Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard by Allen Lane 2019
Review by Laurie Chisholm
Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) is traditionally regarded as the father of Existentialism, a philosophical and literary movement that really only got going after World War II. Clare Carlisle, the author, is currently Reader in Philosophy and Theology at King’s College London. I find it fascinating that a relatively young academic appears to be devoting her life to deepening the understanding of this thinker, whom many would regard as old-fashioned or far too subjective.
This book is not a biography in the usual sense; it is a series of reflections set at particular stages during Kierkegaard’s life and aimed at entering deeply into his way of thinking and helping us make sense of his ideas by setting them in his particular historical context. Reviewers complain that the jumping back and forth in time makes it difficult to follow, especially if a reader doesn’t already have a sense of Kierkegaard’s biography.
I was already familiar with one of Kierkegaard’s most famous sayings, “life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” Carlisle has helped to deepen our understanding of it.
Kierkegaard lived in a time when railway was the new technology and in the ascendent. Imagine sitting in a train, facing backwards, and looking out the window. You see the countryside rushing past. You have a picture of where you have been, but cannot see where you are heading. Kierkegaard would have experienced this and saw it as an image of how life is. This image helps him understand what it means to exist as a human being in the world. You can gain an understanding and knowledge of the past, but the future is a great unknown. Yet we must all live forwards into the future.
Carlisle returns repeatedly to the meaning of Kierkegaard’s love life. He became engaged to Regine but then broke it off, causing a scandal that damaged his reputation. It seems that he felt unable to sustain an intimate relationship, given his melancholy disposition. He also saw that without wife and family, he could devote himself to writing and live off his father’s wealth.
Explication of Kierkegaard’s ideas forms only a small part of this book, but when she does explain, it is very helpful. There is absolutely no discussion of contemporary views of Kierkegaard and his ideas or direct response to criticisms that have been levelled at him. It’s all about helping to understand where he is coming from.
Towards the end of his life, Kierkegaard engaged in a bitter polemic against the established Danish church and its leaders. Carlisle makes clear that this was just the endpoint of a conflict that began as early as his early work Either/Or and that his aim was “to make manifest the illusion of Christendom and provide a vision of what it is to become a Christian.”
My theological hero, Eugen Drewermann, was influenced by Kierkegaard. After going through the exhaustive process of gaining a licence to teach Catholic theology (Ph.D. followed by a post-doctoral thesis, in all almost 2000 pages) Drewermann refused to take a paid teaching position, telling himself that being an honorary lecturer was only just acceptable. For Kierkegaard, “Christianity is not a doctrine but an existence communication... It can only be presented – by existing.”