Kierkegaard’s intellectual father


By Neils Christian Kierkegaard, via Wikimedia Commons

Sǿren Kierkegaard, widely regarded as the philosopher of Christian faith, has nevertheless been an inspirational figure for various schools of thoughts, like existentialism and several trends of art. At first glance, this appears contradictory; after all, official Christianity is usually associated with dogmatism and narrow traditions, which often constitute a straitjacket for the individual. How then could it happen that the Christian philosopher Kierkegaard could have become so influential for a variety of philosophical and artistic currents? Its crucial to emphasize that, before being a philosopher for the faith, he was first and foremost an avid proponent of subjectivity and the integrity of the individual.

What did Kierkegaard learn from his study of Socrates?

Often inadvertently swept under the carpet – on account of Kierkegaard himself having excluded his master thesis “On The Concept of Irony” from his authorship – is the fact that the profound influence of Socrates made the Danish philosopher highly concerned with individual freedom. As a pivotal aspect, Kierkegaard adopted from Socrates the ironic stance towards an objective outward actuality, such as society, traditions and religious doctrines – in short, to ethical concepts established outside of the individual. Thusly, he asserted what was in Socrates’ age the unthinkable: subjectivity in social, political or moral matters.

According to Kierkegaard, the origin of the concept of irony is to be traced back to Socrates while an authentic view on Socrates is of the essence, ”because the concept of irony makes its entry into the world through Socrates.“ [‘CI,9]. Kierkegaard sees in Socrates an embodiment of what we may call a tool for the negation of actuality, a “negative concept” [CI,12] : “He was not like a philosopher delivering his opinions in such a way that just the lecture itself is the presence of the idea, but what Socrates said meant something different. The outer was not at all in harmony with the inner but was rather its opposite, and only under this angle of refraction is he to be comprehended. ” [CI,12]

Hence, Socratic irony is the distance of the individual to positive concepts to such an extent that Socrates himself did not mean what he said; the speech itself contains the negation of what is said: Socrates knew that he did not know anything. This is the utmost distance the ironist can take, a negation of the actuality – which external objective truth purports to be-  and it is the foundation for subjectivity and the freedom of the individual. Kierkegaard writes: “Irony is a qualification of subjectivity. In irony, the subject is negatively free since the actuality that is supposed to give the subject content is not there. He is free from the constraint in which the given actuality holds the subject, but he is negatively free and as such is suspended because there is nothing that holds him.” [CI,262]

Equally, if everything can only be negated, rather than affirmed, the individual’s inner oracle for decision-making must not claim anything positive either. Instead, it has to be a negative voice as well; it can only warn against something. This harkens back to Socrates daimon, which, according to his defense [AP] had always reliably dissuaded him from engaging in politics. Kierkegaard accepted this warning voice and its negativity: “What I, on the other hand, would like to point out to the reader is significant for the whole conception of Socrates: namely, that this daimon is represented only as a warning, not as commanding-that is as negative and not as positive.” [CI,159].

Albeit Socrates’ daimon is not conscience itself, it is nevertheless subjective. With irony’s negation of the validity of external actuality, is possesses credibility for the individual. As an admirer of Socrates, for Kierkegaard it had credibility and contributes to the individual’s freedom. With the daimon – even though according to Hegel not wholly subjective but still something external – being present in and audible only to the individual, the individual gains an independence of acting more subjectively. Historically, the daimon’s impact goes even further: it transfers the outside religious voice into the individual – a step towards religious freedom.

Closely related to irony’s negating stance towards the positive is the Socratic state of aporia: a dialog ends up in the negative, without answer, without postive conclusion. This state was an objective because the concept of ironyof Socrates questioning his erudite contemporaries about their knowledge. Asking those often highly-esteemed citizens to give an explanation for something, for example virtue, Socrates’ intentions were twofold: First, he attempted to arrive from the particular to the universal, that is, the absolute concept, and second, to liberate his fellow-humans from their misconceptions – exactly because in many cases there no such thing as an absolute. Apart from that, it seems probable that debunking the ignorance of socially highly-esteemed citizens helps undermine the customary ethics of society – and thusly strengthening the position of the individual against the universal.

For Kierkegaard, these Socratic methods were tools for something dear to his heart: to rid people of dangerous misconceptions about Christian faith lest they end up in a seemingly secure state which actually leads to perdition. Revealing the absurdity of the claims of the clergy by means of Socrates irony (“I am ignorant”) and evoking the state of aporia is for Kierkegaard as much as for Socrates the premise for something also very Socratic: the art of midwifery or maieutics, that is, Socrates method of bringing to the fore the truth which is already present in the individual. According to Socrates, nothing cannot be taught from the outside, and by reducing religious claims to its absurdity and coming into the state of aporia, the individual is free to discover the subjective truth by itself.

Most importantly, for Kierkegaard this truth often stops short of the paradox, irreconcilable with an enlightened mind. An example for this the Christian notion of Jesus’ duality as God-human. According to Kierkegaard, this is to remain a paradox of either-or which the individual should cease trying to resolve and expound in rational terms to others. According to Kierkegaard and in contrast to Hegel “the truth eternity does not lie behind either/or, but before it” [EO,39]. This amounts to Kierkegaard’s notion that subjective truth is not supposed to be communicable to others because language is universal, hence the message would distort the subjective truth. Hence, Kierkegaard sets up a place for the absurd in order to maintain its validity for the individual.

More to the point, this inwardness of truth as a highly subjective conviction entails for Kierkegaard something even more radical. The inward truth becomes so much congruent with the individual’s spiritual identity and existence that betraying it would be tantamount to spiritual death, so that even physical death is a prize worth paying: “My sole thought is some day to dare in conversation to come closer to that Greek wise man [Socrates] whom I admire, that Greek wise man who laid down his life for what he had understood and once again would joyfully have risked his life in order to understand more, since he considered being in error the most terrible thing of all. “ [SLW,482]

Why is this connection between Socrates and Kierkegaard still relevant in the world today?

In Socrates’ time, with oracles and ubiquitous natural religion, subjectivity was an inconceivable thing, and Socrates’ thoughts might appear relevant only against the background of that society, so it seems that in a modern, enlightened age, with Kant’s imperative to think for oneself, Socrates has lost its relevance. Still, Kierkegaard managed to transfer Socrates’ irony and subjectivity into a different age with different demands, making Socrates still relevant for us today.

The enlightened age has not always been as individualistic as it might appear. Despite Kant’s original demand, the trajectory of the Enlightenment features a prevalence of outwardly objective science, sometimes at the expense of the individual. Objective scientific truth is inclined to leave the individual in the dark about how it has personal validity,. because this belongs to “the purely personal life with which science and scholarship admittedly are not involved” [CI,166]. This was already an issue in Kierkegaard’s age: “Particularly in our age, irony must be commended. In our age, scientific scholarship has come into possession of such prodigious achievements that there must be something wrong somewhere; knowledge …. is offered for sale at such a bargain price today that it all looks very dubious. … we have forgotten that an achievement is worthless if it is not made one’s own. But woe to him who cannot bear to have irony seek to balance the accounts. Irony as the negative is the way; it is not the truth but the way.” [CI,327].

Hence, Socratic irony helps the individual not to be appropriated by outside demands and outside objectivity, but rather to appropriate outside claims for itself and screen out those demands which have no value for the individual’s personal life. Kierkegaard writes: “In our age, there has been much talk about the importance of doubt for science and scholarship, but what doubt is to science, irony is to personal life.” [CI,326]. Hence, Socratic irony is the tool of validation for the individual. Especially today, in a world of mass media, Sophists are probably even more ubiquitous than in Socrates’ time. We are permanently exposed to rhetoric and positivist argumentation which are supposed to convince us. So there is an urgent need for the individual to weed out the plethora of demands and information and keep a distance, lest it winds up in a state of mental overload and depression.

Furthermore, Kierkegaard’s connection to Socrates’ aporia tackles the problem of subjective religious freedom under a secular universal law. Whereas the idea – embracing the non-communicable and subjective paradox as valid –  was for Kierkegaard a struggle against the ubiquitous Christian dogmatism of his age, today it offers an aspect how to deal with religious freedom. Following Kierkegaard, the individual can find a way of embracing religious conviction inwardly and still taking responsibility for its behavior in the secular world, exactly because the subjective can never serve as justification. This way, a religious person can strike the balance between religious conviction and the validity of secular law. Therefore, Kierkegaard’s Socratic aporian embrace of the paradox and the religious absurd adds to the separation of religious conviction and secular law, each having their validity in separate realms.

In a broader sense, in a cosmopolitan age, in which most societies are secularized and united in terms of what is legally permissible and what is punishable, the individual, often still coming from a religious and traditional background, has to strike a balance between his individual convictions – what he considers as the truth and a guideline for his life – and behavior according to a universally ethical law. It is the struggle of being faithful to one’s internal law while complying with the rules for the sake of cohabitation of a variety of different people. Kierkegaard’s socratic emphasis on the individual’s integrity brings relevant aspects on the table and speaks on behalf of the individual.

Referring to Horkheimers and Adornos Critical Theory, seeing a negative dialectic in the trajectory of the Enlightenment with an emergence of totalitarian thinking towards the quantitative to which the individual not fitting into this mold is in danger of falling by the wayside – that is, either being subsumed or ignored, In a world in which scientific empiricism and rationality has spread to the social realm and often determines what to embrace and what to reject, non-quantifiable aspect the individuals are in danger of being oppressed. Kierkegaard’s embrace of a non-communicable subjectivity offers encouragement for the individual to decide for itself even against a scientific mainstream, lest the potential of a wise subjective decision is wasted. Sometimes, a decision based on non-communicable subjectivity might be the better one. Just because it is not communicable, one cannot justify it, and hence can pratice self-responsibility.


[CI] Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony

[AP], Plato, The Apology of Socrates

{SLW] Kierkegaard, Stages on Life’s Way

[EO] Kierkegaard, Either/Or 1


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