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Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813-1855)


Danish philosopher and defender of religious faith. Kierkegaard deeply affected theologians and Existential philosophy, a fashion among intellectuals in the second quarter of the 20th century. Like Friedrich Nietzsche, Kierkegaard was an unhappy, neurotic, and terribly suffering man. He opposed all strict philosophical constructions, and hid his thoughts behind a number of pseudonyms, which sometimes ironically commented on each other's opinions. During his career Kierkegaard published some 30 books.

"Like that other celebrated Dane, Prince Hamlet, he was wracked with doubt and with anguish, a world of Latin origin which he endowed with a new shiver of fear. He was less a philosopher than a theologian, and less a theologian than a eloquent and sensitive man. A Lutheran evangelist, he denied the arguments that prove the existence of God and the incarnation of Jesus, considering them absurd from a rational point of view, and he proposed an act of individual faith for every believer... Religion was the strongest of his passions." (Jorge Luis Borgess in Total Library, 1999)

Søren Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen, where he also spent all his days. Kierkegarrd's surname derived from the name of a farmstead, where his ancestors once lived-a farm (gaard) located near the village church (kirke/kierke). He was the seventh and last child of his parents. Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard (1756-1838), the philopher's father, was a wool merchant. At age of forty, he had become so successful in the wool trade and with a fortunate investment that he was able to retire. In his poverty-stricken youth, Michael Pedersen had cursed God. Later he constantly thought of the sufferings of Christ. His first wife had died childless after two years of marriage; he then married his housekeeper Ane, who was already pregnant. At Søren's birth, Michael Pedersen was fifty-six. The father's melancholy, pietistic faith, thoughts of sin and grace had a deep effect on his son's the world view.

In 1830 Kierkegaard entered the University of Copenhagen, where he studied theology, philosophy, and literature. Upon the death of his mother in 1834, Kierkegaard made his first note into his famous Journal – the last entry is dated September 25, 1855. By 1835 Kierkegaard had decided, that first of all he must know himself, before he could know what to do with his life. He had a drunken encounter with a prostitute in November 1836, which may have been the only sexual experience – with a woman – he ever had.

After moving away from home, Kierkegaard working as a teacher of Latin at Borgerdydskolen. His father died in 1838, the same year that Kierkegaard published Af en endnu Levendes Papirer, a critic on H.C. Andersen's novel Kun en Spillemand. Kiergekaard's inheritance, about 30,000 rixdalers, made him financially independent for the rest of his life.

In 1840 Kierkegaard engaged Regine Olsen, but the very next day regretted it in his diary. Next year Kierkegaard broke the relationship, devoting himself entirely to writing. Regine, who married the literature historian Friedrich Schlegel, was the inspiration of several of Kierkegaard's writings on marriage, his essay Repetition (1843), and the famous seducer's diary Either/Or (1845). Some weeks before his death Kierkegaard wrote in his journal: "I had my thorn in the flesh, and therefore did not marry."

Kierkegaard considered that marriage and domestic responsibility were incompatible with the philosophical task to which he was called. When the famous Swedish writer and early feminist Fredrika Bremer (1801-1865) wanted to meet him and, in 1849, send him an invitation to discuss "metamorphoses of life", Kierkegaard refused. "Let no one invite me, for I do not dance," was his famous reaction. However, most probably these were the words he later wished he had used, but his real reply was someting else. Bremer was offended and humiliated, and took her revenge by mocking him in Lif i Norden.

Kierkegaard's first significant book was his M.A. dissertation Om Begrebet Ironi (1841), which criticized prevailing Hegelian assumptions. In Afsluttende uvidenskabelig Efterskrift (1846, Concluding Unscientific Postscript) he attacked all philosophical system building, and formulated the thesis that subjectivity is truth. "All essential knowledge relates to existence, or only such knowledge as has an essential relationship to existence is essential knowledge." Each individual has the freedom to choose his own truth on the subjective basis of faith. The Concept of Dread (1884) presents man's confrontation with "the nothingness of possibility" and his anxiety in face of the openess and uncertainty of the future. "It was dread which drove me to excess," Kierkegaard wrote in his Journal in May 1843. Dread explains the need to return to the innocence that (according to him) each man loses essentially the same way as Adam lost his.

In his conflict with Hegel, whose writings dominated the German philosophical discussion, Kierkegaard's main point was the belief in personal immortality. Hegel had in effect denied the personality of God and created instead the "Absolute Spirit". He saw that the true individuality of human being is to be found in the submission to the evolution of the state. "The history of the world is the judgment of the world," Hegel said. Kierkegaard doubted Hegel's abstractions, arguing that life cannot be bureaucratically rationalized in Hegel's way, and belief in God is not the solution to a theoretical problem but a free act of faith. When the Hegelians tried to depersonalize philosophy, Kierkegaard saw that philosophy is born from the strivings of individual philosophers. Thus his use of a number of pseudonyms, none of whom "agreed" with one another.

Kierkegaard's personality became in 1846 a target for the satirical magazine Corsaren. It published a series of caricatures and writings about the philosopher, who, in his desperation, initially considered giving up his career. On the street young rascal mocked him. "Wherever there is a crowd there is untruth," he once said. In his diary the philosopher described himself as the "martyr of laugh".

After a new bishop was appointed in 1854, Kierkegaard attacked the state church in a vain expectation of recognition as a religious thinker. For his disappointment, also the new bishop avoided to renew the church. He saw that the so-called people's church established in Denmark was "catastrophically usurping the true role of religion." Kierkegaard, himself an ordained minister, never took a position as pastor.

In 1848 Kierkegaard experienced a spiritual crisis. He started to ponder on death and held a sermon at the cathedral. Like many of Kierkegaard's books, Sygdommen til døden (1848, The Sickness unto Death), not an overtly Christian work, stirred little interest at the time. In the 1850s he published  Indøvelse i Christendom (1850) under the pseudonym Anti-Climacus, and Hvad Christus dømmer om officiel Christendom (1855) and Guds foranderlighed (1855) under his own name. During the writing of a series of articles, compiled as Attack Upon "Christendom" (1854-1855), Kierkegaard was suddenly stricken with a spinal disease, and he perhaps also suffered from epilepsy. He collapsed in the street in October 1855 and died a few weeks later, on November 11, 1855.

Kierkegaard was a very prolific writer. At his creative peak he published 12 books in 18 months (1843-44), using many pseudonyms, sometimes even satirizing his own books under a different name. Following his main theme, "subjectivity is truth," Kierkegaard explored his own subjectivity through different identities, going through the history of philosophy from Socrates to Hegel, whose philosophical system he labelled as comic. This effort has been compared with Balzac's La Comédie humaine, which comprehend the whole of society. Between 1842 and 1850 he wrote some 25 books. In only three months he wrote Philosophiske smuler (1844, Philosophical Fragments), under the pseudonym Johannes Climacus in reference to a monk who lived in the 7th century and wrote about Christian virtues. The book sold poorly, only 204 copies in three years. In 1837 Kierkegaard had called Hegel 'Johannes Climacus' alias 'De omnibus dubitantum est'. At the end of Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard revealed himself as the author of his pseudonymous works.

Kierkegaard believed that the truth could be best revealed through dramatic confrontation of opposing habits of life – for example in the guise of a magistrate or a seducer as in Enten - Eller: Et Livsfragment (1843, Either/Or), which he published under the name of Victor Eremita. The portrayal of the aesthetic way of life was partly based on his relationship with Regine Olsen. The first volume was devoted to the hedonistic or, as Kierkegaard calls it, the "aesthetic" life. The second volume, by a married "Judge William," presents an alternative: the reflective life. Kierkegaard's behavior toward Regine increased his feeling of guilt, which he studied in Concept of Dread (1844). There he introduced the idea of what, after the Second World War and the advent of the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, became popular as angst. Sartre was a student of Hegel, Marx, Husserl, and Heidegger. The Spanish thinker, novelist, and poet Miguel Unamuno undertook the study of Danish in order to read Kirkegaard.

Neither Nietzsche nor Kierkegaard were systematic philosophers – they opposed such tendencies. Although Kierkegaard admitted that abstract, impersonal thinking has a certain value, life was not him mere logic. "I believe because it is absurd," was his famous conclusion. It is not enough to be a Christian, the unreflective church-goer must become a Christian. "Wisdom is passionless," wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein in Culture and Value (1979). "But faith by contrast in what Kierkegaard calls a passion." Some philosophers have considered Kierkegaard's contribution to philosophy questionable, because of his reluctance to maintain any coherent stance. Kierkegaard himself has argued that in his oeuvre he has concentrated on the question of how to become a Christian. "If, after the Final Judgment, there remains only one sinner in Hell and I happen to be that sinner, I will celebrate from the abyss the Justice of God."

For further reading: Søren Kierkegaard: Geniets tragedie by Svend Leopold (1932); Kierkegaard: his Life and Thought by E.L. Allen (1935); Søren Kierkegaard: an Introduction to his Life and Thought by P.P. Rohde (1963); The Mind of Kirkegaard by James Collins (1965); The Promise of Kierkegaard by Kenneth Hamilton (1969); Kierkegaard by Patrick L. Gardiner (1988); Kierkegaard's Critique of Reason and Society by Merold Westphal (1992); Becoming a Self: A Reading of Kierkegaard's Concluding Unscientific Postscript by Merold Westphal (1996); Freedom and Its Misuses: Kierkegaard on Anxiety and Dispair by Gregory R. Beabout (1996); The Biblical Kierkegaard: Reading by the Rule of Faith by Timothy Houston Polk (1997); The Concept of Anxiety, ed. by Robert L. Perkins (1997); The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard, ed. by Alastair Hannay, Gordon Daniel Marino (1997); Feminist Interpretations of Soren Kierkegaard, ed. by Celine Leon (1997); Both/and: Reading Kierkegaard from Irony to Edification by Michael Strawser (1997); Søren Kierkegaard: An Authentic Life by Ben Alex (1997, Søren Kierkegaard, ajattelijan elämä, suom. Tytti Träff ja Torsti Lehtinen); Encounters With Kierkegaard: A Life As Seen by His Contemporaries, ed. by Bruce H. Kirmmse (1998); Kierkegaard: A Very Short Introduction by Patrick Gardiner (2002); How to Read Kierkegaard by John D. Caputo (2007); The Oxford Handbook of Kierkegaard, edited by John Lippitt and George Pattison (2013); Kierkegaard: A Christian Missionary to Christians by Mark A. Tietjen (2016); Kierkegaard: A Single Life by Stephen Backhouse  (2016); Kierkegaard's Muse: The Mystery of Regine Olsen by Joakim Garff (2017); Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard by Clare Carlisle (2019); Lovers in Essence: a Kierkegaardian Defense of Romantic Love by Sharon Krishek (2022); Kierkegaard, Mimesis, and Modernity: a Study of Imitation, Existence, and Affect by Wojciech Kaftanski (2022)  - Suom.: Suomeksi Kierkegraardin teoksia on mm. kääntänyt merkittävällä tavalla kirjailija Torsti Lehtinen. Runoilija Heidi Liehu on julkaissut myös väitöskirjan Kierkegaardista. Existentialism: see also Jean Paul Sartre.

Selected writings:

  • Af en endnu Levendes Papirer: Udgivet mod hans Villie, 1838
  • Om Begrebet Ironi med stadigt Hensyn til Socrates, 1841
    - The Concept of Irony, with Constant Reference to Socrates (tr. Lee M. Capel, 1966)
  • Enten - Eller: Et Livsfragment udgivet af Victor Eremita, 1843 (2 vols., under the pseudonym Victor Eremita, includes Forførerens dagbog)
    - Either-Or (tr. David F. Swenson, 1959) / Either/Or (tr. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, 1987;  Alastair Hannay, 1992); The Seducer's Diary (tr. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, 1992)
    - Viettelijän päiväkirja, teoksessa Joko - tahi (suom. V.A. Koskenniemi, 1907); Viettelijän päiväkirja (suom. Siimes Kanervio, 1907); Søren Kierkegaardin lauselmia, julkaisussa Aika, nro 3 (suom. V.A. Koskenniemi, 1909); Välisoittoja (suom. Torsti Lehtinen, 1988); Mozart-esseet (suom. Olli Mäkinen, 2002)
  • Opbyggelige taler, 1843
  • Gjentagelsen: et forsøg i den experimenterende psychologi, 1843 (under the pseudonym Constantin Constantinus)
    - Repetition; an Essay in Experimental Psychology (tr.  Walter Lowrie, 1941) / Repetition (tr. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, 1983) / Repetition; and, Philosophical Crumbs (translated by M.G. Piety, 2009)
    - Toisto (suom. Olli Mäkinen, 2001)
  • Frygt og bæven: Dialektisk lyrik, 1843 (under the name Johannes de Silentio)
    - Fear and Trembling; a Dialectical Lyric by Johannes de Silentio (tr. Robert Payne, 1939) / Fear and Trembling, and The Sickness unto Death (tr. Walter Lowrie, 1954) / Fear and Trembling (tr. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, 1983; edited by Sylvia Walsh and C Stephen Evans, 2005; Bruce H. Kirmmse, 2022)
    - Ylistyspuhe Aabrahamista, julkaisussa Teologinen aikakauskirja, 47 (suom. Eelis G. Gulin, 1942); Pelko ja vavistus: dialektista lyriikkaa (suom. Torsti Lehtinen, 2001)
  • Tre opbyggelige Taler, 1843
  • Fire opbyggelige Taler, 1843
  • Philosophiske smuler, eller, En smule philosophi, 1844 (Johannes Climacus)
    - Philosophical Fragments (tr. David F. Swenson and Walter Lowrie, 1941; Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, 1968)
    - Filosofisia muruja (suom. Janne Kylliäinen, 2004)
  • To opbyggelige Taler, 1844
  • Begrebet Angest, 1844 (under the pseudonym Vigilius Haufniensis)
    - The Concept of Dread (tr. Walter Lowrie, 1944) / The Concept of Anxiety (tr. Reidar Thomte and Albert B. Anderson, 1980) / The Concept of Anxiety (edited and translated with introduction and notes by Alastair Hannay, 2014)
    - Ahdistus (suom. Eila ja Johan Weckroth, 1964)
  • Forord: morskabslæsning for enkelte stænder efter tid og leilighed, 1844 (under the pseudonym Nicolaus Notabene)
    - Prefaces: Light Reading for Certain Classes as the Occasion May Require (tr. William McDonald, 1989) / Prefaces; Writing Sampler / (tr. Todd W. Nichol, 1997)
  • Fire opbyggelige Taler, 1844
  • Tre Taler ved tænkte Leiligheder, 1845
    - Thoughts on Crucial Situations in Human Life: Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions (translated by David F. Swenson, 1941)
  • Stadier paa Livets Vei, 1845 (ed. Hilarius Bogbinder)
    -  Stages on Life's Way (tr. Walter Lowrie, 1940) / Thoughts on Crucial Situations in Human Life (tr. David F. Swenson and Lillian Marvin Swenson, 1941) / Stages on Life’s Way: Studies by Various Persons (tr. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, 1988); In vino veritas, in A Kierkegaard Anthology (ed. Robert Bretall, 1946)
    - In vino veritas (suom. Torsti Lehtinen, 1996)
  •  Atten opbyggelige Taler, 1845
    - Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses (tr. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, 1990)
  • Afsluttende uvidenskabelig Efterskrift til de philosophiske Smuler, 1846
    - Concluding Unscientific Postscript (tr. David F. Swenson and Walter Lowrie, 1941) / Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments (tr. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, 1992) / Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Crumbs (edited and translated by Alastair Hannay, 2009)
    - Päättävä epätieteellinen jälkikirjoitus (suom. Torsti Lehtinen, 1992)
  • En literair Anmeldelse. To Tidsaldre, Novelle af Forfatteren til en ' Hverdags-historie, 1846
    - Two Ages: The Age of Revolution and the Present Age (tr. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, 1978)
  • Opbyggelige Taler i forskjellig Aand, 1846
    - Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits (tr. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, 1993)
  • Kjerlighedens gjerninger: Nogle christelige overveielser i talers form, 1847
    - Works of Love (tr. David F. Swenson and Lillian Marvin Swenson) / Works of Love (tr. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong)
    - Rakkauden teot: muutamia kristillisiä mietteitä puheiden muodossa (suom. J. Hollo, 1926)
  • Christelige Taler, 1848
    - Christian Discourses; The Crisis and a Crisis in the Life of an Actress (tr. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, 1997)
    - Kärsimysten evankeliumi: kristillisiä puheita (suom. Niilo Syvänne, 1948)
  • Sygdommen til døden: En christelig psychologisk Udvikling til opbyggelse og opvækkelse, 1848 (as Anti-Climacus)
    - The Sickness unto Death (tr. Walter Lowrie, 1941) / The Sickness unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Edification and Awakening (tr. Alastair Hannay, 1989) / The Sickness unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening (tr. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, 1980) / The Sickness Unto Death: A New Translation (translated and introduced by Bruce H. Kirmmse, 2023)
    - Anti-climacus: kuolemansairaus: kristillis-psykologinen kehitelmä mielenylennykseksi ja herätykseksi (suom. 1924) / Kuolemansairaus (suom. J. Hollo, 1924; Janne Kylliäinen & Tapani Laine, 2016)  
  • Lilien paa Marken og Fuglen under Himlen: Tre gudelige Taler, 1849
    - The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air: Three Godly Discourses (translated and with an introduction by Bruce H. Kirmmse, 2016)
    - Kedon kukkia ja taivaan lintu: kolme puhetta (suom. Heikki Linnove, 1915)
  • Tvende ethisk-religieuse smaa-afhandlinger, 1849 (under the pseudonym H.H. Moreover)
    - Two Minor Ethico-Religious Treatises (translated by Alexander Dru and Walter Lowrie, 1940)
  • "Ypperstepræsten" - "Tolderen" - "Synderinden", Tre Taler ved Altergangen om Fredagen, 1849
    - Three Discourses at the Communion on Fridays (translated by Walter Lowrie, 1939; Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, 1997)
    - Publikaani, suom. 1898); Syntinen vaimo (suom. 1898)
  • Indøvelse i Christendom, 1850 (under the name Anti-Climacus)
    - Training in Christianity (tr. Walter Lowrie, 1947) / Training in Christianity and the Edifying Discourse which Accompanied It ( (tr. Walter Lowrie, 1967)
  • En opbyggelig Tale, 1850
  • To Taler ved Altergangen om Fredagen, 1851
  • Synspunktet for Min Forfatter-Virksomhed, 1851
    - My Work as an Author, in The Kierkegaard Reader (ed. Jane Chamberlain and Jonathan Rée, 2001)
  • Til Selvprøvelse: Samtiden Anbefalet, 1851
    - For Self-Examination; Judge for Yourself! (tr. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, 1990)
    - Itsensä koettelemiseksi (suom. Gustaf Adolf Heman, 1907)
  • Guds foranderlighed, 1855
  • Dette skal siges; saa være det da sagt, 1855
  • Hvad Christus dømmer om officiel Christendom, 1855
    - Kierkegaard’s Attack upon "Christendom," 1854-1855 (translated by Walter Lowrie, 1944) 
  • Synspunktet for min Forfatter-Virksomhed. En ligefrem Meddelelse, Rapport til Historien, 1859
    - My Work as an Author, in The Kierkegaard Reader (ed. Jane Chamberlain and Jonathan Rée, 2001)
  • Efterladte Papirer, 1869-81 (9 vols., ed. H. P. Barfod and Hermann Gottsched)
    - Journals (translated, selected, and with an introd. by Alexander Dru, 1959) / The Last Years: Journals, 1853-1855 (tr. Ronald Gregor Smith, 1965) / The Soul of Kierkegaard: Selections from his Journal (ed.  Alexander Dru, 2003)
  • Dømmer selv!, 1876
  • Samlede værker, 1901-06 (ed. A. B. Drachmann, Johan Ludvig Heiberg and H. O. Lange)
  • Papirer, 1909-48 (20 vols., ed. Peter Andreas Heiberg, Victor Kuhr and Einer Torsting)
  • Samlede værker, 1920-36 (15 vols.)
  • A Kierkegaard Anthology, 1946 (ed. Robert Bretall)
  • Breve og Aktstykker vedrørende Søren Kierkegaard, 1953-54 (ed. Niels Thulstrup)
    - Letters and Documents (tr. Henrik Rosenmeier, 1978)
  • Selections from the Writings of Kierkegaard, 1960 (translated by Lee M. Hollander)
  • Diary, 1960 (tr. Gerda M. Andersen, ed. Peter P. Rohde)
  • Kierkegaard's Journals and Papers, 1967-78 (edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong)
  • The Corsair Affair: And Articles Related to the Writings, 1982 (edited and translated with introd. and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong)
  • Søren Kierkegaards Skrifter, 1997ff. (55 vols., ed. Niels Jørgen Cappelørn, Joakim Garff, Johnny Kondrup, et al.) 
  • Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard, 1999 (edited by Charles E. Moore)
  • Kierkegaard's Journals and Notebooks, 2007ff (Bruce H. Kirmmse, general editor; edited by Niels Jørgen Cappelørn et al.)
  • The Portable Kierkegaard, 2009 (edited by Simon Yee; translated by David F. Swenson; with lectures by Eduard Geismar)
  • Discourses at the Communion on Fridays, 2011 (translated by Sylvia Walsh)
  • Søren Kierkegaard: Discourses and Writings on Spirituality, 2019 (introduced and translated by Christopher B. Barnett)

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