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Updated Monday 21st November 2005

Jonathan Rée shares his enthusiasm for the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard - Image copyright Mary Evans Picture Library Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Mary Evans Picture Library

Fear and Trembling, The Concept of Anxiety, and The Sickness unto Death are the titles of three of the most famous philosophical works of Søren Kierkegaard, and we can perhaps be forgiven for finding them rather cheerless and forbidding. Some of us may be further discouraged by the fact that Kierkegaard was a passionate Lutheran, and one of the most intensely religious thinkers in the whole of the Western philosophical tradition.

But if you are prejudiced against him in advance, you might have to change your mind if you allowed yourself the pleasure of reading his works. He published 34 books in his short lifetime (he died at the age of 42); no two of them are alike, and every one of them is a literary delight. His career as an author was launched in 1841 with a dissertation for Copenhagen University on the topic of irony. This was based on a study of Socrates, the enigmatic teacher of Plato. It could be argued that Kierkegaard’s great aim in philosophy was simply to sweep away two millennia of philosophical solemnity and revive the original jesting spirit of Socrates.

Irony can be defined as the practice of putting forward ideas in a playful spirit, without specifically committing yourself to them; and irony in this sense became the basis for Kierkegaard’s characteristic procedures as a philosophical writer. Many of his works were published not in his own name but under humorous pseudonyms, and they typically took the form of stories, or rather of stories nested within stories. It seems to me that they deserve a place in the canons not only of philosophy but of the comic novel as well.

Kierkegaard was born in Denmark and spent most of his life there; but the city of Berlin was very important to him too, and he made a total of four visits there. He was intrigued, in the first place, by the philosophical activities of the University where Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) had worked, and he was initially attracted by the prospect of an inaugural lecture series by Hegel’s old rival, Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854). But he was also fascinated by the theatrical life of the city – by the operatic productions at the Royal Opera and the Schauspielhaus, which he wrote about in Either/Or, and also by the popular farces at the Königstädtisches Theater, which he described in Repetition. Kierkegaard was fascinated by the physicality of musical and dramatic performances, and after spending some time following his footsteps in Berlin, I am half persuaded that he was, more than anything else, a philosopher of popular theatre.


1813, 5 May - Søren Kierkegaard born in Copenhagen

1840 engaged to marry Regine Olsen

1841- passes his University examination, breaks off his betrothal
25 October - sets off for Berlin to hear Friedrich Schelling’s inaugural lectures

1842, 6 March - leaves Berlin and returns to Copenhagen

1843, 20 February - publication of Either/Or (“edited by Victor Eremita”)
May - second trip to Berlin
16 October - Repetition (by “Constantin Constantius”), Fear and Trembling (by “Johannes de Silentio”) and Three Edifying Discourses, published simultaneously

1844 - publication of Philosophical Fragments (by “Johannes Climacus”), The Concept of Anxiety (by “Vigilius Haufniensis”) and Prefaces (by “Nicolaus Notabene”)

1845 - publication of Stages on Life’s Way (by “Hilarius Bookbinder”)
13-24 May - third trip to Berlin

1846 publication of Concluding Unscientific Postscript (by “Johannes Climacus”)
2-16 May - fourth trip to Berlin (2-16 May)

1849 publication of Sickness unto Death (by “Anti-Climacus”)

1851 - publication of On My Work as an Author

1855, 11 November - dies

1859 publication of The Point of View For My Work as an Author
Jane Chamberlain and Jonathan Rée, editors, The Kierkegaard Reader, Blackwell


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