M.G. Piety

Kierkegaard on “Dialectic”

In Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship, Translation issues on June 14, 2015 at 6:28 pm

A reader wrote recently to inquire about what Kierkegaard meant by “dialectic.” That’s a good question because whatever he means, it is clearly not the same thing that Hegel famously means by this term. First, I have to say that like so many of Kierkegaard’s favorite terms, it does not appear to have a single meaning.

“Dialectic,” or more correctly, Dialektik, comes originally from the Greek διαλεκτική, dialektikē, so you won’t find it in Christian Molbech’s Dansk Ordbog, the standard Danish dictionary from Kierkegaard’s time, but must turn to Ludvig Meyer’s Fremmedordbog (dictionary of foreign words) from 1853. Meyer defines Dialektik as “samtalekunst” (i.e., the art of conversation), as well as “Fornuftlære,” “Tankelære,” “Logik” (the first two translate literally as, ”teachings of reason,” and ”teachings of thought, ” but are probably best translated as ”informal logic,” while Logik is best translated as “formal logic”). In Plato, continues Meyer, Dialektik refers to “higher speculative philosophy,” whereas in Aristotle and more recent thinkers it refers to “probability theory” as well as “eristic,” “sophistry” and “casuistry.”

Interestingly, Kierkegaard never seems to use Dialektik in the last two pejorative senses. My guess is that that is not because a dialectical contemplation of something could never lead one way from the truth, but because of the high esteem in which he appears to have held ancient skepticism. That is, a dialectical contemplation of any question that does not admit of a clear and uncontroversial answer, will ultimately bring the individual back to him or herself and in that way accentuate the role of decision and the will.

There is an extremely helpful Terminologisk Register, or glossary, by Jens Himmelstrup in the second half of volume 15 of the second edition of Kierkegaard’s Samlede Værker. The glossary contains a long entry on Dialektik. Himmelstrup explains here that the term comes originally from the Greek διαλέγομαι, dialegomai, meaning “to carry on a conversation with someone.” “The term,” he continues, “became associated with Socrates, in that he employed the art of conversation, or dialogue, in his activity as a philosopher which was generally aimed at achieving clarity concerning the precise meaning of individual terms and concepts.”

Himmelstrup then proceeds to give a brief history of the meaning of the term in philosophy. What is important for our purposes here, however, is what he says concerning its meaning for Kierkegaard. Sometimes, he explains, “dialectic” refers to “purely logical determinations” (I presume that by this he means it refers to formal opposites such as a and ~a). Other examples he gives of Kierkegaard’s use of the term suggest it means something more like “dynamic,” as when Kierkegaard writes in the first volume of Either-Or: “Love from the soul has, secondly, yet another dialectic, for it differs in relation to every single individual who is the object of love” (This reference is from Alastair Hannay’s translation for Penguin. Even though the ebook version provides only a location number [1587-1588] rather than a page number, the Hongs’ translation of this passage is so tortured that I could not bring myself to use it. This is probably also a good place to point out that neither the Hongs’ “psychical love” nor Hannay’s “love from the soul” is a particularly felicitous translation of Kierkegaard’s “sjælelig Elskov.” That expression is probably best translated simply as “romantic love”).

Suffice it to say in answer to the question of what Kierkegaard means by the term “dialectic,” that the meaning appears to be as protean as is the meaning of the term “knowledge.” That’s not to say that Kierkegaard equivocates on its meaning, but simply, as I explain in Ways of Knowing, that Kierkegaard was extremely sensitive to how fluid are the meanings of most terms in everyday speech and that he abhorred the tendency of academics to artificially fix meanings.

Stay tuned for my next blog post “Those Crazy Hongs!” an examination of how the Hongs (or more likely Howard Hong) could conceivably have rendered “Sandselig Genialitet, bestemmet som Forførelse” as “The Elementary Originality of the Sensuous Qualified as Seduction.”

New Book on Kierkegaard’s Epistemology!

In Publishing News, Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship on April 11, 2015 at 5:20 pm


Martin Slotty’s book on Kierkegaard’s epistemology is now available in an English translation! This is great news for Kierkegaard scholars because until now, there was only one book available in English on Kierkegaard’s epistemology, my Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology (Baylor, 2010). Slotty’s book is an introduction. It is shorter and more accessible than Ways of Knowing, so it is the better volume to start with for those who want to understand something about Kierkegaard’s epistemology. Kierkegaard scholars should read both, of course, because, as I argue in Ways of Knowing, Kierkegaard’s epistemology provides the foundation for his views on the nature of faith in general and religious faith in particular.

So far, Slotty is available only in paperback. I understand from the publisher, however, that there will soon be an ebook version!

I was honored to be asked to do the foreword to Slotty’s book. What follows below is the first part of the foreword.


I had written the first draft of my dissertation on Kierkegaard’s epistemology before I stumbled upon this little book in one of the “hollandsk bogauktioner” that are held in Helligåndshus in the center of Copenhagen every summer. These “Dutch book auctions” are huge used book sales where individual antiquarians get rid of what is effectively their overstock. All the books are priced the same and the price is reduced by half on succeeding days. These sales are mana from heaven to a poor graduate student trying to build a collection of nineteenth-century Danish philosophy and theology on budget. The books are generally inexpensive to begin with but become even cheaper with time. I went generally looking for works by Kierkegaard’s contemporaries, figures such as Hans Lassen Martensen, and Poul Martin Møller. The only way I could find such works, however, was to pore over the titles of each and every one of the thousands of books on the many long tables laid out in the medieval annex to the famous old Helligånds Kirke (Church of the Holy Spirit). I found quite a few invaluable reference works this way, including the famous Ferrall-Repp A Danish-English Dictionary from 1845.

No find was more important to me, however, than this little book by Martin Slotty. I couldn’t believe my eyes when they landed upon a slim volume, that appeared to date from the turn of the century, with the title Die Erkenntnislehre S. A. Kierkegaards. Someone other than Anton Hügli had actually written a book on Kierkegaard’s epistemology, and that long ago! The book, as it turned out, was Slotty’s Doktorarbeit for Friedrich-Alexanders-Universität Erlangen. It isn’t nearly so deep-going an analysis of Kierkegaard’s epistemology as Hügli’s Die Erkenntnis der Subjektivität und die Objectivität des Erkennens bei Søren Kierkegaard from 1973. It’s an introduction to Kierkegaard’s epistemology, as is clear from the title. In fact, it is comprised primarily of passages extracted from Kierkegaard’s works with only the occasional addition of an analysis of their meaning. The relative paucity of analysis is explicable, however, by the fact that the passages more or less explain themselves. That is part of what makes the book so important. It shows very clearly that one does not have to dig deep to see that epistemological concerns were central to Kierkegaard’s thought.

Peter Brown, paraphrasing the view of Byzantine scholar Averil Cameron, wrote in a recent edition of The New York Review of Books that “Byzantine studies should be put into a sort of intellectual receivership.” It’s an “undertheorized field,” he continues, quoting Cameron, “as well as an understudied one” (NYRB, December 18, 2014). I’ve often felt that Kierkegaard scholarship should be put into intellectual receivership. There is plenty of work being done on Kierkegaard, of course, and much of it is highly theoretical. That isn’t the problem. The problem is that while there is excellent work being done on Kierkegaard, Kierkegaard scholarship as a whole still suffers from some fundamental misconceptions about just what kind of thinker Kierkegaard was. Most people writing on Kierkegaard today do not have even a passing familiarity with the Danish language, let alone a command of Danish that would allow them to read Kierkegaard’s works in the original. Scholars tend to focus on a select few books, which, read in isolation from the much larger authorship of which they are a part, are difficult to interpret.1 This little book will provide a necessary corrective to the view that Kierkegaard was a proponent of irrationalism or subjectivism, as well as to the view that epistemological concerns did not figure largely in his works. They did.
1. It is worth noting that nearly all Kierkegaard’s contemporary readers would have been familiar with his whole authorship. The number of Danish intellectuals was relatively small and works of the sort Kierkegaard published were not numerous. Also, the device of pseudonymity did not conceal the origin of Kierkegaard’s works for very long. Copenhagen was, and remains, a small town.

Mistake in Hongs’ Translation

In Uncategorized on March 3, 2015 at 7:19 pm

MolbechIs it possible, according to Kierkegaard, for a person to appreciate, on his own, that he is outside the truth, or in error? It would appear that Kierkegaard’s answer in Philosophical Crumbs is both yes and no. That is, on the one hand he says that since this is actually our situation, “the Socratic applies,” which is to say that we can “recollect” it, or come to appreciate it on our own. On the other hand, it looks like we can’t, at least according to the Hongs’ translation of Philosophiske Smuler.

The Hongs translate the following passage:

Dersom et Menneske oprindeligen er i Besiddelse af Betingelsen for at forstaae Sandheden, da tænker han, at Gud er til, derved at han selv er til. Dersom han er i Usandheden, da maa han jo tænke dette om sig selv, og Erindringen skal ikke kunne hjælpe ham uden til at tænke dette. Om han skal komme videre, maa Øieblikket afgjøre (om dette end allerede var virksomt i at lade ham indsee, at han er Usandheden). (Søren Kierkegaards Skrifter, Vol. 4, p. 229.)


If a person originally possesses the condition to understand the truth, he thinks that, since he himself is, God is. If he is in untruth, then he must of course think this about himself, and recollection will be unable to help him to think anything else but this. Whether or not he is to go any further, the moment must decide (although it already was active in making him perceive that he is untruth) (Philosophical Fragments, Princeton, 1985, p. 20).

The parenthetical remark asserts that “the moment” is active in helping people to understand that they are outside the truth, despite the fact that Kierkegaard had earlier said this was something we could discover on our own. So is Kierkegaard contradicting himself here or is there a problem with the Hongs’ translation?

The answer is that there is a problem with the Hongs’ translation. Here is how I translate this same passage.

If a person is originally in possession of the condition for understanding the truth, then he thinks there is a God, in that he exists himself. If he is in error, he may think this about himself, but recollection could not help him to think anything else. If he is to progress beyond this, the moment must decide (even if it were already active in allowing him to see that he was in error) (Philosophical Crumbs, Oxford, 2009, p. 97).

The parenthetical remark is what philosophers call a “counter-factual.” It is not saying that the moment had, in fact, been active in a person’s coming to understand himself as outside the truth, but that even if it had been active – i.e., had helped him to understand that he was outside the truth – he would need it again to get beyond this realization. That is, Kierkegaard is not taking a position here on whether one needs the moment to help one to the insight that one is outside the truth. He’s saying even if the moment had been active in helping one to this insight (a qualification that is perfectly consistent with its not being active), it would be needed again to get beyond the insight.

Of course you shouldn’t just assume that I know what I am talking about here. I need to marshal some evidence to support my claim that my translation: “even if it [i.e., the moment] were already active in allowing him to see that he was in error” is accurate whereas the Hongs’: “although it [i.e.., the moment] already was active in making him perceive that he is untruth” is not. So let’s go to the relevant reference works: Ferrall-Repp does not have “om end,” but only “om” which it translates as “if.” Vinterberg-Bodelsen has “(even) if,” before “(even) though.”

The really decisive proof that the parenthetical should be in the subjunctive comes from Christian Molbech’s Dansk Orbog from 1859 (this is the second edition and hence more reliable for questions of usage in the 1840s than is the first edition from 1833). Molbech lists a number of instances where “om” means either “if” or “whether,” but then gives the following example for “om end”: “Jeg tror det ikke, om end Alle sværge derpaa,” which translates as: “I don’t believe it, even if everyone would swear to it.”

Of course this begs the question in that I have chosen to translate “om end” as “even if” instead of “even though.” The justification for my translation comes after the first formulation. That is, immediately following the example “Jeg tror det ikke, om end Alle sværge derpaa” is a parenthetical clarification that reads “(Forskielligt i Meningen fra: ‘omendskiøndt han sværger derpaa,’ hvor der mere bestemt udtrykkes, at han sværger.)” This translates literally as “(Different in meaning from: ‘even though he swears to it,’ where the fact that he swears is expressed more definitively”.)

Hence it is clear that “om end” means “even if,” not “even though,” or “although” as the Hongs’ translation has it. The Hongs translation thus takes what is legitimately a question in the original and turns it into a fact, and a misleading fact at that.


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