M.G. Piety

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Irenaeus and Kierkegaard on Christian Knowledge

In Conference news, Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship, Uncategorized on July 18, 2016 at 11:45 am
Keynote panel

Jonathan Lear, Tanya Luhrmann, Elaine Pagels, and Jeffry Kripal

I presented a paper at a conference entitled The Psychology of Religion/The Religion of Psycholgy at the University of Chicago in March of 2015. I meant to post my thoughts on that conference immediately after its conclusion, but a number of other commitments kept me from being able to do that. The conference, sponsored by the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion, was extraordinarily stimulating. The keynote speakers were Jeffry Kripal, J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Studies, Rice University, Jonathan Lear, John U. Nef Distinguished Service Professor at the Committee on Social Thought, University of Chicago, Tanya Marie Luhrmann, Watkins University Professor in the Department of Anthropology (and Psychology, by courtesy), Stanford University, and Elaine Pagels, Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion, Princeton University.

I was excited to be on the same program with Jonathan Lear and Elaine Pagels. I am a huge admirer of both scholars. Lear is an extraordinarily talented scholar who has done some wonderful work on Kierkegaard as well as on classical philosophy and psychoanalysis and although Pagels has not, to my knowledge, written on Kierkegaard, her books on the history of Christianity in general, and Gnosticism in particular have been very helpful to me.

It was Pagels’ presentation, “’Making a Difference’: How Promoting Exploration of Human Experience Became Heresy,” that prompted this post. Much of that presentation was directed against Irenaeus and his attacks on the Gnostics. Pagels argued that Irenaeus was dismissive of human experience and antagonistic to the idea, so central to Gnosticism, that human beings could achieve knowledge of the divine. In fact, she attributed this antagonism, as the title of her presentation suggests, not merely to Irenaeus, but to orthodox Christianity more generally.


Slide of Irenaeus from Pagels’ presentation

As I said, I am a huge admirer of Pagels, but that account of Irenaeus, and the Christian tradition more generally struck me as simply false and I said as much during the question period. Knowledge of the divine is clearly possible according to Kierkegaard, as I argue in my book Ways Of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology (Baylor, 2010). God, observes Kierkegaard in Philosophical Crumbs, did not take on human form “to ridicule human beings. His intention cannot thus be to go through the world in such a way that not a single person ever came to know [vide] it. He does indeed want something of himself to be understood [forstaae]” (Crumbs, 126).

The claim that knowledge of God is possible through an encounter with Christ may seem heretical to those who view Christianity as a religion based on faith. This passage from Crumbs is strikingly similar, however, to Irenaeus’ claim in The Scandal of the Incarnation: Irenaeus Against the Heresies (Ignatius Press, 1990) that “the Lord did not say that the Father and the Son could not be known at all [μη γινωσκεσθαι] for in that case his coming would have been pointless” (Against the Heresies, p. 45).

Irenaeus is specifically concerned in Against the Heresies to reject the claim of the Gnostic Valentinus that the message of the incarnation was God’s inaccessibility to human knowledge. “What the Lord really taught,” asserts Irenaeus, “is this: no one can know God unless God teaches him; in other words, without God, God cannot be known [ανευ Θεου μη γινωσκεσθαι τον Θεον]. What is more,” continues Irenaeus, “it is the Father’s will that God be known [αυτο δε το γινωσκεσθαι αυτον θλημα ειναι του Πατρος]” (Against the Heresies, 45).

Man’s imperfection, or sin, is for Irenaeus, the obstacle to his attaining specifically Christian knowledge. Thus Irenaeus observes that “the Word of the Father [i.e., Christ] and the Spirit of God [i.e., faith in Christ], united to the ancient substance of Adam’s formation [i.e., man], made man living and perfect capable of knowing the perfect Father” (Against the Heresies, p. 57). But sinful man is no longer perfect and hence is incapable of knowing God without the intermediacy of Christ. Thus Irenaeus asserts that “no one can know God unless God teaches him.”

Can “the truth be taught?” asks Kierkegaard in Crumbs (88). His answer, of course, is yes–if God himself teaches it. In other words, Kierkegaard’s claim in Crumbs that union with God is necessary in order for specifically Christian knowledge to be possible echoes exactly Irenaeus’ claim in Against the Heresies that “no one can know God unless God teaches him.”

I presented a paper concerning the similarity of Kierkegaard’s view on the possibility of religious knowledge with those of both Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in 2011 and was figuratively besieged by admiring Patristics scholars throughout the rest of the conference.

I’m not in a position, of course, to comment upon Pagels’ more general claim that Irenaeus, and the later Christian tradition, was dismissive of human experience. She is certainly correct to the extent that Christianity assumes human experience, characterized as it is by sin, is profoundly problematic as a means for coming to understand the truth. The picture of Irenaeus’ objection to Gnosticism that one gets from Against the Heresies relates, however, to the Gnostics’ condemnation of physical reality, as well as to their elitism, or their view that only a tiny select group of human beings, the πνευματικοι, could know God.

I was very fortunate to share drinks with both Pagels and Luhrmann just before the conference dinner and Pagels assured me then that there were other works by Irenaeus that would support her view that he was dismissive of human experience. She neglected to mention what works those were. But it is not inconceivable that other writings by Irenaeus might display a certain ambivalence about what one could call the “authority” of human experience, since the Christian tradition more generally is ambivalent about this “authority.” Human experience certainly has a kind of authority, however, for Irenaeus. It just isn’t the same kind of authority it has for the Gnostics.

It is clear, however, both that Irenaeus believed human beings could achieve knowledge of the divine and that this view is an important part of the Christian tradition.


On Being Human

In Conference news, Publishing News on April 9, 2014 at 6:46 pm

MLN Kierkegaard cover.128.5_frontVolume 128 no. 5 of MLN (originally Modern Language Notes) includes a collection of papers from the conference on Kierkegaard that was hosted by Johns Hopkins last September. Leonardo Lisi very kindly sent me a copy as a thank you for my having chaired a session at the conference. I went immediately to the paper by Jonathan Lear because it had been one of my favorites from the conference. The paper, “The Ironic Creativity of Socratic Doubt” (MLN 1001-1018) takes its point of departure in a passage from Kierkegaard’s journals that reads:

Socrates doubted that one was a human being by birth; to become human, or to learn what it means to be human does not come that easily–what occupied Socrates, what he sought, was the ideality of being human (Journals 278).

Lear says he’s going to pursue the suggestion that “we should read the or as exegetical” in the sense that “what follows the ‘or’ explicates what precedes it” (MLN 1004). That is, Lear argues that learning what it means to be human is precisely to “become human.” Learning what it means to be human, Lear asserts, is not “tantamount to acquiring a practical skill” (MLN 1005) because if it were, then it would seem easy enough to do, yet Socrates had difficulty with it and Kierkegaard seems to accept this difficulty as natural for anyone who is sufficiently reflective.

Lear’s essay is extraordinarily rich and I cannot hence to justice to it here. I want here only sketch Lear’s thesis and point out what I believe is problematic about it. That is, I’m going to argue that while Lear presents a beautifully persuasive reading of Plato’s Symposium, this reading cannot unproblematically be attributed to Kierkegaard.

Lear uses Diotima’s discussion of “pregnancy” from Plato’s Symposium to gain insight into what might be the difficulty involved in learning what it means to be human. This is indeed, I would argue, a fruitful approach to the problem because though Kierkegaard skips over this part of Diotima’s speech in The Concept of Irony, the metaphor of pregnancy becomes very important to Kierkegaard.

Diotima’s speech is about love. “[L]ove,” she asserts, “is wanting to possess the good forever” (206a; Lear’s emphasis). But the only way we are going to be able to do that, observes Lear, is if “we create it ourselves.” “The ‘real purpose of love,’ Diotima say, ‘is giving birth in beauty whether in body or in soul’” (206b; Lear’s emphasis) (MLN 1010)

“What we lack and seek,” asserts Lear, “is not the missing good object… Rather what we lack and seek is the beautiful environment–the beautiful other–in which we can then give forth something from deep within ourselves” (MLN 1010). Lear acknowledges that ordinarily we associate the erotic in Plato with a kind of lack and that. “No doubt,” he observes, “there are passages that support that though. But here in the heart of the Platonic Socrates’ discourse on eros, he says that the erotic encounter is the occasion to experience ourselves as full. Since Socrates says he is persuaded by Diotima’s teaching (212b),” continues Lear, “he cannot here be thinking of himself as empty” (MLN 1011).

It is not necessarily the case, however, that the “lack” traditionally associated with erotic love in Plato is equivalent to “emptiness.” That is, the “lack” that the lover seeks to fill through the possession of the beloved in not incompatible with his experiencing himself as full in some other respect. A lover may be filled, for example, with a wonder at creation and yet lack a beloved to share it with. Alternatively, the fullness the lover experiences may simply replace the lack that served as the impetus to love. That is, the traditional Platonic conception of erotic love as related to a kind of lack in the lover is not necessarily incompatible, in the manner Lear suggests with Diotima’s view of love as a kind of fullness that issues in birth.

This point is not essential, however, to Lear’s thesis. His thesis is actually that human life has a “characteristic activity.” This activity, he explains is “pregnancy and giving birth in the beautiful. That is, it is the creativity in the presence of –or in the presence of a memory of–a beautiful other person who stimulates and inspires us. Try to imagine,” Lear continues, “a human being who has no pregnancy in them whatsoever: no ability to reproduce biologically nor even a spark of creative impulse. If one can imagine this at all, one is imagining someone at the far end of an autistic spectrum. This is not just another instance of a human being, but an impaired one” (MLN 1014).

“We see from the inside,” continues Lear, “that human being is characterized by creativity stimulated by our encounter with others–and that a biological instance of the kind that lacked that creativity would be a problematic instance. This,” asserts Lear, “is not an arbitrarily high standard; it is a constitutional condition” (MLN 1015). I like this definition of what it means to be human, but I’m not entirely convinced that this is what Kierkegaard had in mind. Lear asserts that “giving birth in the beautiful is our characteristic practical activity” and that “[l]earning what it means to give birth in the beautiful just is the self-conscious understanding that we acquire in giving birth in the beautiful” (MLN 1015). But if a human being who is unable to do this and hence to gain an understanding of it is, as Lear asserts, someone “at the far end of an autistic spectrum,” then it is difficult to understand why Kierkegaard would believe that “to learn what it means to be human does not come that easily.” That is, if Lear is correct in his claim that “giving birth in the beautiful is our characteristic practical activity,” then learning what it means to give birth is this way would be something that everyone did as a matter of course.

One might be tempted to argue, that when Kierkegaard says “learning what it means to become human does not come that easily,” what he means is more that it is painful rather than that it is rare. Perhaps, after all, that is what Lear means. Lear is a practicing Freudian analyst, so it’s unlikely that he would want to exclude from the category “human” the vast number of individuals Kierkegaard’s gloss on Plato’s text suggests would be excluded. This can’t be what Kierkegaard means, however, because he clearly does, ironically, want to exclude vast numbers of human beings from the category “human.” We are supposed to be “human,” according to Kierkegaard, in the manner Lear describes, but in fact, most of us are not. [T]he ideality of human being” that Socrates sought is impossibly high according to Kierkegaard, in that it is not something we can achieve without God’s help. That’s the irony. We cannot become who we are, according to Kierkegaard, in the beautiful environment of human love, but only in the beautiful environment of divine love.

Kierkegaard’s Christian Epistemology

In Conference news, Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs on December 6, 2013 at 10:47 pm

I said in my last post that I would write more about the Kierkegaard conference at Baylor last month. It was an extraordinarily rich conference in terms of  the breadth of topics covered and it was unusual in that there were several papers devoted to aspects of Kierkegaard’s epistemology. Indeed, there was an entire session entitled “Kierkegaardian Challenges to Epistemology.” This is testament to an increasing appreciation of the importance of epistemological concerns to Kierkegaard’s thought.

C. Stephen Evans gave an excellent presentation entitled “Kierkegaard the Natural Theologian? Kierkegaard on Natural Religious Knowledge,” in which he argued (as I argue in Ways of Knowing) that Kierkegaard assumes people have a natural knowledge of God, and that “[t]his natural religious knowledge is not without value” in that “it is part of what prepares a person to encounter the Christian Gospel”  (Evans’ handout).

Of course this natural knowledge of God, explained Evans, is distinguished from faith in Christ, or any knowledge that might come as a product of this faith. The latter sort of knowledge and how faith makes it possible was the subject of my own presentation “Encountering the Truth: Kierkegaard’s Existential Mysticism as a Corrective for the New Atheism.”  My argument was that according to Kierkegaard, an encounter with what he refers to in Philosophical Crumbs as “the god in time” (173) amounts to acquaintance knowledge of God (i.e., in the person of Christ) and that this acquaintance knowledge serves as the foundation for specifically Christian propositional knowledge that looks very unlike the sorts of views the “new atheists” routinely attribute to Christians.

That what Kierkegaard calls an encounter with the god in time can lead to specifically Christian propositional knowledge is a topic I cover in great detail in Ways of Knowing. What was new in the presentation was making clear the implications of Kierkegaard’s position for the kinds of criticisms of religion advanced by the new atheists.

Unfortunately, there are still people out there making arguments about Kierkegaard’s epistemology without really knowing very much about it. Aaron Fehir, for example, whose paper “Subjectivity and Conscience: A Kierkegaardian Resolution to the Problem of the Criterion” was part of the session entitled “Kierkegaardian Challenges to Epistemology,” had read neither Ways of Knowing, nor Anton Hügli’s excellent Die Erkenntnis der Subjektivität und die Objektivität des Erkennens bei Søren Kierkegaard (Basel, Switzerland: Editio Academica, 1973) nor Martin Slotty’s Die Erkenntnis Lehre S.A. Kierkegaards (Diss. Friedrich-Alexanders-Universität, 1915), with the result that in effect there was no Kierkegaardian solution, on his view, to the skeptical “problem of the criterion.”  Both the historical contemporary of Christ and someone who came later were equally poorly situated, argued Fehir during the question period, relative to the “unrecognizable” “god in time.”

You don’t actually have to have read anything on Kierkegaard’s epistemology, however, to appreciate that Kierkegaard’s point in Crumbs is not that both the contemporary and someone who comes later are equally poorly situated relative to “the god in time.” It’s pretty clear, I would argue, to anyone who is sufficiently attentive to the text, that Kierkegaard’s point is that both the contemporary and someone who comes later are equally well situated relative to the god in time. That’s the specific technical sense in which Kierkegaard uses the expression “contemporaneousness.” Anyone, according to Kierkegaard can be “contemporaneous” with the god in time, but (and this is an important qualification) that, for Kierkegaard, is the only way one can achieve a proper understanding of religious truth.

Fehir is a religious pluralist. Kierkegaard was not a religious pluralist. There is certainly room, I would argue, in Kierkegaard’s thought for the view that non-Christian religious traditions could embody elements of religious truth, could be on the right track, so to speak. It’s even possible to argue, based on Kierkegaard’s discussion in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript about the “how” that brings the “what” along with it, that the “pagan” who prays passionately enough encounters Christ (i.e., the god in time, or God in the person of Christ) in his prayers, but it’s Christ, for Kierkegaard that one would have to say he encounters, Christ with whom (through his passion) he achieves “contemporaneousness,” not God unmediated by Christ (remember, the Postscript is the postscript to the Crumbs).

Kierkegaard was no religious pluralist. He was, as I argue in an essay in the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of the Epistemology of Theology, a Christian mystic. That is, Kierkegaard believed in the possibility of a mystical communion with God in the person of Christ which he refers to as “contemporaneousness.” Both Hügli and Slotty agree that this encounter with the god in time provides a point of departure, according to Kierkegaard, for a new type of religious knowledge. The “criterion” of truth about which the skeptics were so concerned is what Kierkegaard refers to as “the certainty of faith.” That is, Kierkegaard does have a criterion of truth. It’s just that it is not one that religious pluralists are going to like.


Daniel Mendelsohn said in a recent interview in the Prospect that he came from “a scholarly background.” He’d done a graduate degree in Classics, he explained, before he became a writer; “and in that world, the rule is that you can’t write anything until you’ve read everything.” That’s how I was trained as well. We could use a little more of that mentality in Kierkegaard studies.

Kierkegaard: A Christian Thinker for Our Time

In Conference news, Kierkegaard and Psychology, Publishing News on November 23, 2013 at 5:15 pm
Anthony Rudd

Anthony Rudd

This has been a busy year for Kierkegaard scholars. It’s the bicentennial of Kierkegaard’s birth, so there have been a number of important Kierkegaard conferences. The most interesting one by far, I believe, was the one held at Baylor University from October 31st through November 2nd. The conference, which was part of the ongoing series “Baylor Symposia on Faith and Culture,” was entitled “Kierkegaard: A Christian Thinker for Our Time.”

Lots of conferences purport to address the issue of the relevance of Kierkegaard to contemporary life, but few deliver on that promise. This one did. There were over 400 attendees for the three day event and the topics ranged from “American Religion,” and “Kierkegaard as a Profit to the Church Today,” to “Some Contributions of Kierkegaard to Medical and Psychiatric Practice.” As with so many conferences, there was an embarrassment of riches in the form of many concurrent sessions each with a theme so interesting that it was very difficult to choose from among them.

There’s no way I could summarize all the papers I heard, let alone all the papers presented at the conference, so I’m going to give only a few highlights and direct interested readers to the website for the conference for more complete information.

The highlights for me on the first day were the presentations by Jan and Steve Evans. Jan Evans is a professor of Spanish at Baylor who specializes in the work of Miguel de Unamuno. Unfortunately, I know very little about Unamuno. Fortunately, Evans’ paper gave me a little insight into the respects in which Unamuno was influenced by Kierkegaard. I’m not going to take up space here discussing that issue, however, because Evans has a new book out on that very topic, entitled Miguel de Unamuno’s Quest for Faith: A Kierkegaardian Understanding of Unamuno’s Struggle to Believe (Wipf & Stock, 2013) so if you are interested you should check it out. You can even get it in a Kindle edition!

C. Stephen Evans is one of the most important Kierkegaard scholars working today and an absolutely mesmerizing speaker. I knew his talk, “Kierkegaard on Natural Theology: Why We Can know There Is a God Without Proofs,” would be good, but I was concerned that I might have difficulty following it since it was in the evening. I find it really challenging to listen to more than a couple of presentations in one day. I like to think that it’s because I become so mentally preoccupied with issues raised in those papers that it becomes hard for me to concentrate on new material, but it could well be that I just can’t process that much information in so short a time.

I needn’t have worried, though, that I would have difficulty following Evans’ paper. It was absolutely absorbing in terms of substance and was delivered in such an animated and apparently spontaneous manner that it was as if Steve were holding forth in one’s living room after a particularly pleasant meal. The time flew by.

I understand that there will be a volume of selected papers from this conference. This is going to be a must-buy for every Kierkegaard scholar, not simply because of the enormous variety of wonderful material it will contain, but also because the fact that Kierkegaard believed we could know there was a God is still not widely appreciated by Kierkegaard scholars and this is a serious obstacle to progress in the field. I’m going to return to this issue, in fact, in my second post on this conference where I will examine in some detail one of the papers delivered in a session on Saturday entitled “Kierkegaardian Challenges to Epistemology.”

The highlights for me on Friday were a panel discussion in the morning entitled “Kierkegaard as a Prophet to the Church Today,” and Anthony Rudd’s “Featured Presentation” in the afternoon entitled “Kierkegaard’s Christian Platonism.”

The first session was a panel discussion of Kyle Roberts’ book Emerging Prophet: Kierkegaard and the Postmodern People of God (Wipf & Stock, 2013) (also available in a Kindle edition). Roberts is an associate professor of systematic theology at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul Minnesota and his book is, as one may have gathered from the title, about the significance of Kierkegaard for the contemporary religious phenomenon that is generally referred to as “emergent Christianity.” Roberts confesses in the preface to the book that he is “neither an emerging church leader nor a recognized emergent theologian.” He is deeply sympathetic he explains, however, to the movement and has gotten a great deal of exposure to it through observing the gatherings at an emergent church in Minneapolis known as Solomon’s Porch. The book, he explains, is his “attempt to bring Kierkegaard’s religious thought into dialogue with postmodern expressions of Christianity (i.e., the emergent, or emerging church).”

I was sorely tempted to attend the session on Kierkegaard’s contribution to medical and psychiatric practice because I am very interested in the philosophy of psychology and psychotherapy. Unfortunately, that session ran at the same time as Anthony Rudd’s presentation “Kierkegaard’s Christian Platonism.” Anthony is a dear friend and Plato one of my favorite philosophers, so I couldn’t really pass on that session. I had read an early version of a paper Rudd had done on Kierkegaard and Plato and found it fascinating. I think Plato had a much greater influence on Kierkegaard’s thought than is generally appreciated. Rudd is beginning what I hope will be an avalanche of work on this topic and not only did I want to support my friend, I wanted to get in on the ground floor of this new direction in Kierkegaard scholarship.

Rudd’s presentation was outstanding and generated a very lively discussion afterward because a couple of people in the audience thought Rudd had given short shrift to the distinction Kierkegaard occasionally makes between Plato and Socrates. Since Rudd was a “featured speaker,” his presentation will very likely be part of the volume that will come out of this conference so readers will be able to judge for themselves whether they think this was a weakness in Rudd’s argument. I don’t think it was. I think Rudd’s position was not just convincing but really exciting in that it is certain to generate much more work on this hitherto neglected but clearly very important topic.

I will say more about the conference in a later post.


In Conference news, News from Copenhagen on October 8, 2013 at 5:50 pm

This is embarrassing. I had written in the last post that Pia Søltoft was the director of the Søren Kierkegaard Research Center at the University of Copenhagen. Sylvia Walsh Perkins corrected me, however, in a recent email exchange. Niels Jørgen Cappelørn is the director of the center, she said. He had told her so himself. That makes sense given the penchant the Danish press had for referring to Cappelørn as the director of the center, even after everyone in the U.S. (and one can presume the rest of the world outside Denmark) had been notified that Pia Søltoft was the director of the center. What gave me pause, however, was the fact that Pia had told me herself that she was the director of the center. Or more correctly, she had answered my question as to whether she was the director of the center with an affirmative “yes.” I’d asked her that precisely because there’s been lingering ambiguity about who is the center director (see my inaugural post to this blog). Pia explained that she was, in fact, the director for now, but that she would not be the director for much longer because now that the center had been incorporated into the theology faculty of the University of Copenhagen, the head of the theology faculty would be the director of the center.

I thought I’d do a web search to see what the website for the center said and was surprised to discover that there were actually two websites for the center, the old one, when the center was not affiliated with the university and one that reflects its new affiliation. Neither lists Pia Søltoft as the director though, so I’m not sure what her role is re the center and why she did not explain the situation. Maybe even she does not understand it. Also, I was surprised to learn that the Theology Faculty bio for Pia to which I had included a link in the earlier post no longer works. It worked when I wrote the piece last week, but it doesn’t work now, so I included an older link above.

Kierkegaard Repetitions: An International Conference Celebrating the Bicentenary of Kierkegaard’s Birth

In Conference news, Kierkegaard and Psychology on September 25, 2013 at 3:50 pm
Dinner at the Danish Embassy

Dinner at the Danish Embassy

I just returned from one of the most stimulating and interesting Kierkegaard conferences I have been to in many years. The conference was hosted by the Humanities Center at Johns Hopkins University, with support provided by the Office of the Dean of the Zanvyi S Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, the Max Kade Center for Modern German Thought, and the Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures at Johns Hopkins.

The conference ran all day Friday and Saturday, Sept. 20th and 21. Peter Taksøe-Jensen, the Ambassador of Denmark to the United States, and Katherine Newman, James B Knapp Dean of the Zanvyi S Krieger School of Arts and Sciences gave the opening addresses on Friday after which there were four papers. The very first speaker was Pia Søltoft, the director of the Søren Kierkegaard Research Center (formerly an independent institution but now part of the University of Copenhagen). It was a rare treat for me to see Pia. I had done some translation work for her when I lived in Copenhagen, but despite the fact that I have been back to Denmark many times since I left in 1998, twice even for conferences, our paths hadn’t crossed. If there were fashion awards for scholars, Pia would win one. She is always fabulously turned out!

The title of Søltoft’s talk was “The Transparency of Self-Love? Kierkegaard vs. Frankfurt.” Søltoft summarized both Kierkegaard’s and Frankfurt’s positions on the nature of love and self love and argued that Kierkegaard departed from Frankfurt in that his account of love did not involve an identification of the lover with the interests of the beloved. I pointed out during the question period, however, that I believe this position rests on a conflation of desire and interest. What Søltoft pointed out was that Kierkegaard does not believe that simply giving someone what they profess to want is necessarily loving. Sometimes people desire things that will be injurious to them, hence, according to Kierkegaard, to endeavor to satisfy such a wish is not loving. Søltoft is absolutely right there. It is simply mistaken, I would argue, to take desires to represent interests.

The second presentation was by Hent de Vries of Johns Hopkins. The title of his talk was “The Kierkegaardian Moment: Dialectical Theology and its Aftermath.” De Vries talk, and the first talk of the afternoon “Constantine Constantius Goes to the Theater,” by another professor from Johns Hopkins, Michael Fried were both erudite and informative.

Leonardo Lisi and Jonathan Lear

Leonardo Lisi and Jonathan Lear

Following Fried was Jonathan Lear from the University of Chicago. Lear’s talk was entitled “On a Possible Use of Disjunction in the Late Journals of Søren Kierkegaard, 1854-1855.” Lear began by explaining that his title was meant to be humorous and proceeded to give a really wonderful presentation on the difficulty of understanding what it means to be human, with special emphasis on Socrates and irony. Lear has a new book entitled A Case for Irony that is rich in references to Kierkegaard and hence must reading for serious Kierkegaard scholars. Given the quality of Lear’s book on Freud, which I finished reading just before the conference, I’d say that pretty much anything Lear writes is well worth a read. Lear is a self-professed long-time Kierkegaard lover and often includes references to Kierkegaard in his works.

There were six papers on Saturday. The day began with a paper by Michelle Kosch from Cornell. Her paper was entitled “Moral Ideals and ‘ought implies can.'” The paper opened with what Kosch identified as one of her favorite passages from Kierkegaard:

Where, then, is the boundary for the single individual in his concrete existence between what is lack of will and what is lack of ability; what is indolence and earthly selfishness and what is the limitation of finitude? … Let all the dialecticians convene – they will not be able to decide this for a particular individual in concreto. (VII: 426.)

Ekart Förster and Michell Kosch

Ekart Förster and Michell Kosch

Kosch’s paper opened with an anecdote which, if I remember correctly, goes like this: One day the chair of her department was one his way in to school for a meeting when he fell down the stairs in his house and had, according to his own words, “the wind knocked out of him.” He made it to the meeting, however, despite the accident, and learned only later that he’d actually suffered several cracked ribs and a collapsed lung.

If he had called in to say that he could not, in fact, make it to the meeting, explained Kosch, no one would have questioned the statement. Everyone would have accepted his claim that he was simply unable to make it to the meeting because of his accident. And yet, he had actually been able to make it to the meeting. So where does that leave us with respect to the project of determining the relation between what we can do relative to what we ought to do? This was the subject of Kosch’s fascinating presentation. She said in conversation afterward that she thinks the presentation is too rough at this point to try to publish. If that’s true, then her standards are indeed high because I thought it was extraordinarily rigorous and that the topic it addresses is one of the most important in ethics/action theory, if not in philosophy more generally.

After Kosch came Vanessa Rumble who spoke on Kierkegaard and Schelling.  Rumble’s work is always interesting and this paper was no exception. Next was Lore Hühn of the University of Freiburg. Hühn gave an equally interesting and informative presentation on “negativity” in Hegel, Kierkegaard and Adorno. I enjoyed both these papers immensely, and was particularly pleased to meet Professor Hühn because in addition to being an excellent scholar, she is the president of the International Schelling Society.

David Kangas, of Cal State Stanislaus, gave the last paper before lunch, entitled “The Nowhere of Truth: Kierkegaard’s Discourse on the Occasion of Confession.” Kangas is one of the few scholars giving serious analytical attention to Kierkegaard’s religious discourses. It’s strange that these works have not received more attention given that Heidegger considered they contained more philosophical substance than anything else Kierkegaard had written. Kangas’ presentation, which developed the idea that the act of confession was not really an act at all, but a particular kind of inaction (for want of a better word), was one of the most original and thought provoking of the entire conference.

I was honored to chair the last session of the conference where the first presenter was my long-time friend Edward Mooney of Syracuse. It was Mooney who approached me about translating Kierkegaard for Oxford, and Mooney who did the introduction to that book, so I was very grateful to be able to thank him publicly for his long friendship and support. The title of his presentation was “Dependence and its Discontents: How Self is Sustained by Another” and was a lyrical exploration of its subject in the spirit of Kierkegaard’s own writing. This was not surprising given that Mooney is a published poet as well as a scholar.

The last speaker of the conference was Michael Finkenthal of Johns Hopkins whose paper was entitled “Kierkegaard in Romania before WWII: Reception and Rejection.” There were several scholars from Johns Hopkins on the program. What distinguished Finkenthal, however, was that he is not a philosopher, theologian, or literary scholar–he’s a physicist! He’s in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Johns Hopkins. He’s published extensively in that field, but has somehow also managed to publish several works of philosophy and or intellectual history including one on Cioran, another on Shestov, and a third on Benjamin Fondane.

The highlight of the conference, however, was the dinner on Friday evening. Peter Taksøe-Jensen, the Ambassador of Denmark to the United States, invited all the conference participants to a dinner at the Danish Embassy in Washington. It was by far the best conference dinner I had ever been to and a lovely gesture on the part of the Ambassador and the Danish government more generally. The embassy is absolutely beautiful, decorated in the impeccably understated style specific to the Danes. No one has so well developed a sense of style as the Danes!

Special thanks have to go to the other session chairs: Ruth Leys, Paola Marrati, and Eckart Förster of Johns Hopkins and Kristin Gjesdal of Temple University, and, finally, to Leonardo Lisi of Johns Hopkins, who organized the conference and shepherded the participants about the beautiful campus. I can only imagine how much work must have gone into that!

Ibsen (and Kierkegaard) at Temple

In Conference news, Publishing News on May 12, 2013 at 10:17 pm
Henrik ibsen

Henrik ibsen

One of the nice things about living in Philadelphia is the Greater Philadelphia Philosophy Consortium. The consortium is made up of the philosophy departments of local colleges and universities (including The University of Delaware). The member institutions share information about events of interest to philosophers. Given the number of institutions in the consortium, there’s nearly always something good going on.

On Friday, May 2, I attended a symposium at Temple. Sponsored by Temple’s Department of Philosophy, the Center for Ibsen Studies of the University of Oslo, and The Center for the Humanities at Temple, the two-day symposium was entitled “Staging Skepticism: Ibsen and the Drama of Modernity.” Kristin Boyce and Susan Feagin presented papers on Thursday morning entitled, respectively, “The Method of Doubt and the Willing Suspension of (Dis)belief in Little Eyolf” and “Are Play Scripts Literature?” Frode Helland and Kristin Gjesdal presented papers in the afternoon entitled “The Use and Abuse of Truth: Skeptics and Skepticism in Ibsen,” and “Doubting the Past: Tragedy, Tradition, and Modernism in Ibsen’s Ghosts.”

Unfortunately, I was not able to make the event on Thursday. Fortunately, I was able to make it on Friday and was treated to two very stimulating presentations. The first, by the dashing and handsome Leonardo Lisi, was entitled “Ibsen and the Metaphysics of Doubt,” and the second, by the lovely and sophisticated Toril Moi, was entitled “Hedda’s Silences: Reading, Philosophy, Theater.”

It’s easy for those of us in the fields of philosophy and theology delude ourselves that we have a monopoly on scholarly work on Kierkegaard. This symposium demonstrated clearly, however, that Kierkegaard is of great interest to people in the field of literary theory. I don’t know to what extent Kierkegaard’s thought figured into the presentations the first day, but references to Kierkegaard were much in evidence on day two.

Lisi, whose first book was entitled Marginal Modernity: The The Aesthetics of Dependency from Kierkegaard to Joyce (Fordham, 2012) is hard at work on two new book projects, both of which involve Kierkegaard.

There was a stimulating discussion after Moi’s paper. It ranged far and wide, but the part that I thought would be of particular interest to readers of this blog concerned a problem of translation. Danish has two words that can be translated as “silent”: “stille” and “tavs.” The former is used to refer both to nature and to people. That is, one speaks in Danish of a wood (i.e., forest) being “stille,” just as one could in English refer to it as “still.” But “stille” can also be used to describe people. The expression “ti stille” means “be quiet,” or “be still,” as we also often say in English.

Tavs,” on the other hand is never used to refer to nature alone. There is, as Moi explained, an “element of agency” to it. People, not nature, are “tavs.” The Ferrall-Repp dictionary defines “tavs” as “silent, hushed, discreet,” and the expression “ubrødelig taushed” as “inviolable secrecy.”

This is important because during the discussion after Moi’s paper, one of the participants in the seminar pointed out that while Moi had referred repeatedly in her paper to Hedda’s “silences” in Ibsen’s play Hedda Gabler, Hedda is not really silent at all but speaks throughout, and at least occasionally on precisely the topics on which Moi had described her as “silent.” Moi conceded the point but then explained that although Hedda speaks throughout the play, her speech fails to reveal important truths that are relevant to the plot.

To my mind, Moi didn’t need to concede anything to her critic. Hedda is “silent” in the sense in which we often use the expression in English. That is, she is not forthcoming with information that is important to the circumstances of the play. The Oxford English Dictionary offers the following as the second definition of “silent”: “Omitting mention of or reference to, passing over or disregarding, something in narration; containing no account or record.” “Unmentioned, unrecorded; marked by the absence of any record” is also given as a definition.

Another point that may interest readers of this blog. One of the participants mentioned to me during the break between Lisi’s and Moi’s papers that she was curious concerning whether Ibsen’s plays would have been performed in Norwegian in Norway. Many people don’t realize, I suspect, that though Ibsen was Norwegian, he wrote in Danish. Even fewer people realize, however, that all Norwegians at that time wrote in Danish. Danish was simply the written language of Norway. That’s why modern Norwegian (in contrast to “new Norwegian”) is known in Norway as “bokmål.” Modern Norwegian, which is effectively Danish with a few spelling changes, is the language of books (bøker). There were a few spelling differences even in Ibsen’s day, but so few that one could get all the way through a book from that period without realizing that it was actually Norwegian and not Danish. (New Norwegian, or nynorsk, is an attempt to reconstruct a common Norwegian language from the many dialects that were spoken in Norway before the Danes took over there in the sixteenth century.)

So yes, Ibsen wrote in Danish, but that’s basically the same thing as saying he wrote. Even today Danes and Norwegians rarely bother to try to speak one another’s language. Modern Norwegian, though it sounds very different from Danish, is more like a dialect of Danish than a different language.

Finally, I may have said this before, but it bears repeating. One of the benefits of learning Danish is that when you get very good at it, you’ll be able to read Norwegian. I keep forgetting that. I had such a good time at the symposium, though, that I’ve decided to read some Ibsen!

Kierkegaard and Traditionalism

In Conference news, Publishing News, Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship on November 17, 2012 at 6:45 pm

As I write this scholars of religion are milling about the book exhibit at the annual meeting at the American Academy of Religion in Chicago. The AAR meeting is one of my favorite academic conferences. There’s something for everyone there. From Wiccans to the Eastern Orthodox. I decided not to attend this year’s meeting, however, because I’m not on the program and that means I’d have to foot the bill myself. There are always a multitude of interesting papers, more than I would ever be able to get to even if none of them ran concurrently. I think what I miss most of all though is the book exhibit.

The book exhibit is wonderful. Every major academic and scholarly publisher is represented, including many foreign and esoteric presses. I’ve taken, in recent years, to carrying my Kindle with me through the rows of exhibitors. If I see a book I like, I quickly check to see if it is available on Kindle. Not only are Kindle versions often cheaper than the regular or hardcover editions (even with the substantial conference discount), but they do not add to the bulk of the luggage I have to tote back home.

Some books though, are simply not the same on a Kindle, or other electronic reading device because they’re not just text, but aesthetic objects. Such a book is The Christian Spirit from World Wisdom publishers. It’s sort of a modern version of an illuminated manuscript. No one has more (both in quantity and in quality) beautiful books than World Wisdom publishers. And no press has a more congenial staff. The year I bought The Christian Spirit I struck up a conversation with the people who were staffing the World Wisdom booth and the longer I stood there and talked, the more books they gave me. Yes, they gave me books. I can’t remember how many books I bought, somewhere around a half a dozen, I think, but they gave me at least that many for free. The conversation would turn in the direction of a subject covered in a book I had not bought, and no sooner than I would shake my head in disappointment that I really could not afford to buy yet another book, would I find it thrust into my hands for free if I would simply promise to read it.

I love the people at World Wisdom. When I arrived home and began to peruse some of my new treasures, I kept coming upon the terms “traditionalism,” and “perennialism.” The two terms are used more or less interchangeably to refer to the same movement. The movement was founded by René Guénon, Frithjof Schuon, and Ananda Coomaraswamy. It’s a religious, or spiritual, movement that is at once pluralistic and conservative. Traditionalists believe that all religions have their origin in the same transcendent source–God, but that each must be respected for its own inherent integrity. It has unfortunately been associated with rightwing movements in Europe, which is probably part of the reason it is not better known in the U.S. It’s far from clear, however, that the core beliefs and values of traditionalism cohere with such movements.

What is clear, however, is that traditionalism is in at least some vague sense politically conservative. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, one of the leading proponents of contemporary traditionalism quotes Schuon as asserting that the worst king is better than the best president. That remark gave me pause, not simply because one doesn’t expect to hear such an assertion from a contemporary Western scholar, but because it sounded so remarkably like Kierkegaard.

“A mediocre ruler,” asserts Kierkegaard, “is a much better constitution than the abstraction of 100,000 growling non-human beings” (“En maadelig Regent er en | meget bedre Forfatning end dette Abstractum, 100,000 brummende U-Msker.”  [NB4 :114 1848, SKS 20, 339]). “Every movement that really wants to be progressive,” he asserts, “must have its origin in one thing–it must be clear that God is involved, that the whole thing really issues from him” (Enhver Bevægelse, der virkelig skal være et Fremskridt, maa udgaae fra Een – at det kan være tydeligt, at Gud er med i Spillet, saa det Hele egl. udgaaer fra ham [NB4 :114 1848, SKS 20, 339]).

“Nasr had cited Kierkegaard, at the beginning of a talk he gave at a conference entitled “Tradition in the Modern World, as one of the bad guys, one of the modernist thinkers (which means “bad guy” to traditionalists).

It’s not surprising Nasr would put Kierkegaard in the class of modernist thinkers. Most people who don’t know much about Kierkegaard probably think about him that way. Even Alasdair MacIntyre presents Kierkegaard that way in his otherwise excellent book After Virtue. Most serious Kierkegaard scholars know, however, that such a view of Kierkegaard is mistaken (cf., e.g., Kierkegaard After MacIntyre). Kierkegaard’s political conservatism is, in fact, the source of a great deal of embarrassment among Kierkegaard scholars who think of themselves as politically progressive.

It’s time such scholars (and I place myself among them) acknowledged, however, that despite what we like to see as the potential of Kierkegaard’s thought to contribute to a progressive political ideology, it is unlikely that Kierkegaard would have approved of such a project himself. No “progress” is possible for Kierkegaard without God and fitting God into any organized movement, political or otherwise, is a project that Kierkegaard all too often speaks as if he believes is doomed to failure.

A monarch is a better regent, for Kierkegaard, than a mob because a monarch can, as an individual, have a personal relation to God, while a mob cannot. It’s not clear, however, whether all collectives can be fairly characterized, from Kierkegaard’s perspective, as “mobs.” Despite his bitter disappointment with “Christendom,” he seems to hold out some hope that there could be such a thing as a community of believers.

What would such a community look like? Is it something the traditionalists would recognize? Is that what they also are trying to effect in the modern world? The traditionalists’ rejection of modern secularism and their call to return to an explicit acknowledgment of what they view as man’s spiritual essence certainly coheres with the substance of Kierkegaard’s thought. It ought to be attractive as well to progressives in its pluralism. There is, I would argue, the potential for a great deal of fruitful scholarship on the relation between Kierkegaard’s political views and the contemporary traditionalist movement.

Bruce Kirmmse’s Shame

In Conference news, Uncategorized on September 7, 2012 at 2:49 pm

Bruce Kirmmse was a key player in the controversy over Joakim Garff’s book SAK (Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography). Kirmmse did the English translation, which inexplicably included many of the errors that Peter Tudvad had already exposed in the original and indeed appeared calculated to cover up some of the apparent plagiarism in the original.  (See previous blog post, as well as, “Rot in the Ivory Tower.”)

Kirmmse also played attack dog, authoring some articles defending the book in the Danish media.  One of them was a scurrilous, defamatory hit piece against me, “M.G. Piety’s Shame,” published in the September 23-29 2005 Weekendavisen.  (I don’t use those labels lightly; when I saw the article, I consulted with a well-known defamation attorney in Philadelphia, who concluded that the article was defamatory. I didn’t pursue litigation because of a lack of funds (the lawyer didn’t want to take the case on a contingency fee, because he didn’t foresee big damages).

The article has never appeared in English.  I present it below.

I’ve decided to republish the piece here because Kirmmse was recently selected as the keynote speaker at the Seventh International Kierkegaard Conference, sponsored by the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf’s College this coming June. I believe Kirmmse’s scurrilous role in the controversy over Garff’s book makes him unfit to be honored in this way.

Two preliminary points: (1) An astonishing aspect of Kirmmse’s piece is that Kirmmse never reveals anywhere in it that I entered the controversy as a result of the fact that the errors and plagiarisms Tudvad had exposed in the Danish edition of Garff’s book appeared uncorrected in his English translation that was published a year later.  Instead, he accuses me of ”resurrecting” Tudvad’s attack, as if out of thin air and out of spite.  That’s deliberately misleading. I knew about the controversy from the beginning but chose to write about it only after it became relevant to people who were forced to rely on Kirmmse’s translation.

(2) Kirmmse also never revealed in the piece his own self-interest. Not only did he do the translation of SAK, he was being considered to head up the new translation of Kierkegaard’s journals, a project that had been conceived by Niels Jørgen Cappelørn, one of Garff’s staunchest defenders, and over which he, Cappelørn, had control in that he could restrict access to the new Danish editions of the journals on which the translation would be based.  Many Weekendavisen readers were likely deceived into thinking that Kirmmse was a disinterested American scholar commenting on the controversy.  Instead, Kirmmse was most likely seeking to deflect attention from Tudvad’s well-documented criticisms of Garff’s book – that is, to deceive and deflect attention from his own complicity and duplicity in his translation of SAK. (See the details in “Rot in the Ivory Tower”) as well as to curry favor with Cappelørn, who had come under heavy criticism for his own role in the SAK controversy.

I realize that I could be accused of not being disinterested in how I’ve translated Kirmmse’s article. So I asked Kirmmse via an email dated 8/22/2012 for the English version of his piece (he didn’t write the article in Danish originally – it was translated by someone else for Weekendavisen).  Kirmmse never replied to my email.  So I emailed him again on 8/29/2012. This time I sent him my version and asked if he had any issues as to its accuracy. Again, he failed to reply. So on September 4, I tried to call him. The only number I had for him was the general number for the History Department at Connecticut College, where he is now emeritus.  The secretary there said she didn’t have a number for him, not even his home number.  She informed me that because he traveled a lot, email was the best way to contact him and reassured me that the email address I had for him was correct and that he was good about responding to email.   Apparently, he doesn’t want to respond.  In any event, I’m confident that I’ve translated this piece accurately.  

M.G. Piety’s Shame

by Bruce Kirmmse

Peter Tudvad expresses surprise, in an article entitled, “SAK Redux” that I, despite my generally positive review of his Kierkegaards København (Books, 2 September 2005) have also been critical of his work. I won’t repeat my review here, but merely point out that anyone who read my article in this paper as well as my longer review in Kierkegaardina 23 (Copenhagen, 2004), will quickly see that in both cases I expressed both genuine praise and serious criticism.

My praise concerns Tudvad’s industry and rigor with respect to uncovering some concrete details that were unknown to earlier scholars. My criticisms were directed at his methodology. His belief in 19th century positivism causes him to believe that one can “discover” the historical truth, and that this exists eternally uninfluenced by “interpretation.” As an historical scholar, I find Tudvad’s methodological assumptions untenable and unsuited to both historical scholarship in general as well as to its sub discipline of biography in particular. Tudvad’s unreflective positivism has, to put it bluntly, caused him to make a category mistake, with the result that he misunderstands the character of biography and it was on the basis of this misconception of the work of biographical authors that he initiated his attack on Garff’s biography of Kierkegaard.

A result of this category mistake was that Tudvad was not entirely clear about what he was doing when he initiated his attack on Garff’s biography. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said about Marilyn Piety, who decided over the course of the summer to resurrect Tudvad’s year-old attack. Piety knows exactly what she’s doing. She’s an assistant professor of philosophy at a technically oriented educational institution in Philadelphia, has a good knowledge of Danish and had published some articles on Kierkegaard. Her real specialty, however, is the writing of polemical exposés of what she believes is “nepotism” and “corruption” in the academic world, in particular in connection with Danish universities.

It’s clear from her article in The Philosophers’ Magazine (nr. 31, 2005) as well as from her subsequent pieces in the Danish press and her contributions to the public debate on the internet, that she doesn’t have anything new to say. It’s clear that when she ventures out on thin moral ice with, for example, her repetition of Tudvad’s claim of academic misconduct or plagiarism, she attempts to protect herself by asserting that the accusation of academic misconduct “was not my accusation,” that she is “only repeating” Tudvad’s accusations. This morally questionable mode of attack makes it possible for her to do damage while at the same time distancing herself from it. It is worth noting that she earlier conducted herself in precisely the same manner.

In the beginning of the 1990s, when Marilyn Piety lived in Copenhagen and was working on her dissertation at the University of Copenhagen, the rector of the university, the neurologist Kjeld Møllgård, was accused of scientific misconduct in connection with a twenty-year old study. The charge was taken seriously and brought before the Board of Ethics (etisk råd) the body that has jurisdiction over such cases in the Danish academic world. They transferred the case to the Committee on Scientific Misconduct [Udvalget Vedrørende Videnskabelig Uredelighed] who thoroughly investigated it and concluded that all charges against Møllgård proved “groundless.”

Even though Piety lived in Copenhagen in 1994 and thus must have been aware of all the facts surrounding the case–i.e., both the charges against Møllgård and the fact that Denmark’s highest authority for academic ethics had found all the charges “groundless”–she nevertheless publicized them in a full-page article in 1997 (15 August 1997) entitled “Nordic nadir for nepotism” in the Times Higher Education Supplement. She mentioned the charges against Møllgård to support her own charge of pervasive corruption in the Danish academic world, but failed to mention that he had earlier been cleared of all charges. She formulated, in fact, her presentation of the case in such a way that the reader got the impression that the question of Møllgård’s guilt was still an open one. Piety’s behavior in this case was so extreme that the Committee on Scientific Misconduct wrote to the  Times and demanded they print a retraction which was then printed in the paper on the 17th of October 1997.

So far as anyone knows, Piety has never herself issued a retraction or made any public apology for having spread false accusations of scientific misconduct on the part of Rector Møllgård, even though she knew he had been cleared of these charges three years earlier. And even though the charges of academic misconduct that have been advanced against Garff have never reached the stage of a formal investigation (there was no reason for such an investigation), two prominent Danish academics, Thomas Bredsdorff and the director of the Center for Søren Kierkegaard Research, Niels Jørgen Cappelørn, investigated Garff’s work in the ligt of Tudvad’s charges and declared publicly that the charges were groundless.

Garff has, in addition, publicly reacted to some of Tudvad’s criticisms, refuted some and promised to take others into account, particularly those concerning concrete historical facts, when the book appears in a new edition. Piety must have known about Garff’s public reaction (both his disagreement with elements of Tudvad’s critique and his willingness to correct some of the errors in a new edition of the work), and she undoubtedly was aware of Professor Bredsdorff’s and Centerleader Cappelørn’s public refutation of Tudvad’s complaint [of academic misconduct]–just as she knew when she wrote her article in 1997 that Møllgård had been cleared of all charges in 1994.

But just as she failed to issue either a public retraction or an apology for her backstabbing of Møllgård in 1997, so is it unlikely that she will do so in connection with her backstabbing of Garff in 2005. As she puts it herself “they are not my accusations,” “I’m merely restating” what others have said. This is a clear pattern in Piety’s behavior. Her method of backstabbing others through insinuation is morally condemnable and should not be taken seriously. Has she no shame at all?

After having unapologetically smeared Møllgård eight years ago by simply “repeating” charges made against him by others, she is now attempting to do the same thing to Garff in an effort to support her claim that there is “something rotten in Denmark” especially in the Danish academic world. Danes have long been sensitive to these words of Shakespeare’s and this is perhaps the reason that the Danish media were willing to publicize Piety’s views without checking her sources. The best way to react to such behavior is perhaps to answer with another quotation from Shakespeare: “Oh shame, where is thy blush” [Hamlet, III iv].

Some additional points:

–At the end of his article, Kirmmse argues that the entire Danish media somehow failed to spot my alleged errors. They didn’t spot them, I submit, because there weren’t any as the Danish media well knew because they had been covering the controversy over the biography for approximately a year by the time my first piece on it appeared.

–Kirmmse never disputes the correctness of any of the points I made in the material I published on Garff’s biography of Kierkegaard. It’s curious as well, that he attempted to discredit my efforts to inform readers of the problems with the English translation of the  book by charging that my points were not “new.” As I explained above, I decided to “resurrect Tudvad’s year-old attack” when the English translation of Garff’s book came out a year after the original Danish edition and I discovered that the problems Tudvad had identified in that edition were in the English edition as well. Kirmmse’s charge that my claims were not “new” was simply an attempt to deflect attention from that fact by invoking a well-known and widely discredited rhetorical technique frequently invoked by the public relations industry and discussed, for example, in Rampton and Stauber’s excellent Trust Us, We’re Experts (pp. 68-69). It is never an indictment of a claim, or argument, to point out that it is not “new.” Many excellent arguments (e.g., those in favor of freedom of expression and equal protection under the law) are not new, but they are excellent arguments nonetheless and bear repeating despite their lack of novelty.

–Kirmmse criticizes me for my pointing out that the charges against Garff’s book were Tudvad’s, not mine. It would have been inaccurate, however, if I had said they were mine. In fact, it would have been plagiarism if I’d repeated Tudvad’s points in print claiming that they were my own. Far from being “morally questionable,” as Kirmmse charges, my identification of the points as having come from Tudvad was morally obligatory. Tudvad was the one who deserved credit for identifying the problems with Garff’s book and I endeavored to be conscientious in making that clear.

–Kirmmse is correct when he claims that I never issued “either a public retraction or an apology” for my purported “backstabbing” of Møllgård in my 1997 article. The Times pressured me repeatedly to do this, but I stood my ground. I wasn’t mistaken in my presentation of the Møllgård case and I wasn’t sorry I had presented it.

–As for checking facts, neither Kirmmse nor Weekendavisen can have checked the facts in the Møllgård case, because if they had, they’d have discovered that the charges of scientific misconduct had been brought against Møllgård, not twenty years after the fact as Kirmmse suggests, but while Møllgård was working as a post doc at the University of California at Berkeley. The investigation had been inconclusive.

–Yes, the Danish Committee on Scientific Misconduct “cleared” Møllgård of all charges relating to the case. I didn’t know about this, however, because it was not widely publicized. Had it been, someone might well have pointed out that a Danish committee did not have the authority to clear someone of charges that had been brought by a U.S. committee.

–It’s unlikely Kirmmse even read my article “Nordic nadir for nepotism.” If he’d had he’d have seen that it was not an attack on Møllgård. Møllgård receives only passing mention in the piece. The subject of the article was, as the title indicates, nepotism in higher education in Denmark, and the point of the mention of Møllgård was that it would be difficult for him to do anything about this problem because an unresolved case of purported scientific misconduct in his past would make him vulnerable to blackmail. In fact, the reason I was aware of the case, which was twenty years old, as Kirmmse rightly pointed out, by the time it made the Danish newspapers, is that someone had apparently dredged it up in an effort to sabotage Møllgård’s candidacy for the position of rector of Copenhagen University. Hence my speculation that the scientific misconduct case would make it difficult for Møllgård to take a hard line on corruption within the university, was well supported.

–Compare the tone of my article “Nordic nadir for nepotism” to the tone of Kirmmse’s “M.G. Piety’s Shame” and ask yourselves which article is more properly described as a piece of character assassination. Kirmmse so misrepresented the content of my article that either he condemned me for writing an article that he had not in fact read and in this way violated academic and scholarly ethics, or he had read the article but deliberately misrepresented its content and in this way violated pretty much every code of ethics.

So anyway, there you have it. Not Kirmmse’s most distinguished work, but perhaps more relevant than some of his other pieces to the issue of whether he’s an appropriate keynote speaker for an international conference on the centennial of Kierkegaard’s birth. It’s a shame the library didn’t pick someone more appropriate, someone such Edward Mooney, the current president of the Søren Kierkegaard Society, or Robert Perkins or Sylvia Walsh Perkins, both of whom have devoted their lives to Kierkegaard scholarship and produced outstanding work, or C. Stephen Evans who’s work on Kierkegaard is unsurpassed, or Alastair Hannay whose Kierkegaard translations for Penguin are some of the best that have ever been done, or, finally, Peter Tudvad, who in a very Kierkegaardian way, has endured a great deal of personal abuse and repeated ad hominem attacks in the service of the truth.

Kirmmse’s Cover-Up

In Conference news, Publishing News on August 23, 2012 at 10:53 am

This article originally appeared in October 8-10, 2005 weekend edition the online political journal Counterpunch under the title “Rot in the Ivory Tower.” In view of the fact, however, that Bruce Kirmmse has been chosen as the keynote speaker for the Seventh International Kierkegaard Conference that will be sponsored by the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College this June, I thought readers of this blog might like to know a little more about him.

Rot in the Ivory Tower

Bruce Kirmmse, the translator of the English edition of Joakim Garff’s once famous, now infamous book, Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography (Princeton 2005) reached back eight years to draw into the debate concerning the problems with the book an entirely unrelated article and misrepresented the content of that article in order to assassinate the character of one of the book’s critics? (“M.G. Piety’s skam” [M.G. Piety’s shame], Weekendavisen 23-29 Sept. 2005 [scroll to the bottom). Kirmmse argues that an article I published in The Times Higher Education Supplement in 1997 was nothing more than an attempt to smear the rector of the University of Copenhagen, Kjeld Møllgård, through the mention that he had been involved in a scientific misconduct case when he had been a post doc at the University of California at Berkeley. Kirmmse asserted that Møllgård had been cleared of charges of misconduct by a Danish committee. He did not explain, however, that the charges had been brought against Møllgård by an American committee and that a Danish committee thus had no authority to clear Møllgård of them.

I was careful in my article to point out that whether Møllgaaard was guilty or innocent was irrelevant to my point.  I wrote: “Whether or not Professor Møllgaard was guilty of scientific misconduct in 1971, a natural reluctance to have the issue paraded through the press could make him vulnerable to pressure from those academics against whom similar charges have been made” (“Nordi nadir for nepotism,” The Times Higher Education Supplement, August 15, 1997, page 14).  In addition, Kirmmse misrepresented the point of my article. The article was not about Møllgaard but about issues others, including the Danes Maj Cecilie Nielsen and Niels Chr. Nielsen, had raised concerning problems with higher education and scholarship in Denmark.

Why would Kirmmse want to resurrect the Møllgård controversy? Could it be he is trying to destroy the credibility of the one person who might expose that he was complicit in Garff’s plagiarism to the extent that he should have recognized when Garff had copied material from a book that he, Kirmmse, had earlier translated into English. Could it be that he fears I might even be able to produce evidence that would raise suspicions that he made a systematic attempt, when he translated Garff’s book to obscure the extent to which Garff had appropriated text from other authors?

The biography was praised by reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic. It was awarded the prestigious Georg Brandes Prize and the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen’s Literary Prize. John Updike described the 813 page English translation as “monumental” (“Incommensurability: A New Biography of Kierkegard,” New Yorker, 28 March 2005), and other reviewers described it as “magisterial” (Publishers Weekly, 20 Dec. 2004), “superb” (The Wall Street Journal, 3 Feb. 2005), “masterful” (Times Literary Supplement, 28 January 2005) and “brilliant” (The Washington Post, May 29, 2005).

Garff may indeed be brilliant. He weaves together the facts he presents in an enormously entertaining and original way. Unfortunately, Garff’s originality isn’t restricted to his theses, but extends, according to another Danish Kierkegaard scholar, Peter Tudvad, to some of his “facts.” Not only that, Garff’s originality does not extend to all of his text, some of which Tudvad has shown was actually lifted from earlier biographies of Kierkegaard (“SAK–an unscholarly biography of Søren Kierkegaard”). Tudvad revealed back in 2001 that SAK was riddled with factual errors and that some of the text had been plagiarized from earlier works on Kierkegaard (Jyllands-Posten 16 Aug. 2001 and Universitetsavisen no. 14, 2001), yet the errors and plagiarisms he exposed were never corrected.

One of the works from which Garff frequently copies material is Jørgen Bukdahl’s, Søren Kierkegaard og den menige mand (Munksgaard, 1961). Kirmmse translated this work into English only a few years ago (Soren Kierkegaard and the Common Man, Eerdmans, 2001), yet if one compares Kirmmse’s translations of the passages Garff has copied from Bukdahl with his earlier translations of these same passages, peculiar dissimilarities emerge. Kirmmse routinely elects to change his choice of terms from his earlier translation, as in the cases, for example, of “fængsles” which he translated first as “imprisoned” in Bukdahl and later as “incarcerated” in Garff where Garff copied from Bukdahl (p. 33 in Garff and p. 41 in Bukdahl), “Brødremenighed,” which he translated as “Society of Brothers” in Bukdahl and then as “Congregation of Brethren” in Garff, where Garff copied from Bukdahl (p. 11 in Garff and pp. 31-33 in Bukdahl) and “gudelig vækkelse” which he translated as “religious awakeninigs” in Bukdahl and as “godly awakenings” in Garff where Garff copied from Bukdahl (p. 32 in Garff and p. 20 in Bukdahl).

Kirmmse felt compelled, apparently, to add the adjective “internal” to his translation of Bukdahl’s “sammenholdet” so that the translation reads “internal solidarity” (p. 20), but no longer felt such a compulsion when he translated the same expression simply as “solidarity” in Garff ‘s appropriation of the passage from Bukdahl (p. 32). Kirmmse omitted a phrase, “the so called ‘Gehülfen,’” from his translation of Bukdahl (p. 20), but apparently repented of this omission when he translated Garff’s appropriation of the same passage four years later (p. 32). The effect, of this change of heart is, once again, to obscure to readers of the two translations that Garff has copied directly from Bukdahl.

Translation is, of course, not an exact science. It would be unreasonable to expect a translator to adhere rigidly to what he had at one time preferred to a possible alternative translation. Translators usually endeavor to be consistent, however, in their translation of the names of groups and religious movements. To depart so routinely as Kirmmse does from what only four years ago he thought were the most defensible translations of the phrases and terms in question gives one pause. The concatenation of these examples might even incline the reader to the view that Kirmmse made a deliberately erroneous translation of Garff’s “aften” as “afternoon” [the correct translation would be “evening”] on page 154 in order to obscure the fact that Garff had again copied the passage in question from an earlier work on Kierkegaard, this time from Flemming Chr. Nielsen’s Søren Kierkegaard og Aarhus (1968) which also has “aften.” After all, Kirmmse’s knowledge of Danish is excellent, so it is difficult to find any other explanation for why he would make such an elementary mistake.

There’s another error that is difficult to explain. Garff mistakenly substituted an “r” for an “s” in a passage from Bukdahl. The result is that Garff’s text reads:  “there were rumors that [the social agitator J.C. Lindberg] was to be incarcerated [fængsles] and executed [henrettes] on Christiansø, a notorious prison island” (p 33), whereas it should read, as Kirmmse’s translation of Bukdahl does in fact read, that Lindberg “was to be imprisoned [fængsles] and sent into exile [hensættes] to…Christiansø” (p. 41).

Kirmmse should have caught the mistake. Not only had he translated Bukdahl’s correct characterization of the rumors that circulated about Lindberg, he is an historian who specializes in nineteenth-century Danish history. Kirmmse even discussed Lindberg in own book, Kierkegaard in Golden Age Denmark (Indiana, 1990). It’s possible, of course, that he had simply forgotten what Bukdahl had written. What is harder to understand is that, as an historian, he would have forgotten the facts surrounding the Lindberg case. There is, as I pointed out in an article I published earlier on the controversy a big difference between being exiled and being executed (“Some Reflections on Academic Ethics,” a copy of this article may be downloaded from the list of publications on my website). Could it be that Kirmmmse did recognize the mistake, but failed to correct it out of a fear that the corrected text would be more easily identifiable as having been lifted from Bukdahl?

This question is impossible to answer definitively. I asked a few experienced translators, who are members of the American Translators Association, for their opinion on the significance of the irregularities in Kirmmse’s translations of Garff and Bukdahl. Most said that there were too few examples (I gave them only the three terms: “incarcerated,” “Congregation of Brethren” and “godly awakenings”) to prove Kirmmse had tried to conceal Garff’s plagiarisms. Translators often change how they translate particular terms, they explained, if the new choice can be defended as an improvement on the earlier translation. One translator, Stephen Slater observed, however, that this would not explain the change from “imprisoned” to “incarcerated,” because in this case, “there is minimal to no semantic difference.” Several remarked that “godly awakenings” was clearly inferior to “religious awakenings” as it was less idiomatic and relied, as one pointed out, on a “false cognate.” Most also agreed with Slater’s observation that

“[a]s to the change from ‘Society of Brothers’ to ‘Congregation of Brethren,’ it is odd that a translator would alter his previously published translation of a group’s name. Even if it is a clear improvement (in which case it is something of an embarrassment for the translator), it is an irritation for those who read the literature, since there are now two English translations of the group’s name rather than one.”

Whether Kirmmse deliberately tried to conceal Garff’s plagiarisms or not, he had an interest in doing so. Kirmmse was recently appointed by the Søren Kirkegaard Research Center at the University of Copenhagen, where Garff is also employed, to direct the project of translating Kierkegaard journals and papers into English. That appointment was still pending when he agreed to translate Garff’s book. This fact was enough for several of the translators whose opinions I canvassed to agree with Lawrence Schofer, Ph.D., that there was enough evidence to raise suspicions that Kirmmse might have tried to conceal Garff’s plagiarisms.

The strongest statements, however, came from two translators who approached the issue from a slightly different angle. They focused not on the irregularities across the two translations, but on Kirmmse failure, as Ted Crump put it, “to raise a red flag about the plagiarism…I can recognize translations I did twenty years ago,” Crump continued, “Kirmmse must certainly been aware of this [i.e., the plagiarims] and did not act ethically, in my opinion, especially in light of his vested interest in the appointment.” Ingrid G. Landsford agreed. She observed that,

“[s]ince Bruce Kirmmse did the Bukdahl and Garff translations within four years of one another the plagiarized passages in the more recent source must have seemed familiar to him. As a scholar, he would also have known that Garff had violated scholarly procedure in omitting proper attribution. He then had several choices and did not do what I hope most scholars would have done.”

Readers of the English translation may not care that much of Garff’s text actually originated from the pens of other Danish authors, so long as the information it contains is correct. Unfortunately, much of the information in Garff’s book is not correct. Names are wrong, dates are wrong, all kinds of information that is important to understanding what kind of person Kierkegaard was, such as how much money he gave to charity, how many servants he had, how extensive was his conflict with the newspaper The Corsair, is simply wrong. Garff was forced to admit this when Tudvad came with the relevant documents in 2001 and then again in 2004 after Tudvad discovered yet more damaging material while doing the research for his own critically acclaimed book, Kierkegaards Købebenhavn (Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen) (Politikens Forlag, 2004). Yet Garff failed to make any corrections to the book.

This isn’t the only plagiarism case to make Danish headlines in the last year. Frank Esmann’s biography of Henry Kissinger was exposed in October of 2004 in the newspaper Berlingske Tidende as substantially plagiarized from the American Walter Isaacson’s biography (Simon and Schuster, 1992). Danish scholar Steffen Krogh determined that there were at least 350 passages in Esmann’s book, one more than twenty lines long, that were copied verbatim from Isaacson, yet both the University of Southern Denmark and the University of Copenhagen declined to investigate the issue of whether Esmann’s book constituted plagiarism (“Esmann plagierede 350 gange” [Esmann plagiarized 350 times], Berlingske Tidende 21 July, 2005).

The two cases, taken together, were likened by Dorte Hygum Sørensen, writing in the newspaper Politiken, to “The Tamil Case,” the immigration scandal that toppled the government of Danish prime minister Poul Schlüter back in 1992 (Politikken 21 August 2005). Judging from the number of articles on the subject that appeared in the Danish media, the comparison is an apt one. There were more than fifty articles on the Kierkegaard controversy in the summer of 2004 and at least that many more in the summer of 2005 after Danes got word Garff had failed to correct the text of the English translation of his book.

Kirmmse could be in trouble if the controversy spreads to the U.S. where Garff’s error-ridden and plagiarism-ridden book has done well for its publisher, Princeton. Of course there are few people who would be in a position to expose the respects in which Kirmmse’s translation makes the plagiarized passages harder to identify than they were in the original. I am one of those few. Could Kirmmse have been attempting to destroy my credibility before I could come with the evidence of his complicity in Garff’s crimes?

That question, like so many in this case, is impossible to answer definitively. I am thus going to do for Kirmmse what he did not do for me. That is, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that all the irregularities and anomalies in his translation of Garff’s book may have innocent explanations.

There is one charge, however, that can unequivocally be made against Kirmmse. Tudvad received an official reprimand from his boss, Niels Jørgen Cappelørn, the director of the Kierkgaard Research Center, for publicly exposing the problems with Garff’s book and was later driven out of his job. Kirmmse  knew that Tudvad’s criticisms of  Garff’s book were well founded and that it was perfectly appropriate of Tudvad to bring this issue before the public, given that Garff had refused to make any of the necessary corrections. Kirmmse knew this and yet he failed, throughout the controversy to come to Tudvad’s defense.

Tudvad is just being nitpicky, was what many Danes initially seemed to think. Danes are pretty tolerant of laxness in scholarly standards. I’m as big a proponent of tolerance as the next person. I draw the line, though, when the career of an innocent person becomes a casualty of the tolerance of incompetence. That line, to offer a variant on the statement of Lessing that Kierkegaard is fond of quoting, is just a little bit too wide for me to be able to make the leap across. Kirmmse could do it though. He sat by silently while Tudvad’s career was sacrificed to preserve Garff’s reputation.

That was just wrong.

(Postscript: A friend and fellow Kierkegaard scholar remarked to me recently that controversy surrounding Garff’s biography of Kierkegard did not seem to have hurt Tudvad’s career after all in that since the controversy, Tudvad has gone on to become one of the most important public intellectuals in Denmark. The latter part of that observation is correct. Tudvad is one of the most important public intellectuals in Denmark. Unfortunately, the life of a public intellectual in Denmark, if he or she does not have a university post, is somewhat precarious. According to the Danish journalist Niels Lillelund, however, Tudvad’s involvement in the Kierkegaard biography controversy, or more correctly, Niels Jørgen Cappelørn’s characterization of Tudvad’s involvement, amounted to “a death sentence in the salons, … so if Tudvad had  counted on making a carrier in the vaulted halls of the academy, he can forever after spare himself the trouble” [“Niels Jørgen Cappelørn og den gode tone” (Niels Jørgen Cappelørn and decorum) Jyllands-Posten 18 August 2005]. And indeed, Tudvad does not have an academic post, in contrast to Garff, who remains a member of the Theology Faculty at the University of Copenhagen.)