Kirkegaard and James Joyce: Finnegans Wake is a Kierkegaardian Novel


Joyce’s notoriously complex last ‘novel’, Finnegans Wake is in some ways a novel after Kierkegaard, particularly the Kierkegaard of Either/Or I. This volume in Kierkegaard is an exploration of the aesthetic, but it should not be separated from his ethical and religious dimensions, and it should not be given a lower status than those texts of Kierkegaard which are more directly about ethics and religious. If Kierkegaard thought these distinctions could be kept so strictly he would not have written the kind of texts he did.

Leaving aside questions of Kierkegaard commentary aside in this entry, we should note the presence of Kierkegaard and Either/Or in Finnegans Wake. On many occasions Joyce refers to ‘Kirk yard’, a play on the meaning of Kierkegaard’s name (church yard) and its closeness to Scots (the dialect of English spoken, some would claim it’s a language distinct from English though related to it, in lowland Scotland and Ulster) which has many Scandinavian influences going back to the Vikings. There are other points about that little example of Joyce’s extreme polyglot linguistic play in the Wake. The allusions to church and the church yard where the dead are buried brings out themes of the sacred, death and the commemoration of death which recur in the Wake. Joyce also frequently plays with Enten-Eller, which is the Danish title of Either/Or. The whole of the Wake can be looked upon as an attempt to follow up the idea of a purely aesthetic attitude which Kierkegaard explored in Either/Or I, and shortly before that in Concept of Irony. What he was particularly concerned with was he the Irony of the Jena Romantics or Romantic Ironists, Friedrich Schegel, Novalis and others who collaborated in the last two years of the Eighteenth Century. Concept of Irony makes this explicit and consider the relation of Romantic Irony with Fichte’s earlier philosophy, and in a more general way with Socratic Irony.

A particular issue that comes up from Eiher/Or in the Wake is the relation between hearing and vision. There are frequent references to eye and ear in the Wake which should be read in conjunction with the discussion of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni in Either/Or. One of Kierkegaard’s concerns is the relation between seeing and hearing in opera, a tense relation for him as opera has an obvious visual aspect but Kierkegaard thinks music is primary in opera and that is exemplified in Don Giovanni. The figure of the Don serves that because he is pure sensuality and music appeals to the most pure sensuality, The erotic side of the Don fits with the heightened aesthetic of opera. The Wake is concerned in many ways with the relation between sound and inscription in language. Don Juan/Don Giovanni is also a recurring figure who seems to belong to a general theme of the journey of life and essential human struggle.

Why closing Turkey’s AKP would be a liberal act. John Stuart Mill would have agreed.

Theories of Representative Democracy or Republicanism have not been concerned with a a majoritarian theory in which the most popular force in politics has the right to decide everything. That is the path that led to the execution of Socrates in Ancient Athens. In Aristotle, Monteseuiu, Mill and many others, democracy is a means to promote liberty. For Mill, it was quite necessary to push the conditions for secular liberty from above, and democracy rested on those conditions. Like all the Liberal and Republican thinkers, he thought that liberty and law are the necessary foundations of any democracy worth having, that is a democracy that is not mere majoritarianism. AKP are eroding the conditions for secular democracy. The Millian response is clear. The democratic means for liberty can be highly regarded but they are means. Mill followed Tocqueille’s phrase, tyranny of the majority, which itself probably has some origin in the Federalist Papers of Hamilton, Madison and Jay. The point in all case is that momentary majority opinion is a very dangerous thing which can lead to violence and law breaking. Authority is necessary to stop the majority,or the shifting nature of majority opinion, from violating basic freedoms. Previous Liberal and Republican thinkers have said similar thing about majority democracy. Even Rousseau though that the general ill is only formed when citizens are isolated from each other, and engages with the necessity of different parts of sovereignty. AKP is a threat to the secular foundations of democracy and should go.

Kierkegaard: Free Will and Ethics

What is important about Kierkegaard’s philosophy, including his ethics?  Is is it that he has a Christian message?  No.  Of course he had a deeply Christian message but what is important is the ways in which he expressed it through aesthetics, psychology, ethical, metaphysical and epistemic theory.  

The ethics in Kierkegaard is not defined through Christianity.  Christianity is a given for Kierkegaard, what is important is the work he did on the kind of subjectivity necessary for grasping the ‘Christian message’.  Despite Kierkegaard’s apparent commitment to militant Biblical Christianiy, his approach is an Enlightnment one in which the historical claims of the Bible are interpreted as spiritual communication in which the historical content does not need to be true.   This is particularly evident in Philosophical Fragments The point is to appeal to subjectivity and that is done through a variety of strategies.  The most obvious strategies are those of ironic aesthetic reflection and the construction of a theory of subjectivity.
For Kierkegaard, subjectivity is freedom.  The free reflection of subjectivity on itself properly understood leads us to an an ethics beyond the metaphysical in Concept of Anxiety.  Metaphysics can only refer to a fixity of subjectivity which denies its freedom.  Kierkegaard does refer to the second ethics as concerned with (Christian) doctrine.  Nevertheless, Christian doctrine in Kierkegaard is a commitment to subjectivity which is grasped through ironic reflection, psychological theory, epistemological scepticism of a pre-Cartesian antique kind, and the paradoxes of the relation of subjectivity with the absolute.  That can be grasped as the relation between the succeeding empirical stages of the self and the continuity of the self over time    

I’m now posting the blog at

I’m experimenting with the blogging facilities provided by .mac, an Apple service which integrates with the iWeb application in the iLife suite on Macintosh computers.  If this works well I will migrate this blog entirely  to the address in the title using the name Barry Stocker’s Weblog

Feedback can be sent through an email button on the home page.