Attacking the Essence of Scholarship
Work is progressing well on my book Fear and Dissembling on the controversy surrounding Joakim Garff’s biography of Kierkegaard. I became interested in the controversy not, as some appear to believe, because I had anything personal against Garff, but because I had, and continue to have, a strong objection to people being punished for being good at their jobs, as happened to Peter Tudvad when he was officially censured by Niels Jørgen Cappelørn, the then director of the Kierkegaard Research Center in Copenhagen, for daring to go public with his criticisms of Garff’s book.
Open and honest debate is the lifeblood of scholarship and should, I believe, be defended at all costs. This is an issue of increasing concern because the private funding of work in the sciences has led to the suppression of much research with devastating results for the public welfare. I thought I’d provide you with another sample of the material that will be in the book that is relevant to this timely issue and that is of interest not merely to Kierkegaard scholars, but to the general public. What follows is an article by Professor Frands Mortensen of Aarhus University that appeared in the newspaper Information in August of 2004, before the English translation of Garff’s book had appeared.
Cappelørn Should Resign
From Information: “Debate 8/4/04”
The summer brought us an interesting debate in the newspapers, namely the one surrounding the scholarly merit of the prize-winning biography SAK by Joakim Garff. Peter Tudvad’s comprehensive contribution identified a number of errors in the work and cast doubt on the reliability of much of the information it contains. He did this in Kierkegaardian polemical style so that both the content and the form of his criticisms aroused attention.
What was most interesting, however, was not the conduct of Garff and Tudvad, but of Niels Jørgen Cappelørn, the director of the Søren Kierkegaard Research Center in Copenhagen where the two scholars are employed. He stated in Jyllands-Posten on July 29th that “I firmly believe that one should refrain from openly attacking a colleague, and Peter Tudvad did not, so far as I am aware, inform Garff of his decision [to go public with his criticisms of the book]. It was wrong of Garff not to correct the errors, but also wrong for Tudvad to point them out in the media.”
Here we have a director and head of scholarship of a publicly-funded research center who believes that scholars should not attack one another publicly because they are employed by the same institution, and that they should not publicly expose one another’s errors, but should do this only behind closed doors without the knowledge of the public?
That is quite simply outrageous and profoundly unacceptable. Cappelørn attacks the very essence of all scholarship–namely the public and open discussion of research. It’s possible that, because of the economic significance of research in the private sector, the attitude there is that it is best to correct errors away from the view of the public. For publicly-funded research, however, it is a mortal sin to conceal the fact that material that was published earlier (including in biographies) contains errors.
I cannot know, of course, how committed Cappelørn is to the view that scholars should not publicly criticize their colleagues. He maintains that he was not misquoted in Jyllands-Posten, yet he asserts in Information (July 29) that he is pleased to see scholarly disputes conducted in public and that the exposure of the errors in Garff’s book ought to lead scholars to view claims made in the work about Kierkegaard more skeptically.
What should thus be done about Cappelørn? If he is as good as his word, and encourages more public discussion [among the scholars at the center], then perhaps he ought to be allowed to remain as the director of the Søren Kierkegaard Research Center. He ought properly, however, to resign his position as director. The trustees of the center ought, at the very least, to place him under stricter supervision, as is common in such cases in theological circles.
Those of us who are employed by publicly-funded research centers, ought to think long and hard about whether this is a sign of what we can expect when the new ordinances governing higher education in Denmark are completed and new directors of research centers are appointed.