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Sunday, April 28, 2019

Clare Carlisle: Philosopher of the Heart review – how to be human | Reviews - The Arts Desk

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Great Dane unleashed: an immersive portrait of Kierkegaard, according to Boyd Tonkin, Senior Writer and Columnist.

Learning to live: Søren Kierkegaard
How close should a biographer come to her subject? Clare Carlisle stays by the side, and looks through the eyes, of Søren Kierkegaard at almost every step on his maverick journey. Philosopher of the Heart even closes with a glimpse of Carlisle in tears at a bicentenary celebration for Kierkegaard at the Danish Church in London. She surmises that those tears, prompted by the dramatisation of a work by the Danish writer and thinker, flow because this tribute to the figure she has studied so devotedly is “casting a sideways glance at my life as a whole, and seeing meaning there”. 

It’s a very Kierkegaardian moment, one of several in her book: unashamedly subjective, lyrical, impassioned and impatient with the buttoned-up, life-denying formality of conventional philosophy – conventional biography too, for that matter. Those qualities make her study of this ironic, ecstatic and anguished outsider a deep pleasure, but a challenge as well, for the curious lay reader. They also explain why anybody who seeks above all a straightforward, hand-holding introduction to the great Dane often labelled the “father of existentialism” should probably apply elsewhere. Carlisle has crafted a Kierkegaard-style portrait of an author who disdained the abstract philosophy of systems, doctrines and propositions in favour of writings that tried to capture “the compelling drama of being human that unfolds within every person”. Truth, for him, must be experienced without filters “in the middle of life itself”, not theorised from a safe distance. Carlisle knows, perhaps too well, that to reduce this pioneering mission – yes, an “existential” quest if you like – to a list of bullet-point axioms would be to betray the essence of his work. At the same time, at moments I did feel glad that more boringly didactic expositors, such as the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (at, have gone in for such helpful treachery. 

With that proviso, Philosopher of the Heart enacts Kierkegaard’s audacity and verve in thinking and writing, his “new way of doing philosophy”, in a thrillingly inward and intimate style. Carlisle (pictured below) avoids any blow-by-blow, concept-by-concept elucidation of events and ideas. Rather, she offers a series of immersive and impressionistic scenes, closely woven with lavish quotation from her primary sources. Much of her narrative pivots around a few key episodes in the fairly brief life (1813-1855) of this son of a pious, self-made Copenhagen merchant and a beloved mother who also came from the humblest peasant stock. Young Kierkegaard, indeed, only stood two generations away from serfdom...

Photo: Clare Carlisle

The 1840s saw the torrential production of one major work after another – Either/Or; Fear and Trembling; Repetition; The Concept of Anxiety; Works of Love; The Sickness Unto Death – in a flood of creativity that has precious few counterparts in the history of philosophy, or literature. Kierkegaard pushed philosophy off its shiny new academic tracks, as followed by the system-building Hegelians he despised, into the richer literary territory of the dialogue, the diary, the parable, the soliloquy, the sermon. They transformed his “innate tendency to hyper-reflection” into a vision of struggling selfhood in a lonely and anxious age. It has infused the work of his admirers and disciples from Kafka to Auden; from Wittgenstein to Sartre. His modes of thinking, of feeling, remain ours; not least in his exploration of anxiety, that florid symptom of freedom that he sees as “a blessing as well as a curse”, since “whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate”.  

Recommended Reading

Philosopher of the Heart:
The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard

Source: The Arts Desk