Archive for May, 2016

Kierkegaard Made E-Z

Wednesday, May 25th, 2016

In honor of Søren Kierkegaard’s 203rd birthday, this May we’re writing about him on the PhLog. Today’s entry will reduce Kierkegaard’s life of complex thinking to an internet-friendly blog post.

Warning: this is not sufficient research for your term paper. Read his books instead.

Søren Kierkegaard was a freelance philosopher. He wasn’t part of academia, nor was he part of a school or movement. Like, say, Batman, he took elaborate pains to remain an outsider, and, also like Batman, used pseudonyms to conceal his identity.

This outsider-ness is essential to Kierkegaard’s philosophy. He felt the only way to be sure of the truth was to think purely as an individual and to eliminate every possible ulterior motive for one’s thoughts and actions. In Kierkegaard’s view, the crowd was always wrong. Which explains why he also distrusted institutions. Because philosophy must be free from illusions, the philosopher must have the courage to undertake thorough self-examination, and to defy society’s accepted practices whenever necessary.

The self-reliance Kierkegaard preached was frightening. Human freedom leads to extreme anxiety (“angst” in the philosophical term first used by Kierkegaard). The knowledge that we can shape our own world leads to deep fear about what we should think and what we should do. The burden of our freedom is that no choice or act will lead to happiness or fulfillment: “Whether you hang yourself or don’t hang yourself, you will regret both.” Kierkegaard’s quotes make for unpopular bumper stickers.

There you have it: life is filled with impossible choices, and terrifying because it lacks meaning or purpose. Thanks to works like The Concept of Anxiety, Kierkegaard is considered to be the founder of existentialism. But it took nearly a century for that movement to be born – you just can’t rush dread – and all his life, Kierkegaard remained an outsider.

As one might expect given all this angst, Kierkegaard was obsessed with death, and with reason. All his siblings save one were dead by the time he was 22. To Kierkegaard, the terror of the knowledge of one’s own death was a constant. When the terror and dread let up a little, he saw boredom, anxiety and despair as humanity’s greatest problems. (This is where he really resonated with those existentialists.)

Kierkegaard diagnosed humanity’s crisis as a “sickness unto death” (the title of one of his works). You can imagine why he wasn’t invited to many picnics.

But Kierkegaard saw a way out, and this is where he diverges from most modern philosophers. In addition to being a proto-existentialist, Kierkegaard was a deeply religious Christian. He didn’t respect or trust the institution of the church, but he saw faith in Jesus as the only solution to mankind’s ills. Kierkegaard coined the term “leap of faith” to explain how this kind of belief could be possible in the modern world. A person must be ruled by total faith in God. This faith does not lead to freedom, but to a giving up of any idea of freedom, thus relieving the traumas of human existence. This faith is beyond logic, proof, or reason. “To have faith is to lose your mind and to win God,” he wrote in The Sickness Unto Death. Again with the bumper stickers.

It’s doubtful that his leap of faith brought Kierkegaard much happiness given what we know about his life. And how happy can you be if you won’t be satisfied whether you hang yourself or don’t hang yourself? Regardless of his solution to the despair and anxiety of living, Kierkegaard expertly diagnosed the psychological trauma of the human experience, and that diagnosis has been his legacy.


Søren Loved Regine

Tuesday, May 17th, 2016

This May, in honor of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s 203rd birthday, we’re posting about him here on the PhLog. Today’s post is about his relationship with Regine Olsen.


Søren Kierkegaard had one great love, and since Kierkegaard was Kierkegaard, that meant it was a tormented relationship.

One Spring day of his 24th year, Kierkegaard met the 15-year-old Regine Olsen, and a mutual infatuation was born. Søren and Regine became close friends, and three years later, on September 8, 1840, Kierkegaard confessed his full feelings for her. (He kept a diary, which is why we know the date.)

According to Kierkegaard’s diary, Regine responded to his declaration with silence. Soon thereafter the two were engaged.

Kierkegaard immediately began to have doubts. He buried himself in his work to such a degree that Regine came to believe he was avoiding her. Yet they wrote to each other constantly, and seemingly remained passionately in love.

But Kierkegaard was Kierkegaard. In August 1841, he broke off the engagement via letter. Regine was heartbroken, and threatened to kill herself if he didn’t take her back. In an attempt to help her fall out of love with him, Kierkegaard played it cool so that Regine would think he didn’t care about her.

Kierkegaard remained a bachelor (and presumably celibate) for the rest of his life. He never stopped loving Regine, describing nights crying in bed without her. He later begged Regine for forgiveness for his treatment of her. However, his actions were unforgiveable, especially since there was no real (known) reason why they couldn’t be together.

Kierkegaard was a man who thrived on anxiety and the Regine Olsen affair provided loads of it. He later dedicated his work to her, and we can consider the torment of this relationship as the source of much of his writing.

Regine married, and outlived Kierkegaard by nearly 50 years. But her relationship with Søren Kierkegaard remained at the center of her life, and in later years she was the subject of numerous interviews about Kierkegaard, who had become trendy.

The story of Regine and Søren lives on. Here’s a song about them! Why not play it for the person you’re tormenting?

The Most Famous Person You’ve Never Heard Of

Thursday, May 12th, 2016


Sholem (aka “Sholom”) Aleichem died on May 13, 1916.

Sholem Aleichem was the Mark Twain of Yiddish. In fact, the story of their first meeting goes something like this: in 1906, someone introduced Sholem Aleichem as “the Yiddish Mark Twain” and Mark Twain said, QUOTE: “Please tell him that I am the American Sholem Aleichem.”

Nobody hasn’t heard of Fiddler on the Roof, which was taken from Aleichem’s stories – although the musical takes liberties (by adding a fiddler, for instance).

Here are some facts and exhortations:

  • If you like Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, you should read Aleichem’s The Bloody Hoax
  • Like Mark Twain, Aleichem wrote under a pseudonym. “Sholem Aleichem” is Yiddish (שלום־עליכם, sholem aleykhem) for “peace be upon you.”
  • He was the first person to write for children in Yiddish
  • His ethical will was printed in its entirety on the front page of the New York Times.
  • There is an impact crater on Mars named after him
  • When he died in 1916, his was the among the largest public funerals in New York City history, attended by some 200,000 people

Want to find out more?

In Queens? You can visit him here.

In NYC, YIVO will present this tribute on May 22nd commemorating the 100th anniversary of his death..

And as specified in his remarkable will, readings of his stories take place on the occasion of his yahrzeit. You can attend an official reading at the Brotherhood Synagogue.

Speaking of that will, here it is, as it appeared in the New York Times. Click on the image to see it large enough to read.


Happy Birthday to Søren Kierkegaard

Thursday, May 5th, 2016

Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard was born on May 5, 1813. Kierkegaard was unique among 19th century philosophers for his fusing of theological thought with Romantic-era philosophy.

Christian ethics were essential to Kierkegaard’s work, and he became highly critical of the Church of Denmark. Kierkegaard was a tormented individual who wrestled with issues of sin and forgiveness, and his personal torment was reflected in his work. It’s thanks to Kierkegaard that we use the word angst in English.

Kierkegaard’s relatively young death made him even more romantic, and by the end of the 19th century his work had been translated into many languages.

Søren Kierkegaard’s influence reached deep into the 20th century. Ludwig Wittgenstein was greatly influenced by him, and wrote that “Kierkegaard is far too deep for me.” Kierkegaard’s wrestling with his faith through philosophical work was an influence to humanistic psychologists such as Erich Fromm and Viktor Frankl. And he is widely considered to the father of existentialism, so Sartre and Camus and a generation of beret-wearing smokers owe a lot to him. The term “leap of faith” can be traced directly to Kierkegaard’s work, although he never used that exact term. So we also owe the title of at least one Steve Martin movie to Kierkegaard.

In honor of Søren Kierkegaard, express your angst, take a walk through the cobbled streets of Copenhagen (if you happen to be in Copenhagen), and have a religious awakening and/or crisis of faith. And pick up one of his books if you’re not familiar with them. We recommend Either/Or.

The Søren Kierkegaard Finger Puppet

We’ll be posting more about Kierkegaard over the course of this month. Stay tuned!