Monday, February 17, 2014

Neither more nor less than pure nonsense - I did read Kierkegaard

I read a bit of Søren Kierkegaard rather than Hegel.  Actually, understanding Kierkegaard is another reason to read Hegel, another place Hegel kept popping up, even in the strange mangled hybrid book I read, The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard (1952). 

If Hegel had written his whole Logic and in the Preface disclosed the fact that it was merely a thought experiment (in which, however, at many points he had shirked something), he would have been the greatest thinker that has ever lived.  Now this is comic.  (125)

I disagree on one point.  It would be funnier to make the disclosure in the afterward.  Even funnier, never disclose that it was merely etc.  Pretend you mean every word.  The greatest prankster that has ever lived.

Kierkegaard came to English-language attention fairly recently.  A major translation effort brought his major works into English in the 1940s.  W. H. Auden plundered these books to create his.  It was supposed to introduce Kierkegaard to a wider audience.  Did it?  I don’t know.

However useful the book is, it has two massive problems.  First, any possibility of coherent argument is destroyed.  A three page excerpt from one book is followed by a paragraph from another.  Which books?  Which bits are from published texts and which from private journals?  Auden does not say.

Then, second, the hilarious Kierkegaard pseudonym system is destroyed.  Fear and Trembling (1843) was written by Johannes de Silentio, The Concept of Dread (1844) by Vigilius Haufniensis, other books by Hilarius Bogbinder, H. H., and Anti-Climacus.  Kierkegaard had books that contradicted each other published on the same dayEither/Or (1843) has various authors arguing with each other within the book.  What a shame to throw out all of this.  To a book blogger of a certain temperament, it is practically the best part.  Some of what we now blithely call “Kierkegaard” is a pose or a parody or fiction.

Auden’s book gives no hint of dates either.  Just glance at those above.  Kierkegaard spent a decade working privately, and then kaboom, this amazing mass of published material in the 1840s and on to his death in 1855.  Of course this is why there are so many anthologies of mangled Kierkegaard excerpts.

Even chopped up (or because), I found much of Kierkegaard’s (or Anti-Climacus’s) thought to be difficult or beyond comprehension, such as a concept of subjectivity that went well beyond ordinary English usage, or a sharp distinction between the “aesthetic” and “ethical” that appeared arbitrary in its either/or divisions.  I would be surprised if I got something out of one page of five.

An author writes a clear, consistent, connected, fully matured presentation of some thought, perhaps the fruit of many years’ labor.  Nobody reads it.  But a [book blogger] reviews the book; in the course of half an hour or so, he writes something that is neither more nor less than pure nonsense.  This is then supposed to be the purport of the author’s book; moreover everybody reads it.  The significance of an author’s existence thus becomes evident: he exists for the sake of affording some journalist an opportunity to write nonsense for everybody to read.  (31)

Now that I understood.   I am doing my part to prove Kierkegaard right.

And honestly, one page out of five is a success.  If I thought I could hit that mark with Hegel, I would read him too.  So tomorrow, thought experiments, Kierkegaardian comedy, philosophy as a form of play.  Some of the parts I think I understood.


  1. Well I very much enjoyed reading your nonsense :)

  2. Later today the nonsense will be even better, although more of it will be Kierkegaard's.

    Everybody knows I am pro-nonsense, I hope. I'd better be.

  3. That's a funnier Kierkegaard than I remember. I read Fear and Trembling seven years ago and found it hogwash. But thank god for your nonsense, Tom!

  4. Like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, Kierkegaard can be hilarious. I will pull out some more examples, and maybe also write up the one part of Fear and Trembling that Borges and I really enjoyed.

  5. the one part of Fear and Trembling that Borges (...) really enjoyed.

    Now is that just to spite me?

  6. "I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations - one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it - you will regret both."

    What kind of friendly advice is that, Mr Kierkegaard? Ma femme, with her shelves of philosophy books, prefers Kierkegaard above all other philosophers. She shudders at the mention of Hegel's name. I remain mostly in ignorance, except that sometimes I think of philosophers as clown figures in Shakespearean dramas. So I look forward to seeing some hilarious Danish philosophy tomorrow.

    Also, tomorrow I will contribute to the Danish Literature project with a post about Pontoppidan. A minor work, an amusing excerpt.

  7. Oh no, Miguel, you'll see it. Narrative stuff.

    Scott, that's a good one. That's the fun side of Kierkegaard. Charlie Brown grows up to be Kierkegaard.

    Pontoppidan, how unlikely. I will believe it when I see it.