Søren Kierkegaard –‘The Father of Existentialism’

Unfinished sketch of Kierkegaard by his cousin Niels Christian Kierkegaard, c. 1840 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S%C3%B8ren_Kierkegaard)

I have recently had the opportunity to spend three days away from home with a small group of people discussing the life and work of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855). Before going, I didn’t have much interest in Kierkegaard. I just hoped for a few days respite, in a beautiful location, where my meals would be provided, and the conversation would be stimulating.  The topic could have been anything, but at the time when I could go away without causing too much disruption at home, the course happened to be on Kierkegaard.

This is where I stayed (Higham Hall in the Lake District in Cumbria UK):

And this is an image of the course description and our wonderfully tolerant tutor, Darren Harper

There were only seven of us on the course, six women and one man (two, if you include Darren too, so eight of us in total in the group), but goodness what a diverse group. Most importantly there was only one person who professed to have ‘faith’ in God. There was a Quaker who said she did not believe in God (a Nontheist Quaker), one strong atheist and a couple of others who appeared to be atheists, one agnostic and two undeclared. This information about the group turned out to be important in relation to discussion about Kierkegaard.

The reason I have started this post with a bit of background information is that, for me, one of the things that seemed to be a stumbling block for some in being openly receptive to Kierkegaard’s work, was an understanding that he was a man of his time, i.e., the context in which he lived and worked was necessarily influential, just as the context in we were meeting as a group and the make-up of that group were influential in how discussion proceeded and the success of the course.

In preparation for this course, we were asked to read Clare Carlisle’s biography – ‘Philosopher of the Heart. The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard’. I still haven’t read the whole book. I managed to get about halfway through before the course started and looked at some secondary sources, for example this short School of Life video (6.46 mins)

Somewhere in her writing Clare Carlisle says that she both ‘loves’ Kierkegaard but also finds him irritating, or words to this effect. I can’t find the exact quote now, but I know what she means. Had I met Kierkegaard in person, I think I would have found him irritating in the sense that he was intensely self-absorbed, but also, I found myself warming to him as I found out more about him, and I admire his courage. He was a lone voice in his time.

At that time Denmark was in a period of change. This was the Romantic era, following the Enlightenment, a time when the Lutheran Church in Denmark distrusted philosophy and was dominant, and when Hegel’s philosophy was all the rage. But Kierkegaard thought Hegel’s work too theoretical. Kierkegaard’s main questions were around what it means to be human in the world. In this sense he was the ‘father of existentialism’ although Kierkegaard himself wouldn’t have known the word ‘existentialism’ or where his ideas might lead, or that he would be a recognised and respected philosopher in the 20th and 21st centuries. He was not a popular figure in his time.

Kierkegaard observed society in Copenhagen and in his travels to Berlin and posited that many people lived the ‘aesthetic life’. For him this meant a pleasure-seeking life ruled by passion, not necessarily a bad life, but simply not enough. An alternative was to live an ‘ethical life’, which meant serving the community and following society’s and the Lutheran Church’s rules and conventions. For Kierkegaard, neither of these were enough. For him, Christianity requires more than living the good life, or following the Church’s conventions. It requires an authentic relationship with God, which can only be achieved through a leap of faith.  This means living a life of uncertainty because God is beyond logic, proof, and reason. Faith and the religious life cannot be taught, explained, or required, but are reached individually through life experience and self-exploration.

I am aware that what I have written is a massive over-simplification of Kierkegaard’s ideas, but it was this idea of a leap of faith, advocated by Kierkegaard, which seemed to annoy and get under the skin of some members of the group on my course. This and the fact that Kierkegaard uses the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac to exemplify this leap of faith, which was regarded by one member of the group as an abhorrent story, and which has for years, in her view, terrified young children. This led to a fascinating discussion on the benefits or otherwise of religious education in schools.

In fact, the whole course was full of fascinating discussion and highly stimulating. What I really appreciated about it was that although there was a programme for the course – on Day 1, to be introduced to Kierkegaard’s book ‘Fear and Trembling’, on Day 2 to be introduced to his book ‘Either/Or’, and on Day 3 to discuss his legacy – the tutor only loosely stuck to this programme and allowed discussion to roam. Other fascinating discussions were about the place of love in marriage (Kierkegaard broke off his engagement to Regine Olsen because he felt that marriage would become boring after the first flush of romantic love and sexual desire and prevent him from engaging in his main passion, writing); about decision making, about boredom, about belief and doubt, music and language – and more.

So having gone on the course with little more than the desire to have a bit of a rest, I came away with a much greater appreciation of the contribution that Kierkegaard has made to the history of philosophy and existentialism. I know I have not said much about this in this post, but the School of Life video gives a good overview and I have included a few references below.

References

Carlisle, C. (2019) Philosopher of the Heart. The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard. Penguin.

Wikipedia has entries on both of Kierkegaard’s books, Fear and Trembling and Either/Or

Fear and Trembling Spark Notes Study Guide

Either/Or Spark Notes Study Guide

Ethics Explainer: Existentialism

6 thoughts on “Søren Kierkegaard –‘The Father of Existentialism’

  1. Anonymous September 18, 2022 / 5:27 pm

    Beautifully written, Jenny, and many insightful reflections.

    i’d like to focus on one thing, which I suspect you accurately summarized of Kierkegaard’s views regarding connection to God – the idea that it’s so utterly beyond the mind, involves faith, and there’s nothing you can do to get closer to God (or to realize God’s eternal Presence)

    Leaving aside Asian or African or Native American or other indigenous spiritualities, looking just at European traditions, we find that at least since the end of the first century, Europe was filled with Christian seekers who engaged in detailed, complex and often very success disciplines to make themselves more available to the realization of union with God.

    As scholasticism increased its influence toward the 12th century, the contemplative disciplines became more and more overshadowed. During a time in the 13th century of nearly unparalleled corruption in the church, there was a remarkable blossoming of some of the greatest mystics of the Christian era, including Catherine of Siena, Meister Eckhart and more.

    WIth the Protestant Reformation and its dual emphasis on sin and self-effort, contemplative disciplines were seen as inaccessible to the sinful human being.

    it’s interesting to trace this influence to the present day. You’ll find among the devotees of Eckhart Tolle, Adyashanti and other nondual teachers the insistence that no effort can bring about the realization of nonduality.

    interestingly, this misunderstanding of the role of effort is not as common in Asia where the Protestant tradition hasn’t had such a powerful effect (though in India, where Britain ruled for several centuries, it’s quite strong, particularly the self hatred that accompanies the misunderstanding of what “sin” actually means.

    ***

    Kierkegaard’s view of faith vs effort is typical of Western and Central European beliefs, whether or not those beliefs are held by religious believers, agnostics or atheists. Iain’s own confusion about the role of practice is typical of this modern, Protestant influenced view of spiritual and contemplative practice.

  2. jennymackness September 18, 2022 / 6:27 pm

    Thank you @anonymous. It is lovely to receive an almost immediate response to my post, especially when I am aware that I have hardly done justice to Kierkegaard, so I am grateful for all the extra information and historical context you have provided.

    Your sentence ……

    regarding connection to God – the idea that it’s so utterly beyond the mind, involves faith, and there’s nothing you can do to get closer to God (or to realize God’s eternal Presence)

    ….. expresses so much better than me, what I was trying to say about Kierkegaard’s ideas.

    It is also interesting what you say about the contemplative life, because my understanding is that Kierkegaard was torn between living the monastic life and living in society. He not only spent a lot of time on his own writing, but he also went out for a daily ‘people bathe’ first thing in the morning, to be seen and known around the streets of Copenhagen. I think he ultimately decided that he would have to be ‘in the world’ (not withdrawn from it), to be in relation to God, but of course he still needed plenty of time for contemplation and writing, so had to decide to break off his engagement to Regine Olson.

    And in thinking about faith vs effort, I was very struck by the approach to life of the Nontheist Quaker in our group, who seemed intensely spiritually aware but without professing to believe in God or any sort of effort. She seemed to me to have a strong faith, agreeing with Kierkegaard, that there is something beyond the ‘aesthetic’ and ‘ethical’ spheres of life. Kierkegaard thought this to be the ‘religious’ sphere, but in our group, since religion seemed to be such a stumbling block for some, we had a long discussion about whether we could find an alternative description of this third sphere. But as you say it is beyond the mind and words, so we didn’t succeed 🙂

  3. jarwillis September 19, 2022 / 8:55 am

    Jenny,
    The fact that the email notification of this your latest post remained in my inbox for (I see) 15 hours, until I opened it just now, shows how unsuccessful have been my past, feeble grapplings with things I have read about a number of philosophers whose names I jumble together into a mental box labelled ‘probably permanently beyond me, yet at the same time tantalisingly intriguing’.
    But your writing really does have a freshness and lucidity — and approachability — which is truly exceptional, so much so that when I found I was suddenly at the end I felt you had only just begun, and on something which was immensely promising.
    But then I thought, perhaps that is the point, perhaps this is another instance of something that cannot *ever* be expressed, still less pinned-down, clearly in words. And any attempt to do so, *however convincing*, destroys it’s essential nature.
    I am writing this as Petroch Trelawny introduces the most exquisite sequence of music on BBC Radio 3 at the start of the day of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral and when I reached the video you inserted it took over the sound channel in the middle of the slow movement of Beethoven’s last string quartet, and I had to stop it playing and read on.
    So I haven’t embarked on that, or followed any of your other links — yet — perhaps. But from your piece alone I found immediate resonances with McGilchrist, (who also writes with wonderful lucidity) and especially with The Matter with Things, and its amazing final chapter.
    Which is a great deal in itself and for the moment I just want to say thank you.
    James

  4. Stephen L September 19, 2022 / 8:05 pm

    Hi Jenny,

    Thanks for this post on Kierkegaard.

    I have thought that existentialism was a way of breaking through the self-deceptions we live by. This I believe was Sartre position that we deceive no one more than ourself.

    It makes sense that Kierkegaard in his rejection of society (marriage, church, etc) came to conclude that we live our lives collectively deluded. Not that much is different today except that maybe more people understand this. Through contemplation, we can better appreciate how this happens to us, and possibly what can be done about it.

    Had Kierkegaard lived longer perhaps he would have mellowed a bit on his bleak view of life. Sartre was also dark when he was young but eventually makes a case for the redemption of love when he got older. Kierkegaard makes his leap of faith into Christ. I would think it could be any antidote that metaphysics offers. Spinoza became ‘drunk with God’.

    I would though challenge the quote in the School of Life Video, “To have faith is to lose your mind and to win God”. I think that Spinoza, Kant, Scheler, Whitehead among others would not want to relinquish mind as they saw that it was the means by which God is to be understood (Of course, what is meant by ‘God’ needs to be defined).

    Thanks again and look forward to our next online meetings.

    Best, Stephen

  5. jennymackness September 20, 2022 / 7:51 am

    Thank you James for your kind comments. I smiled at your comment – ” when I found I was suddenly at the end I felt you had only just begun, and on something which was immensely promising.” I have to agree that there is very little content in this post. There is a lot more to learn about Kierkegaard, but hopefully this post gives a bit of a flavour of his life.

    What an anguished soul he was. Kierkegaard was attributed with coining the word ‘angst’ and it’s easy to see why! I also felt immediate resonances with McGilchrist. Perhaps that was why I wasn’t so disturbed by Kierkegaard’s ideas as some members of my course group, even though I do not follow any religion and Kierkegaard was strongly committed to Christianity, but not in the terms of the Lutheran Church and society of his time.

    Kierkegaard’s urging that we take a ‘leap of faith’ seemed an appropriate idea to reflect on in the build up to the Queen’s funeral.

  6. jennymackness September 20, 2022 / 7:56 am

    Hi Stephen,

    Many thanks for your insightful comments and relating Kierkegaard’s ideas to some other philosophers.

    Also thanks for challenging the quote in The School of Life Video. What you have said makes sense, but I must go back and have another look at the video and see if I can find out whether Kierkegaard did say anything about mind and if so what 🙂

    Jenny

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