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The best books on Søren Kierkegaard

recommended by Clare Carlisle

Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard by Claire Carlisle

Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard
by Claire Carlisle

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“It’s not surprising that he died at forty-two, because he burned himself out restlessly, relentlessly pursuing this question of how to be a human being.” Søren Kierkegaard's latest biographer Clare Carlisle recommends five books for understanding the Danish philosopher's life and work—and shows how his work often bears witness to the complex, fraught experience of being alive.

Interview by Nigel Warburton

Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard by Claire Carlisle

Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard
by Claire Carlisle

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Before we get to your five book choices, could you say something about who Kierkegaard was?

Søren Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher and writer. He was born in 1813 and died in 1855, and did most of his writing in the 1840s and 50s. Now he’s often thought of as the father of existentialist thought, but he’s really much more than that. He did have a huge influence on twentieth-century philosophy, but his philosophy is very rich and complex. It has religious, theological, and spiritual dimensions as well as the more forward-looking, modern themes that people might be more familiar with.

You’ve written several books about Kierkegaard, but the most recent one is a biography. Most philosophers’ biographies are on the boring side; philosophers tend to be people who spend a lot of time in libraries, or writing, or just talking to people. But Kierkegaard is quite different in this respect. Why is he such an interesting subject for a biography?

One of the interesting things about biography as a literary genre is that it raises philosophical questions about the truth and meaning of a human life—what a good human life looks like, how we might judge a life, and so on. Writing a biography seemed to me to be a philosophical activity.

“What does it mean to be true to yourself, if the self that you are is always shifting? That question launched Kierkegaard’s philosophical career”

With Kierkegaard, those questions—about how to live and how to be human—are unavoidable; he grappled with them in both his writing and his existence. He was a philosopher who brought his life into his work; for example, when he broke his engagement to Regine Olsen. After he was engaged to this young woman for a year, he changed his mind and broke it off. This was a decisive turning point in his own life, but it also raised questions to him about authenticity—what it meant to be true to himself—and ethical questions about human freedom, and about how other people might judge our actions to be wrong, in his case because he had broken a promise. And yet he felt there was a higher truth about what he was doing.

He was also really interested in the question of what it means to live a truthful life—a life that’s true to oneself—when as human beings, we’re always in the process of becoming, always changing. What does it then mean to be true to yourself, if the self that you are is always shifting? That question launched Kierkegaard’s philosophical career—and it is also a biographical question. In many of his books, he focused on the themes of romantic love and fidelity and engagement and marriage, and he kept returning to these questions through his philosophical writing. So, his life and his writing were really intertwined in quite distinctive ways.

He’s very much a writer as well as a philosopher, a literary writer using pseudonymous personae and playful games about who the author of the book is and where the manuscripts came from, and so on. He was also incredibly prolific in a very short life.

I think he was really a compulsive writer. One of the distinctive features of Kierkegaard’s character is his attitude of ambivalence. He was ambivalent towards his father; he was ambivalent towards Christianity; he was very ambivalent towards being an author.

On the one hand, he loved writing—that was how he expressed himself, and his vocation was to be a writer. But he also felt quite tortured by the more public side, not so much by writing as by publication: putting his writings into the world, and therefore making himself conspicuous, and exposing himself to the judgements of other people. He was hyper-reflective and hyper-self-conscious about how he might be perceived by others.

Although he loved writing, and found it difficult to stop even when he really wanted to, he often agonised over whether to publish something once he’d written it. His use of pseudonyms is complicated, but one purpose was to give himself a way to publish his work whilst still holding something back. That’s one psychological aspect to the pseudonyms; there are other philosophical and performative aspects to them, as well. Certainly bound up with it is this ambivalence about being a conspicuous human being in the world, being seen and being judged.

In your choice of five books, you’ve left out many of the most famous books by Kierkegaard such as Either/Or which contains the famous ‘A Seducer’s Diary’—there’s even an edition of that published as a separate thin book, introduced by John Updike. You’ve also left out Fear and Trembling, another classic, much loved by existentialists. Could you say something about your first choice, The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air? It’s a very poetic title, but not one of Kierkegaard’s best-known books.

No, it’s probably one of his least well-known books. It’s a collection of three discourses. Throughout his life, Kierkegaard wrote these discourses; he didn’t call them sermons but they were basically like sermons. In fact, the sermon was the genre in which Kierkegaard most consistently wrote. Many of his more experimental pseudonymous works were accompanied by collections of religious discourses. And he did actually preach a few sermons in churches in Copenhagen over his life. So, I think, for Kierkegaard, the genre of the discourse was very important to him and it was one he enjoyed writing.

This particular collection of discourses is especially lyrical and beautiful. As you say, the title—The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air—is already poetic. It’s also quite an accessible book, partly because it doesn’t have a complicated structure like Either/Or, which has several different authors, and is also very long.

Either/Or is very interesting and important, but it’s also quite a disorientating book to get into as a reader, whereas The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air is quite short and has a simple structure. For me, it explores the question which is central to Kierkegaard’s whole philosophy, which is: What does it mean to be a human being? It’s inspired by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says “Consider the lily of the field. Look at the bird of the air.” He’s evoking the flower and the bird as examples of a kind of carefree existence, with no need to worry about tomorrow.

In Kierkegaard’s hands, the lily and the bird are a kind of foil to the human experience, which is far from carefree—it’s actually an experience full of anxiety and self-consciousness and that sense of being seen and judged by others. We don’t have the immediacy of a lily or a bird. Whereas it’s simple for a lily to just be a lily and for a bird to fly in the air, in Kierkegaard’s view by contrast, it was very difficult and complicated to be a human being. He saw being human as a task that everyone has to learn.

So, he’s really exploring this question of how to be human in these discourses in a very beautiful, poetic way. I would recommend this book as an entry point into Kierkegaard’s thinking.

It’s interesting to think about the biographical element. Kierkegaard was unusual and eccentric in many ways, but in at least two important respects. I don’t know whether he acknowledged this within his writing, but there aren’t many surviving portraits of him, probably because he was self-conscious about how he looked because he had a spinal deformity that caused him pain and awkwardness.

He also had this terrible sense of foreboding that he would die young. That probably arose from something that his father said and did—he had once renounced God, a sin against the Holy Spirit that is considered unforgivable. Kierkegaard turned out to be right about his dying young. Those things—his physical awkwardness, and his heightened sense of his own mortality—made him incredibly self-conscious, I think, as a human being, which then becomes, in part, his theme.

Yes, that’s right. What’s interesting about Kierkegaard is that it’s almost as if he’s intensely human. All human beings—or most of us—worry about what we look like, and wonder about how other people are going to judge us. We think about our physical appearance and whether we will be perceived as successful, or powerful, or confident, or cool, or whatever. All human beings have this self-consciousness, but Kierkegaard had it to a heightened degree. Crucially, he also wrote about it a lot—really explored and analysed the experience, and put it into words.

“All human beings have this self-consciousness, but Kierkegaard had it to a heightened degree”

On the one hand, he can be seen as an eccentric person, but on another, he articulates an experience of being human that we can all recognise, even if we’re not as acutely conscious of it within ourselves as he was. Kierkegaard saw his authorship as making more people become aware of their own existence and the question of their own humanity.

Kierkegaard was very human, actually. He often felt disappointed about the fact that people didn’t take him more seriously. He’d write about that disappointment, and then he’d try to pretend he didn’t care about what people thought of him. He cloaked his disappointment in an attitude of defiance. We all recognise and understand those feelings. But quite courageously, he puts his feelings into words—very powerful words. He’s a brilliant writer.

So, he’s someone who bore witness to an experience of being human: he’s eccentric, for sure, but he’s also very easy to relate to.

Tell me about The Sickness Unto Death, your second book choice.

It’s not the most appealing book title, but The Sickness Unto Death is one of the clearest statements of Kierkegaard’s mature philosophical position. He wrote it at the end of the 1840s, when he’d already written some of his most famous works.

In it, he defines human beings as spiritual beings. He says that human beings are not self-sufficient; we’re not autonomous, but rather all dependent on God. Whether we know it or not and whether we like it or not, we all have a relationship with God. Obviously, that’s a view situated within a particular religious tradition.

For Kierkegaard, that’s what a human is: a being who is not self-sufficient. And he argues that when we fail to understand our own relation to God, we’re in despair. So, he diagnoses this condition of despair which, actually, turns out to be something that everyone suffers from, he says. To a greater or lesser extent, we’re all turning away from God and so turning away from our true nature as dependent beings.

But then, he diagnoses various different forms of this despair. It might take the form of a kind of melancholy, or it might take the form of a more defiant attitude to life where you think that you don’t need (and don’t want) God. It’s a very psychologically acute book.

Is it written in his own name?

No, this is a book that he wrote under the name of a pseudonym: Anti-Climacus. Many of Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous authors are people who say they’re not religious. They don’t really have faith; they don’t understand what it is to be a Christian, or what it would be to have faith in God.

But Anti-Climacus is a pseudonym who claims to be more religious than Kierkegaard would want to assert himself. Kierkegaard was very hesitant to claim authority for himself as somebody who had it all sorted, who knew what it meant to be human being, who really did possess faith and who had a relationship to God. When he wants to explore the question of living in relation to God, he uses a pseudonym with more authority on that question than he himself wanted to claim.

In a way, he saw himself as a reader of this book rather than the author. He didn’t want to put himself above his readers and preach to them, but he still wanted to explore a question that required a more religious standpoint than the one he wanted to adopt as an author.

Do you think it’s in dialogue with other books?

It does connect with a famous book by Kierkegaard called The Concept of Anxiety. In The Concept of Anxiety, Kierkegaard identifies anxiety as a fundamental human experience. Again, it has the sense of a diagnosis of anxiety as part of the human condition. It’s not a psychological phenomenon for Kierkegaard, but something that belongs to the very structure of being human. It’s in our constitution as human beings, he argues, to be anxious, and this has to do with our consciousness of our freedom and our mortality and so on.

The Sickness Unto Death follows on from this, because his diagnosis of despair is quite similar. It’s not a psychological state—it’s not about feeling miserable or unhappy or hopeless—but to do with the fact that we have a certain constitution as spiritual beings, and that we’re somehow incomplete unless we really live in God. He also thought that really living in God was extremely difficult to do, perhaps impossible. So, again, we have that sense that everyone is, to some degree or other, in despair.

You mentioned that he was religious in this particular way, but it’s probably worth mentioning that he strongly distanced himself from organised religion.

Yes, definitely. He became an increasingly anti-institutional and anti-establishment figure, and the two establishments that he had complicated, ambivalent relations with were the university—the whole institution of academia—and the Danish State Church. He was a student at the University of Copenhagen for ten years, so that was the world he was in, and yet he was very critical of it. It was the same with the Church.

Like almost all of his Danish contemporaries, he was baptised into the Danish State Church, grew up in the Church, and nearly became ordained in the Church. But he had a very ambivalent relationship with it from his childhood onwards. As time went on, this ambivalence actually shifted into outright opposition, and he became very polemical and launched a public attack on the Church in the last year of his life.

“Kierkegaard is a very undogmatic writer. He’s not telling readers what to believe; he’s not expounding a doctrine”

In his own time, his writing tended to appeal to people who felt that they didn’t necessarily fit in with organised religion. For example, there are some surviving letters from a couple of women who read his books, which describe how whenever they went to church, they found it difficult to concentrate on the sermon. They were going for some kind of guidance—ethical or spiritual—but they just didn’t connect with what they heard. Then, they found Kierkegaard’s books and in them discovered something that really did connect with whatever it was they were searching for.

For the last century and a half, Kierkegaard’s appeal has continued. He’s often read by people who are part of an organised religion, and he’s now a staple part of the undergraduate philosophy and theology curriculum. But he also continues to appeal to people who are unsure of their religious identity, yet interested in exploring those questions. He’s a very undogmatic writer. He’s not telling readers what to believe; he’s not expounding a doctrine. He is much more interested in what you might call spiritual questions than in defending religious belief and identity in a more conventional way.

What about your third choice, Stages on Life’s Way?

This isn’t one of Kierkegaard’s most-read works. He wrote a few very long books, beginning with Either/Or, which is an eight-hundred-page book; after he published this in 1843, he wrote several short books. In 1845, he decided to write another really long book, and that was Stages on Life’s Way.

This is a complicated work from a literary point of view, because Kierkegaard gathers some of the pseudonyms and characters from his previous books and brings them together here. The book begins with a dinner party that echoes the dinner party in Plato’s Symposium, where a group of men stay up all night drinking and talking about love. Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms get together for a dinner party and stay up all night talking about women. This is the first scene of the book.

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But the book is interestingly autobiographical, which is one of the reasons I’ve chosen it. My biography of Kierkegaard explores his relationship with his one-time fiancée Regine Olsen, a relationship that really shaped his life. In Stages on Life’s Way, Kierkegaard seems to be compulsively returning to the experience of his broken relationship with Regine and trying to re-tell and work through the story. The book is about marriage, about romantic love.

Kierkegaard writes about the broken engagement, and even reproduces word-for-word the note he sent to Regine when he returned her ring. So, it’s very autobiographical. The prose is also beautiful: it’s the work of an experienced writer. It has been neglected, partly because of its difficulty, but it’s worth making an effort with it.

Do you think he had any further relationships with women after Regine?

No, I don’t think so. He felt that, in some sense, he remained faithful to Regine even though he broke his promise to marry her. Fortunately for her, she went on to marry someone else, but for Kierkegaard she remained the only woman in his life. Even though he wasn’t living with her in a physical or worldly sense, she was the woman he was writing about in his books. It’s almost as if he transposed his relationship with her into his writing. The story of their romance and their engagement recurs in several of his books.

“Even though he wasn’t living with her in a physical or worldly sense, she was the woman he was writing about in his books”

Then, towards the end of his life, he wrote a will in which he dedicated his whole authorship to Regine and left what remained of his estate to her. In this will, he wrote, “To me an engagement was and is just as binding as a marriage, and that therefore my estate is her due, exactly as if I had been married to her.” The relationship was strangely still a reality for him, if not a reality out in the world. He saw himself as bound to her in some way.

But when he encountered her in the street, he had problems. It’s not as if he felt he had made a mistake in rejecting her.

No, I think he felt—for whatever reason—that he was unable to marry her. I don’t think he regretted the decision. He had a strong sense of a vocation: this was part of his religious self-understanding. It wasn’t just a question of what he wanted—it was a question of what he was meant to do in life, what God wanted him to do, what his task was.

He understood his decision not to marry and to become an author in terms of a religious vocation, albeit one that made him do something that seemed unethical and immoral and drew criticism from others. He still saw it as a religious decision. That’s why the figure of Abraham was so important to him, because Abraham also had a religious vocation that seemed very unethical, because it led him to sacrifice Isaac, his son. This couldn’t be fully understood by other people, but nevertheless it seemed to be something that he had to do. So, Kierkegaard saw parallels between his own predicament and Abraham’s.

When Kierkegaard and Regine encountered each other on the streets of Copenhagen, they never spoke to each other, but I think they were very much aware of one another when they passed. It actually seems as if Regine sought out encounters with him; she would deliberately walk near his house. There was a sense of magnetism that drew them together, even though they couldn’t be together. There was a mutual energy, a bond between them that did survive.

Actually, when Regine was an old woman, just after her husband had died, she started to speak about her relationship with Kierkegaard. It wasn’t just in his head that it was a special thing. I think, for her too, it was a really significant part of her life that she never really lost touch with. But she didn’t speak about it—or speak to Kierkegaard—while she was married to someone else.

What’s your fourth choice?

My fourth choice is a book by Christopher Barnett called Kierkegaard: Pietism and Holiness. When I read it, I thought: how can I have been thinking and writing about Kierkegaard without really knowing about this? This book focuses on a key aspect of the intellectual context and background to Kierkegaard’s thinking: Pietism.

Pietism is a movement within Lutheran Christianity, which was about concentrating on living a holy life. In a sense, it anticipates existentialism, since this ideal of holiness was less about believing certain doctrines and more about a religion of the heart. It was a devotional movement which prioritised feeling and emotion over belief and reason. This was really an important part of the culture that Kierkegaard grew up in. Indeed, many German and Danish thinkers of the nineteenth century had Pietist backgrounds—most of the leading German Romantics, for example. So, the Romantic emphasis on feeling actually came out of the Pietist tradition, which emphasised religious feeling. It’s a very important cultural and intellectual force that shaped Kierkegaard’s authorship.

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This book gives a really nice history of Pietism, explaining what the issues were and then showing how Kierkegaard’s thinking was shaped by that Pietist heritage. For me, it made sense of a lot of Kierkegaard’s thinking to see it from this perspective. Pietism is not discussed much these days: a movement like Romanticism is more recognisable and occupies more of a place, perhaps, in our contemporary culture—we recognise Romantic art, and so on—whereas Pietism is something that specialists know about. But beyond this, it tends to be a forgotten aspect of the cultural heritage of the modern world.

Did Pietism have a confessional element? It strikes me that a lot of what Kierkegaard writes is first-person, even if disguised in various ways, and is telling you things about himself that other people might conceal. It’s very open. He’s opening his heart in a way that is very un-English, let’s say.

It was principally a reaction against a rationalising shift within Lutheranism. Pietism reacted against that, just as Romanticism reacted against the rationalism of the Enlightenment. It’s part of a broader resistance to rationalist ways of thinking.

Another important aspect of Pietism, which is also really important for Kierkegaard, is the critique of organised religion. Some influential Pietists were quite anti-clerical and anti-establishment. That’s another important theme that Kierkegaard takes from Pietism: being critical of the establishment, being critical of institutional religion, and elevating the individual’s experience of God above these hierarchical ecclesial structures, and prioritsing the individual’s inward, heartfelt relationship to God.

But this is not the individual in isolation but the individual in community, because the Pietists were often socialist and communitarian as well as anti-establishment. They had communes, for example, where they had their own laws, more or less separate from the state. So, various elements of this Pietist culture found their way into Kierkegaard’s thinking and his critique of conventional institutional religion.

Kierkegaard used ‘Christendom’ almost as a term of abuse. Christendom was the organised church’s bourgeois attempt to represent religion to the masses but was actually full of hypocrisy and failure.

In a way, Kierkegaard’s whole project as a writer was to challenge what he called Christendom—the social, institutional, established religion—and to search within that for a more authentic kind of faith. Or maybe not even faith, but a more authentic quest for truth and for meaning.

“That’s a crucial part of Kierkegaard’s emphasis on seeking and pursuing and desiring: this sense of the erotic pursuit of truth”

‘Faith’ is a word that is used a lot when discussing Kierkegaard, as if his philosophy is all about believing in God without any evidence or reason. But I think what’s more fundamental for Kierkegaard is the desire and longing for God—a sort of spiritual quest. Faith can sometimes give the impression of something you possess, a kind of certainty of belief; whereas for Kierkegaard, it’s much more about desire and longing and finding ways to pursue that longing. Finding ways to express an inarticulate desire for God in your life, even though you might not really know what God is, or what finding God would look like. It’s a sense of being drawn along a spiritual path without necessarily knowing what the destination is.

That’s quite different from many institutional religions, which present doctrines as readymade religious teachings: truths that are non-negotiable, that you just sign up to, rather than this more open-ended questing relationship to religion, which actually echoes Socratic philosophy. Socrates’s life was devoted to a search for knowledge which was, in a way, elusive. He saw the philosophical life as open-ended. That’s a crucial part of Kierkegaard’s emphasis on seeking and pursuing and desiring: this sense of the erotic pursuit of truth. You don’t really know what it’s going to look like when you find it.

This also fits with existential authenticity, but what’s interesting to me is the degree to which people who talk about Kierkegaard from an existentialist point of view tend to excise the religious element because it’s inconvenient.

Yes, definitely. Many of the thinkers who identified themselves as existentialists in the twentieth century—Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir would be the most famous examples—were explicitly atheistic. Existentialism can have connotations of a humanist and individualistic quest to find or create meaning for yourself, and even creating yourself, making yourself into a certain kind of person through your choices and decisions; whereas, for Kierkegaard—and this is the central point in The Sickness Unto Death—human beings don’t make themselves, and we’re always dependent because we’re created. We’re in search of the ground of our being, which is not ourselves.

This is one of the reasons why it’s really important to understand Kierkegaard’s roots in Pietism, for example, which connects him to an older Catholic devotional, mystical tradition of Christianity. That’s also in the background of much existentialist thought, but when we look at existentialism from a secular viewpoint, this background gets overlooked. For me, it’s impossible to read Kierkegaard in a secular light. He wasn’t a dogmatic Christian, but he was preoccupied with the question of how to live religiously. What would it mean to live in relation to God?

What about your fifth book choice?

To provide some relief from the philosophical intensity of Kierkegaard’s thought, the fifth book is a visually appealing book called Written Images. It’s really a book about Kierkegaard’s practices of writing. It has numerous great photographs of his notebooks and his manuscripts, alongside a narrative which details Kierkegaard’s own habits as a writer: the kind of pens and paper he used, his interest in typography, the place where he had his bookbinding done. It really gives a sense of the materiality of Kierkegaard’s writing, and of his love of books, and brings this to life in a way that tells us quite a lot about him as a person and what his writing meant to him.

It also tells the story of what happened to Kierkegaard’s huge quantities of papers after he died, and how all those papers ended up being sorted, edited, and published. It’s a fascinating biographical and bibliographical book written by two of the leading Kierkegaard scholars in Denmark: Niels Jørgen Cappelørn and Joakim Garff, together with Johnny Kondrup, a literary scholar. It’s a beautiful book with wonderful photographs, and it gives an insight both into the living Kierkegaard and into the body of writings that we encounter today if we go to a bookshop or a library and see Kierkegaard’s works on the shelves. This book tells the story of how they came to be written and published.

Kierkegaard reminds me of Nietzsche in his ability to produce highly creative, original books in an extremely short period of time, driven by amazing frenetic energy and, in Kierkegaard’s case, very strong coffee.

Yes. My biography’s subtitle is “The Restless Life of Soren Kierkegaard”: this restlessness was partly existential and spiritual–this quest for understanding himself and the quest for God—but it’s also the more mundane restlessness of his frenetic writing activity, his insomnia, his coffee-drinking, his pipe-smoking. It’s not surprising that he died at forty-two, because he burned himself out restlessly, relentlessly pursuing this question of how to be a human being. It’s as if he poured all his resources, both physical and economic, into this pursuit. He spent all of his large inheritance producing this body of work, and stayed up all night writing it. He was devoted, in a religious sense, to his life as a writer. By the time he reached middle age, he was completely exhausted and collapsed.

The physical process of writing wasn’t a comfortable process for him. He had desks made that allowed him to stand as he wrote.

He suffered a great deal physically, and that suffering is something that he wrote about as another part of being human—both physical suffering and psychological suffering. He writes a lot about suffering but, for me, not in a way that’s depressing or dark. I think it’s much more a case of a very courageous and honest confrontation with the full range of the human experience, from suffering to joy.

“It’s not surprising that he died at forty-two, because he burned himself out restlessly, relentlessly pursuing this question of how to be a human being.”

A close friend of Kierkegaard, Hans Brøchner, described how if you were suffering or troubled, Kierkegaard had a unique ability to comfort you. Brøchner said he did this by bringing your suffering into the open and looking at it with complete clarity. It seemed that this way of acknowledging and accepting suffering was therapeutic. It’s not wallowing in misery: it’s something more positive than that. People sometimes have this experience with reading Kierkegaard as well: it brings their own suffering to light, but does so in a way that can be transformative and healing.

Another element that intrigues me is that although Kierkegaard was in a sense very public about his own experiences and was confessional about his emotions, despite all that publicity, he had many secrets. There’s a theme of concealment that recurs in the writing as well.

Completely, yes. Again, it’s an aspect of his ambivalence, and of the paradox of Kierkegaard. On the one hand, he was criticised for putting his personal life on show in his writing, but at the same time, he was extremely secretive and often wrote about the hidden recesses of the human heart.

There’s a strong sense in his work that no human being can really see and understand another. He saw this as being part of our experience of being human: whether we like it or not, we’re exposed in the world, we’re conspicuous, and we’re open to view, whether we’re out on the street or just in our lives in general: we look at each other and make judgements about each other.

But on the other hand, there’s something completely personal and private about the experience of being human. No one else knows what it’s like to be me. It’s that idea of inner life and inwardness as something that can never be fully expressed, communicated, or translated into the public domain. For Kierkegaard, this was one of several tensions about the human condition: we are simultaneously conspicuous and hidden.

Where does that leave you as a biographer? What were you trying to do with your biography? Have you revealed the secret Kierkegaard?

I’ve revealed quite a lot about, at least, my understanding of Kierkegaard’s inner life. It is quite an intimate biography that explores his inner life alongside, obviously, his public life and his writing. I’ve tried to convey the emotional truth of Kierkegaard’s experience, and to get underneath some of the things he wrote about himself and about other people—people who hurt him, or people whom he envied, or people he loved—to understand what he was feeling. This requires empathy, but, of course, working at the level of texts rather than being in the physical presence of the other person means that this always involves interpretation and reconstruction on my part.

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For me, it feels quite true and authentic, but who knows? I’ve tried to explore Kierkegaard’s inner life, partly through reading his journals and spending a lot of time with him through reading and thinking and accompanying him in his life, in a sense. As a biographer, I’ve felt as if I was travelling alongside him. There are other biographies that speculate about Kierkegaard’s motivations for doing various things, and about his secrets. Kierkegaard talked about the secrets of his own life and he suggested that when people read his books, no one would really discover the secret. There’s something quite tantalising about this, and many people have tried to work out what the secrets of his life were, what really caused him to break his engagement to Regine, and why he felt so uncomfortable about himself.

But I’ve avoided this kind of speculation. I want to leave the secrets and mystery intact, and to keep the questions open. This is partly out of respect for Kierkegaard, but it’s also to allow the reader to wonder, and I feel that interposing my own opinions between Kierkegaard and the reader would interfere with that. I feel that this is more truthful, in a way, because any speculation that I do is just that: informed speculation, a view from the outside. I agree with Kierkegaard that one human being can never finally know the truth of another human being’s life. That’s an interesting view to take as a biographer, but I do share that view. Ultimately, it’s between Kierkegaard and his God, and I haven’t tried to step into that space, either.

Interview by Nigel Warburton

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Clare Carlisle

Dr. Clare Carlisle is a Reader in Philosophy and Theology at King's College London. She is the author of multiple books on Kierkegaard, most recently the new biography Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard (Penguin, 2019), one book on habit, and the first English translation of Félix Ravaisson’s De l’habitude. In addition to her scholarly work she has written numerous philosophical articles for a general audience, including series for The Guardian on Kierkegaard, Spinoza, Bertrand Russell, and the problem of evil.

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Clare Carlisle

Dr. Clare Carlisle is a Reader in Philosophy and Theology at King's College London. She is the author of multiple books on Kierkegaard, most recently the new biography Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard (Penguin, 2019), one book on habit, and the first English translation of Félix Ravaisson’s De l’habitude. In addition to her scholarly work she has written numerous philosophical articles for a general audience, including series for The Guardian on Kierkegaard, Spinoza, Bertrand Russell, and the problem of evil.