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Søren Kierkegaard - Biography

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

Søren Kierkegaard was born on May 5, 1813 in Copenhagen. He was the youngest child of seven, born to parents of Jutlandish descent. He sometimes called himself a child of old age because his mother was 45 and his father 56 when he was born. Kierkegaard was influenced early in life by the devoutly religious teachings of his father which concentrated on Christ's suffering. In 1830 Kierkegaard went to study theology, philosophy and literature at the University of Copenhagen. In 1834 his mother died, and he began the famous journal that he would keep for 20 years. He had decided that he must know himself before he could know what he would do with his life. In 1837 he moved away from home to work teaching Latin at Borgerdydskolen. In 1838 his father died. In the same year, Kierkegaard published a critique of H.C. Andersen's novel Kun en Spillemand entitled Af en Endnu Levender Papierer. In 1840 he became engaged to Regine Olsen, a woman he had known since he had first moved away from home. He broke the engagement soon thereafter, however, believing that domestic responsibility would hinder him in his philosophical calling. He entered into a life of seclusion, writing and publishing constantly for the next ten years.

In 1840 Kierkegaard completed his doctoral dissertation entitled Om Begrebet Ironi (The Concept of Irony). Kierkegaard's first major book was this dissertation, published in 1841. This, along with many of his other books, was in conflict with Hegelianism, the dominant German philosophy of the time. Contrary to Hegel, Kierkegaard believed in personal immortality, and that human life cannot be rationalized in the way that Hegel's system would understand it. Kierkegaard argued that belief in God is a free act of faith, not a solution to a theoretical problem. Much of Kierkegaard's work expresses a deep interest in religious issues, including Frygt og BÊven: Dialectisk Lyrik (Fear and Trembling) (1843), Kierkegaard Begrebet Angest (The Concept of Dread) (1844), Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing (1847), and Sygdomen Til Døden (The Sickness unto Death) (1849). Most of Kierkegaard's early writings were published under pseudonyms, and the "authors" didn't necessarily always agree with one another. At the beginning of his career he wanted to avoid committing to a single definitive religious or philosophical position.

In 1843 Kierkegaard published Either/Or. In this text he writes of the "aesthetic" and the "ethical" ways of life. The aesthetic life is based in temporally situated sensory pleasures, both intellectual and physical. The ethical life is based on moral codes, the infinite, and the eternal. One may only enter into an ethical way of life once one understands that an aesthetic life leads to angst and eventually despair.

1843 also marked the publication of Fear and Trembling and Repetition. Fear and Trembling is a study of the story of Abraham and Isaac, in which Abraham decides to sacrifice his son in obedience to God's command. Kierkegaard uses the story to work through the conflict between ethics and religion, looking particularly at the religious paradox that ethics may be disregarded if it is God's command. Kierkegaard claims that God may accomplish what we may see as absurd, and that we may recover what is lost to us by having faith in the absurd. Repetition works with a similar theme, working through his relationship with Regine by using the name Constantin Constantius for his own character. Kierkegaard had decided that he was free now that Regine was married to another man, and the book ends with Constantin devoting himself to the his work, the "idea."

In 1846 Kierkegaard published Afsluttende Uvidenskabelig Efterskrift (Concluding Unscientific Postscript), a critique of philosophical system building. The thesis of this work is that subjectivity is truth. He felt that the nature of Christianity was obscured by the Hegelian idea of an objective science of the human spirit. He argues against the way Hegel's system fuses logic with existence, claiming that existence cannot be explained objectively. He formulates that subjectivity is truth by showing that a person's relationship to the objective uncertainty of Christianity is a relationship to the highest truth available to an individual. He sees the condition of faith as an "impassioned interestedness," and does not see faith being possible as a result of objective scholarly deliberation. In 1847 Kierkegaard wrote Works of Love, a piece on love in its various forms, the perfection of Christian love, and the "offense" of Christianity.

In 1848 Kierkegaard had a spiritual crisis. His works after this point began to bluntly attack the church and Christendom's complacency. He hoped to anger his contemporary Christians enough to inspire in them a stronger relationship to their faith. In 1850 he published Indøvelse In Christendom (Practice in Christianity), under the pseudonym Anti-Climacus. He felt this to be his most important book, and saw it as a reintroduction of Christianity. He felt that the removal of the offense of Christianity by the state church of Denmark made light of the message of Christianity. In a similar tone, he published Guds Foranderlighet in 1855 under his own name. He also wrote articles for a journal called The Fatherland criticizing the state Lutheran church for claiming that all people born in Denmark are automatically Christian. These articles are compiled under the title Hvad Christus Dømmer Om Officiel Christendom (Attack Upon "Christendom,"). While he was writing the articles that make up Attack Upon Christendom, Kierkegaard was stricken with a spinal disease. He died within a month of his diagnosis on November 11, 1855.

Kierkegaard's resistance to creating an all-embracing system of thought has resulted in a rich variety of influence on twentieth century philosophy and literature. Jaspers, Heidegger and Sartre were all heavily influenced by his work, and Existentialism owes much to Kierkegaard's thought, drawing on his analysis of freedom and angst. Although he didn't write much overtly political work, Marxists like Marcuse and Lukacs have shown interest in Kierkegaard's writings. He has also influenced theological studies, especially the work of Karl Barth, and he is admired for his literary innovations.