Søren Kierkegaard: Understanding the Father of Existentialism


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Søren Kierkegaard

Søren Kierkegaard: Understanding the Father of Existentialism

Søren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher, theologian, and cultural critic, was a prominent figure in the 19th century whose ideas continue to resonate in the realms of existentialism and Protestant theology.

Kierkegaard was known for his sharp critique of the literary, philosophical, and ecclesiastical establishments of his time, emphasizing the importance of authentic existence and the challenges of religious faith. This article delves into his life, ideas, and enduring influence.

Early Life and Education

Parentage and Childhood

Søren Kierkegaard was born on May 5, 1813, in Copenhagen, Denmark. His father, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard, was a retired businessman known for his deep piety but haunted by a guilt-ridden past.

This gloomy and guilt-ridden piety deeply influenced Søren’s upbringing, making it impossible for him to experience a normal childhood. Despite the intellectual stimulation provided by his father, Søren’s childhood was overshadowed by the weight of his father’s religious fervor.

University Years and Philosophical Exploration

In 1830, Kierkegaard enrolled at the University of Copenhagen with the intention of studying theology. However, he found himself drawn more towards literature and philosophy, particularly the works of German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

During this period, Kierkegaard explored various existential models, finding inspiration in literary figures such as Don Juan, the wandering Jew, and Faust. It was during these formative years that Kierkegaard began to develop the ideas that would shape his later work.

The Collision of Faith and Existence

Struggles with Faith and Reconciliation

As a young man, Kierkegaard experienced a significant crisis of faith, leading to his estrangement from his father and the Christian faith he had been brought up in.

However, just before his father’s death in 1838, Kierkegaard reconciled both with his father and with Christianity. This reconciliation marked a turning point in his life, as he dedicated himself to the Christian faith and the pursuit of religious authenticity.

The Concept of Conversion and Religious Existence

Kierkegaard viewed conversion as a lifelong process, emphasizing that becoming a Christian is a task that requires continuous effort and self-reflection. He believed that true religious existence involved embracing the infinite requirement and the strenuous difficulty of living a life of faith.

In his works, such as “Fear and Trembling” and “The Concept of Anxiety,” Kierkegaard explored the complex nature of religious existence and the challenges faced by individuals in their quest for spiritual fulfillment.

Literary Productivity and Personal Turmoil

The Breakup with Regine Olsen

One of the most significant milestones in Kierkegaard’s personal life was his breakup with Regine Olsen, whom he had been engaged to since 1840. The reasons for their breakup remain unclear, but the impact on Kierkegaard was profound.

He considered engagement as binding as marriage and, in his will, left all his possessions to Regine. This broken engagement haunted Kierkegaard for the rest of his life, fueling a period of remarkable literary productivity.

Pseudonyms and the Exploration of Existentialism

During this period of personal turmoil, Kierkegaard adopted the use of pseudonyms in his writings. These pseudonymous authors represented distinct worldviews and perspectives, allowing Kierkegaard to explore different existential themes without directly attributing them to himself.

Works such as “Either/Or: A Fragment of Life” and “Fear and Trembling” exemplify this approach, delving into the complexities of human existence, morality, and the choices we face.

Confronting The Corsair: Satire and Ridicule

Kierkegaard’s Clash with The Corsair

In the second phase of his literary career, Kierkegaard engaged in a public dispute with The Corsair, a satirical newspaper known for its liberal political views. Kierkegaard wanted to distinguish his own philosophical project from the newspaper’s agenda and used satire to criticize The Corsair.

This led to months of relentless ridicule and mockery directed at Kierkegaard, leaving a profound emotional impact on the philosopher.

Emotional Impact and Lingering Resentment

The intense ridicule Kierkegaard faced from The Corsair deeply wounded him, and he never fully recovered from the emotional toll. The experience underscored the importance of his ideas on the difficulty of authentic existence and the challenges of standing against societal norms.

Kierkegaard’s clash with The Corsair further solidified his position as a counter-cultural figure, committed to defending his own philosophical perspective against public criticism.

Challenging the Church of Denmark

Sickness unto Death: An Attack on Christendom

Kierkegaard’s critique of the Church of Denmark and its leaders, J.P. Mynster and H.L. Martensen, is evident in his work “Sickness unto Death.” In this text, he challenges the prevailing understanding of Christianity and its expression within Danish society.

Kierkegaard aimed to rescue Christianity from what he saw as its cultural captivity, emphasizing the need for a genuine and personal faith.

Critique of Mynster and Martensen

After the death of J.P. Mynster, Kierkegaard openly criticized the church and its leaders, particularly H.L. Martensen. He accused them of reducing Christianity to mere leniency and diluting its true essence.

Through numerous written pieces, Kierkegaard sought to expose the counterfeit faith he believed existed within the Church of Denmark and advocated for a more authentic and personal expression of Christian beliefs.

Legacy and Influence

Kierkegaard’s Impact on Existentialism

Søren Kierkegaard’s contributions to existentialism cannot be overstated. His exploration of the individual’s struggle for authenticity and the challenges of faith resonated deeply with subsequent existentialist thinkers.

Kierkegaard’s emphasis on subjective truth, the importance of personal choice, and the responsibility of each individual in shaping their existence laid the groundwork for existentialist philosophy in the 20th century.

Contributions to Protestant Theology

Kierkegaard’s impact extended beyond existentialism, as his writings also made significant contributions to Protestant theology. His emphasis on the subjective experience of faith and the need for a personal relationship with God challenged the prevailing theological and ecclesiastical establishments of his time.

Kierkegaard’s ideas continue to shape discussions on Christian ethics, the nature of God, and the role of religious institutions in contemporary society.


Søren Kierkegaard’s life and work exemplify the pursuit of authenticity, challenging societal norms, and the exploration of the complexities of faith and existence. His ideas continue to inspire and provoke thought, resonating with individuals seeking a deeper understanding of themselves and their place in the world.

Kierkegaard’s enduring legacy lies in his commitment to truth, his critique of complacency, and his unwavering pursuit of individual authenticity, making him a philosopher ahead of his time.