Sunday, November 20, 2011
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.