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Key Concepts in the Philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard

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Read on to learn about some of the key ideas in Søren Kierkegaard's philosophy.

Read on to learn about some of the key ideas in Søren Kierkegaard's philosophy.

Who Was 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 insist instead that faith and reason were completely independent.

Kierkegaard’s philosophy was also a direct reaction to G. W. F. Hegel, whose German idealism dominated most 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 asked 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.

The bulk of this article covers the following key concepts from Kierkegaard's philosophy:

3 Important Concepts From Søren Kierkegaard's Philosophy

  1. Indirect Communication
  2. Three Spheres of Existence
  3. The Knight of Faith
A portrait of Søren Kierkegaard.

A portrait of Søren Kierkegaard.

1. Indirect Communication

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 put together a particular argument but to present ideas and ask the reader to evaluate the value of such ideas and what kind of person might benefit from them.

While Kierkegaard had definite values that he believed in, 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 he did not consider 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 individual's 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.

2. Three Spheres of Existence

Many scholars have broken Kierkegaard's concepts into three ideas about how a person can lead their 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 Aesthetic Sphere

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 is 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 Ethical Sphere

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 as well as the idea of responsibility for one's fellow human.

The Religious Sphere

The final sphere is the Religious Sphere, which is the one that Kierkegaard holds in the highest esteem. Kierkegaard considers that the 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 in Kierkegaard's view, human reason alone is not enough. He believes that an awareness of human sinfulness and transcendence to a higher power are key to complete development.

3. 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. This work, written under the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio, examines the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. The point of the author, 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, we must see God's word 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.

Fear and Trembling 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 chooses faith, they are never free from doubt. In Kierkegaard's view, to be a true Christian is to constantly weigh the ideas of reason against a personal relationship with God. While ethics can be determined by the universal, God transcends the ethical, and the individual's personal choices cannot be dictated by universal concepts when they are applied to a higher power.

This idea of Kierkegaard seems to be a fundamentally radical idea and a fundamentally practical idea all at the same time. He urges readers away from "hard agnosticism," which would probably ultimately lead to a life in the Aesthetic Sphere and encourages 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 better, he knows he has no real proof of this claim. The individual must make the choice while never knowing that he has chosen correctly.

Kierkegaard and the Existential Problem

Sources and Further Reading


Bill c on August 25, 2020:

could it be possible for one to arrive at “no doubt”, beginning with , and through faith and growing in that faith to a point of directly experiencing the Divine.,

Nzuki Benedict on February 19, 2020:

Add Your Comment..the post is substantial ,thank you.

Nzuki Benedict on February 19, 2020:

Add Your Comment..the post substantial ,thank you.

kaagba felix on May 07, 2019:

Thank you so much for you wonderful post.

Toe Doc on November 09, 2018:

Thank you for this review. It has caused me to dig further into his ideas.

A. Irannzhad on April 14, 2018:

Thanks a lot for your posts . I need more elaborate descriptions in your posts .