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Kierkegaard’s Christian Epistemology

I said in my last post that I would write more about the Kierkegaard conference at Baylor last month. It was an extraordinarily rich conference in terms of  the breadth of topics covered and it was unusual in that there were several papers devoted to aspects of Kierkegaard’s epistemology. Indeed, there was an entire session entitled “Kierkegaardian Challenges to Epistemology.” This is testament to an increasing appreciation of the importance of epistemological concerns to Kierkegaard’s thought.

C. Stephen Evans gave an excellent presentation entitled “Kierkegaard the Natural Theologian? Kierkegaard on Natural Religious Knowledge,” in which he argued (as I argue in Ways of Knowing) that Kierkegaard assumes people have a natural knowledge of God, and that “[t]his natural religious knowledge is not without value” in that “it is part of what prepares a person to encounter the Christian Gospel”  (Evans’ handout).

Of course this natural knowledge of God, explained Evans, is distinguished from faith in Christ, or any knowledge that might come as a product of this faith. The latter sort of knowledge and how faith makes it possible was the subject of my own presentation “Encountering the Truth: Kierkegaard’s Existential Mysticism as a Corrective for the New Atheism.”  My argument was that according to Kierkegaard, an encounter with what he refers to in Philosophical Crumbs as “the god in time” (173) amounts to acquaintance knowledge of God (i.e., in the person of Christ) and that this acquaintance knowledge serves as the foundation for specifically Christian propositional knowledge that looks very unlike the sorts of views the “new atheists” routinely attribute to Christians.

That what Kierkegaard calls an encounter with the god in time can lead to specifically Christian propositional knowledge is a topic I cover in great detail in Ways of Knowing. What was new in the presentation was making clear the implications of Kierkegaard’s position for the kinds of criticisms of religion advanced by the new atheists.

Unfortunately, there are still people out there making arguments about Kierkegaard’s epistemology without really knowing very much about it. Aaron Fehir, for example, whose paper “Subjectivity and Conscience: A Kierkegaardian Resolution to the Problem of the Criterion” was part of the session entitled “Kierkegaardian Challenges to Epistemology,” had read neither Ways of Knowing, nor Anton Hügli’s excellent Die Erkenntnis der Subjektivität und die Objektivität des Erkennens bei Søren Kierkegaard (Basel, Switzerland: Editio Academica, 1973) nor Martin Slotty’s Die Erkenntnis Lehre S.A. Kierkegaards (Diss. Friedrich-Alexanders-Universität, 1915), with the result that in effect there was no Kierkegaardian solution, on his view, to the skeptical “problem of the criterion.”  Both the historical contemporary of Christ and someone who came later were equally poorly situated, argued Fehir during the question period, relative to the “unrecognizable” “god in time.”

You don’t actually have to have read anything on Kierkegaard’s epistemology, however, to appreciate that Kierkegaard’s point in Crumbs is not that both the contemporary and someone who comes later are equally poorly situated relative to “the god in time.” It’s pretty clear, I would argue, to anyone who is sufficiently attentive to the text, that Kierkegaard’s point is that both the contemporary and someone who comes later are equally well situated relative to the god in time. That’s the specific technical sense in which Kierkegaard uses the expression “contemporaneousness.” Anyone, according to Kierkegaard can be “contemporaneous” with the god in time, but (and this is an important qualification) that, for Kierkegaard, is the only way one can achieve a proper understanding of religious truth.

Fehir is a religious pluralist. Kierkegaard was not a religious pluralist. There is certainly room, I would argue, in Kierkegaard’s thought for the view that non-Christian religious traditions could embody elements of religious truth, could be on the right track, so to speak. It’s even possible to argue, based on Kierkegaard’s discussion in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript about the “how” that brings the “what” along with it, that the “pagan” who prays passionately enough encounters Christ (i.e., the god in time, or God in the person of Christ) in his prayers, but it’s Christ, for Kierkegaard that one would have to say he encounters, Christ with whom (through his passion) he achieves “contemporaneousness,” not God unmediated by Christ (remember, the Postscript is the postscript to the Crumbs).

Kierkegaard was no religious pluralist. He was, as I argue in an essay in the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of the Epistemology of Theology, a Christian mystic. That is, Kierkegaard believed in the possibility of a mystical communion with God in the person of Christ which he refers to as “contemporaneousness.” Both Hügli and Slotty agree that this encounter with the god in time provides a point of departure, according to Kierkegaard, for a new type of religious knowledge. The “criterion” of truth about which the skeptics were so concerned is what Kierkegaard refers to as “the certainty of faith.” That is, Kierkegaard does have a criterion of truth. It’s just that it is not one that religious pluralists are going to like.

Postscript

Daniel Mendelsohn said in a recent interview in the Prospect that he came from “a scholarly background.” He’d done a graduate degree in Classics, he explained, before he became a writer; “and in that world, the rule is that you can’t write anything until you’ve read everything.” That’s how I was trained as well. We could use a little more of that mentality in Kierkegaard studies.

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.