Kierkegaard as Psychologist: On Passion

It never rains but it pours, eh. No posts here for quite a while and then two in rapid succession. The thing is, I came across an article on positive psychology that I thought would be of interest to Kierkegaard people, so I thought I would pass it along via this blog. The article is “What about Passion?” by Kathryn Britton and its on the Positive Psychology News Daily website. Dr. Robert Vallerand, the incoming president of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA) defines passion, according to Britton, as “a strong inclination towards a self-defining activity that people love, that they consider important, and in which they devote significant amounts of time and energy.”

All passions, Dr Vallerand explains however, are not created equal. There are what he calls “harmonious passions” and “obsessive passions.” “Harmonious passions” are defined as “freely chosen for the pleasure that comes from the activity, a concept very similar to intrinsic motivation. Harmonious passion is characterized by autonomy and flexible persistence. People pursue these activities because they want to, not because they want to please someone else or outshine someone else or avoid being outshone.”  “Obsessive passions,” on the other hand, are defined as “connected to extrinsic motivations — wanting to please others or to maintain a certain status that is important to self-esteem.” Not surprisingly, harmonious passions tend to have a positive effect on the development of the self and obsessive passions tend to have a negative effect.

What is missing from Britton’s article is any discussion of whether the passions in question actually differ from each other as passions, or whether it isn’t merely the objects that determine whether the passion in question is positive or negative. This is an issue for Kierkegaard as well. Kierkegaard tends to extol  passion in general as prerequisite to becoming a Christian, or a fully developed self in the positive sense. His emphasis is on the object of one’s passion rather on the nature of the passion itself. I’ve heard Kierkegaard scholars debate the issue, however, of whether there could actually be positive versus negative passions along the lines suggested by Vallerand, and apparently others in the positive psychology movement.

I’m inclined to agree with Kierkegaard here. If you look at the description above of the difference between harmonious and obsessive passion you’ll see a conspicuous difference in the objects relative to each. The objects of harmonious passions are pursued for their own sake whereas the objects of obsessive passions are pursued as a means to some other end (e.g., wealth, fame, etc.).

Another way of putting this would be to say that the real object of an obsessive passion is not the apparent object, but is the end with respect to which the apparent object is only a means. That is, someone with an obsessive passion for playing the violin well, would really be pursing wealth or fame rather than the art of violin playing. Kierkegaard would argue, of course, that wealth or fame are simply not adequate objects on which to base one’s passion and that’s why a passion for them is going have a negative effect on the development of the self.

Still, I think the question of whether there is actually some kind of difference in these passions as passions is an interesting one. It might help to explain, for example, why some people seem constitutionally predisposed to base their passions on one sort of object or the other. The explanation may not lie in the nature of the passion in question, but in some other aspect of the self. Still, it is a very interesting issue and I thought Kierkegaard people might want to read the article.

I found the article, by the way, through a tweet. Yes, that’s right, I’m on Twitter now. I kept seeing articles about how great Twitter was and then a friend recommended I check it out, so I did. You should try it to if you haven’t yet. You don’t have to tweet yourself, you can just follow other people or organizations. There are some very good philosophical tweeters. Just type “philosophy” into the search box on the “who should I follow” screen and all kinds of interesting things will come up.

I won’t be doing another post on Tudvad’s book for a while because I’m behind on Fear and Dissembling. I’m not taking a hiatus from blogging though. My next post will simply be an excerpt from FD. I’ve translated quite a few interesting articles already, so I’ll take a part of one of those to and throw it up as a little “smagsprøve” as they say in Danish. I’d like to take this opportunity, as well, to thank all the many authors who’ve given me permission to reprint their articles. Not a single author I’ve approached has refused. I’m very grateful to them all!

Kierkegaard and the Wolfenbüttler Fragmente

I promised some time ago to post something on the chapter from Peter Tudvad’s book Stadier på antisemismens vej: Søren Kierkegaard og jøderne (stages on the way of anti-Semitism: Søren Kierkegaard and the Jews) that dealt with the theological view of Jews in Kierkegaard’s day. The chapter, which is a hundred pages long, is an extraordinarily rich resource for information about the theological view of Jews throughout European history.

Tudvad provides a detailed account of Luther’s vehement anti-Semitism and emphasizes, through references to later theologians, that Luther’s views provided the foundation for the theology of the countries of Northern Europe. Kierkegaard, in particular, he observes, had to have been familiar with Luther’s views on Jews and Judaism because he would have been required to read Luther as part of his theological studies at Copenhagen University. Scholars are familiar with the fact that Kierkegaard is often critical of Luther. His criticisms of Luther relate, however, to other aspects of Luther’s thought, not to his anti-Semitism.

One of the more interesting parts of the chapter concerns Kierkegaard’s take on what was know as the Fragmentenstreit (the dispute over the fragments)  The Fragmentenstreit  refers to the controversy created by Lessing’s publication of a manuscript he claimed to have found in a library in Wolfenbüttel in Braunschweig and which was subsequently referred to as the Wolfenbüttler Fragmente. The manuscript had actually been written by the Enlightenment thinker Hermann Samuel Reimarus. Reimarus, had argued, to quote Tudvad, “that Jesus understood himself in agreement with the worldly expectations the Jews had of him that he would reestablish the David’s kingdom with all its power and authority in order that God and God’s law would rule over the world through the agency of the Jewish people” (p 236).

Tudvad observes that “Kierkegaard was also aware of the fact that Jesus’ disciples appear to have had the same expectations” (p. 236). He thus needed to find an explanation for the fact that they “suddenly, after [Jesus’] death, gain the courage to risk life and limb for his sake” (p. 236). He finds this explanation, Tudvad asserts after reading the first part of the Wolfenbüttler Fragmente in 1849. Jesus had to die, he decides, in order for the apostles to give up their worldly hopes. “One sees,” writes Kierkegaard, “how unreasonable is the objection (found also in the Wolfb. Fragm: I, § 32 and 33) that the apostles changed their view [of Jesus], and only after his death made him into the savior of the world rather than the worldly messiah they first considered him to be. That’s correct, of course, but the fault is not Christ’s. He’d explained himself. They just couldn’t understand him” (SKS 22, 66, 20-25). That is, Tudvad asserts that it was important to Kierkegaard to make clear that Christ and Christianity were something “completely different from the Messiah, Israel and Judaism” (p. 236).

To be fair to Kierkegaard, however, it should be pointed out that he cannot have been unaware that Christianity, as the apostles understood it, even after the death of Jesus, was a sect of Judaism. It was only later that becoming a Christian did not necessitate first converting to Judaism. Kierkegaard was also, of course, aware that Jesus had himself been a Jew who, as Tudvad points out, “came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it” (p. 236).

My own view of Kierkegaard’s reaction to the Wolfenbüttler Fragmente is thus that he was concerned not so much to distinguish Judaism from Christianity as something negative and opposed to it as to defend Christianity against the charge that it was based on a manipulation, or misrepresentation, of historical fact.