From Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard: Religion, Individuality and Philosophical Method
© 1989 Charles L. Creegan
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Chapter One

Relevant Biography

The 'particular purpose' of this chapter and the next is to come to an understanding of each author's method and goals. Four different kinds of material must be combed for 'reminders' germane to this task: biographical or autobiographical sources, and passages from philosophical works which reveal biographical events (intentionally or otherwise); the structure of philosophical works, and direct statements in these works. The first two, more 'biographical' kinds of evidence will be dealt with in this chapter; the second two, more 'philosophical' kinds must wait until the next chapter.

An important subsection of the biographical task is to show (so far as possible) the extent of Kierkegaard's direct influence on Wittgenstein. Only a very few explicit references to Kierkegaard exist in works by Wittgenstein, or memoirs of him. But it is easy to see that this is one of the many cases in which Wittgenstein was influenced by other thinkers in an amount far out of proportion to the number of explicit references in his works and notebooks.


The texture of Wittgenstein's life is itself an important clue to understanding his work. He did not lead an organized and settled existence, even by the standards of his time, which was interrupted by two wars. Most of his life was episodic in character. This was true even of his relatively settled Cambridge academic periods. It is surely not a coincidence that his philosophy is episodic and aphoristic. Both his life and philosophy mirror the incredible breadth of his interests, as well as the nervousness of his character.

The path by which he first arrived at Cambridge is an excellent [9] example. His interest in aeronautics led him from the Technische Hochschule at Berlin- Charlottenburg to England. He enrolled as a research student at the University of Manchester in 1908. There he pursued in rapid succession interests in kite-flying, airplane motors, propellers, then the mathematics of propellers, the foundations of mathematics, and mathematical logic - all of which led him to a meeting with Bertrand Russell in October 1911.1 He studied with Russell from then until the outbreak of the First World War. This rapid succession of interests, each of which he was competent to pursue (even though they are connected only by the most tenuous of 'family resemblances'), is characteristic of Wittgenstein's life.

It is inevitable that the reports of Wittgenstein's life are also fragmentary. Even information about his most settled periods in Cambridge exists only in an anecdotal form. Various students and colleagues have recorded their impressions. But to date there has not even been a synthetic study taking all of the available material into account, let alone any attempt to tackle the task (by now impossible) of filling in the gaps in this material. These gaps are partly a product of his intensely private nature. His dislike of publicity was sensed by many of his colleagues; although they knew that he was an important figure, they felt it would be a violation of his wishes to keep notes about him.

Three foci are clear in the mosaic of impressions. One is Wittgenstein's dissatisfaction with the gap between his moral ideals and his ability to fulfill them. This is repeatedly evident. A second is his understanding of the nature of philosophy. His own ideas of how to philosophize, and his disdain for academic 'philosophy,' help to make this attitude clear. The third, which itself links the previous two, is his understanding of the close connections between ethical, aesthetic, moral and philosophical concerns. Again, this trait is demonstrated in the perfection he demanded in life, in philosophy, and even in the house he constructed.

These three features are all more or less evident in various episodes from Wittgenstein's life. To fully grasp the significance of the whole, it is necessary to follow a method which he suggested in the 'Lecture on Ethics':

I will put before you a number of more or less synonymous expressions . . . and by enumerating them I want to produce the [10] same sort of effect which Galton produced when he took a number of photos of different faces on the same photographic plate . . . so if you look through the row of synonyms which I will put before you, you will, I hope, be able to see the characteristic features they all have in common.2

In the following material, some of the synthetic work has been done; but the most important episodes are presented whole.

One feature of Wittgenstein's self-understanding was his exaggerated sense of his moral imperfection, even worthlessness. As his letters show, his hope for self-improvement varied, so that he was at times more or less cheerfully resigned, and at times positively suicidal.3 This self-image was not lightly arrived at. The high level of his standards is illustrated by a term of approbation he used: 'He is a human being!'4 Wittgenstein often felt that he himself failed to live up to this high basic standard. He was sometimes criticized for undue harshness toward others; but as his letters attest, his harshness was equally directed toward himself. This trait influenced the way in which he did philosophy; it may have been responsible for the fact that he did not publish the Investigations during his lifetime, although the manuscript of Part I was in more or less its final form for several years prior to his death. In a letter to Malcolm, he says: 'it's pretty lousy. (Not that I could improve on it essentially if I tried for another 100 years.)'5

The Investigations is only a small part of Wittgenstein's Nachlaß. Malcolm reports that between 1929 and 1951 he produced roughly 30,000 pages of philosophical material, in notebooks, manuscripts, and typescripts.6 The sheer amount of this material provides an important insight into Wittgenstein's way of thinking. Both the Tractatus and the Investigations began as material collected in notebooks, in which the same general line of thought was often explored several times in slightly different ways. Preliminary attempts at a more definitive collection followed. (These are published as the Protractatus and the Brown Book.) The final material was carefully selected and polished, down to the last individual word choice.

The pains taken in preparing written material were made visible (literally) in Wittgenstein's classroom style. He offered 'lectures' which resembled Platonic dialogues, with Wittgenstein taking the part of Socrates and his students that of the overawed foils. A [11] group of college students he once visited exclaimed that they had 'never seen a man thinking before.'7 And this idea is echoed by many of his biographers: even if the ground was familiar to him, he attacked it each time freshly; he 'did philosophy' in each class.

One of Wittgenstein's characteristic philosophical tools was the use of outlandish examples to illuminate everyday life. At the same time, he often noticed problems in other philosophers' apparently more mundane metaphors. His sister Hermine helps to explain this great ability to discriminate between good and bad examples. She reports that the Wittgenstein children often communicated in comparisons. For example, she once suggested that his decision to teach in rural schools was like wanting to use a precision instrument to open crates. He replied that others were seeing the gyrations of his life as through a closed window - not realizing that he was struggling to keep his feet in a hurricane.8 The inventiveness learned in this kind of communication clearly carried over to Ludwig's philosophizing.

The active nature of Wittgenstein's philosophical work made it physically and emotionally demanding. After a lecture he would often go to a movie. He preferred American westerns, films that were undemanding and escapist. He sat in the front row, filling his visual field with the screen. And while he paid very close attention, sitting on the edge of his seat, and demanding quiet from his companions (as Malcolm reports), he was cleansed and relaxed by the experience. 'This is like a shower bath!' he once exclaimed.9

Wittgenstein's penchant for active philosophizing also helps to account for the fact that he was not very well read in the history of philosophy. He once assured a student that 'no assistant lecturer in philosophy in the country had read fewer books on philosophy than he had.'10 He read a great deal of Plato, but no Aristotle at all! Most of his favorite authors were suggestive and moral, rather than rigorous and logical, in their writings; in addition to Kierkegaard, Saint Augustine, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy are often mentioned. It was Tolstoy's abridgement of the Gospels that he discovered during the First World War, and carried with him. He read George Fox with approbation. Schopenhauer's World as Will and Idea was one of his earliest philosophical readings. He read, and was excited by, William James's Varieties of Religious Experience as early as 1912. He believed that it caused a moral improvement in him.11

The paucity of Wittgenstein's philosophical reading was a [12] conscious decision. It should not be taken as a sign of general lack of culture; in fact, he was formidably cultured, as can be see in many of the examples used in his works. His talents in music were considerable. When he was a schoolteacher, he was required to play a musical instrument. He selected the clarinet. He was also a virtuoso whistler, and displayed a conductor's memory and understanding of orchestral pieces.

Another reason why Wittgenstein read little philosophy was that he disdained academia-for-its-own-sake. 'Professorial philosophy by philosophy professors,' or non-genuine philosophizing, was one of Wittgenstein's greatest dislikes.12 He often tried to discourage his best students from becoming professors. Several of them report that he seems to have been afraid they would cheat their students - and themselves - by offering a course in philosophy. (He seemed to believe that no one could deliver what 'philosophy' promises.13) He suggested that instead they should do useful work. This fits, not only with his remarks on 'philosophy' in general, but with his expressions of his own inadequacy as a teacher. He was sure that his teaching had done more harm than good to his students. He twice left the academic scene because he felt he had nothing more to contribute, and there is evidence that he had considered leaving more often.

Wittgenstein's moral stiffness was evident in his conduct of his own life, as well as in his advice to his students. The family fortune was quite large; through good management it survived the First World War and the post-war depression. But upon his return from the war, he insisted on deeding his share to his brothers and sisters. Hermine Wittgenstein recalls that he wore out the notary with his repeated demands that there must be no way in which he could ever claim the money again! But she also reports that he would never worry about asking for help from them when in need - so he would always survive, like Alyusha Karamazov.14 If this is true, he was not nearly so forthright about borrowing money from his friends. He was constantly concerned that he might be a burden to them, as his letters show. He never hesitated to lend, if he could.

Along with the giving up of his claim to fortune came a general simplification of his lifestyle. When he was at Manchester, he dressed stylishly;15 but he came to be famous for his unostentatious dress: an open necked shirt (never a tie), wool overshirt or windbreaker, more rarely a topcoat, and sometimes a cloth cap. [13] His eating habits, too, were simple. He was quite content to eat the same ordinary fare meal after meal, even on occasion preferring such food to more elaborate meals specially prepared. This seems to have been a conscious ethical/aesthetic choice for simplicity. Complexity was allowed, and energy was expended, only where necessary, in important matters. Unnecessary energy and complexity could only be distractions.

While at Cambridge, Wittgenstein did not dine at high table - the conversation sickened him. The sparseness of his various rooms is famous. There was in general only a cot, a table for writing, and a few books; extra chairs were piled on the landing for use during classes. He lived in an equally frugal manner during his vacations (in rural parts of Norway and Ireland), and during his schoolteaching days.

Wittgenstein's sense of his moral duty showed itself very strongly in his service during the two World Wars. If his status as a member of a rich industrial family had not been enough to excuse him from active duty during the first war, he could also have claimed a medical exemption, for he had had a double hernia. But he insisted on enlisting. Nor was he content with the rear echelon duties that he was given; his continual attempts to get to the front were finally rewarded when he was trained as an artillery officer. He respected Russell's pacifist stand; yet he thought that such a position would not be right for him.

It is very interesting to note that at least some of the final work on the Tractatus was done while he was at the front. He did not find his military duty disagreeable, even though he was serving in a tough mountain campaign.16

During the Second World War Wittgenstein served as a lab technician, first in a hospital dispensary, and later in a research facility. The quality of his work was appreciated in both places. Whatever his occupation, Wittgenstein undertook to do as well as possible.

The reasons for Wittgenstein's decision to become a rural schoolteacher are much disputed. His sister Hermine reports that she herself found it hard to understand, and he explained it with the metaphor of the hurricane. This suggests a morally based decision, perhaps a desire actually to earn his living and to 'serve' as he could not in 'philosophy.' The idea that his decision had to do with his moral self-understanding is supported by the fact that [14] he spent some time as a gardener at a monastery before taking up his teaching duties.

Wittgenstein spent several years at three different schools in rural Lower Austria. He had better than average success in the classroom. But his eccentricity and uncompromising nature, as well as the project of school reform which his presence symbolized, did not endear him to the parents of his students. According to Bartley, Wittgenstein was even tried (on dubious grounds) at one posting; though acquitted, he decided to give up teaching.17 Afterwards he again spent a few months as a gardener at a second monastery.

The most enduring expression of Wittgenstein's moral nature is the house which he and Paul Engelmann built for Margarete Stonborough. Assessments of the respective contributions of the two men to the project vary widely. As the house is very much in the style of Adolf Loos, it might be impossible to determine the boundaries between common interest and influence. Both of them had known Loos as early as 1914. Engelmann was Loos's student; Wittgenstein met Loos through an introduction from the publisher Ficker, and Wittgenstein actually met Engelmann through an introduction from Loos. The three men were in substantial agreement about the principles of architecture, as Engelmann makes clear in his memoir.18 Unfortunately, the portion of the memoir which would have covered the period of the construction of the house was never written.

There can be no doubt that the uncompromising nature of the house as built suits Wittgenstein very well. It is uncompromising both in its plainness and in the attention to detail which emphasizes this plainness. No one disputes that Wittgenstein had a lot to do with the execution of technical details.

The plainness of the house is backed by a mathematical rigor in the design, which again suggests Wittgenstein at work. On the main floor, the size and placement of doors is in strict ratio to the dimensions of the walls. The rooms themselves are exactly proportioned in simple ratios. The geometrical calculations were carefully done, and Wittgenstein went so far as to have finished work torn out in order to correct fractional deviations from the plan. This strictness, combined with the lack of frills, might be expected to impart considerable severity to the house, but instead it is very airy and pleasant. Hermine Wittgenstein refers to it as a [15] 'hausgewordene Logik'; but its logic is the logic of a dwelling. She also reports that it suited the grand and peculiar nature of her sister Margarete very well. 19 Pictures and drawings of the house as furnished show a variety of unusual objects which are set off by the plainness of the background.

Bernhard Leitner suggests that Wittgenstein was an architect by virtue of (and not in addition to) his being a philosopher.20 The connection between ethics, aesthetics, and logic expressed in the Tractatus is made manifest in the house.

One further kind of anecdote will illustrate Wittgenstein's sense of moral duty. On at least two occasions in the 1940s, he had the opportunity to get a substantial amount of money through 'philosophy.' He was asked to give the John Locke lectures at Oxford for a fee of 200 pounds; he refused because he could not imagine the lectures being any good. Again, Malcolm interested the Rockefeller Foundation in providing Wittgenstein with a research grant; he refused because he could not guarantee that he would be able to produce anything, and so the grant would have been accepted under false pretenses.21

Wittgenstein's deep concern with ethical matters is reminiscent of many religious figures. Here again, Malcolm sums up what becomes clear from the direct testimony of Wittgenstein and his friends. Though Wittgenstein was not religious, 'there was in him, in some sense, the possibility of religion.'22 As usual this possibility carried over to the thoughts he wrote down; he remarked: 'I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view.'23 He understood religious impulses in a more than theoretical sense; and he 'took his hat off' to them.24

The 'possibility of religion' manifested itself in considerable reading of religious works, and this in a person who chose his reading matter very carefully. Drury's recollections include conversations about Thomas à Kempis, Samuel Johnson's Prayers, Karl Barth, and, many times, the New Testament, which Wittgenstein had clearly read often and thought about.25 Wittgenstein had also thought about what it would mean to be a Christian. Some time during the 1930s, he remarked to Drury: 'There is a sense in which you and I are both Christians.'26 In this context it is certainly worth noting that he had for a time said the Lord's Prayer each day.27

Wittgenstein's last words were: 'Tell them I've had a wonderful [16] life!'28 Even as close a friend as Norman Malcolm initially found this statement 'mysterious'; he felt that it did not square with the 'fiercely unhappy' character of Wittgenstein's emotionally and intellectually isolated existence.29 Later, however, Malcolm recalled some impressions of Wittgenstein's many friendships and his joy in his work. When these factors are accentuated, his words do not seem so strange.


The picture of Wittgenstein we have built up so far can be enhanced by an examination of his direct relations with Kierkegaard. There are two kinds of material available which can give clues in this area. Most of the references are in memoirs by various friends and colleagues. Kierkegaard's name is also mentioned a few times in the selections from Wittgenstein's notebooks that have been published.

The first chronologically of the memoirs is this reminiscence by Paul Engelmann. It recalls conversations that took place in 1916 in Olmütz, Moravia, Engelmann's home town, where Wittgenstein was in artillery officers' training school.

He 'saw life as a task'. . . . Moreover, he looked upon all the features of life as it is . . . as an essential part of the conditions of that task; just as a person presented with a mathematical problem must not try to ease his task by modifying the problem.30

This formulation reflects exactly Kierkegaard's position in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript: 'It is impossible that the task [of life] should fail to suffice, since the task is precisely that the task should be made to suffice.'31 If life itself is set as a task, then it must be lived to the fullest.

What makes this reference particularly interesting is that Engelmann quotes Wittgenstein's exact words, which mirror Kierkegaard's both in letter and spirit; but there is absolutely no indication that Engelmann was aware of this parallel. It is hard to say whether Wittgenstein's expression of this existential understanding would be more striking if he had appropriated Kierkegaard so completely, or if he had developed such a view independently.32

The next reference to Kierkegaard is the following remark by Bertrand Russell, concerning his first meeting with Wittgenstein after the First World War: [17]

I had felt in his book a flavour of mysticism, but was astonished when I found that he has become a complete mystic. He reads people like Kierkegaard and Angelus Silesius, and he seriously contemplates becoming a monk. It all started from William James's Varieties of Religious Experience.33

Wittgenstein never became a monk, of course, though he thought of doing so more than once, and did spend some time at monasteries. He might have been influenced by Kierkegaard's conviction that monastic retreat is a shirking of the 'task,' an abstraction from the conditions of existence.34 But this report by Russell confirms that Wittgenstein was dramatically changed during the war, through his readings and perhaps through other events.

A rather later memoir comes from H. D. P. Lee, and dates from the period 1929-31 when Wittgenstein had returned to Cambridge. 'He told me that he learned Danish in order to be able to read Kierkegaard in the original, and clearly had a great admiration for him, though I never remember him speaking about him in detail.'35 Certainly learning a new language suggests considerable interest!

An approving reference to the Philosophical Fragments finds its way into a conversation between Wittgenstein and Friedrich Waismann from December 1929: 'We thrust against the limits of language. Kierkegaard, too, recognized this thrust and even described it in much the same way (as a thrust against paradox).'36

There is a direct reference to Either/Or in the lecture notes (collated and published by students) from a course on religious belief which Wittgenstein gave about 1938. In the context of a discussion of religious pictures of the world, and how they are manifest in life, he gave the following illustration:

A great writer said that, when he was a boy, his father set him a task, and he suddenly felt that nothing, not even death, could take away the responsibility [in doing this task]; this was his duty to do, and that even death couldn't stop it being his duty. He said that this was, in a way, a proof of the immortality of the soul - because if this lives on [the responsibility won't die.] The idea is given by what we call the proof. Well, if this is the idea, [all right].37

[18] This is a retelling of a story from the second part of Either/Or.38 The depth of Wittgenstein's interest in Kierkegaard is reflected in his understanding of the anecdote as a piece of Kierkegaard's biography; scholars agree on this, but in the original it is presented as part of Judge William's letters.

Other details of Wittgenstein's knowledge of Kierkegaard are reported by Maurice O'C. Drury. During a discussion after a meeting of the Moral Sciences Club (so presumably during Wittgenstein's 1929-36 Cambridge period) Wittgenstein remarked: 'Kierkegaard was by far the most profound thinker of the last century. Kierkegaard was a saint.' He went on to mention the three stages of life. The stages are mentioned in two works he had certainly read, Either/Or and the Postscript. Drury also notes Wittgenstein's dissatisfaction with the literary style of the Lowrie translations of Kierkegaard. In later life, Drury recalls, Wittgenstein found the indirect method of Kierkegaard's works too prolix. 'When I read him I always wanted to say: "Oh, alright I agree, I agree, but please get on with it."'39 This seems strange in view of Wittgenstein's own deliberately circuitous style!

A clue to his position here is provided by O. K. Bouwsma's recollections of a conversation with Wittgenstein in 1949. Bouwsma reports that Wittgenstein said he read Kierkegaard only in small pieces:

He got hints. He did not want another man's thought all chewed. A word or two was sometimes enough. But Kierkegaard struck him almost as like a snob, too high, for him, not touching the details of common life. . . . (I'm not sure about his judgement here of Kierkegaard.)40

One possible explanation is that Wittgenstein was at a different 'stage' from Kierkegaard's intended audience.

The high esteem in which Wittgenstein held Kierkegaard is again shown in a letter from Wittgenstein to Norman Malcolm, dated 5 February 1948. Malcolm had mentioned Works of Love; Wittgenstein replies that he has never read that work. 'Kierkegaard is far too deep for me, anyhow. He bewilders me without working the good effects which he would in deeper souls.'41 Wittgenstein's low moral self-esteem, as well as his admiration for Kierkegaard, is showing itself here.

In addition to these biographical notes, there are a few passages [19] from posthumous collections that hint at a knowledge of Kierkegaard. In particular, several sections from the collection Culture and Value (which includes some of Wittgenstein's notes having to do with religion) mention him explicitly.

One reference, from the year 1937, again shows familiarity with the Fragments and Postscript. It is in the context of a discussion of the problem of the connection of historical proof and faith, and the possibility that the Gospels in all their want of historical precision and agreement are nevertheless the best possible form of communication of the Christian message. There is also mention of forms of expression appropriate to the various 'levels of devoutness.'42 This again suggests familiarity with the Stages or Either/Or, at least. The particular combination of topics is also found in Training in Christianity.

Another context in which Kierkegaard is mentioned is that of the distinction between 'primordial' and 'tame' talent:

In the same sense: the house I built for Gretl is the product of a decidedly sensitive ear and good manners, an expression of great understanding (of a culture, etc.). But primordial life, wild life striving to erupt into the open - that is lacking. And so you could say it isn't healthy (Kierkegaard). (Hothouse plant.)43

The exact reference here is unclear. Several of Kierkegaard's less-read works contain thoughts suggestive of parts of this remark. For example, the distinction between wild life and cultured manners suggests Kierkegaard's analysis, in his review of Two Ages, of the difference between the (passionate) 'age of revolution' and the (indolent) 'present age.'44 Kierkegaard also praises Adler for having precisely what Wittgenstein feels his architecture lacks - some redeeming native spark.45 Most specifically, in the Christian Discourses there is a prayer asking: 'if . . . we have lost our health, would that we might regain it by learning again from the lilies of the field and the birds of the air.'46 But the thought has an unusual feel; there seems to be an admixture of original ideas, or ideas from another source: perhaps Nietzsche?

Finally, there is a reference to Kierkegaard in a group of entries from 1946. These notes have to do with having the courage to change one's life. Wittgenstein distinguishes here between cold wisdom or doctrine, and the ability to embrace it. He says: 'Wisdom is passionless. But faith by contrast is what Kierkegaard calls a [20] passion.'47 This point of view is reminiscent of Wittgenstein's own sayings in the late pages of the Tractatus.

There are several interesting things about these direct references to Kierkegaard by Wittgenstein. First, they evidence a clear personal admiration for Kierkegaard as a thinker and a persuasive author. Second, it is important to note that they cover the whole length of Wittgenstein's career. The first references date from before the completion of the manuscript of the Tractatus; and his admiration seems if anything to deepen over the course of the 1930s. The last references, both from his notes and from others' recollections, are from the late 1940s. At the least this is evidence of a continuity in Wittgenstein's interest in the subject of religion and personal faith. The question of the relation between the Tractatus and the later philosophy must be considered in the light of this continuity. And there is also enough evidence to show that Kierkegaard's works can be a useful key to the understanding of Wittgenstein, at least in the matter of religion.

In addition to the instances of direct connections between Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein, there are two more very incidental mentions of a connection between the two thinkers. These have more to do with Wittgenstein's demeanor than with any traceable influence. Yet they are not wholly without interest when one remembers that Wittgenstein felt a close connection between his lifestyle and his philosophizing.

One of these references is very brief. Allan Janik records that Wittgenstein's tendency to approach everything 'from the ethical point of view . . . reminded [an Austrian acquaintance] directly of Kierkegaard.'48

Lastly, there is a more involved and fascinatingly indirect connection. K. E. Tranøy, a Norwegian student who came to know Wittgenstein in 1949, was impressed by Wittgenstein's knowledge of Ibsen's dramas, particularly Brand. Tranøy thought Brand's moral severity and human fallibility quite like Wittgenstein's.49 But, as Lowrie confirms, Brand was a thinly veiled caricature of Kierkegaard and some of his unwelcome followers!50

Of course neither of these two references carries much weight. They do serve to suggest the sense of absolute moral intentness common to both thinkers.51 [21]


At first glance, Kierkegaard's life seems to be remarkably different from Wittgenstein's. The differences begin with the form or texture of the two lives. While Wittgenstein's restlessness mirrors the aphoristic quality of his works, Kierkegaard led a remarkably settled existence. He was born in Copenhagen, and there he died. Aside from a few brief trips to Berlin, and a pilgrimage to his ancestral home in Jutland, he did not even venture from the province of Sjæland.52

But the geographically settled nature of Kierkegaard's life must be put in context. Wittgenstein was alternately drawn to the intellectual centers of Europe, and repulsed by them. He was better able to work in private and secluded places. Kierkegaard, for all his complaints that he was martyred as 'a genius in a provincial town,'53 had in Copenhagen his scholarly retreat and town seat in one. As Lowrie points out, it was a small city of 200,000, but also a royal capital, with theater, library, and university.

Just as Wittgenstein's apparently fragmented existence renders biographical work a jigsaw puzzle, the stay-at-home character of Kierkegaard's life is reflected in the fact that his biographers have succeeded in giving a unified picture of him. But the reasons for this success are more complex than first appears. It is not that any public record of Kierkegaard's life was made; like Wittgenstein he had an intense sense of privacy. Rather, he was himself his own biographer. Nor does this autobiography exist in a wholly connected and honest form. But the pieces of the puzzle are, as it were, all collected in one box. There are also sketches in his published works that make parts of the pattern clear.

One work in particular gives an extraordinarily coherent interpretation of the main features of Kierkegaard's public literary production - his 'authorship.' The Point of View for My Work as an Author, written in 1848 (but published posthumously), explains his writings up to that point, and their connection to his life as publicly known, as a result of 'Divine Governance.' One of the questions which can only be answered through biographical inquiry is how he came to this understanding.

The intent of The Point of View is limited; and even within its limits the work is perhaps not completely honest.54 But the gaps in [22] this published work are partly supplied by Kierkegaard's journals. Like Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard kept voluminous notebooks. But while the former confined his notes to philosophy (with a few exceptions), the latter made both biographical and reflective entries. It is a measure of Kierkegaard's astuteness at self-observation - and also of the close connection between his life and his literary production - that Walter Lowrie's biographies are nearly half direct quotes from the journals and published works.55

Because of this wealth of autobiography and reliable biography, the task of interpretation of Kierkegaard's life can be carried out somewhat differently than is the case with Wittgenstein. It is no longer mainly a question of assembling primary material coherently, but rather of singling out certain connections and facts relevant to the present task. One part of this project is finding clues to Kierkegaard's own understanding.

The journals are, among other things, a valuable document of the way in which published material came into existence. As is the case with Wittgenstein's notebooks, the seeds of published passages can often be seen in earlier journal entries; and indeed multiple drafts of works are sometimes represented.

But the real value of the journals lies in the fact that often biography and literary preparation are combined. Kierkegaard's talents as a psychological observer and 'spy' on himself and others allowed him to find universal themes in the particular happenings which he so astutely noticed.

The connection of the two most important personal relations in Kierkegaard's life with some essential categories used in his work is illustrated by the oft-repeated dedication and preface - which Kierkegaard published with each set of 'edifying discourses' he wrote, beginning in 1843. The discourses were dedicated 'to the memory of my deceased father Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard'; the preface emphasizes that the writer is 'without authority,' and indicates a desire that the works should find 'that individual whom with joy and gratitude I call my reader.'56

Kierkegaard's relationship with his melancholy father, and his own melancholy - partly a result of his father's melancholy - bore a large part in the instigation of his authorship. Kierkegaard summarized his father's case:

How appalling for the man who, as a lad watching sheep on the Jutland heath, suffering painfully, hungry and exhausted, once [23] stood on a hill and cursed God - and the man was unable to forget it when he was eighty-two years old.57

This incident (and his subsequent rapid rise from poor lad to rich merchant, which convinced him that there really was a good God) gave Michael Kierkegaard such a sense of his own sin, and thus his son's original sin, that all of their relations were colored by it:

From a child I was under the sway of a prodigious melancholy, the depth of which finds its only adequate measure in the equally prodigious dexterity I possessed of hiding it under an apparent gaiety and joie de vivre. So far back as I can barely remember, my one joy was that nobody could discover how unhappy I felt.58

Kierkegaard's talent for dissimulation may have been partly inherited from his father, who did not reveal the causes of his melancholy. Søren's sense of melancholy was heightened by his glimpsing of another part of his father's secret - his guilt over his relationship with his second wife. Kierkegaard reports it thus:

Then it was that the great earthquake occurred, the frightful upheaval which suddenly drove me to a new infallible principle for interpreting all the phenomena. Then I surmised that my father's old-age was not a divine blessing, but rather a curse, that our family's exceptional intellectual capacities were only for mutually harrowing each other.59

But this realization led Kierkegaard closer to his eventual task:

Inwardly shattered as I was, with no prospect of leading a happy life on this earth, . . . devoid of all hope for a pleasant, happy future - as this naturally proceeds from and is inherent in the historical continuity of home and family life - what wonder then that in despairing desperation I seized hold of the intellectual side of man exclusively, hung on to that, with the result that the thought of my eminent mental faculties was my only comfort, ideas my only joy, and men of no importance to me.60

Not only was Kierkegaard's literary production shaped by these circumstances of his youth; but his perception of his life's task was also molded by the sense that he was in some way bounded by the family guilt. (His pursuit of theology was a result of his father's wishes.) Furthermore he was not able to express this guilt and the religious purposes to which it led him - he was a captive of his 'inclosing reserve.'61 [24]

The second and more well known example of the intertwining of Kierkegaard's life and work is the literary reflection of Kierkegaard's engagement to Regine Olsen. In this case his 'inclosing reserve' had tragic consequences.

Kierkegaard's involvement with Regine is related to his authorship in several and complex ways. First, the composition of Either/Or (the first work completed after the break), and particularly the 'Diary of the Seducer,' was explained by Kierkegaard himself as 'a good deed' in respect to her, to give an account of his motivations which would allow her to get over him.62 The same might be said (in a more subtle sense) of Fear and Trembling, which contains passages fully accessible only to someone with an understanding which only Regine could have possessed at the time.

Both Repetition and 'Quidam's Diary,' a section of the work Stages on Life's Way, contain fairly direct references to Regine. The 'Diary' is perhaps the most personal, as it chronicles the deepest thoughts of the lover about his beloved - distanced by a year in time from the actual events. A brief section of Repetition reflects the relationship in an almost brutally dispassionate sense. This passage sets forth a project of using deception in order to break off a relationship, much more violent than Kierkegaard himself employed in relation to Regine. The project is proposed by a third party, and is so cold that the fictional lover cannot bring himself to put it into force.63

But the entire affair also had a more permanent effect on Kierkegaard's thought and work. This can be seen in the development of the phrase 'that individual.' He reported that the dedication to 'that particular individual, my reader,' which he first affixed to the Edifying Discourses which accompanied Either/Or in 1843, was composed with 'her' particularly in mind. But 'gradually this thought was taken over [assimilated],' and his concern for the individual rather than the crowd became an essential part of his authorship.64 This is clear from the content of the two notes on 'the individual' which accompany The Point of View.65

At one point in his journals Kierkegaard even says that the development of the indirect method of communication was partly a result of his concern for Regine:

Actually it was she - that is, my relationship to her - who taught me the indirect method. She could be helped only by an untruth [25] about me; otherwise I believe she would have lost her mind. That the collision was a religious one would have completely deranged her, and therefore I have had to be so infinitely careful.66

It was originally his 'inclosing reserve' which prevented the truth from coming out. But he later found a maieutic use for this reserve in the particular case of Regine; still later he generalized that use into his authorship.

Finally, Kierkegaard also believed that the intensity required for the completion of his literary/religious task was incompatible with the demands of the ethical state of marriage. His worries on this score are evident in a journal entry dated February 2, 1839 - a year and a half before the engagement. Even then, he wondered: 'Do the Orders say: March on?'67

So Kierkegaard's literary production may have been enhanced in several ways by the relation with Regine and its breakup: those circumstances provided him with material, with method, and also perhaps with the ability to concentrate (or lack of distractions) so necessary to the use of that material and method.

There is evidence of one other experience which decisively turned Kierkegaard to a religious expression of his talents. An entry in his journals runs thus:

There is an indescribable joy that glows all through us just as inexplicably as the apostle's exclamation breaks forth for no apparent reason: 'Rejoice, and again I say, Rejoice.' - Not a joy over this or that, but the soul's full outcry 'with tongue and mouth and from the bottom of the heart': 'I rejoice for my joy, by, in, with, about, over, for, and with my joy' - a heavenly refrain which, as it were, suddenly interrupts our other singing, a joy which cools and refreshes like a breath of air, a breeze from the trade winds which blow across the plains of Mamre to the everlasting mansions.

10:30 a.m., May 19, 183868

The generally agreed-on interpretation of this entry, dated with uncharacteristic precision, is that it reflects a mystical experience. Kierkegaard denied that he ever received authority from any such experience (in contradistinction to Magister Adler); but that is not to say that he did not have one. He merely wanted to make clear [26] that he was not mystically aware of God's will, through revelation (as an apostle might be) - he saw himself instead under the category 'genius.'69 Mysticism presents the double dangers of elitism and easy waiting for God to do everything.

At any rate the entry certainly reflects an experience of some kind; it recalls Wittgenstein's experience of 'wonder at the world.'70

The talent for dissimulation, first learned by Kierkegaard as a mask for his melancholy (and which morbidly showed itself as his reserve), was another of the distinguishing marks of his life. He used it to good effect during the period of his 'aesthetic' production. The point was to have his apparent lifestyle in accord with the tone of the works which he was producing. As he reports in the Point of View, at times during the composition of Either/Or he was so busy that he had just a few minutes a day to spare; to get the best effect he would appear at the theatre for five or ten minutes - and the gossips obligingly reported that he did nothing else every night!71

Dissimulation had another place in Kierkegaard's life. One of his few pleasures was his daily walk through Copenhagen. As Lowrie points out, the town was small enough for him to keep up with all developments of importance. By posing as a man-about-town, and exercising his considerable talents as a 'spy,' Kierkegaard gained the raw material which he transformed into the literary works.

Another category of Kierkegaard's authorship is his insistence that he was 'without authority.' This reflects his own religious status, which varied between his categories of 'infinite resignation' and 'Religiousness A.'72 He published a great many 'edifying discourses.' They were not 'sermons' because he did not have the authority of ordination. He wrote philosophical treatises (albeit well-disguised ones); but of course he lacked the authority of the systematic professor, and even that of the privatdocent. The Christian root of this category is clear: in his authorship as a whole he called individuals to a renewed sense of religiousness, but without pretending to lay claim to authority, which in a Christian sense could belong to only one Person (or at the very most three!).73

Kierkegaard repeatedly stresses that the object of his work is very limited. He is not a systematic philosopher, but has a 'particular purpose.' The purpose is the investigation of 'what it means to become a Christian.'74 It is essential to remember this because it may mean that some cases may be polemically [27] overstated, and that some analyses may be incomplete (referring only to the religious use of a term).

The categories of 'the individual' and 'without authority,' which Kierkegaard derived from life, are closely related to this purpose. His uses of these categories are limited and polemical. Just as Kierkegaard did not claim any special status for himself (being without authority) so he particularly directed his writings to individuals regardless of their status. The next chapter will take up the larger implications of this form of address.

The relation between Kierkegaard's life and his authorship is the overriding example of his polemical task. Even in his private life he may have given events too much significance through reflection - it must not be forgotten that his diagnoses were self-diagnoses, since he was 'without authority' in the case of any other individual. But insofar as his public life was a polemical potentiation - a caricature, in which the features germane to the 'task' were emphasized - of his private life, it is the prime instance of his use of 'indirect communication.'

Finally, the relationship of 'Governance' to Kierkegaard's life must be discussed. In general, he understood his relation to this 'Governance' as like that of Socrates: 'he attended to himself - and then Providence proceeds to add world-historical significance to his ironical self-contentment.'75 He felt in general that he had a 'task'; but the fulfillment of this task came through the building up of a pattern, the individual pieces of which did not make special sense at the time of their occurrence.76

But he had some sense of the unusual nature of his vocation quite early in his literary life. In Repetition, he used the category of the 'spy in a higher service.' 77 This is a complex idea. As articulated in the journals, it includes the notion of a reprehensible (sinning) past, and consequent obligation to God - as well as the more obvious ideas of dissimulation and the gathering of information. 78 'The observer's job is to expose what is hidden,' as Constantin Constantius remarks. Only after many things are exposed can he see the pattern which guided these exposures.


It remains to give some hints as to how the similarities between Kierkegaard's and Wittgenstein's lives affect our present task. The [28] most obvious and general of these similarities is the understanding of the close connection of lifestyle and philosophical ideas.

The style of continual reworking and rethinking carries through to three areas of interest to us - the authors' personal lives, their literary production, and the style they advocated to others. But this reworking is shaped by a grounding ideal. The root of each man's unease lies in religious concern.

It might seem odd to make the claim that religion is an essential common feature of Kierkegaard's and Wittgenstein's lives. Certainly Wittgenstein was not explicitly concerned with religion as an author. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that a religious search is a common element. Malcolm suggests that Wittgenstein had many times reached the point of crisis - at which Kierkegaard advocates the 'leap' - but 'could not, or would not, "open his heart."'79 At least he had a conception of a higher 'ethical' standard for the 'task' of life - a standard which he 'believed in,' but felt incompetent to fulfill.80

Kierkegaard carries the connection of life and works to a doubly-reflected extreme, since his works are rooted in his sin-consciousness, then a false moral expression is invented to aid in the proper interpretation of the works! Wittgenstein is not so explicit about the connection, but carries it out nonetheless. His philosophical 'brush-clearing' is partly an attempt to make plain the moral foundations of life; his attempts (and failures) to improve his own moral foundations have a great deal to do with the events of his life. He also attempted to impart these values to others - but not by explaining his own position; rather he tried to bring about the same soul-searching in his students that he himself had gone through. This method of working shows forth the anti-academic (or at least anti-doctrinal) streak which he shares with Kierkegaard.

Wittgenstein makes explicit a grasp of the close connection of ethical and aesthetic concerns which is also apparent in Kierkegaard's life. For both thinkers, what one makes of life depends in some measure on the 'aesthetic' principle or perspective from which one connects the various facets of the world. Both believe that this principle cannot be communicated directly.

Several similarities of method and understanding become clear within the basic framework of life-works connection. Kierkegaard, as the self-conscious biographer and psychologist, can provide some of the categories for the comparison. These categories will be [29] important again and again in succeeding chapters.

Wittgenstein wanted to be 'without authority' in his teachings, just as Kierkegaard did. Although his closest friends understood him to be an extremely moral person, he did not so understand himself, and his protestations of personal inadequacy made him without moral authority. His rejection of academic forms was an attempt to escape scholarly authority. In the event, the 'first generation of disciples' allowed him both kinds of authority, despite his protestations. The moral component is now nearly lost, but unfortunately this is because the scholarly authority has been strengthened - in a direction opposite to that of morality.

'The individual' is an accurate category for Wittgenstein as well. His works reflect this, as will be seen below. He always preferred to deal with one interlocutor in his philosophical talks. When Kierkegaard walked, he at least played the role of the flâneur; to walk with Wittgenstein was to be involved in serious philosophy, usually one-on-one. Even in his 'lectures,' he needed at least a friendly face to address.

Finally, Wittgenstein believed in 'indirect communication.' This category is best discussed in connection with his writings; but it could be argued that his whole life was a communication of the way in which basic philosophy ought to be thought out and applied. At least he was conscious of the gap between the actual course of his life and his ideals; and he was apparently concerned that the actuality, rather than the ideals, would be 'communicated.' It must also be remembered that he successfully communicated philosophy in a house. 'Hausegewordene Logik' is certainly an indirect communication!

So far the 'Galtonian photograph' showing a type of philosopher is not complete. It is clear that both Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein believed that their lives and philosophies were intertwined more closely than usual. They also thought this intertwining right, and fostered it consciously. In fact, many of the tools which they brought to their authorships derived from the course of their respective lives. In each case, this is true of indirect communication, the address to the individual, and the refusal of authority.

But in order to flesh out the picture, as must be done before it can be fully evaluated, we should examine the works which were the fruits of these lives. If our authors are true to their principles, there will be a close connection between the methods and goals implicit in their lives, and those expressed in their works.