Haverford Kierkegaard Seminar

Duck Pond, Haverford College
The Duck Pond, Haverford College

I had one of the best teaching experiences of my career last term. I taught an upper-level Kierkegaard seminar at Haverford College. Haverford, for those of you who do not know, is one of the best small liberal arts colleges in the country. It’s ranked number twelve on U.S. News and World Report’s list of 239 “National Liberal Arts Colleges in the U.S.

Haverford is a college based in the Quaker tradition. “The Quaker religion,” observes William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience, “is impossible to overpraise.” There’s always been a strong connection between Quakers and Kierkegaard because both emphasize the importance of the individual’s relation to God. My undergraduate professor and mentor, Bob Horn, the man who introduced me to Kierkegaard, taught briefly at Haverford before settling, finally, at Earlham College, another excellent Quaker institution, and the one from which I received my undergraduate degree.

Bob is a Kierkegaard scholar, and one of the most knowledgable people on Kierkegaard whom I have ever met. His Positivity and Dialectic, an examination of the thought of Hans Lassen Martensen, one of Kierkegaard’s teachers, is an essential resource for Kierkegaard scholars. Bob was succeeded at Haverford by Josiah Tompson, another Kierkegaard scholar. Thompson published The Lonely Labyrinth, an examination of Kierkegaard pseudonymous works, and Kierkegaard: A Collection of Critical Essays.

I knew first hand how intellectually stimulating is the environment of a small liberal arts college. A college with a Quaker history is even more inspiring, however, because there the emphasis is not merely on the development of the mind, but also of the spirit. I also knew of the Haverford-Kierkegaard connection, hence I was very excited when I was offered the opportunity to become, even if only briefly, a part of that tradition.

Jerry Miller, author of the critically acclaimed Stain Removal: Ethics and Race, and the chair of Haverford’s philosophy department, went out of his way to make me feel welcome, as did Kathleen Wright, a tenured full professor at Haverford and a specialist on German idealism and Heidegger, who generously allowed me to share her office.

I could not have had a better group of students. We did a series of short essays in preparation for the term paper. Those essays were mostly summaries of various portions of the texts we were reading at the time they were assigned. This, I explained to them, was to help them become familiar with the practice of providing background for one’s argument before making the argument itself.

They were all good writers. Where they really shone, however, was in their term papers. Each one chose a challenging and important topic, and each did such a good job with the topic that I think their papers could actually be helpful to scholars wrestling with the same issues, so I asked them if I could post their papers to this blog. The students whose papers are mentioned below generously agreed to allow me to do that and to include their names. What follows is a short summary of each paper, along with a link to a pdf of the paper.

I’m going to present the papers in alphabetical order based on the student’s last name. First is Courtney Ahmed’s paper. Courtney’s paper, “Love in Philosophical Crumbs,” examines an issue that has always been of particular interest to me: the relation between human love and divine love. Here is the intro to Courtney’s paper. Remember, this is an undergraduate paper!

In Philosophical Crumbs, Søren Kierkegaard asserts the idea that Christian faith rests on the unequivocal acceptance that the eternal God’s temporal appearance in lowest human form was purely an act of love. Acceptance of this fact has the power to transform those who are able to both grasp and set aside its sheer implausibility. Is it possible, however, for one to understand and accept God’s love— the fundamental premise of Christianity— and thereby effect the transformation of faith without experiencing human love as a precursor? I will argue through the lens of Kierkegaard that no, it is impossible to know what it means to be loved by God unless one has experienced love manifested in human relationships.

Ian Andolsek was a senior philosophy major who actually wrote his senior thesis on Kierkegaard. Andolsek’s paper, “Towards a Deontic Kierkegaardian Virtue Ethics,” is not only well written, it displays an impressive grasp of the breadth of theoretical ethics. The following paragraph is extracted from early in the paper. I chose to post it, rather than the intro because I think it contains more information concerning the substance of Andolsek’s paper.

Kierkegaard’s ethical project is motivated by his strongly held the conviction that the purpose of ethics has been nearly universally misunderstood, from the Ancients, to Kant, to most notably, Hegel. My picture will present Kierkegaard as an analytically rigorous ethical philosopher who extends a cogent and compelling critique of Hegel’s ethical view in the Philosophy of Right to construct a positive ethical framework.

John Chip’s paper, “The Role of Aesthetics in Soren Kierkegaard’s Ethics and Beyond,” addresses an issue that could not be more important to those of use who love Kierkegaard not merely for the substance of his thought, but for the beauty of his prose style. Here is Chip’s intro:

Soren Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher active in the 19th century. In this paper, I will explore Kierkegaard’s concept of aesthetics and its relation to ethics and religion and argue that, contrary to Kierkegaard’s claims, aesthetics can have a positive role in an ethical-religious life. First, I will discuss Kierkegaard’s primary concerns and summarize Kierkegaard’s views on how the conception of aesthetics functions in the ethical and religious life. Then, I will identify passages in which it is possible to understand aesthetics playing a positive role in an ethical-religious life.

Kevin Connolly’s paper “The Search for Eternal Happiness – Can Individual_s Subjects Assist One Another?” does just what it says. It examines the extent to which people can help one another in coming to understand eternal, unchanging truth. This is a hugely important topic in Kierkegaard scholarship because Kierkegaard often speaks as if he thinks people can have no role in helping one another to come to understand this truth. But if he really does believe this, then why, Connolly asks, did he write? Here is Connolly’s introduction.

In his Philosophical Crumbs and Concluding Unscientific Postscript, the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard describes the pursuit of an “eternal happiness” as being an essentially individual enterprise rooted in ethical-religious development. Although some readers may be inclined to interpret Kierkegaard as claiming that individual subjects can do nothing to assist one another in making ethical-religious progress, such a view is incommensurate with several other positions Kierkegaard takes throughout these works. Specifically, this paper will show this viewpoint to be incongruous with the many remarks Kierkegaard makes concerning a subject’s decision-making and relationship with God, an understanding of how interpersonal communication works, and his commentary pertaining to religious addresses. It will thereafter be clear that Kierkegaard believes that subjects can indirectly assist others by inducing them to act and forge their own way toward ethical-religious development, but cannot themselves guide them along a pre-charted path to ethical-religious development.

Leonor Suarez’s paper, “How Does One Learn that They are Outside of the Truth_?” looks at the issue of whether it is possible to come to know one is outside the truth without God’s help, which is to say that it looks at the relation between what Kierkegaard calls “guilt consciousness” and “sin consciousness.” Suarez’s intro is so short that rather than present it here, I’ll just direct you to the paper. You will not be disappointed!

 

My Kierkegaard seminar at Haverford was something special. It’s an experience I hope I will be able to repeat someday.

A Problem with Hannay’s Postscript

I have said before, and I will say again, that Alastair Hannay’s translations of Kierkegaard for Penguin are superior to the Hongs’ translations for Princeton. I will probably do some posts comparing them again. That is not the purpose of the present post, however. I’m teaching a seminar on Kierkegaard now at Haverford College where we’re reading Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Crumbs, and his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Crumbs. We’re using my translation of the Crumbs from Oxford and Hannay’s translation of the Postscript from Cambridge. In the course of my reading through this new translation of the Postscript, I have discovered a number of problems with it.

The most serious and most perplexing problem is Hannay’s systematically translating Kierkegaard’s Opvakt as “reborn.” Opvakt literally means “awakened.” It comes from the verb opvække, that, according to Ferrall-Repp means “to awake, rouse, excite, stir up.” An Opvækkelse is similarly defined by Ferrall-Repp as an “awakening.” Kierkegaard uses the expression en Opvakt to refer to a follower of the charismatic Danish priest Nikolai Frederik Severin Grundtvig (see the commentary to SKS).

One might be tempted to argue that while “awakened” is the most literal translation of Opvakt, it is awkward in English to refer to the members of a particular religious movement as “awakened.” Unfortunately, “reborn” isn’t much better if it is better at all. The idiomatic expression in English would be “born again.”

The more serious difficulty, however, with the translation of Opvakt as “reborn” is that it is misleading, so misleading, in fact, that it is likely to make readers dependent on English translations of Kierkegaard conclude that his thought is incoherent. Kierkegaard speaks in the following passage from the Philosophical Crumbs of a “rebirth” of the individual who receives the condition for understanding the truth from the god in time.

To the extent that the disciple was in error and now receives the truth as well as the condition for understanding it, a change takes place in him that is like the transition from not being to being. But this transition from not being to being is precisely that of birth [Fødselens]. He who exists already can hardly be born, and yet he is born. Let us call this transition rebirth [Gjenfødslen](96).

The expression for “rebirth” is Gjenfødslen. Gjenfødslen comes from adding the prefix Gjen (which comes from Igien, which means “again”) to Fødsel, which, according to Ferrall-Repp. is defined as “delivery, parturation, birth, nativity.”

This “rebirth” is an unqualifiedly positive thing. It is, indeed, precisely the temporal point of departure for a person’s “eternal consciousness” the possibility of which was posed as “the problem of the Crumbs.

Kierkegaard’s “Gjenfødslen” is a positive phenomenon, indeed, THE positive phenomenon. Kierkegaard has little respect, however, for the followers of Grundtvig, so his references to them as Opvakt are all pejorative.

What is the poor reader dependent on English translations of Kierkegaard to make of this? When he reads the Crumbs, he’ll find that “rebirth” is equivalent to an individual’s encounter with God in the person of Christ. When he proceeds, however, to the Postscript, he’ll read that “[t]he one who is reborn … is not relating to God” (381, emphasis added).

This isn’t the only misleading reference in Hannay’s translation to someone who is “reborn.” There is also a reference on page 383 to “the impudent assurance in the fact of God of the one reborn.” There’s another reference on page 424 to “the one who is reborn impertinently retain[ing] God.” When I did a search on “reborn” on my electronic copy of the book, I got 25 hits. Some of the pages, such as 429, have multiple references because Kierkegaard goes on at some length in those places about what is wrong with the followers Grundtvig –– except that the reader very likely won’t know that’s what Kierkegaard is doing, but will assume he’s critiquing the views he developed himself in the Philosophical Crumbs.

Kierkegaard is not critiquing his own earlier views, or worse, contradicting himself. “Rebirth” is a literal translation of Gjenfødslen. It is not, however, a literal translation of Opvakt, and given that Kierkegaard uses Opvakt only pejoratively and Gjenfødslen only positively, a translator needs to be careful to preserve that terminological distinction in order to avoid confusing the reader and perhaps compelling him to conclude that Kierkegaard just wasn’t all that rigorous a thinker.

I thought it was important to alert readers to this problem because people who read my translation of Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Crumbs will very likely be inclined to read Hannay’s translation of the Postscript since Hannay also translates Kierkegaard’s Smuler as “crumbs.”

Hannay got Smuler right, but he got Opvakt wrong.

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. )