M.G. Piety

Kierkegaard’s Conservatism

In Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship, Uncategorized on January 22, 2017 at 4:52 pm

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Much has been made of Kierkegaard’s political conservatism. Daphne Hampson asserts, for example, that “Kierkegaard held that it was for the king to govern; that was his calling. Thus in many ways politically and socially conservative, Kierkegaard was by sentiment adamantly opposed to what he sarcastically referred to as government by the numerical; democracy” (Kierkegaard Exposition and Critique, 209).

Adorno is even more critical. He claims Kierkegaard stubbornly maintains the “givenness” of the social order, that he is “socially conformist” and thus ready to lend a hand to “oppression and misanthropy. … Sometimes Kierkegaard’s way of speaking of the equality of men before God,” Adorno asserts, “assumes the character of involuntary irony,” as when he observes in Works of Love that “‘The times are gone when only the powerful and noble ones were men and the other people slaves and serfs’ [Works of Love, 74]. The irony cannot escape Kierkegaard’s attention,” Adorno continues, “He uses it as a medium of his religious paradox” (“On Kierkegaard’s Doctrine of Love“).

People who know a little Danish history will realize, however, that it is unlikely Kierkegaard considered that remark in the least ironical. This point was driven home to me with particular force recently when I watched the Danish movie A Royal Affair. The movie is about the love affair between Caroline Mathilde, queen consort of the Danish King Christian VII, and Johann Friedrich Struensee, the personal physician to the mentally-ill monarch. Struensee was a German Enlightenment thinker who managed, though his influence with the royal pair to institute a number of progressive political reforms. The movie is fantastic, as nearly all Danish movies are, in my experience. I cannot recommend it too highly, both for its intrinsic qualities and for the insight it can give scholars into the historical context into which Kierkegaard was born.

“From 1770 to 1772, Struensee was de facto regent of the country, and introduced progressive reforms signed into law by Christian VII. Struensee was deposed by a coup in 1772 after which the country was ruled by Christian’s stepmother, Juliane Marie of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, his half-brother Frederick and the Danish politician Ove Høegh-Guldberg.” (Wikipedia). Most of Struensee’s progressive reforms were repealed after the coup, but many were reinstated by his son Frederik VI.

Frederik VI was a very progressive monarch. He went even further than reinstituting the progressive reforms for which Struensee had been responsible: He freed the serfs in 1788! Since Kierkegaard’s own father, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard (1756-1838) had been a serf, Kierkegaard’s reference in Works of Love to the fact that the times were gone when only the powerful and noble were men and the other people slaves and serfs must have had special poignancy for him. Had it not been for the progressive views of Frederik VI, Kierkegaard might have been a serf as well and begun and ended his days on the same desolate Jutland heath where his father had herded sheep as a boy.

Frederik VI was the first Danish monarch to select a motto in Danish rather than the traditional Latin. His motto was “Gud og den retfærdige sag” (God and the just cause ). Kierkegaard followed suit by requesting permission to submit his dissertation in Danish rather than the Latin that was required at the time.

Frederik VI ruled Denmark for the first 26 years of Kierkegaard’s life. Given that Kierkegaard lived to be only 42, that means Frederik VI ruled Denmark for most of Kierkegaard’s life. Unfortunately, Frederik became more conservative after the French defeat in the Napoleonic Wars in 1814 and the loss of Norway by Denmark. Still, the Danish society in which Kierkegaard grew up was marked by the reforms of his early years, most notably, again, the abolition of serfdom.

There is no denying that Kierkegaard was politically conservative. That does not mean, however, as it has so often been taken to mean, that he was indifferent to the material conditions of those less fortunate than himself. As I observed in my last post, Peter Tudvad has already shown in his book Kierkegaards København, that Kierkegaard was far from indifferent to the plight of the poor and the needy. Kierkegaard’s undeniable political conservatism was not a symptom of indifference to the situation of such people. It was more an expression of cynicism concerning the ability of what he called “the crowd” to govern themselves humanely. In any case, his conservatism seems less reprehensible when understood in historical context.

  1. I was almost expecting you to slam Daphne. But your mention of her seems to be favorable, in its very neutrality. Unless I missed something.

    Your expertise in these things is not sufficiently appreciated I think. You are a great resource.



  2. It’s strange how you automatically assume that conservatism is something inherently “reprehensible” and that conservatism’s ignorance of the “material conditions of the less fortunate” is somewhat obligatory. Actually, it’s not strange, the bias against conservatism in the contemporary academia is hardly any secret or surprise. Therefore it’s funny how various actors (like Habermas, Caputo, recently Backhouse and Lappano) desperately try to squeeze our good ol’ Kierk’ through the unapologetically progressive lens and cause of social justice and “inclusiveness”.

    • Good point. I fear that so many contemporary conservatives are indifferent, or unsympathetic, to the plight of the poor, that it is easy to forget that not all conservatives are like this. Thanks for reminding me of that.

  3. Given Marilyn Piety’s bombastically rude comments in your pages (8 November 2016) on my “Kierkegaard: Exposition and Critique” (Oxford University Press, 2013), reviewed in the “New York Review of Books”10 November 2016, I feel obliged to respond.

    First, a minor point. My translating Kierkegaard’s “Begrebet Angest” as “The Concept Angst” is not ‘simply an affectation’. Why would I so behave? Translators of Kierkegaard have struggled with the Danish/German ‘Angst’, the original translator of Kierkegaard’s book, Walter Lowrie, trying ‘dread’. Now that – at least in British English – angst is commonly used (Wikipedia tells me ‘The word angst was introduced into English from the Danish, Norwegian and Dutch word angst and the German word ‘Angst’) let’s use it! No, it is not synonymous with anxiety. I recall my mother (who, knowing nothing of philosophy, had a good grasp of German) remarking ‘why do the Germans just have ‘Angst’, whereas we are anxious about something?’ It is the exact distinction that, for example, a Heidegger scholar would have in mind. ‘Angst’, a general, undirected, malaise, has no object.

    No, I do not ‘throw around a few Danish terms’: how ridiculous. Working on Kierkegaard over many years I’ve picked up some Danish vocabulary (knowing German has helped). I can find my place in the Danish text; I possess Danish/German and Danish/English dictionaries; and if I desire to know the exact connotations of something I ask a Danish speaker. I love language and etymology. I don’t need more than this for the book I have written, expounding Kierkegaard for an educated Anglophone readership. Give me an example of a lack of Danish leading me astray?

    To turn however to the major issue. Something I hope to have contributed through my book is an opening up of the question as to Kierkegaard’s basic presuppositions, so foreign to where we are today, yet fundamental to his work. The problem is that discussion of Kierkegaard’s credence of Incarnation and of his ‘leap of faith’ tends to float in a vacuum. One hears, ‘Christians have always had faith in the face of reason’, no recognition being accorded to the fact that Kierkegaard held presuppositions which make Incarnation far more ‘thinkable’. Hence it is on Kierkegaard’s epistemological presuppositions that I chose to speak at the international conferences held in 2013 in celebration of the bi-centenary of Kierkegaard’s birth, in the States, in Copenhagen, and in Australia. I focussed on this again in a recent lecture in Budapest, and I expect to amplify my thoughts in a forthcoming book provisionally entitled “Enlightenment and After”.

    It has crossed my mind that Piety’s ire may owe to the fact that I dare to critique Kierkegaard, something rarely done by the Kierkegaard fraternity. Thus I consider the fact that, writing 150 years subsequent to Newton’s “Principia”, Kierkegaard apparently fails to recognize that nature and history form an inter-related causal nexus, such as must disallow the possibility of one-off interruptive events (miracles). There is considerable evidence that this is the case. Kierkegaard writes (in 1843):

    I wanted to say something rather general about the occasion or about the occasion in general. Very fortunately, it so happens that I have already said what I wanted to say, for the more I deliberate on this matter, the more I am convinced that there is nothing general to be said about it, because there is no occasion in general. … The reader must not be angry with me—it is not my fault; it is the occasion’s. (“Either/Or” I, 239)

    My attention was drawn to this passage by Patrick Sheil, the most observant of Kierkegaard scholars. Sheil writes of ‘Kierkegaard’s bemusement at the idea of our ever being able to see one event as the certain consequence of another; … he is terribly puzzled by this idea’; further remarking on his ‘breezy scepticism in the face of all explanation and all attribution of supposed effects in the world as such’. (“Starting with Kierkegaard”, London and New York: Continuum, 2011, 19).

    Indicatively, in “Philosophical Fragments” (1844) Kierkegaard restricts his depiction of the contrast between, on the one hand, ‘the Socratic’ (Enlightenment reason, idealism, and humanism – that is to say the best that humans can do apart from revelation) – and, on the other, the appearance on earth of the god/Godwho is in himself The Truth to two considerations: (i) the contrast between (A) idealism (that the truth is internal to, given with, the individual), which Kierkegaard exemplifies by citing the Socrates’ eliciting the truths of geometry from the slave boy (cf. Plato’s “Meno”) and (B) revelation; and (ii) that the implication of holding that to be ‘in the truth’ is to be in relation to him who is The Truth must be that to deny he who is The Truth is to be in ‘sin’. What Kierkegaard fails to say – an obvious contrast between Enlightened modernity and the claims of Christianity – is that modernity cannot allow that there could be what the eighteenth century termed ‘particularity’, one-off unique events or examples. Our proverbial man on a desert island (Kierkegaard’s Socratic position) may not only derive the truths of geometry and come to conclusions about morality, he can also, through empirical research, discover the laws of nature. It was this grasp on the regularity of causality which, in the eighteenth century, led to Hume, the French Encyclopaedists, or Kant, denying the possibility of miracle and giving up on Christianity (except, in Kant’s case, as an edifying myth).

    Any remaining doubt as to where Kierkegaard stands is dispelled by comments in his journal (thus free from the question as to what he might put in a pseudonymous book): ‘Mynster [Primus of the Danish church, in his sermon] . . . put up a strong argument against something I also take issue with—naturalism! “Unfortunately we know far too well what people in our day think of miracles.”’ (JP VI 6692 (Pap. X3 A 564), n.d., 1850). In nineteenth century parlance, Kierkegaard was a ‘supernaturalist’ not a ‘naturalist’; he believed in miracles. Indeed, that he so thinks is pivotal to his “Philosophical Fragments”, for it is that the potential disciple witnesses a miracle that alerts him, such that he is faced with the choice as to whether he will believe. Clearly, Kierkegaard recognizes that a miracle is not an everyday occurrence – the disciple will want to ask the conjurer to do the trick again. But Kierkegaard does not rule out that there can be such.

    Kierkegaard’s lack of recognition of causality presumably lies behind his elision between Aristotle’s ‘kinesis’ (the ‘change’ of coming into being) and ‘alloiosis’ (change within what already exists), saying that in both cases our response is one of ‘tro’ (trust or ‘faith’). It is not, for him, that change axiomatically takes place according to laws. (One wonders whether we can today think in terms of ‘kinesis’ at all; Kierkegaard’s example is the star coming into being; we should say it is formed from inter-stellar dust, and we have grasped the inter-relation between matter and energy.) Citing Kierkegaard’s statement that ‘Nature’s imperfection is that it has no history in any other sense, and its perfection is that it has the intimation of a history (namely that it has come to be which is the past; and that it is, the present)’, Piety reprimands me for not grasping that, for Kierkegaard, ‘purely natural events are changes in something (i.e. nature) that already exists and subject to natural law. That’s why nature “has no history”’. ‘How could Hampson miss that? It is right there in the text.’ I am sorry, but from the fact that nature has no history, in the sense that humans form history (which is pretty obvious) it does not follow that Kierkegaard has a post-Newtonian understanding of causality. In fact he does not; he believes in miracles.

    Indeed, fascinatingly, Kierkegaard here has Aristotle in mind. It was precisely Aristotelian and the derivative Cartesian forms of thinking, whereby what must be the case is deduced from prior assumptions, that had to be overcome for a modern empiricist position to be accepted. In France Voltaire’s 1738 “Éléments de la Philosophie de Newton” turned the tide against Cartesian explanations, leading to an ‘Anglomania’ as people looked to Hume and behind him Locke and Newton. Again, Kant, of scientific bent, was stimulated by Hume’s work to formulate the transcendental position of his ‘First’ Critique, whereby causality is assumed even if it cannot be shown. By contrast Kierkegaard (cf. Julian Roberts, “German Philosophy: An Introduction”: New York, Cambridge, 1988, ch. 6) appears to have been a figuralist, holding that God intervenes in a process of recapitulation, bringing his purposes to fruition. Thus ‘as in Adam …, so in Christ’, etc. It is a ‘Hegelian’ position in as much as history has a telos and is governed, albeit in Kierkegaard’s case by a transcendent God. The philosopher of science Stephen Gaukroger writes: ‘The classic notion of determinism – of a system in which every state of affairs is a necessary of a chain of preceding causes – was almost entirely absent from Aristotle’s approach… Aristotle’s picture of the consequences of an event was not one of chains of cause and effect interwoven in a nexus. … Aristotle could assert that there are fresh beginnings (‘archai’) not confined to human agency, without supposing that there is a deterministic causal nexus … for he simply did not see the question in these terms.’ (“The Emergence of a Scientific Culture”: Oxford University Press, 2006). This sounds very like Kierkegaard.

    That Kierkegaard was prone to think ‘from above’ is apparent from his remark in “The Concept Angst”, written contemporarily with “Philosophical Fragments”, that it must be that there was a single original couple, for ‘nature does not favour a meaningless superfluity’ (CA, 46). It was such reasoning that Newton sought to defend himself against not having pursued when (in 1713) he famously remarked that he did not deal in hypotheses, ‘hypotheses non fingo’. Taking up Newton’s comment, Kant writes: ‘Everything … which bears any manner of resemblance to an hypothesis is to be treated as contraband; it is not to be put up for sale even at the lowest price, but forthwith confiscated, immediately upon detection.’ (Preface, ‘First’ Critique, first edn.) Kierkegaard is a mile away from this kind of empiricist outlook, working from ‘above’ and leaving it at that. Meanwhile he dismisses scientific research as little more than a rather pointless collecting of evidence; see ed. Peter Rohde, “The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard” (New York: Citadel Press, 1960, pp. 95 – 100). I submit that it is not that, as Piety writes, I am ‘determined to see Kierkegaard as a kind of throwback to a “premodern” view of reality’, but that he had a premodern view of reality!

    Finally, to the blistering attack on my competence to write my book. Yes, I may in part be a historian of theological thought, but I hold a doctorate in theology (from Harvard) and I held a post in systematic theology for twenty-five years. I had a previous, Oxford, doctorate in modern history, and I have a Master’s with distinction in Continental philosophy. I guess I draw on all three disciplines in my work. I am apparently ‘not a Kierkegaard scholar’, having simply a ‘certain familiarity’ with Kierkegaard’s work. Oh? Having first read them at Harvard, I have been teaching the texts which my book considers throughout my career, at St Andrews and latterly in my retirement in Oxford. I have worked in archives and libraries in Copenhagen and Minnesota, undertaken doctoral supervision on Kierkegaard, and attended many a Kierkegaard conference. It is hardly that an untutored generalist suddenly decided to write on Kierkegaard. Wrestling with him has been fundamental to my life and career.

    True, I have worked more broadly than simply on Kierkegaard: how could I make comments such as I make here, let alone write the book that I have, had I not? The head of the Kierkegaard library and research center in Minnesota was so kind as to comment: ‘A marvel of scholarship. Hampson is one of the few interpreters of Kierkegaard able to take account of both the philosophical and theological backdrop of Kierkegaard’s thought.’ Good; that’s what we need. Piety writes of her book “Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s pluralist Epistemology” (Baylor University Press, 2010): ‘It will make no direct attempt to situate Kierkegaard’s views in the history of epistemological thinking’ (p.2). My word! How can one begin to understand Kierkegaard, let alone form judgements, devoid of historical context? Perhaps it is on account of the wider framework and the fact that I take issue with Kierkegaard that the “New York Review of Books” chooses to review my book, which so perplexes Piety. And invites one who is a cultural historian (Peter Gordon) to do so. For Kierkegaard scholarship to remain in its own little enclave, beyond critique, is to say the least unproductive. It does not follow that I cannot be useful specifically as a Kierkegaard scholar. As a matter of fact the American Academy of Religion has just invited me to be the external reviewer of their Kierkegaard unit. Let’s hope they didn’t make a mistake.

    Daphne Hampson

  4. […] Theologian Daphne Hampson has commented on my earlier post on her book, Kierkegaard: Exposition and Critique. In fact, she has written a […]

  5. Daphne wins, I think. And she writes beautifully. But that’s not why she wins. It’s just sad that winning should seem to be the right word.

    • Ms. Hampson makes some good points in her book on Kierkegaard but she is so conspicuously and spectacularly wrong on so many important points concerning the substance of Kierkegaard’s thought that the only sense in which I think she may be said to have “won” anything is in that her courage in venturing to write on a thinker on whose thought she is not expert won out over her better judgment.

      • I thought you’d say that. Kierkegaard scholarship is indeed in its own little enclave these days – beyond critique and offputting to outsiders. ‘Exposition and Critique’ is one of the best books on Kierkegaard I’ve ever read, not least because it DOES situate Kierkegaard’s thought in the history of epistemological thinking.

  6. It ATTEMPTS to situate Kierkegaard’s thought in the history of epistemological thinking, but it fails to do that because it gets the substance of the thought wrong. There are three serious scholarly works on Kierkegaard’s epistemology, as I mentioned in my posts, that get it right, for the most part anyway. Yet Hampson doesn’t refer to any of them. My guess is that she isn’t familiar with them or she would have known better than to say the things she says about his epistemology.

    In any case, if Hampson wants to take exception to what respected scholars have already written about Kierkegaard’s epistemology, she needs to show where their arguments go wrong. She doesn’t even mention their existence, let alone attempt a refutation of them. That’s just bad scholarship.

  7. Would it not be better to go back to Kierkegaard himself instead of harping on about ‘scholarly works.’ I’m sorry, but this squabble reminds me more and more of your fanatical attempts to discredit Joakim Garff’s work, attempts which failed. Your obsession with Daphne Hampson is cut from the same cloth. Arcane ‘scholarliness; Kierkegaard nowhere in sight.

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