Friday, 8 November 2013

The essence of Kierkegaard

Of course the best strategy for reading Kierkegaard is to read everything that he wrote. There’s hardly one of his books that does not have something interesting in it. Moreover he’s unusual as a thinker in that he developed his thought by producing a series of works, which only really make sense together. Kierkegaard can be seriously misunderstood if some particular works are treated in isolation.

But where to start? I think this depends on what you are looking for. Kierkegaard is one of those unusual philosophers/theologians, who is genuinely a fine writer. Anyone who has struggled their way through Hegel or battled with the style of Kant, will be grateful that Kierkegaard can really write. Some of the best examples of his style are those works which at times read rather like novels. These works include Either/Or and Stages on Life’s Way.  

Naturally in order to appreciate Kierkegaard’s style fully it’s best to read him in Danish. But then this can be said of nearly every author and no one can learn every language. Still Danish is not that difficult to learn to read. It’s about as close to English as any language gets and has a ridiculously simple grammar. The downside is that Danish pronunciation is quite hard and they seem to swallow about half of each word, making it difficult to understand and recognise words that you know. But still it only takes a few months of study to read Kierkegaard in the original, which compares favourably with say Dostoevsky who is liable to remain a struggle for a learner of Russian even after many years.

Works like Either/Or and Stages on Life’s Way, are brilliant examples of Kierkegaard’s ability to write well. They are full of ideas and anecdotes, witty asides and advice. But if you want to get at the heart of Kierkegaard’s thought it must be recognised that these works represent early stages on the way. In the end Kierkegaard is going to describe what he thinks Christianity ought to be. That is the essence of his thought. Everything in his authorship builds up to his description of how a Christian ought to live his life and what is involved in becoming a Christian. Either/Or and Stages on Life’s Way describe the aesthetic and the ethical stages of life. They do not really deal therefore with the essence of Kierkegaard at all.  

There is, of course, a lot in Kierkegaard that does not particularly deal with Christianity or does not deal with it much. There is much therefore for people who are not interested in Christianity or even for those who find Christianity distasteful. But this is all rather to miss the point of Kierkegaard. The essence of his thought is his attempt to put forward a radical interpretation of Christianity and to encourage people to live a Christian life. But for someone who is interested in finding out about this, where do you start?

Fear and Trembling, which deals with the famous “leap of faith” might be thought of as a good place to start. It is well worth reading and gives a good taste of Kierkegaard. But it is not really necessary in order to understand the essence of Kierkegaard, partly because its focus on Abraham tends to make it likewise a stage on the way to Christianity. The two books that I think are the best starting points are Philosophical Fragments and The Sickness unto Death. Both of these works are vital, but The Sickness unto Death is at times difficult and heavy going, so it might be worth starting with Philosophical Fragments. 

The Fragments presents a number of crucial ideas. One of the most important is that faith is belief in an absolute paradox, which in Christian terms is that God became man. This absolute paradox is literally a contradiction. The eternal became temporal, means that the eternal is both eternal and not eternal, both temporal and not temporal. In the end the absolute paradox must be understood such that God is both God and not God. Attempts to water down this paradox or explain it away, or mediate it, will again mean that the point of Kierkegaard is missed. Anyone who is afraid of contradiction who is offended by attempts to overthrow logic should probably avoid Kierkegaard.

The Fragments also describes Religiousness A (or the Socratic) and Religiousness B. Religiousness A corresponds to the self’s relation to itself and to the relation to the eternal, it is concerned with hiddenness and subjectivity. Religiousness B corresponds to the relationship of the self to the other is concerned with the temporal, becoming revealed, outwardness and objectivity or transcendent truth. It is crucially the paradoxical conjunction of A and B which gives rise to decisive Christianity.

The Sickness unto Death develops Kierkegaard’s theory of the self and shows how selfhood is a matter of faith. It is the paradoxical combination of the self’s relationship to itself and its relationship to another i.e.  God. This understood together with the Fragments means that we should understand that becoming a self is a matter of paradoxically combining religiousness A and B. 

The description of religiousness A and B is developed still further in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Fragments. But it is important to remember that most of the Postscript is concerned with religiousness A. Only towards the end is B described. This is what makes Kierkegaard such a difficult writer to understand. Whole chunks of the Postscript are not really what they seem and taken out of context can seriously mislead the reader. Kierkegaard is putting forward a position, only in order to oppose, it in order to put forward its opposite and to combine the two. Paradox really is the essence of his philosophy.

Kierkegaard’s authorship contains a long series of religious works like 18 Upbuilding Discourses, Christian Discourses, Works of Love. But it is vital to realise that these do not describe full Christianity, they are all more or less within religiousness A or on the boundary of that stage tending towards Christianity, but not really reaching it. Only with a few later works does Kierkegaard finally describe decisive Christianity. One of the best examples is For Self Examination and Judge for Yourself! Practice in Christianity is another work within decisive Christianity, but Kierkegaard rather admits that here he perhaps went too far.

For Self Examination, provides the blueprint of how someone should live a Christian life. They should be “doers of the Word” following the example of the Bible’s Epistle of James, they should follow Christ and strive to live as he did. This means living openly, striving to literally follow the teaching of the Bible. Above all Kierkegaard has has the message that theological interpretation of the Bible is a barrier to action. The Christian should stop interpreting and start acting. 

What is vital to realise is that much of what is most famous about Kierkegaard is not the essence of his thought. Many of the famous ideas like “Subjectivity is truth”, “hidden inwardness” and the single individual’s solitariness are part of religiousness A. The tendency to interpret Kierkegaard as a thinker concerned only with individuality is to misunderstand that the emphasis on individuality is a part of religiousness A and should only be understood in combination with the idea that the self not only must relate to itself but must also relate to other people.

Kierkegaard is often wildly misunderstood. But by reading just three of his short works you can understand the essence of his thought, indeed if you want to just leap to the endpoint you can understand him by reading just one of his works, For Self-Examination. That work alone will tell you all that you need to know.