Nineteenth century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard played a major role in the development of existentialist thought. Kierkegaard criticized the popular systematic method of rational philosophy advocated by German G. W. F. Hegel. He emphasized the absurdity inherent in human life and questioned how any systematic philosophy could apply to the ambiguous human condition. In Kierkegaard's deliberately unsystematic works, he explained that each individual should attempt an intense examination of his or her own existence.
Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye (1813-1855), Danish religious philosopher, who profoundly influenced modern theology and philosophy, especially existentialism.
Born in Copenhagen, Kierkegaard studied theology and philosophy at the University of Copenhagen, where he led an extravagant social life. In 1840 he became engaged, but broke off the engagement a year later. The episode took on great significance for him, and he repeatedly alluded to it in his books. An inheritance from his father allowed him to devote himself entirely to writing, and he produced more than 20 books.
Kierkegaard's work is deliberately unsystematic and consists of essays, aphorisms, parables, fictional letters, and diaries. He applied the term existential to his philosophy because he regarded philosophy as the expression of an intensely examined individual life. Kierkegaard stressed the ambiguity and paradoxical nature of the human situation. The fundamental problems of life, he contended, defy rational, objective explanation; the highest truth is subjective.
Kierkegaard believed systematic philosophy imposes a false perspective on human existence and becomes a means of avoiding choice and responsibility. Individuals, he believed, create their own natures through their choices. The validity of a choice can only be determined subjectively.
In his first major work, Either/Or (1843), Kierkegaard described two spheres, or stages of existence: the aesthetic and the ethical. The aesthetic sphere is a refined hedonism, consisting of a search for pleasure. The ethical sphere involves an intense commitment to duty, to unconditional social and religious obligations. In his later works, such as Stages on Life's Way (1845), Kierkegaard proposed a third stage, the religious, in which one submits to the will of God and finds authentic freedom. In Fear and Trembling (1846) Kierkegaard proposed that individuals make a "leap of faith" into a religious life, which is inherently paradoxical, mysterious, and full of risk.
Toward the end of his life Kierkegaard was highly critical of the Danish Lutheran church and modern European society. The stress of his prolific writing and the controversies surrounding his works undermined his health; he died in Copenhagen in 1855.