The Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Modern Western Theology
Aabye Kierkegaard (1813-1855) (
Hee Kyung Kim
Hee Kyung Kim, 2004)
Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (Trevor S. Maloney, 2002)
Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813-1855) (Jason Donnelly, 2000)
Søren Kierkegaard (Robert Smid, 1998)
Søren Kierkegaard (Robert Smid, 1998)
Søren Kierkegaard (Imkong I.
Søren Kierkegaard (Imkong I. Imsong, 1998)
Hee Kyung Kim
Hee Kyung Kim, 2004
Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (S.K.) was born in a wealthy merchant family in Copenhagen on 5, May, 1813. He was the youngest of the seven children of Ane Lund and Michael Kierkegaard. It is relevant to look at S.K.’s father Michael Kierkegaard and Kierkegaard family because of their deep influence on S.K.’s melancholy, religiosity and existential anxiety. His father, Michael Kierkegaard was a very melancholy person who had deep sense of guilt. He had an experience of cursing God during his impoverished childhood, and he took this as an unforgivable sin. To his own contriteness, Michael Kierkegaard also seduced his servant Ane Lund, who became his second wife and eventually S.K.’s mother only four months after the death of his first wife. The five siblings of S.K. and his mother died one by one before S.K. turned 21 years old and Michael Kierkegaard took this as God’s punishment. Only S.K. and his elder brother Peter Christian Kierkegaard survived. Peter was also a very melancholy man, who perhaps was more influenced than S.K. by their father’s melancholy. Later Peter grew almost insane and had to resign his office as a bishop.
When S.K. was 17 years old, he entered the University of Copenhagen to study theology (1830), almost as a way of redeeming his father. His father, who raised his children in a stern religious atmosphere and rural pietism, wanted him to be a minister. S.K., however, was more interested in liberal studies and philosophy rather than theology. The University’s liberal atmosphere compared favorably to his almost suffocating religious home, and S.K. enjoyed himself there, acting as an aristocratic-conservative spokesman of the time. He also grew more detached from home and God, living as a popular man of the town. When S.K. turned 25 years old, he reconciled with his father and also had a powerful conversion experience. Out of deference to his father who died in 1838, S.K. made progress in his theological examinations. He also started to write with seriousness. In 1840, S.K. passed the examinations, and in 1841, he also earned Master’s degree, which corresponded then to doctoral degree, with a dissertation, The Concept of Irony. After graduation, the fortune S.K. inherited from his father, although gradually diminished, made it possible for him to write as an independent writer for his whole life.
S.K. never married although he engaged for a year (1840-1841) to Regine Olsen, a young lady from a wealthy bourgeois family. Although S.K. testified that he loved Regine very deeply (or, as he said, maybe because he loved her too much) S.K. broke off the engagement. But the reasons behind it were never clearly revealed. Later in his journal, S.K. mentions a “thorn in the flesh” as one of the reasons, and most scholars view this as his melancholy. The broken engagement affected S.K. deeply, bringing forth his poetic pomes in his writing for a while. S.K.’s poetic phase was soon followed by vigorous philosophical work. His Either/Or uses a method of indirect communication which S.K. claims to learn from Regine. Fear and Trembling and Repetition also reflect S.K.’s thoughts developed from the relationship with Regine.
After breaking up with Regine, S.K. left for Germany in October 1841. In Berlin, S.K. attended Schelling’s lectures, enthusiastically expecting to hear a successful refutation of Hegelian systems. S.K. returned home in March 1842 disappointed with Schelling, on the one hand, and with a considerable pile of manuscript pages, on the other hand. From 1843 to 1846 S.K. published many edifying discourses and seven major works, including Either/Or (1843), Repetition (1843), Fear and Trembling (1843), The Concept of Anxiety (1844)--this work was later complemented by Sickness unto Death in 1849--, Philosophical Fragments (1844), Stages of Life’s Way (1845), and Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846). The first six works were written under pseudonyms, and showed what S.K. calls “aesthetic authorship,” although the aesthetic author was a religious author at the same time (Kierkegaard, 1962). The Postscript is the last work written under pseudonym and is situated in between the aesthetic writings and religious writings such as Edifying Discourses in Divers Spirits, The Works of Love, and Christian Discourses. Usually the early group of writings gains most of the attention from scholars, but the later religious works, including “Attack on Christendom,” deserve serious attention since they reveal S.K.’s view of religion, politics, society, and culture (Krimmse, 263).
S.K.’s career as an author was not a great success when he was alive. He devoted his short life to expounding on the meaning of Christian life and critiquing Hegelian philosophy, but his works did not receive much response. When his work, especially the articles on the attack upon the established church of Denmark, received some responses, they were harsh or cold ones that put him in a lonely place. But S.K. was a person of resolution and integrity, and was not ashamed of his thoughts. In 1855, November 11, S.K. died in a hospital, forty days after he fell in the street unconscious. A large crowd, many of them shabby-looking, including many students, attended his funeral.
Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments (1846)
One of the distinctive literary styles of Kierkegaard is a philosophical humor, and Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments reveals it very well. One can find S.K.’s humor not only in the content but also in the seemingly strange fact that the Postscript which is a thick volume (more than 600 hundred pages) is an addendum to the little book Philosophical Fragments, that runs less than 50 pages also (Krimmse, 263). Along with humor and irony, indirect communication is S.K.’s another typical literary style, and S.K. uses this method in many of his writings under various pseudonyms. Fragments and Postscripts are written under the pseudonym Johannes Climacus, and Postscript is the last work which is written in the method of indirect communication.
According to S.K., direct communication is a “fraud” toward God, the author, and readers because it is related merely to objective thinking, which does not properly express the importance of subjectivity (Kierkegaard, 1978, 75). S.K. asserts that only indirect communication, which is a “doubly reflected subjective thinking” (79) can effectively render an “existing subject’s own relation to the idea” (80) under discussion. What S.K. wants through indirect communication is to be a Socratic midwife who aids readers in bringing their own inwardness and to form a personal relation with the idea he is presenting. The method of indirect communication, however, is not mere literary style aiming effective communication. It is another form of attack against Hegelian philosophy which is intimately intertwined with the central theme of Postscript. Merold Westphal thus says; “The theory of indirect communication as explicated in terms of maieutic is a form of social critique directed against Hegelian Christendom that views itself as a linguistic or cognitive totality, self-sufficient and thereby immune from anything outside it” (Westphal, 63).
The crux issue of Postscript, as S.K. states, is “‘the Problem’ which is the problem of the whole authorship: how to become a Christian” (Kierkegaard, 1962, 13). According to S.K., this problem can never be properly addressed by the objective study of Christianity, especially the Hegelian sort. S.K. believes that Hegelian theology fails to grasp the genuine paradoxical message of Christianity. Critiquing Hegel, S.K. claims the central theme of Postscript as following: what is important is not the objective truth of Christianity (philosophical and historical truth of Christianity) but subjective truth (the individual’s relation to Christianity) (Kierkegaard, 1978, 21-22). According to him, historical and critical searches for truth including dialectical speculation are only “approximations” at best, and never guarantee a “person’s eternal happiness” (24). Objective study of the Bible, for example, will never lead one to the genuine truth of Christianity. Such study will suffer continuous frustration over its failure of method, ever-arising new issues, and contradictions. More importantly, critical study and speculation will not lead one to faith. In his own words,
faith does not result from straightforward scholarly deliberation, nor does it come directly; on the contrary, in this objectivity one loses that infinite, personal, impassioned interestedness, which is the condition of faith, the ubigue et nusquam [everywhere and nowhere] in which faith can come into existence (29).
S.K. asserts that the objective approach will inevitably deprive one of passions toward the subject matter since one can not be interested in what is only an approximation (31). But why does objective study continues ever more? S.K. answers that it is because individuals become less passionate and more aloof toward Christianity. According to S.K., Christianity can be best understood when approached with passion and inwardness, which is essentially subjectivity (33). Subjectivity includes decision, but objectivity is incapable of decision. Here, S.K. again has Hegelian philosophy in his mind. According to S.K., Hegel’s philosophy claims truth as “continuous world-historical process” which turns back on itself infinitely. Thus, the movement itself becomes a “chimera,” (33) producing no decisive result for individuals’ eternal happiness anywhere.
Another flaw of Hegelian system, according to S.K. lies in the fact that the Hegelian system insists upon the identity of thinking and being. When this identity of thinking and being is applied to human subject, it is wrong because it does not acknowledges two facts: “the knowing spirit is an existing spirit” (189) and to exist is to be “in the process of becoming” (190). The unity of thinking and being is an illusion because, as soon as speculative abstraction identifies the two, the being who asks about the truth, by its virtue of existence, moves away becoming something else. The alleged union of subject and object in the Hegelian system is not real either. S.K. says, “the fantastical I-I is not infinitude and finitude in identity, since neither the one nor the other is actual; it is a fantastical union with a cloud, an unfruitful embrace, and the relation of the individual I to this mirage is never stated” (197).
Moreover, the Hegelian world-historical idea that turns individuals into mere observers is problematic since it “makes a person incompetent to act” (135). One becomes ethical when s/he puts his/her own effort to “become a world-historical figure” (136) rather than being a mere observer. S.K. also critiques the Hegelian claim that God needs human beings. It is simply not true for S.K. Neither is the assertion that history will prove Hegel’s point. S.K. regards the Hegelian system as a futile “teleology that renders existence meaningless” (137). According to S.K., Hegel claims to know more than any human can know. Humanity cannot know as God can. We are also unable to see history in its totality. Thus, S.K. asserts that “world history is a royal stage” where God is the “only spectator” (158).
S.K.’s attack on speculation, however, does not mean that he renounces speculative thought altogether. Indeed, S.K. thinks that conceptions, Greek philosophy, and scholarly perseverance are necessary (55-6). S.K. is also not unaware of the danger of being subjective nor does he deny all objective knowledge. Truth as subjectivity rather applies to “essential knowing” or “all ethical and all ethical-religious knowing” that relates knower to the existence (197-198). Truth as subjectivity, for instance, does not apply for mathematical truth, since it belongs to accidental knowing that is indifferent to the knower (204). Although S.K did not deny the usefulness of speculative thought in some areas, he was more than certain that speculative thought ultimately failed to grasp the truth of Christianity. For Christianity leads one “to the ultimate point of his subjectivity,” which speculative thought taboos (57). Thus, speculation makes it more difficult for one to understand the truth of Christianity which is subjectivity. But what exactly does it mean to become subjective? Isn’t S.K.’s claim about subjectivity itself objective in that the subjectivity is the object of his reflection? The answer is negative. S.K. says that issue here is not the subjectivity per se but “the decision” that is “rooted in subjectivity” (129), which embraces the “pain and crisis of decision” (129). According to S.K., Christianity is about how individuals appropriate the truth of Christianity in the midst of “remaking of the subjectivity” (130).
Thus, S.K. encourages us to turn away from objective reflection that disregards the subject and to move instead toward subjective reflection, in which “truth becomes appropriation, inwardness, subjectivity” (192). According to S.K., when one genuinely relates oneself to the subject matter with passionate inwardness, it becomes truthful (199).
Instead of being obsessed with the objectivity of world history and the human future, as was the case with many people in his time, S.K. affirms that we need simply to admit the finitude in our understanding, and become simple-minded. Thus he says that it is easier for a simple minded person to become a Christian than a cultured person (607).
The example of immortality and one’s reflection on it described by S.K. well contrasts the truth as sophisticated objectivity and the truth as simple and passionate subjectivity. Critiquing some philosophers in his time who tried to prove immortality with three demonstrations, S.K. asserts that their metaphysical reflections ultimately fail, since one cannot “speak from the standpoint of the infinite and of the finite and think the two together in the one moment” (175). S.K. also claims that the metaphysical conception of immortality is in vain and does not transform one’s life since the concept “swallows existence,” being ethically unimportant at the same time (175). Contrasting Socrates with the philosophers who tried to prove immortality with metaphysical demonstrations without existential passion, S. K. states, “[Socrates] stakes his whole life on this “if”; he dares to die, and with the passion of the infinite he has so ordered his whole life that it might be acceptable—if there is an immortality” (201). Thus, S.K. poignantly asks, “Is there any better demonstration for the immortality of the soul?” (201)
In this story, Socrates serves as “an analogue to faith,” except the fact that the inwardness of Christian faith is deeper. The story also illuminates the notion of “paradox,” which is very important for S.K.. He defines paradox as “the objective uncertainty that is the expression for the passion of inwardness that is truth” (205). The Socratic paradox, i.e., the soul is immortal, is not paradoxical in itself. But it becomes paradoxical when it relates itself to the existing person. Different from this, the paradox of incarnation is in itself paradox because “the eternal truth has come into existence in time” (209), and this absurdity demands “more risk, the more faith,” and the more intense passion (210). Although speculative thought does not deny the truth of Christianity, in its search for a perfect comprehension of the paradox, it ultimately conveys something else than the truth of Christianity (223). For speculative thinkers know “how to cancel the paradox,” and when they do so, what remains does not belong to the truth of Christianity (223).
According to S.K., to be a Christian depends not on “what” one knows but on “how” one knows (609). And this “how” to live out the Christian message is not a simple matter. Becoming a Christian indeed involves incomprehensibility, hardship, risk, and sadness. This is why S.K. thinks that “the childhood (literally understood) is not the true age” to become Christians (601). According to S.K. the message of Christianity is not a childlike or friendly one. Neither is it recognized easily. In fact, anything that is commensurable and recognizable belongs to paganism (600). But orthodox Christianity made it as such, and thinks a child is most close to the kingdom of God, thus baptizing little ones. S.K. thinks that orthodox Christianity turns the paradox into child-like perception, which he finds quite humorous and foolish. Instead of starting from “being a Christian” as in childish orthodoxy, S.K. asserts that one needs to strive to “become” a Christian (590). In his rejection of infant baptism, his claims that the genuine truth of Christianity is attained by mature and passionate faith is again revealed.
The significance of Postscript is especially great in that it lunched a bold and strong attack on rational theology which lost sight for the existential aspect of Christian message in favor of certainty and objectivity. Along with S.K.’s influence on existential philosophy and theology, one can also say that his emphasis on truth as subjectivity and the rejection of the totalitarian rationality foresaw the coming of postmodern philosophy. S.K.’s own life that showed intellectual and religious integrity also gives precious lessons.
Kierkegaard, Søren. The Concluding Unscientific Postscript to “Philosophical Fragments”, Vol. 1 & 2. Edited and Translated with an Introduction and Notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, [Vol. XII & XIII, 1978] 1992. Originally published February 28, 1846 in Copenhagen with Johannes Climacas as author and Søren Kierkegaard as editor.
—————. 1962 . The Point of View for My Work as an Author, trans. Walter Lowrie (details of source not given), ed. and intro. Benjamin Nelson from Lowrie’s 1939 edition. New York: Harper Torchbooks.
Kirmmse, Bruce H. Kierkegaard in Golden Age Denmark. Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990.
Livingston, James C. Modern Christian Thought: From the Enlightenment to Vatican II. New York: Macmillan Company, 1971.
Lowrie, Walter A Short Life of Kierkegaard. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1942.
Welch, Claude. "Subjectivity as Truth and Untruth: Søren Kierkegaard". In Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century, vol. 1: 1799-1870. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972.
Westphal, Merold Becoming a Self: A Reading of Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript. West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1996.
Trevor S. Maloney, 2002
A Short but Fiery Life
shepherd Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard stood on the Jutland heath, raised
his fists to the sky, and cursed God because of his difficult and
exhausting work. Years later, in 1813, his son Søren Aaby Kierkegaard
(SK) was born. It is speculated that we cannot fully understand the
extremely melancholic life and writings of SK without some conception of
his father. Michael Kierkegaard was very successful in the hosiery
business, retiring at forty with a sizable fortune. SK was the last of
seven children, born when Michael was fifty-seven. In retirement, Michael
pursued his interests in theology and philosophy. Michael was deeply
religious, extremely introspective, and prone to brooding. He dominated
the household, covering it in a cloud of harshness and gloom, “giving
the impression that Christianity can never make a man happy” (Croxall xi)
Soren idolized his father.
In 1830, SK
left school to attend the University at Copenhagen. SK did well in school,
though he was not an outstanding student. The headmaster gave him a good
recommendation, but suggested that SK would be a dilettante. Eventually SK
settled into a field. In his ten years at the University, he studied
Romanticism, folklore, and philosophy, though he was supposed to be in
theology. SK’s father disapproved of his studies and somewhat rowdy
life. In 1835, SK went on a holiday with his father. While on this
holiday, he realized that he needed an idea to live for, and decided that
Christianity would be this idea. On this holiday, however, he also learned
of that day on the heath when his father cursed God, and that his oldest
sibling was conceived out of wedlock. Crushed, SK no longer idolized his
father. Perhaps this is why that upon returning to school SK forgot about
his decision to take Christianity more seriously, began associating with
bad company, and lived as an aesthete (as he would later categorize such a
life). Eventually, though, SK experienced a religious conversion and made
peace with his father shortly before his death. As his father wished, SK
returned to theological studies, and did well in his final examinations.
In 1837, SK
met Regine Olsen, a fourteen-year old girl with whom he soon fell in love.
In 1840, SK proposed and she accepted. Soon after the engagement, though,
SK felt it to be a mistake. In all of his writings, including the existing
journals and letters, he never tells us directly exactly why he felt the
engagement must be ended. Scholars of SK’s life have made some educated
“He could not, he thought, be an ideal husband, and less he would not be for Regine’s sake. He felt himself to be, in many ways, what he called an ‘Exception.’ He had inherited his father’s tendency to introspective broodiness, though he concealed it, and showed a pleasanter side to the world. He knew his father’s sins, which he felt tainted the family. He had ‘a thorn in the flesh’ as he calls it, whatever it was; some ‘misrelationship between soul and body’, a ‘fundamental injury’, a ‘spot’. He had sown his wild oats, and there is even talk of a sexual fall, though this is not proven. He had been trained by his father in a somber theology; the father evidently designating him for the priesthood, perhaps as a sort of atonement-offering for his own sins. We read too of a ‘silent despair’ in which his father once said he moved. But over and above all, there is a secret we cannot penetrate, and which Kierkegaard has been at pains to conceal from the world” (Croxall xiii).
SK did not want to simply break the engagement with Regine, so he made her believe that he was toying with her. Almost exactly one year after getting engaged, Regine broke the engagement, just as he had planned it.
He was deeply affected by this
break with Regine. Both Fear and Trembling and Repetition
are based on reflections on his relationship with Regine. “They both
recount his desperate struggle in renouncing every hope of earthly
happiness when he gave up the prospect with the woman he loved” (from
Lowrie’s introduction to Kierkegaard 1954: 9)
In fact, this break with Regine for the occasion for SK turning from
“aesthetic” to “religious” writing. Fear
and Trembling focuses on the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac,
which for Kierkegaard became a symbol for his sacrifice of Regine. Still,
though, up until Regine became engaged to another, SK held to the hope
that he might yet marry her. His love affair with Regina continued to
haunt him for years.
The Three Stages
Kierkegaard came to his theory of the three stages by an analysis of his own life. The first stage is the aesthetic. A person living in the aesthetic stage lives at the mercy of fate and fortune, external events. In trying to escape from this stage of boredom, one becomes immersed in amusements or work, but this fails to solve the problem, only deepening the sense of emptiness. The aesthete is lost in the present moment, which is constantly slipping away, and therefore empty. While the aesthete thinks he is living in the present, he is actually living only in his memories of enjoyment, which push him into the moment, where he seeks to repeat those memories. These memories, however, cannot be repeated because they are the past. Consequently, the aesthete is in despair whether he knows it or not. Ultimately, the aesthetic stage comes crashing down because of the knowledge of good and evil, and the certainty of death. The solution requires a union of the temporal and eternal, which might be characterized as “finding everlasting significance in the present moment” (Roberts 67). SK tells the aesthete to make a decision; either accept ethical status, or reject it – take a stand!
For Kierkegaard, metaphysical speculation (specifically that of Hegel) is included under the aesthetic stage as an attempt to avoid ethical decision (Roberts 68). Kierkegaard did not believe, given human conflicts and passions, that we can understand the world as wholly rational. Hegel’s system blends humans and objects. “Instead of triumphing over despair through a deepening of inward resources, the Hegelian system treats the individual as a mere item whose conflicts will vanish once he acquires a rational understanding of his place in the total scheme. It tries to remedy the agonies of the finite self by swallowing up the finite self” (Roberts 69).
While the aesthete lives for pleasurable sensations, the person in the ethical stage lives for the obedience to duty. While the aesthete experiences time as broken up into short durations of pleasure, the commitment to duty gives the ethicist a peaceful and solid experience of time (Jolivet 135). However, the ethical stage is still deficient. The ethicist is convicted that obedience to duty will bring happiness. But what if it does not? Then the ethicist falls into despair. Also, obedience to an outside moral code “involves the grave danger of making man forget that he is and must be an Individual, subject to his own personal duties and endowed with a responsibility which is inalienably his own. The ethical, which is the law of the general, favors the tendency we all have to lose ourselves in the crowd, to become a passive element in the multitude” (Jolivet 136). Another problem with the ethical sphere is that sometimes there are situations for which the ethical cannot provide a solution. The story of Abraham and Isaac provides a perfect illustration of this dilemma, so SK wrote Fear and Trembling. The ethical condemns God’s command and Isaac’s obedience, because a father is to love his son. Nonetheless, Abraham obeys, choosing the absurd, denying the universal ethical mandate, and passing from the ethical to the religious stage. In his critique of the ethical stage, “Kierkegaard here stands in the tradition of St. Paul against Judaism and Luther against Roman Catholicism” (Roberts 70). The demands of ethics make us conscious of our shortcomings, our sin, but they do not impart new life to the individual. The ethical individual is essentially the same person as the aesthete.
Ethical law therefore fails and requires a leap into the religious stage. The religious stage is divided into “Religiousness A” and “Religiousness B,” or the religion of Socrates and the religion of Jesus Christ, respectively (this discussion of types A and B is based on Livingston 316 and following). In Religiousness A, the specific teacher of the truth and the moment of teaching have no real significance, because all knowledge is recollection, as in the Meno. If this understanding of truth is wrong, however, then the teacher be a bearer of the truth, and the student a bearer of error. Therefore, “if the learner is to acquire the Truth, the Teacher must bring it to him and give him the condition necessary for understanding it” (Livingston 317). The teacher should then be called “Saviour and Teacher.” Regarding the receptor of the truth, SK writes that he “becomes another man… a man of a different quality, or as we may call him: a new creature” (quoted in Livingston 317). However, humans and God are separated by sin. This gulf is bridged in the particular historical event of the incarnation, when God came to man in the form of a servant. The incarnation of the eternal in time is, in SK’s words the “Absolute Paradox,” which can only be grasped by the disciple in a relationship of faith, and not objective certainty (Livingston 318).
SK also uses “the paradoxical” to describe the movement of faith as
“paradoxical to the ordinary consciousness from which faith emerges”
(Swenson as quoted in translator’s introduction to Kierkegaard 1954:
16). This paradox is not descriptive of the antithesis between intellect
and will, but rather “between God and man, between God’s understanding
of what human life ought to be, and man’s” (Swenson, 16). Once the
individual becomes mature in the ethical stage, then the question arises
as to whether or not the individual is willing to enter the religious
stage, “to be radically transformed by the discipline of the
relationship” between God and the individual (Swenson 16), finding
strength in weakness and victory in defeat.
Questions of Fear and Trembling
SK called Fear and Trembling one of “the most perfect book I have written,” along with The Sickness Unto Death (from back cover of Kierkegaard 1954). On one hand, it is about the “teleological suspension of the ethical” (the suspension of ethical law for the sake of a higher as illustrated by Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. On another, it is deeply personal, dealing with SK’s broken engagement with Regine Olsen.
SK seeks to answer three questions ( or “problems”), the first of which is, “Is there such a thing as a teleological suspension of the ethical?” He begins by explicating the ethical: “The ethical as such is the universal, and as the universal it applies to everyone, which may be expressed from another point of view by saying that it applies every instant” (Kierkegaard 1954: 64). The task of the individual is to live up to the universal (ethical). Sin is when the individual places the individual above the universal.
Faith, however, changes this whole schema.
Faith is precisely this paradox, that the individual as the particular is higher than the universal, is justified over against it, is not subordinate but superior – yet in such a way, be it observed, that it is the particular individual who, after he has been subordinated as the particular to the universal, now through the universal becomes the individual who as the particular is superior to the universal, for the fact that the particular individual stands in an absolute relation to the absolute (Kierkegaard 1954: 66).
In virtue of Abraham’s relationship with God (the absolute who is higher than the ethical), Abraham (the individual) is higher than the universal ethical command, specifically that a father shall love his son. For Abraham, then, the ethical becomes a temptation.
SK goes on to compare Abraham to a tragic hero, but the comparison falls short. While the tragic hero sacrifices one ethical duty for a higher ethical duty, Abraham sacrifices ethical duty for religious duty. To answer the question, then, there is a teleological suspension of the ethical. Abraham once had his telos in the ethical, but the command from God to sacrifice Isaac put his telos in the religious, making the ethical a temptation.
The second questions asks, “Is there such a thing as an absolute duty toward God?” For Kierkegaard, our duty to God supersedes our duty to the ethical, as God is the basis for the ethical.
The paradox of faith is this, that the individual is higher than the universal, that the individual (to recall a dogmatic distinction now rather seldom hear) determines his relation to the universal by his relation to the absolute, not his relation to the absolute by his relation to the universal. The paradox can be expressed as saying that there is an absolute duty toward God; for in this relationship of duty the individual as an individual stands related absolutely to the absolute. (Kierkegaard 1954: 80)
The individual’s relation to the absolute relativizes the relationship to the ethical. Abraham’s ethical duty is to love his son Isaac, but this is made relative in comparison to his relationship with God.
The third question asks, “Was Abraham ethically justifiable in keeping silent about his purpose before Sarah, before Eleazar, before Isaac?” In short, he had no other choice. No one would have been able to understand what he was going through.
Abraham keeps silent – but he cannot speak. Therein lies the distress and anguish. For if I when I speak am unable to make myself intelligible, then I am not speaking – even though I were to talk uninterruptedly day and night. Now Abraham is able to say the most beautiful things any language can express about how he loves Isaac. But it is not this he has at his heart to say, it is the profounder thought that he would sacrifice him because it is a trial. (Kierkegaard 1954: 122)
No one else, standing as they are in their own particular relationship to the universal and absolute, is able to understand the religious position of Abraham.
In the Epilogues, SK tells us, “Faith is the highest passion in a
man” (Kierkegaard 1954: 131). Such passion cannot be aroused by a
dedication to an immutable ethical mandate, but only by a relationship to
the personal God.
Subjective (Existential) Mode of Thinking
SK is perhaps
more so classified as an Existentialist than as a Neo-Orthodox thinker.
While Existentialism has many variations – from the Roman Catholicism of
Pascal to the atheism of Sartre – the tradition is generally
characterized as a reaction against rationalism. The idea that human life
and the universe can be summed up in some kind of rational, tight system
is repugnant to the Existentialist. The human being is radically free,
canceling out any notion of a static essence.
his idea of existential thought (he prefers the term “subjective”) in
his discussion of “Theses Possibly or Actually Attributable to Lessing”
(Postscript, Book Two, Part One,
The first thesis states that objective thinking seeks results, while subjective thinking focuses on the actual process of thought, the process of coming to the truth. Therefore, objective truths may be directly communicated, while subjective truths must be communicated indirectly. The self, for SK, is not static, but constantly becoming. Objective thought, on the other hand, “translates everything into results, and helps all mankind to cheat, by copying these off and reciting them by rote” (Kierkegaard 1953: 68). While direct communication is appropriate for objective truths, it is grossly inadequate for subjective truths. To directly communicate a subjective truth is to cheat the recipient out of the freedom that comes from subjectively working out the problem himself, and also to “defraud God, depriving him of the worship of another human being in truth” (Kierkegaard 1953: 69). SK uses Socrates as an example to show the effectiveness of indirect communication of subjective truth: “The most that Socrates could do was to help another negatively, by a maieutic artistry, to achieve the same view. Everything subjective, which through its dialectical inwardness eludes a direct form of expression, is an essential secret” (Kierkegaard 1953: 74).
The second thesis states that the individual is continually striving. The only thing the individual knows for certain is the fact of his own existence, which cannot be certain for anyone else. Certainty in regard to any other proposition is in actuality an illusion, since the individual who has this so-called certainty is in a state of change, that is, alternating between the positive (what one is) and the negative (what one is becoming). The individual is a combination of infinitude (spirit) and finitude (creature), living with the possibility of death, and nothing can take away this fundamental uncertainty. Any attempt to assuage this uncertainty – such as through a focus on the positive side of existence – is a self-deception, ultimately failing.
“Negative thinkers therefore always have one advantage, in that they have something positive, being aware of the negative element in existence; the positive have nothing at all, since they are deceived. Precisely because the negative is present in existence, and present everywhere (for existence is a constant process of becoming), it is necessary to become aware of its presence continuously, as the only safeguard against it. In relying upon a positive security the subject is merely deceived” (Kierkegaard 1953: 75)
Such a self-deception tries to ignore the tension between the finite and the infinite aspects of the self. The idea that the subject strives does not mean that there is a goal towards which he strives, and that there will be an end to the striving. Rather, it refers to an infinite striving, a constant becoming. “This process of becoming is the thinkers own existence; from which it is indeed possible to make abstraction, but only thoughtlessly, in order to become objective” (Kierkegaard 1953: 84).
The third thesis is taken directly from Lessing: “Lessing has said that accidental historical truths can never serve as proofs for eternal truths of the reason; and that the transition by which it is proposed to base an eternal truth upon historical testimony is a leap” (Kierkegaard 1953: 86). Here, SK has in mind the fact that Christianity does not consists of a set of philosophical statements. The leap is not a leap of thought, but a leap of commitment. Lessing attacks the idea that one can make a “direct transition from historical trustworthiness to the determination of eternal happiness” (Kierkegaard 1953: 88). Rather, such a transition is only made by a leap of faith. This idea is a classic Existentialist protest against a rationalist system that would seek to sweep away the disparity between the eternal and temporal.
The fourth thesis is also taken directly from Lessing: “Lessing has said that, if God held all truth in his right hand, and in his left hand the lifelong pursuit of it, he would choose the left hand” (Kierkegaard 1953: 97). In other words, the search for certainty is better than objective certainty itself. We can only reach objective certainty by dealing with essences abstracted from concrete existence. This dehumanizes the existing individual, boiling the individual down to some kind of (actually non-existent) pure, objective ego. For Kierkegaard, though, the self is inseparable from freedom and passion. Johannes Climacus rails against such dehumanization: “I, Johannes Climacus, am a human being, neither more nor less; and I assume that anyone I may have the honor to engage in conversation with is also a human being. If he presumes to be speculative philosophy in the abstract, pure speculative thought, I must renounce the effort to speak with him; for in that case he instantly vanishes from my sight” (Kierkegaard 1953: 99).
For SK, any attempted rational system that seeks to unify all aspects
of reality is really quite comical. Those who try to create such a system
try to step out of existence – they try to forget that they are existing
individuals – and this leads to a contradiction because they must
exist whether they like it or not. He who recognizes the comical futility
of such a task is challenged to “concentrate his entire energy upon the
fact that he is an existing individual” (Kierkegaard 1953: 109). This
way, one is able to realize the beauty and meaningfulness of a life of
Attack upon “Christendom” consists of several short articles published in the political journal The Fatherland, and a handful of short publications called the Instant.
Throughout his writings, SK maintained that becoming a Christian required a radical leap of faith, completely changing the individual. The state church of Denmark, however, allowed all Danes to consider themselves Christians, equating citizenship in that earthly kingdom with citizenship in the Kingdom of God.
“Christendom,” for SK was the embodiment of the idea that God’s objectives could only be accomplished by an alliance between the church and state. For this to succeed, though, the church/state alliance had to present a watered-down version of Christianity, and then have laws to ensure that everyone is a “Christian” in this sense of the word.
For SK, the official state church of Denmark provided people with compromises, a watered-down gospel, that allowed them to go about their daily lives in relative comfort, all the time comforted by the idea that they are all Christians. Christianity, though, said SK, should never be accompanied with such comfort.
church of Denmark had drained the Christian message of anything radical in
order to gain funding and support from the state. SK saw the church and
the state as so melded that they were indistinguishable. Consequently,
“The Christianity of the New Testament simply does not exist. [It is]
exactly the opposite of what it is in the New Testament” (Kierkegaard
In regard to the clergy, SK wrote that they were more
concerned with keeping on the good side of the state so as not to
jeopardize their well-paying jobs and comfortable lives. In fact, SK’s
attack was initially launched when Bishop Martensen, the successor to the
Bishop Mynster, called his deceased predecessor a “genuine witness to
the truth.” These words enraged SK, prompting him to write a series of
articles in the Fatherland.
Kierkegaard argued that Mynster “omits something decisively Christian…
that part of Christianity which has to do with dying to the world, by
voluntary renunciation, by hating oneself, by suffering for the
doctrine” (Kierkegaard 1991: 5). Not only did Mynster fail to preach
this aspect of Christianity, but he also failed to live
it. The beginnings of this attack were not directed towards the deceased
Bishop Mynster (a friend of the Kierkegaard family), but to the living
Bishop Martensen. SK had a certain level of respect for Mynster because
“he was willing to admit before God and to himself that by no manner of
means was he a witness to the truth – to my mind this admission was the
genuine thing about him” (Kierkegaard 1991: 6).
Throughout the Attack,
SK wants people to be honest; either be Christian, or do not, but stop
pretending. He writes,
I want honesty. If that is what the human race or
this generation wants, if it will honorably, honestly, openly, frankly,
directly rebel against Christianity, if it will say to God, ‘We can but
we will not subject ourselves to this power’ – but note that this must
be done honorably, honestly, openly, frankly, directly – very well then,
strange as it may seem, I am with them; for honesty is what I want, and
wherever there is honesty I can take part. (Kierkegaard 1991: 39)
But in this pretending of Christianity there was no honesty, so SK would not take part.
The Less than Peaceful Burial
At the height of his attack on the church, SK
collapsed in the street. He spent several weeks in the hospital before he
died, refusing to retract anything he said, and refusing communion from a
state priest. Even after his death SK was a thorn in the side of the state
church. He was buried on November 18, 1855, in a state church cemetery,
with a funeral officiated by pastors of the state church. Naturally, given
the writings that came to be published in English as Attack
upon Christendom, there was some debate over the propriety of such a
service. Some officials of the Danish church thought that SK should be
given a normal Christian and church burial. Others, however, thought that
he should be regarded “as a heretic (i.e. an apostle of the devil)” (Coxall
91). In the end, a Dean of the church decided that “out of consideration
of the family” a proper Christian burial would be allowed, despite the
“’unsuitability and tactlessness’ of burying him on a Sunday, and of
having the service in a cathedral to boot” (Coxall 92).
Peter, a Rector of the Danish church, delivered the brief eulogy in the
cathedral at Copenhagen. Peter Kierkegaard said that he wished that a
clergyman had “had sufficient vigor to take him the arm for a moment
while he was still alive, and there hold him fast so that he could have
rested a little” (Coxall 92). Peter also assured the large crowd that
had gathered for the funeral that his brother’s work and words had not
shaken the Danish church to such an extent that it would fall, as some had
At the actual
burial, church officials threw earth on the coffin. It would have ended
there, but for SK’s young nephew Lund. After protests from the crowd,
church officials allowed him to speak. “The drift of his speech was that
what had been said was all beside the point” (Coxall 93), defending the
positions expressed in Attack Upon
Christendom, reading from the book of Revelation some of SK’s
favorite passages, and SK’s articles in the Fatherland
and the Instant (included in
the Attack). Lund even went so
far as to say that the church had “made itself contemptible” by
forcefully burying a man who had claimed to not be a Christian, that is,
if Christianity be that which was propagated by the state. This little
speech angered the Dean who had made the above comments regarding the
tactless burial. When the crowd began to leave, a heated argument broke
out over who was responsible for this scandalous burial.
Kierkegaard was by no means unknown in Denmark. However, it took almost a century for his writings to make an impact on the wider philosophical and theological scene, partly because he wrote in Danish. Finally, though, his writings were translated into many languages, allowing this great mind to make a huge impact on Western thought. Philosophically, he is sometimes credited as a father of Existentialism, along with Pascal and Nietzsche; theologically, the father of Neo-Orthodoxy; psychologically, an anticipator of depth psychology; spiritually, an author of beautiful devotional texts. At the bottom of his contributions, though, is a deep conviction that the Christian life must be lived with an unconditional passion for God, presenting a challenge to theologians and Christians even today.
T.H., ed., trans. Glimpses and Impressions of Kierkegaard. Digswell
Place, Great Britain: James Nisbet & Co. Ltd., 1959.
Regis. Introduction to Kierkegaard. Trans. W.H. Barber. London:
Frederick Muller, Ltd., 1950.
Soren. Attack Upon Christendom. Trans. Walter Lowrie. Princeton:
Princeton UP, 1991.
Fear and Trembling with The Sickness Unto Death. Trans.
Walter Lowrie. New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc, 1954.
---. Concluding Unscientific Postscript.
Trans. David F. Swenson and Walter Lowrie. Ed. Walter Lowrie. Princeton:
Princeton UP, 1953.
James C. Modern Christian Thought: from the Enlightenment to Vatican II.
New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1971.
David E., Existentialism and Religious Belief. ed. Roger Hazelton.
New York: Oxford UP, 1968.
Søren Aabye Kierkegaard was born on the fifth of May 1813 in Copenhagen, Denmark to Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard and Ane Sørensdatter Lund as their seventh and last child. Søren’s father, Michael Kierkegaard, grew up in a rural part of the country as an impoverished shepherd boy and was sent to the city at age eleven to work as an apprentice. With the favorable economic situation in Copenhagen during the last thirty years of the eighteenth century and the ingenuity of a clever apprentice, Michael eventually started and expanded the enterprise of his own dry goods store to become a prosperous urban merchant. Ane Lund, Michael’s cousin and one time peasant servant became his second wife and mother to all his children, including the first which was born just four months after the death of his first wife (Kirmmse, 260; Livingston, 311). The scarce amount of information available about the life of Ane seems to support the general notion that Søren’s childhood like his household was “completely dominated by his father, a man of great native intelligence, profound melancholy, and a strongly religious temperament” (McKinnon, 182). Not surprisingly, Søren, the youngest child of the house was said to have been a very bright child whose sharp tongue and lively wit compensated for his physical frailty and earned him the family nick-name ‘the Fork”(McKinnon, 183). In addition to the first rate education that the young Kierkegaard received outside of the house, his father made his own home one of the chief intellectual centers of the city. The home in which Kierkegaard grew up was also characterized by his father’s sympathetic leanings toward a more pietistic orientation toward faith. Kirmmse writes, “At home he was under heavy pietistic influence, and at school—the successful peasants son went, of course, to the capital’s finest preparatory school—he was noted as a bright student with a rather sharp tongue and an acerbic wit”(261).
In Kierkegaard’s writings there appears to be many of the same sharp tensions that characterized Søren’s upbringing, including those between the pietistic and the intellectual, the rural and the urban, the progressive and the conservative. Of all the material that has been accumulated about the influence his biography had on his writings, in my opinion, the greatest (second only to his true conversion) can be found in the many sociological tensions that resulted in being born the youngest son of Michael Kierkegaard. Beyond the scope of illuminating Postscript, it is important to note that the traditional biographical material regarding Kierkegaard stresses three major items. The three major events that are useful for a more complete understanding of his whole authorship include his complex relationship with his father, including his father’s death in 1838, his unexplained broken engagement to Regine Olsen, and his interaction with the Corsair journal. Although piecing together the influence and potential reactions Kierkegaard had to each of these events is both interesting and potentially insightful for a more psychological investigation of the author himself, our concern here is to simply illuminate en route to engaging his actual writing. So let us not dwell further on precisely the kind of distracting speculation that the author so despised so that we avoid making the mistake that so many others seem to have made in the past when the occasions for his writings attract more attention than the writings themselves.
Postscript to Philosophical
Imagine if you will a social gathering at which a conversation of immense importance is taking place. As the main discussion continues to evolve, the conversation appears to be getting further and further removed from the fascinating question that had originated it in the first place. As each person speaks one at a time and with the utmost directness towards which intellectual precision strives, the conversation itself begins to assume an importance that was initially only found in that which it sought to illuminate. In spite of its depth, admirable subtlety and undeniable sophistication, in actuality the evolved conversation has become dangerously digressive, intolerably esoteric, and monotonously trivial. What is more, it is unclear who among the conversationalists and the observing crowd is actually invested in what the discussion is about. In fact, it would seem that the vast majority of the people at the party have no idea what is going on and when looking closely they seem unable to distinguish the speakers from the listeners. At once everyone seems to be speaking but saying nothing of importance and then again it seems like everyone is just listening to what everyone else is trying to hear. Nonetheless the guests maintain that they are on the guest list and thus it is of little use to them and their experience to either follow the discussion or remember why they have gathered in the first place. Through the author’s eyes, this is the party that Kierkegaard and his talents decide to crash.
With a mischievous multiplicity of personalities (like the comedic personas of Andy Kaufman), the talent to capture the dynamic in a still compositional form (à la Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2), and the mind boggling literary ability to communicate a coherent unified collection of thoughts that only exists when an exhausting number of different levels are held together in the readers understanding (e.g. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, 1996) Kierkegaard enters the scene of historical theology. The importance of all the characteristics involved in Kierkegaard’s unique style of indirect communication can not be overemphasized. The richness and incandescent nature of his literary works should neither be viewed as peripheral nor parenthetical to the content of his communication, for they are central to developing an understanding of his thought as a whole. As such we should be clear from the start that for one that deeply understands and appreciates the project that this individual undertook, an attempt to summarize such a wealth of thought in this type of forum is like trying to explain jazz in the language of financial accounting. An unenviable task not only because the grammar is obstructive as a medium of communication but such an endeavor risks the consequences of its own success, namely of fostering precisely the opposite type of comprehension that the artist intended. With due respect to the author and the content, let us keep both these limitations and our risk of collusion in mind as we proceed in a responsible manner mindful that Kierkegaard and his thought can not merely be reduced to “a fantastical three eighths of a paragraph”(Postscript, 145).
Kierkegaard’s ability to employ the forms of transmission as an integral part of the content that he sought to communicate proved to be an invaluable component to his writings. In essence his task demanded that he defy genre in such a way that he could both maintain the sophistication of theology but retain the imagination of a complacent audience. Kierkegaard seems to have understood his calling to be the task of bringing Christianity to those that already considered themselves to be Christian. As such, converting the converted was a project that necessitated the paradox of Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous authorship in Postscript; he was in fact a Christian writing as a non-Christian about the difficulties of becoming truly Christian. His message was not only a critique of the reigning system but was also a proposal on how to amend not the system per se but a truly Christian employment of the system. Because of the inherent complexity of the task he set ought to accomplish with the accompaniment of (but not for) the reader, Kierkegaard had to avoid becoming a member of what he called the Emergency Learned Choir (29). For instance, Kierkegaard, or Climacas writes in his “Possible/Actual Thesis on Lessing”, “what I write is not the awaited final paragraph that will complete the system”(76).
At the heart of his thought is the distinction between Christianity and being or becoming a Christian. Theology among his contemporaries consisted of discussing Christianity objectively but Kierkegaard wanted to redirect the attention of Christians (including those that were theologians) to illuminating the task of becoming or being a Christian. In effect theology was in his eyes tempting unsuspecting existing beings into the realm of objective, ghostly non-existence. In such a situation “the cultured people have only a very ironic advantage over simple folk with regard to becoming and continuing to be Christians: the advantage that it is more difficult”(606). The main concern for Christians is not Christianity as an object but how to be and become a Christian as an already existing person in the concretion of life. Adding to the challenge of recognizing Christian existence as a process of becoming was the fact that in the Christendom in which Kierkegaard found himself everyone became a Christian in their first weeks of life when they were scarcely able to know what it was that they were becoming. In Kierkegaard’s view a child is unable to become a true Christian because becoming a Christian is not an event which can take place without the willingness of a mature person to accept the absurdity of faith and to notice the change within himself from what he was before. Where every person is Christian by default instead of making an active, subjective decision regarding the nature of one’s own existence, Christianity, in Kierkegaard’s opinion becomes something quite different than it really is. Only in such an environment could “Christians” mistake an understanding of Christianity for an actual existence as a Christian. “In short: it is easier to become a Christian if I am not a Christian than to become a Christian if I am one,” because appropriation, not infant baptism makes a true Christian (366). A Christian life exists with inwardness and passion, not abstraction and speculation.
Contrary to the theology that prevailed in his day, Kierkegaard sought to highlight the subjective nature of Christian truth, a truth that could only be understood and was only worth understanding by an existing person. Arguing that the system of Hegel had been mistaken for that which it was designed to illuminate, Kierkegaard sought to make things more difficult by reminding Christian readers of their priorities. We should not be Christians “more or less” or believers “for the most part.” We should not suspend the teleological orientation of our lives because we are awaiting the latest book that will make Christianity via the system completely understandable. Christianity involves paradox, subjective truth and individual faith. Christianity can not be made easy because its very essence to the reflecting, subjective individual is absurd. The saving truth of Christianity can not be apprehended objectively because those who must apprehend it are subjective existing persons. Furthermore, what keeps people from fully embracing Christianity is the very same non-existence that keeps them hanging on for still more objective data to persuade them. This leap required is the faith of an existing Christian. Its absence can only mean that either one is not a true Christian by virtue of being something else, or one is not a true Christian by virtue of not truly existing. Faith can not be made easier like the railroads made travel easier, it involves continual struggle. Faith remains a paradox and existence has to be satisfied with a struggling certainty. All is lost only when the paradox has vanished, or faith ceases to be a struggle for an existing person (226). Indirectly, Kierkegaard seems to be communicating that the idolatry of his day is that people believe that “the objective orientation is the way and the truth”(133).
But Kierkegaard was more than a theological Luddite
or a well read anti-intellectual. He
was not an across the board opponent of Hegel’s dialectical system as
one can see that the thought behind his descriptive writing contains a
heavy influence of the dialectical process.
Far from proposing a type of entrenched reactionary posture he
writes, “Faith must not be
satisfied with incomprehensibility, because the very relation to or
repulsion from the incomprehensible, the absurd, is the expression for the
passion of faith”(611). In
other words it is not enough to just ignore or brush aside that which you
don’t understand (he is not telling Christians that Hegel is using fuzzy
math). Rather he is saying that one has to engage the utility of the
theological system to plunge deeper into the paradox of their faith that
is guarded by their passion. It
is by engaging the challenges brought about by objective understanding
that one will increase subjective appropriation of the Christian faith. Only when an existing person orients herself to the ultimate télos
of eternal happiness will her existential pathos
express a truly Christian existence.
There is an element of subjective security in Kierkegaard’s
theology but it is based in a particular view of the fundamental nature of
existence and an understanding of the very personal nature of becoming a
Christian. The subjective
emphasis of his work is not, in my opinion, a preemptive strike to
sidestep the epistemology of the enlightenment but is instead a move to
counter speculative non-being.
What we find with Kierkegaard in the Postscript
is not so much a description of a theological process but a prescription
for the process of becoming a Christian.
The issue is not metaphysics or ethics but existence.
The form of his discourse is unmistakably part of its function. In his “A Glance at a Contemporary Effort in Danish
Literature” his imaginative style embodies the dialectic he attempts to
foster within the reader. As
he holds together the pseudonymous authors, the footnotes and continual
narrative a deep appreciation for his genius begins to take shape as the
onslaught of paradox and dialectic continues.
He intends to make the composition of a direct, accurate and
concise account of his work a practical impossibility.
There are no summaries to regurgitate like "a rote parroter"
(251), no easy answers or formulas to simply note and move on.
In fact Kierkegaard, writing through an imaginary author declares,
“I am a friend of difficulties, especially of those that have the
humorous quality”(607). He
proclaims that faith is more than the rational conclusion to understanding
a system based on objective and detached knowledge.
He writes that even if we got the heads of all the critics together
on one neck, we would still only have an approximation of the truth (24).
Something different is driving this individual's thought, something
more than approximation and speculation, something more than an attempt to
persuade with external support. In
Postscript, Kierkegaard calls
his readers to examine their faith existentially, as subjective, concrete
Christians in becoming. And
with that he could not help but to make a name for himself.
The Concluding Unscientific
Postscript to “Philosophical Fragments”, Vol. 1 & 2.
Edited and Translated with an Introduction and Notes by Howard V.
Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton,
NJ: Princeton University Press, [Vol. XII & XIII, 1978] 1992.
Originally published February 28, 1846 in Copenhagen with Johannes
Climacas as author and Søren
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Søren Aaybe Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, on 5 May 1813, the last of seven children born to Mikaël Pederson Kierkegaard and his second wife Anna. Mikaël had been a wool merchant by trade, although by the time Søren was born he had long since retired and was living comfortably off of the sizable fortune he had amassed. Anna, in contrast, had been the maidservant of Mikaël's first wife, who had died childless. In fact, a scandal surrounds this state of affairs in that Mikaël and Anna were married very soon after the funeral of the former's first wife, five months after which the latter gave birth to their first child.
Mikaël, in contrast to his illiterate wife Anna, fostered a great interest in philosophy and, recognizing the intellectual prowess of his son, incorporated this love into the rearing of young Søren. For example, rather than taking his son outside for walks, Mikaël would instead walk with him through his study on make-believe "trips of fantasy" through their imagination; to young Kierkegaard, the sheer imaginative power of his father's mind was not unlike that of the creative powers of God Himself (Kierkegaard 1938, entry dated 1843, IV B I). Moreover, Mikaël commanded a powerful use of dialectical argument; in the aim of developing this same ability in his son, Mikaël would have his son eavesdrop on the conversations of his dinner guests, making him reproduce their respective arguments almost word for word.
Perhaps the greatest influence that Mikaël had on his son, however, came from his guilt-ridden obsession with a particularly morbid rendition of Moravian pietism. He believed that, on account of a secret sin committed in his childhood, he and his entire family were cursed by God. This curse amounted to the fate that his entire family would die before Mikaël himself faced death. This fear was only reinforced as his wife and first five children died; however, the curse would not be fulfilled, as both Søren and one of his brothers lived significantly beyond their father. With such a melancholy obsession with death, it is somewhat appropriate that this family's name, Kierkegaard, means "graveyard".
This morbidity was not lost on young Søren. He would later write, "As a child I was sternly and seriously brought up in Christianity. Humanly speaking, it was a crazy upbringing" (Kierkegaard 1962, 76). Indeed, his childhood experience of Christianity was instilled with such anxiety that that Kierkegaard became convinced that "Christianity with the terror removed is merely a Christianity of the imagination" (Kierkegaard 1992, 524). On the basis of this shared demon, Kierkegaard would write of his unfortunate bond with his father:
This common torment, combined with their shared joy of learning, formed a bond between father and son that would make an indelible impression on the entirety of the younger Kierkegaard's life and work.
In 1830, Kierkegaard enrolled in the University of Copenhagen to study theology. It was here he was first introduced to the philosophy of Hegel, which was unquestionably paramount at that time. Raised on his father's dialectic, Kierkegaard had no difficulty grasping Hegel's dialectic. Yet, while he was initially enthralled by the intricacies, he ultimately became dissatisfied with Hegel's system as a whole. While he conceded that it was a momentous achievement in abstract thought, it failed to capture the subjective element of reality. He writes in his journal at this time,
Because the Hegelian system could not provide such deeper significance, its claims as exhaustive and complete struck Kierkegaard as comical if not inauthentic. As a result, Kierkegaard quickly lost interest in the study of theologywhich was presently dominated by Hegelian thoughtand began a less impassioned study of Romantic philosophy and poetry.
More than a mere academic transition, however, Kierkegaard's lifestyle reflected this new attitude of despondence as well. Taking advantage of the life of a wealthy merchant's son, he frequented cafés more than he ever had before (racking up substantial debts), drank to excess, and associated with often sordid company (Jolivet 1946, 10). His journal vividly records his state of mind in such an environment:
Moreover, he became uninterested in school in general, disregarding his classes and perpetually pushing back his testing dates. In short, Kierkegaard's despair at the seeming lack of any "deeper significance" was tearing away the very fabric of his life.
Perhaps the apex of this stage in his life occurred on a November night in 1836, while out on a drinking bout with his fellow students. On this particular night, he allowed himself to be lured into one of the local brothels with his friends. While there is little available as to the specifics of this escapade, his journal entry from that night, though brief, is telling. It reads: "My God, my God ." Underneath is written (probably on the same day): "That bestial giggling " (Kierkegaard, 1938, entry dated November 10, 1836, taken from Rohde 1963, 43). This entry suggests nothing if not a tortured soul laid bare with self-disgust.
Kierkegaard's life, however, would undergo a serious transition around the time of his twenty-fifth birthday. His father asked him to spend it at home with what survived of the family, and took advantage of the opportunity to bare his soul regarding not only his sins with his second wife, but also regarding his haunting secret sin: apparently as a young child, living the desolate and impoverished life of a shepherd, he had openly cursed God for his misery. Old Mikaël Kierkegaard must have sensed that his end was near, for he died only a few months later after confessing to his son.
The confession and death of Kierkegaard's father had a powerful emotional effect on him. Most significantly, it served as a catalyst for his renewed commitment to the Christian faith. In addition, it inspired him to complete his theological education and pursue a career in the ministry. Moreover, in 1840, Kierkegaard announced his engagement to the girl who would be his lifelong desire, Regine Olsen. Kierkegaard was clearly on his way to a successful and happy life.
However, this was not to be the life for Kierkegaard. For reasons that are largely unknown, he broke of the engagement with Regine; all that his journals reveal is that he believed "God had vetoed the marriage" (Kierkegaard 1938, 73). This was surely a torturous decision for Kierkegaard to make, and one he would regret for the rest of his life (See Kierkegaard 1938, 86). Instead, he enrolled at the University of Berlin, where, amongst other things, he took one of Schelling's courses on Hegelian philosophy with fellow-students Ludwig Feuerbach and Friedrich Engels.
From this point on, Kierkegaard lived a largely solitary life. He was ridiculed by most newspapers, his publications were misunderstood, and he failed to receive any substantial acclaim for his work. Nonetheless, he published a large body of works, under a variety of pseudonyms, which pertained primarily to his critique of the Hegelian system and his condemnation of the established Danish church. Kierkegaard died on 11 November, 1855. His request had been that his epitaph read simply "The Individual"; his wish was not granted.Kierkegaard's Theological Impetus
The theology of Kierkegaard is arguably best understood as a response to Hegel. While his works do not always refer directly to Hegel, they areon the wholeproduced out of his response to an environment dominated by Hegel's thought. Thus, whether Kierkegaard is talking about subjectivity as truth, the three spheres of existence, or the concept of dread, he is always talking aboutor, better, againstHegel.
He begins by conceding that Hegel's thought is not problematic as an exercise in abstract thought; to the contrary, he (momentarily) praises the heights which Hegel's thought has reached (Westphal 1998, 102). Instead, notes Kierkegaard, the problem lies with the claim that such thought can be considered a "system". At least in the Hegelian sense, system refers to an objectively true understanding that takes into account every aspect of reality. The problem with such a system is that must assume its subject to be able to view the world sub specie aeterni; however, if there are no such eternal subjects among us human beings.
Human beings are, by nature of their existence, finite beings. The consequence of our finitude is the fact that we are bound within existential time: past, present, and future. It is this temporally limited human subject that is incorporated into Hegels system, and it is the aforementioned temporal limitations that will consequently limitand ultimately defyhis system. This is demonstrated by Kierkegaard's pseudonymous writer, Johannes Climacus in two ways: from the limitations of the past on the one hand, and from the limitations of the future on the other (Westphal 1998, 119).
Climacus argues first from the perspective of the past. According to Hegel's Logic, true systemsi.e., sciencesmust begin with immediacy, devoid of presuppositions (Westphal, 1998, 119). Climacus realizes, however, that immediacy must start somewhere, and this somewhere is precisely what will run immediacy ashore. He asks, "How does the system begin with the immediate, that is, does it begin with it immediately?" (Kierkegaard 1938, 111-2, italics orig.) Certainly not, he replies; prior to any immediacy there must occur reflection. In other words, even unmediated objective thoughtsif these could existrequire an initially subjective starting point.
Driving the point further, Climacus asks: "How do I bring to a halt the reflection set in motion in order to reach that beginning?" (Kierkegaard 1938, 111-2) The only way to stop reflection, he responds, is with a resolution; in either case, presuppositionlessness has been irretrievably lost. Because humans are bound in time, immediacy is impossible; every thought has to have been preceded by the subjective decision to act. For better or for worse, objective thought is forever poisoned with the existential distance of a human subject whose reality is in part characterized by having a pasta personal historythat predetermines everything subjectively.
Second, Climacus argues from the perspective of the future. He writes: "System and conclusiveness correspond to each other, but existence is the very opposite" (Kierkegaard 1992, 118). That is to say, the idea of an overarching system assumes that the elements of that system are stable and unchanging (i.e., complete), such that they can be incorporated into the whole without compromising the integrity of the whole. However, human existence, a purported part of that system, is itself characterized by persistent change (inconclusiveness).
The above is perhaps more appropriate stated in terms of perspective: existence, as human beings perceive it, is subject to the persistent change that accompanies the passage of time. From within the passage of time the world is always becoming. As finite beings within that temporal world, we are fated to live in anticipation of an unknown future in which everythingeven the foundations of knowledge itselfis subject to change. Because of the change inherent in the process of becoming, it is impossible for human beings to perceive of the world with any conclusiveness. We are subject to change, and it is precisely this subjectivity that makes a complete system of Hegel's variety for us impossible.
Human beings, in conclusion, are not infinite. We our bound to the present by the past and the future; as a result, we are always becoming. Because we lack the prerequisites for Hegel's systemimmanence and conclusivenesssuch a system is not possible for us; rather it is only possible for eternal beings. Westphal states it succinctly when he writes that "God, but not Hegel, can be an Hegelian (1998, 117).
The result of Hegel's failure to address the finite character of existence is that his system fails to take the fullness of humanity into account. The notion of humanity that is assimilated into his system has been so warped and twisted that we hardly recognize it. In expecting everything of the human, notes Climacus, Hegel has essentially reduced it to nothing at all. He writes that, within such a system, "[t]o be a human being has been abolished, and every speculative thinker confuses himself with humankind, whereby he becomes something infinitely great and nothing at all" (Kierkegaard 1992, 124).
Kierkegaard has taken issue with Hegel on his ability to incorporate humanity into his system. While the latter claims that he has, the former claims that he has done so only on unrealistic expectations of the finite human subject These expectations carry on to make the entire system unrealistic. Kierkegaard, in demonstrating the impossibility of human immanence or conclusiveness has argued that even the very core of Hegel's systemthe foundations of knowledge itselfcan be called into question. Taking from Hegel the infallibility of his abstract thought, Kierkegaard has denied the possibility of any objective truth on which a system such a Hegel's might be built.
Having stripped Hegel of his system of truth, Kierkegaard must proceed to develop a theory of truth by some other means, lest he resort to nihilism. This new approach must take into consideration the serious critique he has made regarding the impossibility of objective truth. In fact, as will be seen in the complimentary section of this entrywritten by Imkong I. Imsongthis new approach will be approached from the flipside of Hegel's argument: rather than arguing for objective truth, Kierkegaard will argue for truth as subjectivity.Bibliography of Works Cited
Kierkegaard, Søren. 1992 . Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, trans and ed. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong from the twelfth edition in Danish (1972). Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. 2 Vols. Includes Introduction and notes.
. 1938. The Journals of Kierkegaard, 1834-1854, trans and ed. Alexander Dru (Details not given; assumed from the original journals in Danish). London: Fontana Books.
. 1962 . The Point of View for My Work as an Author, trans. Walter Lowrie (details of source not given), ed. and intro. Benjamin Nelson from Lowries 1939 edition. New York: Harper Torchbooks.
Jolivet, Regis, 1946(?). Introduction to Kierkegaard, trans. W.H. Barber from French (1946). New York: E.P. Dutton and Co. Fails to give publishing date; I have used the original French publishing date in its place.
Rohde, Peter, 1963. Søren Kierkegaard: An Introduction to his Life and Philosophy, trans. Alan Moray Williams from Danish (1959). New York: Humanities Press. Fails to cite its quotations for Kierkegaard; otherwise helpful.
Westphal, Merold, 1998. "Kierkegaard and Hegel", In The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard, 101-124, eds. Alastair Hannay and Gordon D. Marino. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Imkong I. Imsong, 1998
Kierkegaard (1813-1855) is one of the most difficult of modern religious thinkers to interpret and to classify. He is categorized differently by people as: preacher, teacher, theologian, prophet, apologist and as philosopher. However, for this paper he is viewed as a religious philosopher. His religious philosophy is greatly influenced by Schelling and his admiration for Socrates, with his sharp reaction against Hegel's Idealism. Confining mostly to his writings: Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript, we shall discuss his conception of reason and faith and subjective thinking.
Reason and Faith
Elaborating on Socrates concept of a teacher, Kierkegaard says, "ignorant person merely needs to be reminded in order, by himself, to call to mind what he knows. The truth is not introduced into him but was in him" (Kierkegaard 1985, 9). This argument determined Socrates' conception of his function as a teacher. He played the role of a midwife. Since truth is within, a teacher can effect the leaner only historically but a teacher cannot concern a leaner with respect to one's eternal happiness (Kierkegaard 1985, 12). Kierkegaard insists that in Christianity there is a radical (ontological) difference between God and human beings, such that our relationship to God requires divine action (revelation) and human response (faith). Diogenes Allen succinctly summed up this view by defining Keikegaard' s view of "absurdity":
Based on such an understanding, Kierkegaard advances further and thinks that even though truth is within a person it cannot be realized because of the condition of guilt caused by sin which is oppose to the truth. "For it requires a divine, a savior and redeemer, not a human Teacher to give the learner the condition necessary for understanding the Truth" (Kierkegaard 1985, 15). Furthermore, the effect upon the leaner is not merely that s/he learns the Truth s/he did not know before but also that s/he becomes a human of a different quality, "a new person". "But his transition from 'not to be' to 'to be' is indeed a transition of birth" (Kierkegaard 1985, 19). The moment of such transition is decisively significant and terms this occasion as "the fullness of time." Kierkegaard thinks that Christians have learned that a person is in error and cannot lay hold of the Truth by his/her own powers but must have it bestowed upon aperson and be enabled to understand it by God.
Inspired by Pauline kenotic theology, Kierkegaard points out that the divine Teacher can bestow the Truth and thus manifest His(God's) love for the learner only by a "descent," by becoming equal to human beings through taking the form of a servant and suffering all things like the humblest of human beings (Kierkegaard 1985, 32-33). Thus, the eternal truth has entered into time in a particular historical event. It cannot be understood immediately through the senses, since the senses can present to a person only the content of the event. For a learner, in order to apprehend and to appropriate this Truth revealed in a historical event, entrance of the eternal into time requires an interpretation, a new organ apart from immediate human senses.
Kierkegaard calls this new organ faith (Kierkegaard 1985, 59). To put his own words:
Thus, belief is not a form of knowledge, but a free act, an expression of will through which uncertainty and doubt can be overcome.
Kierkegaard holds that faith implies doubt or uncertainty and at the same time negates it by affirming certainty. "The conclusion of belief is no conclusion (Slutning) but a resolution (Beslutning), and thus doubt is excluded" Keirkegaard 1985, 84). However, it does so not by knowledge but by will. As he says:
This view of faith as the organ of apprehension of the meaning of historical events refers of course to the historical event of the Incarnation of Jesus. Becoming a Christian simply means that one now knows consciously what one did not know consciously before (Diogenes Allen 1985, 245). Therefore, Keirkegaard maintains that "contemporary disciples of Jesus had no advantage over the disciples of later generations with respect to faith in him, for the meaning of the facts was uncertain to both, and both had to over come their doubts by an act of will." The only difference between them is that the "contemporary disciples" believed by virtue of their immediate experience of the events, while their successors of later generations and today believe solely by virtue of the testimony to which they have access. To appropriate the Truth or to be reconciled is not merely to know of this possibility, but to actualize it for ourselves by our response of faith. It is to have faith in what cannot be known since reconciliation is possible by a unique and free act by God.
Keirkegaard made a frontal attack on the attempt of philosophers to prove the existence of God by reasons and thus hold that Truth must be revealed by the divine Teacher and received by faith. Thus for Keirkegaard to become Christian requires a person to turn from speculation and to take responsibility for one's own self vis á vis ethical claims and Christianity (Diogenes Allen 1985 245). There is a "supreme passion of the reason," says Kierkegaard, which proves to be its undoing and leads human being to doubt even his/her own knowledge. It is the passionate attempt to discover something that thought cannot comprehend, "the Unknown" whom we call "god" (Kierkegaard 1985, 39), and philosophers have developed theories of the proofs for the existence of God. Like Kant, Kierkegaard argues that these proofs fail to attain their purpose.
In his argument to prove the existence of God, Keirkegaard thinks that one can not begin with doubt but with certainty, because it would be impossible to prove the existence of God if he did not exist. Therefore, the proof becomes merely an additional development of the consequences that flow from my having assumed that the object in question exists. Unless the thinker presupposes God's existence he/she has nothing with which to begin (Keirkegaard 1985, 40). Another point he expounds saying, if a person is "totally undecided whether the god exists or not, then, of course, he does not demonstrate it, and if that is the situation in the beginning, then he never does make a beginning-partly for fear that he will not succeed because the god may not exist, and partly because he has nothing with which to begin" (Keirkegaard 1985, 43-44). Further, Keirkegaard's criticism of logical system is the lack of continuity. On cannot think transcending an existential being, otherwise one can never know certainty or the completion of the argument.
Subjective Thinking: Truth as Subjective
After having established the revelation of truth by the divine teacher as a given fact and faith a way of human response to the Truth, Keirkegaard establishes his thesis of subjective thinking as an appropriation in an existential being of an objective reality. The primary question has to do not with the truth but individual's relation to it. In other words it is not theoretical but an existential question. "A question of inwardness, which the question of becoming subjective must put to himself" (Keirkegaard 1944, 154). Thought and being are not identical but are separated for an existing individual. There are two ways of looking at truth: one emphasizes the objective and the other the subjective side of the relationship between the object and the knower.
For an objective reflection the truth becomes an object, something objective, and thought must be pointed away from the subject. For a subjective reflection the truth becomes a matter of appropriation, of inwardness, of subjectivity, and thought must probe more and more deeply into the subject and his subjectivity (Keirkegaard 1944, 171). Keirkegaard elaborates this by taking an example the knowledge of God. "Objectively, reflection is directed to the problem of whether this object is the true God; subjectively, reflection is directed to the question whether the individual is related to a something in such a manner that his relationship is in the truth" (Kierkegaard 1944, 178).
In that sense truth is on neither side, but in the mediation of both. The point Keirkegaard made is that an existing individual can mediate between these two only when to exist is to become. The combination of objective and subjective thinking with respect to God must be ruled out because objective truth remains uncertain and the attempt to attain it involves a postponement of decision. So, Keirkegaard asserts, "anyone who has not been demoralized with the aid of science" (Kierkegaard 1844, 179) should opt for subjective thinking. "Only in subjectivity is there decisiveness, to seek objectivity is to be in error. It is the passion of the infinite that is the decisive factor and not its content, for its content is precisely itself" (Kierkegaard 1944, 181). This leads Kierkegaard to his most extreme statement of the superiority of subjective over objective thinking.
However, Kierkegaard does not deny that there is an objective truth about God. He maintains that the truth is paradoxical. "The paradoxical character of the truth is its objective uncertainty; this uncertainty is an expression for the passionate inwardness, and this passion is precisely the truth" (Kierkegaard 1944, 183). What does it mean by "passionate inwardness" of this process of appropriation? Kierkegaard seems to mean that the doubt that is aroused by the "objective uncertainty" increases the passion with which it is affirmed as subjective truth. Since this doubt is overcome not by knowledge but by faith, the definition of subjective truth is an equivalent expression of truth. "Faith," according to Kierkegaard, "is precisely the contradiction between the infinite passion of the individual's inwardness and the objective uncertainty. If I am capable of grasping God objectively, I do not believe, but precisely because I cannot do this I believe" (Kierkegaard 1944, 182). There could hardly be a more vivid expression of the fact that subjective truth, or faith, can be maintained only by a constant effort of the will and that this is necessary because doubt due to the objective uncertainty of what is embraced is never overcome and remains very strong. Kierkegaard exalts the necessity of doubt on the ground that it increases the intensity of faith and the passionate inwardness with which it is affirmed.
The "objective uncertainty" of that which is affirmed as true by subjective thinking, or faith, gives it a paradoxical character. "When subjective inwardness is the truth," says Kierkegaard, "the truth becomes objectively a paradox" (Kierkegaard 1944, 182). This seems to mean that the object or content of that which is affirmed as subjective truth is a paradox to reason. "The eternal truth has come into being, has been born, has grown up and so forth, precisely like any other individual human being, quite indistinguishable from other individuals" (Kierkegaard 1944, 188). This absolute paradox is the source of the most profound inwardness.
Speculative philosophy tries to do away with this "absolute paradox" and its absurdity by seeking objective truth rather than accepting subjective truth, or faith. Every attempt of reason to escape from the "absolute paradox " or the "absurd" by making it probable is bound to fail and the only result is to make it impossible to believe. The truth is that Christianity is a mystery. It was "never intended to be understood"; indeed, "the maximum of understanding which comes in question is to understand that it cannot be understood" (Kierkegaard 1944, 192). Therefore, when the speculative philosopher claims to comprehend the truth of Christianity, he does not really understand it; he simply "abrogates the paradox" (Kierkegaard 1944, 200). Thus it is impossible to " believe with the understanding; rather, with the understanding directly opposed to it, the inwardness of faith must lay hold of the paradox" (Kierkegaard 1944, 201).
Indeed, faith seems to require the understanding chiefly in order to overcome its opposition and deepen its own passionate inwardness. The understanding also serves a useful purpose in discerning nonsense and preventing the Christian from believing it (Kierkegaard 1944, 504). But in relation to faith its primary function is purely negative. The Christian believes against the understanding. He uses the understanding to discover its own limits and thereby to become aware of what is incomprehensible to it, but it is faith alone which has the positive function of appropriating the truth and it does so not with but against the understanding.
Keirkegaard was one of the first to see and expose the dangers of the "madness' of objectivity which has developed in modern world from an almost exclusive emphasis upon the scientific method. Regarded as a warning against this kind of madness and the impoverishment of life to which it leads, his criticism of objective thinking was a big shift in western theology. Moreover, his recognition that in ethical and religious thinking a passionate interest in God and one's relationship to him is essential to personal appropriation of the Truth reminds us that for religion God is not primarily an object of knowledge. Rather, he is the being with whom we are ultimately concerned as the source of meaning and value in our existence. This implies that to know God in a religious sense the whole self must be involved heart and will as well as mind.
Bibliography of Works Cited
Allen, Diogenes. 1985. Philosophy for Understanding Theology. Atlanta: John Knox Press.
Keirkegaard, Søren. !941. (Second printing 1944) Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Trans David F. Swenson. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Kierkegaard, Søren. 1985. Philosophical Fragments: Johannes Climacus. Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Westphal, Merold. 1987. Kierkegaard's Critique of Reason and Society. Macon: Mercer University Press.
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