M.G. Piety

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 Subjectivität 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) (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) (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.

Mr. McBeevee

In Uncategorized on February 22, 2015 at 3:17 pm

The Andy Griffith Show” is one of my favorite televisions shows. It isn’t just that it’s well written and well acted, it’s that it’s life affirming. It sends consistently positive messages about people’s potential for goodness. I’ve heard it characterized as saccharine. It isn’t though. The peace of Mayberry, the little town of which widower Andy Griffith is the sheriff, is repeatedly disturbed by drunkards, con men, and even violent criminals, to say nothing of jealousy, pettiness, and mistrust. Even Andy succumbs occasionally to mistrust.

There is an episode in the first season where Andy mistakenly assumes his son Opie’s reluctance to contribute to a charity to which all the other children in his school have given generously stems from selfishness, only to find out in the end that Opie has been saving his money to buy his girlfriend a coat because her family is too poor to buy one for her. There’s another episode where Andy assumes that Opie’s claim that he did not start a fire in the barn of a local farmer is a lie, only to find out later that Opie had been telling the truth, that the farmer had started the fire himself.

My favorite episode, and the one that has occasioned this post, is the first one from the third season. The episode is entitled “Mr. McBeevee.” The opening scene is of Opie riding his imaginary horse, Blackie. Later Opie tells his father that he can’t help him clean the Sheriff’s office because he has to help his new friend Mr. McBeevee, a man who, he explains, wears a shiny silver hat, walks about in the treetops, jingles as if he were wearing bells, and can blow smoke out of his ears.

Both Andy and his faithful sidekick Deputy Barney Fife assume, from this description, that Mr. McBeevee is as imaginary as was Opie’s horse Blackie. Opie insists, however, that Mr. McBeevee is real.

The plot takes a dark turn when Opie shows his father a quarter he claims Mr. McBeevee gave him. Where can that have quarter come from? Andy informs his Aunt Bee, who serves as his housekeeper and surrogate mother to Opie, that if Opie will not admit that Mr. McBeevee isn’t real, he’s going to have to “get a whipping.”

Andy makes his way up to Opie’s room and explains to him that he won’t punish him if he will admit that Mr. McBeevee isn’t real.

“Opie,” he says, “there comes a time when you have to stop the play acting and tell the truth, and that time is now, right now. Opie, I want you to be man enough to tell me that Mr. McBeevee is just make believe. That’s all you have to say and it will all be forgotten. But if you don’t, then something else is going to happen. I believe you know what I mean, don’t you.”

“Yes, Pa,” Opie mumbles without looking up.

“Alright,” says Andy, “I want you to say that Mr. McBeevee is just make believe.”

But Opie can’t do it. He tries, but he stops before he can complete the sentence.

“I can’t Pa,” he says trembling and looking directly into his father’s eyes. “Mr. McBeevee isn’t make believe. He’s real.”

Andy shakes his head sadly.

“Don’t you believe me Pa? Opie asks pleadingly, ”don’t you Pa?”

Opie, lower lip trembling, is on the verge of tears. Andy stares disappointedly into his son’s face. Then suddenly his expression changes. There’s a brief look of incredulity, not at what his son is saying, but at something else, something at which the viewer can only guess. He sighs resignedly, smiles slightly, and responds:

“I believe you.”

When Andy comes downstairs again to Barney and Aunt Bee, he informs them that he has not spanked Opie after all.

“Well that’s good,” says Barney with obvious relief. “He learned his lesson. A good talking to is the best thing. Making him stay in his room…”

“I didn’t do that either,” says Andy, lighting a cigarette.

“Well what did you do?” asks Barney.

“I told him I believed him,” responds Andy.

“You told him you BELIEVED him,” Barney blurts out. “But Andy, what he told you is impossible!”

“Well,” Andy explains, “a whole lot of times I’ve asked him to believe things that to his mind must have seemed just as impossible.”

“But Andy, the silver hat, the jingling, the smoke from his ears, what about all that?”

“Well,” says Andy, “I guess at a time like this, when you’re asked to believe something that just doesn’t seem possible, that’s a moment that decides whether you’ve got faith in somebody or not.”

“Well how can you explain it all?” asks Barney.

“I can’t,” responds Andy.

“But you do believe in Mr. McBeevie?”

“No,” responds Andy. ”But I believe in Opie.”

You can hardly get a more Kierkegaardian picture of faith than that! It’s not faith in Christ, of course, but it is faith in all its improbabilistic glory. I wouldn’t go so far as to try to argue that Andy Griffith, or the show’s writers, must have read Kierkegaard. There is an Andy Griffith-Kierkegaard connection, however, that may surprise readers. Griffith had originally planed to become a Moravian minister before he turned to music and acting.

The Moravian Church, also known as the Bohemian Brethren, or the Unitas Fratrum (Unity of Brethren), dates from very early in the fifteenth century and is thus the oldest protestant denomination, predating even Martin Luther’s break with the Church of Rome. A group of Bohemian Brethren established a village called Herrnhut in Berthelsdorf, Germany and hence became known as the Herrnhuters.

Kierkegaard’s father, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard, was a member of the Herrnhut sect. Its view of Christianity had a profound influence on his own and hence on the view of Christianity with which Kierkegaard was raised.

The Moravian Church, interestingly, has no official doctrine.

“Just as the Holy Scripture does not contain any doctrinal system, so the Unitas Fratrum also has not developed any of its own because it knows that the mystery of Jesus Christ, which is attested to in the Bible, cannot be comprehended completely by any human mind or expressed completely in any human statement,” its Ground of the Unity document states.

That is probably partly why Kierkegaard’s own view on the importance of doctrine is so minimalistic. Personal faith was emphasized over doctrine in the pietistic tradition of the Herrnhuters.

Back to Andy Griffith… After his talk with Opie, Andy takes a walk in the woods where Opie claimed to have been helping Mr. McBeevee.

“Mr. McBeeving” he blurts out in exasperation as he swats at the grass with a stick.

“Hello,” replies a voice from the treetops. “Somebody call?”

Andy looks up to see a telephone repair man descending one of the tree trunks, or what at least appeared to be a tree trunk, the tools dangling from his belt jingling like bells.

“McBeevee at your service,” he says when he finally reaches the ground. “What can I do for you?”

“You walk around in the trees,” Andy says grinning incredulously. “You’ve got a silver hat, and you jingle. You can make smoke come out of your ears, can’t you!” he says. (This, it turns out, is a trick Mr. McBeevee showed Opie where he exhales cigarette smoke into his cupped hand and then releases it after moving the hand to his ear.)

“I sure am glad to meet you!” says Andy, who then proceeds to shake Mr. McBeevee’s hand with a vigor that threatens to remove his entire arm from its socket.

So Andy’s faith in his son was justified. He couldn’t have known this, though, when he chose to believe his son, or when he realized that he did believe his son, despite the apparently fantastical nature of his story. Griffith would have realized, of course, that faith is rarely justified in a manner that is demonstrable to others. I think that was the message of the show, that love and faith are inexorably intertwined and that we must hold fast to them – especially when life makes that difficult.



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