M.G. Piety

The Responsibility of Intellectuals, or The Reception, in Denmark, of Tudvad’s Book on Kierkegaard and the Jews

In Kierkegaard and the Jews, News from Copenhagen on January 7, 2011 at 11:31 am

One of the funniest, and yet also saddest, pieces by Kierkegaard is on book reviewers. “The appearance of a book,” he writes in Prefaces (Forord in Danish), “is…an event that promptly sets the reading public in motion. Ordinarily there is an individual who even knows it somewhat in advance. … Such a person is fortune’s child, … welcome everywhere. [He] knows only something ambiguous about the title of the book and what it deals with, but this is precisely what is most endearing about him in the eyes of the reading public, because a rumor carries away the reading public as the muse’s impulse the poet.”

The piece goes on about how reviewers will pronounce judgment on works without even having read them.

I don’t know how most contemporary readers react to this diatribe against book reviewers. I know that when I read it, however, I assumed it was a phenomenon that was more or less restricted to 19th-century Copenhagen. I don’t mean to give the impression that I was incorrigibly naïve. I assumed there were still a few irresponsible book reviewers out there. I just took them to be the exception rather than the rule.

I fear now, however, that I may have been wrong. I haven’t actually counted how many reviews were published of Peter Tudvad’s new book, Stadier på Antisemitismens Vej: Søren Kierkegaard og Jøderne (Stages on the Way of Anti-Semitism: Søren Kierkegaard and the Jews), before the book actually came out. The number is sort of overwhelming. This was probably a result, at least in part, of the fact that there appears to have been a “krisemøde på teologi” (damage-control meeting of theologians) as soon as word got out that the book was on its way. The objective, it seems, was to find a way to inoculate Kierkegaard against the contagion of the charge that he was anti-Semitic by discrediting the argument of Tudvad’s book before anyone could actually read it. This, for those readers who do not immediately recognize it as such, is the fallacy known as “poisoning the well.”

The book did not come out until the 9th of November, yet the English theologian George Pattison wrote an article for the Nov. 3rd issue of Kristeligt Dagblad, “Søren Kierkegaard var hverken bedre ell værre end sin tid” (Søren Kierkegaard was neither better nor worse than his times [translated into Danish by Sara Høyrup]), in which he said that “anti-Semitism, in the modern sense, cannot be separated from 19th-century theories of race that are connected with a particular reading of Darwin” and that it is thus “inappropriate and anachronistic to connect the concept of anti-Semitism with Kierkegaard.” This statement, unfortunately, compounds the fallacy of “poisoning the well” with that of “equivocation” in that the first reference is to “anti-Semitism” in the “modern sense” whereas the second is not qualified in this way but is clearly to anti-Semitism in a more general sense. It’s obvious that Kierkegaard cannot be charged with anti-Semitism in the modern sense. No one who lived before Darwin could be charged with anti-Semitism in the modern sense. That does not mean, however, that there was no anti-Semitism before Darwin. Nor does it mean that Kierkegaard could not have been anti-Semitic, or that inquiry into this topic is somehow out of bounds. Pattison must either be shockingly ignorant of world history, prone to committing logical fallacies, or disingenuous.

These are very anti-intellectual times. Academics are under siege. We are constantly criticized and charged, for example, with being lazy and intolerant of views that depart from our own. Dismissing a book before one has even read it only adds fuel to the flames of such criticism. It looks as if many people are simply unwilling to accept that Kierkegaard could have been antisemitic, so they feel no compulsion to examine the evidence to that effect before dismissing the claim. It is precisely such behavior that has brought academics into ill repute. It behooves those of us who like to think of ourselves as intellectuals to do our homework before making public pronouncements on the works of our fellow intellectuals.

I’ll say more about the reception of Tudvad’s book later, after I have said a little more about the content.

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  1. Well, scholars and philosophers are all human beings, and thus imperfect too. Kierkegaard was a great philosopher, one of the greatest of all time. He has his flaws like anyone before or after him. It took Nietzsche’s reputation decades to get over his perceived connection to Nazism, another thing which postdates Nietzsche; it seems only natural for scholars to defend the reputation of Kierkegaard, and by extension, their life’s work, from the harm of ‘modern’ Antisemitism which postdates Kierkegaard.

    • Yes, I agree that it’s natural people want to defend Kierkegaard. I want to defend him as well. Such a desire is an explanation, however, rather than a justification of the behavior of people like Pattison who ought to know better than to write about a book they haven’t even read. Pattison actually acknowledges in his article that he hasn’t read the book (though presumably, he is going to read it since rumor has it that he’s going to review it for the TLS). In my mind though, that makes his behavior even worse. That is, he’s attacking the book while trying to insulate himself against any charges that he’s gotten the argument of the book wrong.

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