Soren Aabye Kierkegaard was an early 19th-century Danish philosopher. He was born in Copenhagen on May 5, 1813, and died on November 11, 1855. An understanding of Kierkegaard’s biography is important as his relationships with his father, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard, and his fiancée, Regine Olsen, shaped him into a philosopher. Kierkegaard inherited melancholy, the sense of guilt and anxiety as well as being overly devotional towards Christianity from his father. Michael was guilty of having cursed God as a boy and of having impregnated his maid outside of wedlock. Thus, he believed that God would take the lives of his seven sons before they reach the age of 34 (the age of Jesus Christ at the crucifixion). This self-believed prophecy is borne out true for all but two of his children, Soren and his elder brother, Peter. Soren was surprised that they both made it beyond that age. This explains the urgency felt by him to write prolifically after his 34th birthday.
On a different note, Soren Kierkegaard’s broken engagement with Olsen set the path for him to devote himself to a higher power – the religious power. Moreover, it freed him from personal entanglements with women, which allowed him to objectify them as well as to reproduce the patriarchal values of his father and the church. The latter included viewing women in terms of their traditional social roles, particularly as mothers and wives, and in their traditional spiritual roles as epitomes of devotion and self-sacrifice. Nevertheless, Kierkegaard regarded everyone as equal before God under the aspect of eternity, no matter what one’s life circumstances, social roles, or gender were.
Kierkegaard’s philosophy concerns the perversity of the human condition and how people lead their lives. His philosophy is centered around the individual; the subjective truths; the problems of boredom, anxiety, and despair; and the “Leap of Faith”. Kierkegaard believed that the meaning of one’s existence can be understood by making choices for real experiences rather than by following the crowd. He believed that this self-actualization brings an idea of responsibility in one’s life. However, with responsibility comes anxiety and according to Kierkegaard, anxiety applies to every individual. To overcome anxiety, one needs to have faith and be self-conscious, which is possible only when the person is guided by religion (Christianity).
To describe a man’s journey to become a true self, Kierkegaard grounded his philosophy into three stages of existence: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. In the aesthetic life, individuals are in the realm of pleasure, enjoyment, and satisfying moments. Driven merely by sensuous experiences and impulses to avoid boredom, an aesthete eventually finds the pleasures wearing thin with no commitments in life and begins to seek ethical pleasures.
In the ethical life, individuals are driven by passion, make choices, take responsibilities and live according to rules and norms established for the good of society. The ethical person lives to serve others which gives the individual a sense of self-worth. However, as the individual deviates from the moral law, guilt, despair, and anxiety set in. Therefore, having pursued the ethical stage to its maximum leads to a dilemma between duty and inclination and the only escape from this despair is through a leap to another stage of existence- the religious stage.
In religious life, an individual is guided by an absolute power-the God. It is at this stage that an individual can relate to oneself. According to Kierkegaard, only by relating to God does the ‘Self’ become actualized and obtain a true sense of authentic being. To Kierkegaard, religion is not a matter of dogmatic principles of Christianity or the Church. To him, religion is a matter of faith that is subjective to an individual’s experiences.
In addition to focussing on aspects of human life, Kierkegaard’s philosophy also advocates social change. He focuses on the re-establishment of genuine human characteristics of self-reflection, authenticity, and commitment which are otherwise at stake under the influence of societal stereotypes. Therefore, he propagates that the “Leap of Faith” runs in cycles and does not necessarily stop at one go.
The key strength of Kierkegaard’s philosophy is that it advocates subjectivity over rationality to emphasize individuality in society. He disregards ‘society person, those who represent the animal-definition of being human (The Diary of Soren Kierkegaard). However, he believes in social rules that bind an individual. Hence, his philosophy recognizes both an individual as well as the social rules, maintaining harmony between individual and society.
Another strength of Kierkegaard’s philosophy is that it covers multiple perspectives of human life and gives a realistic understanding of how certain people deal with existential problems in life. It is not uncommon to see people go through phases of aesthetic, ethical, and religious lives when exposed to certain circumstances, for instance, despair or anxiety in life.
Yet another strength in Kierkegaard’s philosophy is the freedom he provides to the readers by allowing them to make subjective choices rather than following the conventional system of philosophical dialectics. Kierkegaard presented monologues from varied subjective viewpoints often under pseudonyms to encourage readers to explore different thought processes.
Kierkegaard’s philosophy presents some weaknesses as well. His emphasis on individuality, whilst empowering, could be disruptive at times. Sometimes what one considers individuality may appear selfish to others in that an individual might be pursuing a goal at the expense of others. For instance, Kierkegaard’s broken engagement caused pain to not only Olsen but also to him.
In addition, the commitment to the emotional state of anxiety and despair can be a source of strength and can well motivate a person to get to a better stage of life, however, there is a pitfall to this concept as well. A person may not always be able to evolve through despair to other stages of life. Such sustained circumstances can have ill effects, not only on an individual but can adversely affect the entire society.
Lastly, according to Kierkegaard, individuals can transform themselves and carve their own rationale and shape their decisions based on the “Leap of Faith”. This definition of rationality is vague and could prove dangerous. It is not difficult to envisage how individuals intoxicated with power live in a world of delusion and denial, where they believe all their acts, good or bad, are justified, based on a presumed “Leap of Faith”. As the saying goes, “power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely”.
Kierkegaard’s philosophy can be applied to all walks of human life and can be extended to management as well. Nowadays, organizations are putting in much effort to increase employee wellbeing and employee satisfaction in order to improve overall organizational resilience. Many corporate giants like Google and Facebook follow the culture which emphasizes positive learning for each individual, in collaboration with others thereby increasing overall organizational efficiency. This reflects the growth of an individual focussing on ‘individuality’ while adhering to organizational norms.
One of the keys to building strong teams lies in the ability of managers to bind and unify their team members into a cohesive force, where each member complements one another. This also depends upon the ability of the manager to pinpoint each team member’s salient features, their unique abilities and eventually appreciating their efforts to motivate them further towards the bigger picture. This approach of giving and take can motivate graduates and trainees and help them hone their skills and increase their knowledge. Here, giving involves encouragement in terms of appraisals, rewards, and other recognitions for the subordinates to keep them motivated towards the company goal. While the above is true for employees with an aesthetic outlook, for the employees with an ethical outlook, managers should create an environment where core principles and business codes of conduct are absolutely aligned with the mission and vision of the organization. Such an approach is pragmatic and equally expedient particularly under crisis or change, where the call to shared values can instill inspiration and motivation in an organization living under a pall of gloom and fear.
Kierkegaard’s philosophy, on the surface, appears to be religious, however, deep down it focuses on an individual. He prioritizes individual overcrowd and empty pleasures of life and seeks that an individual strives, chooses, and decides alternatives to recognize ‘Self’ and makes commitments. No wonder, he is regarded as the ‘Father of Existentialism’.