Get Our Newsletter
Kierkegaard in Contemporary Philosophy
A biography of Soren Kierkegaard and a reprint of his work are here reviewed placing Kierkegaard in relation to philosophers writing today.
By Gordon Marino
Books here reviewed:
1) Soren Kierkegaard: A Biography by Joakim Garff, translated by Bruce Kirmmse, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 867 pages.
2) Training in Christianity by Soren Kierkegaard, translated by Walter Lowrie, preface by Richard John Neuhaus, New York: Vintage. 260 pages.
After the abattoir of two world wars, there was a new openness to thinking on such existential topics as anxiety, despair, and the meaning of freedom. Like Dostoyevsky, the lyrical Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard was a master at working with the strange shadows of the inner world, and as a result his work enjoyed a brief second life during the late 1940s and throughout the '50s. However, when the analytic approach to philosophy, which made god-terms of clarity and precision, began to seize control of the intellectual curriculum, Kierkegaard was cast into the outer darkness. Indeed, when I undertook my own graduate studies, in the '70s, it was not uncommon for a professor to begin a seminar by reading a passage from Kierkegaard or one of his disciples and sneering, "How could anyone take this gobbledygook for philosophy?"
But then, in the late '70s, Richard Rorty and a few other members of the philosophical officer class began to decry the desiccated state of the field and to confess that they had actually learned something from such blacklisted sages as Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and even Derrida. By the last decade of the twentieth century, postmodernism had blown the door wide open. Those patrolling the borders between academic disciplines began to relax, and Kierkegaard's highly unorthodox authorship once again began to spellbind readers in philosophy, religious studies, and literary criticism.
Born in Copenhagen in 1813 (he died in 1855), Kierkegaard is widely and properly regarded as the prime mover of the existential movement. Unlike other members of the philosophy guild, Kierkegaard gave much thought to the question of how to communicate what he sometimes termed "essential truths"--that is, the truths of ethics and religion. He developed a highly original and effective method of indirect communication that included the use of pseudonyms, which was one way for him to vitiate To impair or make void; to destroy or annul, either completely or partially, the force and effect of an act or instrument.
Mutual mistake or Fraud, for example, might vitiate a contract. the philosophical fantasy that the truth that is a way in life can be broadcast and memorized. Kierkegaard argued--almost always indirectly--that most philosophers are guilty of "forgetting that they exist," in that they try to ponder life from some "perspectiveless perspective," i.e., one outside of time. Scribbling in an era of increasing social mobility and during the construction of the "iron cage," Kierkegaard stressed the significance of such categories as "the single individual," "passion," "choice," and, most important, "faith."
Kafka, Heidegger, Sartre, Wittgenstein, Barth, Jaspers, Tillich, Bultmann, Auden, and many others were mesmerized by the luminous spindrift of Kierkegaard's thought. Yet for all his monumental influence, there was until recently nothing approaching a satisfying biography of the Danish writer. That gap on the bookshelf has been especially unfortunate given the prominence of the biographical strata in most of Kierkegaard's writings. For prime example, his sudden, inexplicable decision to break off his engagement with Regine Olsen provides an important subtext to his classic Fear and Trembling. In this meditation on the Mount Moriah story, Kierkegaard emphasizes the symbiotic nature of the relationship between the poet and the hero. Glossing the perennial subject of the relationship between words and deeds the author of Fear and Trembling insists that it is the duty of the poet to preserve the memory of the hero. Kierkegaard is an intellectual hero of the highest order, and Joakim Garff is his poet.
Brilliantly translated from the Danish by Bruce Kirmmse, Soren Kierkegaard serves as a Baedeker to the Copenhagen that Kierkegaard both loved and cursed. This massive but easily flowing volume opens the portal to the neurotic Kierkegaard house-hold. The youngest of seven children and nicknamed Gaflen ("fork")--for his ability to discern weaknesses in others and to stick it to them--Kierkegaard had a complicated relationship with his elderly and melancholic father, Michael Pedersen.
Kierkegaard pere grew up a poor shepherd boy on the heaths of the Jutland peninsula. One dreary day, he cursed God for his plight, and as though God had mistaken his invective for prayer, he was transported to Copenhagen, where he was apprenticed in his uncle's dry-goods business. The nineteenth-century Danish empire and its economy were in a period of collapse, but the shrewd young man managed to amass a fortune. After his first wife died, Pedersen married his housekeeper, Kierkegaard's eventual mother. Like the philosopher himself, Kierkegaard's father combined a kind of pietist faith with the dialectical skills and baloney detector of a Socrates.
In Kierkegaard's fifty-odd volumes of published writings, journals, and diaries, many of which are dedicated to his father, there is not a single word about his mother. His thoughts seem to circle endlessly around the man whom Kierkegaard once approvingly claimed had "ruined his prospects for happiness but prepared him for faith." In his study, Garff deftly limns the tensions and intense ties that bound these two men, as well as the complicated relationship between Kierkegaard and his elder brother, Peter Christian, with whom he had an intense rivalry and who would one day be appointed bishop of Alborg, and then, on another day, resign the post because of a crippling depression.
Kierkegaard's preternatural productivity was sown in the hothouse of early-nineteenth-century Copenhagen. A demiurge of ideas, the philosopher was also a polemical individual whipped into creativity by antagonists. Prior to Garff's tour de force, it would have been impossible for non-Danish readers to fathom the fact that for all his battles with the world-historical Hegel, Kierkegaard was usually triggered by writers who are considered immortal only by those who dwell within the Danish shores. Garff more than acquaints us with a veritable congregation of nemeses, such as the author and editor Aron Goldschmidt, the professor and, later, bishop H. L. Martensen, the playwright J. L. Heiberg, and other members of the Danish literati literati
Scholars in China and Japan whose poetry, calligraphy, and paintings were supposed primarily to reveal their cultivation and express their personal feelings rather than demonstrate professional skill. whose favor the young Kierkegaard initially courted but who soon became the targets of his critical thrusts.
In Works of Love (1847), Kierkegaard proclaims that we see most clearly when we are blinded by love to the worldly faults of others. Garff has been walking with his subject for decades and has great affection for his mage. But he is not oblivious to Kierkegaard's vices. The Danish thinker was vain, often vicious, and hypocritical. A writer who can himself move the waters of language, Garff has, I think, been transfixed by Kierkegaard's divine ability to express deep insights into human nature with a few verbal flicks of the wrist. And yet that light touch is noticeably absent in Training in Christianity, recently reissued in Walter Lowrie's translation.
Training--or as it has been recently and I think more aptly translated, Practice in Christianity--was Kierkegaard's last published text. It was written under the pseudonym Anti-Cliniacus, who, according to his creator, lived in categories that Kierkegaard confessed he could not himself abide in. As Garff observes, this austere book was penned during a very dark time in Kierkegaard's life. His battle with the Danish rag The Corsair had left him an isolated, negative media star who was widely regarded as intellectually washed-up. His body too was beginning to sink beneath the river-bursting hyperactivity of his spirit.
In his preface, Richard John Neuhaus makes the astute point that while Kierkegaard is often regarded as a conservative, Counter-Reformation thinker, he was in truth a hippie in a cravat. Looking back on the '60s, Neuhaus notes that everyone was reading "Marcuse on one-dimensional man, Charles Reich on the greening of America, C. Wright Mills on the power elite, Malcolm X on revolutionary violence, Jean-Paul Sartre on the nausea of society--and ... Kierkegaard on authentic existence." Neuhaus stresses that despite the hodgepodge variety of these writers' books, they all had one theme in common: "a relentless hostility to the Establishment." In Training, this hostility is focused in the form of a charge that the Established Church has become a form of blasphemy.
Garff, a professor of theology, observes that there are cracks in the underlying logic of Training. On the one hand, Kierkegaard trumpets religious inwardness. On the other, the text rings with warnings about the dangers of imagining that as long as you are deep, deep down inside, you can follow the Crucified One even as you take your monthly visits to the spa. According to the regimen outlined in Training, following Christ means doing what Jesus would do. It may sound as quaint as wearing a WWJD bracelet, but there is one proviso: Kierkegaard warns that if you are getting a lot of speaking invitations and have been asked to serve as a deacon, you should take it as a sign that it isn't Christ you are tracking. Everywhere Jesus went, he was reviled. Training in Christianity is a puzzling call to Christian martyrdom in a world that mistakenly understands itself to be Christian.
For all its blemishes, Training in Christianity facets one of Kierkegaard's great epiphanies, one that should speak to much current theology and Christology. From the beginning to this, the end of his authorship, Kierkegaard contends that there is no faith without the possibility of offense. As he reasons, if God could directly identify himself as God with a light show and power display--that is, without offending anyone's expectations about God--there would be no need for faith; the understanding would do the spiritual trick. But that is not what the God of Abraham standing over Isaac had in mind. Sometimes with a mallet, the author of Training bangs out the injunction that the so-called Christians of his era related more to the glorified Christ than to the Christ who in many respects was as repugnant as an insane street person blathering about being the savior.
Gordon Marino is Boldt Chair in the Humanities and curator of the Hong/Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN. This review appeared in 2005 in the Artforum International Magazine.
Sponsored by the