Books by Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard aren’t likely on many readers’ nightstands these days. After all, titles such as Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Repetition and The Concept of Anxiety don’t exactly inspire a desire to dig deeper into their contents (even though the latter title sounds at least like it might be fitting for our unsettling times.) Yet, as Clare Carlisle demonstrates in the absorbing and captivating Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard, reading Kierkegaard is much like reading a good novel or a thoughtful poem. Above all, his work struggles artistically with what it means to be human and what it means to love, expressing these concerns in rhetorical styles that seduce the reader into complex philosophical sketches about aesthetics, ethics and religion.
Carlisle, Reader in Philosophy at King’s College London, eschews the contours of traditional biography, focusing instead on Kierkegaard’s growth and development as a writer through a careful look at his publications. Writing became the fabric of Kierkegaard’s existence, says Carlisle—the “most vibrant love of his life.” (“All his other loves flowed into it, and it swelled like the ocean that crashed against his native land.”) Among these other loves, Carlisle deftly illustrates the ways that Kierkegaard’s breakup with his fiancée, Regine Olsen, haunted him through all his life, weaving itself in some fashion or another through all of his writings. Carlisle points out that Kierkegaard’s work of “soul-searching, exploring his own anxiety and suffering,” deepens “his understanding of being human, and [gives] his philosophy a power to affect others.”
Philosopher of the Heart does what the best biographies do: It sends us back to Kierkegaard’s time so we can see for ourselves the beauty, intricacy and literary artistry of what he accomplished. Carlisle’s meticulous reading of Kierkegaard’s oeuvre reveals that his work deserves a wider audience for its insights into what it means to be human. This penetrating introduction will encourage us to put Fear and Trembling or Stages on Life’s Way on our nightstands.