Kierkegaard on Women

View of Dublin

As I explained in my most recent post, I chaired a session at the last annual meeting of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association. The session was sponsored by the Søren Kierkegaard Society, so all the papers were on Kierkegaard and they were all excellent. My last post looked at two of the papers. This post will look at the third paper “Gender and the Practical Dimensions of Kierkegaard’s Existential Philosophy,” by the Irish scholar Siobhan Marie Doyle. Doyle’s was one of the best defenses of Kierkegaard against the charge of sexism that I have ever heard. It also raises a very important philosophical question concerning what it means to charge someone with an -ism. What is sexism? What is antisemitism? Are occasional sexist remarks enough to qualify one as “sexist”? The question is equally pressing, of course with respect to the issue of antisemitism. Kierkegaard, as has been well documented by the Danish scholar Peter Tudvad, made some truly horrific remarks about Judaism, but many scholars are reluctant to classify him as antisemitic because there appears to be no foundation in his thought for such a charge. Does a person need to have a world view in which the gender, race, or religion in question figures as deeply flawed, or can genuine prejudice exist alongside an essentially egalitarian world view as a kind of psychological anomaly? These are important questions that deserve more attention than they have been given.

I’m not going to look at those questions now, however. What I want to do now is to summarize for you Doyle’s excellent paper. The paper is divided into two parts. The first part looks at what Doyle keenly observes is Kierkegaard’s “apparent ambivalence toward the feminine throughout the course of his authorship.” Sometimes he praises them and other times he excoriates them. It is indeed hard to figure out what his general view on women is, if, indeed he has one. The second part of the paper looks at Kierkegaard’s “call for the equality of all people, as presented in his ethical work: Works of Love.” Doyle is clearly using “ethical” here in the sense of Kierkegaard’s Christian ethics, rather than the ethical as the state of existence that precedes the religious. Christianity does indeed have its own ethics according to Kierkegaard and Doyle is correct in that it is the ethics of neighbor-love as expressed in Works of Love.

Doyle draws heavily on deliberation II A, B, and C in Works of Love as providing “solid evidence of [Kierkegaard’s] personal belief in the equal status of women and men.”

For Kierkegaard, she writes, “our apparent dissimilarity is merely ‘a cloak’ that disguises our actually similarity.” She then quotes a passage from Works of Love to illustrate this

Take many sheets of paper, write something different on each one; then no one will be like another. But then again take each single sheet; do not let yourself be confused by the diverse inscriptions, hold it up to the light and you will see a common watermark on all of them. In the same way the neighbor is the common watermark, but you see it only by means of eternity’s light when it shines through the dissimilarity (WOL, 89.)

If we are to take this passage seriously, and Kierkegaard clearly meant us to do that, then it becomes very difficult to argue that Kierkegaard considered women as inherently inferior to men, or indeed that he considered people of other races, cultures, or religions, including Judaism, as inherently inferior to white Europeans Christians. Nowhere does Kierkegaard ever suggest that there could be anything about a person that would exclude him or her from the category of “neighbor.” He is a humanist, in the religious sense of that term, through and through because he believed that all human beings were created by God and hence were equally valuable as God’s creations.

So why, then, does he say the terrible things he sometimes says about women? And why does he say the terrible things he sometimes says about Jews? In the first instance, it appears that what Kierkegaard generally takes aim at in his negative remarks about women is more the socially-constructed category of the feminine rather than what one might call the essentially feminine. That doesn’t excuse what he says, of course, but social constructions of gender have been problematic throughout history so it is possible to have a certain sympathy with his occasional attacks on “the feminine” understood that way.

His attacks on Judaism, on the other hand, are harsher and hence more disturbing. They arguably go beyond what would have been considered socially acceptable in 19th-century Denmark. There are negative references to Judaism early in his authorship, but they are relatively mild. His view of Judaism early on appears to have been that, like aesthetic and ethical world views, it was incomplete. His views turn more negative, however, toward the end of his life. Scholars have tended to ignore the virulently antisemitic remarks Kierkegaard made late in life out of a sense, perhaps, that they were anomalous. They certainly do not fit with the beautiful passage Doyle quotes from Works of Love. So where do they come from?

My guess is that they are a product of the persecution Kierkegaard experienced at the hands of the satirical newspaper Corsaren. The attack was initiated by Meïr Aaron Goldschmidt, the editor of Corsaren and a Jewish intellectual for who Kierkegaard had a great deal of respect. The attack has long been thought to have been confined to 1846. Tudvad revealed, however, in his book Kierkegaards København (Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen) that, in fact, the attack extended from 1846 right up until Kierkegaard’s death in 1855! Few people would be able to maintain their psychological equilibrium under such conditions. It appears that that may have been a battle that Kierkegaard lost, finally, in the end.

I examine this issue in more detail in an essay entitled “Kierkegaard: The caricature or the man?” in the January 2020 issue of the Dublin Review of Books. I thought it would be appropriate to draw your attention to this essay in my post on Doyle’s excellent paper because Dublin is her home town!

APA Report and Book Giveaway

The Melun Diptych

The annual meeting of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association was in Philadelphia last weekend. I chaired a session organized by the Søren Kierkegaard Society entitled “Kierkegaard on Practice and Inner Strength.” The speakers were excellent and we were very fortunate in that despite the fact that the session was in the very last slot on the very last day of the conference, we had a decent-sized audience and an excellent discussion.

The first speaker was Dylan Bailey, a graduate student working with John Davenport at Fordham University. Bailey’s paper was entitled “Kierkegaard and Socrates on Midwifery and Practical Understanding.” One of the things I particularly liked about the paper is that it didn’t merely look at Kierkegaard and Socrates. It placed the views of both in the context of contemporary work on understanding such as Christopher Baumberger, Claus Beisbart, and Georg Brun’s, “What is Understanding? An Overview of Recent Debates in Epistemology and Philosophy of Science,’ in Explaining Understanding. New Perspectives from Epistemology and Philosophy of Science (Routledge, 2016). Bailey is one to watch. His paper was excellent and he is working with one of the best Kierkegaard scholars in the business!

The second speaker was Kevin T. Di Camillo. Di Camillo’s paper was entitled “Jean Fouquet’s The Melun Diptych: Weaning in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, and Melanie Klein’s Guilt, Love and Reparation — A Study in Kenosis and Theosis.” One of the things that made the session so excellent was the non-traditional nature of Di Camillo’s paper and its placement between two more traditional papers. I’ve always found it difficult to sit through three dense scholarly papers in a row. Di Camillo’s paper was a departure, however, from the traditional dense scholarly paper. It was dense, but in a different way. It was rich with references to the painting that was its subject, so it required audience members to repeatedly search the two posters Di Camillo had made of the painting for illustrations of his points. That is, it was sort of an audience-participation presentation, made even more enjoyable by the fact that Di Camillo had thoughtfully provided the audience with two transcendently delicious pandoros from his family’s prize winning Di Camillo Bakery. (I’m a big fan of pandoro and panettone. I’m ashamed to say, however, that I had been buying them from TJMax. Never again Di Camillo’s pandorro was a revelation!).

There was a lively discussion of whether weaning was always necessarily traumatic in the way that Klein and Kierkegaard appear to suggest. Chandler Rogers, a Teaching Fellow at Boston College, interjected that Vanessa Rumble points out in “Why Moriah?: weaning and the trauma of transcendence in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling” that Kierkegaard’s impression of weaning was likely influenced by the deaths of sisters as a consequence of childbirth. “Weaning normally calls to mind,” writes Rumble,

the movement of individuation and dawning consciousness/ self-consciousness, a passing moment of separation and mourning. The infant emerges from a state which, retrospectively, will appear as one of unity, plenitude, into the difficult reality of mediating between the necessary and the possible, the real and the ideal, in short, into the reality of our freedom and its limits. In the experience of Kierkegaard and his siblings, however, weaning is tied, through the pronouncements of the midwives, to horrific loss. Milk, the infant’s earliest nourishment, and the mother’s first medium for communicating her love, care and attention, becomes, in the accounts which Kierkegaard heard swirling about his sisters’ deathbeds, a poison which attacks the mother’s brain. The milk that was to join the mother to the child and sustain the child destroys the mother, separating them brutally and definitively. And after the trauma comes the invariable question: what is all this to mean? (259)

Rumble’s paper is one of my all-time favorites. It isn’t just an exceptionally rigorous and insightful piece of scholarship. It is beautiful. If I remember correctly, I heard her present an early version of it at a conference. It can be found now, however, in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling: A Critical Guide (Cambridge, 2015) which is available in a very reasonably priced ebook edition.

That brings me to the one really sour note of the conference. I found what looked to be a very interesting new book from Routledge entitled The Kierkegaardian Mind. It’s a big volume with lots of subject divisions and an impressive list of contributors. Here’s the thing: The ebook version is $184! It’s actually more expensive, on Amazon anyway, than the hardcover, which retails on Amazon for $173! There’s no excuse for that. Routledge has a lot of good books on Kierkegaard, but most of them are far too expensive for individuals and not every university library will have them. What that means is that they are not going to be cited as much as they deserve to be. I won’t be citing this one, in any case, unless I can get a copy from Penn’s library and even then, given that I will have it for only a very finite period of time, I won’t cite it so much as I would otherwise.

It’s important that presses such as Routledge publish works on Kierkegaard. Scholars can’t get tenured without publications. They can’t make reputations, however, if people don’t cite their work. An essay in a book that few people ever read and hence fewer still actually cite, will take a career only so far. An increasing number of humanities departments are looking not just at publications when considering tenure and promotion decisions, but also at how often a scholar’s work is cited. That’s not so unfair as it sounds because there are also an increasing number of predatory journals and presses so it is becoming easier for scholars to get their work published in purportedly peer-reviewed journals and books. Few scholars can keep up with the proliferation of such journals and presses and this is even more true of administrators who are not themselves scholars. The thinking is that a scholar whose work is any good will be cited by other scholars. Presses such as Routledge, whose books are astronomically overpriced, are wreaking havoc with that logic. Belt tightening that has effected nearly all institutions of higher education outside the Ivy League has meant that many universities no longer automatically purchase every book that comes out of a university press, not even out of the top university presses. That means lots of excellent scholarship is failing to reach as wide an audience as it deserves.

On the topic of the affordability of scholarly works, I’ve decided to give away five copies of Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology (Baylor, 2010) to graduate students who would like to use the book as part of their research for their dissertations. I got these copies at deeply discounted prices when Baylor came out with the paperback. All you need to do to secure a copy is send me an email with a brief summary of your dissertation, an explanation of the use you plan to make of the book, your dissertation director’ name, and your address, and I will put a copy in the mail to you. I have only these five copies to give away, though, so they will be available on a first-come, first-served basis.

The two papers described above were not the only papers in the SKS session. I am going to save the last paper, Siobhan Marie Doyle’s excellent “Gender and the Practical Dimensions of Kierkegaard’s Existential Philosophy” for my next blog post.