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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.


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.

Clarification of an Ambiguity in Philosophical Crumbs

One of the highlights, for me, of the recent conference on Kierkegaard at Johns Hopkins University, was meeting Jonathan Lear. Lear is a distinguished professor in the Committee on Social Thought and in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Chicago. He is also a practicing psychoanalyst. I have an interest in psychoanalysis and, in fact, am a member of the Philadelphia Jung Seminar. It is a rare treat to meet such a distinguished philosopher who is interested in Kierkegaard, and a rarer one still to meet a philosopher who is a practicing psychoanalyst!

I discovered, in conversation with Lear, that he is teaching a course this fall on Kierkegaard and that he is using my translation of Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Crumbs He wrote to me recently with a question about the text to which I did not immediately have an answer. “On p. 108 of your text,” he wrote, “Climacus says, ‘(This is the untruth of paganism.)’  I don’t think I understand.  Do you have any words of wisdom on that claim?”

The question about this passage from Crumbs is a good one, so I thought I would share my answer to Lear with readers of this blog. I wasn’t sure myself what that parenthetical comment meant, so I went to the online version of the collected works of Kierkegaard in Danish to check my translation against the original text and I discovered that I had, in fact, left something out. There is a word in the original Danish that does not appear in the translation, but which really ought to be there. I don’t know how I failed to include it, but I did. Here is the Danish text followed by my translation with the missing word inserted

Enhver anden Aabenbarelse var for Kjærligheden et Bedrag, fordi den enten først maatte have foretaget en Forandring med den Lærende (men Kjærligheden forandrer ikke den Elskede, men forandrer sig selv) og skjult for ham, at dette var fornødent, eller letsindigt være forblevet uvidende om, at hele Forstaaelsen var en Skuffelse (Dette er Hedenskabets Usandhed).

Any other revelation would, for love, be a deception, because it would either first have had to undertake a transformation of the learner and hidden from him that this had been necessary (but love does not alter the beloved, rather it alters itself), or it would have had to allow him to remain blissfully [letsindigt] ignorant of the fact that the whole understanding had been an illusion. (That is the untruth of paganism.)

“Paganism,” for Kierkegaard (and I believe many of his contemporaries) is a synonym for the Greeks. Kierkegaard often speaks of the Greeks (i.e., the ancient Greeks) as “lighthearted” because they do not have a concept of sin. Sin, according to Kierkegaard/Climacus is what separates human beings from God. SIN is the difference, the main difference. But the Greeks, of course, because they did not have the concept of sin, did not understand that there was an obstacle to their coming to understand the eternal, unchanging truth. They assumed they could just think themselves into it.  They thought they could “understand” the truth, but really, according to Kierkegaard, their understanding was an illusion (“untruth”).

I think that’s what Kierkegaard means in that passage. It’s possible, I suppose, to get that meaning even without the inclusion of “letsindigt/blissfully,” but I think it is harder, so I am grateful to Lear for his question and will add the missing word to the list of corrections I’m planning to send to Oxford.


News and Forthcoming Posts…

This week was the last week of our fall term here at Drexel, so things have been pretty hectic. I’ve got some news though and several forthcoming posts I thought I ought to let you know about. First the news. Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs (Oxford, 2009) is now available in a Kindle edition. I wrote in an earlier post that it was available in an electronic edition, but the Kindle edition is superior to that earlier electronic edition.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m a big fan of Kindle, and of electronic books in general. I’ve just discovered iBooks and although I’m not as big a fan of iBooks as of Kindle books, I do like how the pages turn in iBooks and that I can read books on my iPod Touch (you can do that with Kindle books too, I just haven’t tried it yet). The wonderful thing about electronic books is that they’re cheap, they take up no space, and they are a huge boon to scholarship in that they are searchable, and copying and pasting chunks of text into notes or scholarly articles really speeds up both research and writing.

I’m excited to see Crumbs on Kindle because the one thing I did not like about that edition was that it had no index. The Kindle edition makes an index superfluous, though. Why worry about an index when you can search the whole book for any word or phrase you want? The downside of the Kindle edition  is that it doesn’t have the page correlations to the latest Danish edition of Kierkegaard’s collected works, Søren Kierkegaards Skrifter, the way the paperback does, so if you plan to do serious scholarly work on either Repetition or Crumbs you will probably want to have both the paperback and the Kindle edition.

The Princeton editions of these works are not yet available in electronic format, so not only does the Oxford edition give you a better translation, it gives you one that is much more suited to scholarly work. If you have any doubts about the relative quality of the Oxford vs. Princeton translations, you can check out an excerpt of the former on The Smart Set website, or just download a sample onto your Kindle (you do have a Kindle, don’t you?).

Now for the forthcoming posts. I’ve been wanting to do a post on Joakim Garff’s talk at the AAR meeting in San Francisco two weeks ago. He made some good points that deserved a wider audience.  Garff graciously sent me a copy of the talk, so I’m going to do a post soon that will summarize and comment on it.

I also plan to do a post that will consist of an excerpt from the preface of Peter Tudvad’s book Stadier paa antisemitismens vej: Søren Kierkegaard og jøderne (stages on the way of anti-Semitism: Søren Kierkegaard and the Jews) (Rosinante, 2010). I translated the preface into English for a talk I gave for the Judaic Studies Program here at Drexel. The talk was very well received and made me think that other people might like to check out the preface as well.

Finally, I ran across a review of Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology (Baylor, 2010) in The Review of Metaphysics, so I plan to do a post that will summarize the review and provide some comments on it.

So there’s lots of good stuff coming soon!