M.G. Piety

Tudvad Interview (Conclusion)

In Kierkegaard and the Jews, News from Copenhagen on January 28, 2011 at 9:28 am

Piety: Were there anti-Semitic remarks in Kierkegaard’s published works or only in unpublished ones such as his journals?

Tudvad: Most of his anti-Semitic remarks are in his journals but quite a few can be found in his published works too. But I don’t think that it is really approprite to distinguish between these to parts of his authorship as he himself did not doubt that his diaries too would be published after his death. He even had a title for them: “The Book of the Judge”.

Piety: Has anyone advanced an argument that Kierkegaard was not anti-Semitic that is based on anything other than the claim that Kierkegaard’s remarks have to be placed in their historical context?

Tudvad: Yes, several have argued that anti-Semitism is a notion which was not defined until a couple of decades after Kierkegaard’s death, thus, he can not be labeled an anti-Semite. Others have argued that anti-Semitism is a purely racist concept, and that Kierkegaard almost never defines the Jews as a race. But today, in dictionaries of contemporary Danish, you do not define anti-Semitism as something purely racist, but rather as a hostile attitude towards Jews.

Piety: The English theologian George Pattison actually admitted in his article “Søren Kierkegaard was neither better nor worse than his times” that he had not read your book. Is that right?

Tudvad: Yes. – ”Neither better nor worse!” He was surely not worse than some people, and surely not better than quite a few liberal politicians, the ones who fought at the same time for a free constitution that would guarantee freedom of religion. Now, is it really a relevant argument that somebody, and especially one who is considered a genius and far ahead of his contemporaries, was neither better nor worse than his times? Would you excuse somebody living in Germany in the 1930’s or 1940’s the same way?

Piety: How many other people who published articles claiming that Kierkegaard was not anti-Semitic had actually read your book? How many admitted that they had not read it?

Tudvad: Until recently none of my critics had read the book but nobody did – without being explicitly asked – admit that they had not read the book. That does not mean that they pretended they had read the book, only that nobody seemed to care about having read the book or not. The conclusion was given: Kierkegaard was not an anti-Semite. So why read the book?

Piety: What do you think was the biggest problem that critics of the book had with it?

Tudvad: That I made clear a tight link between Kierkegaard’s theology and his anti-Semitism. People seemed to be surprised that anti-Semitism as such has it’s origin in Christianity. Maybe they are sincere, but if they are, they certainly do suffer from a heavy suppression of a historical fact. The Nazis did not invent anti-Semitism, did they?

Piety: Is there anything else you would like to say on this controversy to Anglo-American readers?

Tudvad: Yes, I’m very sad that I was not born in the US, where I could have raised this discussion without being met by so much ignorance and prejudice, so much unwillingness to discuss a rather important aspect of western civilization and the Christian religion.

 

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  1. I’ll be sure to keep an open mind while reading Tudvad’s book when it’s published in English. Nevertheless, as a reader of many of Kierkegaard’s works, theological and otherwise, I cannot find a single public passage of his that can be interpreted only as Antisemitism and cannot be interpreted otherwise. I hope to see the passages Tudvad is quoting from.

    And although Kierkegaard may have given in to public opinion regarding Jews in 19th century Denmark and written as much in his Journals, isn’t he allowed a bit of freedom of thought without harassment?

    Labeling Kierkegaard as anti-semitic; well, let me just quote the master himself: “When the person who carries on the contemptible trade of vilification perhaps time and again offends the gods with his prayer that his business may flourish, that there may always be more and more people to vilify, more and more active assistants of irascibility and spite on the paper, when in the work of his trade he indulges and enjoys himself in the delusion of impotence and bad temper -— namely, that it is dreadful to be the object of his abuse -— until he insanely goes so far as even to believe that others are living in the same delusion; and because he never gets an answer and always has the last word, he believes that people are afraid of him, just as in ordinary life no one is as sure to claim the right of way on the sidewalk as a prostitute is, while he sits busy at work in his workshop, protected against legal punishment by a staff of street corner loafers standing in for him, protected from literary polemic by the paper’s contemptibleness.”

    • I don’t like thinking of Kierkegaard as anti-Semitic. There is no question though that his views on Jews and Judaism do not reflect positively on him as a thinker or as a person. I guess what is particularly shocking is that Kierkegaard’s own father was so progressive in that respect. Maybe Kierkegaard’s views on Jews were partly an expression of an attempt to differentiate himself from his father. Who knows. Later, I will post English translations of some of the anti-Semitic remarks Tudvad refers to. I don’t want to do that right now, because the blog has been about nothing but Tudvad’s book for the last couple of weeks. I’d like to put up at least one post, and possibly a couple, on other stuff. I don’t think it’s fair though to say that Tudvad is “harassing” Kierkegaard. I think close scrutiny of Kierkegaard’s views on Jews and Judaism is long overdue. Kierkegaard was certainly far from the worst anti-Semite of the day, but he was even farther from his contemporaries who were defenders of the Jews. Again, this is an issue that deserves to be looked at in detail. To me though, the real value of the book is in the wealth of material it contains about the history of Jews and Judaism and anti-Semitism in Denmark. It’s good not merely for Kierkegaard scholars (or H.C. Andersen scholars), but for anyone who wants a better understanding not merely of Golden Age Denmark, but of the Denmark of today, in that the latter is a product of the former.

  2. […] To document this controversy the Kierkegaard scholar M.G. Piety, associate professor of philosophy at Drexel University in Philadelphia has created a blog called “Piety on Kierkegaard.” The blog is sporadic and it has taken him two months to provide enough information for a decent blog post. (I wanted to post as soon as he started his blog but there was not enough information.) see here and here and here. […]

    • I did not create my blog to document the controversy over Peter Tudvad’s book on Kierkegaard and anti-Semitism. If you read all the posts you will see that I have posts that relate to lots of other topics in Kierkegaard scholarship. You will also see that I am not a he, but a she.

  3. […] There has reportedly been a hot controversy over the last year in Denmark, thanks to Peter Tudvad’s book examining the anti-Semitism of Kierkegaard. Below is a transcript of an interview that M[arilyn] G. Piety (Drexel) had with Peter Tudvad, as published in her blog (parts 1, 2, 3). […]

  4. Ironically, Trouw started as a paper of the Dutch rsicetanse in the Second World War. Nowadays, Trouw is a politically-correct, Islam-apologetic, left-wing newspaper (only in name Christian ). The newspaper is also rabidly anti-Israel. The ex-communist Willem Schoonen is the editor-in-chief. In the eighties, he worked for De Waarheid ( The Truth ), a newspaper of the Communist Party of the Netherlands (CPN).

  5. While I agree about the idea that it may be justified to have a look at Kierkegaard’s relationship with the jews, I am not certain I agree with Tudvad’s dismissal of the argument that Kierkegaard may have, to some extent, simply been like most people of his time. To be a genius doesn’t mean that you are a saint, or even that you are also an outstanding philanthropist, etc. Human beings are complex and multi-faceted, and genius may simply mean that some of these facets are more developed in you than they are in others’. In Kierkegaard’s case, it is, I believe, mostly the intellectual, religious, and literary facets that were developed. That’s already a lot, but that is not all that there is to being a fully developed human being. Maybe that if some other facets of his life had received a fuller development, his outlook on the jews (as well as women) would have been different. But since, as he said himself, he clinged to “absolute religiosity” as the meaning of his life when he chose to leave Regine Olsen, his total commitment to religion blinded him to some of the flaws contained in the religious tradition he received from his fathers and contemporaries. For his goal was never to reform doctrine, but to make people live according to the doctrine he had himself received.

    • That’s a tolerant take on Kierkegaard’s antisemitism and one with respect to which I have a great deal of sympathy. It appears, however, from the passages Tudvad cites from Kierkegaard’s journals, that Kierkegaard went beyond many of his contemporaries in his disparaging of the Jews.

      Still, I think you are largely correct. Kierkegaard’s negative views on Jews and Judaism do not discredit him as thinker. Tudvad argues himself that Kierkegaard was not originally antisemitic, but that his attitude toward Jews changed toward the end of his life. I think at least part of the project of Tudvad’s book, if I’m not mistaken, is simply to point out that this aspect of Kierkegaard’s later thought has been deliberately whitewashed by scholars whose careers are invested in his work. Tudvad appears to be right about that. Several of the offending passages from the journals did not make it into the original English translation and one will search in vain for mention of Kierkegaard’s negative view of Jews or Judaism in the scholarship on Kierkegaard.

      Since Kierkegaard’s antisemitism appears to have been something he developed late in his life, I’m hoping, that it might have been the expression of some kind of dementia. It is also certainly a comfort that the most offensive passages did not appear in his published works.

  6. I agree with you. Kierkegaard may have gone further than some of his contemporaries concerning antisemitism; however, I should have added to my post that I think his commitment to “absolute religiosity” may be in part responsible for that. Since he was much more a religious soul than his contemporaries, Kierkegaard may have amplified both the positive and negative aspects of his religious tradition in his life and teachings. I believe he had the tendency to even accept religious, or religiously tainted prejudices into his thought instead of rejecting them, seeking instead the truth that may lurk inside them. These prejudices, concerning especially Jews and women, eventually became, in his last years, an integral part of his worldview.

    I am not certain it may be necessary to speak of dementia regarding his later view on the Jews (I admit I have not read Tudvad’s book, but I have read some later journal entries by Kierkegaard in french from his last years which contained some considerations on the Jews); if there is some form of illness to talk about here, I think it is more like a religious illness. In a way, you could also consider his later journal entries in general on religion and his pamphlets “The moment” as a product of dementia; but, in my honest opinion, I think it is more interesting to see in what way Kierkegaard remains coherent with himself to the last. The main difference in his last years is, I think, an added inhumanity to his own teaching, as a consequence of the inhumanity he saw in the world; the chasm between the world and God seemed to grow for him ever wider, and as a consequence everything that seemed for him to be “of the world” (like Jews and women) was to be condemned. His emphasis on God’s absolute transcendence eventually ended up absorbing everything. At least, that’s the way I see it.

    Maybe we could sum things up by saying that he lost faith in the goodness of Creation. Or something that wasn’t very far from it. That would be his “illness”.

  7. I am very sorry that I don’t read Danish so can’t read the book in the original. However, I’ve now read 14 of Kierkegaard’s books in English translation, including the Diaries. There is no question that Kierkegaard was an antisemite, and of a very particular and idiosyncratic kind. As a Jewish historian and theologian, it is very distressing for me to realise that even this genius, whose knowledge of Hebrew and Jewish norms was profound, could use antisemitism for his own ends. I also think, like others, that he was depressive and jealous of the Jews for their, so he thought, wonderful family life. When I contacted Professor Pattison on the subject, he fobbed me off and said that no-one would probably translate the book. I do hope a translator is found so that I for one am able to review it. Finally, do you think that maybe contemporary Denmark has been influenced by Kierkegaard’s views to the extent of banning Jewish shechita and threatening male circumcision of boys? If this happens, Jews will have to go underground once more, just as they did in the days of the Nazis. And this will be a sorry day indeed for Denmark 200 years after his birth.

    • I suspect Pattison hopes no one will translate the book because he was one of the people who was very critical of it. Right now, he and others can criticize it with impunity to an audience that can’t read the original. The book is filled with evidence of Kierkegaard’s antisemitism. It pains me to have to acknowledge that because there are so many things I love about Kierkegaard. That he was an antisemitic, however, is pretty clear from his later writings. Fortunately, it seems to be something that took hold of his thought late in his life. Kierkegaard’s father was actually somewhat philo-semitic and my sense is that Kierkegaard shared this positive attitude toward Jews and Judaism in the early part of his life, and indeed in the early part of his authorship (though he was no religious pluralist, so, as a Christian, he had to believe that Christianity was superior to Judaism).

      I doubt that Kierkegaard’s antisemitism had much influence on the Danes. They are also vehemently opposed to female circumcision. The Danes, God love them, are extremely conformist. They have a tendency to think that everyone in Denmark should live as they, the Danes, collectively think best. Sometimes this is a very good thing (e.g., everyone gets free healthcare) and other times it is not so good, as when they appear not to appreciate the value of cultural practices that diverge from their own. Don’t get me wrong. I am NOT defending female circumcision. I’m just trying to explain that I don’t think the Danes are antisemitic (or at least not any more antisemitic than any other Europeans).

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