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“Positivism” versus Truthiness in Biography: A False Dichotomy

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Caricature of Kierkegaard from an 1848 issue of The Corsair

Clare Carlisle took exception to my review in the Times Literary Supplement of her biography of Kierkegaard (“Alone for dinner” TLS 4 October 2019). She accused me in a letter to the editor in the next edition of being either “unable or unwilling to approach [her] life of Kierkegaard on its own terms, i.e., as a literary work combining biography and philosophy” (“Letters,”,TLS 11 October 2019). I have no objection, however, to combining biography and philosophy. In fact, I can’t imagine a biography of a philosopher that wouldn’t do that. How would it be possible to treat fully the life of a thinker without giving any attention to the character of his or her thought? (You can read my response to Carlisle’s letter here.)

No, what Carlisle objected to was not that I failed to approach her life of Kierkegaard on its own terms, but that I did actually approach it on its own terms and exposed it as flawed on those terms. Carlisle didn’t claim that the book was a combination of biography and historical fiction, but that’s what it, in fact, is in that it invents thoughts that Kierkegaard might plausibly have had and then attributes them to him directly, without this qualification (see, for example, “Fictional Biography, Factual Biography, and their Contaminations,” Ina Schabert Biography, Vol. 5, No. 1, Winter 1982 on the difference between historical fiction and biography, as well as the more recent “History’s Handmaids: Historical Fiction and Biography,” a post by the biographer Louise W. Knight to the website for the Wellesley Centers for Women).

Carlisle accuses me of “grim positivism” as if I had an objection to a biographer speculating about the inner life of his or her subject. I don’t object to that, though. My objection was to presenting speculations as fact. If Carlisle had simply prefaced her speculations with qualifications such as “at this point, Kierkegaard might well have been thinking…” or “it is reasonable to suppose that Kierkegaard’s thoughts now turned to…,” etc., etc., I’d have had no problem with them.

The charge of “positivism” is a straw man. Positivism, according to Oxford University Press’s online dictionary, means “A philosophical system recognizing only that which can be scientifically verified or which is capable of logical or mathematical proof, and therefore rejecting metaphysics and theism.” I don’t think we should recognize only things that can be scientifically verified or proved with mathematical precision, and I didn’t even imply in my review that I thought such a thing. In fact, it is precisely because of the impossibility of pinning down any historical fact with the precision that is required in the hard sciences that the line between fact and fiction must be rigorously maintained.

Historical facts are established as such not by pinning them down with scientific or mathematical precision, but by showing they are supported by the preponderance of available evidence, all the while laboring to uncover more evidence either to support the existing interpretation of the evidence or to tip the scales in favor of an alternative interpretation.

What Carlisle objected to was not my purported “positivism,” but that I exposed that there were errors in the book that would have been flaws even in a work of historical fiction, to the extent that writers of historical fiction endeavor to get the historical facts on which they creatively elaborate correct (see Schabert. op. cit.) . Leon Edel asserts that a biographer “may be as imaginative as he pleases, so long as he does not imagine his facts” (see Schabert, op. cit., p. 1). But that’s what Carlisle does, she imagines facts. That is, she doesn’t simply impute thoughts to Kierkegaard without qualifying them as speculations, she makes claims about him that are demonstrably false according to the generally accepted standards of the verification of historical claims, standards that are far looser than those required by positivism, but which are standards nonetheless.

In particular, Carlisle presents Kierkegaard’s “pubic humiliation and ridicule” at the hands of the satirical newspaper Corsaren (the corsair) as restricted to 1846 (see Philosopher of the Heart, 61). Peter Tudvad revealed, however, in Kierkegaards København (Politiken, 2004), his groundbreaking study of Kierkegaard’s life and the city in which he lived, that the The Corsair’s campaign against Kierkegaard was not restricted to 1846, as earlier biographers had supposed, but began in 1846 and continued, off and on, right up until Kierkegaard’s death in 1855. Moreover, the The Corsair was not the only periodical to make public sport of ridiculing Kierkegaard. Paul Bauer discovered back in the mid ‘90s that at least one other newspaper, Folkets Nisse, had done so as well. That these facts cannot be established with mathematical precision does not mean they can be ignored, or that an alternative account of the facts is just as valid.

Charges of “positivism” are the last refuge of intellectual scoundrels —i.e., people whose claims have been exposed as having insufficient evidence to support them. Nothing outside the hard sciences can be proven with scientific or mathematical precision, they point out, so the requirement that a particular claim needs more evidence to support it is portrayed as a misguided demand for the impossible. There is an enormous difference, however, between a demand that a claim be supported by a preponderance of available evidence and a claim that it should be proven with mathematical precision. To conflate the two is either an expression of disingenuousness, as in the case of the tobacco industry’s repeated denial that there was proof cigarettes caused cancer, or feeblemindedness, as is the case with some, if not all, climate-change deniers.

Does it matter very much whether we ever get a really good biography of Kierkegaard? Probably not. That we endeavor assiduously to maintain the line between fact and fiction, however, no matter how challenging that may be, matters a great deal. If intellectuals abandon that distinction, there is little hope that anyone else will maintain it.

The above caricature of Kierkegaard is an illustration from Tudvad’s book that comes from an 1848 issue of The Corsair. Check back here for a post that looks more closely at the subject of the extended public pillorying of Kierkegaard and which will include another caricature of Kierkegaard from 1848 as well as English translations of the text that accompanies these caricatures.

(Earlier versions of this article appeared in the October 18, 2019 issue of the online political journal CounterPunch, as well as in The Life of the Mind, the blog on my website mgpiety.org)

New Book on Kierkegaard and Judaism!

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Some months ago I was contacted by a Swiss scholar, Joanna Nowotny, who wished to thank me for the work I do on this blog. She’d made extensive use of it, she explained, when doing the research for her book, »Kierkegaard ist ein Jude!« Jüdische Kierkegaard-Lektüren in Literatur und Philosophie (“Kierkegaard is a Jew!” readings of Kierkegaard in Jewish literature and philosophy) (Wallstein Verlag, 2018). At some point, when I have the time to construct a “Testimonials” page for this blog, I’ll post her lovely email to it. In the meantime, however, I procured a copy of the book and have begun reading it.

I was intrigued, of course, because most of the recent discussions of Kierkegaard and Judaism with which I am familiar have been connected with Peter Tudvad’s groundbreaking Stadier på antisemitismens vej, Søren Kierkegaard og Jøderne (Stages on the way of anti-Semitism, Søren Kierkegaard and the Jews) (Rosinante, 2010) which reveals that Kierkegaard had some truly reprehensible attitudes toward Jews and Judaism, particularly toward the end of his life. That doesn’t mean, however, that Kierkegaard has nothing positive to contribute to the Jewish intellectual tradition. George Connell argues, in fact, in his excellent Kierkegaard and the Paradox of Religious Pluralism (Eerdmans, 2016) that “[i]ronically, in [Kierkegaard’s] final years, just when his rhetoric is most negative about Jews, just when he most offensively asserts the utter opposition of Judaism and Christianity, the substance of his thought represents a reaffirmation of Christianity’s fundamental and positive relation to Judaism” (p. 66).

I’ve only just started Nowotny’s book and I haven’t gotten very far yet, so I will hold off making any substantive comments on it until later, after I have finished it. In the meantime, I have taken the liberty of translating the copy from the back cover of the book. This will give you a little taste of what the book is about.

This large-scale study by Joanna Nowotny examines the traces left by Kierkegaard’s writing and thinking in the theoretical discourse and literary culture of Jewish Modernism.

“Kierkegaard is a Jew!” Gershom Scholem noted enthusiastically in his diary in 1915. “Nowhere” is the “core of Jewish sensibility [Weltgefühl] … so experientially formulated,” as in Kierkegaard, writes Max Brod a few years later in “Heidentum — Christentum — Judentum” (Paganism, Christianity, Judaism) (in Der Jude 1, 16-20). Such interpretations of the “Christian author” Kierkegaard are remarkable. They raise the question of how Kierkegaard’s œuvre, which was enormously popular in German-speaking Europe after 1900, offered possibilities for a Jewish interpretation and appropriation in particular. How is Kierkegaard’s thinking in this context made theologically, politically, and literarily fruitful, by poets and thinkers such as Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig and Franz Kafka? Which aspects of his work play a special role? What attitudes [Gestus] underlie the various Kierkegaard appropriations and which functions do they fulfill in the context of discourses on Jewish identity? Joanna Nowotny addresses these questions in her study and shows the traces Kierkegaard’s writing and thinking have left on authors such as Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, Franz Werfel, and Franz Kafka.

Looks interesting, eh!

Kierkegaard’s Conservatism

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Advertisement for the Danish movie “A Royal Affair”

Much has been made of Kierkegaard’s political conservatism. Daphne Hampson asserts, for example, that “Kierkegaard held that it was for the king to govern; that was his calling. Thus in many ways politically and socially conservative, Kierkegaard was by sentiment adamantly opposed to what he sarcastically referred to as government by the numerical; democracy” (Kierkegaard Exposition and Critique, 209).

Adorno is even more critical. He claims Kierkegaard stubbornly maintains the “givenness” of the social order, that he is “socially conformist” and thus ready to lend a hand to “oppression and misanthropy. … Sometimes Kierkegaard’s way of speaking of the equality of men before God,” Adorno asserts, “assumes the character of involuntary irony,” as when he observes in Works of Love that “‘The times are gone when only the powerful and noble ones were men and the other people slaves and serfs’ [Works of Love, 74]. The irony cannot escape Kierkegaard’s attention,” Adorno continues, “He uses it as a medium of his religious paradox” (“On Kierkegaard’s Doctrine of Love“).

People who know a little Danish history will realize, however, that it is unlikely Kierkegaard considered that remark in the least ironical. This point was driven home to me with particular force recently when I watched the Danish movie A Royal Affair. The movie is about the love affair between Caroline Mathilde, queen consort of the Danish King Christian VII, and Johann Friedrich Struensee, the personal physician to the mentally-ill monarch. Struensee was a German Enlightenment thinker who managed, though his influence with the royal pair to institute a number of progressive political reforms. The movie is fantastic, as nearly all Danish movies are, in my experience. I cannot recommend it too highly, both for its intrinsic qualities and for the insight it can give scholars into the historical context into which Kierkegaard was born.

“From 1770 to 1772, Struensee was de facto regent of the country, and introduced progressive reforms signed into law by Christian VII. Struensee was deposed by a coup in 1772 after which the country was ruled by Christian’s stepmother, Juliane Marie of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, his half-brother Frederick and the Danish politician Ove Høegh-Guldberg.” (Wikipedia). Most of Struensee’s progressive reforms were repealed after the coup, but many were reinstated by his son Frederik VI.

Frederik VI was a very progressive monarch. He went even further than reinstituting the progressive reforms for which Struensee had been responsible: He freed the serfs in 1788! Since Kierkegaard’s own father, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard (1756-1838) had been a serf, Kierkegaard’s reference in Works of Love to the fact that the times were gone when only the powerful and noble were men and the other people slaves and serfs must have had special poignancy for him. Had it not been for the progressive views of Frederik VI, Kierkegaard might have been a serf as well and begun and ended his days on the same desolate Jutland heath where his father had herded sheep as a boy.

Frederik VI was the first Danish monarch to select a motto in Danish rather than the traditional Latin. His motto was “Gud og den retfærdige sag” (God and the just cause ). Kierkegaard followed suit by requesting permission to submit his dissertation in Danish rather than the Latin that was required at the time.

Frederik VI ruled Denmark for the first 26 years of Kierkegaard’s life. Given that Kierkegaard lived to be only 42, that means Frederik VI ruled Denmark for most of Kierkegaard’s life. Unfortunately, Frederik became more conservative after the French defeat in the Napoleonic Wars in 1814 and the loss of Norway by Denmark. Still, the Danish society in which Kierkegaard grew up was marked by the reforms of his early years, most notably, again, the abolition of serfdom.

There is no denying that Kierkegaard was politically conservative. That does not mean, however, as it has so often been taken to mean, that he was indifferent to the material conditions of those less fortunate than himself. As I observed in my last post, Peter Tudvad has already shown in his book Kierkegaards København, that Kierkegaard was far from indifferent to the plight of the poor and the needy. Kierkegaard’s undeniable political conservatism was not a symptom of indifference to the situation of such people. It was more an expression of cynicism concerning the ability of what he called “the crowd” to govern themselves humanely. In any case, his conservatism seems less reprehensible when understood in historical context.