New Book on Kierkegaard’s Epistemology!

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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.

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.
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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.

New English translation of German Book on Kierkegaard’s Epistemology!

Richard Popkin begins his essay “Kierkegaard and Skepticism,” by quoting Hume. “To be a philosophical skeptic,” asserts Hume at the end of his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, “is, in a man of letters, the first and foremost essential step towards being a sound, believing Christian.”

Popkin begins his essay with this quotation because Kierkegaard is known as something of a skeptic. Skepticism, as a philosophical position, is defensible, however, only against the backdrop of a particular, and relatively compelling, epistemological theory. That is, skepticism is essentially an account of the limits of knowledge, so any skeptic worth his salt has to have a fairly sophisticated account of the nature of knowledge and it limits. One would thus expect that there would be a fairly large body of scholarship on Kierkegaard’s epistemology. Strangely, there are only three books on Kierkegaard’s epistemology: Anton Hügli’s Die Erkenntnis der Subjektivitåt und die Objektivität des Erkennens (knowledge of subjectivity and the objectivity of knowing) (Basel, Switzerland: Editio Academica, 1973), Martin Slotty’s dissertation from 1915, Die Erkenntnislehre S. A. Kierkegaards (the epistemology of S. A. Kierkegaard), and my Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology (Waco, TX: Baylor, 2010).

Unfortunately, two of these three works are not only in German, they’re out of print, and that has meant they’ve been more or less ignored by Anglo-American Kierkegaard scholarship, to its detriment. Fortunately, Ways of Knowing makes much of the substance of these works available for the first time to scholars who do not have a sufficient mastery of German to read the originals. Better still, Gegensatz Press is going to publish an English translation of Slotty’s work. This is wonderful news for Kierkegaard scholars, because Slotty’s is by far the more accessible of the two German works. It enjoys the distinction of being the very first work, so far as I know, in any language on Kierkegaard’s epistemology and as such it is something of a general introduction. It should be required reading for every Kierkegaard scholar, especially those who do not want to go on to tackle the larger and more substantive work by Hügli. I don’t know whether Gegensatz takes preorders. My advice is to write them and inquire.