Philosophy Weekend: Kierkegaard's Birthday

Classics Existential History Love Modernism Postmodernism Religion

What do you buy a morose Danish philosopher who invented Existentialism for his 200th birthday?

It doesn't really matter anymore, since Soren Aabye Kierkegaard is dead. He died at the young age of 42, already at this time a mostly broken man, an obsessive writer, a lonely bachelor, and a frequent subject of popular ridicule. Like Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, Franz Kafka and F. Scott Fitzgerald (with all of whom he shares some sensibility), he died at a low point of literary success, without much reason to expect that later generations would rediscover his work and call him a genius.

But I believe Soren Kierkegaard died a happy man, because he was that rare philosopher who found answers to the hardest questions he asked, answers that satisfied him completely. The questions were of religion, and of how to live a good life, and his answer involved the "leap of faith" or "leap to faith" (a phrase he invented). Kierkegaard was a devoted Christian, but he defied the philosophical norms of his age by expressly refusing to try to justify his belief with reason or logic. The power of religious faith, he pronounced, was in believing without reason or logic.

His belief in Christianity made him a great religious writer. What made him a great Existential writer was the implicit principle that underlies his argument for religious faith: the principle that we human beings regularly think, live and make decisions without reason or logic.

This was as much a "eureka" moment for Western philosophy as Rene Descartes's cogito ergo sum two centuries before. Though Kierkegaard had to struggle to explain his ideas to his bewildered Danish and European intellectual peers during his life, his idea of religion as a leap to faith would spring incredible gardens of original modernist thought: inheritors of Kierkegaard include Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, William James, Paul Tillich, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jean-Paul Sartre and many more.

Kierkegaard's books can be tricky to get into. As a college student, I heard glowing summaries of Kierkegaard's ideas from many of my Philosophy professors, but I was rarely assigned to read his original texts. Maybe that's because he was a non-academic with a tendency to create sock puppets. Few of Kierkegaard's works were written under his own name, as he preferred to hide behind pseudonyms like Anti-Climacus, Constantin Constantius, Frater Taciturnus, Hilarius Bogbinder, Johannes Climacus, Johannes de Silentio, Nicolaus Notabene, Victor Eremita and Vigilius Haufniensis. These "authors" often argued with each other, putting forth questionable ideas like characters in a Platonic dialogue.

Kierkegaard's breakthrough work, Either-Or, is a paired set of miscellaneous documents by two authors, allegedly found in a desk, that present virulently opposite opinions on the nature of romantic love and the meaning of marriage. Kierkegaard's own (obviously conflicted) stance on the question is nowhere in the text. Kierkegaard's authorial identity games make him a proto-postmodernist, but they also make him difficult to comprehend.

It's easy to get lost in the thick irony and reflective misdirection of Kierkegaard's kaleidoscopic texts. Still, his books do break into sudden clarity often. Here's one of several passages in which he explains the original idea of the "leap to faith", from his late-period Philosophical Fragments (the "little Cartesian dolls" refer to objects of Rene Descartes's epistemological world view).

And how does the God’s existence emerge from the proof? Does it follow straightway, without any breach of continuity? Or have we not here an analogy to the behavior of the little Cartesian dolls? As soon as I let go of the doll it stands on its head. As soon as I let it go -- I must therefore let it go. So also with the proof. As long as I keep my hold on the proof, i.e., continue to demonstrate, the existence does not come out, if for no other reason than that I am engaged in proving it; but when I let the proof go, the existence is there. But this act of letting go is surely also something; it is indeed a contribution of mine. Must not this also be taken into the account, this little moment, brief as it may be -- it need not be long, for it is a leap.

Kierkegaard's bicentennial birthday (May 5) is being celebrated around the world, and especially in his own country. The wonderful sketch of Soren Kierkegaard at the top of this page is a likeness "from memory" by the philosopher's friend Wilhelm Mastrand.

This article is part of the series Philosophy Weekend. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Kierkegaard's Either-Or. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Derek Jarman's Ludwig Wittgenstein.
6 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: Kierkegaard's Birthday"

It's a shame that Soren Aabye Kierkegaard, like so many writers, are so much more appreciated after they're gone.

by Michael.Norris on

My dad had a copy of "Fear and Trembling" on our family bookshelf for years. A few times I picked it up and attempted to read it, but got no further in than two or three pages, I love the title, though.

by pietruszka on

‘But I believe Soren Kierkegaard died a happy man, because he was that rare philosopher who found answers to the hardest questions he asked, answers that satisfied him completely.’ I couldn’t disagree more. Not only because considering one of the most exalted in their grief philosophers ever to be ‘happy’ sounds a bit ridiculous ;) but also because I doubt if his answers really satisfied him. First of all, ‘leap of faith’ didn’t matter for Kierkegaard that much, even if he considered it as a correct answer, because he still couldn’t perform it. I can’t recall perfect quotation (and still I would have to translate it as I’m not an everyday English user, as you probably already noticed), but in Fear and Trembling he states that every time ‘he finds himself staying in front of the abyss’ he can’t make the leap, he turns back and returns to reason and reflection, which he despises but still can’t get rid of it. He can’t become a knight of faith, he is bezradny. In other way, he will not be given his repetition, and he can’t follow the way. So, what does it mean, that he knows which one to follow?

What’s more, other answers he gives himself are really terrifying. ‘If one suffers, he is obliged by Christianity to suffer more’. ‘In contact with God, ethics must be suspended as it is useless and antithetic to faith’. He tangles in hopeless fight with Danish church, which mixes Christian truths with Hegel and is so comforting that it almost makes Kierkegaard puke, as he finds it totally misleading. He keeps modifying his theories and he can’t accept his parting with Regina Olsen. One can go on with other examples more and more.

I think I understand what you mean, but you seem to have too romantic view of Kierkegaard’s fight with himself and reality.

by poetpunk on

But he wasn't the inventor of Existentialism, that'd be that Friedrich Nietzsche.

Soren was always more of a fancy Christian to me.

by Levi Asher on

Pietruszka -- well, I did call him "morose". I think what you say is true and what I say is true as well.

Poetpunk -- I do insist that the founder of Existentialism is most often cited to be Mr. Kierkegaard, not Mr. Nietzsche, who was a generation younger ...

by Jim on

I guess it is questionable if Kierk. died a happy man. Though I did get the impression from my Philosophy 101 excerpts that he was self-satisfied with his own conclusions. Though the leaps to faith that we take in our materialist existence may not translate to a validation of metaphysical assumptions, but of course, refuting Kierk. is not as interesting as explaining him (IMHO).

Re: Nietz. and Existentialism... his relationship with it was very problematic. He was actually very conservative, and his writing carries with it a nostalgia for preChristian (sometimes PreSocratic) times. He blow through a lot of ink demolishing preconceptions and ideologies, though not as an iconoclast, but as a prophet, warning of an oncoming philosophical crisis.

Existientialists may claim him. Probably able to forgive his Conservative Streak faster than K.'s Christianity. But Nietzsche will always sneer and brand them as nihilists and decadent, directionless cripples.

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