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Kierkegaard on “Dialectic”

A reader wrote recently to inquire about what Kierkegaard meant by “dialectic.” That’s a good question because whatever he means, it is clearly not the same thing that Hegel famously means by this term. First, I have to say that like so many of Kierkegaard’s favorite terms, it does not appear to have a single meaning.

“Dialectic,” or more correctly, Dialektik, comes originally from the Greek διαλεκτική, dialektikē, so you won’t find it in Christian Molbech’s Dansk Ordbog, the standard Danish dictionary from Kierkegaard’s time, but must turn to Ludvig Meyer’s Fremmedordbog (dictionary of foreign words) from 1853. Meyer defines Dialektik as “samtalekunst” (i.e., the art of conversation), as well as “Fornuftlære,” “Tankelære,” “Logik” (the first two translate literally as, ”teachings of reason,” and ”teachings of thought, ” but are probably best translated as ”informal logic,” while Logik is best translated as “formal logic”). In Plato, continues Meyer, Dialektik refers to “higher speculative philosophy,” whereas in Aristotle and more recent thinkers it refers to “probability theory” as well as “eristic,” “sophistry” and “casuistry.”

Interestingly, Kierkegaard never seems to use Dialektik in the last two pejorative senses. My guess is that that is not because a dialectical contemplation of something could never lead one way from the truth, but because of the high esteem in which he appears to have held ancient skepticism. That is, a dialectical contemplation of any question that does not admit of a clear and uncontroversial answer, will ultimately bring the individual back to him or herself and in that way accentuate the role of decision and the will.

There is an extremely helpful Terminologisk Register, or glossary, by Jens Himmelstrup in the second half of volume 15 of the second edition of Kierkegaard’s Samlede Værker. The glossary contains a long entry on Dialektik. Himmelstrup explains here that the term comes originally from the Greek διαλέγομαι, dialegomai, meaning “to carry on a conversation with someone.” “The term,” he continues, “became associated with Socrates, in that he employed the art of conversation, or dialogue, in his activity as a philosopher which was generally aimed at achieving clarity concerning the precise meaning of individual terms and concepts.”

Himmelstrup then proceeds to give a brief history of the meaning of the term in philosophy. What is important for our purposes here, however, is what he says concerning its meaning for Kierkegaard. Sometimes, he explains, “dialectic” refers to “purely logical determinations” (I presume that by this he means it refers to formal opposites such as a and ~a). Other examples he gives of Kierkegaard’s use of the term suggest it means something more like “dynamic,” as when Kierkegaard writes in the first volume of Either-Or: “Love from the soul has, secondly, yet another dialectic, for it differs in relation to every single individual who is the object of love” (This reference is from Alastair Hannay’s translation for Penguin. Even though the ebook version provides only a location number [1587-1588] rather than a page number, the Hongs’ translation of this passage is so tortured that I could not bring myself to use it. This is probably also a good place to point out that neither the Hongs’ “psychical love” nor Hannay’s “love from the soul” is a particularly felicitous translation of Kierkegaard’s “sjælelig Elskov.” That expression is probably best translated simply as “romantic love”).

Suffice it to say in answer to the question of what Kierkegaard means by the term “dialectic,” that the meaning appears to be as protean as is the meaning of the term “knowledge.” That’s not to say that Kierkegaard equivocates on its meaning, but simply, as I explain in Ways of Knowing, that Kierkegaard was extremely sensitive to how fluid are the meanings of most terms in everyday speech and that he abhorred the tendency of academics to artificially fix meanings.

Stay tuned for my next blog post “Those Crazy Hongs!” an examination of how the Hongs (or more likely Howard Hong) could conceivably have rendered “Sandselig Genialitet, bestemmet som Forførelse” as “The Elementary Originality of the Sensuous Qualified as Seduction.”

New Book on Kierkegaard’s Epistemology!


Martin Slotty’s book on Kierkegaard’s epistemology is now available in an English translation! This is great news for Kierkegaard scholars because until now, there was only one book available in English on Kierkegaard’s epistemology, my Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology (Baylor, 2010). Slotty’s book is an introduction. It is shorter and more accessible than Ways of Knowing, so it is the better volume to start with for those who want to understand something about Kierkegaard’s epistemology. Kierkegaard scholars should read both, of course, because, as I argue in Ways of Knowing, Kierkegaard’s epistemology provides the foundation for his views on the nature of faith in general and religious faith in particular.

So far, Slotty is available only in paperback. I understand from the publisher, however, that there will soon be an ebook version!

I was honored to be asked to do the foreword to Slotty’s book. What follows below is the first part of the foreword.


I had written the first draft of my dissertation on Kierkegaard’s epistemology before I stumbled upon this little book in one of the “hollandsk bogauktioner” that are held in Helligåndshus in the center of Copenhagen every summer. These “Dutch book auctions” are huge used book sales where individual antiquarians get rid of what is effectively their overstock. All the books are priced the same and the price is reduced by half on succeeding days. These sales are mana from heaven to a poor graduate student trying to build a collection of nineteenth-century Danish philosophy and theology on budget. The books are generally inexpensive to begin with but become even cheaper with time. I went generally looking for works by Kierkegaard’s contemporaries, figures such as Hans Lassen Martensen, and Poul Martin Møller. The only way I could find such works, however, was to pore over the titles of each and every one of the thousands of books on the many long tables laid out in the medieval annex to the famous old Helligånds Kirke (Church of the Holy Spirit). I found quite a few invaluable reference works this way, including the famous Ferrall-Repp A Danish-English Dictionary from 1845.

No find was more important to me, however, than this little book by Martin Slotty. I couldn’t believe my eyes when they landed upon a slim volume, that appeared to date from the turn of the century, with the title Die Erkenntnislehre S. A. Kierkegaards. Someone other than Anton Hügli had actually written a book on Kierkegaard’s epistemology, and that long ago! The book, as it turned out, was Slotty’s Doktorarbeit for Friedrich-Alexanders-Universität Erlangen. It isn’t nearly so deep-going an analysis of Kierkegaard’s epistemology as Hügli’s Die Erkenntnis der Subjektivität und die Objectivität des Erkennens bei Søren Kierkegaard from 1973. It’s an introduction to Kierkegaard’s epistemology, as is clear from the title. In fact, it is comprised primarily of passages extracted from Kierkegaard’s works with only the occasional addition of an analysis of their meaning. The relative paucity of analysis is explicable, however, by the fact that the passages more or less explain themselves. That is part of what makes the book so important. It shows very clearly that one does not have to dig deep to see that epistemological concerns were central to Kierkegaard’s thought.

Peter Brown, paraphrasing the view of Byzantine scholar Averil Cameron, wrote in a recent edition of The New York Review of Books that “Byzantine studies should be put into a sort of intellectual receivership.” It’s an “undertheorized field,” he continues, quoting Cameron, “as well as an understudied one” (NYRB, December 18, 2014). I’ve often felt that Kierkegaard scholarship should be put into intellectual receivership. There is plenty of work being done on Kierkegaard, of course, and much of it is highly theoretical. That isn’t the problem. The problem is that while there is excellent work being done on Kierkegaard, Kierkegaard scholarship as a whole still suffers from some fundamental misconceptions about just what kind of thinker Kierkegaard was. Most people writing on Kierkegaard today do not have even a passing familiarity with the Danish language, let alone a command of Danish that would allow them to read Kierkegaard’s works in the original. Scholars tend to focus on a select few books, which, read in isolation from the much larger authorship of which they are a part, are difficult to interpret.1 This little book will provide a necessary corrective to the view that Kierkegaard was a proponent of irrationalism or subjectivism, as well as to the view that epistemological concerns did not figure largely in his works. They did.
1. It is worth noting that nearly all Kierkegaard’s contemporary readers would have been familiar with his whole authorship. The number of Danish intellectuals was relatively small and works of the sort Kierkegaard published were not numerous. Also, the device of pseudonymity did not conceal the origin of Kierkegaard’s works for very long. Copenhagen was, and remains, a small town.

New Book on Kierkegaard and Rationality

Paradoxical Rationality of Kierkegaard (cover) I received a review a couple of days ago of a new book entitled The Paradoxical Rationality of Søren Kierkegaard. The book is by Richard McCombs. The review, by Antony Aumann, appeared in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. I haven’t read the book yet, so I won’t say much about it here. I will share only a few comments on the review. First, Aumann takes McCombs to task for neglecting the secondary literature. I have to say, however, that on my view, that is a fairly minor flaw in a book on this topic. There is some good work on Kierkegaard and rationality (particularly in the volume Kierkegaard after MacIntyre), but there isn’t much that is addressed specifically to this topic. A great deal of what C. Stephen Evans writes touches on the topic of Kierkegaard and rationality, but strangely, Aumann does not fault McCombs for neglecting Evans’ work, but for neglecting, among others, the work of Louis Pojman.

What I would like to see referenced in scholarly treatments of the topic of Kierkegaard and rationality is some German language work. There is simply nothing comparable in comprehensiveness and theoretical rigor to Anton Hügli’s Die Erkenntnis der Subjektivität und die Objektivität des Erkennens bei Søren Kierkegaard (Editio Academica, 1973) and Das Problem des Interesses und die Philosophie Sören Kierkegaards (Karl Alber, 1983). Both these works should be required reading for anyone interested in either Kierkegaard’s epistemology or his position on the nature of human rationality. I quote liberally from both works in Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology, so you can get some idea of the content of each there. Hopefully, those little tastes will whet your appetite to the extent that you will be willing to struggle through the originals.

Neither, alas, is available as an ebook. Fortunately, McCombs book is available as an ebook. I’ve already downloaded it because I learned from Aumann’s review that the book contains an entire chapter on Kierkegaard’s epistemology. I’m going to get started on the book right away and will post my thoughts on it as soon as I am able to give them coherent form.

In other publishing news, Oxford has come out with a new volume entitled The Oxford Handbook of Kierkegaard. I presume, from the mixed bag of contributors, that it is intended primarily for non-specialists. In typical Oxford fashion, however, at $112 it is priced beyond the means of its intended audience. Scholars will occasionally pay approximately $100 for a book, but non-specialists rarely will. I fear this volume is destined to languish unread on library shelves. That need not have been the case in that Oxford has thoughtfully made it available in a Kindle edition. Unfortunately, they have thoughtlessly priced even that edition out of the reach of nearly everyone but libraries. Most ebooks are substantially cheaper than their physical counterparts for obvious reasons. The Kindle edition of this book, however, is $85. One can only hope Oxford will soon see the error of its ways and reduce that price.

Speaking of how much scholars will pay for books, I have a funny story to relate. I used to order books occasionally from the German book import store in Copenhagen when I lived there. I had heard the theologian Joachim Ringleben speak at some conference or other and had been very impressed by him, so I ordered his book Aneignung: Die Spekulativ Theologie Sören Kierkegaards. When I went to pick up the book, however, the man to whom I was to give my money, opened the inside cover to learn the price and simply burst out laughing. He laughed so hard it was some time before he could calm down sufficiently to process the sale. Even then he kept shaking his head and smiling.

Fortunately, the Kindle version of McCombs book is only $24.49. Thank you Indiana University Press!