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Wednesday, December 28, 2011


I begin today a series of brief, subjective discussions of individual works that I have chosen to call "Appreciations."  These Appreciations will differ from my tutorials, mini-tutorials, and micro-tutorials in several ways.  First, they will be short [or so I intend -- once I get started, I never know how much I will have to say.]  Second, they are intended in no way at all as definitive or scholarly or even as exhibiting a modest level of expertise.  My goal is to call your attention to books that I have found interesting, provocative, or beautifully written.   By writing and posting these Appreciations, I presume on the relationship I hope I have established with you over the past several years.  I am allowing myself the flattering belief that you have acquired sufficient confidence in me to think it worth your time to read these Appreciations, and perhaps even to follow my suggestion that you explore the works for yourselves.
The maintenance of a blog has been, for me, a welcome and enjoyable continuation of my life-long commitment to teaching, which is, I now recognize, my true calling [rather than Philosophy or political action, to which I have devoted, in the course of a long life, a good deal of time and attention.] 
Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen in 1813 and died a scant forty-two years later, in 1855, having in that short life produced a very large and brilliant corpus of works, many published under pseudonyms.  Although he fell deeply in love with Regina Olsen and was for a while engaged to her, he broke off the engagement and spent his entire life single.  Kierkegaard is one of the most complex literary and intellectual figures of the entire Western tradition, and I am quite incompetent to offer even a brief general characterization of his life and work that is accurate and useful.  In their intensity, inwardness, intellectual brilliance, and scholarly allusions and disquisitions, his works show him to be a powerful figure of the Romantic Movement then sweeping European letters.  As I am sure all of you know, Kierkegaard is now considered the father of the philosophical school or movement known as Existentialism.  One fact, selected from his life, is worth mentioning for its ability to astonish and impress, even though it is not centrally related to what I shall be saying.  In 1841, as a student at the University of Copenhagen, Kierkegaard attended Schelling's lectures on irony.  In the same audience were three other students:  Mikhail Bakunin, Jacob Burckhardt, and Friedrich Engels.  What I wouldn't give for a class like that!  [That reminds me -- maybe down the road, I should do an Appreciation of Burckhardt's The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, and of Engels' The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. Oh well, we shall see.]
The Philosophical Fragments were published in 1844 under the pseudonym "Johannes Climacus."  It is a very brief work, barely 93 pages long in the Swenson translation to which I shall be referring.  To understand the Fragments, it is important to know what Kierkegaard was writing against, the intellectual, religious, and cultural context of the work.  There are three elements of that context about which I must say something:  The influence in German philosophy of Hegel, the intensely subjective form of Protestant Christianity in which Kierkegaard was raised, and the bourgeois culture that by the 1840's dominated Northern Europe.  Each of these plays a central role in Kierkegaard's passionate discourse in the Fragments.
Hegel was the author of large, impressive works of philosophy, which taken together comprised a System that purported to account for, and make a place for, Everything.  His followers in the Northern European academic world were prone to multi-volume works with important titles.  The emphasis was on the objective, the "scientific" [i.e., wissenschaftlich -- a German world that does not really translate very successfully as "scientific" because it applies to Philosophy, History, and the study of society as well as to the study of nature.  "Rational and systematic" might be a better rendering.]  Kierkegaard was affronted by the empty pomposity of this style of pontificating, and with bitter irony counterpoised to it his inward, desperately private meditations on the deepest problems of the human condition.  So, for example, two years after the Fragments appeared, he published a very long, dense, serious work of philosophy to which he gave the mocking title, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments.  I rather like the idea of a 540 page "postscript" to a 93 page book.  Kierkegaard also rejected the Hegelian emphasis on universal essences, choosing instead to present a focused reflection on what it meant to exist as a single human being presented with the awful fact of impending death and the impossible hope of eternal salvation.  Hence "Existentialism" as contrasted with "Essentialism."
Like many other late sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century European thinkers, Kierkegaard was thoroughly consumed by the terrors and glimmers of hope offered by the least ecclesiastical and most individualistic forms of Protestantism.  Those of you who read my mini-tutorial on Max Weber's Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism will recall the anxious religiosity of serious old-fashioned Protestantism, with its emphases on sin, damnation, predestination, and the hope of salvation.  In the work before us, Kierkegaard takes the key terms and concepts of this religious faith and reinterprets them brilliantly in a series of tours de force.  The Fragments is first and foremost a meditation on Christianity -- to my atheist sensibilities, the most brilliant such meditation in the Christian tradition.  [That is one reason why I love the book so much.]
Finally, Kierkegaard was reacting to what he perceived as the soulless, smug, bourgeois religiosity of Danish society.  With a penetrating wit that reminds one of the cartoons of American caricaturist Thomas Nast, Kierkegaard mocks and lampoons the comfortable burghers of Copenhagen, with whom he contrasts himself, poor, unfashionable, awkward, utterly without redeeming social value, and yet engaged with his entire being in a struggle with faith and salvation.
The Fragments presents itself as an attempt to answer a simple question, which is posed in the first sentence of Chapter I:  "How far does the Truth admit of being learned?"  In five brief chapters, including an "Interlude" between Chapters IV and V, Kierkegaard pursues the answer by means of an extended contrast between Socrates, whom he figures as the greatest Teacher in history, and Jesus, who is uniquely the Savior.  But before he launches his investigation, he writes a three page Preface to which we must pay particular attention, inasmuch as it is, in my judgment, the most brilliant and moving three pages in the entire corpus of Western Philosophy.
The Preface opens with these words:  "The present offering is merely a piece, proprio Marte, propriis auspiciis, proprio stipendio ["on its own errand, under its own auspices, for its own sake."]  It does not make the slightest pretension to share in the philosophical movement of the day, or to fill any of the various roles customarily assigned in this connection:  transitional, intermediary, final, preparatory, participating, collaborating, volunteer follower, hero, or at any rate relative hero, or at the very least absolute trumpeter."  These words always put me in mind of the brief Emily Dickenson poem that I used as one of the epigraphs of my Autobiography:
I am nobody
who are you
are you nobody too?
Then there's a pair of us
shh don't tell
they'd banish us you know

How dismal to be somebody
how dismal like a frog
to tell your name the live long day
to an admiring bog

Well, this is going to go on a trifle longer than I anticipated.  More tomorrow.


High Arka said...

That's interesting that you got to the Fragments today, prof. Have you seen "The Help" yet? This one thinks it ties in nicely with today's lecture.

occasionalist said...

Thank you for these Appreciations. While I appreciate your longer-form tutorials, this seems an ideal format for a blog.