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Kierkegaard: Philosophy in an Hour

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год

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      Kierkegaard: Philosophy in an Hour
Paul Strathern

Philosophy for busy people. Read a succinct account of the philosophy of Kierkegaard in just one hour.Although Kierkegaard was not a philosopher in the academic sense, he produced what many people expect of philosophy. He didn’t write about the world, he wrote about life – how we live and how we choose to live, particularly focussing on the individual and the notion of his (or her) existence. Kierkegaard was one of the founders of existentialism, regarding the ‘existing being’ as a purely subjective entity that lay beyond the reach of reason, logic, philosophical systems, theology and even ‘the pretences of psychology’, yet simultaneously remaining the source of all these subjects.Here is a concise, expert account of Kierkegaard’s life and philosophical ideas – entertainingly written and easy to understand. Also included are selections from Kierkegaard’s work, suggested further reading, and chronologies that place Kierkegaard in the context of the broader scheme of philosophy.



Paul Strathern


Cover (#ue7130c9b-97ac-556f-aabe-ea7f3da6d35c)

Title Page (#u7999913e-00b8-57ca-af54-3f135feb4f14)

Introduction (#u565e86ef-a3ea-540f-b1cb-5b88787319da)

Kierkegaard’s Life and Works (#uc8a257aa-4a9b-5cf3-a8ba-c5ff104507e9)

Afterword (#litres_trial_promo)

Further Information (#litres_trial_promo)

From Kierkegaard’s Writings (#litres_trial_promo)

Chronology of Significant Philosophical Dates (#litres_trial_promo)

Chronology of Kierkegaard’s Life (#litres_trial_promo)

Chronology of Kierkegaard’s Era (#litres_trial_promo)

Recommended Reading (#litres_trial_promo)

About the Author (#litres_trial_promo)

Copyright (#litres_trial_promo)

About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo)

Introduction (#ulink_606fde47-32eb-5958-902f-044ed6c1dc7c)

Kierkegaard wasn’t really a philosopher at all. At least not in the academic sense. Yet he produced what many people expect of philosophy. He didn’t write about the world, he wrote about life – how we live, and how we choose to live.

Kierkegaard philosophised about what it means to be alive. His subject was the individual and his or her existence: the ‘existing being’. In Kierkegaard’s view, this purely subjective entity lay beyond the reach of reason, logic, philosophical systems, theology, or even ‘the pretences of psychology’. Nonetheless it was the source of all these subjects. As a result of such thinking, philosophers, theologians, and psychologists have all at some time disowned Kierkegaard. The branch of philosophy – or nonphilosophy, for many purists – to which Kierkegaard gave birth has come to be known as existentialism.

It took some time for existentialism to catch on. Some philosophers – such as Nietzsche, Husserl, and Heidegger – were existentialists without realising it (according to the existentialists). Heidegger vehemently denied this, and Nietzsche died before anyone could tell him. Indeed, it wasn’t until almost a century after Kierkegaard’s death that existentialism came into its own, with the emergence of the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in Paris after World War II.

The intellectuals of postwar Paris were in despair: there was nothing for them to believe in anymore. Surrealism, which had gained intellectual credence by describing itself as absurd, had now been recognised as ridiculous. And with the rise of Stalin, French intellectuals even found it difficult to believe in communism (though they certainly tried). Then along came existentialism, which didn’t require one to believe in anything at all. Indeed, it even emphasised that despair was part of the human condition.

Existentialism soon became the rage and spread beyond the cafés of the Left Bank, as far afield as the cafés of Greenwich Village, the coffee bars of London, and the beatnik haunts of San Francisco. It also attracted attention in universities on both sides of the Atlantic. Existentialism was both a café and a university philosophy – an unusual blend of the spurious and the deeply insightful. This proved equally attractive to artists, writers, philosophers, and charlatans, all of whom made their contribution to its growth. In this way, existentialism proved a suitable forerunner to behaviourism, structuralism, poststructuralism, and the like, which were to become the rage in the following decades.

Existentialism’s core philosophy – ‘the problem of existence’ – was considered very much a product of the twentieth century, with its characteristic alienation, angst, absurdity, and preoccupation with similar buzzwords. But all this derives directly from Kierkegaard, who was born almost a century before Sartre.

Kierkegaard was certainly ahead of his time. Yet he also brought about a long-overdue reexamination of one of the first philosophical questions ever to be asked: ‘What is existence?’ This question had of course continued to be asked ever since, by almost everyone except philosophers. To them the question was either laughable, invalid, or answered so completely by their own philosophy that there was no need whatsoever to go on asking it. Kierkegaard, on the other hand, insisted that every individual should not only ask this question but should make his very life his own subjective answer to it. This stress on subjectivity is Kierkegaard’s main contribution.

The problem of existence – or ‘being’ – was central to the thinking of many of the earliest philosophers. Before Socrates and Plato introduced an element of reason into philosophy (thus making it academically respectable), philosophers had been much concerned with the question of being. What did it mean to be alive? What was the meaning of existence? they wondered. Such naive questions are nowadays laughed out of court by serious philosophers. Asking these questions is simply meaningless, we are told. Yet we mere mortals stubbornly continue to ask them. In our artless fashion, some of us even expect philosophy to provide an answer. Several pre-Socratic philosophers, blithely unaware of the sophistication of philosophers to come, even insisted upon taking such questions seriously.

Parmenides, who lived in the Greek colony of Elea in southern Italy in the fifth century B.C., taught that being was the one single unchanging element of all existence. ‘All is one’. Such things as multiplicity, change, and motion were mere appearance. Other pre-Socratic philosophers began to question the difference between the existence of ‘real’ things as compared with abstract notions and imagined things. What quality differentiated my existence from that of mathematics or dreams? What did it mean ‘to exist’?

Then came Socrates and Plato. ‘Know thyself’ – rather than ‘Know what it means to be yourself’ – became the order of the day. The problem of being faded from philosophy. This fundamental notion (perhaps the most fundamental of all) was simply ignored. As far as Plato was concerned, existence was simply accepted as given, rather than its nature questioned.

Now, it is arguable that Plato was the most comprehensive and profound philosophical mind of all time; still, he was capable of overlooking what many consider to be the most important philosophical question of all. (Newton may have been the most comprehensive and profound scientific mind of all time, but that didn’t stop Einstein from showing how his universe rested on a false assumption.) Despite contemporary opinions to the contrary, there is such a thing as fundamental progress. We know more and more about the world, in almost every field (except perhaps philosophy). But on the level of individual existence – in the way Kierkegaard spoke of it – we remain the same. Where subjective being is concerned, there appears to be no such thing as progress. We all suffer (or enjoy) the same situation: the human condition. And have done so since time immemorial.

Taking their cue from Plato, ensuing philosophers continued to ignore the human condition. Subjective existence – possibly the one thing we all indisputably have in common – was left to the musings of philosophical simpletons. For almost two millennia the philosophy of Plato and his pupil Aristotle reigned supreme.

Not until the seventeenth century did philosophy return to base: that fundamental ground from which it had originally grown. Who am I, and what do I mean when I say ‘I exist’? The French philosopher René Descartes declared: ‘Cogito ergo sum’ (I think therefore I am). Everything in the mind and the world could be doubted, everything could be an illusion or a deceptive fantasy of some kind except the fact that I am thinking it. The fundamental notion, the absolute unquestionable rock upon which all philosophy could be based was once again seen to be the subjective self. But this was very much the self of a French intellectual. It existed only when it was thinking. Feelings, perceptions, and so forth – all these were liable to deception. The subjective ‘I’ could know that it existed, but it could know nothing else for certain. It was left naked and defenseless, exposed to the deceptive elements: ‘unaccommodated man’, wrote Shakespeare, ‘is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal.’

It was the German philosopher Kant who eventually devised a suitable dwelling to house this poor defenseless creature. Kant constructed a grandiose mansion in the form of an all-embracing philosophical system based on reason, which accommodated the subjective ‘I’ in magisterial splendor. Kant was followed by Hegel, who built an even more grandiose all-embracing system based on the notion ‘All that is rational is real, and all that is real is rational.’

But somehow both Kant and Hegel had lost sight of the original question. Their systems gave no satisfactory answer to the subjective question: ‘What is existence?’ A rational system presupposes a rational world. It is merely reason’s answers to reason’s questions. The subjective ‘I’ lies beyond reason and is not entirely a part of the world. Kierkegaard understood this. The answer didn’t lie in constructing a perfect system which explained everything. There was a more fundamental problem which prompted questions such as What is existence? What does it mean to exist? It was Kierkegaard who set himself the task of answering these questions.

Kierkegaard’s Life and Works (#ulink_842ef87c-71c6-50e6-8257-07413539b9f5)

Søren Aabye Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen on May 5, 1813, in the same year as the flamboyant German opera composer Richard Wagner. These two archetypical nineteenth-century characters occupy the opposite poles of that century’s genius. Kierkegaard was to become all that Wagner did not, and vice versa. Virtually the only thing they had in common – seemingly indispensable for nineteenth-century genius – was a strain of madness. Kierkegaard’s madness was not a central feature of his psychic makeup (it was his brother’s son who ended up in an insane asylum), but it is nonetheless evident in certain persistent oddities of his behaviour. All his life Kierkegaard was obsessively solitary, and in consequence the few influences upon him took on an exaggerated aspect. By far the greatest influence on the young Kierkegaard was his father, who exhibited a much closer proximity to madness (and would probably have been regarded as insane in a more sophisticated Mediterranean society).

The influence of Kierkegaard’s father was formative. Almost everything that he became was either a direct result of his father’s overbearing influence or in violent reaction against it. There was little casual normality in their relationship.

Kierkegaard senior had been born a serf in the remote heaths of Jutland in northern Denmark. His family belonged to the local priest and worked his fields. This almost certainly accounts for the family name Kierkegaard, which is Danish for ‘churchyard’. By the age of ten the young Kierkegaard senior was out in all weather looking after the sheep. According to one of his sons, ‘He suffered from hunger and cold, or at other times was exposed to the burning rays of the sun, left to himself and the animals, lonely and forlorn.’ He was highly religious, yet he could not understand how God could allow him to suffer so. One day, driven to desperation, he stood on a rock on the barren hillside and solemnly cursed God.

Almost at once, things took a turn for the better. An uncle in Copenhagen sent for young Kierkegaard senior and gave him employment in his woolen goods business. Kierkegaard senior proved an excellent salesman, tramping the highways and byways in all weather to sell stockings and pullovers to countrymen and townsfolk alike. Eventually he had enough money to marry and set up home. When the uncle died, he was left a considerable business. This he continued to build until he was one of the richest merchants in Copenhagen, occasionally even entertaining royalty at his dinner table. The five houses he owned survived the British naval bombardment of 1803, which flattened large areas of the city. Ten years later, when the Danish economy went spectacularly bankrupt, Kierkegaard senior was one of the few to survive, having invested his fortune in gilt-edged securities.

But already the man who had cursed God felt deep within him that he was accursed. His first wife died, and he married his maidservant. Of his seven children, only two survived. Then the second wife died.

Søren Kierkegaard was the youngest child, born when his father was already fifty-six. The years of Søren’s childhood were regularly punctuated by family deaths. Already doom-laden and religion-obsessed by the time Søren was born, Kierkegaard senior became an increasingly depressive tyrant. He retired from business and withdrew to a reclusive life amidst the gloom of the family mansion. He quickly recognised Søren as the most intelligent of his offspring, and Søren became his father’s favourite. In any other family this might have been an enviable position, but not at the Kierkegaards’.

By the age of seven Kierkegaard’s father was teaching him logic after his own fashion. Young Kierkegaard’s statements would be subjected to perverse logical scrutiny, and he would be forced to defend his every assertion.

Relaxation came in the form of extensive foreign travel. This all took place within the confines of his father’s study. Young Kierkegaard would listen while his father painstakingly described the architectural and cultural delights of such faraway places as Dresden, Paris, and Florence. Afterward, young Søren would be encouraged to take a ‘grand tour’ around the room, forced to describe in detail the views he saw – such as the sunburnt hillside of Fiesole above the domes and towers of Florence (each of which had to be named and described).

As a result of this mental child abuse, the already intelligent young Kierkegaard developed a supremely logical mind as well as a superb (if somewhat dry) imagination. Like many a modern travel guide writer, Kierkegaard’s father had never actually seen the faraway romantic spots that he described. His travels had been conducted entirely between the covers of books – but for all this they did not lack in telling authentic detail. In his later philosophy Kierkegaard was to show an uncanny ability to imagine himself in situations (especially biblical and psychological ones) that he had only metaphorically experienced. This skill stems directly from accompanying his father on his armchair travels.

On a deeper level, Kierkegaard senior seems to have wished to overwhelm his son’s mind and impose on it his own blinkered view of the world. Dominant fathers have always enjoyed inflicting the goals they have achieved (or, more commonly, failed to achieve) on their sons, but Kierkegaard senior was different. He felt driven, but he no longer had any goals. He saw himself as accursed, and he wallowed in total despair. It was this driven despair that he wished, consciously or otherwise, to impose upon his son. In his later journals Kierkegaard senior pointedly tells the story of the man who gazed at his son one day and told him, ‘Poor child, you are living in silent despair.’ This would seem to derive from an autobiographical episode (or was possibly a regular refrain).

Not surprisingly, Kierkegaard was a somewhat odd pupil at school. He dressed in buttoned-up old-fashioned clothes and behaved in a buttoned-up old-fashioned manner. His teachers described him as being like ‘a little old man’. He didn’t excel at schoolwork, though he was certainly in a different intellectual class from his fellow pupils. His father had instructed him not to draw attention to his intelligence: he was to place third in his class. Young Søren dutifully obliged. (This must have required even more skill: any budding genius can come in first.)

As Kierkegaard grew older it became plain that his odd appearance was due to more than just his old-fashioned clothes. His body was angular and sticklike, and he seems to have suffered from a spinal disease which gave him a slight hunchback. Never one of the gang, the outsider Kierkegaard inevitably attracted the teasing of his more boisterous schoolmates. He soon learned to defend himself with a sarcastic wit. This sarcasm he then began to use aggressively, provoking other boys with his comments and attracting their bullying. This behaviour trait was to recur throughout Kierkegaard’s life.

Like many an earnest introvert, Kierkegaard liked to consider himself the centre of attention. He was certainly used to being the centre of his father’s attention, and the fervent intensity of his inner life meant that he was very much the centre of his own attention. Provoking others, even if he suffered for it, reinforced the illusion that the world revolved around him. This martyr complex was to become an important factor in his psychological makeup.

After leaving school Kierkegaard enrolled at the University of Copenhagen to study theology. Here he seems to have been a surprisingly normal student. Quickly recognised for his wide-ranging erudition and waspish wit, he cut quite a figure in the student circles of provincial Copenhagen. He soon found himself neglecting the study of theology in favour of philosophy. He became interested in Hegel, whose philosophy had spread like the plague throughout Germany (and was now reaching epidemic proportions in various lesser philosophic nations). Hegel’s deep seriousness and earnest, spiritually oriented view of the world struck a chord in Kierkegaard. According to Hegel’s all-embracing system, the world developed according to a triadic dialectical process. An initial thesis would generate its antithesis, and both would then be subsumed in a synthesis (which in turn was seen as a thesis, and so on). His classic example was:

Thesis: Being (or existence). Antithesis: Nothing (or nonexistence). Synthesis: Becoming.

By means of this dialectic everything moved toward greater self-consciousness, and ultimately toward the Absolute Spirit, which subsumed everything as it contemplated itself. This all-embracing Absolute Spirit even subsumed religion, which was viewed as an earlier stage of the ultimate philosophy (that is, Hegel’s). The appeal of such a philosophy to the introverted Kierkegaard is obvious – not least in its oedipal, religious, and narcissistic aspects.

Although Kierkegaard was overwhelmed with admiration for Hegel, his relationship toward him was suitably dialectical from the start. He loved him, he hated him, and ultimately his own anti-Hegelian philosophy was to be suffused with Hegelian concepts – not the least being Kierkegaard’s own version of the dialectic. But more important, right from the start Kierkegaard had doubts about the Absolute Spirit and its self-knowledge. For Kierkegaard, self-knowledge had to be achieved at the subjective level. He insisted that for individuals the subjective had to be more important than any Absolute Spirit. The subjective realm was our major concern. Some resourceful commentators have detected unconscious echoes of Kierkegaard’s relationship to his father in all this. And sure enough, the young subjective element was soon to find itself in opposition to the paternal Absolute Spirit.

Around this time Kierkegaard’s relationship with his father underwent a dramatic change. By way of passing on the family curse, Kierkegaard senior appears to have made a number of confessions to his intense and impressionable son. He explained how he had cursed God long ago on a hill in Jutland. Kierkegaard is said to have recoiled from this revelation in horror, and soon afterward began to drift into a drunken, dissolute life at the university.

Some perceptive commentators have suggested that there is more here than meets the eye. By this stage Kierkegaard was probably looking for an excuse to break free of his father’s overbearing influence. It also seems certain that the pious old man’s confession included more than just theological matters. He may well have confessed that he had committed fornication – sleeping with the maidservant (his future second wife, Kierkegaard’s mother) while his first wife lay on her deathbed. This could also help to explain the dramatic – or self-dramatised – turn in Kierkegaard’s behaviour (which was not quite as dissolute as he would have us believe). But it has also been suggested that the father’s confessions contained something more serious than infantile blasphemy and earnest guilt over peccadilloes. In the view of critic Ronald Grimsley, covert references in Kierkegaard’s journals hint that the father had visited a bordello and contracted syphilis, which may even have been passed on to his son. Kierkegaard’s subsequent behaviour certainly doesn’t rule out this lurid possibility.
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