Soren Aabye Kierkegaard, b. May 5, 1813, d. Nov. 11, 1855, was a Danish philosopher and religious thinker whose reaction against the depersonalization of society and against the established church of Denmark took the form of brilliant literary and philosophical essays. He is regarded by philosophers today as a precursor of Existentialism, although not all existentialists are directly influenced by him.
Kierkegaard studied philosophy and theology at the University of Copenhagen and received a master's degree in 1840. The next year he shocked Copenhagen's society by breaking his engagement to Regine Olsen, the daughter of a treasury official. Although he broke the engagement for fear that he and his fiancee might lack common philosophic interests, he gave the impression of acting out of a brutal and indifferent selfishness in order to make the breach definitive. Thereafter he lived a life of seclusion, devoted to writing. The impact on his career of the broken engagement, as well as his austere Lutheran upbringing and his melancholia, is evident in virtually everything he wrote thereafter.
Kierkegaard cultivated paradox and irony throughout his life, so that the problem of what he really thought or felt is difficult to determine. For example, he adopted the curious device of signing his books--Either/Or (1843; Eng. trans., 1944), Philosophical Fragments (1844; Eng. trans., 1936), Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846; Eng. trans., 1941), and many others--with pseudonyms to prevent his readers from thinking that the incomplete points of view contained in these books constituted the total point of view that would characterize a fully religious person--or even the point of view he was trying to adopt in his own life.
Kierkegaard's unifying theme was that there are three spheres of existence--the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious--in constant tension. He found the first of these, personal aesthetic enjoyment, in the fickle search for pleasure that is essentially egoistic. The second, the ethical sphere, is not egoistic; rather it is an impersonal ideal, a law based on reason rather than personal preference and convenience. In this stage, life is not a series of separate moments of pleasure but a long-range project to be organized according to rational principles. These principles include not only the rules of ultimate self-interest but also the abstract principles of morality that describe what an individual ought to do. In the third stage, that of true religious choice, no automatic, rational decision procedure can be employed, but rather a "leap of faith" provides the grounds for decision. Thus in Fear and Trembling (1843; Eng. trans., 1941) Kierkegaard retold the story of Abraham's dilemma in such a way as to present the two alternatives of an abstract ethical universal (the abstract rule that one should not kill one's child) and a concrete religious commitment (the unjustifiable but undeniable command of God to Abraham that he should slay Isaac).
For Kierkegaard, the highest level of human life consists of recognizing the need for Religion as a subjective commitment to truth, as opposed to the Hegelian philosophy of pure thought. Kierkegaard attacked what he considered to be the sterile Metaphysics of G.W.F. Hegel, who attempted to systematize the whole of existence and create an objective theory of knowledge. Kierkegaard's often repeated statement, "truth is subjectivity," should not be understood in the sense of a shallow individualism. Rather, it links truth with the subject instead of with its object, making the full communication of truth to other subjects impossible. Kierkegaard drew the only logical conclusion from his principle--that it is impossible to establish an objective system of doctrinal truths.
Although few 19th-century thinkers have surpassed Kierkegaard's influence on 20th-century thought, there is no "Kierkegaardian school" of philosophy, theology, or literary criticism. This is due largely to the fact that he did not develop an all-embracing system, but instead deliberately developed his ideas from several often incompatible points of view at the same time. The lack of an explicit following, however, is itself a confirmation of Kierkegaard's philosophy, as he insisted that the individual was the repository of truth. In fact, he requested as his own epitaph the designation "That individual.".
Thomas E. Wren