“Positivism” versus Truthiness in Biography: A False Dichotomy
Clare Carlisle took exception to my review in the Times Literary Supplement of her biography of Kierkegaard (“Alone for dinner” TLS 4 October 2019). She accused me in a letter to the editor in the next edition of being either “unable or unwilling to approach [her] life of Kierkegaard on its own terms, i.e., as a literary work combining biography and philosophy” (“Letters,”,TLS 11 October 2019). I have no objection, however, to combining biography and philosophy. In fact, I can’t imagine a biography of a philosopher that wouldn’t do that. How would it be possible to treat fully the life of a thinker without giving any attention to the character of his or her thought? (You can read my response to Carlisle’s letter here.)
No, what Carlisle objected to was not that I failed to approach her life of Kierkegaard on its own terms, but that I did actually approach it on its own terms and exposed it as flawed on those terms. Carlisle didn’t claim that the book was a combination of biography and historical fiction, but that’s what it, in fact, is in that it invents thoughts that Kierkegaard might plausibly have had and then attributes them to him directly, without this qualification (see, for example, “Fictional Biography, Factual Biography, and their Contaminations,” Ina Schabert Biography, Vol. 5, No. 1, Winter 1982 on the difference between historical fiction and biography, as well as the more recent “History’s Handmaids: Historical Fiction and Biography,” a post by the biographer Louise W. Knight to the website for the Wellesley Centers for Women).
Carlisle accuses me of “grim positivism” as if I had an objection to a biographer speculating about the inner life of his or her subject. I don’t object to that, though. My objection was to presenting speculations as fact. If Carlisle had simply prefaced her speculations with qualifications such as “at this point, Kierkegaard might well have been thinking…” or “it is reasonable to suppose that Kierkegaard’s thoughts now turned to…,” etc., etc., I’d have had no problem with them.
The charge of “positivism” is a straw man. Positivism, according to Oxford University Press’s online dictionary, means “A philosophical system recognizing only that which can be scientifically verified or which is capable of logical or mathematical proof, and therefore rejecting metaphysics and theism.” I don’t think we should recognize only things that can be scientifically verified or proved with mathematical precision, and I didn’t even imply in my review that I thought such a thing. In fact, it is precisely because of the impossibility of pinning down any historical fact with the precision that is required in the hard sciences that the line between fact and fiction must be rigorously maintained.
Historical facts are established as such not by pinning them down with scientific or mathematical precision, but by showing they are supported by the preponderance of available evidence, all the while laboring to uncover more evidence either to support the existing interpretation of the evidence or to tip the scales in favor of an alternative interpretation.
What Carlisle objected to was not my purported “positivism,” but that I exposed that there were errors in the book that would have been flaws even in a work of historical fiction, to the extent that writers of historical fiction endeavor to get the historical facts on which they creatively elaborate correct (see Schabert. op. cit.) . Leon Edel asserts that a biographer “may be as imaginative as he pleases, so long as he does not imagine his facts” (see Schabert, op. cit., p. 1). But that’s what Carlisle does, she imagines facts. That is, she doesn’t simply impute thoughts to Kierkegaard without qualifying them as speculations, she makes claims about him that are demonstrably false according to the generally accepted standards of the verification of historical claims, standards that are far looser than those required by positivism, but which are standards nonetheless.
In particular, Carlisle presents Kierkegaard’s “pubic humiliation and ridicule” at the hands of the satirical newspaper Corsaren (the corsair) as restricted to 1846 (see Philosopher of the Heart, 61). Peter Tudvad revealed, however, in Kierkegaards København (Politiken, 2004), his groundbreaking study of Kierkegaard’s life and the city in which he lived, that the The Corsair’s campaign against Kierkegaard was not restricted to 1846, as earlier biographers had supposed, but began in 1846 and continued, off and on, right up until Kierkegaard’s death in 1855. Moreover, the The Corsair was not the only periodical to make public sport of ridiculing Kierkegaard. Paul Bauer discovered back in the mid ‘90s that at least one other newspaper, Folkets Nisse, had done so as well. That these facts cannot be established with mathematical precision does not mean they can be ignored, or that an alternative account of the facts is just as valid.
Charges of “positivism” are the last refuge of intellectual scoundrels —i.e., people whose claims have been exposed as having insufficient evidence to support them. Nothing outside the hard sciences can be proven with scientific or mathematical precision, they point out, so the requirement that a particular claim needs more evidence to support it is portrayed as a misguided demand for the impossible. There is an enormous difference, however, between a demand that a claim be supported by a preponderance of available evidence and a claim that it should be proven with mathematical precision. To conflate the two is either an expression of disingenuousness, as in the case of the tobacco industry’s repeated denial that there was proof cigarettes caused cancer, or feeblemindedness, as is the case with some, if not all, climate-change deniers.
Does it matter very much whether we ever get a really good biography of Kierkegaard? Probably not. That we endeavor assiduously to maintain the line between fact and fiction, however, no matter how challenging that may be, matters a great deal. If intellectuals abandon that distinction, there is little hope that anyone else will maintain it.
The above caricature of Kierkegaard is an illustration from Tudvad’s book that comes from an 1848 issue of The Corsair. Check back here for a post that looks more closely at the subject of the extended public pillorying of Kierkegaard and which will include another caricature of Kierkegaard from 1848 as well as English translations of the text that accompanies these caricatures.
(Earlier versions of this article appeared in the October 18, 2019 issue of the online political journal CounterPunch, as well as in The Life of the Mind, the blog on my website mgpiety.org)