The Most Important Thing That I Learned from Kierkegaard


“The highest and most beautiful things in life are not to be heard about, nor read about, nor seen but, if one will, are to be lived.” ― Søren Kierkegaard

July is graduation time at my university and our department honored our 63 BA, 11 MA, and 4 PhD graduates. In classic British tradition, the ceremony was formal and scripted with pomp and circumstance. The officials processed in (led by the university mace). Speeches were made. Names were announced one by one and graduands walked across the stage to pick up the empty cylinder that symbolized their accomplishment. (The actual certificate is for reasons unexplained handed to graduands after the ceremony.)

Amidst the highly regimented ritual, something else caught my attention. Despite the standardization, things were not all the same. As each granduand was named and walked across the stage, there was the standard polite applause. But there were differences. There were some whoops from friends, some ecstatic shouts of proud parents, and some quiet mixed feelings of graduates who were missing someone not there in the audience.

KierkegaardIt reminded me of Søren Kierkegaard’s observations about experience. In the 1830s and 40s, Kierkegaard wrote some of the most provocative and compelling books in the history of philosophy. One of his themes was the idea that we each live unique lives and we come to understand anything only through experiencing it. We can only come to understand a truth by going though the process of obtaining it. No one knows what it is means to have earned the honor of a degree unless one has put in the considerable time and effort to earn one.

Truth is not something you can appropriate easily and quickly. You certainly cannot sleep or dream yourself to the truth. No, you must be tried, do battle, and suffer if you are to acquire the truth for yourself. It is a sheer illusion to think that in relation to the truth there is an abridgement, a short cut that dispenses with the necessity for struggling for it. – Kierkegaard

Similarly, we only know what it means to be something when we have had it. No one knows what it means to lose one’s father until one has, Kierkegaard said, speaking from experience. I thought of that watching the graduands, particularly the ones who faces showed sadness. Their pride tinged with the sorrow that someone they loved is not there in the audience. They were having an experience I could not understand.

Every single person who was honored at the graduation ceremony shared the collective experience of earning a degree and being honored at that ceremony. But every single person so honored did so under their own unique circumstances. Every single person had a unique constellation of experiences as they earned their degree and every single one had a unique mix of feelings and thoughts as they strode across the stage. Our unique past and our individual reactions mean each one of us will experience the same event in different ways. We come together to share experiences but even then, our experiences are our own. And that is a wonderful thing.

Everyone is different and everyone has different experiences.

This truism should be obvious but it still amazes me how much of academia does not understand this very basic reality of life. In the drive to categorize and summarize everything, too many in academia and science reduce human existence to basic descriptions and formulas. “We are all the same” is the unspoken mantra of too many scholars who are bent on solving questions with universal answers. Kierkegaard understood how mistaken is such an attitude.

“Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced,” Kierkegaard said. For Kierkegaard, truth is only true when it is lived. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics can teach us about things, but it cannot teach us how to live or how to use the knowledge of things. Truth is subjective, Kierkegaard thought, in that it must be experienced. Any knowledge that is worth knowing is learned through a process that is lived, practiced, and actualized rather than an end product of listening, reasoning, and memorizing. We know it as “experience is the best teacher.”

I understand, as a teacher, that no lists of facts that I can give my students as as valuable to them as is their own experiences. A good teacher facilitates students in their own experiences and understands that students have much to offer in sharing their experiences. Philosophy is a conversation and an experience shared by individuals. Everyone comes to philosophy uniquely. Everyone has something unique to offer.


The Educational Theory of Søren Kierkegaard

A great introductory reader on Kierkegaard’s writing: The Essential Kierkegaard

Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments

Fear and Trembling


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