First German Reader coverI have repeatedly emphasized that I believe it’s important for Kierkegaard scholars not only to know Danish, but also to know German. Some of the best Kierkegaard scholarship is actually in German, just as is some of the best scholarship in other areas of philosophy. It’s difficult, I’ll grant you, to find a place in the U.S. that offers courses in Danish. German, on the other hand, is taught everywhere. Many Kierkegaard scholars undoubtedly learned German when they were in graduate school because most Ph.D. programs until recently, required proficiency in both German and French. The difficulty, of course, is that many people acquired only the most rudimentary knowledge of these languages and then let what little knowledge they had deteriorate through lack of use.

Fortunately, it is now easier to get one’s German back up to speed. The little hand-held dual language translators are absolutely fabulous reading aids. I have a little Sharp PW-E310 Oxford-Duden that I got in Berlin a few years ago. Dedicated dual-language translators appear to be rare these days. I don’t know how good the ones that handle more than two languages are. Fortunately, the Oxford-Duden is still available, though it looks like you will have to order it from Germany. There are lots of free online translation tools as well. I don’t like using my phone for stuff like that, but you may want to try it if you can’t get your hands on a little dedicated electronic translator. You can always use your computer, of course, but who wants to read books sitting at his desk? I do that sometimes, but I like to be able to read other places as well, particularly in bed. I read Heinrich Böll’s Der Zug War Pünktlich in bed with the help of my little Oxford-Duden. (That’s a fantastic book, by the way).

There are, of course, other ways to gain proficiency in German. There’s the good old fashioned way of reading with a regular dictionary at one’s side. I HATE looking stuff up that way though. It is so time consuming leafing through the dictionary and then scanning the page for a precise word. Fortunately, Dover has a wonderful dual-language book called First German Reader. This little book has a great selection of texts including works by Goethe, Lessing, Heine, and Tucholsky. It’s even available in a Kindle edition!

I found the following text that I thought would be of particular interest to Kierkegaard scholars in this little reader. See how much you can understand before you turn to the translation.


Der Phönix

Nach vielen Jahrhunderten gefiel es dem Phönix, sich wider einmal sehen zu lassen. Er erschien, und all Tiere und Vögel versammelten sich um ihn. Sie gafften, sie staunten, sie bewunderten und brachen in entzückendes Lob aus.

Bald aber wandeten die besten und geselligsten mitleidsvoll ihre Blicke ab und seuften: >>Der unglückliche Phönix! Ihm wurde das harte Los, weder Geliebte noch Freund zu haben; denn er ist der einzige seiner Art!<<


The Phoenix

After many centuries it pleased the phoenix to let himself be seen once more. He appeared, and all the beasts and birds gathered about him. They gaped, they were amazed, they admired and broke into rapturous praise.

Soon, however, the best and most sensitive and compassionate [among them] averted their eyes pityingly and sighed: “The unhappy phoenix! To him fell the hard lot to have neither a loved one nor a friend; for he is the only one of his kind!”


I edited the translation just a little to make it read more naturally. It’s a pretty good translation, though, even without my edits. It’s also a pretty good characterization of Kierkegaard, don’t you think?





  1. This is very helpful, since I’ve been thinking of trying to refresh my knowledge of French and German. I was pleased to see how much I could read of the German, since I had only one intensive summer course of German in college, plus a little bit of follow-up tutoring from the teacher, approximately half a century ago.

  2. I know that on a previous post you made this same claim about needing Danish and German to be a Kierkegaard scholar, but I have to say that I’ve always found these types of claims deeply problematic, be they about Kierkegaard, or about other fields of scholarship. I don’t doubt the richness that additional languages can bring to scholarship, and how it can make foreign language scholarship available to us so that we can build upon it. However, at the same time, it’s been my experience that such arguments overvalue a very specific idea of what scholarship is, and should be, and it is an idea of scholarship that has acted more as a gatekeeper preventing access to the halls of the academy, than it has acted to cultivate exceptional scholarship.

    1. You are certainly correct that the argument that one needs to know German in order to do first-class philosophical scholarship values “a very specific idea of what scholarship is.” It is not at all clear, however, that it “overvalues” this view of scholarship. What it does, I would argue, is to clearly identify second-class scholarship as such. If it functions as a “gatekeeper preventing access to the halls of the academy,” then those whom it excludes are people who can’t be bothered to expend the energy to learn German–i.e., lazy people. In my experience, such people generally produce poor work, quite independently of any weaknesses such work exhibits as a result of the limited linguistic horizon of the scholar in question. If you give me some actual EVIDENCE to support your claim that the requirement that one know German is not essential to the production of first-class scholarship, then I will reevaluate my position. As it stands, though, you have simply made an unsupported claim.

  3. I suppose I’m not interested in supporting my claim in the way that you want, nor do I think that I need to. You can either prejudice yourself to such scholarship, seeing it as necessarily second-class without having read it, or you can judge the scholarship based on its own merits. I’m guessing that you’d defend this position nonetheless, seeing knowledge of German as necessary for good scholarship, but from where I stand, it’s little more than a prejudice. Obviously, we disagree about the nature of your claim, but given how I see this claim, you’ll hopefully understand why I might be reluctant to be responsible for helping someone else overcome their own prejudices. I have my own to worry about, as well as those of my friends and family, and I know better than to invest too much time in these types of discussions or arguments in the ether of the internet.

    Moreover, if calling scholars who don’t know German “lazy” isn’t an indication of a prejudicial judgment, I’m not sure what is. I’d turn the tables on you, and ask you to support your own claim, however, it’s a claim that is impossible to support. As far as I remember, no one’s yet asked me or any of my colleagues why they have, or haven’t, learned German. But, maybe, you nonetheless have the EVIDENCE?

    1. The evidence is the importance of work by scholars such as Heinrich Schmidinger and Anton Hügli. There is nothing in English to compare in comprehensiveness and rigor with Schmidinger’s Das Problem des Interesses und die Philosophie Sören Kierkegaards and his Nachidealistische Philosophie und christliches Denken, and Hügli has, in fact, one of only two books on Kierkegaard’s epistemology apart from my own. The third book on Kierkegaard’s epistemology is also in German. Before I published my book there was NO book in English on Kierkegaard’s epistemology, so to assert that one doesn’t need to know German to do first class scholarship is obviously tantamount to saying one doesn’t have to know how to read to do first-class scholarship (i.e., that one doesn’t have to read what others have written on a subject) and that is obviously absurd. Hügli’s book is invaluable for gaining a decent grasp of Kierkegaard’s epistemology. It was enormously helpful to me in my own work on this topic. Were it more widely known among English-speaking Kierkegaard scholars it would have prevented a lot of really glaring misinterpretations of the substance of his thought.

      I earlier related a story involving a friend who wrote a dissertation on stoicism under the direction of the distinguished Plato scholar Charles Kahn who was then a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Although Penn had eliminated it’s formal foreign-language requirements for Ph.D. candidates. Kahn told my friend that he would have to learn German because, he explained, “all the best scholarship on stoicism was in German.”

      Much, if not all, of the best Kierkegaard scholarship is German and until very recently the requirement that serious scholars in any discipline needed to know German was unquestioned. It has begun to be questioned only as the result of a general decline in the quality of education and because of a creeping anti-intellectualism in both the United States and to a lesser extent even in the U.K. –QED.

  4. That’s not evidence, it’s anecdote. Moreover, you then weave together anecdote using two tropes of such generality that they could be used to explain anything.

    1. It most certainly IS evidence, as are the three German works to which I referred. In fact, it is considerably better evidence than your earlier observation that no one has yet asked you or any of your colleagues why you have or have or haven’t learned German.

  5. Well, I suppose my comment won’t be approved, which is a shame. Debate was interesting, while it lasted …

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