New, Improved Piety on Kierkegaard!

 

I noticed recently that the “archives” links to earlier posts had disappeared. I contacted WordPress about this and they said it was probably because the blog theme I had originally chosen had been retired. They suggested I select a new theme, so I did. I like this theme because it is streamlined and makes the posts easier to read. It’s a “premium” theme and that means you should no longer see adds on the posts. There are several other changes that I think will improve the site as well. First, I’ve extended the time period for commenting on posts. It used to be something like a week. I think that isn’t enough time to comment on posts of the sort this blog contains, so I’ve extended the period now to 100 days. I’ve also added a page for “resources” with links to online resources such as the wonderful Ferrall-Repp Danish-English dictionary from 1845 to which I frequently refer. I will eventually also add links to important scholarly works that are in the public domain. I welcome suggestions for additions to this page.

I plan also to add a page of “testimonials.” I’ve had many people, both established scholars and graduate students, write to me and tell me that this blog has been an important resource for them. I’m going to collect some of those comments and post them, with the authors’ permission of course, to the “testimonials” page. There are a couple of reasons I want to do this. First, it will be helpful to people who are new to Kierkegaard and hence not in a good position to judge the quality of the posts. Second, it will help to establish to scholars, and university administrators who are not scholars, that this kind of digital scholarship is actually important to the profession. Many older scholars, as well as older administrators, have been slow to appreciate how important online resources can be. I think a page of testimonials will help to show the importance of such resources.

I may be mistaken, of course, but my guess is that blogs such as this will one day supplant in importance traditional scholarly journals. I don’t mean to suggest that journals will cease to exist. I think we’ll always have scholarly journals. My guess, though, is that they will nearly all eventually be exclusively online and that even then much of the cutting edge scholarship will take place outside of them because of how slow they are in getting material to the reading public. The problem isn’t getting the material into print, I believe, so much as it is getting referee reports in a timely fashion. I fear that isn’t much that can be done about that. Refereeing articles for scholarly journals is an important task but it is very time consuming. Sometimes the referees want changes to articles and that further delays the process of getting material into print.

Much of what I post isn’t time sensitive, but some of it is, such as my response to Peter Gordon’s review of Daphne Hampson’s book Kierkegaard: Exposition and Critique in the New York Review of Books. I was able to get that post up when that issue of the NYRB was still in circulation. That prompted a conversation, of sorts, between Hampson and myself that likely would never have taken place had I tried to publish my response to the NYRB‘s piece in a scholarly journal and that conversation contains much valuable information concerning Kierkegaard’s view on science, nature, and miracles. If you found that information helpful, or found the information on other posts helpful, please comment to that effect on this post. I’ll eventually collect such comments and create at “testimonials” page for them.

In other news, I have heard from Baylor that they are planning to publish a paperback version of my book Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology. That is good news. The original hard cover was reasonably priced, but the paperback should be even more affordable.

I’ll be back soon with a post on the conference I attended this summer in Munich!

 

Report from the Pacific APA

I chaired a session on practical reasoning at the annual meeting of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association last month. The session was great. The presenter, Ting Cho Lau, was a very sharp graduate student from Notre Dame. His paper was entitled “Tough Choices, Reasons, and Practical Reasoning,” and his argument was that none of the dominant theories of why “tough choices” are tough either adequately explains the phenomenon of toughness or holds out much promise of providing agents with guidance for making such choices.

I won’t go into Lau’s specific criticisms of each of the dominant theories. What will be of interest to Kierkegaard scholars is that Lau argues none of those theories adequately acknowledges that tough choices, such as what career to choose, often involve the shaping of a person’s identity and so among the many considerations that must be looked at is what kind of person it is possible for one to become. Not everyone can, for example, become a great opera star. Even those who are excellent singers by most standards may have to accept at some point that their talents will likely limit them to more minor roles. That kind of self-examination is very difficult and that does indeed go a long way to explaining why at least some tough choices are so tough.

Lau’s paper was clearly presented and well argued. It was also ambitious, though, in that he proposed not simply to give a more adequate account of why tough choices were tough, but also to provide agents with guidance for making them less tough. It seems to me, however, that knowing that a choice is so “tough” because it involves figuring out just who exactly one is and who one is capable of becoming isn’t necessarily going to make the choice any less difficult. It seems entirely possible, in fact, that it might make the choice even more difficult.

The situation is even more complex, I would argue, than Lau presented it as being because the issue is not simply that of determining what kind of person one is capable of becoming, but also of determining what kind of person one wants to become. Usually, we are pulled in various directions with respect to that issue. As difficult as it may be to acknowledge that we may want to become someone (a famous opera singer, for example) that we simply don’t have the talent to become, it is even harder, Kierkegaard would argue, to determine who we really want to become. We want to become good people, people pleasing to God (or, if we are not religious, at least pleasing to our neighbors, or to those in our culture more generally), and yet, and yet, we are also drawn toward decisions that would make us into quite another sort of person.

There is, as Kant would say, a corruption in the subjective determining ground of our will. Or, as Kierkegaard would put it, we are “double-minded.” Arguably, that is the real reason why at least some choices are so “tough.” It isn’t all that difficult, generally, to decide on a career, or on whom to marry. Many people, in fact, would describe these choices as having been made for them, in a sense, by inclinations that were so strong they didn’t really seem like choices. Other sorts of choice, however, are not so easy. Deciding, for example, whether to stick up for a colleague who is being bullied and harassed when doing so might expose one to the same treatment––now that can be difficult!

The session was great, though, and Lau’s paper is a work-in-progress that even in light of the above criticism is better than many a paper I’ve seen published in peer-reviewed journals. The commentator, Susan Vineberg, from Wayne State University was also excellent, and the session as a whole was exceptionally well run. I’m not tooting my own horn there. I was only one of three chairs for three separate papers and actually the weakest link in that chain in that I mistakenly assumed the respondent had the same length of time to present her remarks as had the presenter. Each presenter got twenty minutes and each respondent got ten, so even though the entire session was three hours long, it went by in a stimulating flash.

My favorite session, however, was one of two sessions put on by The Society for the Philosophy of Sex and Love. The topic of the session was love and “attachment.” Each of the three speakers was good. The highlight of the session for me, however, was the last speaker, Monique Wonderly of Princeton. Her paper was entitled “Love, Caring, and the Value of Attachment.” Wonderly argued, in terms such as I had used in the speech I gave at my father’s memorial service, that “[a]ttachment figures help to shape our senses of self, imbue us with self-confidence, and can serve as a source of emotional regulation and support even in their absence.”

I am really happy to have discovered The Society for the Philosophy of Sex and Love. I knew about its existence before, of course, but for some reason I had assumed it was more about sex than it was about love, or that when it treated love that it was only sexual, or romantic love. I was wrong. The session was wonderful and would have been of enormous interest to Kierkegaard scholars.

There was one session on Kierkegaard. It was sort of a stealth session because Kierkegaard was not mentioned in the title of the session. The title was simply “Political Theology Group.” All the papers were on Kierkegaard, though. Unfortunately, the session was not well run. There were four speakers and a respondent for a two-hour session! It wasn’t clear how much time had been allotted to each speaker or whether any of them ran over that time. There was no time for questions, however, none. Hence there was no discussion whatever and there really should have been because some of the presenters appeared to be laboring under the erroneous view that Kierkegaard was generally contemptuous of the plight of the poor and the downtrodden and that there really wasn’t much in Kierkegaard that would provide a foundation for a positive political philosophy. I won’t rehash that tired argument or my response to it here. Go back and look at the earlier posts on this blog relating to Daphne Hampson’s book and Peter Gordon’s review of it for my comments on that view. Actually, one kind reader of this blog sent me a long list of quotations from Kierkegaard’s works that support his concern for the poor and downtrodden. I am going to use that list in a future post––with proper attribution, of course.

Just as an aside, I should alert readers to the fact that there is going to be a session at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion in November the theme of which will be “Truth is Subjectivity: Kierkegaard and Political Theology. A Symposium in Honor of Robert Perkins.” I know some of the speakers already and I can tell you that it promises to be a very good session indeed. Bob Perkins, about whom I will write more later, deserves nothing less. He was a true giant in Kierkegaard scholarship and he will be sorely missed.

There were lots of other great sessions at the Pacific APA meeting, including Onora O’Neill’s Berggruen Prize lecture that included comments from Andrew Chignell of Princeton and Eric Watkins of U.C. San Diego. Yes, that’s right, Andrew Chignell appears to have moved already from Penn to Princeton. And I was so happy and excited to have him here in Philly. That guy is really smart, and, as I learned from that session, a fantastic speaker.

Getting Kierkegaard Wrong

I think of scholarship as egalitarian. I don’t know about all disciplines, but most academic journals in the field of philosophy do what’s called “blind” reviewing. Scholars send articles to journal editors. The editors then send those articles along to experts in the relevant fields (e.g., Plato, Kant, contemporary ethics, the philosophy of mind) without identifying the author of the article. The people vetting the articles don’t know who wrote them. They don’t know whether the author is already a recognized authority in the relevant field or a complete newcomer. They don’t even know whether the author has an academic appointment, is an “independent scholar,” or even a lowly graduate student. All they have is the article, so they are more or less forced to evaluate it on its own merits. The system isn’t perfect, of course. Unconventional or iconoclastic work is not always evaluated fairly, and the work of the more prominent scholars in given fields can sometimes be identified even without their names being attached.

Still, blind reviewing goes a long way toward ensuring that good work gets recognized and promoted. Unfortunately, book publishing is not so egalitarian. Some publishers do blind reviewing, but many do not. Once a scholar has attained a name for him or herself in a given field, that is, once a scholar has become what one might call an academic celebrity, they are given a wide berth in terms of their perceived authority. Big name scholars can often get away with speaking, and sometimes even writing books, on subjects outside their area of expertise.

Daphne Hampson’s new book on Kierkegaard, Kierkegaard: Exposition and Critique (Oxford, 2013) is a case in point. Hampson is a prominent U.K. theologian, not a Kierkegaard scholar. She gives the impression that she is a Kierkegaard scholar by throwing around a few Danish terms. She refers, for example to Kierkegaard’s book The Concept of Anxiety as The Concept Angst. When I saw that I immediately did a Google search to see if there were a new English translation of this work of which I was unaware. There isn’t. Hampsen’s substitution of the Danish Angst for “Anxiety” in the title of this work is simply an affectation.

Kierkegaard is one of the few philosophers who are beloved by people who are not themselves scholars; hence reviews of new editions of his works, and occasionally even of new scholarly books on his thought, sometimes appear in the illustrious New York Review of Books. The Nov. 10th edition, in fact, contains a review of Hampson’s book entitled “Kierkegaard’s Rebellion.” The reviewer is a Peter Gordon, Amabel B. James Professor of History at Havard and the author of Adorno and Existence (Harvard, 2016)

It isn’t all that clear why the NYRB decided to review Hampson’s book, or why they chose Gordon to review it. While both Hampson and Gordon have a certain familiarity with Kierkegaard because of their respective areas of scholarly expertise (Hampson’s in the history of theological thought and Gordon’s in modern European intellectual history), neither is a Kierkegaard scholar. The book is riddled with problems, problems that will be conspicuous to most Kierkegaard scholars, but which Gordon failed to spot. Hampson gets Kierkegaard’s epistemology wrong. She claims erroneously that Kierkegaard “has very little hold on the idea that there is a regularity to nature” (p 29). She falsely accuses him of being unfamiliar with David Strauss’s ground breaking book on the historical Jesus, Das Leben Jesu kritisch bearbeitet (The Life of Jesus Critically Examined) (1835).

These are just a few of the problems with Hampson’s book, problems to which Gordon fails to alert prospective readers. In fact, Gordon says very little about the content of the book, but restricts himself to giving a general overview of Kierkegaard’s works and his place, or presumed place, in the history of thought that has little directly to do with Hampson’s treatment of Kierkegaard.

It’s generally dangerous to venture to write a book on a thinker, as well as to review a book on a thinker, on whose thought you do not specialize. And, to quote Kierkegaard, “what is worse for those brave souls who nevertheless dare to undertake such a project, the difficulty is not one that will confer celebrity on those who preoccupy themselves with it” (Philosophical Crumbs, p. 113). Unfortunately, Hampson’s book is so off base, at least in its chapter on Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Crumbs, that it amounts to a caricature of scholarship.

A single example will suffice to make this point. Hampson accuses Kierkegaard scholars of failing to appreciate a crucial fact about his view of the natural world. Kierkegaard, she charges, “thinks the world a kind of random place in which just about anything can happen.” Kierkegaard, she continues, lacks any sense for “the regularity of nature” or that natural events are subject to natural law (p. 92).

Unfortunately for Hampson, Kierkegaard scholars have not missed this aspect of Kierkegaard’s thought because this isn’t an aspect of Kierkegaard’s thought. Kierkegaard did believe in the existence of laws of nature. Hampson rightly observes that Kierkegaard “picks up the distinction in Aristotle between a ‘change’ which consists in a coming into existence (kinesis) and a change which presupposes existence (alloiosis) (what we might call a change taking place within the causal nexus),” but she fails to appreciate the significance of this distinction for Kierkegaard.

Hampson even goes so far as to remark that it is “strange” that Kierkegaard “does not appreciate that there is any real distinction between the two kinds of ‘change’“ (p. 91) identified by Aristotle, given that he refers to them himself when speaking about the change of coming to be. She chastises Kierkegaard for writing “150 years after Newton,” and yet failing to have any “sense of the regularity with which change takes place in predetermined fashion within a causal nexus” (91).

It would be pretty weird if Kierkegaard failed to have any sense for what one could call the “regularity of nature.” As most Kierkegaard scholars know, however, Kierkegaard does have such a sense, as is easily seen by anyone who pays careful attention to the portion of the Crumbs from which Hampson gets this strange impression. After Kierkegaard explains that “[e]verything that has come to be is eo ispo historical, he goes on to say that

That thing, the becoming of which is a simultaneous becoming (Nebeneinander, Space), has no other history than this, but even seen in this way (en masse), independently of what an ingenious consideration in a more specific sense calls the history of nature, nature has a history.

…. How can one say that nature, despite being immediately present, is historical, if one does not view it from this ingenious perspective? The difficulty comes from the fact that nature is too abstract to have a dialectical relationship, in the stricter sense, with time. Nature’s imperfection is that it has no history in any other sense, and its perfection is that it has the intimation of a history (namely that it has come to be, which is the past; and that it is, the present) (p. 143, emphasis added).

That is, nature’s whole “history” is that it came to be at some point. After that, the “changes” that characterize nature do not represent change in Aristotle’s sense of kinesis but only in his sense of alloiosis. Kierkegaard takes pains to be clear on this point. Purely natural events are changes in something (i.e., nature) that already exists. They do not come about freely, but are subject to natural law. That’s why nature “has no history.” It has only an “intimation of a history” in that it came to be at some point. Mountain ranges do not become mature in the same sense that people do. Human beings have choices. Human events are not like plate tectonics.

How could Hampson miss that? It’s right there in the text. That’s why the purported fact of Kierkegaard’s failure to appreciate “the regularity of nature” has been given what Hampson calls “scant recognition” by Kierkegaard scholars. They don’t recognize it because it isn’t there. It is hard to imagine a more spectacularly erroneous interpretation of Kierkegaard than Hampson’s on this point.

How could Hampson have gotten Kierkegaard so wrong? My guess is that it is because her reading of Kierkegaard is driven by her political agenda. She appears determined to see Kierkegaard as a kind of throwback to a “premodern” view of reality.

Good thing readers of the NYRB have Gordon to alert them to this gross error in Hampson’s book! Except that Gordon doesn’t do that. Indeed, there are a host of problems his misses.

Like Hampson, Gordon isn’t a Kierkegaard scholar, so he doesn’t know enough about Kierkegaard to be able to identify when Hampson’s reading goes awry. He seems, in fact, to have a somewhat caricatured view of Kierkegaard himself. He’s correct, for example, in his claim that, according to Kierkegaard, there’s “an absolute chasm between God and humanity,” but not in his claim that that chasm makes God “wholly other” from human beings.

“[I]f God is absolutely different from human beings,” observes Kierkegaard in Philosophical Crumbs, “this cannot have its basis in what human beings owe to God (for to this extent they are related [beslægtet, literally “related” as in part of the same family])(119). According to Kierkegaard, the difference between human beings and God is sin. Sin keeps people from being able to see the likeness between themselves and God. The likeness is there, Kierkegaard believes, however, and can be appreciated, to some extent anyway, through the eyes of faith.

Kierkegaard did not, as Gordon claims, have a “disabling contempt for the public good.” His attack on the Danish Lutheran Church just before he died was motivated in part by his outrage over the church’s own contempt for the public good, at least in the spiritual sense. Kierkegaard’s concern for the public good was not restricted, however, to this sense. The Danish scholar Peter Tudvad demonstrated in his meticulously documented watershed book, Kierkegaards København (Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen) (Politiken, 2004) that Kierkegaard not only gave considerable sums of money to the poor (pp. 370-377), but that he even went so far as to share his lodgings with a destitute family for several years (pp. 348-354).

Gordon attributes the recent resurgence of interest in Kierkegaard’s thought to the bicentennial of his birth in 2013, as well as to the publication of Garff’s biography of Kierkegaard in 2000. He is undoubtedly correct about the bicentennial. What caused Kierkegaard’s name to remain in the headlines of Danish newspapers from 2000 until 2005, however, was not so much the publication of Garff’s biography as it was Tudvad’s revelations that the biography was riddled with factual errors and passages plagiarized from earlier Danish biographies of Kierkegaard, as well as the revelation that Garff had failed to fix these problems before the book was translated into English. Tudvad’s book, not Garff’s, is what gave scholars a fresh, and more accurate, impression of Kierkegaard’s life and thought.

But then it’s unlikely that Gordon would have known any of this, since he isn’t a Kierkegaard scholar. His book on Adorno touches on Kierkegaard, but that isn’t enough to make him a Kierkegaard scholar, so why did the NYRB have him review Hampson’s book? Could the answer be so straightforward as that Gordon teaches at Harvard? Talk about being “premodern,” is the NYRB so conservative that it’s actually resurrecting “the argument from authority,” the darling of medieval scholastics, so that the primary credential one needs to review a book for them is that one teaches at an ivy league school? A glance at the “contributors” section of the Nov. 10 edition in which Gordon’s review of Hampson’s book appears seems to support such a view. Three other reviews in that edition are by people from Harvard, three by people from Columbia, one by someone from Princeton and another by someone from Yale.

I’ll confess that I’m an avid reader of the NYRB and generally enjoy the articles it contains. I read it, in part, because I don’t have time to read every scholarly book that’s published in a given year (or even in a given week). I know that not everything that’s published is good, so I count on the NYRB and its stable of what I had hitherto assumed to be expert reviewers to sort through this material for me, to point out to me what is worth reading and what isn’t, to summarize for me some of the works that I’d ideally like to read, but probably won’t have time to read, so that I’ll be able to keep up with the latest developments in scholarship outside of my tiny field.

I don’t mean to suggest that all the reviews in the New York Review of Books are as misleading as is Gordon’s review of Hampson’s book. I’m sure they’re not. I’m sure most of them are as good as them seem. But how do I know which reviews are reliable and which are not?

I’m plagued now by a certain, you know, angst.

(This piece appeared originally under the title “The Angst of Scholarship at the NYRB: Getting Kierkegaard Wrong, Twice,” in the 8 November issue of Counterpunch. )