First name: Soren. Danish. Not an academic – independently wealthy. Known as the first Existentialist. Focused on “existence” – what is it? Stressed the subjectivity of experience: the one thing we all have in common is that we distort our own worlds. Witty, whimsical, lively, satirical.
Born in 1814 to a tyrannical, pious, 56 year-old self-made merchant. K. had a slight hunchback; shy; loner. Life-long infatuation with Regine Olsen, whom he dumped for no reason; lived celibate and died at 41, a devout Lutheran.
Either/Or describes two ways to live: (1) aesthetic – outer-directed, following our desires, unstable; and (2) ethical – inner-directed, doing what we ought, dull. Way (1) leads to despair as we realize we are golf balls of fate. Way (2) requires self-scrutiny, a will to be our “best self,” participate in the universal categories of Good, True, Just. To improve.
Fear & Trembling adds a third way, a synthesis: (3) religious. Different from ethical in that it’s not rational. It’s irrational: requires (famous phrase) a “teleological suspension of the ethical” and (ditto) “a leap of faith.” Example he gives is Abraham agreeing to sacrifice his son, Isaac, because God wills it. Real truths about ourselves are realized in this way: leaping into a marriage, a vocation, a move to Minnesota.
Or: “A poet’s life begins in conflict with the whole of existence.”
Wrote elsewhere that “subjective truth” is truer than “objective truth,” or facts. The wrong prayer in the right spirit is truer than the right prayer with no spirit. We choose what to value. These choices shape our perceptions, or our subjective truth. This truth, in turn, guides our actions – and action is what gives meaning to existence. In itself, existence is neutral; it just is.
Each of us makes our own world through our choices (conscious or unconscious, active or passive). Choice requires responsibility. (Sartre, who denied relying on K., claimed World War II was his responsibility.) We are responsible for our reality because, in reality, we choose it.
But we can never be sure our choices are right, K. says in The Concept of Dread. So life causes fear. Consciousness is doubt; we doubt existence itself. We doubt the moment, the now. Looking into the face of our freedom to choose terrifies us. Within this dread, we don’t exist as being – only as becoming. Never still. The only way out is through that “leap of faith” into an authentic, trusting Christianity.
Despair is also – K. says in Sickness Unto Death – the failure to realize our potential self. Although we do not have a single “true self,” but only a portfolio of potential selves created by our choices. (This concept, subjective truth, and freedom & responsibility became 3 pillars of Existentialism 100 years later.)
Through deliberately sarcastic writing, K. made powerful enemies, including the editors of a popular magazine called The Corsair and the Lutheran authorities. Notorious rather than famous in his lifetime, he was largely forgotten until the 20th century, when he was recognized as one of the most formidable philosophers of all time.
* Note: The above was inspired by the book Kierkegaard in 90 Minutes by Paul Strathern. This post is the first in an occasional series of quick religious-thinker summaries for distracted digiteratti such as, wait, what was I saying, text me?