Death and Nonsense

Death has been on everyone’s mind for awhile now. I’m presenting a paper on the topic of death in Kierkegaard at the upcoming annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. As regular readers of this blog will know, I recently completed my own translation of the portion of Works of Love that deals with loving someone who has died. (That translation will appear in print soon, from Gegensatz Press in an edition that will have the original Danish and my English translation of that text on facing pages.) I thought I ought to review Kierkegaard’s other writings on death, as well, to help me prepare the presentation.

One such work is the religious discourse “At a Graveside” from Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions. I don’t know whether I had ever read it before. If I did, then it was either in the original Danish or in a translation that preceded the Hongs’ translation from 1993. Until reading “At a Graveside,” I would have said that the Hongs’ translation of The Sickness Unto Death was the most problematic of their translations. “At a Graveside” may actually have it beat, though, for reasons I will present below.

The first indication I had that it wasn’t a good translation is that it doesn’t read well. Kierkegaard’s writing is not always equally brilliant, but it is never bad. This, is bad, though: 

“Death’s decision is therefore not definable by equality, because the equality consists in annihilation. And pondering this is supposed to be alleviating for the living!” 

The expression that the Hongs consistently translate as “decision” here and elsewhere in the discourse, is Afgjørelse. The Danish term that most closely corresponds to the English “decision” is not Afgjørelse, however, but Beslutning. According to Ferrall-Repp, Afgjørelse means “finishing, etc., completion; decision, adjustment, settlement.” “Decision” is there. The definition makes clear, however, that an Afgjørelse is a “decision” in a formal, or legalistic sense, such as the decision of a referee or a judge. This explains, at least in part, why the passage above is confusing. 

Dødens Afgjørelse would be better rendered here as “Death’s reckoning.” 

To make matters worse, not only is Dødens Afgjørelse confusingly translated as “Death’s decision” in the passage above, it’s consistently translated that way throughout the entire discourse, even where it is used as a section heading. This, along with additional translation problems I will detail below, makes the discourse anything but “pellucid” in the manner Gordon Marino claims in his essay “A Critical Perspective on Kierkegaard’s ‘At a Graveside,’” in Kierkegaard and Death. 

There’s more to this lamentably translated passage than the unfortunate translation of Afgørelse as “decision.” The preposition ved that the Hongs have translated as “by” is probably better translated as “through.” “By” is listed before “through” in Ferrall-Repp, but the latter is there as well, and I think it is preferable because Kierkegaard appears to be trying to say that we can’t actually grasp death by thinking of it as the great equalizer, because the equality is established through annihilation and we have no better grasp of that than we have of death. That is, he isn’t suggesting we ever attempt to define death as equality, but that we often think we can come to a better understanding of it by thinking of it as, among other things, the great equalizer.

What about the second sentence: “And pondering this is supposed to be alleviating for the living!” The use of “alleviating” there is unidiomatic. “Alleviating” generally takes a direct object in English. We say, for example, that a particular lotion is good at alleviating itching. We don’t normally speak of something being alleviating for someone. 

The Danish term that is translated as “alleviating” is formildende. Formildende isn’t in Ferrall-Repp. Formilde is though, and it’s defined there as “to soothe, soften, mollify, appease, assuage, alleviate, temper, mitigate.” So once again we see that the Hongs have chosen an English term that could, in principle, be an acceptable translation of the Danish term in question. It just doesn’t work in this passage. 

“And pondering this is supposed to be soothing for the living” is clearly preferable to “And pondering this is supposed to be alleviating for the living.” I’m going to go out on a limb here, however, and suggest that “comforting” would actually be the most idiomatic translation. It isn’t offered as a possible translation of formilde in Ferrall-Repp, but it captures the sense of formildene in this passage. 

Let’s try out our new translation of the passage and compare it with the Hongs’. The Hongs have:

“Death’s decision is therefore not definable by equality, because the equality consists in annihilation. And pondering this is supposed to be alleviating for the living!” 

We have:

“Death’s reckoning is therefore not definable through equality, because the equality is in annihilation. And pondering this is supposed to be comforting for the living!”

The Hongs have interpolated “consists” here. That isn’t really a problem, however, in terms of understanding the meaning of the passage. It’s just what Strunk and White would call bad form in that it’s unnecessary. The real problems are with the Hongs’ translations of Dodens Afgjørelse as “Death’s decision,” ved as “by,” and formildende as “alleviating.” The first, I would argue, is both unidiomatic and confusing. The second suggests an equation of death with equality that is clearly not intended in the original, and the third is unidiomatic. 

There are lots more of the kinds of problems described above. Page 86, for example, has four instances of  the same unidiomatic use of “alleviating” as appears in the passage above. This is arguably simply a stylistic problem rather than a substantive one, but not only is it a disservice to both Kierkegaard and readers of the Hongs’ translation to render Kierkegaard’s flowing Danish in an awkward an unidiomatic English, it can lead to substantive problems. That is, readers may wonder what is being alleviated and why Kierkegaard is being so mysterious about it. 

These are not the worst problems with the Hongs’ translation of “Ved en Grav” (literally, simply “At a Grave”). The Hongs’ inexplicable choice to translate Afgjørelse as “decision” leads to even greater problems in another passage. This one is on page 97 where, in what Ralph Waldo Emerson would refer to as a foolish attempt at consistency, the Hongs translate Uafgjørtheden as “indecisiveness.” Afgjørt is the past participle of Afgjøre, which, according to Ferrall-Repp means “to finish, complete; to decide; to settle, adjust.” It is, of course, related to Afgjørelse, hence the Hongs’ apparently decided to translate it as “indecisive” in order to preserve in the translation a terminological consistency found in the original Danish text. 

The problem is that meaning was sacrificed here to consistency. The passage includes two references to holding death “in the equilibrium of indecisiveness.” It isn’t at all clear, however, what that could possibly mean. That is, the passage does not concern someone contemplating suicide who can’t make up their mind. It concerns our difficulty in grasping what, exactly, death is.

It gets worse. “To paganism,” reads the translation on page 97, “the highest courage was the wise person (whose earnestness was indicated expressly by his not being in a hurry with the explanation [i.e., of death]) who was able to live with the thought of death in such a way that he overcame this thought every moment of his life by indecisiveness.”

What? How can one overcome anything by indecisiveness? Kierkegaard would never say such a thing. If there was anything of which Kierkegaard was contemptuous, it was indecisiveness. By this point, you can probably figure out for yourself how Uafgjørtheden should be translated here. It refers to indeterminacy, or, more awkwardly, undecidability, not indecisiveness. This is made clear in the text that follows. “The wise person,” the passage continues, “knows that death exists [er til]; he does not live thoughtlessly, forgetting that it exists [er til]. He meets with it in his thoughts, he renders it powerless in indeterminability [Ubestemmelighed], and this is his victory over death.”  

Finally, translators of Kierkegaard should avoid, if at all possible, rendering er til as “exists,” because “existence,” i.e., Existens, is a technical term for Kierkegaard. The passage above would be less misleading if er til were translated simply as “is,” or “is [real]” with brackets to indicate that “real” is an interpolation.

How can Gordon Marino have thought that the Hongs’s translation of “Ved en Grav” was “pellucid”? Portions of it are flat out nonsensical. Kierkegaard and Death, the volume in which Marino’s essay on “At a Graveside” appears, is a collection of essays by various scholars. Many of the essays understandably focus on “At a Graveside.” What is less understandable is that none of them mentions the numerous problems with the translation. 

The strange silence of the contributors to Kierkegaard and Death concerning the problems with the Hongs’ translation of “Ved en Grav” reveals a serious challenge to rigorous Kierkegaard scholarship. It would appear that either the impression that Kierkegaard’s writing is often nonsensical even in the original must be so pervasive among scholars that many don’t bother to check awkward and confusing passages in translations against the original Danish, or that knowledge of Danish, even rudimentary knowledge, is so rare among Kierkegaard scholars that most are simply unable to determine problems with translations even when they suspect they may exist.

New Book on Kierkegaard’s Epistemology!


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

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

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


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

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

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

Glowing Review of Ways of Knowing!

I was pleased to discover a glowing review of my book Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology in the Sept 2011 issue of The Review of Metaphysics. The reviewer is Peter J. Mehl of the University of Central Arkansas. The review is basically a summary of the book, with a few comments toward the end.

The book, as the title suggests, is a study of Kierkegaard’s epistemology. Following a distinction Kierkegaard develops in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Crumbs, it divides knowledge into two types: objective and subjective. Objective knowledge, as Mehl explains, “is descriptive; it is not essentially related to the existence of the individual knower” (179). Subjective knowledge, on the other hand, “is so related and includes ethical and religious knowledge both of which are prescriptive” (179).  Each type of knowledge is further subdivided with the result that Kierkegaard’s epistemology emerges in this study as enormously complex.

Mehl asserts that Ways of Knowing is “a tightly reasoned and sharply focused study” (179). He particularly likes the observation that, according to Kierkegaard, “[t]heories in science and scholarship are always the product of the cooperative efforts of various individuals throughout the history of these disciplines and need … to be continually reverified within the evolving standards of verification agreed on by practitioners in these disciplines” (Ways of Knowing, 53). “This strikingly contemporary pragmatist understanding of empirical knowledge,” he observes, “would seem to have some relevance for our understandings in the psychological as well as the normative realm” (180). He laments, however, that the study “does not relate Kierkegaard’s thought to contemporary epistemological thought or to any particular philosophical or religious traditions” (181).

I understand Mehl’s frustration. The objective of my book, however, as I explain in the introduction, is simply to present in detail Kierkegaard’s views on knowledge and thus to encourage more scholarly work on Kierkegaard’s epistemology. There are only two books on this subject, and both are in German. Fortunately, Gegensatz Press will soon have an English translation of Martin Slotty’s Die Erkenntnisslehre S.A. Kierkegaards from 1915. It’s unlikely, however, that there will ever be an English translation of Anton Hügli’s excellent Die Erkenntniss der Subjektivität und die Objektivität des Erkennens from 1973. It seemed to me that what was needed now was simply to lay bare what Kierkegaard’s views on knowledge were. I decided to leave the task of relating those views to particular trends in philosophy, whether in the past or present, to later works.  There are thus numerous historical references in Ways of Knowing, but no detailed comparisons of Kierkegaard’s views with those of earlier philosophers, and there are only subtle allusions to problems that preoccupy contemporary epistemologists.

It’s not such a bad thing, however, that Mehl was frustrated by this. Similarities between Kierkegaard’s views and those of earlier thinkers such as Descartes, Leibniz, Kant, and even Hegel, to name just a few, ought to leap off the page to specialists in the views of those figures. Ways of Knowing is thus a rich resource for scholars. All they need to do is to bring their own expertise to bear in drawing comparisons and –presto, a new scholarly article!

Of course, my objective was not primarily to provide other scholars with material for future articles but to present a study of manageable bulk that would, because of the modest nature of its objective, facilitate “tightly reasoned” analysis. And, of course, I wanted to provide myself with material for future articles, and perhaps even books. I have, in fact, decided on the project for the book I will do as soon as I’ve finished Fear and Dissembling and it has come directly out of my work on Ways of Knowing. I plan to send a copy to Mehl as a thank you for his lovely review.