M.G. Piety

Posts Tagged ‘Philosophical Crumbs’

Getting Kierkegaard Wrong

In Publishing News, Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs, Uncategorized on November 13, 2016 at 4:52 pm

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. )


Mistake in Hongs’ Translation

In Uncategorized on March 3, 2015 at 7:19 pm

MolbechIs it possible, according to Kierkegaard, for a person to appreciate, on his own, that he is outside the truth, or in error? It would appear that Kierkegaard’s answer in Philosophical Crumbs is both yes and no. That is, on the one hand he says that since this is actually our situation, “the Socratic applies,” which is to say that we can “recollect” it, or come to appreciate it on our own. On the other hand, it looks like we can’t, at least according to the Hongs’ translation of Philosophiske Smuler.

The Hongs translate the following passage:

Dersom et Menneske oprindeligen er i Besiddelse af Betingelsen for at forstaae Sandheden, da tænker han, at Gud er til, derved at han selv er til. Dersom han er i Usandheden, da maa han jo tænke dette om sig selv, og Erindringen skal ikke kunne hjælpe ham uden til at tænke dette. Om han skal komme videre, maa Øieblikket afgjøre (om dette end allerede var virksomt i at lade ham indsee, at han er Usandheden). (Søren Kierkegaards Skrifter, Vol. 4, p. 229.)


If a person originally possesses the condition to understand the truth, he thinks that, since he himself is, God is. If he is in untruth, then he must of course think this about himself, and recollection will be unable to help him to think anything else but this. Whether or not he is to go any further, the moment must decide (although it already was active in making him perceive that he is untruth) (Philosophical Fragments, Princeton, 1985, p. 20).

The parenthetical remark asserts that “the moment” is active in helping people to understand that they are outside the truth, despite the fact that Kierkegaard had earlier said this was something we could discover on our own. So is Kierkegaard contradicting himself here or is there a problem with the Hongs’ translation?

The answer is that there is a problem with the Hongs’ translation. Here is how I translate this same passage.

If a person is originally in possession of the condition for understanding the truth, then he thinks there is a God, in that he exists himself. If he is in error, he may think this about himself, but recollection could not help him to think anything else. If he is to progress beyond this, the moment must decide (even if it were already active in allowing him to see that he was in error) (Philosophical Crumbs, Oxford, 2009, p. 97).

The parenthetical remark is what philosophers call a “counter-factual.” It is not saying that the moment had, in fact, been active in a person’s coming to understand himself as outside the truth, but that even if it had been active – i.e., had helped him to understand that he was outside the truth – he would need it again to get beyond this realization. That is, Kierkegaard is not taking a position here on whether one needs the moment to help one to the insight that one is outside the truth. He’s saying even if the moment had been active in helping one to this insight (a qualification that is perfectly consistent with its not being active), it would be needed again to get beyond the insight.

Of course you shouldn’t just assume that I know what I am talking about here. I need to marshal some evidence to support my claim that my translation: “even if it [i.e., the moment] were already active in allowing him to see that he was in error” is accurate whereas the Hongs’: “although it [i.e.., the moment] already was active in making him perceive that he is untruth” is not. So let’s go to the relevant reference works: Ferrall-Repp does not have “om end,” but only “om” which it translates as “if.” Vinterberg-Bodelsen has “(even) if,” before “(even) though.”

The really decisive proof that the parenthetical should be in the subjunctive comes from Christian Molbech’s Dansk Orbog from 1859 (this is the second edition and hence more reliable for questions of usage in the 1840s than is the first edition from 1833). Molbech lists a number of instances where “om” means either “if” or “whether,” but then gives the following example for “om end”: “Jeg tror det ikke, om end Alle sværge derpaa,” which translates as: “I don’t believe it, even if everyone would swear to it.”

Of course this begs the question in that I have chosen to translate “om end” as “even if” instead of “even though.” The justification for my translation comes after the first formulation. That is, immediately following the example “Jeg tror det ikke, om end Alle sværge derpaa” is a parenthetical clarification that reads “(Forskielligt i Meningen fra: ‘omendskiøndt han sværger derpaa,’ hvor der mere bestemt udtrykkes, at han sværger.)” This translates literally as “(Different in meaning from: ‘even though he swears to it,’ where the fact that he swears is expressed more definitively”.)

Hence it is clear that “om end” means “even if,” not “even though,” or “although” as the Hongs’ translation has it. The Hongs translation thus takes what is legitimately a question in the original and turns it into a fact, and a misleading fact at that.

Kierkegaard’s Christian Epistemology

In Conference news, Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs on December 6, 2013 at 10:47 pm

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.


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.

Clarification of an Ambiguity in Philosophical Crumbs

In Publishing News, Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs, Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship on October 25, 2013 at 6:51 pm

One of the highlights, for me, of the recent conference on Kierkegaard at Johns Hopkins University, was meeting Jonathan Lear. Lear is a distinguished professor in the Committee on Social Thought and in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Chicago. He is also a practicing psychoanalyst. I have an interest in psychoanalysis and, in fact, am a member of the Philadelphia Jung Seminar. It is a rare treat to meet such a distinguished philosopher who is interested in Kierkegaard, and a rarer one still to meet a philosopher who is a practicing psychoanalyst!

I discovered, in conversation with Lear, that he is teaching a course this fall on Kierkegaard and that he is using my translation of Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Crumbs He wrote to me recently with a question about the text to which I did not immediately have an answer. “On p. 108 of your text,” he wrote, “Climacus says, ‘(This is the untruth of paganism.)’  I don’t think I understand.  Do you have any words of wisdom on that claim?”

The question about this passage from Crumbs is a good one, so I thought I would share my answer to Lear with readers of this blog. I wasn’t sure myself what that parenthetical comment meant, so I went to the online version of the collected works of Kierkegaard in Danish to check my translation against the original text and I discovered that I had, in fact, left something out. There is a word in the original Danish that does not appear in the translation, but which really ought to be there. I don’t know how I failed to include it, but I did. Here is the Danish text followed by my translation with the missing word inserted

Enhver anden Aabenbarelse var for Kjærligheden et Bedrag, fordi den enten først maatte have foretaget en Forandring med den Lærende (men Kjærligheden forandrer ikke den Elskede, men forandrer sig selv) og skjult for ham, at dette var fornødent, eller letsindigt være forblevet uvidende om, at hele Forstaaelsen var en Skuffelse (Dette er Hedenskabets Usandhed).

Any other revelation would, for love, be a deception, because it would either first have had to undertake a transformation of the learner and hidden from him that this had been necessary (but love does not alter the beloved, rather it alters itself), or it would have had to allow him to remain blissfully [letsindigt] ignorant of the fact that the whole understanding had been an illusion. (That is the untruth of paganism.)

“Paganism,” for Kierkegaard (and I believe many of his contemporaries) is a synonym for the Greeks. Kierkegaard often speaks of the Greeks (i.e., the ancient Greeks) as “lighthearted” because they do not have a concept of sin. Sin, according to Kierkegaard/Climacus is what separates human beings from God. SIN is the difference, the main difference. But the Greeks, of course, because they did not have the concept of sin, did not understand that there was an obstacle to their coming to understand the eternal, unchanging truth. They assumed they could just think themselves into it.  They thought they could “understand” the truth, but really, according to Kierkegaard, their understanding was an illusion (“untruth”).

I think that’s what Kierkegaard means in that passage. It’s possible, I suppose, to get that meaning even without the inclusion of “letsindigt/blissfully,” but I think it is harder, so I am grateful to Lear for his question and will add the missing word to the list of corrections I’m planning to send to Oxford.