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Getting Kierkegaard Wrong

In Publishing News, Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs, Uncategorized on November 13, 2016 at 4:52 pm

I think of scholarship as egalitarian. I don’t know about all disciplines, but most academic journals in the field of philosophy do what’s called “blind” reviewing. Scholars send articles to journal editors. The editors then send those articles along to experts in the relevant fields (e.g., Plato, Kant, contemporary ethics, the philosophy of mind) without identifying the author of the article. The people vetting the articles don’t know who wrote them. They don’t know whether the author is already a recognized authority in the relevant field or a complete newcomer. They don’t even know whether the author has an academic appointment, is an “independent scholar,” or even a lowly graduate student. All they have is the article, so they are more or less forced to evaluate it on its own merits. The system isn’t perfect, of course. Unconventional or iconoclastic work is not always evaluated fairly, and the work of the more prominent scholars in given fields can sometimes be identified even without their names being attached.

Still, blind reviewing goes a long way toward ensuring that good work gets recognized and promoted. Unfortunately, book publishing is not so egalitarian. Some publishers do blind reviewing, but many do not. Once a scholar has attained a name for him or herself in a given field, that is, once a scholar has become what one might call an academic celebrity, they are given a wide berth in terms of their perceived authority. Big name scholars can often get away with speaking, and sometimes even writing books, on subjects outside their area of expertise.

Daphne Hampson’s new book on Kierkegaard, Kierkegaard: Exposition and Critique (Oxford, 2013) is a case in point. Hampson is a prominent U.K. theologian, not a Kierkegaard scholar. She gives the impression that she is a Kierkegaard scholar by throwing around a few Danish terms. She refers, for example to Kierkegaard’s book The Concept of Anxiety as The Concept Angst. When I saw that I immediately did a Google search to see if there were a new English translation of this work of which I was unaware. There isn’t. Hampsen’s substitution of the Danish Angst for “Anxiety” in the title of this work is simply an affectation.

Kierkegaard is one of the few philosophers who are beloved by people who are not themselves scholars; hence reviews of new editions of his works, and occasionally even of new scholarly books on his thought, sometimes appear in the illustrious New York Review of Books. The Nov. 10th edition, in fact, contains a review of Hampson’s book entitled “Kierkegaard’s Rebellion.” The reviewer is a Peter Gordon, Amabel B. James Professor of History at Havard and the author of Adorno and Existence (Harvard, 2016)

It isn’t all that clear why the NYRB decided to review Hampson’s book, or why they chose Gordon to review it. While both Hampson and Gordon have a certain familiarity with Kierkegaard because of their respective areas of scholarly expertise (Hampson’s in the history of theological thought and Gordon’s in modern European intellectual history), neither is a Kierkegaard scholar. The book is riddled with problems, problems that will be conspicuous to most Kierkegaard scholars, but which Gordon failed to spot. Hampson gets Kierkegaard’s epistemology wrong. She claims erroneously that Kierkegaard “has very little hold on the idea that there is a regularity to nature” (p 29). She falsely accuses him of being unfamiliar with David Strauss’s ground breaking book on the historical Jesus, Das Leben Jesu kritisch bearbeitet (The Life of Jesus Critically Examined) (1835).

These are just a few of the problems with Hampson’s book, problems to which Gordon fails to alert prospective readers. In fact, Gordon says very little about the content of the book, but restricts himself to giving a general overview of Kierkegaard’s works and his place, or presumed place, in the history of thought that has little directly to do with Hampson’s treatment of Kierkegaard.

It’s generally dangerous to venture to write a book on a thinker, as well as to review a book on a thinker, on whose thought you do not specialize. And, to quote Kierkegaard, “what is worse for those brave souls who nevertheless dare to undertake such a project, the difficulty is not one that will confer celebrity on those who preoccupy themselves with it” (Philosophical Crumbs, p. 113). Unfortunately, Hampson’s book is so off base, at least in its chapter on Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Crumbs, that it amounts to a caricature of scholarship.

A single example will suffice to make this point. Hampson accuses Kierkegaard scholars of failing to appreciate a crucial fact about his view of the natural world. Kierkegaard, she charges, “thinks the world a kind of random place in which just about anything can happen.” Kierkegaard, she continues, lacks any sense for “the regularity of nature” or that natural events are subject to natural law (p. 92).

Unfortunately for Hampson, Kierkegaard scholars have not missed this aspect of Kierkegaard’s thought because this isn’t an aspect of Kierkegaard’s thought. Kierkegaard did believe in the existence of laws of nature. Hampson rightly observes that Kierkegaard “picks up the distinction in Aristotle between a ‘change’ which consists in a coming into existence (kinesis) and a change which presupposes existence (alloiosis) (what we might call a change taking place within the causal nexus),” but she fails to appreciate the significance of this distinction for Kierkegaard.

Hampson even goes so far as to remark that it is “strange” that Kierkegaard “does not appreciate that there is any real distinction between the two kinds of ‘change’“ (p. 91) identified by Aristotle, given that he refers to them himself when speaking about the change of coming to be. She chastises Kierkegaard for writing “150 years after Newton,” and yet failing to have any “sense of the regularity with which change takes place in predetermined fashion within a causal nexus” (91).

It would be pretty weird if Kierkegaard failed to have any sense for what one could call the “regularity of nature.” As most Kierkegaard scholars know, however, Kierkegaard does have such a sense, as is easily seen by anyone who pays careful attention to the portion of the Crumbs from which Hampson gets this strange impression. After Kierkegaard explains that “[e]verything that has come to be is eo ispo historical, he goes on to say that

That thing, the becoming of which is a simultaneous becoming (Nebeneinander, Space), has no other history than this, but even seen in this way (en masse), independently of what an ingenious consideration in a more specific sense calls the history of nature, nature has a history.

…. How can one say that nature, despite being immediately present, is historical, if one does not view it from this ingenious perspective? The difficulty comes from the fact that nature is too abstract to have a dialectical relationship, in the stricter sense, with time. 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) (p. 143, emphasis added).

That is, nature’s whole “history” is that it came to be at some point. After that, the “changes” that characterize nature do not represent change in Aristotle’s sense of kinesis but only in his sense of alloiosis. Kierkegaard takes pains to be clear on this point. Purely natural events are changes in something (i.e., nature) that already exists. They do not come about freely, but are subject to natural law. That’s why nature “has no history.” It has only an “intimation of a history” in that it came to be at some point. Mountain ranges do not become mature in the same sense that people do. Human beings have choices. Human events are not like plate tectonics.

How could Hampson miss that? It’s right there in the text. That’s why the purported fact of Kierkegaard’s failure to appreciate “the regularity of nature” has been given what Hampson calls “scant recognition” by Kierkegaard scholars. They don’t recognize it because it isn’t there. It is hard to imagine a more spectacularly erroneous interpretation of Kierkegaard than Hampson’s on this point.

How could Hampson have gotten Kierkegaard so wrong? My guess is that it is because her reading of Kierkegaard is driven by her political agenda. She appears determined to see Kierkegaard as a kind of throwback to a “premodern” view of reality.

Good thing readers of the NYRB have Gordon to alert them to this gross error in Hampson’s book! Except that Gordon doesn’t do that. Indeed, there are a host of problems his misses.

Like Hampson, Gordon isn’t a Kierkegaard scholar, so he doesn’t know enough about Kierkegaard to be able to identify when Hampson’s reading goes awry. He seems, in fact, to have a somewhat caricatured view of Kierkegaard himself. He’s correct, for example, in his claim that, according to Kierkegaard, there’s “an absolute chasm between God and humanity,” but not in his claim that that chasm makes God “wholly other” from human beings.

“[I]f God is absolutely different from human beings,” observes Kierkegaard in Philosophical Crumbs, “this cannot have its basis in what human beings owe to God (for to this extent they are related [beslægtet, literally “related” as in part of the same family])(119). According to Kierkegaard, the difference between human beings and God is sin. Sin keeps people from being able to see the likeness between themselves and God. The likeness is there, Kierkegaard believes, however, and can be appreciated, to some extent anyway, through the eyes of faith.

Kierkegaard did not, as Gordon claims, have a “disabling contempt for the public good.” His attack on the Danish Lutheran Church just before he died was motivated in part by his outrage over the church’s own contempt for the public good, at least in the spiritual sense. Kierkegaard’s concern for the public good was not restricted, however, to this sense. The Danish scholar Peter Tudvad demonstrated in his meticulously documented watershed book, Kierkegaards København (Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen) (Politiken, 2004) that Kierkegaard not only gave considerable sums of money to the poor (pp. 370-377), but that he even went so far as to share his lodgings with a destitute family for several years (pp. 348-354).

Gordon attributes the recent resurgence of interest in Kierkegaard’s thought to the bicentennial of his birth in 2013, as well as to the publication of Garff’s biography of Kierkegaard in 2000. He is undoubtedly correct about the bicentennial. What caused Kierkegaard’s name to remain in the headlines of Danish newspapers from 2000 until 2005, however, was not so much the publication of Garff’s biography as it was Tudvad’s revelations that the biography was riddled with factual errors and passages plagiarized from earlier Danish biographies of Kierkegaard, as well as the revelation that Garff had failed to fix these problems before the book was translated into English. Tudvad’s book, not Garff’s, is what gave scholars a fresh, and more accurate, impression of Kierkegaard’s life and thought.

But then it’s unlikely that Gordon would have known any of this, since he isn’t a Kierkegaard scholar. His book on Adorno touches on Kierkegaard, but that isn’t enough to make him a Kierkegaard scholar, so why did the NYRB have him review Hampson’s book? Could the answer be so straightforward as that Gordon teaches at Harvard? Talk about being “premodern,” is the NYRB so conservative that it’s actually resurrecting “the argument from authority,” the darling of medieval scholastics, so that the primary credential one needs to review a book for them is that one teaches at an ivy league school? A glance at the “contributors” section of the Nov. 10 edition in which Gordon’s review of Hampson’s book appears seems to support such a view. Three other reviews in that edition are by people from Harvard, three by people from Columbia, one by someone from Princeton and another by someone from Yale.

I’ll confess that I’m an avid reader of the NYRB and generally enjoy the articles it contains. I read it, in part, because I don’t have time to read every scholarly book that’s published in a given year (or even in a given week). I know that not everything that’s published is good, so I count on the NYRB and its stable of what I had hitherto assumed to be expert reviewers to sort through this material for me, to point out to me what is worth reading and what isn’t, to summarize for me some of the works that I’d ideally like to read, but probably won’t have time to read, so that I’ll be able to keep up with the latest developments in scholarship outside of my tiny field.

I don’t mean to suggest that all the reviews in the New York Review of Books are as misleading as is Gordon’s review of Hampson’s book. I’m sure they’re not. I’m sure most of them are as good as them seem. But how do I know which reviews are reliable and which are not?

I’m plagued now by a certain, you know, angst.

(This piece appeared originally under the title “The Angst of Scholarship at the NYRB: Getting Kierkegaard Wrong, Twice,” in the 8 November issue of Counterpunch. )



Kierkegaard on Nature and Miracles: A Reply to Hampson

In Publishing News, Uncategorized on June 21, 2017 at 8:58 am

I promised in the post entitled “Scholarly Protocol” which addressed the form of UK theologian Daphne Hampson’s extended comment on my earlier post “Getting Kierkegaard Wrong” that I would address the substance of her comment as well. As I said, I addressed that substance in the first of this series of posts in that Hampson’s comment merely summarizes an argument she makes in more extended form in her book Kierkegaard: Exposition and Critique. It is clear, however, that Hampson still hasn’t understood where her interpretation of Kierkegaard goes wrong, so I feel obliged to address that issue in more detail.

Hampson argues that Kierkegaard rejects “causality,” and more specifically, that he rejects the idea that there are laws of nature. It is this rejection, she asserts, that conveniently allows him to believe in miracles. Her argument makes sense. That is, it’s coherent. It’s just that it’s wrong. First, Kierkegaard clearly accepts both causality and the idea that there are laws of nature. Second, it is far from clear that Kierkegaard believed in miracles in the supernatural sense that sees them as a violation of those laws.

The first charge, that Kierkegaard rejects causality and the idea that there are laws of nature, can be swiftly and easily refuted. I already addressed the issue of Kierkegaard’s acceptance of causality in my remarks on Hampson’s misinterpretation of Kierkegaard’s treatment of the two distinct Aristotelian senses of change in my original post “Getting Kierkegaard Wrong,” so I won’t revisit that argument here, but will look more specifically now at the issue of whether Kierkegaard rejects the idea that there are laws of nature.

Kierkegaard writes in one of his notebooks sometime between 1841-42 that “[i]n nature everything is bound by law and hence governed by necessity” (SKS 19, 263). One might be tempted to argue that this reference comes very early, before Kierkegaard published his most famous works, and that it is thus possible that he changed his mind later. There is no evidence, however, to support such a view.

What’s worse for Hampson, is that an equally unequivocal reference to the reality of laws of nature occurs in the very work Hampson cites in support of her claim that Kierkegaard didn’t believe in the reality of laws of nature. This reference appears on the last page of the second volume of Either-Or, at the end of a discourse entitled “The Upbuilding That Lies in the Thought That in Relation to God We are Always in the Wrong.” Kierkegaard refers there to “the law which carries the stars on their paths across the arch of heaven” and observes that it would be a “terrible catastrophe” if “the law of nature lost its power and everything disintegrated into dreadful chaos.”

Kierkegaard is no friend of chaos. He falls squarely on the Apollonian side of the Apollonian/Dionysian divide. Not only does Kierkegaard believe in the reality of laws of nature, he believes that these laws are essential to giving order to our experience and hence provide the conditions under which it is possible for that experience to have meaning.

But if Kierkegaard accepts that there are laws of nature, what are we to make of his apparent rejection of “naturalism” that Hampson cites in her comment? The answer is that “naturalism” is synonymous for Kierkegaard with an all-encompassing physical determinism. It isn’t the idea that there are laws of nature that Kierkegaard rejects, but the idea that these laws necessarily determine human behavior.

Kierkegaard clearly holds something like a Kantian view of the relation between the phenomenal and noumenal view of a person. This view can be found, for example, in the section of Either-Or Part II entitled “The Aesthetic Validity of Marriage.” It may be challenging to make sense of how the phenomenal and noumenal aspects of a person can be brought together in such a way as to preserve human freedom, but Kant asserts they can be, and Kierkegaard appears to follow Kant in this respect. In fact, Kierkegaard distinguishes between “rationalism” and “naturalism” in a journal entry that examines this aspect of Kant’s thought (SKS 19, 159).

So much for Kierkegaard’s purported rejection of the idea that there are laws of nature. What about his position on miracles? The journal entry Hampson cites where Kierkegaard indicates that he rejects “naturalism” also includes a somewhat ambiguous reference to miracles. “Unfortunately,” it reads, “we know far too well what people in our day think of miracles” (SKS 24, 72). Those words are not Kierkegaard’s, however, but Bishop Mynster’s. Kierkegaard is quoting Mynster. But even if Kierkegaard is in agreement with Mynster’s words, it’s not clear exactly what those words mean. Do they refer to a pervasive rejection of the idea that are such things as miracles, or to the view that once there were miracles, but that miracles don’t happen any longer? Or could they be a disparaging reference to a propensity to focus on the purportedly supernatural aspect of miracles?

What is clear about Kierkegaard’s interest in miracles is that it is not their purportedly supernatural aspect that interests him. Kierkegaard is, in fact, openly contemptuous of people who focus on the supernatural rather than the edifying aspects of the accounts of miracles in the New Testatment. He asks, for example, in a discourse on Matthew 11:30 “My Yoke is Beneficial and My Burden Is Light” “is it really a greater miracle [Under] to change water into wine than for the heavy burden to continue to be heavy and yet be light!” (UDVS, 233).

What makes a burden that remains (one might be tempted to argue, according to natural law) heavy, nevertheless light, is not some violation of natural law. The “miracle” here is psychological, not physical.

The same emphasis on the miraculous as a psychological phenomenon rather than a physical one can be seen in Kierkegaard’s observation that

[a]t times, the circumstances determine that a penny signifies little more than it usually signifies, but if someone wants to perform a miracle [gjør et Vidunder], he makes the one penny signify just as much as all the world’s gold put together if he gives it out of compassion and the penny is the only one he has” (EUD, 362.)

That kind of generosity, or compassion, is certainly extremely rare but it doesn’t violate any natural law.

Kierkegaard’s interest in the miracle stories in the New Testament relates not to their purportedly supernatural aspect, but to the sense in which they can be subjectively meaningful, or more particularly, edifying. This can be seen yet again in his observation in his journal on the story of the feeding of the five thousand in John 6:1-15.

Since it was through a miracle [Mirakel] that enough food was procured [skaffet] to feed five thousand men, one would [be inclined to] believe that no thought would be given to the leavings [der blev ødslet med Levningerne]. But no, God is never like that. Everything was carefully gathered up according to the Gospel. The human is to be unable to perform miracles [Mirakler] and yet to waste the leavings [at ødsle med Levninger]. The divine is to perform the miracle [Miraklet] of abundance and yet to collect the crumbs [samle Smulerne op] (SKS, 20, 110.)

Kierkegaard’s point here is not to emphasize that Christ had supernatural powers, but to communicate something about God’s nature that would have an edifying effect on the reader, as is clear from his retelling this same story in one of his published “Discourses on the Communion on Fridays.”

God is and can be just as scrupulous as he is great and can be great in showing mercy. For example, God’s nature always joins opposites, just as in the miracle [Mirakel] of the five small loaves. The people had nothing to eat–through a miracle a superabundance was procured [skaffes], but see, then Christ commands that everything left over be carefully collected. How divine! One person can be wasteful, another thrifty,; but if there were a human being who through a miracle [Mirakel] could at any moment divinely procure [skaffe] a superabundance, do you not think that he humanly would have disdained the crumbs [Smulerne], do you think that he–divinely would have collected the crumbs [Smulerne]! So also with God’s greatness in showing mercy. (CD, 295-96).

Don’t be misled by the fact that the term that is translated as “miracle” in the first passage is “Under,” the term that is translated as “miracle” in the second is ”Vidunder,” and the term that is translated as “miracle” in the third passage is “Mirakel.” Kierkegaard uses the terms “Under,” “Vidunder,” and “Mirakel” interchangeably, and indeed, they are synonyms according to both Ferrall-Repp and the venerable Ordbog Over det Danske Sprog. Kierkegaard’s references, for example, to “the miracle of faith” are sometimes “Troens Mirakel” (cf., e.g., WOL, 295; CD, 115) and other times “Troens Vidunder” (cf., e.g., FT, 18 and SLW, 163).

The Hongs appear to have had a misguided ambition to consistently translate “Vidunder” as “wonder” rather than “miracle.” Yet even the Hongs couldn’t help but realize that “Under,” “Vidunder,” and “Mirakel” are synonyms for Kierkegaard and hence translated Kierkegaard’s “Dette er Christendommens Undergjerning, vidunderligere end det at forvandle Vand til Viin” as “This is the miracle of Christianity, even more miraculous than turning water into wine.”

It actually makes sense that Kierkegaard chooses to focus not on the objective aspect of miracles but on the sense in which they can be subjectively meaningful in that there are no references to “miracles” in the authorized Danish New Testament of Kierkegaard’s day. Every single reference to a “miracle” in the King James Version of the New Testament appears not as “Mirakel” in the Frederik VI’s New Testament, but as “Tegn,” i.e., “sign.” This, in turn, makes sense because every single reference to a “miracle” in the King James Version of the New Testament appears as σεμεἰον, i.e., “sign” in the original Greek. Signs require what the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce called an “interpretant.” That is, they are meaningful only subjectively. There is no such thing as an objective sign.

The question remains, of course, as to whether Kierkegaard believed miracles were supernatural events, but simply chose not to focus on that aspect of them. That’s a difficult question to answer. I argue in my book on his epistemology that Kierkegaard viewed all of empirical science as merely probabilistic and that suggests there is room for him to view miracles as merely exceptionally unusual, or highly improbable, events rather than events that violated laws of nature.

Support for this view can be found in the fact that Kierkegaard refers repeatedly to “the paradox” of Christianity as “improbable” rather than “impossible” (cf., e.g., Crumbs, 123, 159 and CUP, 195, 196). Support can also be found in the fact that when Kierkegaard refers to the feeding of the five thousand, he writes that food was miraculously “procured” (skaffet, see Ferrall-Repp) not “created” (skabt) that was sufficient to feed five thousand people. Who knows how it was procured. The implication of the word choice, however, is that the means used to secure it were not necessarily supernatural.

That said, even if Kierkegaard believes miracles are supernatural events, he does not reject the reality of laws of nature. There clearly are such laws, according to Kierkegaard, as the quotations with which this post began demonstrates even if, as I argue in my book Ways of Knowing, Kierkegaard believes the correspondence to reality of any particular interpretation of these laws cannot be shown to be certain.

Hampson is deluded in thinking that Kierkegaard rejects the idea that there are laws of nature and that he does this to make room for his belief in miracles. There is undoubtedly someone in the history of thought who holds the view Hampson attributes to Kierkegaard. It just isn’t Kierkegaard. Hampson’s Kierkegaard is a fantastical creation of her own imagination, concocted, it would appear out of the ambition to present a grand, over-arching theory about the development of thought after the Enlightentment. And she has been spreading the contagion of this erroneous interpretation of Kierkegaard all over the globe. First in 2013 at the bi-centenary of Kierkegaard’s birth in Copenhagen, Australia, and then in the United States, and then later in Budapest.

That is one of the dangers of what philosophers call “big picture” work: a grand over-arching theory that attempts to explain a particular development in the history of thought almost always requires that its author include thinkers on whose thought he or she is not expert. That’s why philosophers in the Anglo-American tradition tend to avoid it. It’s virtually impossible to do it well. It’s almost inevitably flawed, and sometimes very conspicuously so.

Theologians, on the other hand, appear not to have the same fear of error that generally characterizes philosophers. Hampson, by her own admission is working on a grand, over-arching theory that she plans to present in a book “provisionally entitled ‘Enlightenment and After.’” My guess is that she is going to fit her fantastical Kierkegaard into this development in a manner analogous to that in which Alasdair MacIntyre fit his fantastical Kierkegaard into the picture he presents of the historical development of ethical thought in his book After Virtue, though the distinction Kierkegaard makes in the journal entry cited above between “rationalism” and “naturalism” does not bode well for such a project.

The good side to this is that just as MacIntyre’s distortion of Kierkegaard’s thought provided an occasion for some really first-rate Kierkegaard scholarship, as is exemplified in John Davenport and Anthony Rudd’s excellent book Kierkegaard after MacIntyre, so will Hampson’s distortion of Kierkegaard, both in her book on him and in her forthcoming book, provide an occasion for much excellent Kierkegaard scholarship.

The really pressing question is how a book containing such a conspicuously and spectacularly erroneous interpretation of Kierkegaard could ever be published by a publisher such as Oxford? Something would appear to have gone horribly wrong with the process of peer review.



Angsting Over Translation

In Publishing News, Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship, Translation issues, Uncategorized on September 27, 2017 at 5:14 pm
Kind, das Angst vor einer Spinne hat - © dennisjacobsen - Fotolia.com

Kind, das Angst vor einer Spinne hat – © dennisjacobsen – Fotolia.com

I took Daphne Hampson to task in an earlier post for referring to Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety as The Concept Angst in her book Kierkegaard: Exposition and Critique. There are two problems with changing a title like that. First, it’s confusing to the reader, since there is no English translation of Kierkegaard’s Begrebet Angest with the title The Concept Angst. Second, it is far from clear that Kierkegaard’s “Angest,” or “Angst” (an alternative spelling) is, as Hampson argues “ill-rendered in English as ‘anxiety’” (Hampson, 109). Walter Lowrie, observes Hampson, translated Kierkegaard’s “Angst” (nouns were capitalized in Danish in the nineteenth century) as “dread.” “This is good,” she continues,

in so far as it conjures up the context of Romanticism. Kierkegaard can speak of a ‘sweet angst’ that tantalizes or invites. Angst, he will say, is ‘a sympathetic antipathy and an antipathetic sympathy’ (42). Philosophically the distinction between angst and anxiety (or fear) is said to be that whereas fear has an object, angst is devoid of any such. Animals can know fear, while the human may possess unfocused angst. (Hampson, 110).

I don’t mean to pick on Hampson. Her point isn’t original. I’ve heard many philosophers make essentially the same claim about the German “Angst.” The thing is, there isn’t much evidence to support such a claim. My Oxford-Duden electronic dictionary from 1999 defines “Angst” as “fear,” or “anxiety” with “fear” actually being listed first. Contemporary Danish-English dictionaries do effectively the same thing for the Danish “angst.” See, for example, the venerable Vinterberg-Bodelsen from 1966. It defines “angst” as “dread,” “fear,” “apprehension,” “alarm,” and “anxiety” in that order. Ferrall-Repp, the definitive nineteenth-century Danish-English dictionary defines “angst,” or “Angest” as “fear” or “dread.”

“Anxiety,” “fear,” and “dread,” as well as the German “Angst” and Danish “angst,” may or may not have an object. This can be seen in the online version of Duden, where “Angst” is defined first as “a state of excitement [in the face of danger], and then as “a vague feeling of menace.” I love the illustration for that entry. That’s why I chose it for this post. It makes clear that “Angst” can indeed have an object!

A practice has arisen in among the intellectual elite in English-speaking countries, however, of using the German “Angst” to refer to a generalized anxiety without a readily identifiable object, but that is simply an affectation as even a cursory glance at a German, or German-English, dictionary will make clear. “Angst” is more often used by Germans to identify such a generalized anxiety than is “Furcht,” i.e., fear, but that isn’t its exclusive meaning and indeed, dictionaries suggest such a use is the exception rather than the rule.

The same thing could be said about the English “anxiety.” It can sometimes have an object and sometimes not. One can be “anxious” about a test, for example, or the visit of a relative, or one can be just generally anxious. “Anxiety” is more often used to identify a generalized kind of fearfulness, than are either “fear” or “dread,” but that suggests that “anxiety” is actually a good translation of the German, or Danish “Angst,” rather than an inadequate one.

Texts, as I explain to my students over and over again, need to be interpreted. There are not magic words that always and unequivocally precisely convey an author’s meaning. “Angst” doesn’t more precisely convey to English speakers the meaning of the German or Danish “Angst” than does “anxiety.” In fact, it is arguably inferior in an English translation of Kierkegaard in that it is an affectation and Kierkegaard generally abhors such affectations and scrupulously avoids them in his writings, except, of course when he is using them satirically.