M.G. Piety

Great Publishing News!

In Publishing News on April 14, 2014 at 10:12 pm

Old books (cropped)Alastair Hannay has produced a new translation of Kierkegaard’s Concept of Anxiety! This is great news for Kierkegaard scholars, and perhaps even better news for people who are not actually scholars but simply fans of Kierkegaard, because Hannay’s translations are markedly superior to the Princeton translations. Hannay’s new translation was not actually the occasion for this post, however. I’ll have a review of the translation later. The reason for this post is that I was delighted to discover that the translation is available in an ebook edition! Not only that, in preparation for my review, I thought I would see if Princeton had issued an ebook of Reidar Thomte’s translation of Anxiety, and sure enough, they have come around as well!

I know there are still a few people out there who are still resisting the transition to ebooks, so I thought I would take the opportunity once again to try to convince them that ebooks are fantastic! I have lots of beautiful old volumes of late 18th and early 19th-century philosophy and theology that I collected in Denmark and I doubt there are many people who appreciate a beautiful book more than I do. I have to tell you, though, that I am absolutely crazy about ebooks. I was excited about the idea of them when I first heard about them for the simple reason that they are searchable. Once I got a Kindle, however, I discovered that there are lots more wonderful things about ebooks:

1. They take no space. This is very important for me because even with two residences and an office at school, I have no more space for books.

2. You can carry thousands of books with you in your pocket everywhere you go so that never again will you be stuck anywhere without something to read. In fact, if you have a smart phone, you can read your books on your phone in the unfortunate event that you have failed to bring your ebook reader along with you. I know that sounds kind of crazy. I never thought I would want to read a book on my phone. It’s surprisingly pleasant though. I think the fact that the phone has backlighting makes it easier to read the small characters so that they don’t actually seem all that small.

3, You can secure a new book instantly, INSTANTLY! Once I was watching a program on mysticism and the narrator referred to a scholar of mysticism, Evelyn Underhill, who sounded very interesting. I was able to download a copy of one of her books before the program I was watching had even finished! This, to me, is just a huge advantage to ebooks. It has been enormously stimulating to my thought processes that I can get books immediately (not to mention that I can search them).

4. It is easy to move back and forth between notes and text. You just click on the note number and you are taken to the note. Click on the back button and you are back to the point in the text where the note appears. This isn’t easier than checking footnotes, of course, but it is much easier than checking endnotes. I hate endnotes, but everyone seems to be doing them now instead of footnotes.

5. I can cut and paste text to my lecture notes for class or for articles I’m working on–and the reference is inserted automatically!

6. You can download free samples of books you are not sure you want to buy and these samples are pretty substantial chunks of text, usually at least a whole chapter.

7. Ebooks are cheaper than regular books, so if you buy as many books as I do, you save A LOT of money buying ebooks.

8. Not only are ebooks cheaper than conventional books, lots and lots of them are actually free! That’s right, lots of books that have gone into the public domain (including lots of older translations of Plato and other philosophers) are available free of charge in the Kindle bookstore (I’m sure Barnes and Noble has something similar for their Nook).

9. Ebooks are easier to read in bed because they are lighter than most regular books and you don’t have to manage the two halves. I used to get very uncomfortable because I sleep on my side so, if I were reading a really thick book either my arm would get tired holding up the thick side or I would have to turn over on my other side every time I finished reading a page.

Ebooks are the wave of the future. Not only are they better in all the ways listed above than conventional books for readers, they make it much easier for people to get into print (meaning e-ink print, of course). The ebook revolution is going to be as big a thing, I think, as was the invention of the printing press. There were books before the printing press, but books (not to mention democracy) really took off after the invention of the printing press. I think ebooks are going to have just as revolutionary an effect on humanity as did the printing press.

Okay, there are some disadvantages with them. Unless you have an iPad, or other tablet computer, you won’t get the full experience of color illustrations. That isn’t such a huge problem for philosophers and theologians, though, because most of our books don’t have big color illustrations. Of course, you need to charge an e-reader whereas you don’t need to charge a book. E-readers actually hold a charge for a long time, however. My Kindle Paperwhite holds a charge for weeks even though it is backlighted. Finally, t is difficult to “page through” an e-reader (you are better off doing a search on a key word).

The advantages of e-books clearly FAR outweigh their disadvantages. Sorry to go on like this but I am so crazy about ebooks. I do this to everyone who tells me he doesn’t like e-books, that to me is like saying you don’t like to read. If you like to read, you will LOVE e-books. Mark my words!

On Being Human

In Conference news, Publishing News on April 9, 2014 at 6:46 pm

MLN Kierkegaard cover.128.5_frontVolume 128 no. 5 of MLN (originally Modern Language Notes) includes a collection of papers from the conference on Kierkegaard that was hosted by Johns Hopkins last September. Leonardo Lisi very kindly sent me a copy as a thank you for my having chaired a session at the conference. I went immediately to the paper by Jonathan Lear because it had been one of my favorites from the conference. The paper, “The Ironic Creativity of Socratic Doubt” (MLN 1001-1018) takes its point of departure in a passage from Kierkegaard’s journals that reads:

Socrates doubted that one was a human being by birth; to become human, or to learn what it means to be human does not come that easily–what occupied Socrates, what he sought, was the ideality of being human (Journals 278).

Lear says he’s going to pursue the suggestion that “we should read the or as exegetical” in the sense that “what follows the ‘or’ explicates what precedes it” (MLN 1004). That is, Lear argues that learning what it means to be human is precisely to “become human.” Learning what it means to be human, Lear asserts, is not “tantamount to acquiring a practical skill” (MLN 1005) because if it were, then it would seem easy enough to do, yet Socrates had difficulty with it and Kierkegaard seems to accept this difficulty as natural for anyone who is sufficiently reflective.

Lear’s essay is extraordinarily rich and I cannot hence to justice to it here. I want here only sketch Lear’s thesis and point out what I believe is problematic about it. That is, I’m going to argue that while Lear presents a beautifully persuasive reading of Plato’s Symposium, this reading cannot unproblematically be attributed to Kierkegaard.

Lear uses Diotima’s discussion of “pregnancy” from Plato’s Symposium to gain insight into what might be the difficulty involved in learning what it means to be human. This is indeed, I would argue, a fruitful approach to the problem because though Kierkegaard skips over this part of Diotima’s speech in The Concept of Irony, the metaphor of pregnancy becomes very important to Kierkegaard.

Diotima’s speech is about love. “[L]ove,” she asserts, “is wanting to possess the good forever” (206a; Lear’s emphasis). But the only way we are going to be able to do that, observes Lear, is if “we create it ourselves.” “The ‘real purpose of love,’ Diotima say, ‘is giving birth in beauty whether in body or in soul’” (206b; Lear’s emphasis) (MLN 1010)

“What we lack and seek,” asserts Lear, “is not the missing good object… Rather what we lack and seek is the beautiful environment–the beautiful other–in which we can then give forth something from deep within ourselves” (MLN 1010). Lear acknowledges that ordinarily we associate the erotic in Plato with a kind of lack and that. “No doubt,” he observes, “there are passages that support that though. But here in the heart of the Platonic Socrates’ discourse on eros, he says that the erotic encounter is the occasion to experience ourselves as full. Since Socrates says he is persuaded by Diotima’s teaching (212b),” continues Lear, “he cannot here be thinking of himself as empty” (MLN 1011).

It is not necessarily the case, however, that the “lack” traditionally associated with erotic love in Plato is equivalent to “emptiness.” That is, the “lack” that the lover seeks to fill through the possession of the beloved in not incompatible with his experiencing himself as full in some other respect. A lover may be filled, for example, with a wonder at creation and yet lack a beloved to share it with. Alternatively, the fullness the lover experiences may simply replace the lack that served as the impetus to love. That is, the traditional Platonic conception of erotic love as related to a kind of lack in the lover is not necessarily incompatible, in the manner Lear suggests with Diotima’s view of love as a kind of fullness that issues in birth.

This point is not essential, however, to Lear’s thesis. His thesis is actually that human life has a “characteristic activity.” This activity, he explains is “pregnancy and giving birth in the beautiful. That is, it is the creativity in the presence of –or in the presence of a memory of–a beautiful other person who stimulates and inspires us. Try to imagine,” Lear continues, “a human being who has no pregnancy in them whatsoever: no ability to reproduce biologically nor even a spark of creative impulse. If one can imagine this at all, one is imagining someone at the far end of an autistic spectrum. This is not just another instance of a human being, but an impaired one” (MLN 1014).

“We see from the inside,” continues Lear, “that human being is characterized by creativity stimulated by our encounter with others–and that a biological instance of the kind that lacked that creativity would be a problematic instance. This,” asserts Lear, “is not an arbitrarily high standard; it is a constitutional condition” (MLN 1015). I like this definition of what it means to be human, but I’m not entirely convinced that this is what Kierkegaard had in mind. Lear asserts that “giving birth in the beautiful is our characteristic practical activity” and that “[l]earning what it means to give birth in the beautiful just is the self-conscious understanding that we acquire in giving birth in the beautiful” (MLN 1015). But if a human being who is unable to do this and hence to gain an understanding of it is, as Lear asserts, someone “at the far end of an autistic spectrum,” then it is difficult to understand why Kierkegaard would believe that “to learn what it means to be human does not come that easily.” That is, if Lear is correct in his claim that “giving birth in the beautiful is our characteristic practical activity,” then learning what it means to give birth is this way would be something that everyone did as a matter of course.

One might be tempted to argue, that when Kierkegaard says “learning what it means to become human does not come that easily,” what he means is more that it is painful rather than that it is rare. Perhaps, after all, that is what Lear means. Lear is a practicing Freudian analyst, so it’s unlikely that he would want to exclude from the category “human” the vast number of individuals Kierkegaard’s gloss on Plato’s text suggests would be excluded. This can’t be what Kierkegaard means, however, because he clearly does, ironically, want to exclude vast numbers of human beings from the category “human.” We are supposed to be “human,” according to Kierkegaard, in the manner Lear describes, but in fact, most of us are not. [T]he ideality of human being” that Socrates sought is impossibly high according to Kierkegaard, in that it is not something we can achieve without God’s help. That’s the irony. We cannot become who we are, according to Kierkegaard, in the beautiful environment of human love, but only in the beautiful environment of divine love.

New Book on Kierkegaard and Rationality

In Once Upon a Time in Denmark, Publishing News on February 24, 2014 at 3:17 pm

Paradoxical Rationality of Kierkegaard (cover) I received a review a couple of days ago of a new book entitled The Paradoxical Rationality of Søren Kierkegaard. The book is by Richard McCombs. The review, by Antony Aumann, appeared in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. I haven’t read the book yet, so I won’t say much about it here. I will share only a few comments on the review. First, Aumann takes McCombs to task for neglecting the secondary literature. I have to say, however, that on my view, that is a fairly minor flaw in a book on this topic. There is some good work on Kierkegaard and rationality (particularly in the volume Kierkegaard after MacIntyre), but there isn’t much that is addressed specifically to this topic. A great deal of what C. Stephen Evans writes touches on the topic of Kierkegaard and rationality, but strangely, Aumann does not fault McCombs for neglecting Evans’ work, but for neglecting, among others, the work of Louis Pojman.

What I would like to see referenced in scholarly treatments of the topic of Kierkegaard and rationality is some German language work. There is simply nothing comparable in comprehensiveness and theoretical rigor to Anton Hügli’s Die Erkenntnis der Subjektivität und die Objektivität des Erkennens bei Søren Kierkegaard (Editio Academica, 1973) and Das Problem des Interesses und die Philosophie Sören Kierkegaards (Karl Alber, 1983). Both these works should be required reading for anyone interested in either Kierkegaard’s epistemology or his position on the nature of human rationality. I quote liberally from both works in Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology, so you can get some idea of the content of each there. Hopefully, those little tastes will whet your appetite to the extent that you will be willing to struggle through the originals.

Neither, alas, is available as an ebook. Fortunately, McCombs book is available as an ebook. I’ve already downloaded it because I learned from Aumann’s review that the book contains an entire chapter on Kierkegaard’s epistemology. I’m going to get started on the book right away and will post my thoughts on it as soon as I am able to give them coherent form.

In other publishing news, Oxford has come out with a new volume entitled The Oxford Handbook of Kierkegaard. I presume, from the mixed bag of contributors, that it is intended primarily for non-specialists. In typical Oxford fashion, however, at $112 it is priced beyond the means of its intended audience. Scholars will occasionally pay approximately $100 for a book, but non-specialists rarely will. I fear this volume is destined to languish unread on library shelves. That need not have been the case in that Oxford has thoughtfully made it available in a Kindle edition. Unfortunately, they have thoughtlessly priced even that edition out of the reach of nearly everyone but libraries. Most ebooks are substantially cheaper than their physical counterparts for obvious reasons. The Kindle edition of this book, however, is $85. One can only hope Oxford will soon see the error of its ways and reduce that price.

Speaking of how much scholars will pay for books, I have a funny story to relate. I used to order books occasionally from the German book import store in Copenhagen when I lived there. I had heard the theologian Joachim Ringleben speak at some conference or other and had been very impressed by him, so I ordered his book Aneignung: Die Spekulativ Theologie Sören Kierkegaards. When I went to pick up the book, however, the man to whom I was to give my money, opened the inside cover to learn the price and simply burst out laughing. He laughed so hard it was some time before he could calm down sufficiently to process the sale. Even then he kept shaking his head and smiling.

Fortunately, the Kindle version of McCombs book is only $24.49. Thank you Indiana University Press!

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