M.G. Piety

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Kierkegaard’s Conservatism

In Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship, Uncategorized on January 22, 2017 at 4:52 pm

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Much has been made of Kierkegaard’s political conservatism. Daphne Hampson asserts, for example, that “Kierkegaard held that it was for the king to govern; that was his calling. Thus in many ways politically and socially conservative, Kierkegaard was by sentiment adamantly opposed to what he sarcastically referred to as government by the numerical; democracy” (Kierkegaard Exposition and Critique, 209).

Adorno is even more critical. He claims Kierkegaard stubbornly maintains the “givenness” of the social order, that he is “socially conformist” and thus ready to lend a hand to “oppression and misanthropy. … Sometimes Kierkegaard’s way of speaking of the equality of men before God,” Adorno asserts, “assumes the character of involuntary irony,” as when he observes in Works of Love that “‘The times are gone when only the powerful and noble ones were men and the other people slaves and serfs’ [Works of Love, 74]. The irony cannot escape Kierkegaard’s attention,” Adorno continues, “He uses it as a medium of his religious paradox” (“On Kierkegaard’s Doctrine of Love“).

People who know a little Danish history will realize, however, that it is unlikely Kierkegaard considered that remark in the least ironical. This point was driven home to me with particular force recently when I watched the Danish movie A Royal Affair. The movie is about the love affair between Caroline Mathilde, queen consort of the Danish King Christian VII, and Johann Friedrich Struensee, the personal physician to the mentally-ill monarch. Struensee was a German Enlightenment thinker who managed, though his influence with the royal pair to institute a number of progressive political reforms. The movie is fantastic, as nearly all Danish movies are, in my experience. I cannot recommend it too highly, both for its intrinsic qualities and for the insight it can give scholars into the historical context into which Kierkegaard was born.

“From 1770 to 1772, Struensee was de facto regent of the country, and introduced progressive reforms signed into law by Christian VII. Struensee was deposed by a coup in 1772 after which the country was ruled by Christian’s stepmother, Juliane Marie of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, his half-brother Frederick and the Danish politician Ove Høegh-Guldberg.” (Wikipedia). Most of Struensee’s progressive reforms were repealed after the coup, but many were reinstated by his son Frederik VI.

Frederik VI was a very progressive monarch. He went even further than reinstituting the progressive reforms for which Struensee had been responsible: He freed the serfs in 1788! Since Kierkegaard’s own father, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard (1756-1838) had been a serf, Kierkegaard’s reference in Works of Love to the fact that the times were gone when only the powerful and noble were men and the other people slaves and serfs must have had special poignancy for him. Had it not been for the progressive views of Frederik VI, Kierkegaard might have been a serf as well and begun and ended his days on the same desolate Jutland heath where his father had herded sheep as a boy.

Frederik VI was the first Danish monarch to select a motto in Danish rather than the traditional Latin. His motto was “Gud og den retfærdige sag” (God and the just cause ). Kierkegaard followed suit by requesting permission to submit his dissertation in Danish rather than the Latin that was required at the time.

Frederik VI ruled Denmark for the first 26 years of Kierkegaard’s life. Given that Kierkegaard lived to be only 42, that means Frederik VI ruled Denmark for most of Kierkegaard’s life. Unfortunately, Frederik became more conservative after the French defeat in the Napoleonic Wars in 1814 and the loss of Norway by Denmark. Still, the Danish society in which Kierkegaard grew up was marked by the reforms of his early years, most notably, again, the abolition of serfdom.

There is no denying that Kierkegaard was politically conservative. That does not mean, however, as it has so often been taken to mean, that he was indifferent to the material conditions of those less fortunate than himself. As I observed in my last post, Peter Tudvad has already shown in his book Kierkegaards København, that Kierkegaard was far from indifferent to the plight of the poor and the needy. Kierkegaard’s undeniable political conservatism was not a symptom of indifference to the situation of such people. It was more an expression of cynicism concerning the ability of what he called “the crowd” to govern themselves humanely. In any case, his conservatism seems less reprehensible when understood in historical context.

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.


Kierkegaard’s Journals and Notebooks–OH NO!

In Publishing News, Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship, Translation issues on June 1, 2016 at 1:04 pm

I have only the first volume of the new English translations of Kierkegaard’s Journals and Notebooks published by Princeton University Press and the reason I have that volume is that I was given a free copy by the Scottish Journal of Theology when I agreed to review it for them. The editors include some scholars, such as Alastair Hannay and Vanessa Rumble, who have an excellent command of Danish. I was suspicious, however, of the rate at which they were cranking out the translations.

Translation is hard work. Good translations take some time to produce. It was hard for me to imagine that anyone could translate all of Kierkegaard’s journals and papers in the short time Princeton had projected it would take and actually do a decent job. The first volume in the Princeton series appeared in 2007. Since then, nine of the projected 11 volumes have appeared. That’s more than a volume a year.

I’ve not made a serious study of these new translations of Kierkegaard’s journals, since I did my review of the fist volume. I generally work with the original Danish versions that are available for free in searchable editions online. I’m working on a paper on humor in Kierkegaard right now, however, and I ran across a passage from one of Kierkegaard’s journals that I wanted to use for my article. The late, and venerable George Kline taught me that even if one has an excellent command of a particular language, if there exists a definitive English translation of a work in that language from which one wishes to quote, it is incumbent upon one to use the language of the translation. It’s a courtesy to the reader. If everyone who knew German, for example, did his own translations of Kant when quoting Kant, those poor souls who did not know German would have a hard time locating the passage in question. So I figured that I should use the wording of the new Kierkegaard’s Journals and Notebooks and dutifully looked up the passage that was, fortuitously, in the one volume of KJN that I happened to own. The translation reads as follows:

Humor is irony taken to its maximum vibration. Although the Xn aspect is the real primus motor, there are still people in a Christian Europe who have not come to describe more than irony, which is why they have also been unable to practice the absolutely isolated humor that subsists in the person alone.

That sounds kind of weird, doesn’t it? What is “the absolutely isolated humor that subsists in the person alone”? That doesn’t even sound like English, does it? I worked for many years as a translator when I lived in Denmark. I also know a little bit about translation theory. If I ever teach translation, or translation theory, which I hope one day to do, I am going to drill home to my students that translations should never sound awkward unless the original is awkward.

As I said, translation can be very difficult. It took me several days to come up with my translation of the passage from Repetition that I referred to in the blog post from 5 December 2015 Since, however, a translation is going to be around for a very long time, haste in seeing it to press is unadvisable. How does that saying go: “Translate in haste, repent in leisure”?

Here is the Danish for the passage in question:

Humoren er den til sin største Vibration gjennemførte Ironie, og omendskjøndt det Χhristelige er den egl. primus motor, saa kan der desuagtet findes i et christeligt Europa Folk, som ikke er kommen til at beskrive mere end Ironien, og derfor hell. ikke have kunnet gjenemføre den absolut-isolerede, personlig-ene-bestaaende Humor, d. 4 Aug. 37.

Here is my translation:

Humor is irony taken to its maximum vibration. Even though Christianity [det Xhristelige] is the genuine primus motor [prime moving force], it is still possible to find peoples in Christian Europe who have come no further than describing irony and who are hence incapable of achieving the absolutely isolated, uniquely personal humor.”

My wording of the first sentence is identical to the wording of KJN. After that, the two translations diverge. There is nothing in the Danish that corresponds to KJN’s “aspect.” That’s an attempt on the part of the translator, or translators, to make sense of Kierkegaard’s “det Xhristlige” which translates literally as “the Christian” where “Christian” functions as an adjective. The thing is, there is no noun that it qualifies, so the translator simply added “aspect” without indicating that it was added. That in itself is no great crime (though it is a crime, interpolated material should be enclosed within brackets). The problem is, that it is actually misleading rather than helpful.

All genuine humor, according to Kierkegaard, has its foundation in Christianity. I won’t try to defend that claim here, suffice it to say in this context that it does. Kierkegaard is not talking here about some aspect of humor being Christian. How could some “aspect” of irony or humor be the “prime mover” that propels irony into the territory of humor? The prime mover has to be fundamental to the thing in question, not merely an “aspect” of it.

The “a” in front of “Christian Europe” is literally correct, but it’s unnecessary. What other kind of Europe was there? Danish, like German, uses articles more often than does English so to include them all in a translation is not only unnecessary, it yields a translation that is unidiomatic.

“[D]escribing” is a toughie. In fact, what it means is “describing” in the sense of “describing an arc.” That is, it means something like “exhibiting,” or better, “performing.” In fact, I think it means something closer to “understanding,” I was, therefore, tempted to use “understanding instead of ”describing.” What decided me against that was the fact that an astute reader could figure that out by him, or herself. Generally, a translator should not interpret the text for the reader unless that is the only way of making it comprehensible. There are often instances in which that is the only way to make a text comprehensible, but this did not seem to me to be one of them.

“Folk” unequivocally refers, however, to “a people,” and not to “people.” It’s a stab at the Danish people as a group. They are the “Folk” in “Christian Europe” to which Kierkegaard is snidely referring. If he had meant “people,” he’d have written “mennesker” (or “Mennesker” given that he was writing in the nineteenth century).

The worst problem with this translation, however, is the very last part: “the absolutely isolated humor that subsists in the person alone.” Really? That’s the best this august translation team could come up with? It doesn’t even sound like English. The minimum criterion for an English translation, it seems to me, is that it should sound like English, even if the translator needs to be rather free in the translation in order to achieve that effect. What is bizarre about the KJN version of this passage is that it is not, in fact, as one might expect, a literal translation. The Danish is: “den absolut-isolerede, personlig-ene-bestaaende Humor.” That translates literally as: “the absolutely isolated, uniquely personal humor.” Really, I kid you not. “[P]ersonlig” you can probably figure out for yourself, and “ene-bestaaende” translates as “unique.” Don’t take my word for it. Type it (or the contemporary “enebestaende”) into Google translate.

My guess is that the translators elected to use “subsists in the person alone” rather than the literal “uniquely personal” because Kierkegaard’s text has “personlig-ene-bestaaende” rather than “personlig enebestaaende.” That is, Kierkegaard appears to want to highlight the root words of “enebestaaende”: “ene” (which according to Ferrall-Repp means “alone, by oneself, solely”) and “bestaaende” (which according to Ferrall-Repp means “to consist in; to consist – be composed of; to subsist, exist, continue, endure”).

This shows the limits, however, of translation because while Kierkegaard can emphasize the parts of “enebestaaende” without losing the whole, a translation cannot do this. The translators, in this instance, appear to have elected to emphasize the parts, with the effect that they have lost the whole. Not only have they lost the whole, they’ve diminished what one could call the music of the text in the process. It is the chief sin of the Hongs’ translations, I believe, that they very often lose the music of the originals. Unfortunately, this would appear to be a problem with these new translations of Kierkegaard’s journals as well.

I don’t mean to suggest here that all the text of the new KJN is as bad as this particular passage. It isn’t. It is very disappointing, however, to see stuff like this in new translations when the point of producing new translations is precisely to make improvements on earlier translations.

Erasmus Montanus

In Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship, Uncategorized on May 16, 2016 at 5:57 pm
Untitled 2

Scene from a production of Erasmus Montanus by Bagsværd Amatørescene, Photographer: Flemming Mortensen

There are two places in Kierkegaard’s published and unpublished works where he refers to the earth being “as flat as a pancake.” The first is in his review of H.C. Andersen’s failed attempt at a novel, Kun en Spillemand, that was published under the title of From the Papers of One Still Living, and the second is in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Crumbs

The second reference will no doubt be familiar to Kierkegaard scholars. It is in that passage where Kierkegaard, or Johannes Climacus, the pseudonym under which Kierkegaard published the Postscript, illustrates his claim that the mere utterance of an objective truth is not in itself evidence that the person who utters it is sane. “Let me recount an incident,” he begins, “that without any kind of adaptation from my side, comes straight from an insane asylum.” He then tells the story of a man who escapes from this asylum and on his way into town, finds a little skittle ball lying on the ground. He absent-mindedly picks up the ball and puts it in the tail pocket of his coat. As he walks, the ball gently hits him, explains Climacus, on his “a – “ and presumably, the fact of it’s being a ball, reminds him every time it strikes him that the earth is round. Since he knows that everyone agrees that the earth is round, he decides that the best way to convince people that he is sane is to go about saying continually ”the earth is round!”

“And indeed is not the earth round?” ask Climacus. “Does the asylum crave yet another sacrifice for this opinion as when everyone believed it to be as flat as a pancake?” (Hannay, 164). This reference to the earth being “flat as a pancake” is clearly an allusion to Ludvig Holberg’s play Erasmus Montanus. I cannot remember how I learned this. I could have sworn it was in an explanatory note in either one of the English translations of the Postscript or in the text as it appears in the new Søren Kierkegaards Skrifter. But I have searched in vain for such a note, though SKS does acknowledge that the first appearance of this phrase in Kierkegaard’s works, the one in From the Papers of One Still Living is an allusion to the Holberg play.

Since there are at least two references to this play in Kierkegaard’s works, I felt that I should read it. I didn’t own a copy, however, so I did a google search, in the hope that I could find a copy online. I did. Not only did I find a copy, but I found a download able copy in English translation!

The play is hilarious. The Danes like to claim Holberg as one of their own, but in fact, he was Norwegian. The thing is, Denmark ruled Norway back then, so Norwegians were viewed, more or less, as Danes, particularly if they distinguished themselves the way Holberg did. I’m telling you this because the play is clearly set in Norway, in that it concerns a people in a little mountain village and, well, there are no mountains in Denmark. Back in the 18th century, when the play is set, residents of Norway who wanted a university education typically attended the University of Copenhagen. So Rasmus Berg, the eldest son of a prosperous farmer does just that.

I don’t know if all the instruction was in Latin back then, but at least some of it was. Students were typically taught to argue in Latin and showy Latin disputations were part and parcel of university life. Rasmus Berg returns to his little mountain village as Erasmus Montanus, determined to impress everyone with his new learning. Unfortunately for him, the local deacon succeeds in convincing the poor townsfolk, none of whom know a word of Latin, that he is beating the pants off Berg, or Montanus, in Latin disputation even though the Latin he purports to be speaking is nothing but gibberish, bits and pieces of Latin grammar, and other odd words and phrases that he strings together to form nonsensical sentences that he utters with such passionate conviction that everyone feels sorry for poor Berg, or Montanus, for being shown up that way in public.

That isn’t the worst of it, though. The townsfolk are so scandalized when Berg, or Montanus, informs them that the earth is round, that his future father-in-law withdraws his permission for Berg to marry his daughter. Berg, or Montanus, is forced, finally, to recant his statement that the earth is round in order to win the hand of his ladylove.

Interesting, eh? Not only was Kierkegaard understandably taken with the play, the whole thing is kind of a metaphor for his life. There are lines in it about how the earth must be flat because everyone but Montanus thinks it is, and that truth is in numbers. There is the general backwardness of the mountain people that mirrors what Kierkegaard thought of as the backwardness, or philistinism, of the people in the little market town of Copenhagen. And then there is the fact that Montanus had to surrender his calling as an intellectual, to betray his learning, to betray what he knew to be true, in order to enjoy the pleasures of domestic life. This, as we all know, was a sacrifice Kierkegaard could not himself make.

I have come to believe that there are likely many more allusions to this particular play in Kierkegaard’s authorship than have yet been recognized as such. If you can find one yourself, please send it along. Perhaps we can write a collective paper on the influence this play on Kierkegaard’s works, and if there are enough of us, then everyone will have to admit that our claims are correct –– right?

(Hannay, who is generally an excellent translator of Kierkegaard, has inexplicably rendered the Danish Keglekugle as “skittle bowl” instead of “skittle ball.” Perhaps this is some kind of Anglicism with which I am unfamiliar. The object in question is indisputably a skittle ball, however, as both earlier English translations of the Postscript indicate, no matter what people in the UK call it.)









On Repetition

In Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship, Translation issues, Uncategorized on February 17, 2016 at 3:23 pm



I’m doing another independent study on Kierkegaard. We’re reading Repetition. My student was having trouble understanding Kierkegaard’s concept of repetition and so he asked me if there were anything about the Danish term that would help him to make more sense of it. It had not occurred to me that knowing something about the Danish might make the concept clearer. I’m so used to thinking about Kierkegaard in Danish, that I forget, sometimes, just how difficult it can be to understand him in translation. In fact, knowing the Danish term for “repetition,” and its meaning can be a significant help, I believe, in understanding Kierkegaard’s concept of it.

The Danish term for “repetition” is gentagelsen (or Gjentagelsen in 19th-century Danish). It’s a compound expression made by combining at tage (“to take”) with the prefix gen, that itself comes from the adverb igen (which means “again”). So gentagelse literally means “to take again.” And that, in a nutshell is what, I would argue, it means for Kierkegaard. The book Repetition is essentially about temporality, about how time flows unceasingly onward, wresting from us every precious moment of our existence like an irresistible tidal force that consigns them immediately to the unrecoverable ocean of the past. It is about how time, unchecked, in a sense deprives us of our lives. We swim furiously toward the future in an effort to save ourselves. But the effort exhausts us, so that we are finally swallowed up by the waves.

That’s a pretty bleak perspective on human existence, I know. The point of Repetition, however, is to make clear that this is not our inevitable fate. The point is that we must learn to check the flow of time, to stop it. Repetition is a movement forward, but it is not one of flight. “Repetition and recollection,” explains Constantine Constantius, “are the same movement, just in opposite directions, because what is recollected has already been and is thus repeated backwards, whereas genuine repetition is recollected forwards (p. 3 Kindle Edition).

How does one “recollect” something “forwards” – by making it present again. I often use the example of my obsession with fountain pens to try to make this concept clear to my students. I have a lot of fountain pens, mostly vintage ones that I buy on eBay. I go through periods where I buy a lot of pens. The problem is that the more time I spend searching for vintage pens, the less time I spend using, and hence appreciating, the pens I have. I have had to learn this over and over again.

I have some truly wonderful pens. The prize of my collection is a Pelikan 100, made sometime between 1934-38. It is just gorgeous, in almost mint condition, and writes like a dream. And yet, I have begun to lust after the new Pelikan M101N red that is a reproduction of the old 100N. I have to keep reminding myself that I would not like it so much as I think, that I don’t like any new thing so much as I like genuine vintage things. I have to force myself to get off eBay and go pull out my actual vintage 100 pen. When I do that, each time I do that, I am delighted anew by what a wonderful piece of engineering my old 100 is, what a beautiful object. Each time I write with it, I am charmed anew by the thought of its past. I wonder if perhaps it belonged to some Jewish scholar, or to a member of a resistance group such as Uncle Emile, the one to which the journalist Ruth Andreas-Friedrich belonged. Sometimes I think perhaps it might have belonged to a Nazi, and then I think I am redeeming it now when I use it write pieces such as the one I wrote on the concept of collective guilt.

When I make myself return to my old Pelikan, all the joy I took it in when I first got it comes back to me. The thing is, I have to force myself to do that sometimes, to go back to my old pen rather than spend my time searching for a new one. That’s a strange phenomenon when you think about it. I know from experience, from repeated experience, how wonderful my pen is and how much pleasure I will take in it if I can only make myself use it rather than search for a new one.

It is a strange fact of human psychology that we seem always in pursuit of the new and the novel, at the mercy of time, of constant flux, unable to learn, or to benefit, from experience, unable to harness it for the purposes of our own self-actualization, or as Jung would put it, “individuation.” I think it’s that aspect of human psychology that’s the focus of Repetition, the subtitle of which is “An Essay in Experimental Psychology.” Constantine Constantius tries an experiment to see if this enslavement is an essential fact of human psychology or if it is possible to liberate oneself from it. I am not going to answer that question for you. You will have to read the book and decide for yourself whether Constantius’s experiment was successful.

No issue could be more important to Kierkegaard than the one that preoccupies Constantius. Our apparent enslavement to the flow of time keeps us from becoming who we are, or perhaps, more accurately from being who we are. We are supposed to be not simply to have been and to become. We have being, however, only in the present and to have the present, we must, in effect stop the flow of time. That’s an act of will, a refusal to let the uniqueness of our experience slip away into the unrecoverable past. Hence the active voice of repetition, to “take” again.

There is more to the concept of repetition than that. Strangely, Kierkegaard does not seem to use the expression much after 1843. I would argue, however, that the concept remains central to his authorship. The “rebirth” of the individual in the “moment” that is spoken of in Philosophical Crumbs is a repetition, of sorts, of one’s original birth and all the promise it implied. The effort to live Christianly, to imitate Christ, involves a constant renewal of faith, a constant renewal of the effort to bring one’s faith to concrete expression. These renewals are, of course, repetitions.

It would be nice to see more scholarly work done on this rich and yet relatively neglected concept in Kierkegaard’s thought. If no one else does it, then perhaps I will do it myself.



Kierkegaard on “Dialectic”

In Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship, Translation issues on June 14, 2015 at 6:28 pm

A reader wrote recently to inquire about what Kierkegaard meant by “dialectic.” That’s a good question because whatever he means, it is clearly not the same thing that Hegel famously means by this term. First, I have to say that like so many of Kierkegaard’s favorite terms, it does not appear to have a single meaning.

“Dialectic,” or more correctly, Dialektik, comes originally from the Greek διαλεκτική, dialektikē, so you won’t find it in Christian Molbech’s Dansk Ordbog, the standard Danish dictionary from Kierkegaard’s time, but must turn to Ludvig Meyer’s Fremmedordbog (dictionary of foreign words) from 1853. Meyer defines Dialektik as “samtalekunst” (i.e., the art of conversation), as well as “Fornuftlære,” “Tankelære,” “Logik” (the first two translate literally as, ”teachings of reason,” and ”teachings of thought, ” but are probably best translated as ”informal logic,” while Logik is best translated as “formal logic”). In Plato, continues Meyer, Dialektik refers to “higher speculative philosophy,” whereas in Aristotle and more recent thinkers it refers to “probability theory” as well as “eristic,” “sophistry” and “casuistry.”

Interestingly, Kierkegaard never seems to use Dialektik in the last two pejorative senses. My guess is that that is not because a dialectical contemplation of something could never lead one way from the truth, but because of the high esteem in which he appears to have held ancient skepticism. That is, a dialectical contemplation of any question that does not admit of a clear and uncontroversial answer, will ultimately bring the individual back to him or herself and in that way accentuate the role of decision and the will.

There is an extremely helpful Terminologisk Register, or glossary, by Jens Himmelstrup in the second half of volume 15 of the second edition of Kierkegaard’s Samlede Værker. The glossary contains a long entry on Dialektik. Himmelstrup explains here that the term comes originally from the Greek διαλέγομαι, dialegomai, meaning “to carry on a conversation with someone.” “The term,” he continues, “became associated with Socrates, in that he employed the art of conversation, or dialogue, in his activity as a philosopher which was generally aimed at achieving clarity concerning the precise meaning of individual terms and concepts.”

Himmelstrup then proceeds to give a brief history of the meaning of the term in philosophy. What is important for our purposes here, however, is what he says concerning its meaning for Kierkegaard. Sometimes, he explains, “dialectic” refers to “purely logical determinations” (I presume that by this he means it refers to formal opposites such as a and ~a). Other examples he gives of Kierkegaard’s use of the term suggest it means something more like “dynamic,” as when Kierkegaard writes in the first volume of Either-Or: “Love from the soul has, secondly, yet another dialectic, for it differs in relation to every single individual who is the object of love” (This reference is from Alastair Hannay’s translation for Penguin. Even though the ebook version provides only a location number [1587-1588] rather than a page number, the Hongs’ translation of this passage is so tortured that I could not bring myself to use it. This is probably also a good place to point out that neither the Hongs’ “psychical love” nor Hannay’s “love from the soul” is a particularly felicitous translation of Kierkegaard’s “sjælelig Elskov.” That expression is probably best translated simply as “romantic love”).

Suffice it to say in answer to the question of what Kierkegaard means by the term “dialectic,” that the meaning appears to be as protean as is the meaning of the term “knowledge.” That’s not to say that Kierkegaard equivocates on its meaning, but simply, as I explain in Ways of Knowing, that Kierkegaard was extremely sensitive to how fluid are the meanings of most terms in everyday speech and that he abhorred the tendency of academics to artificially fix meanings.

Stay tuned for my next blog post “Those Crazy Hongs!” an examination of how the Hongs (or more likely Howard Hong) could conceivably have rendered “Sandselig Genialitet, bestemmet som Forførelse” as “The Elementary Originality of the Sensuous Qualified as Seduction.”

New Book on Kierkegaard’s Epistemology!

In Publishing News, Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship on April 11, 2015 at 5:20 pm


Martin Slotty’s book on Kierkegaard’s epistemology is now available in an English translation! This is great news for Kierkegaard scholars because until now, there was only one book available in English on Kierkegaard’s epistemology, my Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology (Baylor, 2010). Slotty’s book is an introduction. It is shorter and more accessible than Ways of Knowing, so it is the better volume to start with for those who want to understand something about Kierkegaard’s epistemology. Kierkegaard scholars should read both, of course, because, as I argue in Ways of Knowing, Kierkegaard’s epistemology provides the foundation for his views on the nature of faith in general and religious faith in particular.

So far, Slotty is available only in paperback. I understand from the publisher, however, that there will soon be an ebook version!

I was honored to be asked to do the foreword to Slotty’s book. What follows below is the first part of the foreword.


I had written the first draft of my dissertation on Kierkegaard’s epistemology before I stumbled upon this little book in one of the “hollandsk bogauktioner” that are held in Helligåndshus in the center of Copenhagen every summer. These “Dutch book auctions” are huge used book sales where individual antiquarians get rid of what is effectively their overstock. All the books are priced the same and the price is reduced by half on succeeding days. These sales are mana from heaven to a poor graduate student trying to build a collection of nineteenth-century Danish philosophy and theology on budget. The books are generally inexpensive to begin with but become even cheaper with time. I went generally looking for works by Kierkegaard’s contemporaries, figures such as Hans Lassen Martensen, and Poul Martin Møller. The only way I could find such works, however, was to pore over the titles of each and every one of the thousands of books on the many long tables laid out in the medieval annex to the famous old Helligånds Kirke (Church of the Holy Spirit). I found quite a few invaluable reference works this way, including the famous Ferrall-Repp A Danish-English Dictionary from 1845.

No find was more important to me, however, than this little book by Martin Slotty. I couldn’t believe my eyes when they landed upon a slim volume, that appeared to date from the turn of the century, with the title Die Erkenntnislehre S. A. Kierkegaards. Someone other than Anton Hügli had actually written a book on Kierkegaard’s epistemology, and that long ago! The book, as it turned out, was Slotty’s Doktorarbeit for Friedrich-Alexanders-Universität Erlangen. It isn’t nearly so deep-going an analysis of Kierkegaard’s epistemology as Hügli’s Die Erkenntnis der Subjektivität und die Objectivität des Erkennens bei Søren Kierkegaard from 1973. It’s an introduction to Kierkegaard’s epistemology, as is clear from the title. In fact, it is comprised primarily of passages extracted from Kierkegaard’s works with only the occasional addition of an analysis of their meaning. The relative paucity of analysis is explicable, however, by the fact that the passages more or less explain themselves. That is part of what makes the book so important. It shows very clearly that one does not have to dig deep to see that epistemological concerns were central to Kierkegaard’s thought.

Peter Brown, paraphrasing the view of Byzantine scholar Averil Cameron, wrote in a recent edition of The New York Review of Books that “Byzantine studies should be put into a sort of intellectual receivership.” It’s an “undertheorized field,” he continues, quoting Cameron, “as well as an understudied one” (NYRB, December 18, 2014). I’ve often felt that Kierkegaard scholarship should be put into intellectual receivership. There is plenty of work being done on Kierkegaard, of course, and much of it is highly theoretical. That isn’t the problem. The problem is that while there is excellent work being done on Kierkegaard, Kierkegaard scholarship as a whole still suffers from some fundamental misconceptions about just what kind of thinker Kierkegaard was. Most people writing on Kierkegaard today do not have even a passing familiarity with the Danish language, let alone a command of Danish that would allow them to read Kierkegaard’s works in the original. Scholars tend to focus on a select few books, which, read in isolation from the much larger authorship of which they are a part, are difficult to interpret.1 This little book will provide a necessary corrective to the view that Kierkegaard was a proponent of irrationalism or subjectivism, as well as to the view that epistemological concerns did not figure largely in his works. They did.
1. It is worth noting that nearly all Kierkegaard’s contemporary readers would have been familiar with his whole authorship. The number of Danish intellectuals was relatively small and works of the sort Kierkegaard published were not numerous. Also, the device of pseudonymity did not conceal the origin of Kierkegaard’s works for very long. Copenhagen was, and remains, a small town.

Clarification of an Ambiguity in Philosophical Crumbs

In Publishing News, Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs, Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship on October 25, 2013 at 6:51 pm

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.


Something on Privatdocenten

In Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship on March 4, 2013 at 7:16 pm

I read a very interesting article in today’s Inside Higher Education. It was about how scholars of English literature should be more entrepreneurial. I don’t mean to suggest that this would be of particular interest to readers of this blog. What I think might interest readers is the beginning of the article because it talks about the institution of the Privatdozent in Germany. We don’t have anything that corresponds to Privatdozenten in the U.S. and this has been a source of some confusion for both translators of Kierkegaard and Kierkegaard scholars more generally. Kierkegaard tends to speak scornfully of Privatdocenten, but few people understand why because few people really understand what a Privatdozent is. The beginning of the article, entitled “English Prof as Entrepreneur,” by Richard Utz, will help readers understand why Kierkegaard heaps such scorn on Privatdozenten.

In 1892, the president of Leland Stanford University, David Starr Jordan, managed to convince Ewald Flügel, a scholar at the University of Leipzig, to join the young institution’s rudimentary English department. Flügel had received his doctoral degree in 1885 with a study of Thomas Carlyle under the aegis of Richard Wülcker, one of the founders of English studies in Europe. Three years later, he finished his postdoctoral degree, with a study on Sir Philip Sydney, and was appointed to the position of a Privatdozent at Leipzig.

The position of the Privatdozent is one of the most fascinating features at the modern German universities in the late 19th century. Although endowed with the right to direct dissertations and teach graduate seminars, the position most often offered only the smallest of base salaries, leaving the scholar to earn the rest of his keep by students who paid him directly for enrolling in his seminars and lectures. In a 1903 Stanford commencement speech Flügel warmly recommended that his new colleagues in American higher education embrace the Privatdozent concept:

What would the faculty of Stanford University say to a young scholar of decided ability, who, one or two years after his doctorate (taken with distinction), having given proof of high scholarly work and spirit, should ask the privilege of using a certain lecture room at a certain hour for a certain course of lectures? What would Stanford University say, if – after another year or two this young man, unprotected but regarded with a certain degree of kindly benevolence […], this lecturer should attract more and more students (not credit hunters), if he should become an influence at the university? What if the university should become in the course of years a perfect hive of such bees? […] It would modify our departmental boss-system, our worship of “credits,” and other traits of the secondary schools; it would stimulate scholarly life at the university; it would foster a healthy competition in scholarly work, promote survival of the fittest, and keep older men from rusting.

Unabashedly Darwinian, Flügel was convinced that his own contingent appointment back in Germany had pushed him, and pushed all Privatdozenten, to become competitive, cutting-edge researchers and captivating classroom teachers until one of the coveted state-funded chair positions might become available. He held that the introduction of this specific academic concept was instrumental at furthering the innovative character and international reputation of higher education in Germany. Flügel himself had thrived under the competitive conditions, of course, and his entrepreneurial spirit led him to make a number of auspicious foundational moves: He took on co-editorship of Anglia, today the oldest continually published journal worldwide focusing exclusively on the study of “English.” And he founded Anglia Beiblatt, a review journal that quickly established an international reputation. (Inside Higher Education)

My guess is that Kierkegaard was contemptuous of the competitive self promotion that appears to have been essential to the role of the Privatdozent. Popularity with students, as we all know, is not always an indicator of philosophical profundity.
I’ll be back soon with a post on publishing news. Peter Tudvad has yet another new book coming out soon that will be of great interest to Kierkegaard scholars. I’ll say a little bit about it.
P.S. Forgive the highlighting. I don’t know how it got their or how to remove it. Hopefully, the folks at WordPress will be able to help with that soon.

Observations on the Various Editions of Kierkegaard’s Collected Works

In Once Upon a Time in Denmark, Publishing News, Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship on February 17, 2013 at 9:43 pm

SV 2 two pages

There are now four different Danish editions of Kierkegaard collected works. The first edition, edited by A.B. Drachman, J.L. Heiberg, and H.O. Lang was published by Gyldendal between 1901-1906 and comprised 14 volumes. The second edition, published between 1920-1936, was essentially a corrected version of the first edition with the inclusion of a very helpful fifteenth volume that contained author and subject indexes for all the individual volumes as well as a glossary of the more important terms in Kierkegaard’s authorship.

A third inexpensive popular edition of Kierkegaard’s collected works in 20 volumes was published in the 1960s. This edition was never intended for use by scholars and is marred by numerous errors that were more than likely a result of how quickly the edition was produced (one volume per month according to Tony Aalgaard Olesen).

The second edition is generally considered to be the best of the collected works as well as the most readily available. It’s still possible to find it in used bookstores in Denmark for a reasonable price. A casual web search I did just now turned up three copies at Vangsgaards Antikvariat for between 1,000DK and 1,800DK (approximately $150-$300).

The first edition is still preferred by scholars, however, because the second edition, produced as it was during a period of the resurgence of Nordic nationalism was printed in Blackletter, or Gothic type, and many contemporary scholars find that difficult to read. The English translations of Kierkegaard supervised by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong and published by Princeton University Press in the ‘80s and ’90s thus have page correlation numbers to the first, rather than the second, edition of Kierkegaard’s collected works.

Unfortunately, the first edition of Kierkegaard’s collected works is increasingly difficult to find and generally very expensive. Fortunately, there is a new edition of Kierkegaard’s collected works. This new edition, produced by the Søren Kierkegaard Research Center in Copenhagen is distinguished from the earlier editions by a new title. Whereas all three earlier collected works were titled Søren Kierkegaards Samlede Værker (literally Søren Kierkegaard’s collected works, or SV), the new edition is titled Søren Kierkegaards Skrifter (Søren Kierkegaard’s writings, or SKS).

There is much to recommend the new edition. The individual volumes have been beautifully produced, at least from an aesthetic standpoint, and each is accompanied by a helpful companion volume of commentary. The edition purports to be a “critical” one, but unfortunately falls short of that ideal. It was produced too quickly to ensure the kind of quality that is requisite for a critical edition and the editorial staff was generally too inexperienced in that type of work. The 55 volumes were produced between 1997 and 2013, or 16 short years compared, for example, to the critical edition of Kant writings on which work began in 1900 and is apparently still continuing!

The haste with which this new edition was produced is likely the explanation for problems such as the one I identified in the notes to my translation of Kierkegaard’s Repetition. The fictional narrator of that work refers to the “disappearance” of the young man who was the subject of his observations. “[D]isappearance,” as I explain in a note, was originally “death.” Kierkegaard apparently changed “death” (Død) to “disappearance” (Forsvinden) after learning that his former fiancée, Regine Olsen, had become engaged. SKS has Forvinden (recovery), however, rather than Forsvinden. The original 1843 edition of Repetition, on the other hand, has Forsvinden, not Forvinden and since there is no explanation for the change in SKS, it appears it’s simply an error.

So the new edition is not perfect. The critical apparatus is extensive, but somewhat arbitrary in what it includes and does not include and the price for all 55 volumes (at approximately $100 each) is prohibitively expensive. Despite this, however, it will become the standard scholarly edition because not only can volumes be purchased individually, but the entire edition is available in searchable form online! For that reason alone, I find myself often referring to it.

In my opinion, however, the most reliable text is still that of the second edition. The type takes a little getting used to, but not so long as many people seem to fear. I’m very fortunate, actually, in that not only do I have a second edition in excellent condition, someone actually went through my edition and put page correlation numbers to the first edition in the margins. I kid you not, there are page correlation numbers on every single page of every single volume. Not only are there these numbers, whoever put them there also put a tiny mark at the point in the line of the text where the new page began.

You can see these lines, just barely, in the photo above. There’s one between “saa” and “aldeles” on the page at the left, and another after the dash and just before “Om” on the page at the right. Pretty cool, eh! My theory is that my copy of the second edition must have been used in the production of the page correlation tables in the third edition, or in Alastair McKinnon’s concordances. It’s hard to imagine someone would have undertaken the labor involved in putting in all those numbers unless he were being paid to do so. I’m grateful to whoever did it though. I can now quickly check the accuracy of the Hongs’ translations even though they include page correlation numbers only to the first edition.

This extremely rare (very likely one of a kind) copy of the second edition of Kierkegaard’s collected works is only one of the many antiquarian treasures I collected while I lived in Denmark. I plan to write about more of my treasures later.