Kierkegaard’s Terminology

Kierkegaard is often thought of as a theologian rather than a philosopher. Yet Kierkegaard referred to himself as a “philosopher” in a letter to his friend Rasmus Nielsen (see Letters and Documents, no. 228). Nielsen was himself a professor of philosophy at the University of Copenhagen, so Kierkegaard must have had a fairly high opinion of his own analytical powers to identify himself in this way to his friend. Kierkegaard studied theology, but he also studied philosophy, hence his epistemology is extraordinarily sophisticated.

One of the biggest obstacles to understanding Kierkegaard’s epistemology is that few Kierkegaard scholars outside Denmark read Danish. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that most Danish Kierkegaard scholars are theologians rather than philosophers, so while they cannot help but have an interest in Kierkegaard’s epistemology in that it is essentially tied up with his views on faith, they often lack the theoretical background and analytical training necessary to undertake serious scrutiny of it.

As if these obstacles were not enough, Kierkegaard displays a general disdain for terminological consistency for its own sake. “Part of the difficulty with trying to understand Kierkegaard’s epistemology,” I explain in the introduction to Ways of Knowing, “thus concerns the fact that he makes no rigorous terminological distinctions among the various Danish expressions for knowledge” (15). That does not mean, however, that his thought was conceptually loose. It was not. What was important for Kierkegaard was not terminological consistency, but conceptual consistency. Lars Bejerholm explains in Meddelelsens Dialektik (the dialectic of communication) (Muksgaard, 1962) that

“the relation between a linguistic term and a concept, according to Kierkegaard, is usually such that the linguistic term denotes a concept. This concept may, however, be denoted by a variety of linguistic terms. It is, therefore, a matter of indifference which terms are used to denote a given concept. The most important thing, according to Kierkegaard, is that one ‘knows what one is talking about;’ the particular terms used are, in contrast, inessential.” (60 [Ways of Knowing, 16]).

Kierkegaard thus occasionally adapts his terminology to his audience, as is the case, for example, with his use of Erkjendelsen and Viden. Both can be translated as knowledge, but the former is an academic or technical expression whereas the latter is more colloquial.

One of the projects of Ways of Knowing is thus, as I explain in the introduction, to distinguish the different senses in which Kierkegaard uses various philosophical expressions and, in particular, the senses in which he uses the various expressions for knowledge.

I will have more posts in the future that relate to Kierkegaard’s epistemology and I welcome questions from readers on this topic.


You Read Norwegian Too!: On the Danish Language

A reader wrote in response to the post from Feb. 2, where I quoted the Norwegian paper Morgenbladet. “You read Norwegian as well as Danish!” Unfortunately, I had to explain that I was not quite the polyglot I might appear to be. Modern Norwegian, or Bokmål as it is known in Norway, is essentially koine Danish. The Danes ruled Norway for something like 400 hundred years. With the Danes came the Danish language, eventually supplanting, at least in the more urban areas, the various indigenous dialects. “Bokmål” translates literally as “book language/tongue. “Mål,” I was informed by Ebba Mørkeberg, a member of the Danish Modersmåls-Selskabet (Society of the Mother Tongue), is an old Danish word for “tongue”  (though strangely, this is not among the definitions of “mål/Maal” in the otherwise comprehensive online edition of the Ordbog Over Det Danske Sprog [Dictionary of the Danish Language]. I had to go to the first edition of Molbech’s Danish-English dictionary from 1833 to find it.

Bokmål, is simply regularized Danish with a few spelling changes (e.g., the Danish b often appears in Norwegian as p and the Danish d as t, etc.), in contrast to Nynorsk, which is essentially a reconstruction of the older indigenous Norwegian dialects. Bokmål is easy for anyone fluent in Danish. The pronunciation of Danish words is as strange and irregular as is the pronunciation of English words. Bokmål is different though. It’s Danish pronounced the way it looks like it ought to be pronounced. That means, if you know Danish, you will be able to read Norwegian, and even understand it spoken with very little difficulty.

Of course you may fear that you will never master Danish and that the point is thus moot. I’m here to tell you otherwise. The problem with learning Danish does not relate to its inherent difficulty but to the fact that, outside Denmark, it’s hard to find competent instruction in Danish. Danish, while it looks like German, is actually much simpler and can be mastered much more quickly.

One of the biggest problems in Kierkegaard scholarship is how few scholars have even an elementary knowledge of Danish. One doesn’t have to be fluent in Danish. Enormous use can be made even of only rudimentary knowledge, so long as the scholar in question remains conscious of the fact that his knowledge is only rudimentary. Take the subject, for example, of Kierkegaard’s epistemology. Danish, like German, has several words for knowledge: “viden,” “kendskab,” and “erkendelsen” (I’m using the modern spellings here) are the main ones, but there are several other expressions, as I explain in the introduction to Ways of Knowing, that are also sometimes translated as “knowledge.” You don’t have to be able to read an entire passage in Danish to identify which of these words is being used and then to look up its meaning. It can make a great deal of difference in a philosophical sense, which word Kierkegaard uses, so even a little knowledge of Danish can get you on your way to doing some very good scholarship.

The first thing you should know if you would like to learn Danish is that the Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College offers a course every summer specifically designed to teach Danish to Kierkegaard scholars. The second thing is that if you can’t make it to Northfield, Rosetta Stone has a Danish language program. I have no first-hand experience with the program. I have used two different computer programs for German, though, and found them both really outstanding. Most top-of-the-line computer language instruction programs have all the bells and whistles of a standard university-level foreign language course, including the equivalent of a language lab where you can record and play back your own speech. If you can’t find an ordinary Danish class in your area, try a computer course. Finally, don’t rule out Norwegian. You won’t learn to speak Danish, but you’ll learn to read it.

Kierkegaard as Philanthropist

Peter Tudvad discovered while doing research for Kierkegaards København (Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen) (Politiken, 2004) that Kierkegaard gave shelter to a journeyman carpenter named Frederik Christian Strube and his family. Kierkegaard described Strube as “the man I trusted as I trusted no other, the man I inherited from my father.” Joakim Garff assumes in his book Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography (Princeton, 2005) that Strube had been one of Kierkegaard’s servants and in fact refers to him as “the servant Strube” (647).

Strube did some carpentry work for Kierkegaard and shortly thereafter moved, with his wife and two daughters, into Kierkegaard’s approximately 200 square meter large apartment on Rosenborggade. “Although Kierkegaard could hardly complain about a lack of space,” writes Garff, “there of course also had to be room for servants. And there were more than a few” (532). The status of the Strube family in the Kierkegaard household is, however, far from clear.

Kierkegaard appears to have had only one servant, Anders Christensen Westergaard. Strube, on the other hand, continued to work 12 hours a day as a carpenter while he lived with Kierkegaard. Both Strube and his wife occasionally did odd jobs for which Kierkegaard paid them. This would seem poor compensation, however, for the inconvenience of having to lodge an entire family in an apartment it would appear Kierkegaard had initially intended only for himself and his personal servant.

Shortly after Strube and his family moved in with Kierkegaard he began to show sings of mental illness. Kierkegaard appears to have used his friendship with one of the chief physicians at the Frederiks Hospital, to get Strube admitted to the posh facility which, according to its own rules was not supposed to admit the mentally ill. When Strube finally moved out of Kierkegaard’s apartment in 1852, Kierkegaard continued to offer him support. In fact, Rune Lykkeberg observes in an article entitled “Geniet som omsorgsfuldt menneske” (the genius as philanthropist) (Information, 5/28/04) that Tudvad’s research revealed that “Kierkegaard appears to have continued to support Strube, to the best of his ability, right up until the latter’s death after which time Stube’s nephew thanked him.”

I’ve written about Strube before (see “Some Reflections on Academic Ethics“). His case bares repeating, however, because the portrayal of Kierkegaard’s relation to Strube in Garff’s biography is much less sympathetic. Although the paperback edition of the Princeton translation of Garff’s book incorporates extensive corrections made necessary by Tudvad’s revelations (compare, for example the top of page 402 in the hardcover and paperback editions), Garff remains adamant that Strube and his family were servants, thus the material relating to Strube is unchanged.

Oh yes, one other thing: There is no indication in the paperback edition of Garff’s book that it is a corrected edition, which is to say that it is not the same edition as the hardcover, at least there is no such indication in the copy I have.