Authors: Søren Kierkegaard

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Danish philosopher, theologian, and author.

May 5, 1813

Copenhagen, Denmark

November 11, 1855

Copenhagen, Denmark


Søren Aabye Kierkegaard was born in a great house facing the New Market Square in Copenhagen, the city in which he would spend the entirety of his life. He devoted most of his efforts to the development and communication of a philosophy and way of life that was his personal response to the Christian religion and the world about him. Although his early work expressed more faith in philosophy than in religion, he became the founder of the Christian existentialism movement, and his work profoundly influenced such thinkers as Henrik Ibsen, Martin Heidegger, and Karl Jaspers. Many of his ideas were also incorporated into the thinking of such atheistic existentialists as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.

Søren Kierkegaard

(Library of Congress)

Søren Kierkegaard was the seventh child of Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard and his second wife, Ane Sørensdatter Lund (his first wife having died childless after two years of married life). The family was prosperous; Michael Kierkegaard had been brought to Copenhagen by his uncle and had built a small business into a flourishing concern. When his first wife died, he retired at the age of forty and lived on his securities. He was a strict patriarch, profoundly religious, melancholy, and driven by a compelling sense of anxiety and guilt because as a child, while tending sheep in the cold, he had cursed God for allowing him to suffer. His dominance was a continuous and depressing influence on his children, and it probably played an important part in affecting his son’s attitudes toward Christianity. Early in life Søren Kierkegaard developed the conviction that he was somehow intended to be a sacrifice and that it was his mission in life to rebel against the God who made suffering. Nevertheless, it appears that his childhood was on the whole a happy one, possibly because of the careful attention and good humor of his mother, and as the years passed Kierkegaard’s early belief in the necessity of sacrifice gradually disappeared. However, he was burdened both physically and spiritually by a fall from a tree that led to a series of ailments and, eventually, to his final illness.

Kierkegaard entered the University of Copenhagen in 1830. By 1834, a series of deaths, including that of his mother, had reduced his family to his father, himself, and one brother. In that year or the next, a revelation from his father, never made entirely explicit, so affected Kierkegaard that he referred to it as “the great earthquake.” The knowledge of his father’s guilt aroused a sense of anguish and dread in him, and he became estranged from his father and from God, although he reconciled with his father before the latter’s death in 1838. At that time Kierkegaard also returned to the practice of Christian communion and began to explore the possibility that the subjective is the sign of truth, and that religion is more of a revelation of reality than is philosophy.

In 1840 Kierkegaard received his theology degree from Copenhagen, and in the same year became engaged to Regine Olsen. He eventually broke the engagement because he thought that the necessity of keeping secret his father’s guilt, as well as his relationship to God, made marriage impossible. This decision led to more affliction, for Kierkegaard suffered from seeing Olsen marry another man and raise a family in Copenhagen.

Kierkegaard’s major philosophical works, published under pseudonyms, appeared in the period 1843 to 1846. His opbyggelige taler (“edifying discourses” or “upbuilding discourses”), published at various times, were issued under his own name and were intended to make clear the religious intention of his other works. He was persecuted after an attack on the Corsair, a comic journal, by having his works ridiculed in the paper, and he was often involved in controversy. Shortly before his death he made his criticism of “official Christianity” clear in a series of pamphlets entitled Øieblikket (1855, 1881; The Instant, 1944). His work was a reflection of a progression in action from the aesthetic to the ethical and finally to the religious. He died believing in God but not in communion from the hands of a parson, a “royal functionary.”

Author Works Nonfiction: Af en endnu Levendes Papirer: Udgivet mod hans Villie, 1838 (From the Papers of One Still Living, 1990) Om Begrebet Ironi: Med stadigt Hensyn til Socrates, 1841, 1906 (dissertation; The Concept of Irony, with Constant Reference to Socrates, 1965) Enten-Eller: Et Livs-Fragment, 1843 (Either/Or, 1944) To opbyggelige Taler, 1843 (Edifying Discourses, vol. 1, 1943; also in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, 1990) Frygt og Bæven: Dialektisk Lyrik, 1843, 1857 (Fear and Trembling: A Dialectical Lyric, 1939) Gjentagelsen: Et Forsøg i den experimenterende Psychologi, 1843 (Repetition: An Essay in Experimental Psychology, 1941) Tre opbyggelige Taler, 1843 (Edifying Discourses, vol. 1, 1943; also in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, 1990) Fire opbyggelige Taler, 1843 (Edifying Discourses, vol. 2, 1944; also in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, 1990) To opbyggelige Taler, 1844 (Edifying Discourses, vol. 3, 1945; also in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, 1990) Tre opbyggelige Taler, 1844 (Edifying Discourses, vol. 3, 1945; also in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, 1990) Philosophiske Smuler eller En Smule Philosophi, 1844, 1865 (Philosophical Fragments, 1936) Begrebet Angest: En simpel psychologisk-paapegende Overveielse i Retning af det dogmatiske Problem om Arvesynden, 1844 (The Concept of Dread, 1944) Forord: Morskabslæsning for enkelte Stænder efter Tid og Lejlighed, 1844 (Prefaces: Light Reading for Certain Classes as the Occasion May Require, 1989) Fire opbyggelige Taler, 1844 (Edifying Discourses, vol. 4, 1946; also in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, 1990) Atten opbyggelige Taler, 1845 (Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, 1990) Tre Taler ved tænkte Leiligheder, 1845 (Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions, 1993) Stadier paa Livets Vei: Studier af Forskjellige, 1845 (Stages on Life’s Way, 1940) Afsluttende uvidenskabelig Efterskrift til de philosophiske Smuler, 1846 (Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 1941) En literair Anmeldelse: To Tidsaldre, Novelle af Forfatteren til “En Hverdags-historie”, 1846 (Two Ages: The Age of Revolution and the Present Age; A Literary Review, 1978; also known as A Literary Review: Two Ages, a Novel by the Author of A Story of Everyday Life, 2001) Bogen om Adler, wr. 1846–47, pb. 1984 (as Nutidens religieuse forvirring; On Authority and Revelation: The Book on Adler, or A Cycle of Ethico-religious Essays, 1955; also known as The Book on Adler, 1994) Opbyggelige Taler i forskjellig Aand, 1847 (Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits, 1993) Kjerlighedens Gjerninger: Nogle christelige Overveielser i Talers Form, 1847, 1852 (Works of Love: Some Christian Reflections in the Form of Discourses, 1962) Den ethiske og den ethisk-religieuse Meddelelses Dialektik, wr. 1847, pb. 1984 (as Søren Kierkegaards kommunikationsteori) Christelige Taler, 1848, 1862 (Christian Discourses, 1939) Krisen og en Krise i en Skuespillerindes Liv, 1848 (serial), 1904 (book), 1906 (The Crisis and a Crisis in the Life of an Actress, 1997) Synspunktet for min Forfatter-Virksomhed, wr. 1848–49, pb. 1859 (The Point of View for My Work as an Author, 1939) Lilien paa Marken og Fuglen under Himlen: Tre gudelige Taler, 1849, 1854 (The Lilies of the Field and the Birds of the Air, 1939) Tvende ethisk-religieuse Smaa-Afhandlinger, 1849, 1905 Sygdommen til Døden: En christelig psychologisk Udvikling til Opvækkelse, 1849, 1865 (The Sickness unto Death, 1941) “Ypperstepræsten,” “Tolderen,” “Synderinden”: Tre Taler ved Altergangen om Fredagen, 1849, 1857 (Three Discourses at the Communion on Fridays, 1939) Indøvelse i Christendom, 1850 (Training in Christianity, 1941) En opbyggelig Tale, 1850, 1865 To Taler ved Altergangen om Fredagen, 1851 Om min Forfatter-Virksomhed, 1851 (On My Work as an Author, 1939) Til Selvprøvelse Samtiden anbefalet, 1851 (For Self-Examination, 1940) Dømmer Selv! Til Selvprøvelse Samtiden anbefalet, wr. 1851–52, pb. 1876 (For Self-Examination, and, Judge for Yourselves!, 1941) Dette skal siges; saa være det da sagt, 1855 (This Has to Be Said—So Be It Now Said, 1944) Hvad Christus dømmer om officiel Christendom, 1855 (What Christ’s Judgment Is about Official Christianity, 1944) Guds Uforanderlighed: En Tale, 1855, 1882 (The Unchangeableness of God, in Edifying Discourses: A Selection, 1958) Øieblikket, nos. 1–10, 1855, 1881 (The Instant, 1944; The Moment and Late Writings, 2009) The Essential Kierkegaard, 2000 (Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, editors) Bibliography Allen, Diogenes. Three Outsiders: Pascal, Kierkegaard, Simone Weil. Cowley Publications, 1983. The chapter on Kierkegaard examines his time period and its influence on his ideas. Discusses how Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel influenced Søren Kierkegaard by breaking the hold of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment on European philosophy. Also includes the influence of Socrates on Kierkegaard. Bloom, Harold, editor. Søren Kierkegaard. Chelsea House Publishers, 1989. A collection of essays discussing the importance of Kierkegaard and his philosophy. The editor’s introduction places Kierkegaard in historical context, relating him to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and others. Evans, C. Stephen. Kierkegaard’s “Fragments” and “Postscript”: The Religious Philosophy of Johannes Climacus. Humanities Press, 1983. An analysis of the two books that Kierkegaard wrote under a pseudonym in which he reveals much of his religious philosophy. Evans’s book is basically a commentary on the two books by Kierkegaard. Garff, Joakim. Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography. Translated by Bruce H. Kirmmse, Princeton UP, 2005. A readable and extremely well received biography that adds mightily to Kierkegaard scholarship. Hannay, Alastair. Kierkegaard: A Biography. Cambridge UP, 2001. A study that asserts the philosopher developed his ideas in response to his own personal struggle with the Danish church. Hannay, Alastair, and Gordon D. Marino, editors. The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard. Cambridge UP, 1998. Presents sixteen essays that look at Kierkegaard’s contributions to philosophical, theological, and spiritual issues. Contains bibliography and index. Kirmmse, Bruce H. Kierkegaard in Golden Age Denmark. Indiana UP, 1990. Reads Kierkegaard's work in the context of societal tensions of the time. Lowrie, Walter. Kierkegaard. 1938. Peter Smith, 1962. 2 vols. A definitive biography of Kierkegaard, written by one of the most prominent translators of his writings. Traces Kierkegaard’s life chronologically, providing a list of dates for major events and publications. Also includes a helpful fifteen-page synopsis of Kierkegaard’s works. Pattison, George, and Steven Shakespeare, editors. Kierkegaard: The Self in Society. St. Martin's Press, 1998. Presents twelve essays challenging the notion of Kierkegaard as an extreme individualist, from the 1995 meeting of the Kierkegaard Society of the United Kingdom. Rae, Murray A. Kierkegaard’s Vision of the Incarnation: By Faith Transformed. Clarendon Press, 1997. An examination and sympathetic interpretation of Kierkegaard’s view of the Incarnation by a chaplain at the University of Auckland. Contains an extensive bibliography. Rée, Jonathan, and Jane Chamberlain, editors. Kierkegaard: A Critical Reader. Blackwell, 1998. Presents nine essays that in this work attempt to determine the role of Kierkegaard’s work in philosophy and religion in modern society. Includes index. Sontag, Frederick. A Kierkegaard Handbook. John Knox Press, 1979. A systematic approach to Kierkegaard’s philosophy, which Kierkegaard himself avoided. A study of major concepts that provides a companion reader to the student of Kierkegaard. Stack, George J. Kierkegaard’s Existential Ethics. U of Alabama P, 1977. An explanation of the ethical concepts in Kierkegaard’s existentialism. Examines the philosopher’s connection to the developing philosophy of nihilism and helps readers understand how his personal struggles affected his philosophy. Walker, Jeremy. Kierkegaard: Descent into God. McGill–Queen's UP, 1985. Examines Kierkegaard’s remarks on the importance of Socrates, discusses his ethical positions, and attempts to reveal the effect of personal sorrows on his philosophy. The title refers to the philosopher’s difficulty in explaining exactly how a person becomes a believer in God. Watkin, Julia. Historical Dictionary of Kierkegaard’s Philosophy. Scarecrow Press, 2001. A handy aid to the study of the philosopher’s work. Westphal, Merold. Kierkegaard’s Critique of Reason and Society. Mercer UP, 1987. A discussion of different aspects of Kierkegaard’s philosophy. Chapter 6, “Kierkegaard and the Logic of Insanity,” is a lecture-essay that discusses the difficulty in understanding many of Kierkegaard’s concepts.

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