Soren Aaby Kierkegaard

1813-1855. Danish philosopher. Born in Copenhagen, son of a wealthy Lutheran who retired early to devote his life to piety, Soren's melancholy disposition, inherited from his father, may have influenced his highly individual and introspective writing. Attempts have been made to explain his thought in psychological terms. He took ten years to take his degree; his engagement was broken off and he never married; he prepared for ordination in the Danish Lutheran Church, but was never ordained.

His writings have been divided into two main groups, though the division is only a rough one. Those written between 1841 and 1845 are largely philosophical and aesthetic. Some were pseudonymously attributed to John Climacus and contain numerous pseudonymous characters who express indirectly the writer's viewpoint. The works of this period include his thesis on The Concept of Irony with Constant Reference to Socrates (1841), Either-Or (1843), Fear and Trembling (1843), The Concept of Dread (1844), Stages on Life's Way (1844), Philosophical Fragments (1844), Concluding Unscientific Postcript to the Philosophical Fragments (1846), and numerous Edifying Discourses. The works of Kierkegaard's later period are sometimes described as his Christian writings, though they might with equal accuracy be described as works attacking formal Christianity. In fact, in both periods he wrote from a Christian standpoint. Among his later writings are Works of Love (1847), Christian Discourses (1848), and Training in Christianity (1850). He kept a Journal to the end of his life. A study of its contents and his various other papers is an invaluable supplement to his other writings.

In Holy Week 1848, Kierkegaard underwent a second conversion experience, after which he largely abandoned his pseudonymous writing in favor of direct communication and Christian witness. When Bishop Mynster died in 1854, his successor, H.L. Martensen, delivered an oration celebrating his predecessor's witness to the truth. Although Mynster had been a lifelong friend of the family, Kierkagaard could not forbear writing a withering series of attacks on the man who had come to symbolize for him the formal, conformist, indifferent Christianity into which Protestantism had now fallen. Kierkegaard died while the controversy was at its height.

His thought was shaped by his reaction to Hegel and German idealism in general; his debt to Greek thought, especially to Socratic irony; his sense of the otherness of God; and an overpowering awareness of the personal demands of NT Christianity as contrasted with the lukewarm, official Christianity of the day.

At the heart of Kierkegaard's thought lies the distinction between time and eternity, finite and infinite, immanent and transcendent. Man and his world belong to the former; God to the latter. There is no continuity between the two, for God is wholly other. The gulf can be bridged only from God's side. This is done in the Incarnation. But even here the divinity of Christ is hidden. Christ comes to men incognito. It cannot be otherwise, for to be known directly is the mark of an idol. Christ can be known only by faith. It is by faith that man becomes a true contemporary of Christ, transcending the limits of time and space. The Christian life is one of personal commitment in faith.

Consequently Kierkegaard's pronouncements on history appear disparaging; for merely historical knowledge without faith does not lead to Christ. Conversely, a minimal historical knowledge is enough to afford an occasion for faith. But unlike some of his twentieth-century followers, Kierkegaard did not favor radical, biblical criticism. His writings take Scripture at its face value and show no interest in the criticism of his day. The key to his attitude was the conviction that the finite cannot contain or express the infinite. The temporal is merely the occasion for encountering the eternal.

Through translation into German, English, and other languages, Kierkegaard is more influential today than in his lifetime. He is widely regarded as a forerunner of existentialism.* But although he was deeply concerned with human existence, his thought has more in common with the dialectical theology of the early Barth than with later radical existentialism. It worked within a theistic framework that was concerned above all with the transcendence of God. He preserved this transcendence by making it a hidden one. Consequently Kierkegaard has been criticized for irrationalism. Others have dispensed with his theistic framework and made his approach the basis of a nontheistic existentialism.

There is no collected edition of Kierkegaard's writings in English, but all the most important works have been translated. A comprehensive list, with descriptive analysis, is given by G.E. and G.B. Arbaugh, Kierkegaard's Authorship (1968). A. Dru has edited his Journals (1938). This is supplemented by R.G. Smith (ed.), The Last Years: Journals 1853-1855 (1965). His Journals and Papers are being edited by H.V. and E.H. Hong (1967- ).

Studies: W. Lowrie, Kierkegaard (2 vols., 1938) and A Short Life of Kierkegaard (1942); H. Diem, Kierkegaard's Dialectic of Existence (1959); L. Dupré, Kierkegaard as Theologian (1963); E.J. Carnell, The Burden of Soren Kierkegaard (1965); P. Sponheim, Kierkegaard on Christ and Christian Coherence (1968).