Søren Kierkegaard: Life, Philosophy and Legacy

Biography | Influences | Core Philosophy | Essential Works | Reception | Criticisms | Legacy

Søren Kierkegaard, a prominent Danish philosopher of the 19th century, made a lasting impact on the world of philosophy through his profound exploration of the complexities of human existence, the challenges of faith and the nature of subjective truth.

Kierkegaard’s most significant contribution to philosophy are the foundational principles of existentialism – the emphasis on subjective experience, individual freedom and the significance of personal choice, in light of the complexities of human existence. Existentialism is a philosophical movement that, through and in relation to the individual’s experience, seeks to address the fundamental questions of human existence.

In his seminal work, Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard introduced the concept of the “leap of faith”, advocating that genuine religious conviction requires embracing uncertainty and fully committing to one’s beliefs, and explored the ethical dilemma faced by Abraham, thus affirming the significance of individual choice in the realms of ethics and faith.

While the “leap of faith” stands as his most celebrated concept, it sometimes overshadows the broader scope and value of his philosophical paradigm, as his body of work delves into a wide array of themes, including the complexities of human relationships, the role of the individual in society, the nature of despair and the meaning of existence itself.

Kierkegaard’s writings often grappled with the tension between the aesthetic, ethical and religious dimensions of human life, seeking to understand the complexities of human existence in its entirety.


Søren Kierkegaard was born on 1813 in Copenhagen, Denmark, and hailed from a devoutly religious family. His father, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard, was a stern and melancholic man whose rigid piety left a lasting impression on young Søren. In contrast, his mother, Ane Sørensdatter Lund, embodied a warm and loving spirit, nurturing his emotional sensibilities.

The death of his father, when Søren was 21 years of age, had a profound impact on his worldview. The loss served as a catalyst for his musings on human suffering, the transient nature of life and the quest for individual meaning.

Kierkegaard’s academic pursuits were centered on theology and philosophy. He studied theology at the University of Copenhagen, immersing himself in the teachings of the Lutheran Church. However, during this time he became deeply critical of the state church’s dogmatic approach to Christianity. His philosophical interests grew beyond theology, and he delved into the works of philosophers like Immanuel Kant and G.W.F. Hegel, whose ideas significantly influenced his thinking.

In 1843, he published his first major work, Either/Or, which explored the duality of human nature and the choices individuals face. This seminal work set the stage for his subsequent inquiries into the complexities of human existence. Throughout his career, Kierkegaard continued to pen thought-provoking works, such as Fear and Trembling, which delved into the paradox of faith and ethical responsibility, and The Sickness Unto Death, which offered a profound analysis of despair and the yearning for spiritual fulfillment.

Kierkegaard’s literary output, often referred to as his “authorship”, was characterized by an exploration of existential themes, such as addressing the challenges of living authentically, making meaningful choices and confronting the human struggle for self-identity.

Intellectual Influences

The 19th century was marked by the interplay of two influential intellectual movements – the Enlightenment and Romanticism – both of which left a profound impact on Søren Kierkegaard’s philosophical ideas.

The Enlightenment, characterized by a belief in the power of human intellect, reason and science, sought to liberate society from the shackles of superstitious dogma. However, the young philosopher perceived the Enlightenment’s exclusive focus on rationality as a reductionist approach to human existence, and acknowledged the risk of reducing human beings to mere cognitive beings, neglecting the richness of their emotions, passions and individual experiences. The tension between reason and emotion became a recurring theme in Kierkegaard’s philosophy, as he sought to address the complexities of human nature beyond rationality.

Simultaneously, the Romantic movement celebrated the subjective, emotional and imaginative aspects of human life. Romantic thinkers rejected the mechanistic worldview of the Enlightenment, embracing the notion of individual expression and experience. Kierkegaard was influenced by Romantic ideals, finding resonance with their celebration of individuality and the inner world of emotions. The exploration of subjective experience became a central aspect of his philosophy, aligning with the Romantic spirit.

The philosophical landscape of the 19th century was also dominated by the works of G.W.F. Hegel, whose dialectical method and idealism had a profound impact on his contemporaries.

Hegel’s dialectics, which considered the development of ideas, societal progress and history itself as a process of contradiction and resolution, presented a systematic and all-encompassing view of reality. However, Kierkegaard saw Hegel’s approach as an attempt to subsume individuality into an overarching, rationalized system, and rejected the idea of an all-encompassing, absolute truth accessible to human reason, affirming the irreducible uniqueness of the individual.

In response to Hegel’s grand systematic vision, Kierkegaard championed individual subjectivity and the significance of personal choice, in the belief that genuine truth is found in the subjective experiences of the individual.

This prevailing religious atmosphere of the time, where religious practice had become routine and lacked genuine individual commitment, deeply influenced Kierkegaard’s philosophical pursuits, particularly his focus on Christian existentialism. He critiqued the superficial religiosity that permeated society, and advocated for an authentic and personal relationship with God. His exploration of the “leap of faith” and the importance of subjective religious experience was a response to the disconnect he observed between institutionalized religion and a genuine commitment to faith.

Core Philosophical Framework

Through his emphasis on existential subjectivity, the stages of existence and the “leap of faith”, Kierkegaard offers a philosophical framework that delves into the complexities of human existence and the pursuit of truth and authenticity.

Subjectivity and Existentialism

Søren Kierkegaard’s, affirming the significance of the individual’s subjective existence, rejected the notion of objective truth accessible through reason alone. For authentic truth, he argued, is not found in abstract reasoning but in the deeply personal and emotional aspects of human life.

Within this subjective realm, Kierkegaard highlighted the importance of freedom and personal choice; for individuals are faced with myriad choices throughout their lives, each having a unique and significant consequence on existence. Embracing the responsibility of choice grants, he affirmed, humans the freedom to shape their own destinies and create their unique path.

In a world often characterized by conformity and social pressures, he urged individuals to confront their innermost desires, passions and beliefs, for only by embracing one’s true self can a person live an authentic life and find genuine fulfillment.

Stages of Existence

Kierkegaard introduced the concept of the three stages of existence – the aesthetic stage, ethical stage and religious stage – as a framework to understand personal growth and the journey toward self-discovery.

The aesthetic stage is a life focused on the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain, seeking immediate gratification and sensual experiences, which he regarded as a superficial and transient existence, devoid of deeper meaning. As individuals mature, they transition to the ethical stage, characterized by the recognition of moral responsibilities and adherence to ethical principles. Here, individuals strive to act in accordance with societal values and universal ethical norms. The religious stage, according to Kierkegaard, is the highest form of existence, and requires a personal, passionate relationship with God which transcends mere ethical duties. Centered on the idea of a “teleological suspension of the ethical”, in this stage, true religious commitment supersedes conventional moral obligations.

Leap of Faith

Kierkegaard’s contended that religious truth is not attainable through reason alone, requiring a leap beyond rational comprehension, a “leap of faith”, which entails the commitment to a higher, divine reality, and a courageous act of trust.

This “leap of faith”, acknowledging the mysteries of faith and the limitations of human understanding, does not negate reason but transcends it. In so doing, individuals embrace the theological paradox, and may achieve a profound connection with the divine, thus attaining a deeper level of spiritual fulfillment.

Soren Kierkegaard’s Essential Works

Søren Kierkegaard’s essential works – Fear and Trembling, Either/Or, and The Sickness Unto Death – are foundational texts for comprehending his existentialist philosophy, for they offer profound insights into the nature of human existence, the quest for authentic selfhood, and the complexities of faith and ethical choices.

Fear and Trembling

Fear and Trembling delves into the depths of Abraham’s faith, which surpasses conventional moral obligations, as illustrated by the ethical dilemma faced by Abraham in the biblical story of the sacrifice of Isaac. This work challenges the reader to grapple with the paradox of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, which challenges conventional moral norms and serves as an exemplar of the individual’s relationship with the divine.

Through this examination, Kierkegaard introduces the concept of the teleological suspension of the ethical, affirming that true faith involves a profound trust in God that transcends human ethical norms. Fear and Trembling thus explores the tension between religious commitment and ethical obligations, inviting readers to confront the complexities of faith.


In his early work, Either/Or, Kierkegaard presents a collection of writings through two distinct pseudonymous characters – the aesthete and the ethicist, exploring the duality of human nature and the choices individuals encounter throughout life.

The aesthete embodies a life driven by immediate pleasures and sensual experiences, focused on the pursuit of happiness and personal gratification. On the other hand, the ethicist represents a life governed by moral principles and the pursuit of a meaningful and responsible existence.

Through the characters’ contrasting perspectives, Kierkegaard exemplifies the fundamental choice individuals face, between a life of pleasure-seeking and one of moral responsibility. And thus confronts the reader with the challenge of living an authentic life, making deliberate choices that align with their values.

The Sickness Unto Death

The Sickness Unto Death explores the human experience of despair and the search for meaning and authentic selfhood.

Kierkegaard identifies despair as a universal condition of the human psyche, arising from the tension between the finite and the infinite. He argues that true despair is the failure to recognize one’s identity and potential as an eternal, spiritual being, and distinguishes between different forms of despair, such as the despair of not wanting to be oneself and the despair of not willing to be oneself.

The Sickness Unto Death emphasizes the need for self-awareness, self-acceptance and an authentic relationship with oneself and with God. In this work, Kierkegaard posits that genuine selfhood and spiritual fulfillment come from embracing one’s identity in relation to the infinite and the divine.

Influence on Philosophy

Søren Kierkegaard’s philosophy inspired both the existentialist movement and modern religious ideology. His insights into the individual’s subjective experience, the quest for authenticity and the relationship between faith and reason continue to foster a deeper understanding of the complexities of human existence.

Kierkegaard’s profound influence on the existentialist movement cannot be overstated. Jean-Paul Sartre, a prominent figure in existentialism, drew inspiration from the former’s philosophy, particularly his focus on the individual’s freedom of choice and responsibility. Sartre’s concept of “existence precedes essence” aligns with Kierkegaard’s rejection of essentialist views of human nature and the advocacy for creating one’s identity through personal choice and action. Likewise, Martin Heidegger, another influential existentialist philosopher, acknowledged Kierkegaard’s impact on his philosophical development. Heidegger’s exploration of “being-towards-death” and the individual’s confrontation with mortality echoes the former’s view of the human struggle for authentic existence and the quest for meaning.

Kierkegaard’s emphasis on the subjective and personal dimensions of faith profoundly impacted modern religious thinkers, especially those interested in the relationship between faith and reason. His exploration of the subjective experience of faith and the importance of a passionate, personal relationship with God has inspired contemporary thinkers to delve into matter of devotion and religious commitment, and to address the ethical dilemmas faced by individuals. His concept of the “leap of faith”, wherein genuine religious belief requires a courageous leap beyond rational understanding, recognizing the paradox and accepting uncertainty, resonated with later theologians.


Søren Kierkegaard’s unorthodox writing style and provocative ideas challenged the conventional philosophical and religious norms of his time. His direct attacks on the Danish Lutheran Church and its religious establishment, as well as the scathing critiques of various aspects of society, stirred both public and clerical opposition, leading to heated debates about the nature of faith, ethics and the role of religion in individual life.

Some dismissed Kierkegaard as a religious fanatic, criticizing his emphasis on individual subjectivity, while others accused him of promoting a form of irrationalism, particularly concerning his notion of the “leap of faith”, which they perceived as undermining the importance of reason and rational thought.

After his death in 1855, his philosophical works began to gain greater recognition and appreciation, gradually transforming his reputation from a controversial figure to a significant pioneer. Over time, philosophers and scholars began to recognize the depth and originality of his philosophical framework.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, existentialist philosophers and literary figures began to draw inspiration from his writings, as the focus on the inner world of the individual, the exploration of anxiety and despair, and the quest for authentic selfhood resonated with thinkers seeking to address the complexities of existence and the challenges of modernity.

Kierkegaard’s influence on later existentialist philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger, as mentioned earlier, played a crucial role in solidifying his reputation as a groundbreaking figure in existential thought. Nowadays, he is widely regarded as one of the most influential and original thinkers in the history of philosophy.


Kierkegaard’s emphasis on subjective experience and the significance of individual subjectivity has not been without its critics. One of the main concerns raised is the potential for his philosophy to lead to solipsism, wherein individuals become trapped in their own subjective worlds, disconnected from objective reality. Critics argue that by prioritizing individual subjectivity, his philosophy neglects the importance of shared experiences and objective truths that are crucial for social cohesion and ethical decision-making.

Furthermore, the focus on individual authenticity has been criticized for its potential to justify moral relativism. By placing personal beliefs and emotions above universal ethical norms, some argue that his ideology allows for arbitrary moral choices, and therefore lacks a lacks a solid ethical foundation.

Kierkegaard’s religious views, particularly his concept of the “leap of faith,” has faced substantial criticisms, as skeptics contend that faith should be based on rational grounds and evidence, and that taking a leap beyond rational understanding and embracing belief without empirical evidence is intellectually unsound.

While Kierkegaard’s emphasis on subjective experience and his exploration of the religious paradox have generated significant debates, his ideas continue to be studied and analyzed for their unique view of human existence and the intricate interplay between reason, ethics and faith.


Søren Kierkegaard’s legacy, in his advocacy of individuality and the importance of personal experience, extends far beyond his lifetime, leaving a profound impact on various areas of philosophy and theology.

Kierkegaard’s focus on the subjective human experience and the personal quest for authenticity, in light of the complexities of human existence, laid the foundation for existentialism as a major philosophical movement in the 20th century. Existentialist philosophers, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Heidegger and Albert Camus, drew inspiration from his framework and expanded upon his ideology.

In a society characterized by increasing individualism and the importance of autonomous identity, his emphasis on subjectivity and the quest for authenticity resonates deeply, and his ideas remain strikingly relevant.

Moreover, Kierkegaard’s view on the subjective dimension of faith has influenced religious thinkers seeking to address the challenges of modernity, as the notion of the “leap of faith” challenges individuals to confront the complexities of religious commitment in an era where belief is often met with skepticism.

Søren Kierkegaard’s legacy endures as a profound and timeless contribution to philosophy and theology. His exploration of individuality, existential principles and the interplay between faith and reason remains a rich source of inspiration and contemplation for contemporary thinkers and individuals grappling with the fundamental questions of identity, meaning and faith in the modern world.

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