M.G. Piety

Kierkegaard on “Dialectic”

In Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship, Translation issues on June 14, 2015 at 6:28 pm

A reader wrote recently to inquire about what Kierkegaard meant by “dialectic.” That’s a good question because whatever he means, it is clearly not the same thing that Hegel famously means by this term. First, I have to say that like so many of Kierkegaard’s favorite terms, it does not appear to have a single meaning.

“Dialectic,” or more correctly, Dialektik, comes originally from the Greek διαλεκτική, dialektikē, so you won’t find it in Christian Molbech’s Dansk Ordbog, the standard Danish dictionary from Kierkegaard’s time, but must turn to Ludvig Meyer’s Fremmedordbog (dictionary of foreign words) from 1853. Meyer defines Dialektik as “samtalekunst” (i.e., the art of conversation), as well as “Fornuftlære,” “Tankelære,” “Logik” (the first two translate literally as, ”teachings of reason,” and ”teachings of thought, ” but are probably best translated as ”informal logic,” while Logik is best translated as “formal logic”). In Plato, continues Meyer, Dialektik refers to “higher speculative philosophy,” whereas in Aristotle and more recent thinkers it refers to “probability theory” as well as “eristic,” “sophistry” and “casuistry.”

Interestingly, Kierkegaard never seems to use Dialektik in the last two pejorative senses. My guess is that that is not because a dialectical contemplation of something could never lead one way from the truth, but because of the high esteem in which he appears to have held ancient skepticism. That is, a dialectical contemplation of any question that does not admit of a clear and uncontroversial answer, will ultimately bring the individual back to him or herself and in that way accentuate the role of decision and the will.

There is an extremely helpful Terminologisk Register, or glossary, by Jens Himmelstrup in the second half of volume 15 of the second edition of Kierkegaard’s Samlede Værker. The glossary contains a long entry on Dialektik. Himmelstrup explains here that the term comes originally from the Greek διαλέγομαι, dialegomai, meaning “to carry on a conversation with someone.” “The term,” he continues, “became associated with Socrates, in that he employed the art of conversation, or dialogue, in his activity as a philosopher which was generally aimed at achieving clarity concerning the precise meaning of individual terms and concepts.”

Himmelstrup then proceeds to give a brief history of the meaning of the term in philosophy. What is important for our purposes here, however, is what he says concerning its meaning for Kierkegaard. Sometimes, he explains, “dialectic” refers to “purely logical determinations” (I presume that by this he means it refers to formal opposites such as a and ~a). Other examples he gives of Kierkegaard’s use of the term suggest it means something more like “dynamic,” as when Kierkegaard writes in the first volume of Either-Or: “Love from the soul has, secondly, yet another dialectic, for it differs in relation to every single individual who is the object of love” (This reference is from Alastair Hannay’s translation for Penguin. Even though the ebook version provides only a location number [1587-1588] rather than a page number, the Hongs’ translation of this passage is so tortured that I could not bring myself to use it. This is probably also a good place to point out that neither the Hongs’ “psychical love” nor Hannay’s “love from the soul” is a particularly felicitous translation of Kierkegaard’s “sjælelig Elskov.” That expression is probably best translated simply as “romantic love”).

Suffice it to say in answer to the question of what Kierkegaard means by the term “dialectic,” that the meaning appears to be as protean as is the meaning of the term “knowledge.” That’s not to say that Kierkegaard equivocates on its meaning, but simply, as I explain in Ways of Knowing, that Kierkegaard was extremely sensitive to how fluid are the meanings of most terms in everyday speech and that he abhorred the tendency of academics to artificially fix meanings.

Stay tuned for my next blog post “Those Crazy Hongs!” an examination of how the Hongs (or more likely Howard Hong) could conceivably have rendered “Sandselig Genialitet, bestemmet som Forførelse” as “The Elementary Originality of the Sensuous Qualified as Seduction.”

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  1. These comments are helpful. They agree closely with what I have surmised from contextual usage.

    The question arose because before reading Kierkegaard I had practically no exposure to the word… not in 56 years including 24 years of formal education. In reading Kierkegaard I found myself inundated with a word foreign to my thoughts. Over time I gathered much of what you wrote here. But even now I wish I could catch the gist of Kierkegaard’s early exposure. I presume that had begun early, perhaps by traditional language from the Trivium in the Borgerdyd School. For those in the career of pedagogy I should think that there were published works describing goals and methods. I picture the students intentionally steeped in the word “dialectic” to achieve an explicit purpose. That is a genesis story that I would wish to retrieve.

    (Is there a venue appropriate to questions regarding WAYS OF KNOWING?)

    • My guess is not too much attention was devoted to the meaning of “dialectic” in any educational institution in Denmark. My sense for the Meyer is that the word was generally accepted to have a variety of related meanings.

      Please as me any questions you like on Ways of Knowing. You can email me directly at mgpiety@drexel.edu. Thanks for your comment!

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