Kierkegaard and Existential Psychotherapy

cropped-sketch_1840_regineknippelsbro_iii_a-1.jpgMuch has been written about Kierkegaard and psychotherapy. That makes sense, given that Kierkegaard had a profound understanding of human psychology. 

Irvin Yalom, an existential psychiatrist, discusses Kierkegaard at length in Existential Psychotherapy (Basic Books, 1980). Several more recent works have appeared on Kierkegaard and psychotherapy, including Everyday Mysteries: A Handbook of Existential Psychotherapy (Routledge, 1997), Psychology and the Other (Oxford, 2015), and Therapy and the Counter-tradition: The Edge of Philosophy (Routledge, 2016). 

Anthony Stadlen, an existential psychotherapist working in London has been running a series of international, interdisciplinary “Inner Circle Seminars” for many years. This year he has two seminar series that focus on Kierkegaard. The first series, which focuses on Fear and Trembling, is already underway. The fourth seminar in that series will be given by John Lippitt this May. 

Stadlen has arranged a second “satellite” series to supplement the Fear and Trembling series. This series will examine two other works, Repetition and Three Upbuilding Discourses. The reason for this additional series of seminars is that these two works were published the same day Fear and Trembling appeared, October 16, 1843. Stadlen’s assumption is that the three works should be understood together and that a careful reading of all three could help to make Kierkegaard’s purpose in the notoriously opaque Fear and Trembling a little easier to divine. 

I am very excited to be invited to be part of this seminar because I have a keen interest in the psychotherapeutic potential of philosophy and of Kierkegaard’s thought in particular. I’m actually a certified philosophical counselor and member of the American Philosophical Practitioners Association. The series looks like it will be excellent. The seminar leaders, in addition to myself, are George Pattison, C. Stephen Evans, Jerome (Yehuda) Gellman and Mariam Al-Attar. I won’t describe the seminars or the presenters in any detail here because Stadlen has posted an announcement about them that contains all the detail one would want, including his contact information. It will suffice here to say that 

— Pattison’s seminar will focus on Kierkegaard’s edifying discourses. 

— My seminar will focus on Repetition. 

— Evans will talk about “divine command theory” as it relates to Fear and Trembling and Works of Love. 

— Lippitt, who gave the first two seminars in the main seminar series on Fear and Trembling, will focus on the questions of whether there is a “teleological suspension of the ethical” and whether there is “an absolute duty to God.” 

— Gellman will focus on Hasidic interpretations of the Akedah and the light these can cast on Kierkegaard’s treatment of it. 

— Finally, al-Attar will look at “divine command theory” in the Islamic tradition and it’s relation to Fear and Trembling.

More information on the seminars can be found on Stadlen’s blog.

Kierkegaard: A Christian Thinker for Our Time

Anthony Rudd
Anthony Rudd

This has been a busy year for Kierkegaard scholars. It’s the bicentennial of Kierkegaard’s birth, so there have been a number of important Kierkegaard conferences. The most interesting one by far, I believe, was the one held at Baylor University from October 31st through November 2nd. The conference, which was part of the ongoing series “Baylor Symposia on Faith and Culture,” was entitled “Kierkegaard: A Christian Thinker for Our Time.”

Lots of conferences purport to address the issue of the relevance of Kierkegaard to contemporary life, but few deliver on that promise. This one did. There were over 400 attendees for the three day event and the topics ranged from “American Religion,” and “Kierkegaard as a Profit to the Church Today,” to “Some Contributions of Kierkegaard to Medical and Psychiatric Practice.” As with so many conferences, there was an embarrassment of riches in the form of many concurrent sessions each with a theme so interesting that it was very difficult to choose from among them.

There’s no way I could summarize all the papers I heard, let alone all the papers presented at the conference, so I’m going to give only a few highlights and direct interested readers to the website for the conference for more complete information.

The highlights for me on the first day were the presentations by Jan and Steve Evans. Jan Evans is a professor of Spanish at Baylor who specializes in the work of Miguel de Unamuno. Unfortunately, I know very little about Unamuno. Fortunately, Evans’ paper gave me a little insight into the respects in which Unamuno was influenced by Kierkegaard. I’m not going to take up space here discussing that issue, however, because Evans has a new book out on that very topic, entitled Miguel de Unamuno’s Quest for Faith: A Kierkegaardian Understanding of Unamuno’s Struggle to Believe (Wipf & Stock, 2013) so if you are interested you should check it out. You can even get it in a Kindle edition!

C. Stephen Evans is one of the most important Kierkegaard scholars working today and an absolutely mesmerizing speaker. I knew his talk, “Kierkegaard on Natural Theology: Why We Can know There Is a God Without Proofs,” would be good, but I was concerned that I might have difficulty following it since it was in the evening. I find it really challenging to listen to more than a couple of presentations in one day. I like to think that it’s because I become so mentally preoccupied with issues raised in those papers that it becomes hard for me to concentrate on new material, but it could well be that I just can’t process that much information in so short a time.

I needn’t have worried, though, that I would have difficulty following Evans’ paper. It was absolutely absorbing in terms of substance and was delivered in such an animated and apparently spontaneous manner that it was as if Steve were holding forth in one’s living room after a particularly pleasant meal. The time flew by.

I understand that there will be a volume of selected papers from this conference. This is going to be a must-buy for every Kierkegaard scholar, not simply because of the enormous variety of wonderful material it will contain, but also because the fact that Kierkegaard believed we could know there was a God is still not widely appreciated by Kierkegaard scholars and this is a serious obstacle to progress in the field. I’m going to return to this issue, in fact, in my second post on this conference where I will examine in some detail one of the papers delivered in a session on Saturday entitled “Kierkegaardian Challenges to Epistemology.”

The highlights for me on Friday were a panel discussion in the morning entitled “Kierkegaard as a Prophet to the Church Today,” and Anthony Rudd’s “Featured Presentation” in the afternoon entitled “Kierkegaard’s Christian Platonism.”

The first session was a panel discussion of Kyle Roberts’ book Emerging Prophet: Kierkegaard and the Postmodern People of God (Wipf & Stock, 2013) (also available in a Kindle edition). Roberts is an associate professor of systematic theology at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul Minnesota and his book is, as one may have gathered from the title, about the significance of Kierkegaard for the contemporary religious phenomenon that is generally referred to as “emergent Christianity.” Roberts confesses in the preface to the book that he is “neither an emerging church leader nor a recognized emergent theologian.” He is deeply sympathetic he explains, however, to the movement and has gotten a great deal of exposure to it through observing the gatherings at an emergent church in Minneapolis known as Solomon’s Porch. The book, he explains, is his “attempt to bring Kierkegaard’s religious thought into dialogue with postmodern expressions of Christianity (i.e., the emergent, or emerging church).”

I was sorely tempted to attend the session on Kierkegaard’s contribution to medical and psychiatric practice because I am very interested in the philosophy of psychology and psychotherapy. Unfortunately, that session ran at the same time as Anthony Rudd’s presentation “Kierkegaard’s Christian Platonism.” Anthony is a dear friend and Plato one of my favorite philosophers, so I couldn’t really pass on that session. I had read an early version of a paper Rudd had done on Kierkegaard and Plato and found it fascinating. I think Plato had a much greater influence on Kierkegaard’s thought than is generally appreciated. Rudd is beginning what I hope will be an avalanche of work on this topic and not only did I want to support my friend, I wanted to get in on the ground floor of this new direction in Kierkegaard scholarship.

Rudd’s presentation was outstanding and generated a very lively discussion afterward because a couple of people in the audience thought Rudd had given short shrift to the distinction Kierkegaard occasionally makes between Plato and Socrates. Since Rudd was a “featured speaker,” his presentation will very likely be part of the volume that will come out of this conference so readers will be able to judge for themselves whether they think this was a weakness in Rudd’s argument. I don’t think it was. I think Rudd’s position was not just convincing but really exciting in that it is certain to generate much more work on this hitherto neglected but clearly very important topic.

I will say more about the conference in a later post.