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“Positivism” versus Truthiness in Biography: A False Dichotomy

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Caricature of Kierkegaard from an 1848 issue of The Corsair

Clare Carlisle took exception to my review in the Times Literary Supplement of her biography of Kierkegaard (“Alone for dinner” TLS 4 October 2019). She accused me in a letter to the editor in the next edition of being either “unable or unwilling to approach [her] life of Kierkegaard on its own terms, i.e., as a literary work combining biography and philosophy” (“Letters,”,TLS 11 October 2019). I have no objection, however, to combining biography and philosophy. In fact, I can’t imagine a biography of a philosopher that wouldn’t do that. How would it be possible to treat fully the life of a thinker without giving any attention to the character of his or her thought? (You can read my response to Carlisle’s letter here.)

No, what Carlisle objected to was not that I failed to approach her life of Kierkegaard on its own terms, but that I did actually approach it on its own terms and exposed it as flawed on those terms. Carlisle didn’t claim that the book was a combination of biography and historical fiction, but that’s what it, in fact, is in that it invents thoughts that Kierkegaard might plausibly have had and then attributes them to him directly, without this qualification (see, for example, “Fictional Biography, Factual Biography, and their Contaminations,” Ina Schabert Biography, Vol. 5, No. 1, Winter 1982 on the difference between historical fiction and biography, as well as the more recent “History’s Handmaids: Historical Fiction and Biography,” a post by the biographer Louise W. Knight to the website for the Wellesley Centers for Women).

Carlisle accuses me of “grim positivism” as if I had an objection to a biographer speculating about the inner life of his or her subject. I don’t object to that, though. My objection was to presenting speculations as fact. If Carlisle had simply prefaced her speculations with qualifications such as “at this point, Kierkegaard might well have been thinking…” or “it is reasonable to suppose that Kierkegaard’s thoughts now turned to…,” etc., etc., I’d have had no problem with them.

The charge of “positivism” is a straw man. Positivism, according to Oxford University Press’s online dictionary, means “A philosophical system recognizing only that which can be scientifically verified or which is capable of logical or mathematical proof, and therefore rejecting metaphysics and theism.” I don’t think we should recognize only things that can be scientifically verified or proved with mathematical precision, and I didn’t even imply in my review that I thought such a thing. In fact, it is precisely because of the impossibility of pinning down any historical fact with the precision that is required in the hard sciences that the line between fact and fiction must be rigorously maintained.

Historical facts are established as such not by pinning them down with scientific or mathematical precision, but by showing they are supported by the preponderance of available evidence, all the while laboring to uncover more evidence either to support the existing interpretation of the evidence or to tip the scales in favor of an alternative interpretation.

What Carlisle objected to was not my purported “positivism,” but that I exposed that there were errors in the book that would have been flaws even in a work of historical fiction, to the extent that writers of historical fiction endeavor to get the historical facts on which they creatively elaborate correct (see Schabert. op. cit.) . Leon Edel asserts that a biographer “may be as imaginative as he pleases, so long as he does not imagine his facts” (see Schabert, op. cit., p. 1). But that’s what Carlisle does, she imagines facts. That is, she doesn’t simply impute thoughts to Kierkegaard without qualifying them as speculations, she makes claims about him that are demonstrably false according to the generally accepted standards of the verification of historical claims, standards that are far looser than those required by positivism, but which are standards nonetheless.

In particular, Carlisle presents Kierkegaard’s “pubic humiliation and ridicule” at the hands of the satirical newspaper Corsaren (the corsair) as restricted to 1846 (see Philosopher of the Heart, 61). Peter Tudvad revealed, however, in Kierkegaards København (Politiken, 2004), his groundbreaking study of Kierkegaard’s life and the city in which he lived, that the The Corsair’s campaign against Kierkegaard was not restricted to 1846, as earlier biographers had supposed, but began in 1846 and continued, off and on, right up until Kierkegaard’s death in 1855. Moreover, the The Corsair was not the only periodical to make public sport of ridiculing Kierkegaard. Paul Bauer discovered back in the mid ‘90s that at least one other newspaper, Folkets Nisse, had done so as well. That these facts cannot be established with mathematical precision does not mean they can be ignored, or that an alternative account of the facts is just as valid.

Charges of “positivism” are the last refuge of intellectual scoundrels —i.e., people whose claims have been exposed as having insufficient evidence to support them. Nothing outside the hard sciences can be proven with scientific or mathematical precision, they point out, so the requirement that a particular claim needs more evidence to support it is portrayed as a misguided demand for the impossible. There is an enormous difference, however, between a demand that a claim be supported by a preponderance of available evidence and a claim that it should be proven with mathematical precision. To conflate the two is either an expression of disingenuousness, as in the case of the tobacco industry’s repeated denial that there was proof cigarettes caused cancer, or feeblemindedness, as is the case with some, if not all, climate-change deniers.

Does it matter very much whether we ever get a really good biography of Kierkegaard? Probably not. That we endeavor assiduously to maintain the line between fact and fiction, however, no matter how challenging that may be, matters a great deal. If intellectuals abandon that distinction, there is little hope that anyone else will maintain it.

The above caricature of Kierkegaard is an illustration from Tudvad’s book that comes from an 1848 issue of The Corsair. Check back here for a post that looks more closely at the subject of the extended public pillorying of Kierkegaard and which will include another caricature of Kierkegaard from 1848 as well as English translations of the text that accompanies these caricatures.

(Earlier versions of this article appeared in the October 18, 2019 issue of the online political journal CounterPunch, as well as in The Life of the Mind, the blog on my website mgpiety.org)

Debunking the Kierkegaard Myths

kierkegaard2_360x450Kierkegaard kept voluminous journals. It’s reasonable to assume from that that his would be an easy biography to write. In fact, it is fairly easy to write a biography of Kierkegaard and quite a few have been written including David F. Swenson’s Something About Kierkegaard (Augsburg, 1941), Walter Lowrie’s A Short Life of Kierkegaard (Princeton, 1942), Johannes Hohlenberg’s Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography (Pantheon, 1954), Henning Fenger’s Kierkegaard, The Myths and their Origins (Yale, 1980), Alastair Hannay’s Kierkegaard: A Biography (Cambridge, 2001), Joakim Garff’s Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography (Princeton, 2005), Stephen Backhouse’s Kierkegaard: A Single Life (Zondervan, 2016), and most recently, Clare Carlisle’s Philosopher of the Heart (Allen Lane, 2019). What isn’t so easy is to write a biography that is genuinely revealing, that delves beneath the surface facts of Kierkegaard’s life and his own well-known observations on them to show something of the man behind the biographical myths.

All the existing biographies give essentially the same picture of Kierkegaard, a picture that has been cobbled together from Kierkegaard’s journals and accounts of some of his contemporaries. They present him as a somewhat reclusive, oddly attired, physically misshapen, passionately religious melancholic from a similarly passionately religious melancholic family. There is little question that the “passionately religious” qualification is correct. Kierkegaard came from a devoutly religious family whose spiritual roots were in the individualistic tradition of the Moravian Brethren, and they maintained their connection to this denomination even while enjoying membership in the official Danish Lutheran Church.

The picture of Kierkegaard as a melancholic loner who was the product of an unhappy childhood comes largely from his own observations about himself in his journals. Even Fenger and Garff, both of whom point out how careful Kierkegaard was at crafting the image of himself that he wanted to survive his death, give too much credence to what Kierkegaard writes about himself. Scattered among the many reminiscences of people who knew Kierkegaard are clues that suggest the narrator of the journals is unreliable.

Kierkegaard writes repeatedly that his childhood was unhappy. Observations of the Kierkegaard household, however, by visiting friends and acquaintances invariably describe it as warm and happy, presided over by loving parents who took conspicuous pride in their children’s abilities and accomplishments. See, for example, the reminiscences collected in the section entitled “Barndom og skoleår” (childhood and school years) in Erindringer om Søren Kierkegaard (memories of Søren Kierkegaard) (Reitzel, 1980).

Kierkegaard describes his father as profoundly melancholic. There is little evidence, however, to support that Michael Pedersen suffered from depression until very late in his life after his second wife, and the mother of his children, died and then his children began to die off, one by one, in early adulthood. Kierkegaard’s older brother, Peter Christian, gives a similar picture of the family, and it is well known that he struggled with depression himself. But again, there is little evidence that this was a serious problem until after he lost his mother and siblings to death and after he lost his first wife shortly after their marriage.

The death of a loved one naturally leads to depression and to lose one’s children is reportedly one of the worst kinds of losses. Peter Christian lived through the death of nearly all his siblings, as well as the death of his first wife, and added to the grief of those losses was the undoubtedly disturbing spectacle of his once strong father’s own struggles with grief. That both Kierkegaard’s father and his older brother suffered from depression later in their lives makes perfect sense. That in itself is not sufficient, however, to support that the family had any sort of congenital predisposition to depression, or that Kierkegaard’s childhood home had been characterized by it. My point is not to argue that the traditional picture of Kierkegaard’s family and childhood is necessarily wrong, but simply that there are reasons to doubt it.

Kierkegaard describes his father as authoritarian, yet it is well known, as a contemporary, Peter Munte Brun observes in Erindringer, that the elder Kierkegaard encouraged his children (his male children anyway) to debate with him on points of philosophy and theology. Michael Pedersen may well have been authoritarian in some respects, but most devoutly religious heads of households insist, if they are authoritarian, on conformity on intellectual matters and, in particular on points of theology. So if Michael Petersen was authoritarian, it was not in the traditional sense.

But if this negative view of Kierkegaard’s family and childhood home is inaccurate, why do we find it in Kierkegaard’s journals? There are two possible reasons. The first is that the Romantics tended, paradoxically, to have a positive view of melancholy—it was romantic. Kierkegaard was steeped in the Romantic worldview and appeared to enjoy thinking of himself as a romantic figure. Second, many of his accounts of his family and childhood that support this view were written after the family experienced the tragic losses referred to above, hence Kierkegaard’s later view of his family and this period of his life may well have been negatively affected by these losses in the same way that his brother’s likely was.

Part of The Corsair’s merciless caricaturing of Kierkegaard included depicting him as hunch-backed with trouser legs of two different lengths. Was Kierkegaard hunchbacked? Most accounts of contemporaries make no mention of this purported deformity and the medical records from Frederiks Hospital, where Kierkegaard breathed his last in 1855, include no reference to it. There are a few accounts of Kierkegaard from contemporaries that describe him as “slightly hunched” (Erindringer, 67-68), but that’s very different from saying he was hunch-backed. Strangely, even Fenger gives too much credence to the view that Kierkegaard was hunch-backed. There is actually no evidence, however, to suggest that Kierkegaard suffered from anything more than poor posture, or what is sometimes referred to as a “scholarly slouch.” Even that is largely conjecture given that the few references we have to this purported physical characteristic of Kierkegaard date from the period after he was portrayed this way in the caricatures published by The Corsair when people’s memories of Kierkegaard might well have been influenced by those caricatures.

Were Kierkegaard’s trouser legs of two different lengths? Anyone who knows anything about Kierkegaard and gives this idea a moment’s thought will realize that it’s extremely improbable Kierkegaard would ever have appeared in public in such poorly-tailored attire. Kierkegaard was a notorious flâneur whose excessive tailor bills were the bane of his father’s existence. This is likely the reason, in fact, that The Corsair chose to depict him as poorly attired. Nothing would have irked the vain Kierkegaard more than being presented as anything less than impeccably dressed.

I address the myth that Kierkegaard was reclusive in a publication that will appear shortly, so I won’t scoop myself by going into that issue here. Suffice it to say that it makes little sense to suppose that a well-known flâneur could also have been a recluse.

So there you have it. More support could be presented, of course, to challenge each of the prevailing myths about Kierkegaard that turn up in nearly every biography of him like so many bad pennies. Again, my point here is not to argue that there is no truth to these myths, but only to point out that there is reason to suppose that there is less truth than has traditionally been thought.

New Book on Kierkegaard and Judaism!

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Some months ago I was contacted by a Swiss scholar, Joanna Nowotny, who wished to thank me for the work I do on this blog. She’d made extensive use of it, she explained, when doing the research for her book, »Kierkegaard ist ein Jude!« Jüdische Kierkegaard-Lektüren in Literatur und Philosophie (“Kierkegaard is a Jew!” readings of Kierkegaard in Jewish literature and philosophy) (Wallstein Verlag, 2018). At some point, when I have the time to construct a “Testimonials” page for this blog, I’ll post her lovely email to it. In the meantime, however, I procured a copy of the book and have begun reading it.

I was intrigued, of course, because most of the recent discussions of Kierkegaard and Judaism with which I am familiar have been connected with Peter Tudvad’s groundbreaking Stadier på antisemitismens vej, Søren Kierkegaard og Jøderne (Stages on the way of anti-Semitism, Søren Kierkegaard and the Jews) (Rosinante, 2010) which reveals that Kierkegaard had some truly reprehensible attitudes toward Jews and Judaism, particularly toward the end of his life. That doesn’t mean, however, that Kierkegaard has nothing positive to contribute to the Jewish intellectual tradition. George Connell argues, in fact, in his excellent Kierkegaard and the Paradox of Religious Pluralism (Eerdmans, 2016) that “[i]ronically, in [Kierkegaard’s] final years, just when his rhetoric is most negative about Jews, just when he most offensively asserts the utter opposition of Judaism and Christianity, the substance of his thought represents a reaffirmation of Christianity’s fundamental and positive relation to Judaism” (p. 66).

I’ve only just started Nowotny’s book and I haven’t gotten very far yet, so I will hold off making any substantive comments on it until later, after I have finished it. In the meantime, I have taken the liberty of translating the copy from the back cover of the book. This will give you a little taste of what the book is about.

This large-scale study by Joanna Nowotny examines the traces left by Kierkegaard’s writing and thinking in the theoretical discourse and literary culture of Jewish Modernism.

“Kierkegaard is a Jew!” Gershom Scholem noted enthusiastically in his diary in 1915. “Nowhere” is the “core of Jewish sensibility [Weltgefühl] … so experientially formulated,” as in Kierkegaard, writes Max Brod a few years later in “Heidentum — Christentum — Judentum” (Paganism, Christianity, Judaism) (in Der Jude 1, 16-20). Such interpretations of the “Christian author” Kierkegaard are remarkable. They raise the question of how Kierkegaard’s œuvre, which was enormously popular in German-speaking Europe after 1900, offered possibilities for a Jewish interpretation and appropriation in particular. How is Kierkegaard’s thinking in this context made theologically, politically, and literarily fruitful, by poets and thinkers such as Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig and Franz Kafka? Which aspects of his work play a special role? What attitudes [Gestus] underlie the various Kierkegaard appropriations and which functions do they fulfill in the context of discourses on Jewish identity? Joanna Nowotny addresses these questions in her study and shows the traces Kierkegaard’s writing and thinking have left on authors such as Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, Franz Werfel, and Franz Kafka.

Looks interesting, eh!