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Some Reflections on an Auspicious Occasion

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McGill Cap

I’ve been promoted to full “Professor.” I am no longer “Associate Professor M.G. Piety.” I am now, or will be as of 1 September, “Professor M.G. Piety.” According to my colleague Jacques Catudal, I am the first person to make full “Professor” in philosophy at Drexel in more than 18 years.

It has been a long journey, as they say. I decided to study philosophy when I was an undergraduate at Earlham College, a small Quaker college in Richmond, Indiana. I became hooked on philosophy as a result of taking a course on rationalism and empiricism with Len Clark. I didn’t particularly enjoy reading philosophy, and I hated writing philosophy papers. I loved talking about it, though. Talking about it was endlessly fascinating to me, so I switched my major from English to philosophy. I became hooked on Kierkegaard after taking a Kierkegaard seminar with Bob Horn. “Bob,” my friends at Earlham explained, “was God.” He was preternaturally wise and kind and a brilliant teacher who could draw the best out of his students while hardly seeming to do anything himself. I don’t actually remember Bob ever talking in any of the seminars I took with him, and yet he must have talked, of course.

I spent nearly every afternoon of my senior year at Earlham in Bob’s office talking to him about ideas. I worried sometimes that perhaps I should not be taking up so much of his time. He always seemed glad to see me, though, and never became impatient, even as the light began to fade and late afternoon gave way to early evening. I don’t remember him encouraging me to go to graduate school in philosophy (my guess is that he would have considered that unethical, given the state of the job market in philosophy). I do remember, however, that he was pleased when I announced that I had decided to do that.

Graduate school was enormously stimulating, but also exhausting and, for a woman, occasionally demoralizing. There has been much in the news in the last few years about how sexist is the academic discipline of philosophy. Well, it was at least as bad back then when I entered graduate school as it is now, and possibly even worse. Still, I persevered. I began publishing while still a student and was very fortunate to gain the support and mentorship of some important people in the area of Kierkegaard scholarship, including C. Stephen Evans, Robert Perkins and Sylvia Walsh Perkins, and Bruce H. Kirmmse, who was one of my references for a Fulbright scholarship I was awarded in 1990 to complete the work on my dissertation on Kierkegaard’s epistemology.

I lived in Denmark from 1990 until 1998. I received my Ph.D. from McGill University in 1995 but remained in Denmark to teach in Denmark’s International Study Program, then a division of the University of Copenhagen. I wasn’t even able to go back for my graduation, so I learned only a couple of years ago, when my husband bought me my own regalia as a gift, how gorgeous the McGill regalia are (see photo below).

I came to Drexel from Denmark in 1998 as a visiting professor. I liked Drexel. It was overshadowed by its neighbor, the University of Pennsylvania, but that seemed to me almost an advantage back then. That is, Drexel had carved out a unique niche for itself as a technical university, somewhat like MIT but smaller, that provided a first-class education in somewhat smaller range of degree programs than were offered by larger, more traditional institutions. The College of Arts and Sciences seemed to me, at that time, and to a certain extent, still today, as a real jewel, as Drexel’s “secret weapon,” so to speak, because while most large universities had class sizes ranging anywhere from 40 to several hundred students, most of the courses in the humanities at Drexel were capped at 25 students. Drexel also boasted some first-class scholars who were as committed to teaching as to scholarship. Drexel was providing its students with what was effectively the same quality of education in the humanities as is provided at small liberal-arts colleges, while at the same time giving them invaluable hands-on work experience through its co-op programs that few liberal-arts colleges could provide.

Drexel asked me to stay on for a second and then a third year, despite the fact that my beginning was less than auspicious in that at the end of that first fall term, I had mistakenly conflated the times of what should have been two separate exams and hence left my students sitting in a room waiting patiently for almost an hour for me to materialize and administer the exam. It was too late, of course, to do anything by the time I learned, via a phone call from one of the secretaries in the department, of the mistake. I was relieved when not only was the then chair of the department, Ray Brebach, not only not angry with me, but eager to see if I would be willing to stay on for another year. Ray has been one of my favorite colleagues ever since.

I received my tenure-track appointment in the spring of 2001. I liked my department. It was originally the Department of Humanities and Communications and included the disciplines of English, philosophy and communications. It was enormously stimulating to be in such a cross-disciplinary department. There were poets and novelists, as well as traditional literary scholars. I particularly liked being around the communications people, however, because many were engaged in politically significant media studies and that sort of work was reminiscent of the dinner-table discussions I remembered from childhood when my father was an editorial writer for one of the two newspapers in the town where I grew up. My association with the communications people led to the publication of an article I wrote together with my husband on the behavior of the mainstream media in the U.S. leading up to the second Iraq war.

Eventually, however, the communications people left our department and formed a new department together with the anthropologists and sociologists called the Department of Culture and Communications. So then we became the Department of English and Philosophy. I was sad to see the communications people go, but there were still plenty of creative writing people in the department who helped to make it a more stimulating environment than it would have been had it been comprised exclusively of traditional scholars. These people, including Miriam Kotzin and Don Riggs, both brilliantly talented poets, are some of my closest friends. Miriam has encouraged me to write for her outstanding online journal Per Contra, and Don, a talented caricaturist as well as poet, drew the picture of me that I occasionally use for my other blog.

It was an ordeal, however, to go up for tenure. Our department has a tradition of requiring monstrously comprehensive tenure and promotion binders into which must go almost everything one has done on the road to tenure or promotion. I think each one of my tenure binders was around 500 pages in length. It took me the entire summer of 2006 to put them together, a summer when I could have been writing material for publication. To add possible injury to the insult of having to devote so much time to the compilation of these binders was my fear that some of the reports of my “external reviewers” might not be so positive as they would haven been had I not become involved in a scandal in Denmark surrounding a controversial Danish biography of Kierkegaard. I lost several friends, including the aforementioned Bruce Kirmmse, as a result of my role in that controversy, friends whom I feared might well have been recruited to serve as external reviewers.

To this day I don’t know who all the reviewers were. Two were selected from a list I had provided my tenure committee, but the rest were selected by the committee itself. Whatever the reviewers said, however, it was not so negative as to override what subsequently became apparent was the high esteem in which my colleagues held me and my work. I was granted tenure in the spring of 2007 and I have fond memories to this day of the little reception provided by the dean for all faculty who where granted tenure that year. There was champagne and there were toasts and I was very, very happy.

I’d always been happy at Drexel, so I was surprised by the change that took place in me upon my becoming tenured. I felt, suddenly, that I had a home. I felt that people both liked and respected me. More even than that, however, I felt that I had found a community of high-minded people. People committed to principles of justice and fairness. I felt I had found a small community of the sort that Alasdair MacIntyre argues in After Virtue we must find if we are to live happy and fulfilling lives, the kind of community that is increasingly rare in contemporary society.

That all seems long ago now. Drexel has grown and changed. I am still fortunate, however, to have many brilliant, talented, and fair-minded colleagues. Thanks must go to my colleague Abioseh Porter, who chaired the department for most of the time I have been at Drexel and who was a staunch supporter of my development as “public intellectual” long before “public philosophy” enjoyed the vogue it does today. Thanks must also go to the members of my promotion committee, but especially to my colleague Richard Astro, who chaired the committee. I know from merely serving on tenure-review committees that no matter how uncontroversial the final decision is anticipated to be, there is an enormous amount of work required of the committee members, simply because of the level of detail required in the final report.

Thanks must also go to everyone who has supported me throughout my career. I set out, actually, to list each person individually, but then I realized that there are many, many more people than I would ever be able to list. I have been very fortunate.

Thank you everyone. Thank you for everything.

Cap and Gown

 

 

Kierkegaard’s Christian Epistemology

I said in my last post that I would write more about the Kierkegaard conference at Baylor last month. It was an extraordinarily rich conference in terms of  the breadth of topics covered and it was unusual in that there were several papers devoted to aspects of Kierkegaard’s epistemology. Indeed, there was an entire session entitled “Kierkegaardian Challenges to Epistemology.” This is testament to an increasing appreciation of the importance of epistemological concerns to Kierkegaard’s thought.

C. Stephen Evans gave an excellent presentation entitled “Kierkegaard the Natural Theologian? Kierkegaard on Natural Religious Knowledge,” in which he argued (as I argue in Ways of Knowing) that Kierkegaard assumes people have a natural knowledge of God, and that “[t]his natural religious knowledge is not without value” in that “it is part of what prepares a person to encounter the Christian Gospel”  (Evans’ handout).

Of course this natural knowledge of God, explained Evans, is distinguished from faith in Christ, or any knowledge that might come as a product of this faith. The latter sort of knowledge and how faith makes it possible was the subject of my own presentation “Encountering the Truth: Kierkegaard’s Existential Mysticism as a Corrective for the New Atheism.”  My argument was that according to Kierkegaard, an encounter with what he refers to in Philosophical Crumbs as “the god in time” (173) amounts to acquaintance knowledge of God (i.e., in the person of Christ) and that this acquaintance knowledge serves as the foundation for specifically Christian propositional knowledge that looks very unlike the sorts of views the “new atheists” routinely attribute to Christians.

That what Kierkegaard calls an encounter with the god in time can lead to specifically Christian propositional knowledge is a topic I cover in great detail in Ways of Knowing. What was new in the presentation was making clear the implications of Kierkegaard’s position for the kinds of criticisms of religion advanced by the new atheists.

Unfortunately, there are still people out there making arguments about Kierkegaard’s epistemology without really knowing very much about it. Aaron Fehir, for example, whose paper “Subjectivity and Conscience: A Kierkegaardian Resolution to the Problem of the Criterion” was part of the session entitled “Kierkegaardian Challenges to Epistemology,” had read neither Ways of Knowing, nor Anton Hügli’s excellent Die Erkenntnis der Subjektivität und die Objektivität des Erkennens bei Søren Kierkegaard (Basel, Switzerland: Editio Academica, 1973) nor Martin Slotty’s Die Erkenntnis Lehre S.A. Kierkegaards (Diss. Friedrich-Alexanders-Universität, 1915), with the result that in effect there was no Kierkegaardian solution, on his view, to the skeptical “problem of the criterion.”  Both the historical contemporary of Christ and someone who came later were equally poorly situated, argued Fehir during the question period, relative to the “unrecognizable” “god in time.”

You don’t actually have to have read anything on Kierkegaard’s epistemology, however, to appreciate that Kierkegaard’s point in Crumbs is not that both the contemporary and someone who comes later are equally poorly situated relative to “the god in time.” It’s pretty clear, I would argue, to anyone who is sufficiently attentive to the text, that Kierkegaard’s point is that both the contemporary and someone who comes later are equally well situated relative to the god in time. That’s the specific technical sense in which Kierkegaard uses the expression “contemporaneousness.” Anyone, according to Kierkegaard can be “contemporaneous” with the god in time, but (and this is an important qualification) that, for Kierkegaard, is the only way one can achieve a proper understanding of religious truth.

Fehir is a religious pluralist. Kierkegaard was not a religious pluralist. There is certainly room, I would argue, in Kierkegaard’s thought for the view that non-Christian religious traditions could embody elements of religious truth, could be on the right track, so to speak. It’s even possible to argue, based on Kierkegaard’s discussion in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript about the “how” that brings the “what” along with it, that the “pagan” who prays passionately enough encounters Christ (i.e., the god in time, or God in the person of Christ) in his prayers, but it’s Christ, for Kierkegaard that one would have to say he encounters, Christ with whom (through his passion) he achieves “contemporaneousness,” not God unmediated by Christ (remember, the Postscript is the postscript to the Crumbs).

Kierkegaard was no religious pluralist. He was, as I argue in an essay in the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of the Epistemology of Theology, a Christian mystic. That is, Kierkegaard believed in the possibility of a mystical communion with God in the person of Christ which he refers to as “contemporaneousness.” Both Hügli and Slotty agree that this encounter with the god in time provides a point of departure, according to Kierkegaard, for a new type of religious knowledge. The “criterion” of truth about which the skeptics were so concerned is what Kierkegaard refers to as “the certainty of faith.” That is, Kierkegaard does have a criterion of truth. It’s just that it is not one that religious pluralists are going to like.

Postscript

Daniel Mendelsohn said in a recent interview in the Prospect that he came from “a scholarly background.” He’d done a graduate degree in Classics, he explained, before he became a writer; “and in that world, the rule is that you can’t write anything until you’ve read everything.” That’s how I was trained as well. We could use a little more of that mentality in Kierkegaard studies.

Kierkegaard: A Christian Thinker for Our Time

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.