What did Kierkegaard learn from his study of Socrates and how is it relevant in today’s world?

Soren Kierkegaard, Danish Philosopher

Kierkegaard, the eccentric Danish Philosopher of early 19th century, wrote his Master’s Thesis on Socrates’ “Concept of Irony.” This was not an accidental encounter. Kierkegaard remained throughout his life loyal to his “association” with Socrates and declared “Socrates has become a Christian”.

Back in 2011 I wrote about Kierkegaard as the precursor of existentialism. Today’s post is about his intellectual relationship with Socrates and its relevance, if any, to today’s world.

Kierkegaard chose to learn from Socrates the elements which would be compatible with his overall intellectual and philosophical disposition, and the way he wanted to live his life. In doing so, Kierkegaard answered some basic questions that relate to the individual in society. These answers are still valid, in the sense that one may choose to live accordingly in today’s world. It is in this sense that the connection between Kierkegaard and Socrates is still relevant. This formulates the secondary part of my thesis.

I have organized the material in this paper based on the key propositions which Kierkegaard put forward using Socrates as a model. For each proposition (or pair of related propositions), I develop the Socrates – Kierkegaard link and then discuss the relevance to today’s world. Each of the propositions could be the topic of a treatise, so I had to be a concise as possible, at the expense of full development. Nevertheless, I hope that the key issues will emerge and will contribute to the relevant discussions.

P1: The basic questions address the individual, cannot be inherited from the collective

P2: Knowledge and faith are subjective

It is commonplace to say that Socrates turned philosophy away from Nature and oriented it towards Man. For Socrates, the individual must answer for himself the basic questions of life, and not blindly inherit them from the community. Socrates established the individual above existing custom. This is where Socrates differentiates himself from the Athenian citizens who condemn him for creating his own Gods. Socrates did not create any Gods, but only talked about his personal “daimonion”, an inner voice which would tell him what not to do. By even talking about his personal “daimonion”, Socrates went against the collective belief in Gods.

This centricity of the individual in the Socratic model has led young Kierkegaard to “Seek a truth for which to live and die”. Truth cannot be trivialized and cannot be made insignificant. It is a person’s duty to find the truth for himself. This quest may give meaning to one’s life.

It is not enough to place the individual in the center of the knowledge acquisition process. Knowledge for Socrates does not exist until it becomes appropriated by a person, until it becomes internal.

For a person to be able to appropriate knowledge they must create an “enclosed reserve”, isolate themselves from other people.

Socrates’ principle is that man must find from himself both the end of his actions and the end of the world, and must attain the truth through himself – truth is now posited as a product mediated through thought. Per Socrates, the subject is a constituent element of the truth.

The individual in western societies today is facing the danger of losing his identity. Mass markets require mass consumers. We are all the same, even when we appear to be different. Technology gives us “personalized” tools which simply enables each one of us to do the same thing in different formats and ways. In such an environment, the individual must struggle to answer the key questions for himself, and avoid to become one more unit in a faceless society.


P3: Irony is a tool in knowledge acquisition

P4: Pure Irony is a tool in questioning the whole actuality of a certain time and age

The personal journey to knowledge begins with irony. Irony is the best approach to negate, to question what you know, to reach the stage of accepting that you know nothing, or even very little.  Irony leads to subjective freedom.

Kierkegaard appropriated irony as a tool from Socrates while writing his Master’s Thesis on Socratic Irony. This was also the period during which Kierkegaard established Socrates as his model for answering the question “what do I want to do with my life”.

Kierkegaard’s irony in the eminent sense (pure irony) questions the whole actuality of a certain time and age. In this sense, irony is no longer a knowledge acquisition tool, but a tool that questions a “World View” in its totality.

Irony in both of its manifestations, is a negative tool. It does not put forward a positive thesis, a proposition. It only questions a view, a proposition, a “whole actuality”.

Irony is also opening the “negativity” domain to Kierkegaard and his work. Whilst most philosophers try to solve problems and give answers, Socrates appears to be content with arriving at a dead-end, as is the case in Euthyphro, when the dialog ends abruptly without Socrates answering the question of what is piety. Kierkegaard is also content with negativity, and in a sense, criticizes Hegel for calling Socrates a “negative” philosopher. Unlike Hegel, Kierkegaard does not consider the aim of the philosopher to construct a system and give answers.

P5: Aporia is also a knowledge acquisition tool

P6: Knowledge co-exists with paradoxes, contradictions, absurdities

Kierkegaard liberates himself from the burden of giving solutions, making positive propositions. Sometimes it is enough to know that you do not know, even though you do not know what you were supposed to know. Knowledge is not mandatory, is not inevitable. We must come to terms with the fact that many times we are stuck with “not-knowing”.

Aporia is the state where the person faces a paradox, a dead end trying to explain, a failure of the rational faculty. Reaching the state of aporia is a prerequisite for appropriating knowledge. In the Socratic dialogue approach, on many occasions Socrates brought the other party to a state of aporia. Therefore, we may assume that Socrates indirectly accepts that there are paradoxes.

However, Socrates believed that knowledge can be obtained, and for this reason he never stopped aiming at acquiring knowledge.

Kierkegaard, on the other hand, believed that everything cannot be explained.   Knowledge co-exists with paradoxes, contradictions, absurdities. Kierkegaard goes even beyond that.

“The supreme paradox of all thought is the attempt to discover something that thought cannot think. This passion is at bottom present in all thinking, even in the thinking of the individual, in so far as in thinking he participates in something transcending himself. But habit dulls our sensibilities, and prevents us from perceiving it”. (Kierkegaard, Johannes Climacus, Philosophical Fragments (46))

In this respect, Kierkegaard establishes the limits of the rational faculty, and therefore the limits of knowledge.

Kierkegaard “uses” Socrates to counter Hegel’s “mediation”.

Kierkegaard’s faith paradox.

P7: The path to knowledge is hard – The path to Christianity is hard

Socrates has shown how hard is the path to knowledge, especially when one begins with the illusion that he has knowledge. Appropriating knowledge is a path without certainty, a journey without assured success. It is for this reason that Socrates claimed that there is only one thing that he knows, that he know not.

Kierkegaard inspired by Socrates, wrote:

“The only analogy I have before me is Socrates; my task is a Socratic task, to audit the definition of what it is to be a Christian-I do not call myself a Christian (keeping the ideal free), but I can make it manifest that the others are that even less.” (Kierkegaard, The Moment and Late Writings, p. 341)

Kierkegaard takes what Socrates wrote about knowledge and transcribes it to Christian faith. He does not claim to be a Christian, but he can manifest that the others are even less.