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Friday, December 30, 2011


What Kierkegaard and Dickenson had in common was an intense arrogance that scorned the customary recognitions and awards of the literary or philosophical world.  "I am nobody" means, among other things, "No recognition of my poetry in Springfield newspapers or even Boston literary journals can possibly do justice to my poems, which exist in entirely a different aesthetic realm.  Hence I am nobody, as the authors of those recognitions estimate, and they are nobody so far as I am concerned."  So Kierkegaard rejects any suggestion that he is part of the contemporary philosophical movement, not even as "absolute trumpeter."  The ambitious, mediocre philosophers who aspire to be recognized in that fashion are so far beneath him, he feels, that it would be absurd for him to try to set himself in competition with them.  After a good day's work at the office, they go home to their comfortable homes to drink beer, sit by the fire, and read the latest issue of a philosophical journal, while he remain alone, unacknowledged, engaged with his entire being in the perilous, vertiginous contemplation of eternity. [Whenever I read the line about "absolute trumpeter," I think of Nanki Poo, the hero of Gilbert and Sullivan's finest light opera, The Mikado, who, though the son of the Mikado, has chosen to wander incognito as "second trombone in a traveling band."]
Very quickly, the mocking tone of the opening lines of the Preface turns darker, more urgent.  "It is not given to everyone to have his private tasks of meditation and reflection so happily coincident with the public interest that it becomes difficult to judge how far he serves merely himself and how far the public good," Kierkegaard writes.  "Consider the example of Archimedes, who sat unperturbed in the contemplation of his circles while Syracuse was being taken, and the beautiful words he spoke to the Roman soldier who slew him:  nolite perturbare circulos meos.  [Do not disturb my circles.]"  Contemplating the eternal, Archimedes -- and Kierkegaard, of course -- is concerned not for his life but only for the beauty and eternal truth of the object of his contemplation, which for Archimedes is the truths of mathematics, and for Kierkegaard the truths of Christianity.
Every sentence of the Preface invokes yet another image, from ancient philosophy, from contemporary literature, from Hegelian philosophy, mocking, comic, hyperbolic, all in the service of Kierkegaard's desperate effort to distinguish himself from the quotidian academic philosophizing that dominated the intellectual and literary circles around him.  "But what is my personal opinion of the matters herein discussed?," he asks.  "I could wish that no one would ask me this question; for next to knowing whether I have an opinion, nothing could very well be of less importance than the knowledge of what that opinion might be.  To have an opinion is both too much and too little for my uses.  To have an opinion presupposes a sense of ease and security in life, such as implied in having a wife and children; it is a privilege not to be enjoyed by one who must keep himself in readiness night and day, or is without assured means of support."
This passage conjures, with bitter irony, the image of a comfortable burgher who sits drinking beer with his fellow merchants after a long day at the counting house, puffing on a pipe and genially exchanging opinions about the latest article in the Allgemeine Tageblatte.  It invokes in modern dress the old Christian monastic tradition of the servant of God who eschews all worldly attachments -- home, family, children, comfort -- in order to be ready at a moment's notice for the Divine call.
Kierkegaard ends the Preface with an image taken from the late Middle Ages -- the Dance of Death.  [One can find a fascinating account of this image in the greatest work of Kierkegaard's fellow student, Jacob Burckhardt.  Those who have a taste for classic films will recognized it from the concluding scenes of Ingmar Bergman's great film, "The Seventh Seal."]  In the middle of the fourteenth century, the Black Plague afflicted Europe, killing upwards of half the people alive at the time.  Among the many visual and literary artistic responses to this horrific calamity was the image of the "dance of death" [or danse macabre], figured as a chain of mortals linked hand to hand and led in a grotesque and deadly dance by a skeleton who was Death himself.  The final passage of the Preface invokes this terrible image in one of the most powerful passages in all of Philosophy:
"I have only my life, and the instant a difficulty offers I put it in play.  Then the dance goes merrily, for my partner is the thought of Death, and is indeed a nimble dancer; every human being, on the other hand, is too heavy for me.  Therefore I pray, per deos obsecro [I abjure you by the Gods]:  Let no one invite me, for I will not dance."
Read that passage again, and think about what it says.  No one -- not Plato, with his brilliant description in the Gorgias of "whispering in a corner with a few boys," or St. Augustine in the Confessions, or Kant or Spinoza or Hegel or even, dare I say, Nietzsche -- has ever expressed with such existential intensity the soul-consuming commitment to the search for truth.
Since this is an Appreciation, and not even a mini-tutorial, I shall not try to summarize the complex argument that unfolds in the Fragments.  My purpose is only to encourage you to take the book up and read it for yourselves.  But I will sketch the central argument that Kierkegaard unfolds from the contrast between Socrates and Jesus.  The moral truth Socrates seeks to lead his pupils to is, he believes, already to be found within them.  Hence he characterizes himself [also with complex irony] as merely a midwife, who is himself barren [of truth] but can assist at the birth of truth in his pupils [and also kill malformed offspring when they appear with a sharp pointed argument].  It follows that the historical reality of Socrates is of no importance whatsoever.  Were he merely the brilliant literary creation of Plato -- indeed, were Plato himself merely the literary creation of some twelfth century monk -- nothing of any significance would have been lost.
But salvation, in the Christian story, absolutely requires that at a moment in time, the infinite became finite, thus miraculously bridging an unbridgeable chasm, and by that miracle of the Incarnation, making available to Man a Truth that could Man himself could never have plucked from his own mind.  Not too long before Kierkegaard wrote the Fragments, David Strauss had published The Life of Jesus [Das Leben Jesu], which caused a sensation through the German speaking world by bringing the new scientific techniques of historiography to bear on the Bible stories of Jesus.  In what can only be viewed as a direct reply to Strauss, Kierkegaard conjures the lovely philosophical/literary conceit of "the case of the contemporary disciple" [Section iv of the Fragments.]   We [i.e. Kierkegaard and his readers] have come upon the scene too late to have met the historical Jesus, but there were, after all, men and women who walked with Him, had the dust from His sandals fall on their feet, touched the hem of His robe, listened to the Sermon on  the Mount, and even, like Doubting Thomas, thrust their fingers into His wounds to prove that they were real.  Were these fortunate few any closer to the Savior than we who seek, 1843 years later, to reach out to Him?  No, Kierkegaard says, for it is not Jesus the man who offers salvation, but Jesus the Son of God, and there was an infinity between Him and the contemporary disciples, as there is between Him and us.
Well, I hope I have said enough to pique your curiosity, whet your interest, make it seem worthwhile to seek out and read this luminous book.  As you will have discerned from my enthusiasm, it is not necessary to be a believer to find in its pages pleasure and enlightenment.
This is my first Appreciation.


Michael said...

How do you think a non-believer ought to approach Kierkegaard? I always find myself feeling sad for him, but that's probably unfair (and heavily influenced by his self-imposed isolation). My point being, if we already reject his basic assumptions, what defense can we make of his work? I ask because there's been some controversy (see Clark Glymour's "Manifesto") about the value of similarly continental work. As someone who finds Kierkegaard almost intrinsically worthwhile, I've had some trouble explaining my reasons for defending wrongheaded, but brilliant work, so I'll defer to more experienced minds than my own on this one.

And thank you for the appreciation, I'll pick up Fragments soon as I can.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I think I would respond in several ways. First of all, it is intrinsically powerful work that seizes me, regardless of whether I share K's religious faith. After all, I can appreciate the Shakespeare history plays without accepting the politival theory of state authority they presuppose. And I can respond to Jane Austen's novels without sharing her social world view. I think we need to keep alive the sheer intellectual and emotional pleasure provided by truly brilliant work. By the way, I think Marx would agree wholeheartedly.

The second response is this: K's meditation on death and its meaning is, after all, as powerful for me even if I confront its inevitability with different hopes and fears.

Finally, through Kierkegaard, I can experience vicariously in all its intensity religious faith, which has been a central experience of most of the great thinkers I have spent my life studying. By a "willing suspension of disbelief," as Coleridge called it, I can enter into Kierkegaard's mental world.

Thdere is a good deal to be said for cultivating a certain largeness of spirit and imagination.