Are Kierkegaard and His Socratic Philosophy Still Relevant Today?

A version of this article appeared in “Philosophy Now” (Issue 115, Aug./Sept. 2016)

There is a general tendency in the world today to dismiss any type of philosophy (especially the ones that are more than one hundred years old) as being purely theoretical, and with no connection to the type of problems that a person is confronted with in his or her everyday life. But this is not always true. Every philosopher struggled to find better ways to improve people’s lives, by drawing attention to, and making people think about several fundamental aspects of life. Everyone can find valuable information in a philosopher’s work. And one good example for this would be Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855).

Feeling discontent with Hegel’s dialectical system (or with any other philosophy that was popular in his time), Kierkegaard sought to answer life’s questions by turning back to the ancient times of a thinker to whom he felt closer in mind and spirit. Socrates, “the gadfly of Athens,” became the ultimate thinking role model for the young Kierkegaard, who wanted to continue his spiritual mentor’s “art of midwifery,” and become himself “the gadfly of Copenhagen.” Kierkegaard, as Socrates did in his time, tried to challenge the common beliefs of his time, showing that the only “real” truth that one can know is the subjective one. For Kierkegaard, only through a deep and honest analysis of oneself can one truly know what one is or is not, what are one’s values and beliefs, what are one’s “truths.”

Unlike Socrates (whose ideas we know only through other sources, mainly Plato’s Dialogues), Kierkegaard was a very prolific writer. He wanted to leave behind an “authorship,” a collection of writings that would be centered on certain themes and interests. His works may seem contradictory, at a first glance. However, at a closer reading, one can see that they follow the same negative view of Socrates. The ancient philosopher believed that there is no “absolute truth” (hence the “negative” title, as opposed to “positive” philosophy – the one stating that there is an absolute truth), that each individual can (and should) find their own paths in life, their own values, their own truths. This can be done, according to Socrates, by a close examination of the self. Socrates called his technique of helping people become aware of their inner knowledge maieutic, meaning art of midwifery. The thinker humbled himself, saying he doesn’t know anything and would ask the person a series of questions that aimed to reveal that person’s knowledge or lack of. The dialogues usually ended in aporia, a state of puzzlement about the subject being discussed, without finding a real solution, the person realizing his true ignorance.

Kierkegaard embraces Socrates’ philosophy, analyzing himself and realizing that “the thing is to find a truth which is a truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die…. What use would it be in this respect if I were to discover a so-called objective truth, or if I worked my way through the philosophers’ systems…? And what use would it be in that respect to be able to work out a theory of the state…which I myself did not inhabit but merely held up for others to see? What use would it be to be able to propound the meaning of Christianity, to explain many separate facts, if it had no deeper meaning for myself and my life? One must first learn to know oneself before knowing anything else… Only when the person has inwardly understood himself, and then sees the way forward on his path, does his life acquire repose and meaning.” (Kierkegaard’s Journals and Notebooks, Princeton University Press, 2008, vol. 1, p. 22, AA-12)

Kierkegaard used pseudonyms to distance himself, in a way, from the theories presented in his books. Each pseudonym is an embodiment of a way of seeing the world, a way of living your life, a choice. He suggests three main paths of life: the esthetic, the ethical, and the religious (Christian). Although they look a lot like the Hegelian dialectic, in which we have a thesis and an antithesis, which together give birth to a synthesis that represents the ultimate solution, the Kierkegaardian life possibilities are just that – possibilities. Neither of them represents an “ultimate truth.” They are, as Kierkegaard sees them, merely choices that one can make in one’s life. The esthete sees the world in an interesting/boring dichotomy. For him, life is made to live, and there are no serious choices to make. Life is immediacy. For the ethicist, on the contrary, there are only serious choices to make. His dichotomy is, maybe, good/evil. For him, life is what you make of it. It is not enough to just live it; you must make a concrete choice that would give shape to your existence, to your self. Life is responsibility. The Christian, on the other hand, acknowledges the fact that you cannot really succeed in creating a perfect self. But through faith in God, and in his forgiveness, you can accept your imperfect condition, and live your life accordingly, as yourself, free of any other external pressures.

Søren Kierkegaard’s Socratic approach to life is still relevant in the world today because of its focus on the individual. Each of us feels the need for our lives to have a purpose. What Kierkegaard (and Socrates) teaches us is that this purpose can be given only by our choices, our actions, the way we live our lives. No one, neither a philosopher, nor a priest can tell us who or what we are, or what should we do. We must discover and decide that for ourselves, in our inner, most intimate place, where we can make our true self come to the light, to shine our singular, own path. It is important for us to know ourselves, to discover what are really our values, or beliefs, our truths, in order to live a more fulfilling and productive life. It is important to know who we truly are, so that nobody can manipulate us in doing something that is contrary to our inner selves. Kierkegaard does not present us absolute, objective truths, but challenges us to discover them for ourselves. What choices we make, and how well do we end up knowing ourselves, determines our purpose in life. The Socratic irony that Kierkegaard proposes is aimed to make us independent. “The phrase ‘know yourself’ means: separate yourself from the other” (The Concept of Irony, translated by H.V. Hong and E.H. Hong, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1989, p. 177). By this, Kierkegaard means that one must retreat in his own “inwardness” in order to find out one’s own truths. The irony is an instrument of clarity, helping us to see that there is no “objective truth,” but only our individual subjective ones.

In the end, what Kierkegaard does is dare us to live. To choose how we live, and to take responsibility for our lives. Can we rise up to his expectations?

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