Everybody’s Kierkegaard

The Last Years: Journals 1853-1855

by Sören Kierkegaard, edited and translated by Ronald Gregor Smith
Harper & Row, 384 pp., $6.95

Sören Kierkegaard
Sören Kierkegaard; drawing by David Levine

With the appearance of this part of Kierkegaard’s Journals, all but one of his published works are now translated into English. The remaining work, his master’s thesis, On the Concept of Irony, is scheduled to appear this year, and some unpublished letters and papers have been commissioned for translation. So unless one counts some selections published as a University of Texas bulletin in 1923, it has taken less than thirty years to render practically the entire corpus into English: The first important publications—Alexander Dru’s selections from the Journals and Walter Lowrie’s extensive quotations in his biography Kierkegaard—both appeared in 1938.

Kierkegaard died in 1855. Thus English and American interest in his work is a twentieth-century phenomenon. The same is not true in Scandinavia, where within ten years of his death his work was exerting an important literary and philosophical influence—on Ibsen for instance. In Germany, however, there was little serious discussion of Kierkegaard before the end of World War I. Bärthold had published several works about him in German in the 1870s, and Brandes published one significant study in 1879; but the only influential (though superficial) works in German before World War I were written by a professor of philosophy in Copenhagen, Harald Höffding. There are adequate entries on Kierkegaard in the Realenzyklopädie für Protestantische Theologie und Kirche (1901) and in English in the old Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia, but both were written by the same man, a Dane. Neither Windelband nor Eucken mention him in their histories of philosophy, and Falckenberg cites him only once even in late editions of his Geschichte der neueren Philosophie.

IT IS RARE for an author to have to wait until sixty-five years after his death to become immortal; and neglect of his work cannot entirely be blamed on his mother tongue, since a number of his more important works were available in German by the latter part of the nineteenth century. What happened? The Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, is chiefly responsible for introducing Kierkegaard’s ideas into general discussion. In The Epistle to the Romans, published in 1918—the book that made his reputation and is often credited with having started the neo-orthodox movement in Protestantism—Barth quoted Kierkegaard generously; and for the following eight years he made no secret of his immense debt to him. Around 1927, however, Barth abruptly dropped Kierkegaard: In his enormous twelve-volume Church Dogmatics Barth mentions Kierkegaard about twenty times, often in small type and in passing, and usually to criticize one or another of his minor ideas. In a brief autobiography which appeared in 1945, Barth does not even list Kierkegaard among those thinkers who shaped his doctrinal standpoint; and in Die Protestantische Theologie im 19 Jahrhundert (1947), published in English as Protestant Thought from Rousseau to Ritschl, Barth mentions Kierkegaard only three times. Thereby hang several tales.

Kierkegaard’s work was useful to the early Protestant neo-orthodox movement for several reasons. One might,…

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