There is a man whom it is impossible to omit in any account of Denmark, but whose place it might be more difficult to fix; I mean Soren Kierkegaard. But as his works have, at all events for the most part, a religious tendency, he may find a place among the theologians. He is a philosophical Christian writer, evermore dwelling, one might almost say harping about the human heart. There is no Danish writer more earnest than he, yet there is no one in whose way stand more things to prevent him from becoming popular. He writes at times with an unearthly beauty, but too often with an exaggerated display of logic that disgusts the public. ….
Kierkegaard’s habits of life are singular enough to lend a (perhaps false) interest to his proceedings. He goes into no company, and sees nobody in his own house, which answers all the ends of an invisible dwelling; I could never learn that any one had been inside of it. Yet his one great study is human nature; no one knows more people than he. The fact is he walks about town all day, and generally in some person’s company; only in the evening does he write and read. When walking he is very communicative, and at the same time manages to draw everything out of his companion that is likely to be profitable to himself.
Sixteen months in the Danish isles By Andrew Hamilton 1852 p. 268-270
There is one Scandinavian writer whose works would interest you, if only they were translated: Soren Kierkegaard; he lived from 1813-1855, and is in my opinion one of the profoundest psychologists that have ever existed. A little book I wrote about him (translated, Leipzig, 1879) gives no adequate idea of his genius, as it is a sort of polemical pamphlet written to counteract his influence.
Friedrich Nietzsche, by George Brandes; From An Essay on Aristocratic Radicalism 1889, [translated from the Danish by A.G. Chater].by Brandes, Georg Morris Cohen, 1842-1927. Published 1914 P. 69
“We live forward, we understand backward, said a Danish writer; and to understand life by concepts is to arrest its movement, cutting it up into bits as if with scissors, and, immobilizing these in our logical herbarium where, comparing them as dried specimens, we can ascertain which of them statically includes or excludes which other. This treatment supposes life to have already accomplished itself, for the concepts, being so many views taken after the fact, are retrospective and post mortem. Nevertheless we can draw conclusions from them and project them into the future. We cannot learn from them how life made itself go, or how it will make itself go; but, on the supposition that its ways of making itself go are unchanging, we can calculate what positions of imagined arrest it will exhibit hereafter under given conditions.”
William James, A Pluralistic Universe, 1909, p. 244
A very remarkable personality was Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) He was born in Copenhagen, and after the customary education, he stood, in 1840, the required examination for entrance into the ministry, but he never was a recognized pastor nor filled any church office. But he was very active with his pen, and has a secure place among the religious writers of his time and country. In preaching he was a free lance; wherever he was offered or could make an opportunity, he preached earnestly to all who would hear him. His writings and personal influence were profoundly felt in the religious life of the North and extended beyond his own country.
A History of Preaching, v. 2 Edwin Charles Dargan, 1852-1930 Published 1912 P. 428
That communication on the subject of the highest and most concrete phase of Reality must necessarily be indirect, has its ground, according to Kierkegaard, in the fact that the actualization of the real is always in process, and also in that independence of the individuals which makes any essential discipleship a false relation; it is an expression for the ethical isolation which makes it impossible to judge of an individual justly, or with unconditional certainty, by means of any code of general rules or laws; finally, it is a consequence of the metaphysical incommensurability between the particular and the universal, language being the vehicle of the abstract and the universal, Reality being essentially concrete and particular. When communication deals with the abstract, or with such aspects of the concrete as can be apprehended through essentially valid analogies, i. e., the whole realm of purely objective thinking, there is no good reason why it should not be direct and positive; but when it attempts to deal with the absolutely individual and concrete, i. e., the realm of the ethico-religious inwardness, its apparent positive and direct character is illusory; such communication becomes real only on condition that its negative aspect is brought to consciousness, and embodied in the form. A lover, for example, may feel the need of telling others of his love, though he also feels that he neither desires to convey, nor is able to express, its deepest and most intimate secret. And that which is only relatively true in the case of the lover, since the lover’s experience has analogies, is absolutely true for the ethico-religious individual.
A concrete subjective thinker, like Socrates, has no positive result that can be truly or adequately conveyed by a formula or a sum of propositions; he has only a way, he is never finished, and he cannot therefore positively communicate himself.
The Anti-Intellectualism of Kierkegaard by David F. Swenson, Publication date 1916-07-01
“If I have a system it is limited to a recognition of what Kierkegaard called the ‘infinite qualitative distinction’ and to my regarding this as possessing negative as well as positive significance: ‘God is in heaven. And thou art on earth.’ The relation between such a God and such a man, and the relation between such a man and such a God, is for me the theme of the Bible and the essence of philosophy. Philosophers name this KRISIS of human perception – the Prime Cause: the Bible holds at the same cross-roads-the figure of Jesus Christ. When I am faced by such a document as the Epistle of Paul to the Romans, I embark on its interpretation on the assumption that he is confronted with the same unmistakable and unmeasurable significance of that relation as I myself am confronted with, and that it is this situation which moulds his thought and its expression.”
Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans 1919 Preface (originally published in German) —
Let us hear what our brother Kierkegaard has to say. “The danger of abstract thought is seen precisely in respect of the problem of existence, the difficulty of which it solves by going round it, afterwards boasting that it has completely explained it. It explains immortality in general, and it does so in a remarkable way by identifying it with eternity—with the eternity which is essentially the medium of thought. But with the immortality of each individually existing man, wherein precisely the difficulty lies, abstraction does not concern itself, is not interested in it. And yet the difficulty of existence lies just in the interest of the existing being—the man who exists is infinitely interested in existing. Abstract thought besteads immortality only in order that it may kill me as an individual being with an individual existence, and so make me immortal, pretty much in the same way as that famous physician in one of Holberg’s plays, whose medicine, while it took away the patient’s fever, took away his life at the same time. An abstract thinker, who refuses to disclose and admit the relation that exists between his abstract thought and the fact that he is an existing being, produces a comic impression upon us, however accomplished and distinguished he may be, for he runs the risk of ceasing to be a man. While an effective man, compounded of infinitude and finitude, owes his effectiveness precisely to the conjunction of these two elements and is infinitely interested in existing, an abstract thinker, similarly compounded, is a double being, a fantastical being, who lives in the pure being of abstraction, and at times presents the sorry figure of a professor who lays aside this abstract essence as he lays aside his walking-stick. When one reads the Life of a thinker of this kind—whose writings may be excellent—one trembles at the thought of what it is to be a man. And when one reads in his writings that thinking and being are the same thing, one thinks, remembering his life, that that being, which is identical with thinking, is not precisely the same thing as being a man” (Afsluttende uvidenskabelig Efterskrift, chap. iii.).
What intense passion—that is to say, what truth—there is in this bitter invective against Hegel, prototype of the rationalist!—for the rationalist takes away our fever by taking away our life, and promises us, instead of a concrete, an abstract immortality, as if the hunger for immortality that consumes us were an abstract and not a concrete hunger!
It may indeed be said that when once the dog is dead there is an end to the rabies, and that after I have died I shall no more be tortured by this rage of not dying, and that the fear of death, or more properly, of nothingness, is an irrational fear, but … Yes, but … Eppur si muove! And it will go on moving. For it is the source of all movement!
I doubt, however, whether our brother Kierkegaard is altogether in the right, for this same abstract thinker, or thinker of abstractions, thinks in order that he may exist, that he may not cease to exist, or thinks perhaps in order to forget that he will have to cease to exist. This is the root of the passion for abstract thought. And possibly Hegel was as infinitely interested as Kierkegaard in his own concrete, individual existence, although the professional decorum of the state-philosopher compelled him to conceal the fact.
Tragic Sense Of Life by Miguel de Unamuno 1921
“My own interest in Kierkegaard dates from the early years of my life as a graduate student in philosophy here at the University of Minnesota. In the spring of 1901 I stumbled upon Unscientific Postscript in Danish. I made up my mind that this was the philosopher for me. I read the critical and fundamentally unsympathetic accounts of his thought by Brandes and by Hoffding. In spite of their adverse judgment I came to the conclusion that here was a thinker of the very first rank.
Thomas Huxley, having accepted the task of presenting a lecture on a scientific topic to a group of cultured people, asked an older friend, one more experienced in such matters, how much he might reasonably suppose the audience to know, “Absolutely nothing.” was the sage reply, and this maxim became the principle of Huxley’s successful career as a popular lecturer. How much more then when a lecturer is addressing an American audience on Soren Kierkegaard, a man who wrote in what is a provincial dialect, for want of enough Danes to speak it, and wrote intellectual greatness is such as not readily to lend itself to a quick and superficial assimilation.”
David F Swenson’s Introduction to Eduard Geismar’s Lectures on the Religious Thought of Soren Kierkegaard, 1937
The private thinker Job is contrasted with the world-renowned Hegel, and even with the Greek Symposium—i.e., with Plato himself. Does such a contrast have any meaning and has Kierkegaard himself the power to realize it? That is, to accept as the truth, not what was revealed to him by the philosophical thought of the enlightened Hellene, but what was related by a man half-mad from horror and an ignorant man at that—the hero of a narrative from an ancient book? Why is Job’s truth “more convincing” than the truth of Hegel or of Plato? Is it really more convincing?
It was not so easy for Kierkegaard to break with the world-famous philosopher. Kierkegaard exchanged Hegel and the Greek Symposium for the fiery speeches of Job. Can contemporary man reject Socrates and expect to find the truth in Abraham and Job?
Lev Shestov (1866-1938), Kierkegaard & the Existential Philosophy
Kierkegaard does not deny the fruitfulness or validity of abstract thinking (science, logic, and so on), but he does deny any superstition which pretends that abstract theorizing is a sufficient concluding argument for human existence. He holds it to be unforgivable pride or stupidity to think that the impersonal abstraction can answer the vital problems of human, everyday life.
Logical theorems, mathematical symbols, physical-statistical laws can never become patters of human existence. To be human means to be concrete, to be this person here and now in this particular and decisive moment, face to face with this particular challenge.
C Svere Norborg, David F. Swenson, scholar, teacher, friend. P. 20-21 Minneapolis, The University of Minnesota, 1940
The Christian faith has within it mystery. Only mystery can give depth to faith. Mystery sometimes results in a glorying in irrationalism and in paradox as the essence of faith. Far from it! Paradox is our creation. It is either the result of sin, hiding the truth, or of our looking ahead where every new step must be a paradox because the ladder of revelation is never raised from the earth, but hangs down from heaven. The discontinuous “not yet” must be a paradox until its unveiling. Mystery in the Christian faith is, rather, revealed truth too bright for us to encompass except in part for present purposes. No one stressed paradox more passionately than Soren Kierkegaard, but he knew that in itself Christianity was, as he said, “complete certainty’ and “crystal clarity.” From within the revelation, for the spiritual man, there is light and not darkness, but a revelation that is so wondrous as to be called by nothing so much as mystery.
God’s New Age A Book Of Sermons by Nels F. S. Ferre 1956 p. 54
The category of the Single One, too, means not the subject or “man”, but concrete singularity; yet not the individual who is detecting his existence, but rather the person who is finding himself. But the finding himself, however primally remote from Stirner’s “utilize thyself”, is not akin either to that “know thyself” which apparently troubled Kierkegaard very much. For it means a becoming, and moreover in a weight of seriousness that only became possible, at least for the West, through Christianity. It is therefore a becoming which (though Kierkegaard says that his category was used by Socrates “for the dissolution of heathendom”) is decisively different from that effected by the Socratic “delivery”.
“No-one is excluded from being a Single One except him who excludes himself by wishing to be ‘crowd’.” Here not only is “Single One” opposed to “crowd”, but also becoming is opposed to a particular mode of being which evades becoming. That may still be in tune with Socratic thought. But what does it mean, to become a Single One? (42)
Martin Buber, Between Man And Man, 1947 Translated By Ronald Gregor Smith Kegan Paul London 1965 p. 3-4, 15, 64
The theologians should not have hesitated so long to appeal to Luther, especially the early Luther, and to the early Melanchthon! And how much assistance and guidance could they have received had they paid any attention to Kierkegaard! There is no reason why the attempt of Christian anthropocentrism should not be made, indeed ought not to be made. There is certainly a place for legitimate Christian thinking starting from below and moving up, from man who is taken hold of by God to God who takes hold of man. Let us interpret this attempt by the 19th-century theologians in its best light!
The Humanity of God, 1956 – Karl Barth 1886-1868
I feared his visit. I was twenty-four, and the religious revival within myself was at its height. Earlier that summer, I had discovered Kierkegaard, and each week I brought back to the apartment one more of the Princeton University Press’s elegant and expensive editions of his works. They were beautiful books, sometimes very thick, sometimes very thin, always typographically exhilarating, with their welter of title pages, subheads, epigraphs, emphatic italics, italicized catchwords taken from German philosophy and too subtle for translation, translator’s prefaces and footnotes, and Kierkegaard’s own endless footnotes, blanketing pages at a time as, crippled, agonized by distinctions, he scribbled on and on, heaping irony on irony, curse on curse, gnashing, sneering, praising Jehovah in the privacy of his empty home in Copenhagen. The demons with which he wrestled—Hegel and his avatars—were unknown to me, so Kierkegaard at his desk seemed to me to be writhing in the clutches of phantoms, slapping at silent mosquitoes, twisting furiously to confront presences that were not there.
The Astronomer by John Updike from Pigeon Feathers: and other stories p. 125 1959, 1962 Ballantine Books
Kierkegaard is listened to today because the world is confronted with demons of the irrational forces which they hoped to cope with rationally. He taught that “Christianity is the perfection of the really human.” He offered new hope to those who have despaired of past efforts to attain perfection through traditional channels. His influence has shown no signs of receding as the Cold War continues.
Greater Dead than Alive, by Curtis Daniel MacDougall 1963 p. 76-77
A profoundly religious man, Kierkegaard devoted his life to discovering how an individual might become his real self and how he might become a Christian. Rational thought and systematic creeds were no help, Kierkegaard maintained; in fact, both tend to be presumptuous and ridiculous because no man can have his identity or duty shown to him by reason. Instead, each individual must scrutinize his own existence, Kierkegaard declared, in all its tensions, stresses, irrationality, and desires. A true Christian, in his view, must not only recognize his basic irrationality and uniqueness, but he must realize that he lives in an irrational mysterious world where he must choose with no possibility of knowing whether the outcome will be his damnation or salvation.
Kenosha (Wisconsin) News September 17, 1966 p. 4, Dr. Mortimer J. Adler
Kierkegaard’s professed intention in designing the pseudonymous form of Enten-Eller was to present the reader with an ultimate choice, himself not able to commend one alternative rather than another because never appearing as himself. ‘A’ commends the aesthetic way of life; ‘B’ commends the ethical way of life; Victor Eremita edits and annotates the papers of both. The choice between the ethical and the aesthetic is not the choice between good and evil, it is the choice whether or not to choose in terms of good and evil. At the heart of the aesthetic way of life, as Kierkegaard characterizes it, is the attempt to lose the self in the immediacy of present experience. The paradigm of aesthetic expression is the romantic lover who is immersed in his own passion. By contrast the paradigm of the ethical is marriage, a state of commitment and obligation through time, in which the present is bound by the past and to the future. Each of the two ways of life is informed by different concepts, incompatible attitudes, rival premises.
After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory by Alasdair MacIntyre 1981 p. 40
For [William] Blake and Kierkegaard the greatest enemy of the romantic ideal of life is spiritual passivity, a state of mental torpor. This state, which Blake call “jealousy” and Kierkegaard calls “dread,” corresponds to the medieval accidie or spiritual despair considered to be one of the freatest sins against God. For Blake and Kierkegaard it is the greatest sin against life. “Accident is the omission of act in self & the hinderance of act in another,” insists Blake.
Blake, Kierkegaard, and the Spectre of Dialectic, by Lorraine Clark, 1991 p. 49