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Definition: Kierkegaard, Søren from Philip's Encyclopedia

Danish philosopher and theologian, regarded as the founder of modern existentialism. He believed that the individual must exercise free will, making deliberate decisions about the direction of his/her life. Critical of Hegel's speculative philosophy, he argued that religious faith was, at its best, blind obedience to an irrational God. His books include Either/Or (1843) and Philosophical Fragments (1844).

Summary Article: Kierkegaard, Soren (1813-1855)
from Encyclopedia of Political Theory

Soren Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, where he spent most of his short but productive life. Kierkegaard intended to bring his readers to a realization of the importance of becoming a Christian—an imperative he thought lost on his fellow residents of Copenhagen, who were contented to sublet this task to the formalities of the established Danish church. Although Kierkegaard's thought is sometimes tarnished by his patriarchal and reactionary views, this does not outweigh his wider pursuits: combating the twin dangers of the hubristic influence of Hegelian ideas in Danish life and the demeaning and dehumanizing relations created by democracy, liberalism, and the demands of equality. Thus, although he was not a political theorist in the restricted sense of the term, Kierkegaard's highly idiosyncratic writings develop a challenging view of the contours of the relationship between the individual and the community as a whole.

Before any examination of Kierkegaard's thought can begin, it is important to note the nature and purpose of the authorship as a whole—a point that Kierkegaard himself makes in the essays contained in The Point of View. Kierkegaard produced works both in his own name (signed) and under pseudonyms. In his signed works, Kierkegaard presents his reader with an explicitly Christian position, often in the form of a discourse on a biblical quotation. In the pseudonymous works, Kierkegaard explores aesthetic, ethical, and philosophical positions. These pseudonymous works are not correctly understood as Kierkegaard's definitive position: They should be understood as illustrations and explorations of worldly and philosophical positions that Kierkegaard is attempting to encourage his reader to reject. Once rejected, the reader is in a position to make the so-called leap of faith and start the upbuilding work explored in the signed authorship, which is involved in becoming a Christian.

Central to Kierkegaard's thought is the idea that selfhood is not a given but something that individuals must strive to achieve. Kierkegaard explores this idea most clearly in the pseudonymous work, The Sickness Unto Death. For Kierkegaard, true selfhood (being a Christian) can be achieved only when individuals relate correctly not only to themselves but also to the power that established those selves: God. Although Christian selfhood is normative, it is nonetheless far from routinely accomplished. Indeed, for Kierkegaard, most individuals fail to achieve true selfhood and are mired in the condition known as despair. This is the case because just as an individual can relate to God, an individual can also relate to any number of other ideas, ideals, projects, or people. These relations (unless underpinned by the central spiritual relation) are in fact misrelations. Despair should not be thought of as manifesting in misery or unhappiness. On the contrary, Kierkegaard maintains that many individuals are not aware of their despair (their misrelation to God) and are even self-congratulatory about their position, role, and achievements in society.

Central to Kierkegaard's account of the political, then, is the need for individuals to recognize their individuality and to set out on the task of becoming Christians. This involves becoming aware of the need to form a correct relation between themselves and God and from there to other individuals. In Two Ages (perhaps his most overtly political work), Kierkegaard uses the occasion of a literary review to press home his own conclusions about “the present age.” Whereas the previous age (the age of revolution) saw the possibility of individuality and passion, the present age sees the nullification of action in abstract thought. In this way, Kierkegaard condemns the tendencies of both democracy and liberalism. Democracy sacrifices a commitment to the truth to the power of majorities and treats individuals as equals only in the sense of interchangeable units. Moreover, it creates the “anonymous phantom” of the public, which has no fixed direction or ideals and which enables individuals to avoid responsibility by merging their individuality with that of others. For its part, the tendencies of liberalism are to replace the need for commitment and action with endless chatter and procrastination. Under such conditions, passionate commitment to an idea or ideal is made impossible and “envy becomes the negatively unifying principle.” Caught in reflection and inaction, individuals cease to be stimulated by the admiration of individuality and instead are further discouraged and devalued by the example of others and so tend to undermine, ridicule, and trivialize achievement. Under such conditions, individuality and the possibility of becoming a Christian are greatly reduced.

For Kierkegaard, individuality was something more than the dehumanizing individualism of economic man. It is also something more than playing a part in society and acting as if one were a Christian. The individual must break away from the demoralizing and leveling influence of “the crowd” and engage with truth. For Kierkegaard, only when an individual has a relationship with God can there be a reforging of their relations on the basis of true spiritual equality with others. Individuals must recognize that others are equal before God and that God commands them to love their neighbor as spiritual equals. Duties and obligations to others, then, come not from philosophical reflection but from a commitment to the truth. A community built on such a relation would be a community of individuals who recognized each other as spiritual equals and who found mutual edification in their relationships.

See also

Existentialism, Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich

Further Readings
  • Kierkegaard, S. (1978). Two ages: The age of revolution and the present age. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Kierkegaard, S. (1980). The sickness unto death: A Christian psychological exposition for upbuilding and awakening. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Kierkegaard, S. (1998). The point of view. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Kirmmse, B. (1990). Kierkegaard in golden age Denmark. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Pattison, G., & Shakespeare, S. (1998). Kierkegaard: The self in society. Great Britain: Macmillan.
  • Perkins, R. L. (1984). International Kierkegaard commentary: Two ages. Georgia: Mercer University Press.
  • Smith, G. M. Kierkegaard from the point of view of the political. History of European Ideas 31 : 35-60.
  • Westphal, M. (1987). Kierkegaard's critique of reason and society. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.
  • Smith, Graham M.
    Copyright © 2010 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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