The Routledge Companion to Nineteenth Century Philosophy

By Dean Moyar | Go to book overview

12
KIERKEGAARD AND
GERMAN IDEALISM

Merold Westphal

Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55) is rightly read as a religious thinker, as a founding father of existentialism, and as a postmodern philosopher. In all these aspects his thought is in dialogue with German Idealism, especially Kant and Hegel. Often this relation is that of sharp critique, overt or implied, but sometimes it is more a matter of convergence and overlap.

Kierkegaard lived a dramatic life that included a complex relation with his father, a broken engagement, a spectacular spat with the “tabloid” media, and a bitter denunciation of the state church in the person of its primates. For a full-length biography, a short biographical overview, or an even shorter one, see Hannay (2001), Collins (1983: 1–32), or Westphal (1996: 3–7). It is important not to get carried away with the biographical background of Kierkegaard’s authorship, however fascinating. It is all too easy to become distracted. But if we are serious about the truth claims he presents, we’ll have to focus on what is said rather than who says it.

This is especially true since often enough Kierkegaard is not the author of his writings. Many of his most important writings are pseudonymous, and it is clear that we can identify the various pseudonymous authors neither with each other nor with Kierkegaard. To assume a priori that this multi-authored authorship is either a coherent whole or nothing but disparate fragments is to refuse the hard hermeneutical task of exploring the complex relation of the parts to the whole. So it will be important to respect his emphatic request: “Thus in the pseudonymous books there is not a single word by me … if it should occur to anyone to want to quote a particular passage from the books, it is my wish, my prayer, that he will do me the kindness of citing the respective pseudonymous author’s name, not mine” (Kierkegaard 1992: 626–7). The pseudonyms relate to their creator in the way in which characters in a novel or play relate to their author. Of course it would be foolish to assign to the writer the views of all the characters in a novel or play. Shakespeare is neither Lear nor Hamlet, though perhaps there is a little Lear and a bit of Hamlet in each of us.

Why did Kierkegaard write pseudonymously? It was not to hide identity but rather to communicate more effectively with his reader, whom he often spoke of as “that single individual.” Negatively speaking, he wanted to distance himself from the work

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