Kierkegaard’s Neither/Nor

There was lots of Kierkegaard activity at the AAR this year as usual. The Kierkegaard, Religion, and Culture group organized two sessions on the theme of “Kierkegaard, the Problem of Patriarchy, and Related Social Ills.” Somewhat bizarrely, what had originally been slated as Part 1 was scheduled before Part 2, so I am forced to refer confusingly to the Part 2 as “the first session.” 

The first session was chaired by Aaron Edwards of Cliff College and included papers by Frances Maughan-Brown of the College of Holy Cross, Thomas Millay of Baylor University, and Troy Wellington Smith of the University of California at Berkeley. Brown’s paper was entitled “Without Authority: Kierkegaard’s Resistance to Patriarchy.” Millay’s paper was, “An Equal Chance to Make Our Lives Miserable: Kierkegaard’s Paradoxical Feminism,” and Smith’s paper was “Material Traces of a Kierkegaardian Confrontation with the Patriarchy.”

Unfortunately, I was teaching during the first part of the session. Ordinarily, I would simply have cancelled my class. It was the very last class of the term, however, so I didn’t feel canceling it was an option, so I was able to catch only the last paper. That paper was very intriguing, however, and appears part of a more extended research program. Scholars have claimed for years that Kierkegaard’s many female readers engaged almost exclusively with his edifying discourses rather than with the more philosophically oriented pseudonymously published works. Smith’s project is to investigate the extent to which that is true. 

It’s an ambitious project that Smith has begun by examining copies of Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous works that date from the period when he was still alive to see how many of them have women’s names inscribed in them (on the assumption that these names indicate the owners). He’s found something like a dozen such examples. Unfortunately, that’s only the beginning of the project, because while it seems safe to assume that the books in question belong to the women whose name are inscribed in them, more evidence is required to support that the owners actually read them. It is conceivable, and arguably even probable, that the books were purchased on the assumption that their contents would be consistent in style with the edifying works, and that, of course, was rarely the case. It’s possible that many of these women failed to persevere in their reading of these works, not, of course because they were inherently incapable of understanding them, but because their lack of the relevant philosophical background would have made them very difficult reading. People often abandon books because they find them difficult reading.

What would be required in order to refute the charge that women did not initially engage with Kierkegaard’s more “philosophically oriented” works would be evidence not simply that they owned such works, but that they read and discussed them. Such evidence, presumably, if it exists would be found, among other places, in the correspondence of these women. It’s not clear, however, how much of this correspondence survives. 

Smith is enthusiastic about the project of documenting the early engagement of women with Kierkegaard’s thought. He appears an exceptionally conscientious scholar and acknowledged that he is still only at the beginning of this project, so we can expect that if there is evidence out there to support that Kierkegaard’s female contemporaries read more widely in his authorship than has been appreciated Smith will find it.

The project itself deserves closer examination, however, in that the characterization of Kierkegaard’s literary productivity as consisting of two distinct types of works is misleading. The two alleged types are: edifying works published under Kierkegaard’s own name and “philosophical” works published pseudonymously is misleading.

Kierkegaard undoubtedly had a variety of reasons for publishing some of his works under his own name and others pseudonymously. He makes clear, however, in The Point of View for My Work as an Author, that the distinction has primarily to do with the authority of the authorial voice, not with whether a work was edifying or philosophical. The Sickness unto Death, writes Kierkegaard in The Point of View, appears

pseudonymously and with me as the editor. It is said to be “for upbuilding.” That is more than my category, the poet-category: upbuilding.*

Just as the Guadalquibir [sic] River … at some places plunges underground, so is there also a stretch, the upbuilding , that carries my name. There is something, (the aesthetic) that is lower and is pseudonymous, and something that is higher and is also pseudonymous, because as a person I do not correspond to it. 

The pseudonym is Johannes Anticlimacus [sic] in contrast to Climacus, who said he was not a Christian. Anticlimacus is the opposite extreme: a Christian on an extraordinary level—if only I myself manage to be just a simple Christian. (POV, 199).

There’s a note at * on the purported “distinction between ‘upbuilding’ and ‘for upbuilding’,” or more lyrically between “edification” and “for edification.” The note refers the reader to the Hongs’ translation of Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers, V 5686, as well as to the original Danish edition of Kierkegaard’s Papirer, IV B 1596. I don’t have the Hongs’ Journals and Papers. I do, however, have the Papirer. The passage in question concerns the difference between “Taler,” or “Discourses,” and “Prædikener,” or “Sermons.” Kierkegaard calls his edifying discourses “Discourses” and not “Sermons” 

fodi dens Forfatter ikke har Myndighed til at p r æ d i k e [extra spaces were used between letters to denote emphasis because Fraktur has no italic font]; “opbyggelige Taler” ikke Taler til Opbyggelse, fordi den Talende ingenlunde fordrer at være L æ r e r. 

because their author has no authority to preach, “edifying discourses” not discourses for edification because the one speaking is not claiming to be a teacher.** 

That is, the distinction between “upbuilding,” or “edifying,” and “for upbuilding,” or “for edification” has nothing to do with substance of the work in question, or the effect Kierkegaard hopes it will have on its reader. It concerns rather the authority with which the work is put forward. 

The characterization of Kierkegaard’s authorship as consisting of works that are either edifying or philosophical is simplistic because it evinces a false dichotomy. None of Kierkegaard’s works is without philosophical content and all, arguably, contain an edifying dimension. That is, Kierkegaard’s works are neither exclusively edifying nor exclusively philosophical. This may take some analytical sophistication to appreciate but analytical sophistication is prerequisite to being a scholar, so it is hard to explain the persistence of this simplistic characterization of Kierkegaard’s works. What makes it even harder to explain is that the actual subtitle one of Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous works, The Sickness Unto Death, explicitly identifies it as “for edification.” 

This issue emerged during the discussion of Smith’s paper. Hopefully, that discussion, as well as this post, will help to put an end to this simplistic characterization of Kierkegaard’s authorship. 

**[Fordre is ordinarily best translated as “demand” or “insist.” “Claim” is also an acceptable translation, however, according to Vinterberg and Bodelsen’s Dansk-Engelsk Ordbog, anden udgave (Danish-English Dictionary, second edition), Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1966) and “claim” seems most appropriate in this context.]