and Christianity which does reveal some ideas and historical facts in Denmark and Scandinavia. He remains one of the leading figures in the field of literature and philosophy in Scandinavia, and his influence has gained world-wide acclaim. Whilst some of his ideas were typical of nineteenth-century thinking, much of his thinking was perhaps before its time, and was taken up again by existentialists a century later. His thoughts often sparked controversy, and were even radical and extreme at times. The ideas and work of Søren Kierkegaard, however, remains largely as appropriate for the contemporary world as it did in the nineteenth-century, and his texts continue to be studied and researched as time progresses into the twenty-first century.
Craig, Edward (ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Routledge, London, 1998, pp. 236-43
Edwards, Paul (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, MacMillan, New York, 1969, pp. 336-40
Hannay, Alistair, Kierkegaard, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1982, pp. 1-8
Kierkegaard, Søren, The Concept of Irony, Collins, London, 1966, pp. 7-10
Zuck, Virpi (ed.), Dictionary of Scandinavian Literature, Greenwood, Westport CT, 1990, pp. 322-26
1 Hannay, Alistair, Kierkegaard, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1982, p. 3
2 Edwards, Paul (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, MacMillan, New York, 1969, p. 336
3 Craig, Edward (ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Routledge, London, 1998, p. 236
4 Hannay, op. cit., p. 3
5 ibid., p. 4
6 Craig, op. cit., p. 236
7 ibid., p. 236
8 ibid., p. 237
9 Edwards, op. cit., p. 336
10 Zuck, Virpi (ed.), Dictionary of Scandinavian Literature, Greenwood, Westport CT, 1990, p. 323
11 Edwards, op. cit., p. 3 3 7
12 Craig, op. cit., p. 238
13 Edwards, op. cit., p. 338
14 Craig, op. cit., p. 239
15 Edwards, op. cit., p. 339
16 Craig, op. cit., p. 240
17 ibid., p. 242
18 18 ibid., p. 237
19 Hannay, op. cit., p. 8
20 ibid., p. 8
21 ibid., p. 8