Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) Existentialism

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1.        In addition to my numerous   other acquaintances I have   still one more intimate friend -- my melancholy. In the   midst of pleasure, in the midst of work, he beckons to me, calls me aside, even though I remain present bodily. My melancholy is the most faithful sweetheart I have -- no wonder that I return the love!   (Diapsalmata)

2.        To be a Christian has become a matter of no importance whatever, a mummery, something one is anyway, or something one acquires more   readily than a trick.

3.        But precisely this is the misfortune, and has been the misfortune, in Christendom that Christ is neither the one nor the other -- neither the one he was when living on earth, nor he who will return in glory, but rather one about whom we have learned to know something in an inadmissible way from history -- that he was somebody or other of great account. In an inadmissible and unlawful way we have learned to know him; whereas to believe in him is the only permissible mode of approach. (Preparation for a Christian Life)

4.        [E]very misunderstanding of ... hristianity may at once be recognized by its transforming it into a doctrine, transferring it to the sphere of the intellectual.

5.        Let others complain that the times are wicked. I complain that they are paltry; for they are without passion. The thoughts of men are thin and frail like lace, and they themselves are feeble like girl lace-makers. The thoughts of their hearts are too puny to be sinful. For a worm it might conceivably be regarded a sin to harbor thoughts such as theirs, not for a man who is formed in the image of God.  ... Fye upon them! (Diapsalmata)


·    Kierkegaard's life

o      perhaps his overbearing father & strict religious upbringing

o      explain, somewhat, the overwrought intensity of K's thought

·    Kierkegaard and the dread of death {1}

o      existential dread: overwhelming sense of 

§  the overriding certainty of my own impending death

§  the infinity of the universe

§  how meaningless my own brief life is by comparison

o      the element of religious hope complicates the issue

§  a hope my life might be not so brief -- in fact that it might be eternal

§  the horrible thought: it's no more meaningful for that!

o      the element of faith

§  not just belief that the proposition "God exists" is true

§  it's wholehearted trust in the Lord & his promise of salvation

o      the meaning of God's promise: a meaningful eternal life of eternal beatitude

·    The problem of faith: to achieve such wholehearted belief

·    The enemies of religious faith\

o            Established Christianity {2}

§  so engaged with outward forms of faith the inner spirit is missed: it's as hard to become a Christian when one has been born a Christian as to jump up in the air and land exactly on the spot from which one began.

§  empty doctrine: mere intellectual "belief"

§       historical {3}

§       theological {4}

o      Middle-class society

§  complacency of the bourgeois

§   doctors, lawyers, professors, merchants

§  with their comfortable lives

§  & their smug self satisfied attitudes

§  their "religious" attitudes

§  all about piety & respectability

§  incapable of mustering the passion required for a genuine leap of faith

o      Hegelian philosophy

§  overweening claim or aspiration to be

§  a totally rational and objective system

§  explaining absolutely everything

§                                 its smug self satisfied conclusion

§  Western European civiliza,tion is God's chosen one

§  the one true progressive one: others are stagnant or regressive

o     The Marxian contrast

§  Like Marx, Kierkegaard saw a justifying ideology for the spiritually bankrupt bourgeois establishment in established religion

§  for the poor working stiff an "opiate"

§  for the well off assurance that their good fortune is well-deserved as God's chosen

§  as in Hegelian philosophy: which viewed the existing order as  the crown of creation

§  Kierkegaard's call

§  not for outward revolution, like Marx: "Workers of the world unite!" 

§  but for imvard revolution, for so-called "Christians" "to pay to eternal life as much attention as they regularly gave to a daily profit"

·    Kierkegaard's philosophy of religion

o      main tenets

§  the subjectivity of truth

§  the leap of faith

o      truth

§  correspondence theory (standard)

§  a statement (or thought) is true if it corresponds to the objects it purports to describe

§  truth is objective -- it depends on how the thought is related to its object (how the world is)

§    how it's related to the subject -- whether the subject believes it wholeheartedly or halfheartedly, e.g. -- is irrelevant

§    what's objectively true is true even if nobody believes it -- e.g., that the earth revolves around the sun was true ;ong before any person believed it.

§  Kierkegaard's subjective theory

§  a (religious) belief's truth depends on the subject's relation to it (rather than on its relation to its object)

§  it's true it believed "passionately, unconditionally, absolutely    without inner reservation or doubt"

§    it's not what it says (whether its accurate) but how it's held (whether it's passionate & unreserved) that makes it true

o      the leap of faith: required for true Christian belief

§  tenets of Christian belief are not only not provable

§  they're unbelievably absurd -- especially, the mystery of the    incarnation: it's a contradiction

§  God being the eternal Father

§  while being Jesus in time

§  creo quia absurdum: I believe because it's absurd

6.        I submit to you that if a man hasn't discovered something he will die for he isn't fit to live.

7.        [O]ne cannot "know" anything at all about "Christ"; for he is the paradox, the object of faith, and exists only for faith. But all historic information is communication of "knowledge." Therefore one cannot learn anything about Christ from history. For whether now one learn little or much about him, it will not represent what he was in reality. Hence one learns something else about him than what is strictly true, and therefore learns nothing about him, or gets to know something wrong about him; that is, one is deceived.  History makes Christ look different from what he looked in truth, and thus one learns much from history about -- Christ? No, not about Christ; because about him nothing can be "known," he can only be believed. (Preparation for a Christian Life)

8.        Let me first ask another question: is any more absurd contradiction thinkable than wishing to PROVE (no matter, for the present, whether one wishes to do so from history, or from whatever else in the wide world one wishes to prove it) that a certain person is God?  To maintain that a certain person is God -- that is, professes to be God -- is indeed a stumbling block in the purest sense. But what is the nature of a stumbling block? It is an assertion which is at variance with all (human) reason. Now think of proving that! But to prove something is to render it reasonable and real. Is it possible, then, to render reasonable and real what is at variance with all reason?  Scarcely; unless one wishes to contradict one's self. One can prove only that it is at variance with all reason. The proofs for the divinity of Christ given in Scripture, such as the miracles and his resurrection from the grave exist, too, only for faith; that is, they are no "proofs," for they are not meant to prove that all this agrees with reason but, on the contrary, are meant to prove that it is at variance with reason and therefore a matter of faith. (Preparation for a Christian Life)

9.       But precisely this is the  misfortune, and has been the  misfortune, in Christendom  that Christ is neither the one nor the other -- neither the  one he was when living on earth, nor he who will return  in glory, but rather one about  whom we have learned to  know something in an  inadmissible way from  history -- that he was  somebody or other of great account. In an inadmissible and unlawful way we have learned to know him; whereas to believe in him is the only permissible mode of approach. (Preparation for a Christian Life)

His Starting Point: What Am I to Do?

1.        Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.

2.        The thing is to understand myself, to see what God   really wishes me to do; the thing is to find the truth for   me, to find the idea. for which I can live and die. (209)

·         Traditional ideal of objective knowledge and disinterested inquiry

o        Aristotle: 

§         philosophy begins in wonder

§         in dispassionate curiosity about nature and value

o        Augustine

§         passionately concerned with faith and getting right with God

§         but nevertheless a philosopher-theologian

§         trying to understand the nature of time & creation

§         trying to explain the nature of evil and to solve the paradox of evil -- to show that there's no contradiction

§     in evil existing

§     in a world created by an all-powerful, perfectly loving, God

·         Kierkegaard's more "practical" focus {1}

o        "For him the philosophical enterprise was exhausted in a single, all-important question: `What was he to do in order to find peace and signficance'?" (Jones, p. 210) {2}

o        Psychological formulation: "How was he to find a way of integrating his life" {3}{4}

§         "giving it a 'focus and a center'" 

§         "so that it would no longer be 'a chance assemblage' of meaningless details." (Jones, p. 210)

3.        I was so deeplv shaken that I understood perfectly well that I could not possibly succeed in striking the comforting and secure via media in which most people pass their lives: I had either to cast myself into perdition and sensuality, or to choose the religious absolutely as the only thing -- either the world in a measure that would be dreadful, or the cloister.

4.        Had I not honoured her above myself, as my future wife, had I not been prouder of her honour than of mine, then I should have remained silent and have fulfilled her desire and mine, and have been married to her -- there are so many marriages that conceal their little tale. That I did not want; in that way she would have become my concubine; I would have rather murdered her. (212)

Existence and Reality

1.        It is impossible to exist without passion, unless we   understand the word ' exist' in the loose sense of a   so-called existence. (214)

2.        The difficulty that inheres in existence, with which the   existing individual is confronted, is one that never   really comes to expression in the language of abstract thought, much less receives an explanation. (214)


·         His philosophical aim is not to instruct, but to "edify"

o        instruction imparts knowledge & abstract conceptual understanding

o        to edify is to improve us by changing us

·         His point of view as Jones characterizes it (p.212)

o        "passionate not neutral" {1}

o        "practica.l, not speculative'" {2}

o        "existential not systematic" {3}

§    "subjective, not objective"

§    "inner not outer"

·         Two central points

o        real existence differs qualitatively from so-called existence

o        existence and selfhood -- individuality -- are identical

§    so-called existence is generic human being, being macho, being a Dane, being "a Christian", a businessman, etc.

§    authentic being is particular and individual becoming

§         "the self is not a prexisting, fully formed thing" (Jones, p. 214) {4}

§         for selves "existence precedes essence" (Sartre)

3.        Abstract thought ... ignores the concrete and the   temporal, the existential process, the predicament of the existing individual arising from his being a synthesis of the temporal and the eternal situated in existence. (215)

4.        I have searched with resignation for the principle of my life.... What did I find?  Not my Self, which was what I was looking for (thinking of my soul, if I may so express it, as shut in a box with a spring-lock which external circumstances, by  pressing upon the lock, were to open).

The Nature of Choice

1.        The real action is not the external act, but an internal  decision in which the individual puts an end to the mere possibility and identifies himself with the content of his thought, in order to exist in it. (219)

2.        Kant held that man was his own law (autonomy), i.e.,  bound himself under the law which he gave himself. In a  deeper sense that means to  say: lawlessness or  experimentation. It is no harder than the thwacks which Sancho Panza applied to his own bottom. ...  There [must be] some third and compelling factor which is not the individual himself. (220)

3.        Not only is the law which I give myself ... not a law; but there is a law which is given to me by one higher than I. (220)

4.        That the man who chooses good and evil chooses good is indeed true, but this becomes evident only afterwards; for the aesthetical is not the evil but neutrality. (221)


·         The Self is faced at every moment with choices

o        choosing is merely a matter of believing or thinking

o        nor of behavior or "works"

o        choosing is an inward "act of will" which "involves a commitment, a movement of the personality" (Jones, p. 219) {1}

·         Compare and contrast Kant

o        Kant: heteronymy v. freedom or autonomy

§    heteronymy is being moved by desire

§    autonomy is self regulation: "he acts autonomously ... when he acts from respect for a law he has imposed on himself' (Jones, p.220)

o        Kierkegaard's criticisms

§    a self imposed law is no law: the essence of law is compulsion {2}

§    to act from self respect is to fall into the sin of pride {3}

·         Three ways of choosing or attitudes toward choice

o        esthetic (preethical): goes with the flow: lives by whim or impulse {4}

§    may be happy-go-lucky

§    or cynical-apathetic

o        ethical: serious & principled

§    involves living by a code or set of principles

§    which is difficult & demands agonizing choices

§    the choosing more important than what's chosen {5}

o        religious

§    contrast: the ethical attitude is deliberative & rational

§         weighs the pros & cons or applies its principles

§         calculates the best course

§         formulates a plan of action

§    but the ultimate choice -- the religious decision

§         cannot be rationally justified {6}

§         it's a rationally insupportable "leap of faith"

·         Truth and Faith

o        Faith requires objective uncertainty: if I have neasons for believing something, it's not faith. {7}

o        Subjective truth: the truth of a belief deteimined by

§    religious truth depends on the subject's relation to it (rather than its relation to its object)

§    it's true if believed "passionately, unconditionally, absolutely without inner reservation or doubt"

§    it's not what it says (whether its accurate) but how it's held (whether it's passionate & unreserved) that makes it true

o        Issue: if it's the manner of believing something that makes it true what does it matter what the belief is? What's the difference?

§    Heaven's Gate belief there's a space ship in the tail of the comet that's coming to take us away.

§    Branch Davidian belief David Koresh is God.

§    Christian belief Jesus is God.

5.        It is not so much a question choosing the right as of the energy, the earnestness, the pathos with which one chooses, Thereby the personality announces its inner infinity, and thereby, in turn, the personality is consolidated. (221)

6.        If a man is sometimes in the right, sometimes in the wrong, to a certain degree in the right, to a certain degree in the wrong; who then is to decide this except man; but in deciding it may be not be to a certain degree in the right, to a certain degree in the wrong. (223)

7.        Only by an infinite relationship to God [can] doubt be calmed, only by an infinitely free relationship to God [can] anxiety be transformed into joy. [A man] is in an infinite relationship to God when he recognizes that God is always in the right ... that he himself is alwavs in the  wrong. (223)

8.        If I am ca,pable of grasping God objectively, I do not  believe, but precisely because I cannot do this I must believe. (224)

9.        An objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation process of the  most passionate inwardness  is the truth, the highest truth attainable for an existing individual. (224)

of the Ethical:
Orthodoxy Issues: the Age

1.        For I should very much like to know how one could bring Abraham's act into relation with the universal, and whether it is possible to discover any connection between what Abraham did and the universal ... except the fact that he transgressed it. It was not for the sake of saving a people, not to maintain the idea of the state, that Abraham did this. ...  Abraham's whole action stands in no relation to the universal, is a purely private undertaking. {225)

2.        Faith is precisely the paradox that the single individual as the single individual is higher than the universal, is justified before it, not as inferior to it but as superior ... that the single individual as the single individual stands in absolute relation to the absolute. (Fear and Trembling)

3.        Well, then, everything being assumed in order with respect to the scriptures -- what follows? Has anyone who previously did not have faith been brought a single step nearer to its acquisition? ... On the contrary, in this objectivity one tends to lose that infinite personal interestedness in passion which is the condition of faith. (231)



·         Abraham as an exemplar of subjective truth which {1}

o        overrides the conventions of morality

o        and the pleadings of the heart

o        out of a higher conviction

·         Abraham v. Adler (or Applewhite)

o        Kierkegaard holds Abraham to be a paradigm and Magister Adler to be deluded

o        Jones: "If Adler really experienced a passionate inwardness, his affirmation was as truly religious, in Kierkegaard's own account of religion, as was Abraham's." (228)

·         Jones' Assessment

o        "Kierkegaard insisted that the believer's leap of faith puts him in an absolute relation to the absolute"' {2}

o        "the only available criterion for judging whether he has in fact achieved this relation is his own private feeling"

o        "Kierkegaard's absolutism turns out, on scrutiny, to be a radical relativism"

o        Dubious Christianity of Kierkegaard's faith

§         It's the passion of the belief not the content that matters

§         Unchristian content can be passionately believed

§         So there's nothing distinctively Christian about K's faith.

§         It's a kind of idolatry {3}

o        How Kierkegaard might reply, I think {4}

§         Unchristian content, it always turns out, can't be believed    unconditionally, absolutely without inner reservation or doubt: Applewhite & crew doubtless flinched at the last moment.

§         Only the sublime mystery of the incarnation leaves infinite scope    for faith or warrants our infinite interest.

o        Reply to this reply

§         other religions have their incarnations too, e.g., Rama & Krishna.

§         David Koresh claimed to be Christ II: wasn't this just as   absurd -- hence to believe it just as much a test of faith -- as Jesus' being Christ I (perhaps moreso).

·         The Age

o        Kierkegaard's existentialism speaks to us regardless of his Christianity or ours insofar as

§         we too experience the emptiness of existential dread

§         we too realize that the pigeonholes and polite conventions that would define & and control us are just that

§         we too realize that even if we see through the accepted stereotypes & conventions and formulate our own ideas values, these too are pigeonholes & conventions.

o        "[W]hat Kierkegaard said about his own age seems even truer of the second half of the twentieth century." (Jones, p. 234)

§         allegiance to traditional beliefs & values mainly lip service: in reaction there's cults & religious fanaticism {6}

§         passion is officially discouraged ... unless it's "constructively channeled" of course: in reaction there's raves, vicarious sex & violence in the arts {7}

§         dreams dismissed & orthodoxy reigns supreme: in reaction there's new age movement & psychedelic drug use {8}

§         ethic cleansing movements around the world & cultural cleansing (war on drugs) at home: counter movements. {9}

4.        It is a self contradiction and therefore comical, to be infinitely interested in that which in its maximum still always remains an approximation. If in spite of this, passion is nevertheless imported, we get fanaticism. ... The fault is not in the infinitely interested passion, but in the fact that its object has become an approximation object. (231)

5.        In every case where the object of knowledge is the very inwardness of the subjectivity of the individual, it is necessary for the individual to be in a
corresponding condition. (232)

6.        Our age reminds one vividly of the dissolution of the Greek city-state: everything goes on as usual, and yet there is no longer anyone who believes in it. (234)

7.        Passion is the real thing ... and the age in which we live is wretched, because it is without passion. (234)

8.        Moreover, the poor opinion in which dreams are held nowadays, is also connected with the intellectualism which really only values the conscious, while in simpler ages people piously believed that the unconscious life in man was the more important as well as the profounder. (234)

9.        Makind en masse gives itself up to evil ... nowadays it happens en masse. That is why people flock together, in order that natural and animal hysteria should get hold of them, in order to feel themselves stimulated, inflamed, and ausser sich. (234)