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Kierkegaard’s Christian Epistemology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs Online!

I made another great discovery a few days ago. My translation of Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs (Oxford, 2009) is now on Google books. Yes, that’s right. It’s not the whole version, but only a portion of it. Still, what’s there is searchable. This is very good news because the print version has no index. Oxford decided against the inclusion of an index, I presume, because including one would have increased production costs and delayed publication (see below). Of course this wouldn’t have been a problem if Oxford had produced an ebook version along with the paperback. Unfortunately, Oxford does not appear to be so forward looking as Cambridge, which produced a Kindle edition of Alastair Hannay’s new translation of Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript (which is not only searchable but is only $17.60 as opposed to $33.81 for the paperback).

I’d like to put in a plug here for ebooks, and, in particular, for the Kindle ebook reader. I won my Kindle in a contest sponsored by the German publisher Springer just over a year ago and fell completely in love with it. I can get books instantly on my Kindle from wherever I am, I can highlight and cut and paste text and make notes and then upload all this material to my computer. Kindle also allows me to move easily back and forth between text and notes. It’s a scholar’s dream. Yes, it is a way for Amazon to sell books, but what’s wrong with that. I was buying tons of books from Amazon already anyway. Now I am paying less for them. What people don’t know, however, is that many of the books in the “Kindle store” are actually free because they are in the public domain. When you search for a book, if it’s what you could call a classic, then you’ll normally get several pages of hits. If you don’t have to have a particular edition and you don’t want to pay for the book, you just have to look through the various editions until you find the free ones (there are often several free editions). You can also put ebooks that you already have as Word or pdf files on your Kindle.

Ebooks are both the future of reading and the future of scholarship.

I’m sure there’s more great stuff out there on Google books. If my new translations are up there, then there are going to be lots of other books you’ve been wanting but have put off buying because of the expense. Try a little web surfing yourself and if you find anything good, let me know!

(See blog entry from 1/16/11 for info about a free index to Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs.)

Happy New Year!