M.G. Piety

Posts Tagged ‘Anthony Rudd’

Kierkegaard on Nature and Miracles: A Reply to Hampson

In Publishing News, Uncategorized on June 21, 2017 at 8:58 am

I promised in the post entitled “Scholarly Protocol” which addressed the form of UK theologian Daphne Hampson’s extended comment on my earlier post “Getting Kierkegaard Wrong” that I would address the substance of her comment as well. As I said, I addressed that substance in the first of this series of posts in that Hampson’s comment merely summarizes an argument she makes in more extended form in her book Kierkegaard: Exposition and Critique. It is clear, however, that Hampson still hasn’t understood where her interpretation of Kierkegaard goes wrong, so I feel obliged to address that issue in more detail.

Hampson argues that Kierkegaard rejects “causality,” and more specifically, that he rejects the idea that there are laws of nature. It is this rejection, she asserts, that conveniently allows him to believe in miracles. Her argument makes sense. That is, it’s coherent. It’s just that it’s wrong. First, Kierkegaard clearly accepts both causality and the idea that there are laws of nature. Second, it is far from clear that Kierkegaard believed in miracles in the supernatural sense that sees them as a violation of those laws.

The first charge, that Kierkegaard rejects causality and the idea that there are laws of nature, can be swiftly and easily refuted. I already addressed the issue of Kierkegaard’s acceptance of causality in my remarks on Hampson’s misinterpretation of Kierkegaard’s treatment of the two distinct Aristotelian senses of change in my original post “Getting Kierkegaard Wrong,” so I won’t revisit that argument here, but will look more specifically now at the issue of whether Kierkegaard rejects the idea that there are laws of nature.

Kierkegaard writes in one of his notebooks sometime between 1841-42 that “[i]n nature everything is bound by law and hence governed by necessity” (SKS 19, 263). One might be tempted to argue that this reference comes very early, before Kierkegaard published his most famous works, and that it is thus possible that he changed his mind later. There is no evidence, however, to support such a view.

What’s worse for Hampson, is that an equally unequivocal reference to the reality of laws of nature occurs in the very work Hampson cites in support of her claim that Kierkegaard didn’t believe in the reality of laws of nature. This reference appears on the last page of the second volume of Either-Or, at the end of a discourse entitled “The Upbuilding That Lies in the Thought That in Relation to God We are Always in the Wrong.” Kierkegaard refers there to “the law which carries the stars on their paths across the arch of heaven” and observes that it would be a “terrible catastrophe” if “the law of nature lost its power and everything disintegrated into dreadful chaos.”

Kierkegaard is no friend of chaos. He falls squarely on the Apollonian side of the Apollonian/Dionysian divide. Not only does Kierkegaard believe in the reality of laws of nature, he believes that these laws are essential to giving order to our experience and hence provide the conditions under which it is possible for that experience to have meaning.

But if Kierkegaard accepts that there are laws of nature, what are we to make of his apparent rejection of “naturalism” that Hampson cites in her comment? The answer is that “naturalism” is synonymous for Kierkegaard with an all-encompassing physical determinism. It isn’t the idea that there are laws of nature that Kierkegaard rejects, but the idea that these laws necessarily determine human behavior.

Kierkegaard clearly holds something like a Kantian view of the relation between the phenomenal and noumenal view of a person. This view can be found, for example, in the section of Either-Or Part II entitled “The Aesthetic Validity of Marriage.” It may be challenging to make sense of how the phenomenal and noumenal aspects of a person can be brought together in such a way as to preserve human freedom, but Kant asserts they can be, and Kierkegaard appears to follow Kant in this respect. In fact, Kierkegaard distinguishes between “rationalism” and “naturalism” in a journal entry that examines this aspect of Kant’s thought (SKS 19, 159).

So much for Kierkegaard’s purported rejection of the idea that there are laws of nature. What about his position on miracles? The journal entry Hampson cites where Kierkegaard indicates that he rejects “naturalism” also includes a somewhat ambiguous reference to miracles. “Unfortunately,” it reads, “we know far too well what people in our day think of miracles” (SKS 24, 72). Those words are not Kierkegaard’s, however, but Bishop Mynster’s. Kierkegaard is quoting Mynster. But even if Kierkegaard is in agreement with Mynster’s words, it’s not clear exactly what those words mean. Do they refer to a pervasive rejection of the idea that are such things as miracles, or to the view that once there were miracles, but that miracles don’t happen any longer? Or could they be a disparaging reference to a propensity to focus on the purportedly supernatural aspect of miracles?

What is clear about Kierkegaard’s interest in miracles is that it is not their purportedly supernatural aspect that interests him. Kierkegaard is, in fact, openly contemptuous of people who focus on the supernatural rather than the edifying aspects of the accounts of miracles in the New Testatment. He asks, for example, in a discourse on Matthew 11:30 “My Yoke is Beneficial and My Burden Is Light” “is it really a greater miracle [Under] to change water into wine than for the heavy burden to continue to be heavy and yet be light!” (UDVS, 233).

What makes a burden that remains (one might be tempted to argue, according to natural law) heavy, nevertheless light, is not some violation of natural law. The “miracle” here is psychological, not physical.

The same emphasis on the miraculous as a psychological phenomenon rather than a physical one can be seen in Kierkegaard’s observation that

[a]t times, the circumstances determine that a penny signifies little more than it usually signifies, but if someone wants to perform a miracle [gjør et Vidunder], he makes the one penny signify just as much as all the world’s gold put together if he gives it out of compassion and the penny is the only one he has” (EUD, 362.)

That kind of generosity, or compassion, is certainly extremely rare but it doesn’t violate any natural law.

Kierkegaard’s interest in the miracle stories in the New Testament relates not to their purportedly supernatural aspect, but to the sense in which they can be subjectively meaningful, or more particularly, edifying. This can be seen yet again in his observation in his journal on the story of the feeding of the five thousand in John 6:1-15.

Since it was through a miracle [Mirakel] that enough food was procured [skaffet] to feed five thousand men, one would [be inclined to] believe that no thought would be given to the leavings [der blev ødslet med Levningerne]. But no, God is never like that. Everything was carefully gathered up according to the Gospel. The human is to be unable to perform miracles [Mirakler] and yet to waste the leavings [at ødsle med Levninger]. The divine is to perform the miracle [Miraklet] of abundance and yet to collect the crumbs [samle Smulerne op] (SKS, 20, 110.)

Kierkegaard’s point here is not to emphasize that Christ had supernatural powers, but to communicate something about God’s nature that would have an edifying effect on the reader, as is clear from his retelling this same story in one of his published “Discourses on the Communion on Fridays.”

God is and can be just as scrupulous as he is great and can be great in showing mercy. For example, God’s nature always joins opposites, just as in the miracle [Mirakel] of the five small loaves. The people had nothing to eat–through a miracle a superabundance was procured [skaffes], but see, then Christ commands that everything left over be carefully collected. How divine! One person can be wasteful, another thrifty,; but if there were a human being who through a miracle [Mirakel] could at any moment divinely procure [skaffe] a superabundance, do you not think that he humanly would have disdained the crumbs [Smulerne], do you think that he–divinely would have collected the crumbs [Smulerne]! So also with God’s greatness in showing mercy. (CD, 295-96).

Don’t be misled by the fact that the term that is translated as “miracle” in the first passage is “Under,” the term that is translated as “miracle” in the second is ”Vidunder,” and the term that is translated as “miracle” in the third passage is “Mirakel.” Kierkegaard uses the terms “Under,” “Vidunder,” and “Mirakel” interchangeably, and indeed, they are synonyms according to both Ferrall-Repp and the venerable Ordbog Over det Danske Sprog. Kierkegaard’s references, for example, to “the miracle of faith” are sometimes “Troens Mirakel” (cf., e.g., WOL, 295; CD, 115) and other times “Troens Vidunder” (cf., e.g., FT, 18 and SLW, 163).

The Hongs appear to have had a misguided ambition to consistently translate “Vidunder” as “wonder” rather than “miracle.” Yet even the Hongs couldn’t help but realize that “Under,” “Vidunder,” and “Mirakel” are synonyms for Kierkegaard and hence translated Kierkegaard’s “Dette er Christendommens Undergjerning, vidunderligere end det at forvandle Vand til Viin” as “This is the miracle of Christianity, even more miraculous than turning water into wine.”

It actually makes sense that Kierkegaard chooses to focus not on the objective aspect of miracles but on the sense in which they can be subjectively meaningful in that there are no references to “miracles” in the authorized Danish New Testament of Kierkegaard’s day. Every single reference to a “miracle” in the King James Version of the New Testament appears not as “Mirakel” in the Frederik VI’s New Testament, but as “Tegn,” i.e., “sign.” This, in turn, makes sense because every single reference to a “miracle” in the King James Version of the New Testament appears as σεμεἰον, i.e., “sign” in the original Greek. Signs require what the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce called an “interpretant.” That is, they are meaningful only subjectively. There is no such thing as an objective sign.

The question remains, of course, as to whether Kierkegaard believed miracles were supernatural events, but simply chose not to focus on that aspect of them. That’s a difficult question to answer. I argue in my book on his epistemology that Kierkegaard viewed all of empirical science as merely probabilistic and that suggests there is room for him to view miracles as merely exceptionally unusual, or highly improbable, events rather than events that violated laws of nature.

Support for this view can be found in the fact that Kierkegaard refers repeatedly to “the paradox” of Christianity as “improbable” rather than “impossible” (cf., e.g., Crumbs, 123, 159 and CUP, 195, 196). Support can also be found in the fact that when Kierkegaard refers to the feeding of the five thousand, he writes that food was miraculously “procured” (skaffet, see Ferrall-Repp) not “created” (skabt) that was sufficient to feed five thousand people. Who knows how it was procured. The implication of the word choice, however, is that the means used to secure it were not necessarily supernatural.

That said, even if Kierkegaard believes miracles are supernatural events, he does not reject the reality of laws of nature. There clearly are such laws, according to Kierkegaard, as the quotations with which this post began demonstrates even if, as I argue in my book Ways of Knowing, Kierkegaard believes the correspondence to reality of any particular interpretation of these laws cannot be shown to be certain.

Hampson is deluded in thinking that Kierkegaard rejects the idea that there are laws of nature and that he does this to make room for his belief in miracles. There is undoubtedly someone in the history of thought who holds the view Hampson attributes to Kierkegaard. It just isn’t Kierkegaard. Hampson’s Kierkegaard is a fantastical creation of her own imagination, concocted, it would appear out of the ambition to present a grand, over-arching theory about the development of thought after the Enlightentment. And she has been spreading the contagion of this erroneous interpretation of Kierkegaard all over the globe. First in 2013 at the bi-centenary of Kierkegaard’s birth in Copenhagen, Australia, and then in the United States, and then later in Budapest.

That is one of the dangers of what philosophers call “big picture” work: a grand over-arching theory that attempts to explain a particular development in the history of thought almost always requires that its author include thinkers on whose thought he or she is not expert. That’s why philosophers in the Anglo-American tradition tend to avoid it. It’s virtually impossible to do it well. It’s almost inevitably flawed, and sometimes very conspicuously so.

Theologians, on the other hand, appear not to have the same fear of error that generally characterizes philosophers. Hampson, by her own admission is working on a grand, over-arching theory that she plans to present in a book “provisionally entitled ‘Enlightenment and After.’” My guess is that she is going to fit her fantastical Kierkegaard into this development in a manner analogous to that in which Alasdair MacIntyre fit his fantastical Kierkegaard into the picture he presents of the historical development of ethical thought in his book After Virtue, though the distinction Kierkegaard makes in the journal entry cited above between “rationalism” and “naturalism” does not bode well for such a project.

The good side to this is that just as MacIntyre’s distortion of Kierkegaard’s thought provided an occasion for some really first-rate Kierkegaard scholarship, as is exemplified in John Davenport and Anthony Rudd’s excellent book Kierkegaard after MacIntyre, so will Hampson’s distortion of Kierkegaard, both in her book on him and in her forthcoming book, provide an occasion for much excellent Kierkegaard scholarship.

The really pressing question is how a book containing such a conspicuously and spectacularly erroneous interpretation of Kierkegaard could ever be published by a publisher such as Oxford? Something would appear to have gone horribly wrong with the process of peer review.

 

 

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Report on 2016 Eastern APA Meeting

In Uncategorized on January 16, 2016 at 2:57 pm

APA Plenary Address '16The 2016 annual meeting of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association took place on January 6-9 at the Marriott Wardman Park in Washington, D.C. The Søren Kierkegaard Society sponsored a session around the middle of the first day. Unfortunately, there was a mistake in the scheduling of that session. It was given a two-hour slot when it should have been given a three-hour slot. There were four speakers scheduled to present in that session and there is no way four people can present papers in a two hour session, so the session was moved to a three-hour time slot later that afternoon.

Jeffrey Hanson, who bears a striking resemblance to Kierkegaard, chaired the session, so he dutifully stood outside the room where the session should originally have taken place and alerted people to its new time and place. It looked to be a great session. The speakers were: Antony Aumann of Northern Michigan University, Jerome Gellman of Ben-Gurion University, Birte Loschenkohl of the University of Chicago, and Anthony Rudd, of St. Olaf College. Aumann’s paper was entitled “On Kierkegaard, Art, and Autonomy.” Gellman’s paper was “Volition and the Leap of Faith.” Loschenkohl’s was “Exception, Suspension, and Resistance in Kierkegaard (and Schmitt).” And Rudd’s was “Was Kierkegaard a Divine Command Theorist? Should He Have Been?”

Sadly, I cannot report on that session because I was scheduled to chair a session on the philosophy of religion that afternoon during the same time as the rescheduled Kierkegaard session.

So why am I writing on this year’s APA session if I cannot report on the Kierkegaard papers? Good question. I’m writing because it was otherwise a fantastic meeting, the best I have ever attended, and much of what made it so great touches on things near and dear to Kierkegaard, and to many Kierkegaard scholars.

The first thing I liked about the meeting was that it was much smaller and hence more intimate and collegial than any of the earlier meetings I’ve attended. Just how small it was is apparent in the photo above of the plenary session in which the chair of the NEH spoke about two new NEH grant programs. (More about that below.)

Of course the reasons for low attendance at this year’s meeting are sad. Higher education is in trouble. Enrollments are down pretty much across the board, so there are not many new positions being advertised. Moreover, drops in enrollments mean there is less money to send hiring committees to the meeting to interview job candidates, as was standard practice in the past. Much interviewing is now done via Skype. The positive side of this was that the sometimes oppressive air of desperation generated by frantic job seekers (we’ve all been there) was conspicuously absent. My impression was that most attendees were established professionals and most of those people are understandably happier and less frantic than people on the job market.

The positive atmosphere of the meeting was enhanced even further by a pronounced focus on the responsibilities philosophers bear to the general public. This is the aspect of the meeting that I think will interest Kierkegaard scholars. Kierkegaard insisted that philosophy should be relevant to the life of the individual, that it should not be a purely abstract, or academic, activity.

The plenary address on Thursday was given by William “Bro” Adams, the Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Adams spoke about two new grant programs the NEH has to encourage philosophers to reach out to the general public. The first is the Public Scholar Program. The is a grant program that gives support to individuals working on “well-researched books in the humanities intended to reach a broad readership.” The second program is “The Humanities in the Public Square.” This program “supports scholarly forums, public discussions, and educational resources related to the themes of a new NEH initiative, The Common Good: The Humanities in the Public Square.”

The plenary address was not the only part of the meeting that emphasized the duty of philosophers to engage with the general public. There was a session on the first day, sponsored by the Society for Applied Philosophy, on “Current Ethical and Justice Issues in Higher Education” that included a panel of seven scholars. There was a session the next day, sponsored by the APA Committee on Public Philosophy, entitled “Philosophy for the Public: Reports from the Field and National Endowment for Humanities Grants.” Lynne Tirrell of UMass Boston spoke on “Philosophy in Public: Modes of Engagements and Topics of Choice.” Peter Fristedt and Mark Silver, both from the NEH, spoke on the aforementioned NEH grant programs and offered advice on how to apply for them. Michael Lynch of U of Connecticut spoke on “Writing Philosophy for the Public,” and Gaurev Vazirani of Yale talked about Yale’s new philosophy blog WiPhi in a paper entitled “WiPhi: Developing Online Public Philosophy.”

Cool, eh? If you’ve been reading this blog since its launch in 2010, you have been in the forefront of the philosophical movement to bring philosophy to the general public. If you are a Kierkegaard scholar, you may be surprised to learn that many non-scholars also read this blog. I know because they occasionally email me about how much they love Kierkegaard even though they are not themselves scholars. I have actually endeavored to make this blog interesting to a wider public with the “Once Upon a Time in Copenhagen” and other similar posts. If you haven’t read any of those posts, I encourage you to go back and check them out. Some of them are pretty fun.

Also, if you haven’t yet checked out my other blog The Life of the Mind, definitely do that. I write there on a variety of issues of general interest, such as the First Amendment, race, and even the practical value of philosophical study, and I often manage to work in a reference to Kierkegaard. That blog now has more than 4,000 subscribers. How is that for engaging with the public!

I’m not done yet, however, in describing the emphasis at this most recent APA meeting on what philosophy can contribute to general public. There were two sessions sponsored by the National Philosophical Counseling Association (not to be confused with the American Philosophical Practitioners’ Association, another organization dedicated to philosophical counseling). Philosophical counseling is, I think, one of the most important ways that philosophers can show the relevance of philosophy to the lives of people who are not themselves professional philosophers. Different philosophical counselors practice their craft in different ways, of course. The most productive approach, I believe, however, is to view philosophical counseling as a kind of individual philosophical tutoring with an emphasis on how the mere activity of reflecting on one’s life can actually improve the quality of it.

The Society of Philosophers in America (SOPHIA) held a session entitled “The Obligations of Philosophers.” I particularly enjoyed Jackie Kegley’s paper. The title was, unfortunately, not listed in the conference program and I don’t now recall the title she gave it. It was very similar, however, to the title of her contribution to the volume Practicing Philosophy as Experiencing Life: Essays on American Pragmatism (Brill/Rodopi, 2015). I’d seen that volume in the Book Exhibit, but hadn’t bought it. I was so favorably impressed by Kegley’s talk, however, that I ran right back to the Book Exhibit after the session and bought what I believe was their only copy.

There were lots of other sessions, such as the one entitled “Philosophy and Happiness” (sponsored by the American Association for the Philosophic Study of Society) whose titles clearly indicated the topics discussed would be of interest to a broader audience than just scholars. I’d never seen anything like it in all my years of attending the APA. I don’t mean to suggest that professional philosophy has been transformed overnight from a vicious adversarial discipline to a unified udaimonistic movement. Daily Nous reported that “play nice” was overheard by at least a few conference attendees, so there is still work to be done.

All-in-all, however, this year’s meeting was an uplifting experience and highlighted that the discipline is indeed moving in new and more positive directions that will benefit not only professionals, but humanity as a whole. That is certainly something Kierkegaard would applaud!

 

 

2014 Annual Meeting of the American Philosophical Association

In Uncategorized on December 30, 2014 at 11:18 pm

The annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association concluded this afternoon. This year was a good one for Kierkegaard. The Søren Kierkegaard Society always sponsors a session at the APA meetings, but this year, there was actually a colloquium paper on Kierkegaard as well.  The paper, entitled “Kierkegaard’s Revision of the Aristotelian Virtue of Courage,” was presented by Karl Aho, a graduate student from Baylor as part of a colloquium on Aristotle. The colloquium took place on the 27th, the first evening of the conference. I had only just returned from Denmark, where I’d spent Christmas with friends (and where I’d also attended a talk at the law faculty of the University of Copenhagen which will be the subject of a forthcoming post to my other blog: “The Life of the Mind”), so I missed Aho’s presentation. Fortunately, an abstract of the paper is available on the APA website. I took the liberty of copying it for readers who, like me, were not able to attend the session themselves. “Several authors,” observes Aho,

have proposed that we view Kierkegaard as a virtue theorist. In this paper, I further develop this virtue approach by discussing several Kierkegaardian arguments about the virtue of courage. Against Aristotle’s account of courage, Kierkegaard claims that we ought not limit courage to only those extraordinary individuals who risk their lives to perform noble deeds. Kierkegaard revises the Aristotelian virtue by expanding our understanding of which situations call for courage. By widening the scope of situations that call for courage, Kierkegaard’s understanding of courage enables people to respond courageously in those situations. I conclude by discussing the implications of Kierkegaard’s view of courage for his authorship more broadly construed. Kierkegaard’s understanding of courage can inform our interpretation of pseudonymous texts, like Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death, in which courage plays a central role.

My own feeling is that Aho is not doing justice to Aristotle here, but that, for Kierkegaard scholars anyway, is less interesting than the positive position Aho develops on Kierkegaard’s own view of courage. The latter appears promising, so it would be nice to see the paper in print soon.

Unfortunately, I do not have access to abstracts of the papers that were presented in the session sponsored by the Søren Kierkegaard Society. I do not want to summarize them for fear I wouldn’t do justice to them. The session was on Kierkegaard and Narrative and the speakers were John Davenport of Fordham, Jeffrey Hanson (whose coiffure is strikingly reminiscent of Kierkegaard’s own) of Australian Catholic University, and Frances Maughan-Brown, of Boston College. The commentator (whose name, for some reason, did not make it into the official program) was Clare Carlisle. The titles of the papers will give readers an idea of the content. Davenport’s paper, “Psychological Narrativity and the Limits of Ethical Self-Authorship,” was a continuation of a dialogue he and Anthony Rudd have been having for some time on the role of narrative in Kierkegaard (see Rudd’s Self, Value and Narrative: A Kierkegaardian Approach and Davenport’s Narrative Identity, Autonomy, and Mortality: From Frankfurt and MacIntyre to Kierkegaard). Hanson’s paper was entitled “Aesthetic Ideals and the Task of Repetition,” and Maughan-Brown’s paper was entitled “Kierkegaard and Allegorical Narrative.”

The discussion after the papers was lively and productive. Davenport has one of the keenest minds among contemporary Kierkegaard scholars, not only were his comments during the discussion interesting, it was amusing to see him launching, on behalf of the other two panelists, even harsher criticisms of his own position than they had launched themselves.

Unfortunately, the discussion was marked by some confusion concerning the nature of Kierkegaard’s concept of repetition. The term was being used by nearly everyone, panelists, audience members, and even the commentator, Carlisle, in what Davenport finally correctly identified as “the profane sense of mere iteration.” Repetition, for Kierkegaard, is a specifically theological concept. Repetition, as the narrator of Kierkegaard’s eponymous novel discovers, is very far from mere iteration, so far, in fact that he concludes it is simply impossible.

Repetition would appear to be one of the most misunderstood of Kierkegaardian concepts. It’s tempting to conclude that this may be due, at least in part, to it’s theological nature. A closer examination of the concept reveals, however, that what one could call the “problem” of repetition, as Kierkegaard articulates it, is not specifically theological. Only the solution is. The problem is that for temporal creatures, or at least for human beings, mere iteration always involves some difference, no matter how minute. Even the kinds of daily tasks that were brought up during the discussion, things such as changing diapers or brushing one’s teeth, are never exactly the same, to say nothing of more complex sorts of events such as trips to favorite vacation destinations. The problem is that of recreating a sameness that temporality, in its essence, would appear to preclude, of capturing and preserving an experience that time wrests from our grasp. This, for Kierkegaard, can be accomplished only through divine intervention. Whether he is right about this should be viewed as a challenge to scholars, yet few seem to understand the concept well enough to take it on.

Kierkegaard: A Christian Thinker for Our Time

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

Anthony Rudd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publishing News!

In Publishing News on January 21, 2013 at 11:05 am

Rudd's Self, Value, Narrative (cover)Anthony Rudd has a new book! Rudd, as many of you will know, is one of my favorite Kierkegaard scholars, not simply because he’s a lovely human being, but because his work is of uniformly high quality. His new book is Self, Value and Narrative: A Kierkegaardian Approach (Oxford, 2012). The description on Amazon reads:

Self, Value, and Narrative … defends a series of interrelated claims about the nature of the self. [Rudd] argues that the self is not simply a given entity, but a being that constitutes or shapes itself. But it can only do this non-arbitrarily if it has a sense of the good by which it can be guided as it chooses to endorse some of its desires or dispositions and repudiate others. This means that there is an … ethical or evaluative dimension to selfhood, and one which has an essentially teleological character. Such self-constitution takes place in narrative terms, through one’s telling–and, more importantly, living–one’s own story. …. Rudd develops these ideas in a way that is importantly different from others familiar in the literature. He takes his main inspiration from Kierkegaard’s account of the self, and argues (controversially) that this account belongs in the Platonic rather than the Aristotelian tradition …. Through close engagement with much contemporary philosophical work, Rudd presents a convincing case for an ancient and currently unfashionable view: that the polarities and tensions that are constitutive of selfhood can only be reconciled through an orientation of the self as a whole to an objective Good.

Rudd showed me a paper several years ago in which he was developing this idea of the Platonic roots of Kierkegaard’s concept of the self. If I remember correctly, he was scheduled to give that paper at a meeting of the Central Division of that APA and wanted some feedback on it. I thought then that it was excellent and am very pleased to see that the ideas he expressed in that paper have now been more fully developed and made available to the general public in this volume.

I’m less excited about the publisher. When I went to purchase the book on Amazon, I was shocked to discover that Amazon’s discounted price was $75 and that it was not yet available as an ebook. I shouldn’t have been surprised by the price. Both Oxford and Cambridge are notorious for pricing their books out of the range of everyone but the independently wealthy–and university libraries. I had suggested to Rudd, when he was shopping for a publisher, that he try Baylor. Baylor did a fantastic job with my book Ways of Knowing, and they priced it at a very reasonable $49.95 (hard cover). I actually made money off that book, more money, in fact, than I made off the translations I did for Oxford (which makes me wonder just what Oxford is doing with all the money they are making off authors).

More annoying is the fact that the book is not yet available as an ebook. What’s up with that Oxford? I buy almost exclusively ebooks these days. I’m an unabashed fan of them, despite the recent propaganda campaign against them. I’m going to buy Rudd’s book, of course, because I know it will be excellent. I don’t have to buy it immediately, however, because I won’t be able to get to it immediately, so I encourage everyone to go to the Amazon page for the book and click the “Tell the publisher! I’d like to read this book on Kindle.” Maybe if enough people do that, it will be out in a Kindle edition soon.

I have more good news on the publishing front. Thom Satterlee has sold the Danish rights to his book The Stages: A Novel. It’ll be translated and published by Rosenkilde & Bahnhof in time for SK’s b-day this May. Congrats Thom!

Hilarious History of Western Philosophy!

In Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship on August 4, 2011 at 9:04 am

Anthony Kenny has an excellent review of three books on religion and “the new atheism” in the July 22 TLS. He devotes most of his attention, and praise, to Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (Saint Augustine Press, 2010). Feser apparently thinks philosophy took a wrong turn in the Renaissance when it abandoned Aristotle (a view that has been increasing in popularity since Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue). Since one can’t assume that the average TLS reader is going to know enough about the history of philosophy to be able to follow Kenny’s commentary on Feser’s thesis, Kenny opens his review with an absolutely hilarious “master-narative” of the history of philosophy. The narrative, according to Kenny, goes something like this:

[P]hilosophy was started in the ancient world by Plato and Aristotle, who were not bad philosophers considering how long ago they lived. Once the Western world became Christian, however, philosophy went into hibernation for many centuries, and saw as its only task to write footnotes to Aristotle. Some of the scholastic philosophers of the Middle Ages were clever chaps, but they wasted their talents on logical quibbles and pettifogging distinctions. It was only when Aristotle’s metaphysics was thrown over in the Renaissance that philosophy got into its stride again, and renewed its connection with scientific inquiry. Descartes showed that the way to understand the material universe was to treat it as a conglomeration of purposeless material objects operating according to blind laws: there was no need for Aristotle’s final causes. While Descartes was a rationalist, a succession of philosophers writing in English, from Hobbes to Hume, showed that it was sensory experience, not reason, that was the basis of all our knowledge. Kant and his German Idealist followers introduced a degree of obfuscation into philosophy, from which Continental philosophy has never totally recovered. But in Britain and America in the twentieth century, philosophy re-emerged into the daylight with the logical empiricism of brilliant minds like A.J. Ayer.

Feser, Kenny explains “rightly rejects this story. …. It was the abandonment of Aristotelianism,” Kenny continues, paraphrasing Feser, “that threw up the pseudo-problems that still haunt us.” These problems include, according to Feser, the mind-body problem, the problem of induction, and the problem of personal identity. The book sounds promising, though Kenny concludes that the negative arguments are more successful than the positive one. It sounds as if it would be a good read for Kierkegaard scholars though because not only is the general defense of religion relevant to almost any serious work on Kierkegaard (independently of which side of the debate one comes down on), but also because Kierkegaard is a thoroughly teleological thinker as my friend Anthony Rudd argues in a really excellent forthcoming piece on Kierkegaard’s Platonic teleology, so any work that examines the advantages of a teleological interpretation of reality is worth a read!

Once Upon a Time in Denmark…

In Once Upon a Time in Denmark on January 5, 2011 at 8:50 am

Once upon a time, or to be more precise, back in 1996, when I was still living in Denmark, the English novelist David Lodge gave a lecture on Kierkegaard in Copenhagen. This event, if my memory serves me correctly, was part of the festivities connected with Copenhagen’s status as the official “Culture Capital of Europe” for that year. Lodge’s book Therapy, where both Kierkegaard and Copenhagen figure prominently, had come out the year before.

I don’t remember much about Lodge’s talk except that it was well attended and that Lodge bore a striking resemblance to Roy Orbison.

Both Anthony Rudd and I gave papers that summer at a conference entitled “The Brain and Self” in Elsinore. The conference appeared to have been geared primarily toward people in the medical profession, so the registration was expensive. One of my close friends in Copenhagen (who shall remain nameless for reasons that will become clear below), wanted to attend the conference but couldn’t afford the cost of the registration. He decided, therefore, to crash the conference by forging a name badge.

This, as you can understand, made me extremely uncomfortable. I implored my friend to at least keep a low profile. We were required to introduce ourselves and to mention our institutional affiliation before asking a question of any of the speakers. It was thus important, I explained to him, that he not ask any questions. One of the conference organizers appeared, in fact, to be carrying around a list of the officially registered participants and to be checking the names of attendees against the list. Of course my friend ignored me, to both my consternation and that of the organizer who scanned his list with increasingly obvious anxiety every time my friend stood and held forth on what he perceived to be a problem with the speaker’s position.

Anthony, who is one of the most ethical people I know, was none too happy with this situation either. Tensions in our little group were thus running high when my friend came to us with the revelation that he had seen David Lodge among the conference participants. David Lodge speaking on Kierkegaard was one thing, but David Lodge at a medical conference was something else. Had he seen Elvis too? We had a great deal of fun teasing our friend about his “visions.” We were forced to apologize, however, when, toward the end of the conference, Lodge did indeed appear as speaker. The most memorable thing about Lodge’s second public appearance in Denmark within the space of a year was that he appeared to be reading his presentation. That is, he was looking down at his papers so the moderator could not get his attention and, after repeated attempts to indicate discretely that he was going overtime, began to march back and forth in front of him, dipping and weaving, in vain attempts to attract Lodge’s attention to the sign he had made that must have said something like “Stop!”

This spectacle was so amusing, that it went a long way toward helping Anthony and me get over the guilt we felt at having failed to believe our friend.

I have since then been in the position myself of having to indicate to speakers when they were going overtime. If after the standard “5” “3” “1” “0” warnings, the speaker is still going strong, I’ve found that a quickly sketched scull and crossbones usually does the trick.