Kierkegaard at the American Academy of Religion

IMG_2770There are sessions devoted to Kierkegaard at both the American Philosophical Association and the American Academy of Religion. There’s usually only one session devoted to Kierkegaard at the APA meeting, though, whereas there are nearly always three or even four sessions devoted to Kierkegaard at the AAR meeting. This is due to the tireless activity of the Kierkegaard, Religion, and Culture Group, one of the many groups affiliated with the AAR. This year, the KRC group sponsored three sessions: a book session on the late David Kangas’s Errant Affirmations (Bloomsbury, 2018), a session entitled “Where is God? Kierkegaard and the Denigration of Public Discourse, and another session entitled “Kierkegaard and Cinema.”

In addition to these three sessions, Søren Kierkegaard Society put on its annual banquet on the evening of the first official day of the conference. Joakim Garff was the banquet speaker. He gave a talk entitled “Expectation: Temporality and Rhetoric in Kierkegaard’s Edifying Discourses.” I heard from people who were able to make the banquet that the talk was good. Unfortunately, I was not able to make the banquet. I missed my flight. I was able to get a later flight at no extra charge, but the flight arrived too late for me to be able to make the banquet.

The SKS also sponsored a session entitled “Truth is Subjectivity: Kierkegaard and Political Theology: A Symposium in Honor of Robert Perkins.” Bob was a true giant of Kierkegaard scholarship. His editorship of the International Kierkegaard Commentary series from Mercer University Press, along with his other tireless scholarly activities earned him, in my mind anyway, the status of the unofficial father of contemporary Kierkegaard studies in English. The session, fittingly, was one of the best of have been to in many years. I was somewhat apprehensive about it because there were five speakers and a respondent scheduled for a session that was only two and a half hours long. That’s a lot of speakers! Fortunately, most of the presentations were short, so there was even a little time for discussion afterward.

The speakers were John Davenport, myself, C. Stephen Evans, George Pattison, and Lee Barrett, and the respondent was Christopher Nelson. Davenport’s paper was “The Crowd and Populism,” mine was “Kierkegaard’s Apocryphal Politics,” Evans’s was “Kierkegaard on Putting the Modern State in its Place,” Pattison’s was “Stepping Forward in Character — But onto what Stage? Arendtian Reflections on Kierkegaardian Anti-politics,” and Barrett’s was “Can Love Be Political?” All the papers were good and the discussion was even better. Sylvia Walsh Perkins was so pleased with the event that she immediately contacted Mercer and arranged for the papers to be published in a volume commemorating Bob. I was honored to have been part of the event and I look forward to the appearance of the volume!

The book exhibit is always one of my favorite parts of the AAR meeting. There was a period, when the AAR did not meet together with the Society of Biblical Literature, when the book exhibit was substantially diminished. The AAR and SBL are back together again, though, and the book exhibit is back to its old robust self!

I made an interesting discovery at the meeting. Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralistic Epistemology is out in a paperback version! You can see it to the right of Steve Evans’s two excellent books in the photo above. That’s good news. One of the things I like about Baylor is that its books are reasonably priced. Sadly, I have not yet been able to justify spending what it would cost to purchase Kangas’s book. Even discounted, it is almost $80.

Scholarly books are expensive to produce, there’s no question about that, and Baylor’s production process is second to none. They do a truly beautiful job with their books, both in terms of the editing and in terms of the aesthetics. Yet despite this, Ways of Knowing was originally only around $50! Unfortunately, the new paperback version appears to be nearly as much. It is an important work, though, if I say so myself, and it’s good to see that it is still available. (I’ve seen paperback’s from other publishers go for more than $100. I’m not naming any names, but I suspect many readers will know the publishers I’m talking about)

It occurred to me that scholars who have not yet purchased the book might like to learn more about it before deciding whether they want to purchase it, so I have extracted a few pages from the penultimate version of the second chapter and attached it here. Check it out!


Kierkegaard Repetitions: An International Conference Celebrating the Bicentenary of Kierkegaard’s Birth

Dinner at the Danish Embassy
Dinner at the Danish Embassy

I just returned from one of the most stimulating and interesting Kierkegaard conferences I have been to in many years. The conference was hosted by the Humanities Center at Johns Hopkins University, with support provided by the Office of the Dean of the Zanvyi S Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, the Max Kade Center for Modern German Thought, and the Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures at Johns Hopkins.

The conference ran all day Friday and Saturday, Sept. 20th and 21. Peter Taksøe-Jensen, the Ambassador of Denmark to the United States, and Katherine Newman, James B Knapp Dean of the Zanvyi S Krieger School of Arts and Sciences gave the opening addresses on Friday after which there were four papers. The very first speaker was Pia Søltoft, the director of the Søren Kierkegaard Research Center (formerly an independent institution but now part of the University of Copenhagen). It was a rare treat for me to see Pia. I had done some translation work for her when I lived in Copenhagen, but despite the fact that I have been back to Denmark many times since I left in 1998, twice even for conferences, our paths hadn’t crossed. If there were fashion awards for scholars, Pia would win one. She is always fabulously turned out!

The title of Søltoft’s talk was “The Transparency of Self-Love? Kierkegaard vs. Frankfurt.” Søltoft summarized both Kierkegaard’s and Frankfurt’s positions on the nature of love and self love and argued that Kierkegaard departed from Frankfurt in that his account of love did not involve an identification of the lover with the interests of the beloved. I pointed out during the question period, however, that I believe this position rests on a conflation of desire and interest. What Søltoft pointed out was that Kierkegaard does not believe that simply giving someone what they profess to want is necessarily loving. Sometimes people desire things that will be injurious to them, hence, according to Kierkegaard, to endeavor to satisfy such a wish is not loving. Søltoft is absolutely right there. It is simply mistaken, I would argue, to take desires to represent interests.

The second presentation was by Hent de Vries of Johns Hopkins. The title of his talk was “The Kierkegaardian Moment: Dialectical Theology and its Aftermath.” De Vries talk, and the first talk of the afternoon “Constantine Constantius Goes to the Theater,” by another professor from Johns Hopkins, Michael Fried were both erudite and informative.

Leonardo Lisi and Jonathan Lear
Leonardo Lisi and Jonathan Lear

Following Fried was Jonathan Lear from the University of Chicago. Lear’s talk was entitled “On a Possible Use of Disjunction in the Late Journals of Søren Kierkegaard, 1854-1855.” Lear began by explaining that his title was meant to be humorous and proceeded to give a really wonderful presentation on the difficulty of understanding what it means to be human, with special emphasis on Socrates and irony. Lear has a new book entitled A Case for Irony that is rich in references to Kierkegaard and hence must reading for serious Kierkegaard scholars. Given the quality of Lear’s book on Freud, which I finished reading just before the conference, I’d say that pretty much anything Lear writes is well worth a read. Lear is a self-professed long-time Kierkegaard lover and often includes references to Kierkegaard in his works.

There were six papers on Saturday. The day began with a paper by Michelle Kosch from Cornell. Her paper was entitled “Moral Ideals and ‘ought implies can.'” The paper opened with what Kosch identified as one of her favorite passages from Kierkegaard:

Where, then, is the boundary for the single individual in his concrete existence between what is lack of will and what is lack of ability; what is indolence and earthly selfishness and what is the limitation of finitude? … Let all the dialecticians convene – they will not be able to decide this for a particular individual in concreto. (VII: 426.)

Ekart Förster and Michell Kosch
Ekart Förster and Michell Kosch

Kosch’s paper opened with an anecdote which, if I remember correctly, goes like this: One day the chair of her department was one his way in to school for a meeting when he fell down the stairs in his house and had, according to his own words, “the wind knocked out of him.” He made it to the meeting, however, despite the accident, and learned only later that he’d actually suffered several cracked ribs and a collapsed lung.

If he had called in to say that he could not, in fact, make it to the meeting, explained Kosch, no one would have questioned the statement. Everyone would have accepted his claim that he was simply unable to make it to the meeting because of his accident. And yet, he had actually been able to make it to the meeting. So where does that leave us with respect to the project of determining the relation between what we can do relative to what we ought to do? This was the subject of Kosch’s fascinating presentation. She said in conversation afterward that she thinks the presentation is too rough at this point to try to publish. If that’s true, then her standards are indeed high because I thought it was extraordinarily rigorous and that the topic it addresses is one of the most important in ethics/action theory, if not in philosophy more generally.

After Kosch came Vanessa Rumble who spoke on Kierkegaard and Schelling.  Rumble’s work is always interesting and this paper was no exception. Next was Lore Hühn of the University of Freiburg. Hühn gave an equally interesting and informative presentation on “negativity” in Hegel, Kierkegaard and Adorno. I enjoyed both these papers immensely, and was particularly pleased to meet Professor Hühn because in addition to being an excellent scholar, she is the president of the International Schelling Society.

David Kangas, of Cal State Stanislaus, gave the last paper before lunch, entitled “The Nowhere of Truth: Kierkegaard’s Discourse on the Occasion of Confession.” Kangas is one of the few scholars giving serious analytical attention to Kierkegaard’s religious discourses. It’s strange that these works have not received more attention given that Heidegger considered they contained more philosophical substance than anything else Kierkegaard had written. Kangas’ presentation, which developed the idea that the act of confession was not really an act at all, but a particular kind of inaction (for want of a better word), was one of the most original and thought provoking of the entire conference.

I was honored to chair the last session of the conference where the first presenter was my long-time friend Edward Mooney of Syracuse. It was Mooney who approached me about translating Kierkegaard for Oxford, and Mooney who did the introduction to that book, so I was very grateful to be able to thank him publicly for his long friendship and support. The title of his presentation was “Dependence and its Discontents: How Self is Sustained by Another” and was a lyrical exploration of its subject in the spirit of Kierkegaard’s own writing. This was not surprising given that Mooney is a published poet as well as a scholar.

The last speaker of the conference was Michael Finkenthal of Johns Hopkins whose paper was entitled “Kierkegaard in Romania before WWII: Reception and Rejection.” There were several scholars from Johns Hopkins on the program. What distinguished Finkenthal, however, was that he is not a philosopher, theologian, or literary scholar–he’s a physicist! He’s in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Johns Hopkins. He’s published extensively in that field, but has somehow also managed to publish several works of philosophy and or intellectual history including one on Cioran, another on Shestov, and a third on Benjamin Fondane.

The highlight of the conference, however, was the dinner on Friday evening. Peter Taksøe-Jensen, the Ambassador of Denmark to the United States, invited all the conference participants to a dinner at the Danish Embassy in Washington. It was by far the best conference dinner I had ever been to and a lovely gesture on the part of the Ambassador and the Danish government more generally. The embassy is absolutely beautiful, decorated in the impeccably understated style specific to the Danes. No one has so well developed a sense of style as the Danes!

Special thanks have to go to the other session chairs: Ruth Leys, Paola Marrati, and Eckart Förster of Johns Hopkins and Kristin Gjesdal of Temple University, and, finally, to Leonardo Lisi of Johns Hopkins, who organized the conference and shepherded the participants about the beautiful campus. I can only imagine how much work must have gone into that!

“Kierkegaard and German Thought”

“Kierkegaard and German Thought” was the title of a conference held last Thursday and Friday at the University of Oregon. The conference was sponsored by the Department of German and Scandinavian and organized by Michael Stern, an associate professor in the dept. It was one of the most interesting and stimulating conferences I’ve been to in years. The speakers included David Kangas and Vanessa Rumble, both highly esteemed Kierkegaard scholars and regulars on what one might call the Kierkegaard circuit (I was on the program as well, but modesty precludes my referring to myself as “highly esteemed”). All the papers were excellent though and it was particularly stimulating to me to hear papers from people with whose work I am less familiar. The other speakers were (in the order of their appearance on the program): Gantt Gurley (Oregon), Charles Scott (Emeritus, Vanderbilt), Michael Stern (Oregon), Michelle Kosch (Cornell), Daniel Conway (Texas A&M), Leonardo Lissi (Johns Hopkins), the aforementioned David Kangas and Vanessa Rumble, and Jeffrey Librett (Oregon).

Gurley (who seems to know as many languages as the fabled Thorleifur Gudmondson Repp) spoke Thursday on Kierkegaard and “The Concept of Byrony.” Scott, whose paper was entitled “The Force of Life and Faith,” spoke on Kierkegaard and Niezsche. Michael Stern, whose paper was entitled “Clouds: The Tyrany of Irony Over Philosophy,” spoke about Socrates in Aristophanes and Kierkegaard. Michelle Kolsch, whose paper was entitled “Fichte and (Wilhelm) on Practical Reasoning,” made a convincing case Fichte was the philosopher Kierkegaard had in mind when writing the second volume of Either/Or, rather than, as some have argued, Kant or Hegel. Daniel Conway examined Kierkegaard and Nietzsche on resentment. I talked about Kierkegaard and German mysticism. (Yes, you will notice I’ve left off mentioned the paper titles. I feared that was becoming monotonous.)

Friday began with Leonardo Lisi’s paper “Antigone’s Silence: Tragedy and the form of History in Kierkegaard.” (Okay, I’m back to paper titles. So long as I’m luxuriating within these parenthesis, I’d like to add that Lisi and Librett have two of the finest speaking voices I’ve ever heard. I’d listen to them talk about anything just to hear those lovely voices. Plus, they’re both scary smart, so they’d be worth listening to no matter what they were talking about). Kangas’s (I think the simple s’ is an affectation. I mean, would anyone say “Kangas’ paper”?)  paper was entitled “Of Spirit: On Being Human in Kierkegaard’s Late Discourses.” Kangas’s paper was a particular favorite of mine, not because it was better than the others but because so much of it was directly relevant to my own interests, both in Kierkegaard and in life more generally. Librett went next, though he was listed as last in the program. His paper was entitled “Modalities of Anxiety in Kierkegaard and Heidegger” as was so expertly crafted that it actually made me, if only briefly, want to read Heidegger.

My hands-down favorite paper, however, was Vanessa Rumble’s “Stirrings: Fichte and Kierkegaard on Fate, Freedom and Fault.” The paper was an interpretation of Fear and Trembling as a meditation on trauma that focused more on the various accounts of weaning in the book than on the treatments of the Akedah (for those of you unfamiliar with this term, it refers to the binding of Isaac). I found it absolutely compelling.

The campus of the University of Oregon is beautiful. It is was gorgeous and green, lush with spring folliage and many of the buildings appear to be in the architectural style known as “prairie school.” (The picture above is of Stern at the podium of the room in which the conference was held. Okay, there’s more of the room than there is of Stern, but the room was just gorgeous. The picture doesn’t do it justice.) Conference goers were housed at the charming Excelsior Inn just next to the campus and treated to a delicious gourmet breakfast each morning in the inn’s restaurant. There was a banquet the last day at an excellent restaurant called Marché. The wine was wonderful and the company was even better. I’d like to thank all the folks at U. of Oregon for their hospitality, but especially Mark T. Unno from the Department of Religious studies, who introduced my paper. Professor Unno gave me the loveliest introduction I’ve ever received (which included some nice words about this blog).

I’m going to lobby U. of Oregon to do this every year!