MLN Kierkegaard cover.128.5_frontVolume 128 no. 5 of MLN (originally Modern Language Notes) includes a collection of papers from the conference on Kierkegaard that was hosted by Johns Hopkins last September. Leonardo Lisi very kindly sent me a copy as a thank you for my having chaired a session at the conference. I went immediately to the paper by Jonathan Lear because it had been one of my favorites from the conference. The paper, “The Ironic Creativity of Socratic Doubt” (MLN 1001-1018) takes its point of departure in a passage from Kierkegaard’s journals that reads:

Socrates doubted that one was a human being by birth; to become human, or to learn what it means to be human does not come that easily–what occupied Socrates, what he sought, was the ideality of being human (Journals 278).

Lear says he’s going to pursue the suggestion that “we should read the or as exegetical” in the sense that “what follows the ‘or’ explicates what precedes it” (MLN 1004). That is, Lear argues that learning what it means to be human is precisely to “become human.” Learning what it means to be human, Lear asserts, is not “tantamount to acquiring a practical skill” (MLN 1005) because if it were, then it would seem easy enough to do, yet Socrates had difficulty with it and Kierkegaard seems to accept this difficulty as natural for anyone who is sufficiently reflective.

Lear’s essay is extraordinarily rich and I cannot hence to justice to it here. I want here only sketch Lear’s thesis and point out what I believe is problematic about it. That is, I’m going to argue that while Lear presents a beautifully persuasive reading of Plato’s Symposium, this reading cannot unproblematically be attributed to Kierkegaard.

Lear uses Diotima’s discussion of “pregnancy” from Plato’s Symposium to gain insight into what might be the difficulty involved in learning what it means to be human. This is indeed, I would argue, a fruitful approach to the problem because though Kierkegaard skips over this part of Diotima’s speech in The Concept of Irony, the metaphor of pregnancy becomes very important to Kierkegaard.

Diotima’s speech is about love. “[L]ove,” she asserts, “is wanting to possess the good forever” (206a; Lear’s emphasis). But the only way we are going to be able to do that, observes Lear, is if “we create it ourselves.” “The ‘real purpose of love,’ Diotima say, ‘is giving birth in beauty whether in body or in soul’” (206b; Lear’s emphasis) (MLN 1010)

“What we lack and seek,” asserts Lear, “is not the missing good object… Rather what we lack and seek is the beautiful environment–the beautiful other–in which we can then give forth something from deep within ourselves” (MLN 1010). Lear acknowledges that ordinarily we associate the erotic in Plato with a kind of lack and that. “No doubt,” he observes, “there are passages that support that though. But here in the heart of the Platonic Socrates’ discourse on eros, he says that the erotic encounter is the occasion to experience ourselves as full. Since Socrates says he is persuaded by Diotima’s teaching (212b),” continues Lear, “he cannot here be thinking of himself as empty” (MLN 1011).

It is not necessarily the case, however, that the “lack” traditionally associated with erotic love in Plato is equivalent to “emptiness.” That is, the “lack” that the lover seeks to fill through the possession of the beloved in not incompatible with his experiencing himself as full in some other respect. A lover may be filled, for example, with a wonder at creation and yet lack a beloved to share it with. Alternatively, the fullness the lover experiences may simply replace the lack that served as the impetus to love. That is, the traditional Platonic conception of erotic love as related to a kind of lack in the lover is not necessarily incompatible, in the manner Lear suggests with Diotima’s view of love as a kind of fullness that issues in birth.

This point is not essential, however, to Lear’s thesis. His thesis is actually that human life has a “characteristic activity.” This activity, he explains is “pregnancy and giving birth in the beautiful. That is, it is the creativity in the presence of –or in the presence of a memory of–a beautiful other person who stimulates and inspires us. Try to imagine,” Lear continues, “a human being who has no pregnancy in them whatsoever: no ability to reproduce biologically nor even a spark of creative impulse. If one can imagine this at all, one is imagining someone at the far end of an autistic spectrum. This is not just another instance of a human being, but an impaired one” (MLN 1014).

“We see from the inside,” continues Lear, “that human being is characterized by creativity stimulated by our encounter with others–and that a biological instance of the kind that lacked that creativity would be a problematic instance. This,” asserts Lear, “is not an arbitrarily high standard; it is a constitutional condition” (MLN 1015). I like this definition of what it means to be human, but I’m not entirely convinced that this is what Kierkegaard had in mind. Lear asserts that “giving birth in the beautiful is our characteristic practical activity” and that “[l]earning what it means to give birth in the beautiful just is the self-conscious understanding that we acquire in giving birth in the beautiful” (MLN 1015). But if a human being who is unable to do this and hence to gain an understanding of it is, as Lear asserts, someone “at the far end of an autistic spectrum,” then it is difficult to understand why Kierkegaard would believe that “to learn what it means to be human does not come that easily.” That is, if Lear is correct in his claim that “giving birth in the beautiful is our characteristic practical activity,” then learning what it means to give birth is this way would be something that everyone did as a matter of course.

One might be tempted to argue, that when Kierkegaard says “learning what it means to become human does not come that easily,” what he means is more that it is painful rather than that it is rare. Perhaps, after all, that is what Lear means. Lear is a practicing Freudian analyst, so it’s unlikely that he would want to exclude from the category “human” the vast number of individuals Kierkegaard’s gloss on Plato’s text suggests would be excluded. This can’t be what Kierkegaard means, however, because he clearly does, ironically, want to exclude vast numbers of human beings from the category “human.” We are supposed to be “human,” according to Kierkegaard, in the manner Lear describes, but in fact, most of us are not. [T]he ideality of human being” that Socrates sought is impossibly high according to Kierkegaard, in that it is not something we can achieve without God’s help. That’s the irony. We cannot become who we are, according to Kierkegaard, in the beautiful environment of human love, but only in the beautiful environment of divine love.


  1. I am puzzled. It seems to me that the problematical aspect of Lear’s thesis is addressed only in your final sentence, but to me his thesis and your revision share qualitative equivalence. Are not both “a qualification of the species so that all collisions fall away”? (cf. Journals & Papers, Vol 2, # 2080, page 441)

    1. It’s hard for me to comment on that because without the Danish, I can’t check the reference to see the context of the remark. If the point it that such a definition of what it means to be human removes the need for divine assistance, I’d say no, our two interpretations are not equivalent because my point is that, according to Kierkegaard, people need divine assistance in order “to give birth in the beautiful” to the extent that would be required of them to achieve their full humanity. I think Kierkegaard would agree with Lear in that he would accept that “giving birth in the beautiful” was possible for everyone. Where he would part company with Lear, I believe, would be in his views on the extent to which this was possible for human beings without diving assistance.

      If you give me the Danish reference/text for that passage, I can look it up. As it is though, I’m restricted to speculating about what it might mean.

  2. XI2 A 125 – I believe this may be the reference requested. The first “2” should be displayed as superscript. (Pardon my ignorance. I don’t have a grasp of the Danish reference method.)

    1. This is a reference to the old edition of Kierkegaard’s Papirer in Danish. I actually have the Papirer, but not here in Philadelphia where I teach. It’s down in Florida where my husband teaches and where we have a house. What I need is the actual Danish text so that I can search for it in the online edition of Kierkegaard’s works (actually, though, now that I think of it, I’m not sure that edition includes the papers). It looks like I may just have to wait until I go back to Florida at the end of the month.

  3. You are not making a nuisance of yourself. If I didn’t find this sort of thing interesting, I wouldn’t have a blog. Thanks for pointing me toward the concordance. That was very helpful. This passage is not about human nature, or what it means to be human. It is about what it means to be a human being (i.e., a member of a species) and yet also a Christian (i.e., something apart from the species. The “collision” you refer to in your first comment is between humanity, so to speak and Christianity both in the person of the Christian and in terms of the relation of the Christian to the rest of the species.

    Below is a chunk of the original Danish text of this passage (I couldn’t past the entire passage because it is too long) and below that is my translation.

    “Men see her begynder Collisionerne: naar indenfor een | [og] samme Art der udvises en Qvalitets-Forskjel, uden at dette dog bliver en ny Art, men skal blive indenfor Arten, der saa naturligviis paa Liv og Død hader og afskyer denne Bastard. En Bastard! I Dyre-Verdenen er det jo ogsaa saa, at de Arter af hvilke Bastarder ere dannede have Afskye for Bastarden. Men saa kommer det igjen, Bastarden bliver saa en Slægt for sig selv, og har saa igjen Tilfredsheden i at være een[s]artet med sin Slægt.

    Det at være Christen (saaledes som Sagen staaer i det n: T:) forholder sig nu som en Qvalitets Forskjel fra det at være Msk. dog indenfor det at være Msk.”

    “But look, the collision begins here: when within one [and] the same species there appears a qualitative difference, without, however, producing a new species, but remaining within the [same] species, which then naturally abhors and detests the new bastard. A bastard! In the animal kingdom, is detested by the species of which it is a product [“species” here is a plural, so Kierkegaard is clearly thinking of animals such as mules which are the product of crossing species]. But from this comes the fact that the bastard becomes a species in itself, and hence has the satisfaction of being identical with its species.

    To be Christian (in the sense in which Christianity is presented in the New Testament) [means] to be qualitatively distinguished from [the merely] human, while remaining within the category of the human.”

    That is, the “collision” of which you speak is not between the individual human being and the species human being. It is between the individual Christian and the rest of humanity (as well as, in at least some sense, between the humanity of the Christian and his Christianity). Hence while Lear’s account of what it means to be human, dispensing as it appears to do, with any need of divine assistance to achieve full humanity, does conflict (at least indirectly) with Kierkegaard’s remarks here, my interpretation does not. That is, Lear’s interpretation appears to eliminate the individual’s need of God and hence any potential for the “collision” referred to in this passage. Mine does not. Still, it is important to remember that the collision here refers to the relation between Christianity and humanity, not between the individual as such and humanity.

  4. Dr. Piety, you have been generous and I am an insatiable sponge. I cannot find fault if you recuse yourself from my over-staying my welcome.

    My quote comes from the portion as translated by H.V. Hong:
    “Christendom, as is well-known, has solved the collision in the following utterly simple manner: it makes being a Christian into a qualification of the species so that all collisions fall away.
    This, of course, is nonsense or swindling. In the New Testament the mark of being Christian is precisely this: qualitative heterogeneity from being man and yet—a man among men,”

    As I hear it then — your revision of Dr. Lear’s thesis was leniency where rigorousness would be inappropriate (as opposed to dodging the collision in the likeness of Christendom’s error). As I understand K — Christendom’s assurances of dependency on God could not find commensurability within Kierkegaard. Orthodoxy had become comfort — neglecting comparing one’s self with the prototype’s rigorousness. To facilitate human unity Christendom’s “christian” had aborted the collision within — between the single individual and the human (unquenchable craving to unite with his race).

  5. Firstly, I have not revised Lear’s thesis Lear and I have two very similar thesis. I didn’t appropriate mine from him and then tweak it a little. Secondly, I don’t know why you would interpret my view as “leniency.” Lear and I have two very similar views on what, according to Kierkegaard, it means to be human. My position agrees with Lear in most respects. The difference is that I would argue that, according to Kierkegaard, full humanity cannot be achieved without divine assistance and that that assistance separates one from the species in precisely the way described in the journal entry you refer to.

  6. Firstly, my error is probably manifold. It begins with presumptuousness in referring to “your thesis” which I cannot explicitly cite. Thus I demonstrate ignorance of your thesis. In addition alluding to your thesis as a revision of Lear’s does sound like as an insult to your individuality. (I twice referenced the final sentence — where “human” is converted to “divine”. To this I attributed the fulfillment of the promise to point out what is problematic about Lear’s thesis. This too was my misstep.) I apologize.
    Secondly, having confessed ignorance of your position, I think it unnecessary to further defend my having called it “leniency.” (My allusion was to the recurring torment in Kierkegaard’s authorship—skewered on the dialectic of leniency/rigorousness.)

    To take the cow all the way to the barn… I have not read Lear’s essay. I should not be writing comments. I took at face value your assertion of Lear’s thesis [that human life has a “characteristic activity.” This activity, he explains is “pregnancy and giving birth in the beautiful]. I took at face value that Lear’s paper takes its point of departure in a passage from Kierkegaard’s journals (NB35:2).

    Perhaps Lear mentions Kierkegaard’s repeated references to Socratic midwifery in Plato’s Theaetetus, 150, b-d; Opera, II [(Howard V. Hong, as cited in the margin of SKS Papir 365:12): Socrates said he could not give birth but could only be a midwife. That is, every man possesses the ethical and the one who has been born cannot be born again (here the Christian rebirth enters in—as a relationship not between man and man but between God and man, a new creation).]

    Perhaps Lear refers to Kierkegaard’s analogy between childbirth and Repentance/Regret. [(Howard V. Hong; SKS 8:131) Repentance, then, must have its time if everything is not to be confused, for there are indeed two guides, the one beckoning a person forward, the other back. … regret must be an action with a collected mind, so it can be spoken about for upbuilding, so it may of itself give birth to new life, so that it does not become an event whose mournful legacy is a sorrowful mood; repentance in the sense of freedom with the stamp of eternity must have its time, yes, even its time for preparation.]
    [(Howard V. Hong; SKS 6:413) The demonic in Quidam of the construction is actually this, that he is unable to take himself back in repentance, that at the extreme point he becomes suspended in a dialectical relation to actuality… Juno, as is known, sent a gadfly to torment Latona so that she could not give birth; similarly a girl’s actuality is a gadfly, a “perhaps” that teases him, a nemesis of actuality, an envy of life that will not let him slip out and thereby absolutely into the religious.]

    But my immediate gestalt was how Lear’s thesis is foreign to Kierkegaard and your final sentence ran essentially parallel. I have no Kierkegaard credentials. It is human to crave unity with humanity. Some could even say it’s being like Kierkegaard.

    [Forgive me if my SKS references are inaccurate.]

  7. No apologies necessary. I’m afraid I’m going to have to end this exchange here, though, because to continue it would require more time than I have. Thanks again for a stimulating exchange!

  8. Exploring Kierkegaard a bit. Read four books containing excerpts and analysis by different authors.A difficult philosopher to understand. Ronald H. Nash considered him the master of indirect communication. He physical abnormalities did not seem to take hold enough except in the local magazine the Corsair where he was caricatured constantly along with some children in the city. Was confused a bit concerning Repetition, Kierkegaard’s trips to Berllin. He rejected the idea as an incapability. Nash says there is no doubt about Kiergeegard’s conversion to Christianity. Nash believes it was authentic, despite the state Lutheran Church’s easy road or wide road. His brother tried to keep the state Lutheran Church from claiming his body upon his death, but he lost the battle.

  9. Wonderful goods from you, man. I’ve understand
    your stuff previous to and you are just too fantastic.
    I really like what you have acquired here, really like what you’re saying and the way
    in which you say it. You make it entertaining and you still care for
    to keep it smart. I cant wait to read much more from you.
    This is actually a great web site.

Leave a Reply to robert maxwell west Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s