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“Kierkegaard and German Thought”

“Kierkegaard and German Thought” was the title of a conference held last Thursday and Friday at the University of Oregon. The conference was sponsored by the Department of German and Scandinavian and organized by Michael Stern, an associate professor in the dept. It was one of the most interesting and stimulating conferences I’ve been to in years. The speakers included David Kangas and Vanessa Rumble, both highly esteemed Kierkegaard scholars and regulars on what one might call the Kierkegaard circuit (I was on the program as well, but modesty precludes my referring to myself as “highly esteemed”). All the papers were excellent though and it was particularly stimulating to me to hear papers from people with whose work I am less familiar. The other speakers were (in the order of their appearance on the program): Gantt Gurley (Oregon), Charles Scott (Emeritus, Vanderbilt), Michael Stern (Oregon), Michelle Kosch (Cornell), Daniel Conway (Texas A&M), Leonardo Lissi (Johns Hopkins), the aforementioned David Kangas and Vanessa Rumble, and Jeffrey Librett (Oregon).

Gurley (who seems to know as many languages as the fabled Thorleifur Gudmondson Repp) spoke Thursday on Kierkegaard and “The Concept of Byrony.” Scott, whose paper was entitled “The Force of Life and Faith,” spoke on Kierkegaard and Niezsche. Michael Stern, whose paper was entitled “Clouds: The Tyrany of Irony Over Philosophy,” spoke about Socrates in Aristophanes and Kierkegaard. Michelle Kolsch, whose paper was entitled “Fichte and (Wilhelm) on Practical Reasoning,” made a convincing case Fichte was the philosopher Kierkegaard had in mind when writing the second volume of Either/Or, rather than, as some have argued, Kant or Hegel. Daniel Conway examined Kierkegaard and Nietzsche on resentment. I talked about Kierkegaard and German mysticism. (Yes, you will notice I’ve left off mentioned the paper titles. I feared that was becoming monotonous.)

Friday began with Leonardo Lisi’s paper “Antigone’s Silence: Tragedy and the form of History in Kierkegaard.” (Okay, I’m back to paper titles. So long as I’m luxuriating within these parenthesis, I’d like to add that Lisi and Librett have two of the finest speaking voices I’ve ever heard. I’d listen to them talk about anything just to hear those lovely voices. Plus, they’re both scary smart, so they’d be worth listening to no matter what they were talking about). Kangas’s (I think the simple s’ is an affectation. I mean, would anyone say “Kangas’ paper”?)  paper was entitled “Of Spirit: On Being Human in Kierkegaard’s Late Discourses.” Kangas’s paper was a particular favorite of mine, not because it was better than the others but because so much of it was directly relevant to my own interests, both in Kierkegaard and in life more generally. Librett went next, though he was listed as last in the program. His paper was entitled “Modalities of Anxiety in Kierkegaard and Heidegger” as was so expertly crafted that it actually made me, if only briefly, want to read Heidegger.

My hands-down favorite paper, however, was Vanessa Rumble’s “Stirrings: Fichte and Kierkegaard on Fate, Freedom and Fault.” The paper was an interpretation of Fear and Trembling as a meditation on trauma that focused more on the various accounts of weaning in the book than on the treatments of the Akedah (for those of you unfamiliar with this term, it refers to the binding of Isaac). I found it absolutely compelling.

The campus of the University of Oregon is beautiful. It is was gorgeous and green, lush with spring folliage and many of the buildings appear to be in the architectural style known as “prairie school.” (The picture above is of Stern at the podium of the room in which the conference was held. Okay, there’s more of the room than there is of Stern, but the room was just gorgeous. The picture doesn’t do it justice.) Conference goers were housed at the charming Excelsior Inn just next to the campus and treated to a delicious gourmet breakfast each morning in the inn’s restaurant. There was a banquet the last day at an excellent restaurant called Marché. The wine was wonderful and the company was even better. I’d like to thank all the folks at U. of Oregon for their hospitality, but especially Mark T. Unno from the Department of Religious studies, who introduced my paper. Professor Unno gave me the loveliest introduction I’ve ever received (which included some nice words about this blog).

I’m going to lobby U. of Oregon to do this every year!

Kierkegaard as Psychologist: On Passion

It never rains but it pours, eh. No posts here for quite a while and then two in rapid succession. The thing is, I came across an article on positive psychology that I thought would be of interest to Kierkegaard people, so I thought I would pass it along via this blog. The article is “What about Passion?” by Kathryn Britton and its on the Positive Psychology News Daily website. Dr. Robert Vallerand, the incoming president of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA) defines passion, according to Britton, as “a strong inclination towards a self-defining activity that people love, that they consider important, and in which they devote significant amounts of time and energy.”

All passions, Dr Vallerand explains however, are not created equal. There are what he calls “harmonious passions” and “obsessive passions.” “Harmonious passions” are defined as “freely chosen for the pleasure that comes from the activity, a concept very similar to intrinsic motivation. Harmonious passion is characterized by autonomy and flexible persistence. People pursue these activities because they want to, not because they want to please someone else or outshine someone else or avoid being outshone.”  “Obsessive passions,” on the other hand, are defined as “connected to extrinsic motivations — wanting to please others or to maintain a certain status that is important to self-esteem.” Not surprisingly, harmonious passions tend to have a positive effect on the development of the self and obsessive passions tend to have a negative effect.

What is missing from Britton’s article is any discussion of whether the passions in question actually differ from each other as passions, or whether it isn’t merely the objects that determine whether the passion in question is positive or negative. This is an issue for Kierkegaard as well. Kierkegaard tends to extol  passion in general as prerequisite to becoming a Christian, or a fully developed self in the positive sense. His emphasis is on the object of one’s passion rather on the nature of the passion itself. I’ve heard Kierkegaard scholars debate the issue, however, of whether there could actually be positive versus negative passions along the lines suggested by Vallerand, and apparently others in the positive psychology movement.

I’m inclined to agree with Kierkegaard here. If you look at the description above of the difference between harmonious and obsessive passion you’ll see a conspicuous difference in the objects relative to each. The objects of harmonious passions are pursued for their own sake whereas the objects of obsessive passions are pursued as a means to some other end (e.g., wealth, fame, etc.).

Another way of putting this would be to say that the real object of an obsessive passion is not the apparent object, but is the end with respect to which the apparent object is only a means. That is, someone with an obsessive passion for playing the violin well, would really be pursing wealth or fame rather than the art of violin playing. Kierkegaard would argue, of course, that wealth or fame are simply not adequate objects on which to base one’s passion and that’s why a passion for them is going have a negative effect on the development of the self.

Still, I think the question of whether there is actually some kind of difference in these passions as passions is an interesting one. It might help to explain, for example, why some people seem constitutionally predisposed to base their passions on one sort of object or the other. The explanation may not lie in the nature of the passion in question, but in some other aspect of the self. Still, it is a very interesting issue and I thought Kierkegaard people might want to read the article.

I found the article, by the way, through a tweet. Yes, that’s right, I’m on Twitter now. I kept seeing articles about how great Twitter was and then a friend recommended I check it out, so I did. You should try it to if you haven’t yet. You don’t have to tweet yourself, you can just follow other people or organizations. There are some very good philosophical tweeters. Just type “philosophy” into the search box on the “who should I follow” screen and all kinds of interesting things will come up.

I won’t be doing another post on Tudvad’s book for a while because I’m behind on Fear and Dissembling. I’m not taking a hiatus from blogging though. My next post will simply be an excerpt from FD. I’ve translated quite a few interesting articles already, so I’ll take a part of one of those to and throw it up as a little “smagsprøve” as they say in Danish. I’d like to take this opportunity, as well, to thank all the many authors who’ve given me permission to reprint their articles. Not a single author I’ve approached has refused. I’m very grateful to them all!