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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.

Conference Report

AAR Book Exhibit

The annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion is the single most important conference for Kierkegaard scholars. There are normally several sessions devoted exclusively to Kierkegaard, but this year there were an unprecedented five. The first was on Saturday  morning. It was co-sponsored by the Christian Systematic Theology Section and the Kierkegaard, Religion and Culture Group. The theme was Christology and Kierkegaard and the session was presided over by C. Stephen Evans of Baylor University. The second was later the same day. The theme of this second session was the work of Edward Mooney. This, for me, was a particularly interesting session because Mooney is as much a poet as a scholar and this was brought out well by the speakers. The third session was late in the afternoon on Saturday (yes, that’s right, there were three sessions devoted to Kierkegaard on Saturday). The theme of this session was esthetics and the speakers included Joakim Garff, the author of Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography (Princeton, 2005) about which I’ve written.

I’m afraid I missed the session on Sunday morning that was devoted to Kierkegaard and Hermeneutics. I’d like to have gotten to that session, if only to see one of my favorite Kierkegaard scholars, Tim Polk of Hameline, who was the session chair. My own paper was scheduled for the same afternoon, however, as part of a session devoted to Kierkegaard’s epistemology, so I spent the morning making the final edits. I made an important discovery at this AAR. If you read your paper directly from your computer, you can keep making edits right up until that last minute!

My paper was well received, though there were few questions. My guess is that this was because it addressed two subjects with which most scholars are not heavily engaged: Kierkegaard’s epistemology and patristics. Mine was also the first paper and people kept streaming in as I was reading. This was distracting, I’m sure, to the people who were already seated and, of course, the people who came late would not have heard the entire paper (the upside of this was that there was standing room only at the beginning of the session).  I met several patristics scholars, including Nathan Jacobs of Trinity International University, who came up to me afterward and told me they had enjoyed the paper and that they felt that there was a very strong relation between Kierkegaard’s thought to that of the Church Fathers. My brief exposure to this area of research supports this view. I plan to do a lot more work on this issue in the future and am grateful for the contacts I made in San Francisco.

One of the highlights for the conference to me was the number of sessions devoted to sex. There were at least a dozen such sections, including a joint session of the Evangelical Theology Group and the Religion and Sexuality Group, the theme of which was “Contemporary Evangelical Sexualities.” This session included a paper that, to my mind, had the best title of any paper at the conference: Erin Default-Hunter’s “Porn Again: What Pornography Can Teach Christians about Good Sex.” I don’t want to give the impression that I’m obsessed with sex or anything. I just think its nice to have such a clear demonstration that religious conviction is not, as is so commonly believed, inversely proportional to a healthy interest in sex. Sex is a gift from God. So I say go for it, you randy religion scholars!

Kierkegaard’s Terminology

Kierkegaard is often thought of as a theologian rather than a philosopher. Yet Kierkegaard referred to himself as a “philosopher” in a letter to his friend Rasmus Nielsen (see Letters and Documents, no. 228). Nielsen was himself a professor of philosophy at the University of Copenhagen, so Kierkegaard must have had a fairly high opinion of his own analytical powers to identify himself in this way to his friend. Kierkegaard studied theology, but he also studied philosophy, hence his epistemology is extraordinarily sophisticated.

One of the biggest obstacles to understanding Kierkegaard’s epistemology is that few Kierkegaard scholars outside Denmark read Danish. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that most Danish Kierkegaard scholars are theologians rather than philosophers, so while they cannot help but have an interest in Kierkegaard’s epistemology in that it is essentially tied up with his views on faith, they often lack the theoretical background and analytical training necessary to undertake serious scrutiny of it.

As if these obstacles were not enough, Kierkegaard displays a general disdain for terminological consistency for its own sake. “Part of the difficulty with trying to understand Kierkegaard’s epistemology,” I explain in the introduction to Ways of Knowing, “thus concerns the fact that he makes no rigorous terminological distinctions among the various Danish expressions for knowledge” (15). That does not mean, however, that his thought was conceptually loose. It was not. What was important for Kierkegaard was not terminological consistency, but conceptual consistency. Lars Bejerholm explains in Meddelelsens Dialektik (the dialectic of communication) (Muksgaard, 1962) that

“the relation between a linguistic term and a concept, according to Kierkegaard, is usually such that the linguistic term denotes a concept. This concept may, however, be denoted by a variety of linguistic terms. It is, therefore, a matter of indifference which terms are used to denote a given concept. The most important thing, according to Kierkegaard, is that one ‘knows what one is talking about;’ the particular terms used are, in contrast, inessential.” (60 [Ways of Knowing, 16]).

Kierkegaard thus occasionally adapts his terminology to his audience, as is the case, for example, with his use of Erkjendelsen and Viden. Both can be translated as knowledge, but the former is an academic or technical expression whereas the latter is more colloquial.

One of the projects of Ways of Knowing is thus, as I explain in the introduction, to distinguish the different senses in which Kierkegaard uses various philosophical expressions and, in particular, the senses in which he uses the various expressions for knowledge.

I will have more posts in the future that relate to Kierkegaard’s epistemology and I welcome questions from readers on this topic.