Søren Kierkegaard, a 19th century Danish philosopher, is often referred to as the first philosopher of existentialism. This is sometimes justified in distinction to the systematists, namely represented by Hegel and the thinkers of German idealism.
Truth, according to Kierkegaard, cannot be grasped in sentences or through logic, since the human condition is characterized by its existence in an absurd cosmos.
Nevertheless, there is truth and also a meaning of life, but ultimately these can only be grasped through the famous leap of faith. Kierkegaard is therefore also called a Christian philosopher, although it should be noted that he was very much at odds with the official teachings of the state church.
Kierkegaard thus shows himself to be both a philosophical and a theological or religious thinker who sees philosophy as a means of rethinking Christian faith, rejecting any kind of speculative philosophy in the spirit of Hegel (see also Dialectical Aufhebung) because it presumes to be able to adequately think, understand and thereby comprehend “objective” truth, that is, truth that lies outside of man.
To approach truth is therefore an individual matter. Kierkegaard thereby identifies the three essential spheres of human existence, which are supposed to represent in a vague way which possibilities a human being has to approach the truth and thus also the existential answer to the meaningfulness of life.
The aesthetic stage
At the most primal stage, the aesthetic stage, man lives entirely in the immediacy of sensual feeling, which is the motive and goal of his actions. He exists entirely unreflectively, without being clear about himself as far as the relationship between body and mind is concerned. This is also where a latent despair comes from, in that man feels that he is not himself, but remains trapped in externals. The means man uses to recognize this desperate state of his is irony. By relating to himself ironically, that is, distanced, he gains an elevated standpoint from which he recognizes his despair and attempts to overcome it.
Thus he reaches the second stage.
The ethical stage
In the ethical stage man recognizes himself as both an immanent (worldly) and transcendent (otherworldly) being by reflectively relating himself to the relationship between body and spirit. He finally acknowledges his being as a rational being and recognizes his responsibility before himself and the world, which makes him an ethical being.
As the step from the recognition of worldly existence to the transcendent part of man’s being takes place, Kierkegaard concludes that man cannot find the grounding of his being as a spiritual self, and to that extent not subject to the causality of the world, in himself. Rather, he faces an infinite, absolute unknown, God, who is the cause of man’s infinity and freedom. If he does not do this, he falls back into the state of despair.
Interestingly, it is humor, which, unlike irony, contains a much deeper form of skepticism but also positivity, that is, according to Kierkegaard, the means to make the leap from the ethical to the third, to the religious stage.
The religious stage
It is in the religious stage that the human being accepts his being set by God, thus the condition that his existence comes to him only from God as the infinite existence. Therefore, the goal of the religious person is to enter into an existential relationship with God. This can happen in faith alone. God as the Absolute is not subjected to the causality of the world and therefore withdraws as the unknown from the human understanding. Faith therefore demands as a condition the “crucifixion of the intellect“.
However, the intellect is not completely unnecessary, but serves as a corrective of faith, in that unreasonable things cannot be believed, and it is a prerequisite of self-reflection, without which the ascent in the three stages cannot be achieved. But since the intellect is finite and uses purely immanent means, intellectual knowledge of God is par excellence impossible.
Kierkegaard here joins the tradition of negative theology. Here, thinking and speaking about God is restricted by consistently criticizing and rejecting all positive statements as uncertain. Only negative statements can be considered true (e.g. the in-finite God).
Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was a Danish theologian, philosopher, poet, social critic, and religious author who is widely considered to be the first existentialist philosopher.
Kierkegaard’s childhood was marked by his depressed, deeply religious father’s sense of guilt about sins which led him to believe none of his children would live beyond age 33, the length of Jesus’ life on earth. And, indeed, five of Kierkegaard’s six brothers and sisters died before age 25.
Abiding by his father’s wishes, Kierkegaard studied theology at the University of Copenhagen. After his father’s death, Kierkegaard felt his obligations to his father were fulfilled and opted to become a philosopher rather than a church pastor.
He wrote critical texts on organized religion, Christianity, morality, ethics, psychology, and the philosophy of religion, displaying a fondness for metaphor, irony, and parables.
Much of his philosophical work deals with the issues of how one lives as a “single individual”, giving priority to concrete human reality over abstract thinking and highlighting the importance of personal choice and commitment. He was against literary critics who defined idealist intellectuals and philosophers of his time, and thought that Swedenborg, Hegel, Fichte, Schelling, Schlegel, and Hans Christian Andersen were all “understood” far too quickly by “scholars”.
Kierkegaard’s theological work focuses on Christian ethics, the institution of the Church, the differences between purely objective proofs of Christianity, the infinite qualitative distinction between man and God, and the individual’s subjective relationship to the God-Man Jesus the Christ, which came through faith. Much of his work deals with Christian love. He was extremely critical of the doctrine and practice of Christianity as a state-controlled religion like the Church of Denmark.
His psychological work explored the emotions and feelings of individuals when faced with life choices.
The first of about twenty books Kierkegaard wrote was Either–Or, published in 1843. This book is about the primary need in life to make choices in every situation: to act according to one’s individual decision to follow either one’s own pleasures or do the will of God. Kierkegaard writes in Either-Or that our decisions are meaningless unless we are connected to God. The book was partly a love letter to his fiancée Regine Olsen (1822–1904).
Kierkegaard and Olsen met on 8 May 1837 and were instantly attracted to each other, but sometime around 11 August 1838 he had second thoughts. In his journals, Kierkegaard wrote idealistically about his love for her.
On 8 September 1840, Kierkegaard formally proposed to Olsen. He soon felt disillusioned about his prospects. He broke off the engagement on 11 August 1841, though it is generally believed that the two were deeply in love. In his journals, Kierkegaard mentions his belief that his “melancholy” made him unsuitable for marriage, but his precise motive for ending the engagement remains unclear.
Later on, he wrote: “I owe everything to the wisdom of an old man and to the simplicity of a young girl.” The old man in this statement is said to be his father while Olsen was the girl.
Martin Buber said “Kierkegaard does not marry in defiance of the whole nineteenth century“.
Kierkegaard then turned his attention to his examinations. On 13 May 1839, he wrote, “I have no alternative than to suppose that it is God’s will that I prepare for my examination and that it is more pleasing to Him that I do this than actually coming to some clearer perception by immersing myself in one or another sort of research, for obedience is more precious to him than the fat of rams.” The death of his father and the death of Poul Møller1 also played a part in his decision.
On 29 September 1841, Kierkegaard defended his master’s thesis, On the Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates. The university panel considered it noteworthy and thoughtful, but too informal and witty for a serious academic thesis. The thesis dealt with irony and Schelling’s 1841 lectures, which Kierkegaard had attended with Mikhail Bakunin, Jacob Burckhardt, and Friedrich Engels; each had come away with a different perspective.
Kierkegaard graduated from university on 20 October 1841 with a Magister Artium (Master of Arts). His family’s inheritance of approximately 31,000 rigsdaler enabled him to fund his work and living expenses including servants.
In 1855, Kierkegaard collapsed on a Copenhagen street and died in a hospital a month later. Medical authorities believe he died of Pott’s disease, a form of tuberculosis that damages the spine’s bones.
Kierkegaard’s journals were the source of many aphorisms credited to the philosopher. The following passage, from 1 August 1835, is perhaps his most oft-quoted aphorism and a key quote for existentialist studies:
- “What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.”
- “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
- “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”
- “People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.”
- “People understand me so poorly that they don’t even understand my complaint about them not understanding me.”
- “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.”
- “There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.”
- “The most common form of despair is not being who you are.”
- “The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.”
- “I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations — one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it — you will regret both.”
- “Marry, and you will regret it; don’t marry, you will also regret it; marry or don’t marry, you will regret it either way. Laugh at the world’s foolishness, you will regret it; weep over it, you will regret that too; Believe a woman, you will regret it; believe her not, you will also regret it… Hang yourself, you will regret it; do not hang yourself, and you will regret that too; This, gentlemen, is the essence of all philosophy.”
- “The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly.”
- “The tyrant dies and his rule is over, the martyr dies and his rule begins.”
- “A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater. I think that’s just how the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who believe it’s a joke.”
1 Poul Martin Møller (1794–1838) was a Danish academic, writer, and poet. During his lifetime, he gained renown in Denmark for his poetry. After his death, his posthumously published fiction and philosophical writings were well received. While serving as a professor at the University of Copenhagen, he was a mentor to Kierkegaard.