Getting Kierkegaard Wrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…. How can one say that nature, despite being immediately present, is historical, if one does not view it from this ingenious perspective? The difficulty comes from the fact that nature is too abstract to have a dialectical relationship, in the stricter sense, with time. Nature’s imperfection is that it has no history in any other sense, and its perfection is that it has the intimation of a history (namely that it has come to be, which is the past; and that it is, the present) (p. 143, emphasis added).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“Disciple” vs. “Follower” in Philosophical Crumbs

imagesI’m teaching an upper-level seminar on Kierkegaard this term. The text for the course is my own translation of Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs (Oxford, 2009). We’re reading Crumbs right now. One of my students, Victoria Godwin, asked what I thought was a very good question about the translation, so I thought I would share my answer with readers of this blog.

The Crumbs, as most readers will remember, looks at what Kierkegaard (under the pseudonym Johannes Climacus) asserts are two exhaustive and mutually exclusive interpretations of how people are related to the truth. The first interpretation he presents is what he calls the “Socratic” one. According to this interpretation, people are assumed basically to possess the truth, but to have contingently forgotten it. They thus need only to remember the truth, not to have it imparted to them by a teacher. This, of course, is the famous Platonic “doctrine of recollection,” or anamnesis. According to this interpretation, the role of a “teacher” in helping a person to remember the truth is merely what Kierkegaard calls “assisting” (105). The teacher and the student/learner/pupil are essentially equal.

The problem, according to Kierkegaard, is that the Socratic interpretation makes both the point in time at which a person “recollects” the truth and the “teacher” who helps occasion the “recollection” unimportant. This is not, in itself, a problem. The Eleatics, and in fact many people throughout the history of philosophy right up to the present have no problem with this. Even Kierkegaard does not suggest that this interpretation of our relation to the truth is inherently problematic. It’s a problem only for a reader who is already committed to an account of existence that attributes decisive significance to the point in time at which one comes to understand the truth, and requires that this understanding be facilitated by a “teacher” of equally decisive significance. This, of course, is precisely what Christianity does and Kierkegaard’s note at the end of the first chapter of Crumbs makes clear that he assumes his readers would immediately recognize that.

That is, Crumbs is a straightforwardly theological work despite what are obviously the disingenuous protestations of Climacus, the pseudonymous author. Hence the “learner” (Lærende) referred to in Kierkegaard’s explication of the “Socratic” interpretation of the relation of the individual to the truth, becomes the “disciple” (Discipelen) on the “alternative” view. From then on, the discussion concerns the relation between the “the god” and “the disciple.”

So back to my student. Victoria asked why sometimes the person whose relation to the truth was in question was referred to as a “learner” and other times as a “disciple.” The answer, of course, is that those two different characterizations appear in the original text. The reason this might be difficult to appreciate is that Howard Hong’s translation of Philosophiske Smuler (Philosophical Fragments, Princeton, 1985) obscures this fact. David Swenson’s translation of Smuler from 1936 translates Discipelen consistently as “disciple,” but Hong’s translation consistently renders Discipelen as “follower.”

“Follower,” isn’t dead wrong, of course, but it’s misleading to the extent that it obscures the explicitly theological nature of the work. Hong appears to have deliberately desired to do this in that he inserts a footnote to explain his preference for “follower.” “The Danish term Discipel,” writes Hong, “means ‘pupil,’ ‘learner,’ ‘apprentice,’ ‘follower,’ and ‘disciple.’ Here and elsewhere in Fragments (except for references to the relation of teacher and pupil or learner), ‘follower’ is most appropriate” (Philosophical Fragments, p. 281 note 38). Hong gives no justification, however, for his preference for “follower” over the English cognate “disciple.” He just claims “follower” is better.

“Disciple” is, actually the third of the three possible translations listed in the Ferrall-Repp A Danish-English Dictionary from 1845 (Hong would appear to have been relying on a 20th-century Danish-English dictionary). The first two are “pupil” and “scholar.” “Follower” is not listed as an acceptable translation, and the context of the appearance of this term in Crumbs makes it clear that “Disciple” is the most appropriate of the three suggested translations. “Pupil” is too close to Kierkegaard’s “Lærende” (i.e., “learner”) and would thus obscure the distinction he was trying to make with the the two terms “Lærende” and “Discipelen,” and “scholar” is obviously wildly inappropriate. So Hong’s claim that “follower” is a better translation of “Discipelen” than is “Disciple” is just wrong. It is worse because it makes the work less obviously theological than it is. Contemporary Western society has become so secular that that in itself makes it difficult for readers to appreciate how thoroughly religious was all of Kierkegaard’s authorship. The Hong translation of Philosophiske Smuler simply exacerbates this problem.

My guess is that Hong hoped to appeal to a broader audience by making the work less obviously theological. I fear that may amount, however, to throwing the baby out with the bathwater in that it encourages misinterpretations of what is perhaps the most central work in Kierkegaard’s corpus. This takes us into the area of translation theory. Should a translator adapt a work to appeal to a specific audience, or should he or she endeavor to represent the work in a manner that most closely approximates its original character? I’m a proponent of the latter approach. If a translator thinks he can improve on an author’s work, I think he should go write his own book!

Kierkegaard’s Christian Epistemology

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.

Postscript

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.