Key Concepts of the Philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard
Søren Kierkegaard was a 19th century Danish philosopher who many consider both the father of the philosophical school of thought called Existentialism and one of the great Christian theological thinkers of the past two hundred years. Kierkegaard’s philosophy broke free of the ideas of St. Thomas Aquinas, who tried to balance faith and reason, to instead insist that faith and reason were completely independent of each other. Kierkegaard’s philosophy was also a direct reaction to G. W. F. Hegel, whose German idealism dominated the majority of European philosophical thought at the time. Unlike the vast majority of philosophers, Kierkegaard did not place the emphasis of his philosophy on the idea of obtaining objective truths about reality but instead was asking the subjective questions about what human beings value and how they should live their lives. Kierkegaard, along with the atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, would be the main inspiration for many twentieth century philosophers like Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.
In order to explore viewpoints that were not his own, Kierkegaard wrote many of his works using pseudonyms. This approach, similar to the Socratic Method, and what was employed by Plato in his dialogues, allowed Kierkegaard to communicate with the reader indirectly. It often was not Kierkegaard’s goal to convince or to put together a particular argument but to present ideas and to ask the reader to evaluate the value of such ideas and what kind of person might benefit from such ideas.
While Kierkegaard had definite values that he believed, he did not think that truths about the world were a very effective way to divine values. While Kierkegaard was a Christian, he did not believe that Christianity was meant for everybody to follow and was harshly critical of many Christians who he did not consider to be ideal followers of the faith. Kierkegaard thought certain life choices and ways of living were unquestionably superior to others but he also thought that this amounted to a subjective choice or an “Either/Or” on the part of the individual based on that individuals own values. While Nietzsche never read Kierkegaard, the two came to startlingly similar conclusions while having totally different ideas about Christianity and Ethics.
As well as ideas of faith and value, Kierkegaard also explored the ideas of alienation and anxiety. This would form the basis for much of what Heidegger and Sartre would call Angst and use as a concept in exploring the idea of human freedom.
Three Spheres of Existence
Many scholars have broken Kierkegaard’s concepts into three ideas about how a person could lead his life. In much of Kierkegaard’s writing, we see pseudonyms that advocate one of these three viewpoints and a debate ensues on the merits of each of them.
The first sphere is the Aesthetic Sphere. This is a way of living one’s life chiefly concerned with the way things look. Somebody who lives within the Aesthetic sphere is chiefly concerned with pleasure and are essentially hedonistic. Kierkegaard seems to view this as a modern reaction to what existentialists refer to as “the problem of nihilism.” Somebody in the Aesthetic Sphere, simply goes about the tasks of their day to day life without any concerns for the higher values of existence or interest in a higher power or purpose.
The second sphere is the Ethical Sphere. For Kierkegaard, this is where an individual begins to take responsibility for himself and gain a consistent viewpoint. The Ethical sphere is where the concept of “Good and Evil” begins to take hold and the idea of responsibility for ones fellow man.
The final sphere is the Religious Sphere, and this is the one that Kierkegaard holds in the highest esteem. Kierkegaard considers that ethical sphere is an important part of human development but he feels that it is through a personal relationship with God that human beings achieve their highest purpose. The Ethical sphere gives human beings the idea of “the moral absolute” but human reason alone does not seem to be enough in Kierkegaard’s view. He believes that an awareness of human sinfulness and transcendence to a higher power
The Knight of Faith
“The Knight of Faith” is perhaps the most discussed concept in Kierkegaard’s philosophy. It is best expressed in his book Fear and Trembling. In this work, written under the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio, the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac is examined. The point of the author, who is a non-believer in Christianity, is that under any number of normal ethical standards, Abraham’s killing of Isaac to appease God would be a monstrous act. He goes on to say that although this is true there is also something admirable about Abraham’s actions and he is confused by why exactly this is.
Kierkegaard’s point is that if we are to be true believers then we must see the word of God as being beyond our rational concept of ethics. To refuse a request from God, who is supposed to represent the highest power in the universe, for ethical reasons is paradoxical. We view ethics as being universal but in this case Abraham has thrown off the idea of universal ethics in favor of his duty to God and has become a Knight of Faith.
This work also puts a wedge between the concepts of faith and reason. Kierkegaard seems to think that if one needs proof or reason to believe in God then this is a paradox. To be a true Christian is to proceed through faith alone and this means that while one makes the choice in faith, they are never free from doubt. To be a true Christian, in Kierkegaard’s view, is to constantly be weighing the ideas on reason against a personal relationship with God. While ethics can be determined by the universal, God transcends the ethical and the personal choices of the individual cannot be dictated by universal concepts when they are applied in regard to a higher power.
This idea of Kierkegaard’s seems to be a fundamentally radical idea and a fundamentally practical idea all at the same time. He is urging readers away from “hard agnosticism” which would probably ultimately lead to a life in the Aesthetic Sphere and encouraging them to choose either dedication to God or the life of a rational non-believer in the Ethical Sphere. While Kierkegaard believes that the choice to follow God is the better one, he knows he has no real proof of this claim. The individual most make the choice while never knowing that he had chosen the right one.