One of the highlights, for me, of the recent conference on Kierkegaard at Johns Hopkins University, was meeting Jonathan Lear. Lear is a distinguished professor in the Committee on Social Thought and in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Chicago. He is also a practicing psychoanalyst. I have an interest in psychoanalysis and, in fact, am a member of the Philadelphia Jung Seminar. It is a rare treat to meet such a distinguished philosopher who is interested in Kierkegaard, and a rarer one still to meet a philosopher who is a practicing psychoanalyst!
I discovered, in conversation with Lear, that he is teaching a course this fall on Kierkegaard and that he is using my translation of Kierkegaard’s PhilosophicalCrumbs. He wrote to me recently with a question about the text to which I did not immediately have an answer. “On p. 108 of your text,” he wrote, “Climacus says, ‘(This is the untruth of paganism.)’ I don’t think I understand. Do you have any words of wisdom on that claim?”
The question about this passage from Crumbs is a good one, so I thought I would share my answer to Lear with readers of this blog. I wasn’t sure myself what that parenthetical comment meant, so I went to the online version of the collected works of Kierkegaard in Danish to check my translation against the original text and I discovered that I had, in fact, left something out. There is a word in the original Danish that does not appear in the translation, but which really ought to be there. I don’t know how I failed to include it, but I did. Here is the Danish text followed by my translation with the missing word inserted
Enhver anden Aabenbarelse var for Kjærligheden et Bedrag, fordi den enten først maatte have foretaget en Forandring med den Lærende (men Kjærligheden forandrer ikke den Elskede, men forandrer sig selv) og skjult for ham, at dette var fornødent, eller letsindigt være forblevet uvidende om, at hele Forstaaelsen var en Skuffelse (Dette er Hedenskabets Usandhed).
Any other revelation would, for love, be a deception, because it would either first have had to undertake a transformation of the learner and hidden from him that this had been necessary (but love does not alter the beloved, rather it alters itself), or it would have had to allow him to remain blissfully [letsindigt] ignorant of the fact that the whole understanding had been an illusion. (That is the untruth of paganism.)
“Paganism,” for Kierkegaard (and I believe many of his contemporaries) is a synonym for the Greeks. Kierkegaard often speaks of the Greeks (i.e., the ancient Greeks) as “lighthearted” because they do not have a concept of sin. Sin, according to Kierkegaard/Climacus is what separates human beings from God. SIN is the difference, the main difference. But the Greeks, of course, because they did not have the concept of sin, did not understand that there was an obstacle to their coming to understand the eternal, unchanging truth. They assumed they could just think themselves into it. They thought they could “understand” the truth, but really, according to Kierkegaard, their understanding was an illusion (“untruth”).
I think that’s what Kierkegaard means in that passage. It’s possible, I suppose, to get that meaning even without the inclusion of “letsindigt/blissfully,” but I think it is harder, so I am grateful to Lear for his question and will add the missing word to the list of corrections I’m planning to send to Oxford.
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.
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 Ironythat 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.)
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!