Bringing Kierkegaard into the 20th Century

By Lundtofte, Anne Mette | Scandinavian Review, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Bringing Kierkegaard into the 20th Century


Lundtofte, Anne Mette, Scandinavian Review


Born in Copenhagen as the son of a hosiery shopkeeper, Soren Kierkegaard (18131855) began to study theology at university but fell out with his puritanical father and for a time devoted himself to a life of pleasure before undergoing a religious experience and returning to his studies. He was awarded a doctorate in theology in 1841. Breaking off his engagement at this time led to a new emotional crisis. Kierkegaard moved to Berlin and started on a long series of writings in which he outlined his main philosophical tenets, above all his theory of life's "stages": the aesthetic and the ethical, but only the "religious" could provide lasting satisfaction. This is done in novel form in Enten/ Eller(1843; Either/Or, 1959). At one time he considered becoming a country parson, and strongly professed the Christian bases of his beliefs, but he became involved in bitter battles with the church establishment which undermined his heath and hastened his death (at the age of 42).

Kierkegaard attacked Hegel's attempt to arrive at "objective" truth, which he claimed could lead only to personal despair, and he drew the contrast between this and "experience" which can be gone through only by each individual. These views influenced 20thcentury existentialists and modern theologians. Twenty volumes of collected works (Samlede Varker)were published in 1963 with a further nine volumes of papers in 1968-70, and there is an extensive literature of translations and commentaries. A room in the Copenhagen City Museum is dedicated to his life and work.

-A.H. Thomas & S.P. Oakley in Historical Dictionary of Denmark (1998). Reprinted by permission of Scarecrow Press, Lanham, MD.

Since the turn of the century, there has been no lack of interest in Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). The many translations of his works testify to his popularity. Kierkegaard has been translated into German, French, Spanish, Hebrew, Russian, Polish, Lithuanian, Japanese, Chinese, and recently a new translation in English has been completed in the US. International interest in the 19th century Danish philosopher has taken his work well beyond academe and into the world outside, but with no loss of serious attention among specialists. Each year a large number of scholars-Americans in particular-travel to The Soren Kierkegaard Research Center in Copenhagen to study the philosopher in his original language. In the past three years, applications to The American-Scandinavian Foundation concerning Kierkegaard have tripled. The interest in the Danish philosopher seems now, in the 1990s, to have reached its peak. Since each era and each culture has its own idea of who "Kierkegaard" was, we must ask, what is the particular brush stroke that the decade of the 90s has added to the picture of the already multi-faceted writer?

The Writer and his Readers

That Kierkegaard should become the center of popular interest at all is, at best, ironic. The writer himself had explicitly disclaimed ownership of any philosophy or theology, and the notoriously difficult books he wrote should have discouraged even the most persistent readers. However, it is perhaps this impregnable and impenetrable quality of his work that has inspired so many scholars and artists to revisit the somber pages of Kierkegaard's writings.

For it is the darker sides of life that the philosopher illuminated in his writings, penetrating into the core of what constitutes man. Angst and despair, was his negative answer, because for Kierkegaard, the radical Christian, there could be no positive evidence of God's existence as a remedy to our worldly misery. One could only choose to believe-which was, of course, what Kierkegaard suggested-but a belief in God could only be that: an article of faith, but not of certainty. It was because of his insistence on the fundamental uncertainty of existence that Kierkegaard could be appropriated by the decidedly atheistic 20th-century philosophical movement, "existentialism," which permeated the intellectual circles of 1920s Germany and postwar France.

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