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Kierkegaard: A Biography Paperback – May 5, 2003

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Editorial Reviews Review

Kierkegaard: A Biography traces the evolution of a character who himself was made up of many characters of his own creation. Søren Kierkegaard's writings, published under various pseudonyms, were made in response to "collisions" with significant individuals (including his father, his brother, a fiancé whom he rejected, and a prominent Danish bishop). The development of these pseudonymous characters reflect Kierkegaard's growing sense of self, and his discovery of that self as being essentially religious. With considerable mastery of the political, philosophical, and theological conflicts of 19th century Europe, Alastair Hannay's biography also serves as an excellent introduction to Kierkegaard's philosophy and faith. From sentence to sentence, the book is full of small pleasures, particularly Hannay's judiciously employed, humanizing vernacular phrases. (As a young man, "Søren," like so many people, "blamed his father for messing up his life.") And like his subject, Hannay is a shrewd observer of the often-misleading relationship between appearance and reality. For instance, he suggests that "it does seem plausible to suppose that a main motivation behind the huge effort that writers put into their poetic products stems often from a sense of lacking in themselves the very substance that their works appear to convey." --Michael Joseph Gross --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Kierkegaard wrote publicly, under a variety of inventive pseudonyms simultaneously revealing and concealing aspects of his self-scrutinizing personality, and privately, in his journals, under an increasingly paradoxical sense of self challenging any would-be biographer to faithfully render his life. And yet, like the writer of a mystery novel, he does drop clues to the puzzle of himself, for which veteran Kierkegaard scholar Hannay (professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Oslo) has a keen detective's eye. Kierkegaard saw his life as a series of "collisions" with a few key individuals, and over the course of his life, he gradually realized a persona that was fundamentally religious. Hannay traces that dramatic unfolding through his sustained counterpoise of Kierkegaard's journal entries with his published oeuvre. In Hannay's hands, Kierkegaard's treatises, novels and journalistic essays are brilliant literary reflections of troubled personal encounters with an imperious father (Michael), a self-divided older brother (Peter), a rejected fianc?e (Regine Olsen) and a complacent bishop (Jacob Mynster), who embodies, for Kierkegaard, the established church of Denmark. The infinitely interpretable Kierkegaardian themes of irony and despair, seduction, the exceptional individual, paradox and life alternatively inflected by aesthetics, ethics or religion become newly accessible under this rigorous biographic gaze. For instance, Kierkegaard's efforts to justify the exceptional individual by excusing him from universal norms (in his own case, marriage) appear less as proto-existential heroism than as a sophisticated intellectual's attempt to protect a simple faith (such as Michael Kierkegaard's) from the pretensions of Hegelian philosophy to subsume it. Hannay's judiciously selected quotes from Kierkegaard will surely seduce those who are not already in thrall to this master stylist into reading at least some of his works firsthand. 8 pages of photos. (Sept.)
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 522 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press; New Ed edition (May 5, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521531810
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521531818
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,631,990 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

27 of 27 people found the following review helpful By J. PORTER on April 8, 2005
Format: Paperback
Well written, comprehensive and compelling reading.

It's a little overly technical in places (although this may suit some readers). It also seems to focus a little to much on Kierkegaard's early works- the chapters on his later works e.g. Practice in Christianity, Sickness... and that part of his life feel somewhat more compressed than earlier ones (perhaps it's actually a case of the earlier chapters being too long?)

If you are new to Kierkegaard I would suggest reading Penguin's edition of Kierkegaard's Paper and Journals (edited by Alistair Hannay) first, and then this biography.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Ryan P. Sullivan on October 1, 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The first chapter is horrendous and it will be very difficult for the uninitiated to get a sense of what is going on.

I understand starting with the crux of the life or what people call a definite "before and after" point, but the author totally botches it.

I'm lucky I got to the second chapter because the author finds a voice that is very learned, amused, and restrained in its telling of a representative man.

Would have given Five stars if the first chapter wasn't so terrible.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Pascal Tiscali on October 25, 2013
Format: Paperback
The author of this book is indisputably qualified to be writing about his subject. However, he seems not to have spent long enough on this particular book, nor to have benefited from a good editor.

The book is characterized throughout by a slightly flippant style, e.g. (as was pointed out in the official reviews above) saying that Kierkegaard thought his father had "messed up his life". This style is certainly no problem, and is in fact suitable to Kierkegaard himself. But the problem arises when subtle philosophical points are treated in such a laconic fashion that it becomes frustratingly difficult to understand what Hannay is saying - and this constitutes a definitive obstacle to understanding what Kierkegaard is saying - which ought, after all, to be the purpose of a biography.

In contrast a biography like Rüdiger Safranski's book on Martin Heidegger reads like a thorough digest of Heidegger's ideas and can appeal to the beginner as a way into the world of that thinker.

With Hannay, on the other hand, you would already have to know a lot about Kierkegaard to find value in his book. Many of the discussions are simply handwaving to what one would have to assume is an academic context of conferences and discussions where Hannay really finds his intended audience.

What Hannay does bring to the table is a very thorough knowledge of the Danish context of Kierkegaard's writing. He knows the landscape of minor authors and religious and political figures against which Kierkegaard sketched out his brilliant revolution of the mind. But that doesn't make it a 4-star book.

And as may be imagined, both of the last two points interfere with the book's value as a biography.
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6 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Dag Stomberg on May 14, 2010
Format: Paperback
Alastair Hannay may help us develop some of the ways of understanding the philosophy of religion as purported by
Kierkegaard. The accomplishments are many in this definitive
biography. Only an author who has combined his erudite study
of the subject with probing decisive language skills is
capable of producing such a book.

Soren Kierkegaard's concepts are very timeless!

At times, it is necessary to look to a well qualified interpreter,
to help us on our way to realize the meaning of quite a number
of edifying discourses.

Do explore where ethical issues arise!

Dag Stomberg
St. Andrews, Scotland
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3 of 7 people found the following review helpful By James L. Park on September 17, 2010
Format: Paperback
Alastair Hannay
Kierkegaard, A Biography

(Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001) 496 pages
(ISBN: 0-512-56077-2; hardcover)
(Library of Congress call number: B4376.H36 2001)

Alastair Hannay is a long-time scholar
and translator of Kierkegaard's works.
He puts his deep understanding of SK
into this comprehensive story of SK's life.
References is made to the writing and publishing of each book,
but Hannay do not concentrate on the content of SK's thought
as much as on the events of his life and relationships.

I recommend reading this biography alongside
Søren Kierkegaard: Papers and Journals: A Selection,
which is organized chronologically
---selected and translated by Alastair Hannay.

James Leonard Park, existential philosopher
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