Sunday, May 7, 2023
First Aired: 
Sunday, January 10, 2010

What Is It

Philosophy usually suggests a striving for rationality and objectivity. But the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard advocated subjectivity and the leap of faith—his conception of how an individual would believe in God or act in love. Kierkegaard, whose best-known work is Fear and Trembling, is often considered the father of Existentialism. Ken and John explore the life and thought of this passionate philosopher with Lanier Anderson from Stanford University.

Listening Notes

John kicks off the show by pointing out that Kierkegaard is high on his list of philosophers . . . on the list of philosophers he hasn't read much of, doesn't understand, and doesn't expect to understand in the near future. Ken replies to John's cynicism with a defense of (among other things) Kierkegaard’s idea of contradiction, distinguishing paradox from contradiction and defending the former.  John and Ken welcome Lanier Anderson and ask him how he became interested in Kierkegaard. Lanier answers them, focusing on how Kierkegaard has helped him understand the internal logic of people of faith in his life. John and Ken try to get an overview of what is important to know about Kierkegaard, and Lanier talks to them about three big ideas in Kierkegaard’s writing.

In the next section, Ken and John ask Lanier what a “leap” of faith is, and why Kierkegaard thinks leaping in faith is a good idea. Lanier talks about Kierkegaard’s understanding of will formation and the relationship between faith and rationality, and discusses how Kierkegaard’s understanding of these concepts contrasts with another important philosopher of his time, Schopenhauer. To help John understand the concept of a leap of faith, Lanier compares it with falling in love. 

They then move to a problem that deeply concerned Kierkegaard: Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac on God's command. Though God prevented Abraham from sacrificing Isaac at the last moment, Ken and John express the concerns many have had with the story. Lanier talks about how Kierkegaard made sense of the apparent problem, stressing the different lights thrown on the situation through a religious ‘sacrifice’ understanding of the event and a moral ‘murder’ understanding of the event. Lanier also talks about the importance Kierkegaard sees in faith's role in overcoming despair, which Kierkegaard believes is rooted in sin.

John, still in despair himself about trying to understand what Kierkegaard was trying to say, tries to understand the effect Kierkegaard has had on thinking and philosophy today. Ken chimes in with a positive note about Kierkegaard: Ken thinks that Kierkegaard had profound things to say about grounding identity in an world of choice. Lanier takes off from that note to talk about the connections between Kierkegaard and existentialism.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 7:00): April Dembosky interviews a psychologist and a confused layperson about uncertain relationships and the leaps of faith that may need to be taken for love.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 49:30): Ian Shoales narrates eccentric and tragic elements of Kierkegaard's biography.



Ken Taylor  
Welcome to Philosophy Talk, the program that questions everything...

John Perry  
 ...except your intelligence. I'm John Perry.

Ken Taylor  
And I'm Ken Taylor. We're coming to you from the studios of KALW San Francisco.

Comments (8)

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Wednesday, April 19, 2023 -- 12:34 PM

Listening to this show, again

Listening to this show, again maybe, I don’t remember it if I did, was insightful. Lanier Anderson has become a monster from his humble pie offered in this show. He taught this class with Ken and came upon Soren’s work doing the great work he could get. And he got it, because he tried. What a life that must be. It is in reading these works, and their entries in the SEP, that I have opened my mind to my own bias and limitations. Still work to be done there.

I haven’t read Kierkegaard, and now I should, I guess. I don’t have the time, it seems to fix my leaky faucet, yet I have more and more reading to add to my lists. I’ll listen to the drip and think about a Kierkegaard roaming the hometown he seldom left, thinking about his place. I’ll add all of Lanier’s growing bibliography to my list, dust off some Klett Deutsch readers and see if I can grow my own Weltanschauung. That will be my leap.

I've read and agree to abide by the Community Guidelines
Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Saturday, May 6, 2023 -- 8:29 PM

No progress on Klett, but I

No progress on Klett, but I did read 'Fear and Trembling' and 'Either/Or,' both of which I thought would be onerous but were surprisingly short, readable, and relatable. Taking some of the biographies from the show and the book (I read these from the Princeton University Press version called "The Essential Kierkegaard"), I feel a sense of acquaintance with him and even kinship, even though these works reflect a small part of his work.

'Fear and Trembling' especially is short and, for me, divides into three distinct parts:

  • A state of faith in Soren's world
  • The concept of a knight of infinite resignation/faith (not entirely the same thing)
  • A rundown on Abraham and Isaac

F&T is one of those philosophy reads that requires a bible and a good bit of patience tracking down the notes. I could have this confused and would appreciate the correction, but Soren wrote these, and most of his works were published after he backed away from the marriage proposal Lanier and John mentioned in the show. 'Either/Or' has all the flavor of that trauma, but 'Fear and Trembling' was good in ways that John Perry's skepticism wasn't – though the first read had me asking what I was getting myself into. The second, third, and … I've re-read this multiple times now… all got me to a place where I can say, "I am not Soren I read these."

The first part could take its setting from any town in America, and the themes of faith could still resonate with some communities and translate to blind faith in science or liberal economy in others. I somewhat got a vibe for modern-day issues – especially technology and isolation, loneliness, and disconnection the internet's supposed and ironic 'connectedness' has wrought.

The second section, where Soren gets into the path of infinite resignation and faith, lets Kierkegaard's voice out. Spoiler alert – Kierkegaard admits to having never met a Knight of Faith in person. The swimming metaphor puts the ideas of objectivity and subjectivity in plain view. Kierkegaard was well-steeped in the faith but not from personal experience. The uncertainty of the authors' belief was unexpected for me, and I will probably get more reading other works, but these two are good enough for starters.

The best part is titled 'Problema I – Is There a Teleological Suspension of the Ethical?', where Kierkegaard discusses Abraham (and Isaac's near dissection.) Again, this parallels a blind faith in science in our modern world, but we have many examples of Abrahamic psychology in our present generations. These come with and without appeals to the infinite; some are dysfunction tailored to ends. The show mentioned John Brown, but there are others, 'Taxi Driver' is one – and yes, I am talking about him; Ted Kaczynski and the Branch Davidians...the list goes on. Kierkegaard would distance his arguments from all these, and to be fair, Abraham didn't kill anyone. The idea is that people of true faith, and there are plenty of those in our modern world as well – offer us all an example of a path to the good life.

I'd run down my impressions of 'Either/Or,' but this is a blog post. I read Kierkegaard for the first time, and it was enlightening. I haven't cracked my bible in a while, and it felt great. I like Soren's sense of faith as premised on doubt and unattainable for the masses, if even the devout. Religion may be his apology, but his core is one of questioning. Great show and a fun read!

I've read and agree to abide by the Community Guidelines
Daniel's picture


Friday, April 21, 2023 -- 2:26 PM

For a leap everything depends

For a leap everything depends on the run. From the concentration of energy at its end the leaper is propelled beyond what a hop could accomplish. Does the run which precedes your leap described above culminate at the end by the formation of your own "world view" referenced in the second to last sentence? If so, the run appears to begin from the Weltanschauung of others and proceed with increasing speed to an arrival at one of your own. So here's the question which seems to me to arise: Does the leap result in arrival at your own world view after running from the others, or is it launched from your own world view as the point of departure? Your answer could hold the promise of institutional reform in the direction of excellence-promotion.

I've read and agree to abide by the Community Guidelines
Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, April 25, 2023 -- 8:15 AM

I have rated the Dane among a

I have rated the Dane among a class of philosophers I call sufferers. Included, therein, are Kafka; Nietzsche; Kant; Camus; Berkeley; and a few more. These individuals suffered, either from health problems of one kind or another or from indecision and confusion. In my opinion, individuals who hold a profound religious faith are clouded in their rational judgment about things. Faith is good for the faithful; not so much for philosophers. Faithful folks can leap, while philosophy asks questions. Unabashedly. Sometime ago, I read an article featuring Kevin Currie-Knight's ideas on disposition and its' relation to how we think about things, philosophically. That was supportive of my take on sufferers.

I've read and agree to abide by the Community Guidelines
hipohaha's picture


Sunday, January 7, 2024 -- 9:03 PM

I don’t have the time, it

I don’t have the time, it seems to fix my leaky faucet, yet I have more and more reading to add to my lists.

I've read and agree to abide by the Community Guidelines
wilkinsonwilfrid's picture


Tuesday, January 30, 2024 -- 12:41 AM

The run is the most important

The run is the most important factor in a leap. Leaping is more powerful than hopping because of the concentrated force at its end. Are you able to develop your own "world view" at the end of the run that precedes your leap, as mentioned in the second-to-last sentence( If that is the case, it seems like you're on a race from other people's worldviews to your own, which is happening at a rapid pace.

I've read and agree to abide by the Community Guidelines
Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Monday, January 29, 2024 -- 7:51 PM

The force at the beginning of

The force at the beginning of a leap is conserved and, minus a little friction, is even greater than the concentrated force at its end. What sentence are you referring to above? Ken's? Again, just asking what you mean here.

I've read and agree to abide by the Community Guidelines
kanelime's picture


Tuesday, April 2, 2024 -- 2:41 AM

Less than a small amount of

Less than a small amount of friction, the conserved force at the start of a leap is even stronger than the concentrated force at the finish. mapquest driving directions

I've read and agree to abide by the Community Guidelines