M.G. Piety

Posts Tagged ‘Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography’

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. )


The Lily of the Field and the Snake in the Grass

In Publishing News, Uncategorized on October 6, 2016 at 2:40 pm

Arts and Letters is a great website that publishes blurbs about interesting articles that are available online and posts links to those articles at the end of the blurb. I have made it the homepage of my browser so that I can stay up to date concerning what is being published in the humanities. I haven’t been keeping up with it recently, however, because I’ve had so much work to do. I’m home sick today, though, and when I opened my browser to get to Blackboard (the online learning platform Drexel uses) to email my students that I was cancelling class, I was surprised to see a blurb about an article on Kierkegaard.

As it turns out, the article is a review in the Times Literary Supplement of two new books on Kierkegaard, and a new translation of some of his religious discourses. The books are Mark Bernier’s The Task of Hope in Kierkegaard (Oxford, 2015), Sheridan Hough’s Kierkegaard’s Dancing Tax Collector (Oxford, 2015). The translation is of the discourses published under the title The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air (Princeton, 2016). It isn’t a particularly good review. The titles of the books are intriguing, but there is little indication of their content in the review. In fact, the “review” is basically a very short summary of Kierkegaard’s life and works that isn’t always even correct. Will Rees, the author of the review, identifies Either-Or as Kierkegaard’s “first book.” Either-Or was preceded, however, by first Af en endu Levendes Papirer (From the Papers of One Still Living) (1838), and Om Begrebet Ironi (On the Concept of Irony) ((1841).

As a child, observes Rees,

Kierkegaard was sensitive, sulky, ironical and precocious. In other words, he had precisely that youthful temperament which, while not a sufficient condition, is nonetheless a necessary condition for the later burgeoning of genius.

Really, I’m not kidding you. He actually says that. He says that all geniuses are necessarily “sensitive, sulky, ironical, and precocious” as children. It may well be that such traits are more pervasive among people who later prove to be “geniuses” (whatever it is, exactly, that that means). It strains credulity, however, to assert without qualification that all geniuses have such traits as children.

Rees also repeats the trope that Kierkegaard renounced the joys of “earthly life” in order to pursue his vocation as an author. Kierkegaard does occasionally speak this way himself. It is clear, however, that what Kierkegaard actually renounced was the not the joys of “earthly” life, but of a conventional life. That is, he renounced the joys of marriage and a family for those of a literary life. Kierkegaard was no ascetic. He ate well and dressed well. He relied on the services of a personal secretary and lived in relative luxury. In fact, he occasionally justified the expenditures associated with this lifestyle as necessary to sustain his creative productivity.

Rees explains that Kierkegaard’s assertion that “truth is subjectivity” is often misunderstood, yet his own explanation of the meaning of this assertion is confusing. It doesn’t mean, he explains, that “something becomes true by virtue of my saying or believing it to be true.” What it means, he continues, is that “beliefs acquire truth only in relation to the individual’s lived orientation toward them.” What’s the difference? Isn’t my believing something to be true more or less equivalent to my having a “lived orientation” toward it? I suppose that depends, at least in part, on what one means by “belief” and “lived orientation.” What is missing from Rees’ explanation is the very thing the omission of which has led to the pervasive erroneous understanding of this statement. Only what Kierkegaard refers to as “subjective truth” requires an individual’s lived orientation toward it. There’s a whole host of objective truths, according to Kierkegaard, as I explain in my book Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology, that require no such orientation.

The strangest part of Rees’ review, however, is that it fails to indicate the translator of the one translation included in the books being reviewed. Rees mentions the translation is “new,” but not who did it. This is a clear departure from the normal editorial practice of the TLS (see, for example, “They do the war in different voices,” “Storm and stress,” and “Orphaned solemnity,” September 30, 2016). That omission was less puzzling to me after I looked up the book on PUP’s website. The translator is none other than Bruce H. Kirmmse.

Princeton’s website describes Kirmmse as “one of the world’s leading Kierkegaard translators and scholars.” If Kirmmse is “one of the world’s leading Kierkegaard translators,” it’s odd that a review of a translation by him would fail to mention that he was the translator. Could it be that the TLS actually wanted to avoid calling attention to the identity of the translator? Readers of this blog are likely aware that there would be a good reason for this. Kirmmse effectively bought the title of “one of the world’s leading Kierkegaard translators and scholars” with the currency of his ethics.

Kirmmse didn’t become “one of the world’s leading Kierkegaard translators and scholars” until after he translated a controversial Danish biography of Kierkegaard into English. As I explained in an article in Counterpunch back in 2005, there is reason to believe that Kirmmse deliberately tried to obscure that the author of that biography had plagiarized some of the book from earlier biographies. If he didn’t do this, then the anomalies described in the Counterpunch piece in Kirmmse’s translation suggest he’s not a particularly good translator.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Kirmmse didn’t try to cover up the plagiarism in the biography. Let’s assume he just isn’t all that good a translator. Being a mediocre translator isn’t a crime. But even if we assume Kirmmse didn’t try to cover up the plagiarism in the biography, he’s still guilty of failing to support the scholar who exposed the plagiarisms in the Danish media.

Of course failing to act in a way one ought to have done is not so bad as actually doing something one ought not to do. Unfortunately, Kirmmse is guilty of the latter as well as the former crime. He defamed me in an article entitled “M.G. Pietys skam” (M.G. Piety’s shame) in the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen, when I discovered that the plagiarized passages remained in his English translation of the Kierkegaard biography Kirmmse had translated and began to write about this. The article is a straightforward piece of character assassination designed to divert the attention of Danish readers from the issue of the problems with the biography and the promise of the author to fix those problems before the work was translated. The piece appeared only in Danish, for reasons that will be apparent to anyone who reads my English translation of the article in an earlier post to this blog entitled “Bruce Kirmmse’s Shame.”

I don’t know whether Princeton knew of the controversy surrounding the book in Denmark when they agreed to publish an English translation of it. They should have, of course, but that doesn’t mean they did. They had learned of the problems with the book, however, by 2006 because Peter Dougherty, the head of PUP sent me a letter in which he explained that the then forthcoming paperback included “some 58 pages of corrections.” That’s a lot of “corrections.” You will search in vain, however, for any indication that the paperback is actually a new, or “corrected,” edition.

So there you have it. There’s good reason why the TLS might prefer that the name of the translator not be mentioned in the review of the translation. Perhaps Kirmmse ought to take a leaf from Kierkegaard’s book and start using a pseudonym.

Some Reflections on an Auspicious Occasion

In Uncategorized on May 23, 2016 at 8:08 pm

McGill Cap

I’ve been promoted to full “Professor.” I am no longer “Associate Professor M.G. Piety.” I am now, or will be as of 1 September, “Professor M.G. Piety.” According to my colleague Jacques Catudal, I am the first person to make full “Professor” in philosophy at Drexel in more than 18 years.

It has been a long journey, as they say. I decided to study philosophy when I was an undergraduate at Earlham College, a small Quaker college in Richmond, Indiana. I became hooked on philosophy as a result of taking a course on rationalism and empiricism with Len Clark. I didn’t particularly enjoy reading philosophy, and I hated writing philosophy papers. I loved talking about it, though. Talking about it was endlessly fascinating to me, so I switched my major from English to philosophy. I became hooked on Kierkegaard after taking a Kierkegaard seminar with Bob Horn. “Bob,” my friends at Earlham explained, “was God.” He was preternaturally wise and kind and a brilliant teacher who could draw the best out of his students while hardly seeming to do anything himself. I don’t actually remember Bob ever talking in any of the seminars I took with him, and yet he must have talked, of course.

I spent nearly every afternoon of my senior year at Earlham in Bob’s office talking to him about ideas. I worried sometimes that perhaps I should not be taking up so much of his time. He always seemed glad to see me, though, and never became impatient, even as the light began to fade and late afternoon gave way to early evening. I don’t remember him encouraging me to go to graduate school in philosophy (my guess is that he would have considered that unethical, given the state of the job market in philosophy). I do remember, however, that he was pleased when I announced that I had decided to do that.

Graduate school was enormously stimulating, but also exhausting and, for a woman, occasionally demoralizing. There has been much in the news in the last few years about how sexist is the academic discipline of philosophy. Well, it was at least as bad back then when I entered graduate school as it is now, and possibly even worse. Still, I persevered. I began publishing while still a student and was very fortunate to gain the support and mentorship of some important people in the area of Kierkegaard scholarship, including C. Stephen Evans, Robert Perkins and Sylvia Walsh Perkins, and Bruce H. Kirmmse, who was one of my references for a Fulbright scholarship I was awarded in 1990 to complete the work on my dissertation on Kierkegaard’s epistemology.

I lived in Denmark from 1990 until 1998. I received my Ph.D. from McGill University in 1995 but remained in Denmark to teach in Denmark’s International Study Program, then a division of the University of Copenhagen. I wasn’t even able to go back for my graduation, so I learned only a couple of years ago, when my husband bought me my own regalia as a gift, how gorgeous the McGill regalia are (see photo below).

I came to Drexel from Denmark in 1998 as a visiting professor. I liked Drexel. It was overshadowed by its neighbor, the University of Pennsylvania, but that seemed to me almost an advantage back then. That is, Drexel had carved out a unique niche for itself as a technical university, somewhat like MIT but smaller, that provided a first-class education in somewhat smaller range of degree programs than were offered by larger, more traditional institutions. The College of Arts and Sciences seemed to me, at that time, and to a certain extent, still today, as a real jewel, as Drexel’s “secret weapon,” so to speak, because while most large universities had class sizes ranging anywhere from 40 to several hundred students, most of the courses in the humanities at Drexel were capped at 25 students. Drexel also boasted some first-class scholars who were as committed to teaching as to scholarship. Drexel was providing its students with what was effectively the same quality of education in the humanities as is provided at small liberal-arts colleges, while at the same time giving them invaluable hands-on work experience through its co-op programs that few liberal-arts colleges could provide.

Drexel asked me to stay on for a second and then a third year, despite the fact that my beginning was less than auspicious in that at the end of that first fall term, I had mistakenly conflated the times of what should have been two separate exams and hence left my students sitting in a room waiting patiently for almost an hour for me to materialize and administer the exam. It was too late, of course, to do anything by the time I learned, via a phone call from one of the secretaries in the department, of the mistake. I was relieved when not only was the then chair of the department, Ray Brebach, not only not angry with me, but eager to see if I would be willing to stay on for another year. Ray has been one of my favorite colleagues ever since.

I received my tenure-track appointment in the spring of 2001. I liked my department. It was originally the Department of Humanities and Communications and included the disciplines of English, philosophy and communications. It was enormously stimulating to be in such a cross-disciplinary department. There were poets and novelists, as well as traditional literary scholars. I particularly liked being around the communications people, however, because many were engaged in politically significant media studies and that sort of work was reminiscent of the dinner-table discussions I remembered from childhood when my father was an editorial writer for one of the two newspapers in the town where I grew up. My association with the communications people led to the publication of an article I wrote together with my husband on the behavior of the mainstream media in the U.S. leading up to the second Iraq war.

Eventually, however, the communications people left our department and formed a new department together with the anthropologists and sociologists called the Department of Culture and Communications. So then we became the Department of English and Philosophy. I was sad to see the communications people go, but there were still plenty of creative writing people in the department who helped to make it a more stimulating environment than it would have been had it been comprised exclusively of traditional scholars. These people, including Miriam Kotzin and Don Riggs, both brilliantly talented poets, are some of my closest friends. Miriam has encouraged me to write for her outstanding online journal Per Contra, and Don, a talented caricaturist as well as poet, drew the picture of me that I occasionally use for my other blog.

It was an ordeal, however, to go up for tenure. Our department has a tradition of requiring monstrously comprehensive tenure and promotion binders into which must go almost everything one has done on the road to tenure or promotion. I think each one of my tenure binders was around 500 pages in length. It took me the entire summer of 2006 to put them together, a summer when I could have been writing material for publication. To add possible injury to the insult of having to devote so much time to the compilation of these binders was my fear that some of the reports of my “external reviewers” might not be so positive as they would haven been had I not become involved in a scandal in Denmark surrounding a controversial Danish biography of Kierkegaard. I lost several friends, including the aforementioned Bruce Kirmmse, as a result of my role in that controversy, friends whom I feared might well have been recruited to serve as external reviewers.

To this day I don’t know who all the reviewers were. Two were selected from a list I had provided my tenure committee, but the rest were selected by the committee itself. Whatever the reviewers said, however, it was not so negative as to override what subsequently became apparent was the high esteem in which my colleagues held me and my work. I was granted tenure in the spring of 2007 and I have fond memories to this day of the little reception provided by the dean for all faculty who where granted tenure that year. There was champagne and there were toasts and I was very, very happy.

I’d always been happy at Drexel, so I was surprised by the change that took place in me upon my becoming tenured. I felt, suddenly, that I had a home. I felt that people both liked and respected me. More even than that, however, I felt that I had found a community of high-minded people. People committed to principles of justice and fairness. I felt I had found a small community of the sort that Alasdair MacIntyre argues in After Virtue we must find if we are to live happy and fulfilling lives, the kind of community that is increasingly rare in contemporary society.

That all seems long ago now. Drexel has grown and changed. I am still fortunate, however, to have many brilliant, talented, and fair-minded colleagues. Thanks must go to my colleague Abioseh Porter, who chaired the department for most of the time I have been at Drexel and who was a staunch supporter of my development as “public intellectual” long before “public philosophy” enjoyed the vogue it does today. Thanks must also go to the members of my promotion committee, but especially to my colleague Richard Astro, who chaired the committee. I know from merely serving on tenure-review committees that no matter how uncontroversial the final decision is anticipated to be, there is an enormous amount of work required of the committee members, simply because of the level of detail required in the final report.

Thanks must also go to everyone who has supported me throughout my career. I set out, actually, to list each person individually, but then I realized that there are many, many more people than I would ever be able to list. I have been very fortunate.

Thank you everyone. Thank you for everything.

Cap and Gown



Bruce Kirmmse’s Shame

In Conference news, Uncategorized on September 7, 2012 at 2:49 pm

Bruce Kirmmse was a key player in the controversy over Joakim Garff’s book SAK (Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography). Kirmmse did the English translation, which inexplicably included many of the errors that Peter Tudvad had already exposed in the original and indeed appeared calculated to cover up some of the apparent plagiarism in the original.  (See previous blog post, as well as, “Rot in the Ivory Tower.”)

Kirmmse also played attack dog, authoring some articles defending the book in the Danish media.  One of them was a scurrilous, defamatory hit piece against me, “M.G. Piety’s Shame,” published in the September 23-29 2005 Weekendavisen.  (I don’t use those labels lightly; when I saw the article, I consulted with a well-known defamation attorney in Philadelphia, who concluded that the article was defamatory. I didn’t pursue litigation because of a lack of funds (the lawyer didn’t want to take the case on a contingency fee, because he didn’t foresee big damages).

The article has never appeared in English.  I present it below.

I’ve decided to republish the piece here because Kirmmse was recently selected as the keynote speaker at the Seventh International Kierkegaard Conference, sponsored by the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf’s College this coming June. I believe Kirmmse’s scurrilous role in the controversy over Garff’s book makes him unfit to be honored in this way.

Two preliminary points: (1) An astonishing aspect of Kirmmse’s piece is that Kirmmse never reveals anywhere in it that I entered the controversy as a result of the fact that the errors and plagiarisms Tudvad had exposed in the Danish edition of Garff’s book appeared uncorrected in his English translation that was published a year later.  Instead, he accuses me of ”resurrecting” Tudvad’s attack, as if out of thin air and out of spite.  That’s deliberately misleading. I knew about the controversy from the beginning but chose to write about it only after it became relevant to people who were forced to rely on Kirmmse’s translation.

(2) Kirmmse also never revealed in the piece his own self-interest. Not only did he do the translation of SAK, he was being considered to head up the new translation of Kierkegaard’s journals, a project that had been conceived by Niels Jørgen Cappelørn, one of Garff’s staunchest defenders, and over which he, Cappelørn, had control in that he could restrict access to the new Danish editions of the journals on which the translation would be based.  Many Weekendavisen readers were likely deceived into thinking that Kirmmse was a disinterested American scholar commenting on the controversy.  Instead, Kirmmse was most likely seeking to deflect attention from Tudvad’s well-documented criticisms of Garff’s book – that is, to deceive and deflect attention from his own complicity and duplicity in his translation of SAK. (See the details in “Rot in the Ivory Tower”) as well as to curry favor with Cappelørn, who had come under heavy criticism for his own role in the SAK controversy.

I realize that I could be accused of not being disinterested in how I’ve translated Kirmmse’s article. So I asked Kirmmse via an email dated 8/22/2012 for the English version of his piece (he didn’t write the article in Danish originally – it was translated by someone else for Weekendavisen).  Kirmmse never replied to my email.  So I emailed him again on 8/29/2012. This time I sent him my version and asked if he had any issues as to its accuracy. Again, he failed to reply. So on September 4, I tried to call him. The only number I had for him was the general number for the History Department at Connecticut College, where he is now emeritus.  The secretary there said she didn’t have a number for him, not even his home number.  She informed me that because he traveled a lot, email was the best way to contact him and reassured me that the email address I had for him was correct and that he was good about responding to email.   Apparently, he doesn’t want to respond.  In any event, I’m confident that I’ve translated this piece accurately.  

M.G. Piety’s Shame

by Bruce Kirmmse

Peter Tudvad expresses surprise, in an article entitled, “SAK Redux” that I, despite my generally positive review of his Kierkegaards København (Books, 2 September 2005) have also been critical of his work. I won’t repeat my review here, but merely point out that anyone who read my article in this paper as well as my longer review in Kierkegaardina 23 (Copenhagen, 2004), will quickly see that in both cases I expressed both genuine praise and serious criticism.

My praise concerns Tudvad’s industry and rigor with respect to uncovering some concrete details that were unknown to earlier scholars. My criticisms were directed at his methodology. His belief in 19th century positivism causes him to believe that one can “discover” the historical truth, and that this exists eternally uninfluenced by “interpretation.” As an historical scholar, I find Tudvad’s methodological assumptions untenable and unsuited to both historical scholarship in general as well as to its sub discipline of biography in particular. Tudvad’s unreflective positivism has, to put it bluntly, caused him to make a category mistake, with the result that he misunderstands the character of biography and it was on the basis of this misconception of the work of biographical authors that he initiated his attack on Garff’s biography of Kierkegaard.

A result of this category mistake was that Tudvad was not entirely clear about what he was doing when he initiated his attack on Garff’s biography. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said about Marilyn Piety, who decided over the course of the summer to resurrect Tudvad’s year-old attack. Piety knows exactly what she’s doing. She’s an assistant professor of philosophy at a technically oriented educational institution in Philadelphia, has a good knowledge of Danish and had published some articles on Kierkegaard. Her real specialty, however, is the writing of polemical exposés of what she believes is “nepotism” and “corruption” in the academic world, in particular in connection with Danish universities.

It’s clear from her article in The Philosophers’ Magazine (nr. 31, 2005) as well as from her subsequent pieces in the Danish press and her contributions to the public debate on the internet, that she doesn’t have anything new to say. It’s clear that when she ventures out on thin moral ice with, for example, her repetition of Tudvad’s claim of academic misconduct or plagiarism, she attempts to protect herself by asserting that the accusation of academic misconduct “was not my accusation,” that she is “only repeating” Tudvad’s accusations. This morally questionable mode of attack makes it possible for her to do damage while at the same time distancing herself from it. It is worth noting that she earlier conducted herself in precisely the same manner.

In the beginning of the 1990s, when Marilyn Piety lived in Copenhagen and was working on her dissertation at the University of Copenhagen, the rector of the university, the neurologist Kjeld Møllgård, was accused of scientific misconduct in connection with a twenty-year old study. The charge was taken seriously and brought before the Board of Ethics (etisk råd) the body that has jurisdiction over such cases in the Danish academic world. They transferred the case to the Committee on Scientific Misconduct [Udvalget Vedrørende Videnskabelig Uredelighed] who thoroughly investigated it and concluded that all charges against Møllgård proved “groundless.”

Even though Piety lived in Copenhagen in 1994 and thus must have been aware of all the facts surrounding the case–i.e., both the charges against Møllgård and the fact that Denmark’s highest authority for academic ethics had found all the charges “groundless”–she nevertheless publicized them in a full-page article in 1997 (15 August 1997) entitled “Nordic nadir for nepotism” in the Times Higher Education Supplement. She mentioned the charges against Møllgård to support her own charge of pervasive corruption in the Danish academic world, but failed to mention that he had earlier been cleared of all charges. She formulated, in fact, her presentation of the case in such a way that the reader got the impression that the question of Møllgård’s guilt was still an open one. Piety’s behavior in this case was so extreme that the Committee on Scientific Misconduct wrote to the  Times and demanded they print a retraction which was then printed in the paper on the 17th of October 1997.

So far as anyone knows, Piety has never herself issued a retraction or made any public apology for having spread false accusations of scientific misconduct on the part of Rector Møllgård, even though she knew he had been cleared of these charges three years earlier. And even though the charges of academic misconduct that have been advanced against Garff have never reached the stage of a formal investigation (there was no reason for such an investigation), two prominent Danish academics, Thomas Bredsdorff and the director of the Center for Søren Kierkegaard Research, Niels Jørgen Cappelørn, investigated Garff’s work in the ligt of Tudvad’s charges and declared publicly that the charges were groundless.

Garff has, in addition, publicly reacted to some of Tudvad’s criticisms, refuted some and promised to take others into account, particularly those concerning concrete historical facts, when the book appears in a new edition. Piety must have known about Garff’s public reaction (both his disagreement with elements of Tudvad’s critique and his willingness to correct some of the errors in a new edition of the work), and she undoubtedly was aware of Professor Bredsdorff’s and Centerleader Cappelørn’s public refutation of Tudvad’s complaint [of academic misconduct]–just as she knew when she wrote her article in 1997 that Møllgård had been cleared of all charges in 1994.

But just as she failed to issue either a public retraction or an apology for her backstabbing of Møllgård in 1997, so is it unlikely that she will do so in connection with her backstabbing of Garff in 2005. As she puts it herself “they are not my accusations,” “I’m merely restating” what others have said. This is a clear pattern in Piety’s behavior. Her method of backstabbing others through insinuation is morally condemnable and should not be taken seriously. Has she no shame at all?

After having unapologetically smeared Møllgård eight years ago by simply “repeating” charges made against him by others, she is now attempting to do the same thing to Garff in an effort to support her claim that there is “something rotten in Denmark” especially in the Danish academic world. Danes have long been sensitive to these words of Shakespeare’s and this is perhaps the reason that the Danish media were willing to publicize Piety’s views without checking her sources. The best way to react to such behavior is perhaps to answer with another quotation from Shakespeare: “Oh shame, where is thy blush” [Hamlet, III iv].

Some additional points:

–At the end of his article, Kirmmse argues that the entire Danish media somehow failed to spot my alleged errors. They didn’t spot them, I submit, because there weren’t any as the Danish media well knew because they had been covering the controversy over the biography for approximately a year by the time my first piece on it appeared.

–Kirmmse never disputes the correctness of any of the points I made in the material I published on Garff’s biography of Kierkegaard. It’s curious as well, that he attempted to discredit my efforts to inform readers of the problems with the English translation of the  book by charging that my points were not “new.” As I explained above, I decided to “resurrect Tudvad’s year-old attack” when the English translation of Garff’s book came out a year after the original Danish edition and I discovered that the problems Tudvad had identified in that edition were in the English edition as well. Kirmmse’s charge that my claims were not “new” was simply an attempt to deflect attention from that fact by invoking a well-known and widely discredited rhetorical technique frequently invoked by the public relations industry and discussed, for example, in Rampton and Stauber’s excellent Trust Us, We’re Experts (pp. 68-69). It is never an indictment of a claim, or argument, to point out that it is not “new.” Many excellent arguments (e.g., those in favor of freedom of expression and equal protection under the law) are not new, but they are excellent arguments nonetheless and bear repeating despite their lack of novelty.

–Kirmmse criticizes me for my pointing out that the charges against Garff’s book were Tudvad’s, not mine. It would have been inaccurate, however, if I had said they were mine. In fact, it would have been plagiarism if I’d repeated Tudvad’s points in print claiming that they were my own. Far from being “morally questionable,” as Kirmmse charges, my identification of the points as having come from Tudvad was morally obligatory. Tudvad was the one who deserved credit for identifying the problems with Garff’s book and I endeavored to be conscientious in making that clear.

–Kirmmse is correct when he claims that I never issued “either a public retraction or an apology” for my purported “backstabbing” of Møllgård in my 1997 article. The Times pressured me repeatedly to do this, but I stood my ground. I wasn’t mistaken in my presentation of the Møllgård case and I wasn’t sorry I had presented it.

–As for checking facts, neither Kirmmse nor Weekendavisen can have checked the facts in the Møllgård case, because if they had, they’d have discovered that the charges of scientific misconduct had been brought against Møllgård, not twenty years after the fact as Kirmmse suggests, but while Møllgård was working as a post doc at the University of California at Berkeley. The investigation had been inconclusive.

–Yes, the Danish Committee on Scientific Misconduct “cleared” Møllgård of all charges relating to the case. I didn’t know about this, however, because it was not widely publicized. Had it been, someone might well have pointed out that a Danish committee did not have the authority to clear someone of charges that had been brought by a U.S. committee.

–It’s unlikely Kirmmse even read my article “Nordic nadir for nepotism.” If he’d had he’d have seen that it was not an attack on Møllgård. Møllgård receives only passing mention in the piece. The subject of the article was, as the title indicates, nepotism in higher education in Denmark, and the point of the mention of Møllgård was that it would be difficult for him to do anything about this problem because an unresolved case of purported scientific misconduct in his past would make him vulnerable to blackmail. In fact, the reason I was aware of the case, which was twenty years old, as Kirmmse rightly pointed out, by the time it made the Danish newspapers, is that someone had apparently dredged it up in an effort to sabotage Møllgård’s candidacy for the position of rector of Copenhagen University. Hence my speculation that the scientific misconduct case would make it difficult for Møllgård to take a hard line on corruption within the university, was well supported.

–Compare the tone of my article “Nordic nadir for nepotism” to the tone of Kirmmse’s “M.G. Piety’s Shame” and ask yourselves which article is more properly described as a piece of character assassination. Kirmmse so misrepresented the content of my article that either he condemned me for writing an article that he had not in fact read and in this way violated academic and scholarly ethics, or he had read the article but deliberately misrepresented its content and in this way violated pretty much every code of ethics.

So anyway, there you have it. Not Kirmmse’s most distinguished work, but perhaps more relevant than some of his other pieces to the issue of whether he’s an appropriate keynote speaker for an international conference on the centennial of Kierkegaard’s birth. It’s a shame the library didn’t pick someone more appropriate, someone such Edward Mooney, the current president of the Søren Kierkegaard Society, or Robert Perkins or Sylvia Walsh Perkins, both of whom have devoted their lives to Kierkegaard scholarship and produced outstanding work, or C. Stephen Evans who’s work on Kierkegaard is unsurpassed, or Alastair Hannay whose Kierkegaard translations for Penguin are some of the best that have ever been done, or, finally, Peter Tudvad, who in a very Kierkegaardian way, has endured a great deal of personal abuse and repeated ad hominem attacks in the service of the truth.

Kirmmse’s Cover-Up

In Conference news, Publishing News on August 23, 2012 at 10:53 am

This article originally appeared in October 8-10, 2005 weekend edition the online political journal Counterpunch under the title “Rot in the Ivory Tower.” In view of the fact, however, that Bruce Kirmmse has been chosen as the keynote speaker for the Seventh International Kierkegaard Conference that will be sponsored by the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College this June, I thought readers of this blog might like to know a little more about him.

Rot in the Ivory Tower

Bruce Kirmmse, the translator of the English edition of Joakim Garff’s once famous, now infamous book, Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography (Princeton 2005) reached back eight years to draw into the debate concerning the problems with the book an entirely unrelated article and misrepresented the content of that article in order to assassinate the character of one of the book’s critics? (“M.G. Piety’s skam” [M.G. Piety’s shame], Weekendavisen 23-29 Sept. 2005 [scroll to the bottom). Kirmmse argues that an article I published in The Times Higher Education Supplement in 1997 was nothing more than an attempt to smear the rector of the University of Copenhagen, Kjeld Møllgård, through the mention that he had been involved in a scientific misconduct case when he had been a post doc at the University of California at Berkeley. Kirmmse asserted that Møllgård had been cleared of charges of misconduct by a Danish committee. He did not explain, however, that the charges had been brought against Møllgård by an American committee and that a Danish committee thus had no authority to clear Møllgård of them.

I was careful in my article to point out that whether Møllgaaard was guilty or innocent was irrelevant to my point.  I wrote: “Whether or not Professor Møllgaard was guilty of scientific misconduct in 1971, a natural reluctance to have the issue paraded through the press could make him vulnerable to pressure from those academics against whom similar charges have been made” (“Nordi nadir for nepotism,” The Times Higher Education Supplement, August 15, 1997, page 14).  In addition, Kirmmse misrepresented the point of my article. The article was not about Møllgaard but about issues others, including the Danes Maj Cecilie Nielsen and Niels Chr. Nielsen, had raised concerning problems with higher education and scholarship in Denmark.

Why would Kirmmse want to resurrect the Møllgård controversy? Could it be he is trying to destroy the credibility of the one person who might expose that he was complicit in Garff’s plagiarism to the extent that he should have recognized when Garff had copied material from a book that he, Kirmmse, had earlier translated into English. Could it be that he fears I might even be able to produce evidence that would raise suspicions that he made a systematic attempt, when he translated Garff’s book to obscure the extent to which Garff had appropriated text from other authors?

The biography was praised by reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic. It was awarded the prestigious Georg Brandes Prize and the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen’s Literary Prize. John Updike described the 813 page English translation as “monumental” (“Incommensurability: A New Biography of Kierkegard,” New Yorker, 28 March 2005), and other reviewers described it as “magisterial” (Publishers Weekly, 20 Dec. 2004), “superb” (The Wall Street Journal, 3 Feb. 2005), “masterful” (Times Literary Supplement, 28 January 2005) and “brilliant” (The Washington Post, May 29, 2005).

Garff may indeed be brilliant. He weaves together the facts he presents in an enormously entertaining and original way. Unfortunately, Garff’s originality isn’t restricted to his theses, but extends, according to another Danish Kierkegaard scholar, Peter Tudvad, to some of his “facts.” Not only that, Garff’s originality does not extend to all of his text, some of which Tudvad has shown was actually lifted from earlier biographies of Kierkegaard (“SAK–an unscholarly biography of Søren Kierkegaard”). Tudvad revealed back in 2001 that SAK was riddled with factual errors and that some of the text had been plagiarized from earlier works on Kierkegaard (Jyllands-Posten 16 Aug. 2001 and Universitetsavisen no. 14, 2001), yet the errors and plagiarisms he exposed were never corrected.

One of the works from which Garff frequently copies material is Jørgen Bukdahl’s, Søren Kierkegaard og den menige mand (Munksgaard, 1961). Kirmmse translated this work into English only a few years ago (Soren Kierkegaard and the Common Man, Eerdmans, 2001), yet if one compares Kirmmse’s translations of the passages Garff has copied from Bukdahl with his earlier translations of these same passages, peculiar dissimilarities emerge. Kirmmse routinely elects to change his choice of terms from his earlier translation, as in the cases, for example, of “fængsles” which he translated first as “imprisoned” in Bukdahl and later as “incarcerated” in Garff where Garff copied from Bukdahl (p. 33 in Garff and p. 41 in Bukdahl), “Brødremenighed,” which he translated as “Society of Brothers” in Bukdahl and then as “Congregation of Brethren” in Garff, where Garff copied from Bukdahl (p. 11 in Garff and pp. 31-33 in Bukdahl) and “gudelig vækkelse” which he translated as “religious awakeninigs” in Bukdahl and as “godly awakenings” in Garff where Garff copied from Bukdahl (p. 32 in Garff and p. 20 in Bukdahl).

Kirmmse felt compelled, apparently, to add the adjective “internal” to his translation of Bukdahl’s “sammenholdet” so that the translation reads “internal solidarity” (p. 20), but no longer felt such a compulsion when he translated the same expression simply as “solidarity” in Garff ‘s appropriation of the passage from Bukdahl (p. 32). Kirmmse omitted a phrase, “the so called ‘Gehülfen,’” from his translation of Bukdahl (p. 20), but apparently repented of this omission when he translated Garff’s appropriation of the same passage four years later (p. 32). The effect, of this change of heart is, once again, to obscure to readers of the two translations that Garff has copied directly from Bukdahl.

Translation is, of course, not an exact science. It would be unreasonable to expect a translator to adhere rigidly to what he had at one time preferred to a possible alternative translation. Translators usually endeavor to be consistent, however, in their translation of the names of groups and religious movements. To depart so routinely as Kirmmse does from what only four years ago he thought were the most defensible translations of the phrases and terms in question gives one pause. The concatenation of these examples might even incline the reader to the view that Kirmmse made a deliberately erroneous translation of Garff’s “aften” as “afternoon” [the correct translation would be “evening”] on page 154 in order to obscure the fact that Garff had again copied the passage in question from an earlier work on Kierkegaard, this time from Flemming Chr. Nielsen’s Søren Kierkegaard og Aarhus (1968) which also has “aften.” After all, Kirmmse’s knowledge of Danish is excellent, so it is difficult to find any other explanation for why he would make such an elementary mistake.

There’s another error that is difficult to explain. Garff mistakenly substituted an “r” for an “s” in a passage from Bukdahl. The result is that Garff’s text reads:  “there were rumors that [the social agitator J.C. Lindberg] was to be incarcerated [fængsles] and executed [henrettes] on Christiansø, a notorious prison island” (p 33), whereas it should read, as Kirmmse’s translation of Bukdahl does in fact read, that Lindberg “was to be imprisoned [fængsles] and sent into exile [hensættes] to…Christiansø” (p. 41).

Kirmmse should have caught the mistake. Not only had he translated Bukdahl’s correct characterization of the rumors that circulated about Lindberg, he is an historian who specializes in nineteenth-century Danish history. Kirmmse even discussed Lindberg in own book, Kierkegaard in Golden Age Denmark (Indiana, 1990). It’s possible, of course, that he had simply forgotten what Bukdahl had written. What is harder to understand is that, as an historian, he would have forgotten the facts surrounding the Lindberg case. There is, as I pointed out in an article I published earlier on the controversy a big difference between being exiled and being executed (“Some Reflections on Academic Ethics,” a copy of this article may be downloaded from the list of publications on my website). Could it be that Kirmmmse did recognize the mistake, but failed to correct it out of a fear that the corrected text would be more easily identifiable as having been lifted from Bukdahl?

This question is impossible to answer definitively. I asked a few experienced translators, who are members of the American Translators Association, for their opinion on the significance of the irregularities in Kirmmse’s translations of Garff and Bukdahl. Most said that there were too few examples (I gave them only the three terms: “incarcerated,” “Congregation of Brethren” and “godly awakenings”) to prove Kirmmse had tried to conceal Garff’s plagiarisms. Translators often change how they translate particular terms, they explained, if the new choice can be defended as an improvement on the earlier translation. One translator, Stephen Slater observed, however, that this would not explain the change from “imprisoned” to “incarcerated,” because in this case, “there is minimal to no semantic difference.” Several remarked that “godly awakenings” was clearly inferior to “religious awakenings” as it was less idiomatic and relied, as one pointed out, on a “false cognate.” Most also agreed with Slater’s observation that

“[a]s to the change from ‘Society of Brothers’ to ‘Congregation of Brethren,’ it is odd that a translator would alter his previously published translation of a group’s name. Even if it is a clear improvement (in which case it is something of an embarrassment for the translator), it is an irritation for those who read the literature, since there are now two English translations of the group’s name rather than one.”

Whether Kirmmse deliberately tried to conceal Garff’s plagiarisms or not, he had an interest in doing so. Kirmmse was recently appointed by the Søren Kirkegaard Research Center at the University of Copenhagen, where Garff is also employed, to direct the project of translating Kierkegaard journals and papers into English. That appointment was still pending when he agreed to translate Garff’s book. This fact was enough for several of the translators whose opinions I canvassed to agree with Lawrence Schofer, Ph.D., that there was enough evidence to raise suspicions that Kirmmse might have tried to conceal Garff’s plagiarisms.

The strongest statements, however, came from two translators who approached the issue from a slightly different angle. They focused not on the irregularities across the two translations, but on Kirmmse failure, as Ted Crump put it, “to raise a red flag about the plagiarism…I can recognize translations I did twenty years ago,” Crump continued, “Kirmmse must certainly been aware of this [i.e., the plagiarims] and did not act ethically, in my opinion, especially in light of his vested interest in the appointment.” Ingrid G. Landsford agreed. She observed that,

“[s]ince Bruce Kirmmse did the Bukdahl and Garff translations within four years of one another the plagiarized passages in the more recent source must have seemed familiar to him. As a scholar, he would also have known that Garff had violated scholarly procedure in omitting proper attribution. He then had several choices and did not do what I hope most scholars would have done.”

Readers of the English translation may not care that much of Garff’s text actually originated from the pens of other Danish authors, so long as the information it contains is correct. Unfortunately, much of the information in Garff’s book is not correct. Names are wrong, dates are wrong, all kinds of information that is important to understanding what kind of person Kierkegaard was, such as how much money he gave to charity, how many servants he had, how extensive was his conflict with the newspaper The Corsair, is simply wrong. Garff was forced to admit this when Tudvad came with the relevant documents in 2001 and then again in 2004 after Tudvad discovered yet more damaging material while doing the research for his own critically acclaimed book, Kierkegaards Købebenhavn (Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen) (Politikens Forlag, 2004). Yet Garff failed to make any corrections to the book.

This isn’t the only plagiarism case to make Danish headlines in the last year. Frank Esmann’s biography of Henry Kissinger was exposed in October of 2004 in the newspaper Berlingske Tidende as substantially plagiarized from the American Walter Isaacson’s biography (Simon and Schuster, 1992). Danish scholar Steffen Krogh determined that there were at least 350 passages in Esmann’s book, one more than twenty lines long, that were copied verbatim from Isaacson, yet both the University of Southern Denmark and the University of Copenhagen declined to investigate the issue of whether Esmann’s book constituted plagiarism (“Esmann plagierede 350 gange” [Esmann plagiarized 350 times], Berlingske Tidende 21 July, 2005).

The two cases, taken together, were likened by Dorte Hygum Sørensen, writing in the newspaper Politiken, to “The Tamil Case,” the immigration scandal that toppled the government of Danish prime minister Poul Schlüter back in 1992 (Politikken 21 August 2005). Judging from the number of articles on the subject that appeared in the Danish media, the comparison is an apt one. There were more than fifty articles on the Kierkegaard controversy in the summer of 2004 and at least that many more in the summer of 2005 after Danes got word Garff had failed to correct the text of the English translation of his book.

Kirmmse could be in trouble if the controversy spreads to the U.S. where Garff’s error-ridden and plagiarism-ridden book has done well for its publisher, Princeton. Of course there are few people who would be in a position to expose the respects in which Kirmmse’s translation makes the plagiarized passages harder to identify than they were in the original. I am one of those few. Could Kirmmse have been attempting to destroy my credibility before I could come with the evidence of his complicity in Garff’s crimes?

That question, like so many in this case, is impossible to answer definitively. I am thus going to do for Kirmmse what he did not do for me. That is, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that all the irregularities and anomalies in his translation of Garff’s book may have innocent explanations.

There is one charge, however, that can unequivocally be made against Kirmmse. Tudvad received an official reprimand from his boss, Niels Jørgen Cappelørn, the director of the Kierkgaard Research Center, for publicly exposing the problems with Garff’s book and was later driven out of his job. Kirmmse  knew that Tudvad’s criticisms of  Garff’s book were well founded and that it was perfectly appropriate of Tudvad to bring this issue before the public, given that Garff had refused to make any of the necessary corrections. Kirmmse knew this and yet he failed, throughout the controversy to come to Tudvad’s defense.

Tudvad is just being nitpicky, was what many Danes initially seemed to think. Danes are pretty tolerant of laxness in scholarly standards. I’m as big a proponent of tolerance as the next person. I draw the line, though, when the career of an innocent person becomes a casualty of the tolerance of incompetence. That line, to offer a variant on the statement of Lessing that Kierkegaard is fond of quoting, is just a little bit too wide for me to be able to make the leap across. Kirmmse could do it though. He sat by silently while Tudvad’s career was sacrificed to preserve Garff’s reputation.

That was just wrong.

(Postscript: A friend and fellow Kierkegaard scholar remarked to me recently that controversy surrounding Garff’s biography of Kierkegard did not seem to have hurt Tudvad’s career after all in that since the controversy, Tudvad has gone on to become one of the most important public intellectuals in Denmark. The latter part of that observation is correct. Tudvad is one of the most important public intellectuals in Denmark. Unfortunately, the life of a public intellectual in Denmark, if he or she does not have a university post, is somewhat precarious. According to the Danish journalist Niels Lillelund, however, Tudvad’s involvement in the Kierkegaard biography controversy, or more correctly, Niels Jørgen Cappelørn’s characterization of Tudvad’s involvement, amounted to “a death sentence in the salons, … so if Tudvad had  counted on making a carrier in the vaulted halls of the academy, he can forever after spare himself the trouble” [“Niels Jørgen Cappelørn og den gode tone” (Niels Jørgen Cappelørn and decorum) Jyllands-Posten 18 August 2005]. And indeed, Tudvad does not have an academic post, in contrast to Garff, who remains a member of the Theology Faculty at the University of Copenhagen.)

Conference Report

In Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship, Uncategorized on November 25, 2011 at 11:20 am

AAR Book Exhibit

The annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion is the single most important conference for Kierkegaard scholars. There are normally several sessions devoted exclusively to Kierkegaard, but this year there were an unprecedented five. The first was on Saturday  morning. It was co-sponsored by the Christian Systematic Theology Section and the Kierkegaard, Religion and Culture Group. The theme was Christology and Kierkegaard and the session was presided over by C. Stephen Evans of Baylor University. The second was later the same day. The theme of this second session was the work of Edward Mooney. This, for me, was a particularly interesting session because Mooney is as much a poet as a scholar and this was brought out well by the speakers. The third session was late in the afternoon on Saturday (yes, that’s right, there were three sessions devoted to Kierkegaard on Saturday). The theme of this session was esthetics and the speakers included Joakim Garff, the author of Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography (Princeton, 2005) about which I’ve written.

I’m afraid I missed the session on Sunday morning that was devoted to Kierkegaard and Hermeneutics. I’d like to have gotten to that session, if only to see one of my favorite Kierkegaard scholars, Tim Polk of Hameline, who was the session chair. My own paper was scheduled for the same afternoon, however, as part of a session devoted to Kierkegaard’s epistemology, so I spent the morning making the final edits. I made an important discovery at this AAR. If you read your paper directly from your computer, you can keep making edits right up until that last minute!

My paper was well received, though there were few questions. My guess is that this was because it addressed two subjects with which most scholars are not heavily engaged: Kierkegaard’s epistemology and patristics. Mine was also the first paper and people kept streaming in as I was reading. This was distracting, I’m sure, to the people who were already seated and, of course, the people who came late would not have heard the entire paper (the upside of this was that there was standing room only at the beginning of the session).  I met several patristics scholars, including Nathan Jacobs of Trinity International University, who came up to me afterward and told me they had enjoyed the paper and that they felt that there was a very strong relation between Kierkegaard’s thought to that of the Church Fathers. My brief exposure to this area of research supports this view. I plan to do a lot more work on this issue in the future and am grateful for the contacts I made in San Francisco.

One of the highlights for the conference to me was the number of sessions devoted to sex. There were at least a dozen such sections, including a joint session of the Evangelical Theology Group and the Religion and Sexuality Group, the theme of which was “Contemporary Evangelical Sexualities.” This session included a paper that, to my mind, had the best title of any paper at the conference: Erin Default-Hunter’s “Porn Again: What Pornography Can Teach Christians about Good Sex.” I don’t want to give the impression that I’m obsessed with sex or anything. I just think its nice to have such a clear demonstration that religious conviction is not, as is so commonly believed, inversely proportional to a healthy interest in sex. Sex is a gift from God. So I say go for it, you randy religion scholars!

Kierkegaard as Philanthropist

In Publishing News, Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship on March 8, 2011 at 11:01 am

Peter Tudvad discovered while doing research for Kierkegaards København (Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen) (Politiken, 2004) that Kierkegaard gave shelter to a journeyman carpenter named Frederik Christian Strube and his family. Kierkegaard described Strube as “the man I trusted as I trusted no other, the man I inherited from my father.” Joakim Garff assumes in his book Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography (Princeton, 2005) that Strube had been one of Kierkegaard’s servants and in fact refers to him as “the servant Strube” (647).

Strube did some carpentry work for Kierkegaard and shortly thereafter moved, with his wife and two daughters, into Kierkegaard’s approximately 200 square meter large apartment on Rosenborggade. “Although Kierkegaard could hardly complain about a lack of space,” writes Garff, “there of course also had to be room for servants. And there were more than a few” (532). The status of the Strube family in the Kierkegaard household is, however, far from clear.

Kierkegaard appears to have had only one servant, Anders Christensen Westergaard. Strube, on the other hand, continued to work 12 hours a day as a carpenter while he lived with Kierkegaard. Both Strube and his wife occasionally did odd jobs for which Kierkegaard paid them. This would seem poor compensation, however, for the inconvenience of having to lodge an entire family in an apartment it would appear Kierkegaard had initially intended only for himself and his personal servant.

Shortly after Strube and his family moved in with Kierkegaard he began to show sings of mental illness. Kierkegaard appears to have used his friendship with one of the chief physicians at the Frederiks Hospital, to get Strube admitted to the posh facility which, according to its own rules was not supposed to admit the mentally ill. When Strube finally moved out of Kierkegaard’s apartment in 1852, Kierkegaard continued to offer him support. In fact, Rune Lykkeberg observes in an article entitled “Geniet som omsorgsfuldt menneske” (the genius as philanthropist) (Information, 5/28/04) that Tudvad’s research revealed that “Kierkegaard appears to have continued to support Strube, to the best of his ability, right up until the latter’s death after which time Stube’s nephew thanked him.”

I’ve written about Strube before (see “Some Reflections on Academic Ethics“). His case bares repeating, however, because the portrayal of Kierkegaard’s relation to Strube in Garff’s biography is much less sympathetic. Although the paperback edition of the Princeton translation of Garff’s book incorporates extensive corrections made necessary by Tudvad’s revelations (compare, for example the top of page 402 in the hardcover and paperback editions), Garff remains adamant that Strube and his family were servants, thus the material relating to Strube is unchanged.

Oh yes, one other thing: There is no indication in the paperback edition of Garff’s book that it is a corrected edition, which is to say that it is not the same edition as the hardcover, at least there is no such indication in the copy I have.