Søren Kierkegaard 1813-1855

"Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards."

Søren Kierkegaard is generally regarded as the founder of existentialism (1).  Born in Denmark he enrolled at the University of Copenhagen in 1830 but did not complete his studies until 1841. He was studying at a time when the dominant philosopher of the age was Hegel.  Hegel, said Kierkegaard explained everything in terms of huge great sweeps of ideas in which actual things, individual entities, are unmentioned despite the fact that it is only individual things that exist. Abstractions, generalisations, do not exist in the same sense: they are our own inventions that facilitate understanding.  But in order to understand something that does not exist we have to explore coming to terms with uniquely individual entities because that is all there is.  This is especially true of human beings.  Hegel had seen the individual as fulfilling himself only when absorbed into the larger and more abstract entity of the organic state, whereas in fact, said Kierkegaard, it is the individual himself who is the supreme moral entity, and therefore it is the personal, subjective aspects of human life that are the most important.  Because of the transcending value of moral considerations the most important human activity is decision making: it is through choices we make that we create our lives and become ourselves.

Søren Kierkegaard, 2017 Oil on Canvas 61x61cm (Available for Sale)

Søren Kierkegaard, 2017 Oil on Canvas 61x61cm (Available for Sale)

In what was perhaps his earliest major work Either / Or  (1843) he suggests that people might effectively choose to live within either of two "existence spheres". He called these "spheres" the aesthetic and the ethical.  Aesthetic lives were lives lived in search of such things as pleasure, novelty, and romantic individualism. Kierkegaard thought that these goals would eventually tend to decay or become meaningless and this would inevitably lead to much boredom and dire frustration.  Ethical lives, lived very much in line with a sense of duty to observe societal and confessional obligations would be easier to live, yet would also involve much compromise of several genuinely human faculties and potentials. Such compromise would inevitably mean that Human integrity would tend to be eroded although lives seemed to be progressing in a bourgeois-satisfactory way. 

Neither of these "existence spheres" seemed to him to offer fully satisfactory lives to Human beings and in his later works he suggested that there was a third, religious, "sphere" where people accepted that they could "live in the truth" that they were "individual before the Eternal" to which they belonged. By living in this truth people could achieve a full unity of purpose with all other people who were also, individually, living in the same truth. This is the choice that he made for himself in his own efforts to live a life which he considered to be valid.

Søren Kierkegaard passed away, possibly from tuberculosis on the 11 November 1855. His work remained limited to Scandinavia, but the 20th century saw the revival of his philosophy, although many thinkers only went along with Kierkegaard up to the point where introduces the relationship of the individual soul to God.  Consequently two parallel traditions of existentialism developed side by side.  Christian existentialism and Humanist existentialism.  The later has roots in the work of Nietzsche, who was an atheist but its most distinguished representative in the 20th century was Martin Heidegger.

(1) Existentialism is a philosophical theory or approach which emphasises the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will.

Martin Heidegger 1889-1976

"Every man is born as many men and dies as a single one."

Martin Heidegger is widely acknowledged to be one of the most original and important philosophers of the 20th century, while remaining one of the most controversial.   Born in Germany and raised a Roman Catholic he studied  theology at the University of Freiburg while supported by the church, but later he switched his field of study to philosophy under Heinrich Rickert and Edmund Husserl. He received a doctorate in philosophy in 1913 and became a lecturer at Freiburg in 1919, assuming the  leadership of the movement that Husserl had founded, phenomenology (1).

Martin Heidegger, 2018 Oil on Linen 35x30cm (Available for Sale)

Martin Heidegger, 2018 Oil on Linen 35x30cm (Available for Sale)


Subsequent stages of Heidegger’s early philosophical development show the influence of a number of thinkers and themes, including the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s concern with the irreducible uniqueness of the individual, which was important in Heidegger’s early existentialism; Aristotle’s conception of phronēsis, or practical wisdom, which helped Heidegger to define the peculiar “Being” of the human individual in terms of a set of worldly involvements and commitments; and the German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey’s notion of “historicity,” of being historically situated and determined, which became crucial in Heidegger’s view of time and history as essential facets of human Being.  Consequently Heidegger’s main interest became ontology or the study of being.

In his fundamental treatise, Being and Time, he attempted to access ‘being’ by means of phenomenological analysis of human existence, what he called Dasein,(2) in respect to its temporal and historical character. Heidegger placed an emphasis on language as the vehicle through which the question of being can be unfolded. He turned to the interpretation of historical texts, especially of the Presocratics, but also of Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche and Hölderlin, and to poetry, architecture, technology, and other subjects. Instead of looking for a full clarification of the meaning of being, he tried to pursue a kind of thinking which was no longer “metaphysical.”

Martin Heidegger, 2017 Oil on Paper 28x28cm (Available for Sale)

Martin Heidegger, 2017 Oil on Paper 28x28cm (Available for Sale)

He criticized the tradition of Western philosophy, which he regarded as nihilistic, for, as he claimed, the question of being as such was obliterated in it. He also stressed the nihilism of modern technological culture. By going to the Presocratic beginning of Western thought, he wanted to repeat the early Greek experience of being, so that the West could turn away from the dead end of nihilism and begin anew. His writings are notoriously difficult. Being and Time remains his most influential work and became a major source for the understanding of existentialism, a philosophic movement that was growing in importance and popularity among academics and intellectuals. Existentialist thinkers influenced by Heidegger included Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

After WWII his reputation was scarred by his affiliation with the Nazi party, he was forbidden to teach, and in 1946 was dismissed from his chair of philosophy. The ban was lifted in 1949 and during the last three decades of his life, from the mid 1940s to the mid 1970s, Heidegger wrote and published much, but in comparison to earlier decades, there was no significant change in his philosophy.

(1) Phenomenology is the philosophical study of the structures of experience and consciousness without appeal to philosophical or scientific preconceptions about their nature, origin, or cause.

(2) Dasein (is a German word that means "being there" or "presence" and is often translated into English with the word "existence".  Heidegger uses the expression Dasein to refer to the experience of being that is peculiar to human beings. Thus it is a form of being that is aware of and must confront such issues as personhood, mortality and the dilemma or paradox of living in relationship with other humans while being ultimately alone with oneself.