From Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard: Religion, Individuality and Philosophical Method
© 1989 Charles L. Creegan
Disseminate freely with this header intact. See colophon for citation information.



The works of Søren Kierkegaard and Ludwig Wittgenstein are generally conceded to be of seminal importance for their respective fields. But the mention of 'respective fields' already shows that there is a radical gap between the spheres of influence of the two authors.

A systematic consideration of the situation could result in a variety of theories concerning the origin of this gap. For example, it might seem to be justified by the disparity in the two authors' own fields of study. Kierkegaard explicitly claims to be 'a religious author,' insisting that everything he writes must be understood in relation to the problem of 'becoming a Christian.' On the other hand, Wittgenstein is clearly a philosopher: in his works the problems of philosophy are addressed in terms of the relation between language and world. These facts certainly document a substantial difference.

The impression that Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein are not participants in the same universe of discourse might be further substantiated by the fundamental difference in their motivations. Kierkegaard felt a vocation of religious edification, which he discovered and expressed through his relations with other people, his father, fiancée, and bishop being chief among these. His appeal to the categories of philosophy derives from his psychological perception of the religious 'need of the age.' Wittgenstein came to philosophy through its connection with fields far removed from religion. He began as an engineer, and engaged certain technical questions in the philosophy of mathematics and logic as a natural outgrowth of this interest. Eventually his investigations into symbolism led to a more general interest in language; the language [2] of religion is only one of the examples he considered. Once again, there is a considerable difference to be seen.

These differences between Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein help to explain the appropriation of Kierkegaard by 'Continental' existentialists and theologians, and the appeals to Wittgenstein by 'Anglo-American' logical positivists, analytic philosophers, and philosophers of language.

The separation between readers of Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard has become even wider as a result of the logical positivists' well-known antipathy toward religion. The association of Wittgenstein with their position, despite his disavowals, has virtually ensured the propagation in the scholarly world of the impression that he not only ignored religion but positively abhorred it. Thus 'Wittgensteinian' philosophers might be inclined to disregard Kierkegaard, while some theologians and scholars of religion display actual fear of Wittgenstein.1

The difference between the two authors can be briefly summarized as follows: Kierkegaard is 'the father of existentialism,' while Wittgenstein is 'the father of analytic philosophy.' What greater difference could there be?


In the midst of their legitimate differences, there is one similarity between Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein which is striking. This similarity cannot be expressed in systematic categories: it is not a case of identity in academic specialization, nor yet of correlation in factual discoveries. Instead, it is a congruity of method. Both authors stress reliance on indirect methods of communication; both rely on such methods themselves.

The term 'indirect communication' was coined by Kierkegaard. Wittgenstein's parallel concept, which carries over from the early to the later period, is the 'showing' of certain essential ideas or distinctions which cannot be 'said.' Both methods are based on the perspicuous presentation of evidence, rather than the advancing of 'theses,' concerning the various subjects under consideration.

Since both authors are communicating indirectly, it is not surprising that some of the strategies of communication they use are the same. Certain features are repeatedly evident in their works. Among these are examples, reminders, repetition of the obvious, notes on usage, and stories.

These elements are used in a unique way. They are not [3] presented as factually significant 'data.' Rather, they are proposed as clues to the solutions of certain problems, and to the grasping of usage within the conceptual schemes of which their original application forms a part.

Once this parallel in methodology is recognized, it quickly becomes clear that there are a variety of important connections between the two authors. Neither adopted 'indirect communication' as a matter of chance. Rather, this strategy arose from the nature of their particular concerns.

Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein agree that there are areas in which dialectical thought is simply incompetent. But neither author is content to accept the limits of reasoned discussion as ultimate. The particular problems which both address are in areas which have always had uncertain but important relations with reason: religion and the traditional 'metaphysical' realm. Both mark out the delineation (and not primarily the examination) of these areas as their special province.

The use of new methods by both Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard is closely related to their interest in religion and metaphysical problems. One feature of much philosophizing which both authors believe to be problematic is the effort to use the wrong tools, that is, to carry through the techniques of reason to these foundational areas. They agree that the use of systematic categories in an attempt to 'understand everything' has led a drift away from fruitful thinking. Because metaphysics and religion are foundational, this drift gains considerable leverage in philosophy and everyday life.

Both authors propose to apply an influence which will serve as a 'corrective' to the systematic drift. In order to counteract the existing leverage, their influence may need to take a radical form. But it is important to distinguish this radical therapy from a radical position. Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard agree that they can do no better than to explicate what is already the case.

Both contend that the explication which they attempt gets further than reasoned explanation does; they also agree that nevertheless it too must 'stop somewhere.' But neither believes that where he has stopped in his commentary is 'the end.' Both are interested in transitions and activities which can only start after the philosophical discussion is over. Problems may have been eliminated, or at least clarified; but little has been settled. Yet to have [4] shown how little is settled when these problems are solved is itself an important achievement.

The question of method takes on added importance in view of the authors' refusal to come to systematic conclusions. There is little distinction to be made between the construction of their work and its final results. Many strategies are both used and recommended, often at the same time. A remark may be germane to more than one discussion. Both authors make a conscious effort to employ a suggestive, rather than a reductive method. They prefer to expand discourse rather than to limit it.

The refusal to be systematic has one root in the indirect method and the difficulties of expression that prompted its adoption. But the connection between the method used and that explicated is also connected with the personal dimension of the two authors' work. They were bound up in their problems. Kierkegaard spoke of his authorship as a 'task'; he often agonized over the decision to publish a book. Wittgenstein's philosophical struggles were evident in his classes. He rethought each problem as he spoke of it. The integration of life and works is a feature which each author understood and cultivated. Their lives are important reminders in the showing of their purposes.

Readers of the two authors' works are not spared the personal involvement which the authors themselves felt. Indirect communication demands that the 'task' of philosophy falls at least as much on the shoulders of the audience as on those of the speaker. Both Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein hoped that their work might have uses in the daily life of their audiences.


Most studies take on some of the flavor of the works under review. But in light of the fact that both Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein look to their readers to continue in the appropriate way, any work 'about' them must adhere to their categories more closely than usual - must in fact become work 'with' or 'after' them. Three ideas about method, held in common by the two figures, will be constantly adopted in this particular investigation.

The first recommendation to be appropriated is that of limitation of the task. Kierkegaard's work was expressly limited. He was constantly concerned with one problem: that of 'becoming a Christian.'2 Wittgenstein too always had a 'particular purpose' in mind;3 once a specific problem was solved, suggestions for general [5] (systematic?) improvements were met with the imperative: 'Leave the bloody thing alone!'4 So while it would doubtless be possible to fill an encyclopedia with the catalogue of differences between Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein, it would hardly be in their spirit to make the attempt.

The suggestion of an unrecognized parallel between Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein brings this study into another of their categories, the 'corrective.' The many differences between the two authors are generally obvious, like the religious/not religious dichotomy, and are not likely to be forgotten. As a corrective, this work will often be concerned with recalling well-known facts about the two authors which have been forgotten.

The investigation of these similarities will require the use of another component of the method recommended by the two authors - stressing certain parts of their work in a new pattern, and thus altering the flavor of the synthetic understanding, much like Kierkegaard's 'dash of cinnamon.'5 Such a project will be concerned to 'assemble reminders' suggestive of the new stress.6 As a result of this change in stress, some 'obvious facts' may be thrown into question.

In order to bring the parallels between Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein out most fully, the above-mentioned tools must be applied to several different areas.

In light of the fact that both authors felt close connections between life and authorship, the first part of the 'task' must be to establish more closely the extent of parallels between the styles of their lives.

The results of this investigation can be one guide to a better grasp of the methods which they used and set forth in their works. Certainly such a grasp is necessary if the aim of these methods is ever to be clarified.

Against the background of both life and method, some previous attempts to 'understand' the positions they took on the key subject of the individual will be examined. In making this examination, it will be important to remember the close relations each author felt between his own individuality and his work, and their refusals to be systematic in their investigations and categories.

With this example of the application and results of their method in mind, some implications for the field of religion (in which both had a personal interest) can be laid out. This examination will [6] begin from the systematic categorization of Kierkegaard as religious and Wittgenstein as non-religious.

Finally, the possibility of further work in the tradition of Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein will be explored. By this time it will be obvious that such a continuation could not be carried out in the modes usually associated with philosophy.


No comparative and corrective endeavor can be perfectly symmetrical. Different thinkers and different extrapolations by varying communities of interpretation will naturally suggest the need for varying reminders. In the particular cases of Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein, difficulties are raised by the different aims embodied in the two authorships. Kierkegaard was primarily concerned to communicate. He had a sense of urgency concerning the specific existential problem of finitude and its possible working out in faith. In the course of this communication he used certain tools. Wittgenstein spent more time at the reflexive or recursive task of communicating about communication, and investigating investigation. In the course of this project he worked on some problems essential to the method, and tested his tools on various other problems. Thus, in order to grasp the direction of his approach, relatively more synoptic presentation of his tactics may be needed. Kierkegaard's fixed goal simplifies the investigation of his methodology; and his methods may serve as examples of the kind of solutions which Wittgenstein recommended and tried to use.

In the investigation of the relevance of Wittgenstein's thought for religion the same problem will occur. Kierkegaard's interest in religion is well known, and given this clue its influence can be ferreted out even where it is not obvious. But even the possibility of applying Wittgenstein's categories to religion in a non-destructive way may have to be demonstrated; clues must be sought before they can be used. To show that he himself might have made such applications is yet another problem.

But irrespective of the relative amounts of reconsideration, this study depends on a mutual relation of suggestiveness. Both in the wider problem of method and the specific problem of faith, the terms which Kierkegaard employed (such as 'without authority' and 'the individual') often clarify a dimension in Wittgenstein's life and work. Wittgenstein's categories (such as 'form of life' and 'showing') give new reach and grounding to Kierkegaard's project. [7] That two authors with such divergent motivations might come to make such similar recommendations at key points suggests that their new methodology has broader implications than have yet been realized. In the final analysis, even their irreconcilable differences make the similarities between them more important.