Master your Minecraft

The New Republic Online
Thursday, February 14th, 2002


Kierkegaard: A Biography

by Alastair Hannay


A review by Erin Leib

In May, 1837, Søren Kierkegaard, a student at the University of Copenhagen, met Regine Olsen, age fifteen, who was visiting Bolette Rørdam, a family friend. His life, and modern thought, would never be the same again. He was immediately enchanted by her, and began to court her. "In the next moment you are so close to me, so present, so overwhelmingly filling my spirit that I am transfigured to myself and feel that here it is good to be," he scribbled in his journal after spending some moments by her side. He was thoroughly smitten by the "lovely child." She engendered a "lust for life" in this man otherwise shadowed by the weight of a demanding father and a demanding God. She offered him momentary release from the dark shackles of his (arguably self-induced) suffering.

On September 8, 1840, Kierkegaard proposed to Regine, committing himself to the animated life that she would provide. But almost a year later, in August, 1841, he broke the engagement. "So as not to go through more rehearsals of what must happen in any case, something that when it does happen will surely give strength, let it be done," he wrote. "Above all," he continued, "forget the one who writes this: forgive someone who, whatever else, could not make a girl happy." Needless to say, this expression of selflessness does not tell the whole story.

The remainder of Kierkegaard's life attests to the fact that it was not only the consideration of Regine's happiness that motivated his withdrawal, but also the consideration of his own. He appears to have discovered that he was philosophically opposed to his own happiness, or that his own unhappiness was the only possible origin for his philosophy. He believed that there is a deep connection between anguish--or fear or trembling or dread--and truth. Inwardness demanded isolation: this was his conviction. His union with heaven would be impeded by a union on earth. As Alastair Hannay writes in his thorough intellectual biography, "Helplessly pinned down under the weight of melancholy and sadness, it was in these that he had to find anything infinite in his life, not in the yea-saying, world-affirming experience of love."

Kierkegaard pleaded with Regine to forget him, but he then did all in his power to make that impossible. Over and over again, throughout his voluminous writings, he made himself a presence in her life precisely by dwelling upon his absence from her life. In trying hard to render himself peripheral, he further asserted--even begged for--his centrality. His abjection and his faith in the cosmic significance of his own fate went hand in hand.


In addition to his religious and philosophical writings, Kierkegaard kept journals chronicling the tumult of his emotional and spiritual states. About Regine, he wrote retrospectively in 1849: "Either I become yours or you will be allowed to wound me so deeply, wound me in my melancholy and my relation to God, so deeply that, although parted from you, I will yet remain yours." Either he could embrace her in the flesh, or he could feel her effects in spirit. He elected to make his love infinite by renouncing its earthly form and thereby insulate his own singularity in the process. But in so doing, he never renounced his love at all; he eternalized it. Johannes de Silentio, Kierkegaard's pseudonymous author of Fear and Trembling (1843), expresses this sentiment well:

His love of the princess would take on for him the expression of an eternal love, would acquire a religious character, be transfigured into a love of the eternal being which, although it denied fulfillment, still reconciled him once more in the eternal consciousness of his love's validity in an eternal form that no reality can take from him.

One method of such eternalization was to distance the object of his desire, and even to repulse her. In his first major work, Either/Or (1843), "edited" by the pseudonymous Victor Eremita, the aesthetically driven narrator seduces a woman for his enjoyment alone. In portraying a character with no regard for women whatsoever, Kierkegaard hoped to offend Regine's sensibilities, to convince her that he was maliciously inclined, that his love was nothing more than a selfish seduction. In so doing, he hoped to allay her injury at his act of unkindness; she could be comforted if he could seem worthless. Moreover, the work would demonstrate that his bachelorhood was itself a kind of service to the world, by showing Regine what a talented man unfettered by the responsibilities of marriage could do. While the substance of Either/Or was, in large measure, a defense of marriage, Kierkegaard insinuated that for some individuals the best path is the second-best path--to live outside the conventions of marital and civic virtue.


Kierkegaard's other writings also show that he was obsessed with marriage, and with the question of exceptionality. Stages on Life's Way (1845) takes up the ethical dimensions of marriage and argues, among other things, that it ought to be the social norm. The latter half of the book examines the few justifiable exemptions from that norm. Kierkegaard was irresistibly drawn toward the notion of union and toward a rationale for his own decision not to so unite. Writing volumes about marriage was his stratagem for never leaving it behind. He was married to the idea of marriage--for, to him, it was a profoundly philosophical idea.

When he died on November 11, 1855, Kierkegaard left all of his scant possessions to Regine, now the wife of Friedrich Schlegel. This letter to his brother was found in his desk under lock and key:

Dear Brother,

It is, of course, my will that my former fiancée, Mrs. Regine Schlegel, inherit unconditionally whatever little I can leave behind. If she will not accept it for herself, she is to be offered it on condition that she may be willing to administer it for distribution to the poor.

What I want to express in this way is that to me an engagement was and is just as binding as a marriage, and that therefore my estate is her due exactly as if I had been married to her.

Your brother,

S. Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard's conflicted relationship with Regine Olsen in this way arrives at its logical conclusion. He was as bound to her when he protested being bound to her as when he extolled the virtues of being so bound. All fourteen years that he spent alone he was entangled with her, embracing her without embracing her. His love, in sum, was a dialectical love. He was never with his soul's object and he was never without his soul's object; and it is crucial to recognize that this became the structuring principle not only of his life, but also of his thought. "To me an engagement was and is just as binding as a marriage": this melancholic but defiant sentence--this paradoxical promotion of a partial commitment into a complete commitment--poignantly encapsulates the philosophical move made by Kierkegaard throughout his works.


The great irony of Kierkegaard's dialectical relationship with Regine is that he devoted much of his intellectual life to fighting dialectics. He flourished during Denmark's so-called Golden Age, in the years in the nineteenth century when Danish thinkers and artists mingled with their European counterparts and participated in a truly continental discourse. The Danish-German connection was particularly strong owing to the University of Kiel, one of Denmark's two major academic institutions and a German-speaking university. Danish philosophers and theologians often wrote in German (many with aspirations toward Berlin, Tübingen, Jena, or Göttingen), and they maintained contact with the legendary figures of the German world, with Goethe, Fichte, Schleiermacher, Schelling, and Hegel. Hegel in particular was a growing force during this time. His Berlin lectures were extremely well-attended, and the enthusiasm for them crossed borders. Danish intellectuals jumped on Geist's bandwagon and transported Hegelianism into their classrooms and their culture.

Hegel was most admired in his time for his systematic philosophy of Absolute Knowledge, born of a dialectical method, or "logic." He famously argued that thought, which he took to be the ultimate reality, develops through a triadic formula of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. In Phenomenology of Spirit, which appeared in 1807, he explained (if that is the word) that statements about reality can never fully accommodate all of reality's content, and so opposing statements are necessarily generated. Those statements in turn are found to be deficient, and so middle grounds, or syntheses, are developed. These syntheses do not completely overturn the stages that precede them. They contain them, and orient them in a way that better accounts for reality. Often these syntheses then become the theses for further rounds of evaluation.

Through this dialectical chain, we ascend to greater levels of rationality and self-consciousness. As thought becomes more rational, it becomes more spiritual, which means, for Hegel, that it becomes more conscious of itself and its own significance. History is the progressive path toward the climax of all syntheses, the Speculative Idea, or Absolute Knowledge defined as "spirit knowing itself as spirit."

Hegel's dialectical, world-historical vision is a spectacularly idealistic one. Human history has a telos and it is knowable. Since time immemorial, we have been driving toward an Idea, a selfperpetuating, all-encompassing, truth-revealing System (or "Science"). We have been edging toward a fully realized understanding of ourselves and of our world. And now--in the early nineteenth century, that is--we have almost arrived. The end of philosophy is upon us, with the end of history. (Interestingly, though Hegel saw the Prussian state as a uniquely important advance in the System, he saw young America as its culmination. In this regard he boldly remarked that "in the era to come, this [America] is where the burden of the world's history will reveal itself.")


Johan Ludvig Heiberg was the primary popularizer of Hegel's doctrine in Copenhagen. He owned and edited the most influential literary and philosophical journals of the time. He was also a professor at the University of Kiel. In 1824, he traveled to Berlin to hear Hegel's lectures and visited the great seer at home. He returned to Denmark a devoted Hegelian. In 1825, he left the university and moved back to Copenhagen, where he became the director of the Royal Danish Theater and a critic, editor, and publisher. He disseminated his ideas for decades through his own journal, Copenhagen's Flying Post. When Heiberg married the actress Johanne Luise Patges in 1831, he became the center of Copenhagen's cultural life. The Heiberg circle became the leading Copenhagen salon, where young Kierkegaard was welcomed.

Hegel was also in the air at Kierkegaard's university, the University of Copenhagen. In particular, Kierkegaard's mentor Poul Martin Moller was bitten by the Hegel bug early. While he went on to develop his own philosophical repertoire, even pointing out certain limitations in the overly speculative Hegelian System, Moller served as a quiet conduit of Hegelian thinking for his students. And Frederick Sibbern, Kierkegaard's second instructor in philosophy, was rumored to have visited with Hegel. Like Moller, he had some disagreements with him, but he stayed in the camp. The two of them sympathized with the totalizing ambitions of the philosophy of the System.

Though Kierkegaard is known for being a rabid anti-Hegelian, Hannay's biography offers substantial evidence that his position was not at all consistent. Indeed, at the beginning of his career Kierkegaard was quite taken by the voguish philosophy. Like most everyone else in Copenhagen, he was attracted by its freshness and its grandeur. A contemporary reports that Kierkegaard was "apparently overwhelmed" by Hegel.


Hannay opens his book with a portrait of a pro-Hegelian Kierkegaard--this is one of the contributions of his book--making his first public appearance. In a student lecture in November, 1835, at the meeting of the Student Union at the University of Copenhagen on the limits of the liberal press, Kierkegaard expressed at least two important Hegelian concepts. He spoke of his age's striving for the "Idea," as well as of the a priori relationship of content to form. "One recalls constantly that it isn't through form one receives life but through life receives form": this is a pure Hegelian pronouncement, for Hegel had strongly argued, with regard to history and to aesthetics, that form (that is, sense or coherence) can be perceived only in retrospect.

Kierkegaard's first published works also made use of Hegelian words and concepts. In September, 1838, From the Papers of One Still Living introduced his signature idea of authorial distance--his philosophy of pseudonymity. The book brandishes the statement that it was "published by S. Kierkegaard against his will." This evasion of responsibility continued to feature in a variety of ways in later works, and it can be viewed as a further affirmation of Idealistic preference for content over form. In stepping away from his work, Kierkegaard offers it entirely to his readers. He asks them to put their own stamp on his thoughts, to make their own sense of it. The developments of systems can be understood only retrospectively, and so must be lived linearly.

In this work Kierkegaard also introduces the concept of a "life-view" born of experience. It "is more than a totality or sum of principles maintained in its abstract indeterminacy; it is more than experience, which is as such always atomistic; it is in fact the transubstantiation of experience, it is an unshakeable security in oneself won from all experience...." This is a nod toward the Hegelian notion of a guiding Idea born of failed or transcended ideas (or experiences). The mode of acquisition of a life-view is also remarkably dialectical, in that an increase in the search for knowledge reveals new desires that create new possibilities that entail new desires. Kierkegaard was clearly not out of Hegel's clutches.

But he was hardly a docile or doctrinaire Hegelian. In a journal entry that dates from a year before From the Papers of One Still Living, Kierkegaard ridiculed Hegel's mechanical and undiscerning dialectic:

And how in recent years has Hegel fared, Hegel, that one among modern philosophers whose rigorous form would surely most likely command silence? Hasn't the logical triad been out to the most ludicrous effect? It was no surprise to me that my shoemaker had found it could also be applied to the development of boots, since--as he remarked--even here the dialectic, always the first stage in life, expressed itself in the squeaking, however insignificant it may seem, and which certainly hasn't escaped the attention of some depth psychologist, whereas the unity only comes later--in which respect his boots far surpassed all others, which usually fell apart in the dialectic.

This mockery, and its wickedly untechnical language, is much more characteristic of the viciously anti-Hegelian Kierkegaard who is more widely known.


Hannay attributes Kierkegaard's major philosophical shift toward explicit anti-Hegelianism to a personal gripe against the philosopher and theologian H.L. Martensen. Martensen, who propounded a Christological variety of Hegelianism, was appointed to the position of lecturer at the University of Copenhagen in 1838, taking over for Møller after his death. Martensen spread Hegel's views rapidly, and his lectures were highly influential. Kierkegaard, who probably already felt resentful toward the man who had replaced his mentor Møller, responded very hostilely to this popularization of philosophy. He called Martensen "the greatest humoristic Capitalist" who gave students the impression that "they could swallow everything in half a year." Martensen devalued philosophy by making it easy, and in so doing exposed the flimsiness of the theories that he was espousing. In Kierkegaard's view, nothing worth thinking about can be fully understood in half a year. Martensen was also only five years older than Kierkegaard, and so posed a serious challenge to Kierkegaard's ascendancy in the university.

Hannay overstates the case, though, for a purely biographical reading of Kierkegaard's anti-Hegelian turn. Chronologically the claim is baseless, since Kierkegaard's dissertation, On the Concept of Irony, which was submitted in 1841, a year after Martensen's further promotion to the position of Extraordinary Professor, explicitly acknowledged a debt to Hegel, prompting him years later to lament: "Influenced as I was by Hegel and by everything modern.... Oh, what a Hegelian fool I was!" If it was Martensen's arrival that was really responsible for the shift, a new vitriol should be noticeable around 1838; but no such thing is evident. Kierkegaard's relationship to Hegel simply cannot be charted linearly. Instead he related to the philosopher of dialectic dialectically.

Even before the pro-Hegelian stance of his dissertation and the sympathetic tone of From the Papers of One Still Living, Kierkegaard had already articulated anti-Hegelian arguments. In 1837, in response to the Hegelian dissertation of Adolph Peter Adler, he wrote long expositions in his journals detailing the faults of the philosophy. There he focused primarily on the impossibility of making metaphysical claims about history. "But in so far as metaphysical thought also claims to think historical reality, it gets in a mess," he remarked. "How to specify metaphysical reality in relation to historical reality?" This theme--the discord between ideality and reality--would be developed in many of his works, most expansively in Philosophical Fragments (1844).

In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard railed against another aspect of Hegelian thinking, namely the conflation of religion and reason. According to Hegel,

the riches of thought and culture belonging to the philosophic Idea should become united to the Christian principle. For the philosophic Idea is the Idea of God, and thought has the absolute right of reconciliation, or the right to claim that the Christian principle should correspond with thought.

God is reason incarnate in such a scheme. For Kierkegaard, though, religion must be protected from philosophy, because there is an independent God that makes demands of humanity. Abraham's story, as it is presented in Fear and Trembling, illustrates a rift between reason and God. Abraham is a hero because he acts against reason. In readying himself to sacrifice his son in response to divine command, he fights the Hegelian conflation and is rewarded.

Kierkegaard argues for this separation most powerfully in Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments (1846), in which he solidifies the chasm between philosophy and faith. He takes his first jab at Hegel's systematizing with the use of the word "unscientific" in the title. Unlike Hegel, he suggests, he will construct no wholes, no clean and fixed assessments of the past. In the course of his book, he then harangues Hegel for not understanding "history from the point of view of becoming, but with the illusion attached to pastness understands it from the point of view of a finality that excludes all becoming." Existence requires more than a speculative Idea, Kierkegaard argues. It requires an understanding of human beings, in process, experiencing their own lives individually. The knowledge that faith affords is radically different from that of objective logic, for faith is subject-centered, interested in establishing relationships that implicate individuals instead of distancing them from their subject matters. And these kinds of individualized relationships have no use for predetermined Systems. Indeed, Kierkegaard finds the notion of a system "comical" because it inherently fails to recognize the complexity and the internality of the human beings whom it purports to understand: "Reality itself is a system for God; but it cannot be a system for an existing spirit. System and finality correspond to one another, but existence is precisely the opposite of finality."

Kierkegaard's anti-Hegelian polemic is stark in this work, but it is difficult to escape the irony of the dialectic at play. In railing against Hegel's "objective" system, does Kierkegaard not create a "subjective" system of his own? In the process of arguing against a full-blown philosophy of existence, does he not develop his own detailed human anthropology and concomitant theology? Is he not offering an antithesis to Hegel's thesis? But Kierkegaard also seems to have a synthesis up his sleeve. Throughout his authorship, he discusses several "stages on life's way," or "spheres of existence"--aesthetic, ethical, and religious--that are constitutive of becoming a self. Religiousness is given priority, but all three modes of being interact in human subjectivity. There is a dialectical knot that lies at the heart of this unsystematic systematic philosophy.

Kierkegaard's complex relationship with Hegel was thus manifested in several ways: in his early praise for Hegel, in his adoption of Hegelian terms throughout his corpus, and in his performance of Hegelian triadic gestures despite his overt dismissal of Hegel. He wrestled with Hegel when accepting him and when rejecting him. As with Regine, in other words, Kierkegaard engaged, disengaged, and re-engaged with the philosophy of dialectic. Though he claimed to have broken his commitments, he was, in his way, a doubly married man, entangled in two intense lifelong relationships.


Kierkegaard's philosophy of faith, as presented by the pseudonymous Johannes Climacus, reflects this same flirtation with marriage. "If I want to keep myself in faith," Climacus writes in Concluding Unscientific Postscript, "I must continually see to it that I hold fast the objective uncertainty." One does not cognitively arrive at faith by means of rational certainty, one lives in faith in the throes of uncertainty. To be in faith is to be in a relationship with God that is predicated upon the continual awareness that one cannot know God.

It is through doubt, then, that one finds faith. By struggling with what it would mean to be utterly committed to God, one unites with God. One invites God in just enough to cement the bond in the spaces that lie between belief and unbelief. For Climacus, as for Kierkegaard, he who is entrenched in the process of a religious relation is already on the inside of the conversation. And so a partial involvement effectively secures a full embrace. "To me an engagement was and is just as binding as a marriage...."

But surely this cannot be the end of the matter. Kierkegaard's arrangement is finally a little too tidy, even if it amounts to a celebration of the mess. It is important to remember that, strictly speaking, he never really got the girl. Engagement did not gain him marriage; it gained him only eternal attachment (and prodigious literary energy). And so we must wonder whether the conflation of engagement and marriage is really a matter of philosophical import, or just an idiosyncrasy of a thinker's temperament that makes him unusually interesting for biography.

In order to think critically about Kierkegaard's thought, one must resist the spell of the Kierkegaardian mood, and worry a little about logic. Kierkegaard, famous for his "leap of faith," may have leaped a little too far, for it is logically untenable to get rid of the question of God's existence and still end up with a relation that presumes God's existence. No matter how much Kierkegaard wanted to turn the focus of religion toward the religious subject, there still must be a religious object. Either there is a divine being who exists outside oneself or there is not. Epistemology may not be the only point, but it is not beside the point.

In building faith out of doubt, Kierkegaard made the absence of God look like the presence of God. He constructed a theology wherein one has full faith precisely where one does not have full faith. This, to put it mildly, is slippery, and lends itself to a theological demagoguery. For engaging with possibility is not the same thing as asserting definitively. Entertaining marriage is emphatically not the same thing as marrying. The dialectical lover and the dialectical thinker lived and died a bachelor after all.


ERIN LEIB is an assistant literary editor at TNR.

Click here to subscribeTry four weeks of the New Republic Digital absolutely free

For nearly 90 years, the New Republic has provided its readers with an intelligent and rigorous examination of American politics, foreign policy, and culture. Today, we're proud to offer a faster, easier, and more economical way to enjoy the magazine — TNR Digital. Subscribe today and we'll give you 4 weeks absolutely free. That's less than 36 cents/week for every word of content available in the print version, a downloadable replica of the print magazine, and an array of special online-only features!

Click here to sign up.

  • back to top


Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at