Kierkegaard's Thought

Kierkegaard's Thought

by Gregor Malantschuk

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Kierkegaard's pseudonymous authorship has baffled readers, his apparent capriciousness making it difficult to determine his position at a given point and to understand his work as an organic whole. Gregor Malantschuk's study, based on careful reading of Kierkegaard's journals, papers, and texts, cuts through the authorship problem to clarify the philosopher's key


Kierkegaard's pseudonymous authorship has baffled readers, his apparent capriciousness making it difficult to determine his position at a given point and to understand his work as an organic whole. Gregor Malantschuk's study, based on careful reading of Kierkegaard's journals, papers, and texts, cuts through the authorship problem to clarify the philosopher's key ideas, see the comprehensive plan of his work, and make intelligible the dialectical coherence of his thought. Discussing Kierkegaard's dialectical method and his use of it from Either/Or to the final Two Discourses, Professor Malantschuk shows how coherently Kierkegaard set the individual works in place, so that even the conflict between the principal pseudonyms, Climacus and Anti-Climacus, serves to elucidate his major philosophical ideas.

Contents: 1. Anthropological Contemplation. II. Kierkegaard's Dialectical Method. III. The Dialectic Employed in the Authorship. Index.

Originally published in 1971.

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Kierkegaard's Thought

By Gregor Malantschuk, Howard V. Hong, Edna H. Hong


Copyright © 2015 Gregor Malantschuk
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07166-4


Anthropological Contemplation

Søren Kierkegaard's earliest notes give evidence that he is trying to proceed methodically and that he had set a goal for his studies and research. This goal, which he calls his "project," the Danish editors of Kierkegaard's journals and papers have described briefly as "the collection of material for a characterization of the spirit of the Middle Ages through a general historical study of the age's distinctive features in all the areas of spiritual-intellectual life, in literature, art, religion, science, and social conditions, concentrating on a more thorough and concrete study of the reflection of the folk genius of the Middle Ages in poetry, legends, fairy tales, and stories, especially on the personifications of the representative ideas rising out of the medieval folk-life's world of consciousness (see Either/Or, I, pp. 86-92): Don Juan, Faust, the Wandering Jew, and all this in the light of a more abstract Hegelian-philosophic parallel interest in a comprehensive delineation of the stages of intellectual-spiritual development, including 'world-history' as well as the single individual's 'Microcosm,' by way of defining concepts such as: the classical, the romantic ('dialectical'), the modern, comedy, tragedy, irony, humor, resignation, etc. etc."

What is lacking in this compressed description is a more pronounced underscoring of the idea of unity pervading all these studies, binding together the several parts and pointing toward the recognition of man's inner actuality through introspection and all the existential possibilities it contains. Likewise missing is a special emphasis on Kierkegaard's study of works in dogmatics during this first period.

Later Kierkegaard finds his own unifying expression for these efforts in referring to "the authentic anthropological contemplation," which he believed to be the most urgent task for thought in his age. When he wrote these words in July, 1840, he had himself already become clear as to how this task could be carried out.

Kierkegaard's first resolve methodically to place the most weight on self-knowledge and thereby on knowledge of subjective actuality can be dated from his Gilleleje-sojourn in the summer of 1835, when he wrote these words: "One must first learn to know himself before knowing anything else ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII])." Later in 1839 the idea of the centrality of human actuality in existence is clearly expressed: "Individuality is the true period in the development of creation. As everyone knows, a period is written when the meaning is completed, which can also be expressed (looking backwards) by saying that the meaning is there. Thus not until individuality is given is the meaning completed or is there meaning in creation, and in this way we see the possibility of reducing all philosophy to one single proposition." This sentence must be understood as an underscoring of the idea that truth is to be found only in the subject, which is related to the later thesis that "subjectivity is truth."

In his "project" and "anthropological contemplation," Kierkegaard concentrated on essentially the same problem as Hegel in his Phenomenology of Mind, but in a more comprehensive and concrete way.

Before going further into Kierkegaard's interest in the above-mentioned themes, a few observations must be made to show that even before writing his journals Kierkegaard was predisposed to being led in the direction of "anthropological contemplation."

Even with a cautious estimate of Kierkegaard's or his pseudonymous authors' statements about his childhood, it must be taken for granted that his father's powerful influence was of decisive significance in developing the very aptitudes he needed as a thinker, aptitudes which he himself has emphasized as being important for him as a thinker — namely, training in clear, logical explication of the content of an idea ("dialectic") and training in the creation of his own objects for cogitation ("imagination"). Kierkegaard's subsequent tremendous dialectical proficiency can be explained by the fact that he learned very early to train himself in the art "which was to be the serious business of his life."

But without a doubt what especially encouraged his movement toward "anthropological contemplation" was an abundance of painful and unsolved problems, also due in part to his father's influence and upbringing. These problems and conflicts eventually called for more definite exploration and clarification. The opportunity for this presented itself after some years of study at the University. His university studies themselves were of little assistance in the problems with which he grappled, but his years as a student from 1830 to 1835 provided orientation, also in the areas to which he later gave such thorough consideration.

In the summer of 1834 Kierkegaard began in his own independent way to achieve clarification, first and foremost, of his personal problems. He outlined this way in his journals (at first on slips and scraps of paper, later in notebooks), which he kept under strict discipline and in which he did not fully confide. At this point the comment must be inserted that Kierkegaard's jottings of excerpts and notes from lectures he heard as a student in this first period are not to be underestimated. These entries, too, are important in understanding his working method. But to show their special significance in preparing Kierkegaard for his own independent studies is a task in itself. The present study has its point of departure in Kierkegaard's earliest recorded ideas and reflections expressing his own attitude to themes in his sphere of interest.

The great variety of entries may be best surveyed if classified according to the following basic considerations: in a broad sense the theme "anthropological contemplation" means that an attempt is made to consider man on various levels of mental-spiritual development and from various perspectives. On this basis the material in the journals and papers may be grouped under the following headings: mythology, esthetics, anthropology, philosophy, philosophy of religion, ethics, and — first and last — theology, with its subdivisions, of which dogmatics is the most important. Such concepts as irony and humor, as well as Kierkegaard's work with the "three great ideas (Don Juan, Faust, and the Wandering Jew)" may also be classified under one or another of these headings. By and large it may be said that every entry can be classified under one of the headings. In this connection it is of interest to note that Kierkegaard is quickly finished with certain groups and subgroups, while other areas, such as theology and also ethics, persistently continue to be primary objects of concern, and others, again, for example, the dialectic of communication, gradually come more and more to the foreground.

Entries in the journals and papers on the above-mentioned themes of interest are intermingled, and Kierkgaard works with these areas concurrently, conditioned, as will appear later, by methodological considerations, possibly from the very beginning.

Before we look more closely at Kierkegaard's entries within the different groupings, the following must be added: Kierkegaard considers the independent notations beginning in April, 1834 as being primarily ideas and observations, usually prompted by his reading on the various themes which were the object of his study and interest. These earliest recorded notations as yet have a twofold character; they can be considered to be the results partly of influences from an external tradition and partly of Kierkegaard's independent work with specific problems. On the possibility of considerable dependence on outside influences in the writing of his first notes Kierkegaard says: "We often deceive ourselves by embracing as our own many an idea and observation which either springs forth vividly now out of a time when we read it or lies in the consciousness of the whole age — yes, even now as I write this observation — this, too, perhaps, is a fruit of the experience of the age."

But from this as yet partially derivative attempt to reflect on certain problems Kierkegaard moves toward his own characteristic manner of posing the questions and solving them. Later Kierkegaard looks critically upon his first journal entries, declaring even of his "old journal for 1839" that in it not much "really felicitous or thorough" is to be found. But precisely for this very reason those notes are important for this investigation, for they show us a Kierkegaard who is still uncertain about his "project."

The majority of Kierkegaard's early entries fall within the sphere of theology. These entries commence at the conclusion of Kierkegaard's substantial work with exegetical and dogmatic questions, of which we have evidence in the journals and papers. Here Kierkegaard intersperses his own observations among the excerpts, for example, those from his study of Schleiermacher's Der christliche Glaube.

It is with the entry on predestination in May, 1834, that Kierkegaard begins to present his own attitude to theological problems. The entry reads: "A strict doctrine of predestination traces the origin of evil back to God and thereby does not remain even as consistent as Manichæsism, for the latter system posits two beings; the former unites these two contradictories in one being."

Kierkegaard's reflections on predestination, beginning with this memorandum, span a considerable period of time, and he records his various thoughts about it. After that the reflections come to a relative termination in entries I A 295 (J. and P., Ill, 3547) and C 40 (J. and P., I, 227), in which Kierkegaard believes he has found the "solution to predestination." In following Kierkegaard's line of thought in these entries, one discovers that his critical focus on the idea of absolute predestination is connected with a growing emphasis upon the significance of "human freedom." The notes on predestination are a good example of how Kierkegaard works with a particular problem concurrently with others until he finds a solution, and of how working with this particular problem leads him into new trains of thought.

For example, Kierkegaard begins to jot down many different ideas touching on theological questions, and when they are not free and unattached thoughts outside the complex of deeper problems, these entries become points of departure for the study of specific theological problems.

Here we must be content to point out the most important of these theological problems, those which Kierkegaard's methodical reasoning later places into a larger context.

As early as November, 1834 Kierkegaard advances a view of Christianity which gradually develops into the nucleus of his understanding of Christianity. Kierkegaard's intention is not to concentrate on Christianity as doctrine but to take Christ's own life as the basis for a presentation of Christianity. He writes of this: "Christian dogmatics, it seems to me, must grow out of Christ's activity, and all the more so because Christ did not establish any doctrine; he acted. He did not teach that there was redemption for men, but he redeemed men. A Mohammedan dogmatics (sit venia verbo) would grow out of Mohammed's teaching, but a Christian dogmatics grows out of Christ's activity. Through Christ's activity (which actually was the main thing) his nature was also given; Christ's relationship to God, man, nature, and the human situation was conditioned by his activity. Everything else is to be regarded only as introduction."

This quotation clearly indicates how Kierkegaard's primary interest focuses on Christ's activity and the conflicts this activity in the world must involve.

The deeper ground for Kierkegaard's preoccupation with this aspect of Christianity lies in his seeking to achieve clarity about the extent to which Christ's life should be a binding example for man, and, if so, how far man ought to go in his attempt at imitation. That Kierkegaard would transfer the thought of "Christ's activity" over to the life of the individual Christian appears in these words: "... all Christianity is a life-course."

As time goes on, Kierkegaard gives much careful thought to these questions and discovers that they belong to "the most difficult of all" questions. He accuses "contemporary theologians and philosophers" of overlooking this problem. For Kierkegaard personally the problem becomes a burning one because he is led to it by his "anthropological contemplation," which insists upon a more concrete qualification of man's ethical and religious obligations. In the following entry we see very clearly how Kierkegaard summarizes the difficulties of the problem: "That the Son of God became man is certainly the highest metaphysical and religious paradox, but it is nevertheless not the deepest ethical paradox. Christ's appearance contains a polemic against existence. He became a human being like all others, but he stood in a polemical relationship to the concrete-ethical elements of actuality. He went about and taught the people. He owned nothing; he did not even have a place to lay his head. Truly it is uplifting to see the faith and trust in providence which makes a man carefree as the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, but to what extent is this an ethical expression for a human life? Shall a man not work in order to live; is it not superior; do I dare ignore providing for tomorrow in this way? Here the most difficult problems come together. Christ's life had a negative-polemical relation to the church and state. It would be the highest ethical paradox if God's son entered into the whole of actuality, became part of it, submitted to all its triviality, for even if I have the courage and trust and faith to die of starvation, this is worthy of admiration, and in each generation there probably are not ten who have it, but all the same we teach and proclaim that it would be even greater to submit to the actualities of life.

"God help the poor head which entertains this kind of doubt, the unhappy man who has sufficient passion to think, the silent letter incapable of doing anything for other men except to keep still about what he suffers and possibly to smile so that no one may detect it."

There is a connection between these reflections and Kierkegaard's own existential involvement in Christianity and his subsequent strong emphasis on imitation. Through his attempt to advance "Christ's activity" as the pattern for Christian life, Kierkegaard simultaneously completes the task which he regards as the culmination of Protestantism's historical development — namely, to present Christ's life as the prototype. Of this he says: "The Middle Ages culminates in Raphael, his conception of the Madonna. Protestantism will culminate in the Christ-image; but this will be the flower of the most thorough dialectical development."

Another essential point of departure for Kierkegaard's work with theological questions is the relation between the human and the Christian. It is characteristic of Kierkegaard that from the beginning he advances and maintains two incompatible (so it seems) factors: (1) the justification of the human position and (2) Christianity's claim upon the whole man.

The following entry is an example of Kierkegaard's accentuation of the human side: "The trouble with philosophers in respect to Christianity is that they use continental maps when they ought to use special large-scale maps, for every dogma is nothing but a more concrete extension of the universally human consciousness." Kierkegaard here believes that the philosophers' error consists in speaking all too abstractly about man, but the more concretely a man thinks about himself, the more he discovers the conflicts which Christianity alone resolves. In an earlier journal entry Kierkegaard warns directly against occupying oneself with "speculating about dogma" before one gets clear on the human standpoint: "If one does not maintain strictly the relation between philosophy (the purely human view of the world, the human standpoint) and Christianity but begins straightway, without special penetrating investigations of this relation, to speculate about dogma, one can easily achieve apparently rich and satisfying results. But things can also turn out as with marl at one time, when, without having investigated it and the soil, people used it on any sort of land — and got excellent yields for a few years but afterwards found that the soil was exhausted."


Excerpted from Kierkegaard's Thought by Gregor Malantschuk, Howard V. Hong, Edna H. Hong. Copyright © 2015 Gregor Malantschuk. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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