On søren kierkegaard (2009)


The 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard left a philosophy still in relevance and use today. He is often referred to the founder of existentialism, often citing theories and arguments surrounding human choice and activity.

The son of an affluent family, he spent the majority of his life writing. In his recreation, he would often entertain himself by taking long walks and going to the theatre around Copenhagen.[1] His father, a devoutly religious man, served as an influential figure in his life regarding his writings on religion. The premature deaths of his mother and five of his brothers and sisters exposed Kierkegaard to tragedy early on in life.[2] It is important to take these factors into consideration when assessing Kierkegaard’s philosophy and religious influence.

Following a period of study at the University of Copenhagen, he adopted a wild extravagant lifestyle, socialising, drinking and running into debts that his father had to pay off. The hedonistic lifestyle ended upon his father’s death in 1838.

It is through analysing his background and early experiences that we begin to understand his philosophy. The religious influences from his father, combined with a period of excessive pleasure and his passion for theology led him to view certain stages of a life cycle. We will discuss these in a later chapter.

Published in 1843 when Kierkegaard was thirty, his book Fear and Trembling was modestly well received although carried some controversy.[3] Written under the false name Johannes de silentio, the book in its majority focuses on the story of Abraham. It seems it is not really for biblical sake itself, but more interestingly, Kierkegaard gives us a story to analyse human values.[4] Values such as faith, obedience and mercy, combined with a sense of questioning over what humans are capable of, and what actions they should actually partake in.

[1] Stangroom, J. (2005) The Great Philosophers, Arcturus publishing, p.13

[2] Ibid

[3] Kierkegaard, S. (1985) Fear and Trembling, Penguin Classics, p.8

[4] Ibid

The Story of Abraham

The story of Abraham is a biblical text written in Genesis. It tells the story of Abraham and Sarah, a married couple with a longing desire to have a child. With their faith undisputedly entrusted in God, they live an honest life, carrying out their roles and tasks. One day, God grants them their lifelong wish and provides them with a son, Isaac. The couple were much pleased, and they live on with their new addition to the family.

Time passes, and God asks Abraham for a sacrifice to test their faith, with the sacrifice being Abraham’s only son, Isaac. This presents a moral dilemma. Abraham could refuse God, to which shows disobedience and lack of faith: a betrayal of all God has done for Abraham. Conversely, Abraham could put his faith in God, and oblige the command, with it costing a heavy price.

Abraham agrees to God’s command, and takes Isaac to Moriah mountain, the place God asked the sacrifice to take place. It seems almost unreal that Abraham is prepared to murder his own son for the love of God.

At this stage, if anyone was to stop Abraham and ask what he was doing, he would reply that he is sacrificing his son Isaac as an expression of faith in God. Faith in the universal working of all activity, as instructed by God. The mindset is, despite the absurdity of the action, the sacrifice is for the universal good as told by God.

Kierkegaard calls it the strength of the absurd, which can only happen when there is a movement of faith.

“…Abraham’s belief in the need to reconstitute the ability to serve the universal on the strength of the absurd.”

“Kierkegaard, [2], p.26

The very fact that this is an absurd command greatly serves as a test of faith in God. But for Kierkegaard, this has never been directly about Abraham’s faith in God. The concern has always been about projecting one’s longing desire into the world, despite meeting with difficulty and impossibility.

“The faith that Kierkegaard is concerned with here is not plain belief in the existence of God; it is belief that the projects on which one sets one’s heart are possible even when they prove humanly impossible to carry through.”

“Kierkegaard, [2], p.25

The story of Abraham has the ability to demonstrate this dilemma.

The story continues, as Abraham takes Isaac up to Moriah Mountain, ready to sacrifice his son. As he holds up his weapon ready to strike his son, with the mindset of proving his faith to God, an angel appears to prevent the murder.  The angel instead offers Abraham an alternative sacrifice, a nearby ram.

What is seen as a biblical act of faith could be examined today as barbaric, shocking and intimidating.[5] Having faith in a command, even when logic and worldly evidence denies its reason, seems a foolish act by today’s society.

Kierkegaard says about faith:

“Faith begins precisely where thinking leaves off... it is something which, if you have it, you will not be able to explain to anyone else. “

“Kierkegaard, [2], p.11

In this case, the story of Abraham is a perfect example of Kierkegaard’s definition of faith. Abraham could not explain his actions to others in a way that would be understood. But faith in what exactly? Did Abraham have faith that God will stop him immediately prior his impending death? Did he feel that God will return Isaac to him in another time? It seems Abraham put his faith in God, whether or not he truly understood the outcome of the act, purely for the love of his creator. Whatever the case it may be, there always seem to be two dominant perspectives: Abraham as a murderer, or Abraham as a man of faith.

We must stand apart from the literal actions in the story of Abraham. One is not necessarily required to murder his son in order to show faith. The story acts an allegory to represent a kind of religious consciousness rather than demonstrate certain acts people would do to reveal that consciousness.

In Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, he gave four alternative accounts of the story of Abraham. It reflects a series of differing levels of faith. The first demonstrates the cost of faith. In this account, Abraham led Isaac to the mountain and successfully sacrificed him. Abraham felt the need to protect his son from the questionable command from God and thus convinced Isaac that the sacrifice was his own doing.

“Lord in heaven I thank Thee; it is after all better that he believe I am a monster than that he lose faith in Thee.”

“Kierkegaard, [2], p.45, 46

The second account of the story Kierkegaard gives is one that projects an inadequate level of faith. As Abraham takes his son up to Moriah Mountain, and is faced with the act of the sacrifice, he sees a nearby ram and sacrifices that instead, unable to handle the sacrifice of his own son. Abraham’s eyes were darkened, he had lost faith.

In the third accounting, Abraham takes Isaac to Moriah Mountain, and as he draws his knife, thinks about the reality of the situation. He is bound with remorse, and adopts the belief that it is more of a sin to have been willing to sacrifice his son. His conclusion led him to beg forgiveness to God, and that he should have put his duty as a father first. This shows a particular turmoil of faith, a crisis of reasoning.

“He threw himself on the face, he begged God to forgive his sin at having been willing to sacrifice Isaac, at the father’s having forgotten duty to his son.”

“Kierkegaard, [2], p.47

The fourth and final accounting that Kierkegaard gives of the story of Abraham displays a failure of faith. As Abraham withdrew the knife to his son, Abraham appeared riddled with fear and doubt. Upon observing this, Isaac loses his faith. This consequently can lead to Isaac losing faith in God and his father. Abraham put the knife away, and they went home.  

These accounts seem necessary to give alternative perspectives on Abraham’s decision of sacrifice in accordance with his level of faith. It concludes that the biblical decision he had partaken in was the superior act of faith.   

[5] Kierkegaard, S. (1985) Fear and Trembling, Penguin Classics, p.7 

The Knight of Faith

The story of Abraham shows an undying trust in God and his command. It portrays a man of complete and sincere faith. This precise quality is what Kierkegaard calls the knight of faith. The knight of faith is one who, in spite of anything, puts his faith in God first.

“He (the knight of faith) does not renounce the love, not for all the glory in the world… “

“Kierkegaard, [2], p.71

The knight of faith is one who has made a total commitment to God. As absurd is the commitment to a higher being seems, it is in the absurdity; in the strength of the absurd, that his faith is revealed; thus marking the knight of faith.

“The knight of faith is just as clear: all that can save him is the absurd; and this he grasps by faith…Accordingly he admits the impossibility and at the same time believes the absurd…”

“Kierkegaard, [2], p.76

It is because of knowing the impossibility of something, and yet despite this still carries on showing his faith, makes him the knight of faith. It is important to be aware of the impossibility. Taking this back to Abraham’s case, it is because of the absurdity of the task, of killing what Abraham held most dear. Because he successfully carried out the task up until the final moment of the angel’s appearance, he is an example of the knight of faith.

Faith then, to Kierkegaard, is not just a human emotion, but contains a quality linking to a divine source. It is not an easy route to choose faith, and it is met with most adversity, it requires strength to be the knight of faith.

“Faith is therefore no aesthetic emotion, but something far higher… “

“Kierkegaard, [2], p.76

The knight of faith is an attainment of the greatest kind. Abraham could have posed questions and doubts to God’s intention of the sacrifice. Why would an all loving being order such a task? Why did I receive a son in the first place, and have to go through this pain to kill my own son?  But Abraham ignored such questions, and as such truly became a knight of faith by his actions, showing his faith in God.

It is through faith, this invisible force that requires the greatest strength. The knight of faith carries the burden of this inwardness.

“As for the knight of faith, he is assigned to himself alone, he has the pain of being unable to make himself intelligible to others...”

“Kierkegaard, [2], p.107

Stages of Existence

How can one acquire this high level of faith? Although Kierkegaard himself never split his theory up in stages, it is commonly used as a way of categorising his theories of existence. To use it in this context, faith is the final stage, mixed with religious connotations. The first “stage” of living which Kierkegaard discusses is a primary concern for the aesthetic. This is not related to faith at all, but rather a time in one’s life when he focuses on the pleasures the world has to offer. It is a characteristic defined by the immediacy of the moment, the gratification of self-indulgence.

This mode of aesthetic living can be said to parallel Kierkegaard’s early years at university, at a time when he was constantly socialising, drinking and running up debts that his father had to settle.

In Kierkegaard’s book Either/Or, the character A inhibits the qualities of an aesthetic individual. The structure of Either/Or is written in a prose that reflects a particular lifestyle, focusing on two characters, A and B. The book notably identifies two stages of living, the aesthetic and ethical, the latter will be discussed later.

The character A is reflected as the aesthetic individual. The chapter on A is split up in discussions of pleasurable activities, such as music, seduction and beauty.

Kierkegaard notably talks about Mozart, and his special love for Don Giovanni. In the opera, he describes the life of Giovanni as the aesthetic seducer. Although Giovanni himself met with defeat in the end (which can be interpreted as a suitable and ironic end for such a lifestyle), Kierkegaard’s character A marvels at his life of enjoyment:

“This is his (Don Giovanni) life, foaming like champagne. And just as its own melody, rise and continue to rise, so the desire for enjoyment resounds in the elemental boiling that is his life.”

“Kierkegaard, [1], p.135

It is this aesthetic lifestyle of enjoyment that fills the chapters of A. Kierkegaard continues to talk through A about the gratification of pleasure. It is the enjoyment that centres A’s life, savouring the aesthetic element personally, and his own person aesthetically. In this context, savouring a woman’s beauty, and prioritising his vain egotistical personality.  

In the chapter of “the seducer’s diary” A emphasises the act of seducing a woman. Not for profit or gain of a woman, but the act itself in being desirable and joyful. Despite a disagreement of conscience, and the heartbreak of women as a result of seduction, the act is still preferable over boredom.

“At least a bad conscience can make life interesting.”

“Kierkegaard, [1], p.248

Chasing aesthetics is all for the sake of making life interesting. Reading from this perspective can create the reader to question the possibilities of another approach to life. This hunger is quickly satisfied in the next chapter, of B, as we start to take a leap into the ethical.  Prior to the chapter of B, the limitations of the aesthetic lifestyle start to emerge in the latter parts of A. This appears at the latter part of “the seducer’s diary”, with Kierkegaard saying:  

 “I can imagine nothing more agonising than an intriguing mind which has lost the thread and then turns all its wits upon itself, as conscious awakens and the question is one of extricating oneself from this confusion.”

“Kierkegaard, [1], p.252

This can have two distinct interpretations. Supporting the idea of aestheticism, one could say that by thinking inwards ultimately leads to self-confusion, and therefore the greater pursuit is one of pleasure and beauty. It ensures that by not thinking and trapping yourself into a mental confusion, looking externally is a much safer environment to enjoy. To interpret this differently, in which pushes towards something beyond the aesthetic, it could portray the steady agony of an unexamined life. Externally the aesthetic man may seem fine, but inwardly he can be destroyed and torn.

This progresses Kierkegaard to the next stage of living. And that is a switch to the ethical.  The ethical is written through the character B in the second chapter of Either/Or. The territory switch from the aesthetic mode to the ethical mode is a leap, according to Kierkegaard.

The ethical stage emphasises choice and responsibility for the individual. The act of choosing is an expression of the ethical, whereas the aesthetic choice is immediate, which is not even a choice at all. The chapters of B in Either/Or is shrouded with responsibility and ethical reasoning. B defends the ethical commitment of marriage, considers the idea of right action and choice in one’s life, and the thinking that going against God means we are in the wrong.

“What stands out in my either/or is the ethical…it is not a matter of the choice of some thing… but of the reality of choosing.”

“Kierkegaard, [1], p.490

One makes a choice in life, and by acknowledging this sense of choice we can leap into the realm of the ethical. The freedom one has of choosing transcends the aesthetical immediacy. According to Kierkegaard, the pleasure and gains from the external world are infinitely small compared to the choice of being oneself. This choice is possible if one wants it so. He relates this thinking to an heir; the world’s treasures and the richest personality is nothing before he has chosen himself. Choosing oneself absolutely is choosing the ethical, it excludes the aesthetic.

“For the great thing is not to be this or that, but to be oneself; and every person can be that if he wants.”

“Kierkegaard, [1], p.491

Choosing relates to a fundamental knowing of oneself. The ethical man knows himself well, and has the ability to put all his consciousness into himself. It is a rejection of the “out of the blue” distraction that the aesthete shows. Vague and immediate thoughts do not fuss the man who knows himself.

Not knowing oneself and correspondingly having no choice entitles the person to a life of despair. The aesthete lives in this world of despair not because he willingly wants to, but because he does not choose the good, or rather he does not choose at all. Not being aware of choice, being blinded by aesthetics, is a life that will be ruined by despair.

Knowing oneself ensures a life lead in conjunction with the good. It is a connection with the universal, the knowing that each human should make the choice to be all he can.  

The third and final stage of existence Kierkegaard talks of is the religious. It is a certain religious faith that connects our ethical life together. Although the religious stage incorporates all that the ethical is, it is possible to lead an ethical life without religious means. By being committed to God amongst this ethical lifestyle, we can fully actualise ourselves and our passions.

Faith and Subjectivity

Faith is the critical component for tackling through life successfully. In his book Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard outlines the difficulty of attaining the individual’s passion, and concludes this can only be done through faith:

“Faith is precisely the contradiction between the infinite passion of the individual’s inwardness and the objective uncertainty.”

“Kierkegaard, [3], p.182

The battle is between our subjective interests and passions, and negotiating this in an external objective world, full of uncertainty. Kierkegaard says it is through faith that the dilemma can be successfully tackled. According to Kierkegaard, this subjectivity is truth. Each person is an existing individual, inhabiting his subjective interests, and the task of existing through his subjective interests is his essential task.

It is a risk to enforce subjectivity on an objective world. But Kierkegaard continues by saying:

“For without risk there is no faith, and the greater the risk the greater the faith; the more objective security the less inwardness (for inwardness is precisely subjectivity), and the less objective security the more profound the possible inwardness.”

“Kierkegaard, [3], p.188

This is to say, focusing primarily on the objective world offers security, but it is personally unrewarding to our subjective interests. By focusing on our inward subjectivity first to tackle the objective world, albeit meeting with much adversity, our trust in faith ensures our prize: successfully implementing our subjective interests into the world.

Kierkegaard seems to imply that there cannot be an objective truth. As the conceiver of this question is an individual person, and the individual relates to the question in his own way. If the person points towards an objective entity as truth, we must not forget that the person is involved in this theory: he is relating his objective entity to truth.

“Reflection is not focused upon the relationship, however, but upon the question of whether it is the truth to which the knower is related. If only the object to which he is related is the truth, the subject is accounted to be in the truth.”

“Kierkegaard, [3], p.178

Thus the formula is created, subjectivity is truth. It is through the employment of faith that is the vehicle to actualise this truth. In a religious context, to which Kierkegaard was a devout Christian, it is through my subjective faith in God, despite and because of the absurd nature of believing an unempirical deity, that my belief In God is pure and true.

 Kierkegaard’s definition of uncertainty is finely associated with inwardness, the internal cognition of our thoughts and drives. Subjectivity must be our lead, the lead that shapes our decisions and influences our actions. Kierkegaard outlines a constant paradox with subjectivity and objectivity. Even if the truth is seemingly “out there”, in an objective world, the fact that my being in the world influences my version of objectivity, the two paradoxically battle out for truth.

“…the fact that the truth is objectively a paradox shows in its turn that subjectivity is the truth…the objective situation is repellent… for the objective repulsion constitutes the tension and the measure of the corresponding inwardness.”

“Kierkegaard, [3], p.183 


Are his theories of benefit today?

The concept of subjectivity relies heavily on the individual prioritising himself in the objective world. The theory benefits from the positive nature of being a creator, of being able to choose the direction through the expression of self.

Many self-help books today seem to coincide with this theory. If someone has the belief, they have the ability to persist through failure and achieve their outcomes.  Self-help is the study of the self with the aim to improve and enhance ourselves. This premise implies we should first examine ourselves, then use this in the world. This order of thinking coincides with Kierkegaard’s subjectivity.

The popular book “The Secret” essentially examines our ability to attract desired circumstances[6]. That is to say, although the external world might not show it yet, the individual has the power to create the things he/she wants in life. This coincides with Kierkegaard’s knight of faith. In spite of circumstance, the knight of faith presses on, through his belief in God, to fulfil his duty. The idea of attraction has no evidential basis, neither does Kierkegaard’s knight of faith. The concept of faith is highly associated with these two theories.

In NLP, neuro-linguistic programming, the goal is to analyse our mental states to gain a better understanding of the individual’s place in the world.[7] With “meta program” techniques such as analysing what we think we can do and what we think we can’t, we essentially arrive at Kierkegaard’s basis that subjective analysis and knowing oneself benefits our external environment.

Kierkegaard’s modes of existence can be beneficial in identifying disorders and cognitive problems today. By acknowledging the pursuit of aesthetics can ultimately lead to despair, it can aid psychologists’ understanding and treatment in cases such as depression and alcoholism. A sufficient cure for such cases can be a revealing of the ethical stage: finding what the patient feels the need to do and his passion for a particular activity in order to get his focus back.

These recent theories demonstrate that Kierkegaard still influences today’s culture. In this way, his concepts still remain beneficial to others.

On a scientific level, his notions of faith and modes of existence are questionable. His theories are exactly that, and with no evidential basis it is hard to test that what he says is indeed right. This problem lies in any philosophy related to such topics. Kierkegaard looks at a divine source and our faith in Him, and our ability to pursue and create through our subjectivity. Without evidential findings, his theory suffers from an inability to point to concrete examples. The story of Abraham was extracted from the bible, which was written many thousands of years ago and translated over many languages. Using this as a solid evidential finding is insufficient. However, this does not deny the significant beneficial impact his philosophy has had since its conception.     

As a reader of Kierkegaard I find what he says makes sense. In every philosophical theory, especially one examining an invisible force, a scientific reasoning is hard to submit. Understanding this, I look at how I can use it to be of benefit to my life. If it shapes it for the better, and in this case makes me realise my subjective duty, then I would consider it worthy to believe. There can be a difference between what is true and what is useful to believe, but the study of examining Kierkegaard’s theory for evidential truth ultimately isn’t worthwhile. We can’t examine something written from a specific standpoint, and impose a completely different standpoint to being the judge of its truth.  

[6] Bavister, S. (2004) Teach Yourself NLP, Hodder Education, p.

2016 comment that I feel the need to clarify: Although Kierkegaard is my favourite philosopher on the subject of existentialism, I have a severe conflict with his faith in the God of classical theism. It is this that I disagree with.


Bibliography and References

[1] Søren Kierkegaard                    Either/Or, Penguin Classics, 1992.

[2] Søren Kierkegaard                    Fear and Trembling, Penguin Classics, 1985

[3] Søren Kierkegaard                    Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Princeton University Press, 1968.

[4] Søren Kierkegaard                    Purity of heart is to will one thing, Harper & Row, 1948

[5] Jeremy Stangroom                   The Great Philosophers, Arcturus Publishing, 2005

[6] Rhonda Byrne                           The Secret, Simon & Schuster Ltd, 2006.

[7] Steve Bavister                          Teach yourself NLP, Hodder Education, 2004