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Kierkegaard’s Uncanny Encounter with Schopenhauer, 1854 Patrick Stokes, University of Melbourne, Australia


Kierkegaardiana Vol. II) (Mexico: Sociedad Iberoamericana de Estudios Kierkegaardianos, 2007) pp.68-79. Please cite the original place of publication in any references to this paper]


Roman Kralik et


(eds) Kierkegaard



Søren Kierkegaard and Arthur Schopenhauer stand as two of the most original, engaging and maddeningly uncategorisable thinkers of the first half of the 19 th Century. In some respects they are radically different (not least with respect to their respective a/theism) yet there are intriguing parallels as well. Both were vehement anti-Hegelians, writing against backdrops dominated by Hegelian voices (and in Schopenhauer’s case, by Hegel himself). 1 Both stand as somewhat eccentric figures in their respective contexts, “outsiders” to a philosophical mainstream against which they each took up stridently polemical standpoints. And both see the “chatter” of Hegelianism and the self-interest of the professional philosophical classes as hypocritically inimical to their stated aim of seeking and defending the truth. These similarities could not have failed to strike Kierkegaard, and the impression they made seems to have been quite profound. Kierkegaard’s encounter with Schopenhauer comes late in the day, at a moment when his authorial career is about to move into its decisive final phase: the attack on “Christendom” through Fædrelandet and The Moment. The significance of his encounter with Schopenhauer, and the repulsive force that the startlingly similar figure of Schopenhauer has on Kierkegaard, can be seen as a small but significant element in precipitating the crisis of Kierkegaard’s final year.

Though Schopenhauer was not especially well-known either within Germany or outside it, the Hongs note that Kierkegaard must have been aware of Schopenhauer at least as early as 1837, given his exposure to him through Poul M. Møller’s On Immortality. 2 Yet whilst

1 Schopenhauer famously scheduled his lectures in Berlin at the same time as Hegel’s, a policy that saw Schopenhauer lecturing to virtually empty rooms. Safranski, Rüdiger Schopenhauer and the Wild Years of Philosophy trans. Ewald Osers (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1989) p.252

2 Kierkegaard, Søren Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975) p.631. Quotes from this volume are referenced by JP and entry number.

Kierkegaard owned Schopenhauer’s major works, 3 he is curiously silent on the topic of Schopenhauer until 1854. 4 Accordingly, the Hongs suggest that Kierkegaard does not actually read Schopenhauer, at least in any detail, until then; Garff puts this reading as beginning in May 1854 and continuing through the summer. 5 When Kierkegaard does start to write about Schopenhauer, though, it is obvious he finds himself “surprised to find an author who affects me so much” (JP, 3877). Such is the obvious depth of this impression, and the disturbance it generates for Kierkegaard, that the Hongs must almost certainly be right: it seems inconceivable that this wasn’t Kierkegaard’s first sustained reading of Schopenhauer.

Kierkegaard actually says very little about the major concepts in Schopenhauer’s work (indeed, the central Schopenhauerian concept of blind, non-rational will as the noumenal reality behind all phenomena is never mentioned at all), and only discusses his asceticism and pessimism in relatively broad brush strokes. Perhaps Kierkegaard saw Schopenhauer’s revised Kantianism for what it was: fascinating, engagingly written and astonishingly widely- sourced, but ultimately a philosophical cul-de-sac rather than a genuine advance. Kierkegaard is far less concerned with Schopenhauerian thought than with Schopenhauer-as- author, discerning in his unique authorial voice a reflection of his own. The similarities are not merely striking for Kierkegaard, but unsettling:

In one respect I almost resent [er det mig næsten ubehageligt] having begun to read Schopenhauer. I have such an indescribably scrupulous anxiety about using someone else’s expressions without acknowledgement. But his expressions are sometimes so closely akin to mine that in my exaggerated diffidence I perhaps end by ascribing to him what is my very own. (JP, 3886)

This “resentment” or sense of “unpleasantness” (ubehageligt) seems to be linked to a troubling ambiguity, a blurring of the boundaries of identity that Kierkegaard experiences in reading Schopenhauer. Indeed, in a marginal notation Kierkegaard even sees the initials A.S. as an inversion of his own: “Strangely enough, I am called S.A. We, too, no doubt stand in an

3 Kierkegaard owned the 1844 edition of Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung as well as Die beiden Grundprobleme der Ethik (1841), Parerga und Paralipomena (1851) and Über den Willen in der Natur (1836). Rohde, H.P. (Ed.) Auktionsprotokol Over Søren Kierkegaards Bogsamling (Copenhagen: Det Kongelige Bibliotek, 1967) pp.53, 62.

4 Apart from a possible indirect quotation in 1844; see the Hongs’ note in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, trans. Howard H. Hong and Edna H. Hong. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990) p. 524 n.172

5 Garff, Joakim Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography trans. Bruce Kirmmse (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005)


inverse relation to each other.” Arthur Schopenhauer appears to Søren Aabye as a sort of mirror-image, an experience evidently redolent with unease for Kierkegaard. “Such works as these are mirrors”, Lichtenberg said in the quote Kierkegaard chose as the epigram for Stages on Life’s Way, 6 and in this mirror, S.A. peers into A.S. and is confronted with his inversion – as it were, his demonic double. Kierkegaard’s talk of being markedly affected in an almost unpleasant way is reminiscent of the experience of the “uncanny” in Freud’s sense (unheimlich), the experience of something as simultaneously familiar yet disturbingly foreign – the experience of encountering one’s “double” being a paradigm example. 7

This anxiety over reading Schopenhauer sounds here like anxiety in the distinctively Kierkegaardian sense: a “sympathetic antipathy” born of a simultaneous attraction to Schopenhauer’s beguilingly familiar turn-of-phrase 8 and repulsion. There is a pronounced ambivalence evident in Kierkegaard’s entries on Schopenhauer, where Kierkegaard repeatedly stresses the “significance” (JP, 3877) of a “very important author” (JP, 3881) who has “interested me very much” (JP, 3877), and confesses “with joy and gratitude that his life and career are a deep wound inflicted on professor-philosophy” (JP, 3883). Yet Schopenhauer is also “an alarming sign” (JP, 3883), and herein lies the repulsive element in the ambivalence. Perhaps this is why, instead of detailing the similarities, Kierkegaard’s journal entries consist mostly of sustained criticisms of Schopenhauer. He does not take issue with Schopenhauer’s disdain for Christianity – “that is his own responsibility” (JP, 3881) – but instead charges Schopenhauer with authorial inauthenticity: “strictly speaking, he is not what he personally thinks himself to be” (JP, 3883).

For Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer is “no character, no ethical character, not a Greek philosopher in character, still less a Christian police-agent” (JP, 3887) precisely because he does not inhabit the asceticism he lauds in his ethics. His pessimism amounts to a claim that insofar as will is the underlying foundation of all phenomena, it can never be satisfied, 9 and accordingly to exist is to suffer. The solution is to adopt an ascetic comportment towards existence, whereby the desires are stilled and we attain a form of peaceful, will-less

6 Kierkegaard, Søren Stages on Life's Way trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.) p.8

7 Freud, Sigmund “The Uncanny” http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/~amtower/uncanny.html accessed 14/08/07

8 Kierkegaard is particularly taken by Schopenhauer’s description of journalists as “renters of opinions” (JP, 3885).

9 Schopenhauer, Arthur The World as Will and Representation Volume I trans. E.F.J. Payne (New York: Dover, 1969) p.164

contemplation. 10 Yet this path is not open to everyone: only the genius can become will-less in this way. But this “turns ethics into a matter of genius” according to Kierkegaard, and this is “precisely an unethical view of the ethical” whereby the genius will merely awaken the rest of us from our “happy illusion that life is happiness” without giving us the resources to attain his quietism (JP, 3887). Besides, Schopenhauer praises the Indian Brahmins as paradigms of this asceticism, yet they are “qualified religiously, not by genius” (JP, 3877). More seriously, Schopenhauer himself is no ascetic, and therefore “he himself is not the contemplation attained by means of asceticism, but a contemplation which relates contemplatively to that asceticism” (JP, 3877). Schopenhauer therefore is an ethicist who relates merely abstractly to his own ethics, and it must be a dubious ethics that “does not exercise such power over the teacher that he expresses it himself” (JP, 3877). In effect, Schopenhauer is as abstract in his engagement with existentially “earnest” matters as the Hegelian professors both he and Kierkegaard delight in attacking.

This failure to live up to his own philosophical commitments is most strikingly illustrated in the nature of his attack on the philosophical establishment. In one entry (JP, 3877), Kierkegaard lauds Schopenhauer for discerning that “there is a class of men in philosophy, just as there are clergymen in religion” who have degraded the truth by making it into their source of worldly income, and who protect this state of affairs “by ignoring what is not of the profession.” This, of course, is the fate of both Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer in their respective contexts. Yet for all his “charming, superbly unparalleled […] incisive abusiveness,” Schopenhauer “lives withdrawn and then once in a while sends out a thunderstorm of abuse – which is ignored.” And “in this respect, [A.S.] does not resemble S.A. at all”, for Kierkegaard has maintained visible public contact with those esteemed men of learning which “undermines the vileness of [their] ignoring” and makes them ridiculous. Kierkegaard has moreover willingly exposed himself to risk, to ridicule and contempt, precisely to demonstrate that his “protest” is “a divine protest which therefore even dares to spurn the rabble when it wants to applaud a victory.” In the figure of the “prototype” of

10 Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation Volume I p.196: “When, however, an external cause or inward disposition suddenly raises us out of the endless stream of willing, and snatches knowledge from the thralldom of the will, the attention is now no longer directed to the motives of willing, but comprehends things free from their relation to the will. Thus it considers things without interest, without subjectivity, purely objectively; it is entirely given up to them insofar as they are merely representations and not motives. Then all at once the peace, always sought but always escaping us on that first path of willing, comes to us of its own accord, and all is well with us. It is the painless state, prized by Epicurus as the highest good and the state of the gods; for at that moment we are delivered from the miserable pressure of the will.”

Christ this approach is carried to its limit: Christ is offered worldly acclaim and actively rejects it, wanting to be crucified instead of being made king.

Schopenhauer’s attack, by contrast, is essentially impotent precisely because he hasn’t renounced the desire for academic recognition. He has not declined the throne; he has merely failed to be offered it, and stormed off in a resentful huff. The “person of ethical or religious character” (JP, 3877) would at minimum take a posture of ironic detachment towards honours and fame from a world that represents untruth. Schopenhauer instead craves acknowledgement; he quite un-ironically basks in the glory of receiving the Gold Medal for his essay for the Royal Science Society in Trondheim and rails against the Society in Copenhagen when he loses there. 11 In fairness to Schopenhauer, his bitterness at his rejection by the academic world is inextricably linked with his sense of the truth and importance of his doctrines. At times he seems captivated by the surprising fecundity of his central concept, by its apparent explanatory power across a vast range of physical, biological and psychological phenomena, and by its remarkable internal systematic coherence (something he insists he never actively sought in his thinking but that nonetheless speaks to its validity). 12 Yet it is virtually impossible to disentangle personal disappointment and ego from genuine philosophical conviction in Schopenhauer’s venomous and breathtakingly self-righteous denunciations of his opponents. He is, as Kierkegaard puts it, “incomparably coarse” (JP, 3877), but in this coarseness it is impossible to tell where a passion for truth ends and affronted vanity begins.

Whilst Kierkegaard is in sympathy with Schopenhauer’s critique of the self-serving, inward- looking ranks of the Hegelian professors, Kierkegaard claims to discern what Schopenhauer cannot: that because of the disjunction between his writing and his life, he himself does not escape this critique. Schopenhauer decries those who live by or on philosophy (“Among the Greeks they were called sophists; among the moderns they are called professors of philosophy”) as enemies of truth: “those who live by philosophy are not only, as a rule and with the rarest exceptions, quite different from those who live for philosophy, but very often they are even the opponents of the latter, their secret and implacable enemies.” 13 This

11 Kierkegaard sees something ridiculous in Schopenhauer’s pride here: “ye gods, in Trondheim! […] it does not occur to him that perhaps The Scientific Society rated it as a bit of rare luck that a German sent them a treatise. Pro dii imortales!” (JP, 3877)

12 Schopenhauer The World as Will and Representation Volume II p.185

13 Schopenhauer The World as Will and Representation Volume II p.163

language is obviously resonant with the attack Kierkegaard launches a year later on the Danish Church, where the pastors live off Christianity, rendering them “cannibals.” 14 Yet Kierkegaard argues that because Schopenhauer has not renounced worldly recognition, his pessimism and asceticism is not complete, and comically, he himself fails to see this. Indeed, this convicts Schopenhauer himself of Sophistry, even as he attacks the institutional Sophists of the Academy: “making profit on philosophy is enough to brand a man as a Sophist, but it does not follow that not making a profit is sufficient to indicate that one is not a Sophist. No, Sophistry lies in the distance between what a person understands and what one is; a person who does not stand in the character of what he understands is a Sophist” (JP, 3883). Nor does it help that Schopenhauer admits to not being himself an ascetic, though this self-awareness is in itself commendable (JP, 3883). The gap between the categories of an author’s thought and the categories in which that author lives is sufficient to convict him of being a Sophist, or to use language Kierkegaard used in the 1840s, an “inessential author” or “premise author” 15

Yet just as Schopenhauer’s critique of the professors is a double-edged sword, that unwittingly cuts Schopenhauer even as he wields it, so too Kierkegaard’s critique of Schopenhauer has the potential to rebound on its author. In Kierkegaard’s view, the only thing that makes Schopenhauer different from the “Professors”, given his failure to renounce academic acclaim, is the accidental qualification that he has sufficient wealth to sustain his authorship independently. Yet such a thought must have hit uncomfortably close to home for Kierkegaard. Unlike Schopenhauer he never lectured in Philosophy, but he did seriously consider becoming a pastor; 16 and both men, while still in their twenties, inherited substantial amounts from their wealthy merchant fathers, giving them personal means to pursue their authorial activities without the necessity of seeking a wage from the institutions of church or academia. 17 While Kierkegaard’s Journal entries on Schopenhauer lack self-consciousness for the most part, these parallels would surely not have been lost on Kierkegaard. Just as Schopenhauer convicts himself in his envious declamations on the professors, Kierkegaard’s critique implicitly throws Kierkegaard’s own position into question. The contemplation of

14 Kierkegaard, Søren The Moment and Late Writings trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998) p.321

15 Kierkegaard, Søren The Book on Adler, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995) pp. 9-15

16 Garff, Søren Kierkegaard p.412

17 Schopenhauer inherited 20,000 reichstalers on his 21 st birthday, generating a comfortable income of 1,000 reichstalers a year. Michael Pederson Kierkegaard’s estate generated 1,200 rixdollars a year, again a comfortable income for his two surviving sons. Safranski, Schopenhauer and the Wild Years of Philosophy p.99; Garff Søren Kierkegaard p.147

Schopenhauer as a failure of essential authorship implicitly asks whether Kierkegaard himself has achieved this integrity in his own authorial work.

Kierkegaard takes issue with Schopenhauer’s “gloomy Indian view that to live is to suffer” (JP, 3881). Yet there is nonetheless corrective value in the modern age being confronted by such pessimism, as it may assist it to “become attentive to the essential Christian principle, which Johannes Climacus expresses: to be a Christian is to suffer” (JP, 3881). Schopenhauer’s attacks on the “vile optimism” found within Protestantism serve to show how this is precisely not true Christianity (JP, 3881) but rather a form of “eudaemonistic Protestantism”, a poison that requires a counter-poison to inoculate us against it: “Just as during epidemics people put something in the mouth in order to prevent, if possible, being infected by inhaling the noxious air, so theological students who are obliged to live here in Denmark in this nonsensical (Christian) optimism could be advised to take a daily dose of Schopenhauer’s Ethics to guard against being infected by this drivel.” (JP, 3878)

Seen from a specifically Christian perspective, from which such a counter-poison is no longer required, Schopenhauer’s asceticism is itself a form of eudaimonism, because it is based in the idea that to exist is to suffer: therefore, to become as one not-existing through ascetic renunciation is to attain a form of eudaimonia (JP, 3881, 3882). Christianity, by contrast, is specifically not eudaimonistic in that it demands its adherents follow a path away from a eudaimon worldly life towards a life of suffering:

Christianity proclaims itself to be suffering, to be a Christian is to suffer, but now if to exist at all, to be a human being, is to suffer, then Christianity is robbed of its dialectic, its foreground, an aid in making itself negatively identifiable, then Christianity becomes a pleonasm, a superfluous comment, chit-chat, for it to be a human being is to suffer, then it is certainly ludicrous to advance a doctrine with the formulation: to be a Christian is to suffer. (JP, 3881)

Yet in raising Johannes Climacus’ discussion of suffering in Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard subtly indicates a shift in his thinking on the nature of suffering. In the Postscript, Climacus does hold that the aesthetic has at its disposal only categories of good and bad fortune (and, insofar as it regards misfortune as something external and alien, its default position is that life is essentially good fortune) while “Inwardness (the ethical and

ethical-religious individual), however, comprehends suffering as essential.” 18 Yet such comprehension of life-as-suffering is a function of inwardness, and so is essential to “the ethical and ethical-religious individual” and not solely to a specifically Christian life-view. The thought that to exist is to suffer is thus entirely accessible from within the sphere of purely immanent religion Climacus calls “Religiousness A.” Merold Westphal notes, however, a significant change in Kierkegaard’s understanding of suffering between the “first” and “second” authorships. In the Postscript Climacus rejects the suffering of the Apostles in Acts 5:40-22 (where, having been flogged for speaking in Jesus’ name, they rejoice at having been found worthy to suffer for Jesus) as not being truly religious suffering but merely outward suffering. 19 In Kierkegaard’s second authorship, however, this passage becomes a paradigm of suffering for faith. 20 In the shift from Religiousness B, in which Christ-as- paradox poses a challenge to believe, to what Westphal labels “Religiousness C” in which Christ as-prototype poses a challenge to act, the role of suffering has changed. Suffering now becomes something that can be avoided if we wish (to an extent), but that we actively and voluntarily choose to bring upon ourselves when we choose to imitate the life of Christ. 21 To fully live out the task of imitation of Christ demanded by “Religiousness C” is necessarily to suffer persecution in the world (a brute fact about the world, it seems), whereas in Religiousness B we can sink back into “business as usual” and live an outwardly untroubled life of relatively comfortable bourgeois contentment. 22

Thus the rejection of Schopenhauer’s pessimism, wherein suffering is the essential condition of existing beings, sharpens the understanding of suffering as a voluntarily undertaken task. To be is not to suffer; to be Christian is to suffer. While the pessimist author’s task is to show us the way out of suffering via a crypto-eudaemonistic asceticism, the task for a Christian author is to speak the “truth” in the full knowledge that this will bring persecution and possibly martyrdom upon himself. “Hidden inwardness” is not enough. But here again the figure of Schopenhauer poses an uncomfortable question: is Kierkegaard really suffering worldly persecution for his authorship? Kierkegaard had already been subjected to public ridicule through the Corsair affair, but in 1854 he is essentially biding his time, planning his

18 Kierkegaard, Søren Concluding Unscientific Postscript to ‘Philosophical Fragments Volume I trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992) p.434

19 Kierkegaard Concluding Unscientific Postscript p.452-53

20 Westphal, Merold “Kierkegaard’s Phenomenology of Faith as Suffering”, in Silverman, Hugh J. (ed.) Writing the Politics of Difference (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1991), pp.60-61

21 Westphal, “Kierkegaard’s Phenomenology of Faith as Suffering” p.61

22 Westphal, “Kierkegaard’s Phenomenology of Faith as Suffering” pp.59-60

attack, brooding over Martensen’s funeral oration for Mynster. If he is truly to actualise his mission of religious authorship, he must bring things to a decisive break of a sort that Schopenhauer, in his resentment and envy, never contemplates.

Garff opines that “Despite the differences and disagreements that characterized the two men, Schopenhauer’s pessimism had a productive effect on Kierkegaard and intensified his own criticisms.” 23 Indeed, but we can take this further: Schopenhauer’s failure to live in his own categories sharpens Kierkegaard’s own conception of what his task as a religious author demands of him. If he is to be fully true to his categories, he cannot be like Schopenhauer who “lives withdrawn and then once in a while sends out a thunderstorm of abuse” (JP, 3877) but must instead fully inhabit his beliefs, in full cognisance of the dire consequences. The astonishment and anxiety Kierkegaard feels at Schopenhauer’s similarity is crucial here, for it is only by virtue of this similarity that Kierkegaard’s critique of Schopenhauer-as-author turns back upon itself. Disturbed by the mutual likeness, Kierkegaard must make himself into the inversion of Schopenhauer in order for his judgement of their inverse relationship to be correct, just as he rather artificially “makes” himself into “S.A.” by dropping the ‘K’, in order to make ‘S.A.’ the inverted mirror-image of ‘A.S.’ A less similar and beguiling “inessential author” could not make the critique self-reflexive in this way.

Kierkegaard’s uncanny encounter with his inverted, demonic double Schopenhauer in the summer of 1854 invokes a self-assessment of Kierkegaard’s activity of authorship at a critical time. If Schopenhauer is not “what he personally thinks himself to be” (JP, 3833), this reflexively poses the question: is Kierkegaard himself is what he takes himself to be? If Schopenhauer’s break with the world in his declaration of asceticism is incomplete, does Kierkegaard, as his critic, fall into the same incompletion with respect to his own categories? What authorial integrity demands is thus thrown into fatally strong relief by Schopenhauer. Of course it would be absurd to suggest that the attack of 1855 could not have happened without this encounter; the process leading up to The Moment and the attack upon Christendom was already well underway by the time Kierkegaard begins reading Schopenhauer in 1854. It’s because of that process that Kierkegaard reads Schopenhauer as he does. Yet as part of Kierkegaard’s overall progression, this encounter stands as an important path-marker on the road to the crisis of 1855.

23 Garff Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography p.713

The polemic of 1855 brought Kierkegaard, however indirectly, a form of martyrdom, in that his death became so closely fused in the consciousness of his contemporaries with his attack on the Church. Schopenhauer, by contrast, began to experience some belated recognition in his final years. 24 Kierkegaard, aware of the growing interest in Schopenhauer in Germany, makes a remarkably prescient prediction: “S. is now going to be lugged upstage and acclaimed, and I wager 100 to 1 that he will be slaphappy; it does not occur to him at all to cut the tripe to pieces – no, he will be delighted” (JP, 3877). The Preface to the third edition of The World as Will and Representation, published in 1859 (four years after Kierkegaard’s death and a year before Schopenhauer’s) suggests that Kierkegaard was absolutely right. Schopenhauer still rails against the forces he sees as oppressing the (read: his) truth, but it is now tempered by a smug sense of vindication: “If I also have at last arrived, and have the satisfaction at the end of my life of seeing the beginning of my influence, it is with the hope that, according to an old rule, it will last the longer in proportion to the lateness of its beginning. 25 Kierkegaard could have made no better commentary on this than to point to a passage in his discourse “Strengthening the Inner Being”:

He had learned that there is distress in life; in cruel misfortunes, he had confessed to himself how weak and powerless a person is in his own strength. Yet he did not give

up courage, he did not become despondent, he kept on working [

of prosperity rose again, illuminated everything, explained everything, assured him that he had come a long, long way, that he had attained what he had been working for. Then he cried out in his joy, "It just had to happen this way, since a person's efforts are not fruitless and meaningless toil." With that he had spoiled everything and received no strengthening in the inner being. 26

See! Then the sun


24 Safranski, Schopenhauer and the Wild Years of Philosophy pp.346-48

25 Schopenhauer The World as Will and Representation Volume I p.xxviii

26 Kierkegaard Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses p.92 This paper was made possible by a Kierkegaard House Foundation Fellowship at the Hong Kierkegaard Library, St Olaf College, Minnesota, July-December 2007. I am grateful to the Library and Foundation for this support.



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