The author copies of my new short monograph Kierkegaard on Politics (Palgrave 2014, ISBN 97811337372314) arrived in my department at Istanbul Technical University yesterday. It went into print in November last year, but the author copies were held up in customs at Istanbul’s Atatürk airport. In order to commemorate the happy event in which an author gets to hold the physical product of his work for the first time, I’m posting a few extracts over the next few days. Firstly today the Introduction (part I), which can also be read through Amazon’s ‘look inside’ feature. After that the Introduction part II, followed by one extract from each chapter, day by day. After that I will finish with a post on where I might go with the ideas developed in the book in later work.
So read on for the approximate first half of the Introduction
This book addresses political thought in a writer who was not attempting to make a contribution to political thought. Such a seemingly perverse enterprise is justified, and necessary, because political thought does not only exist in texts explicitly devoted to expounding a position in political theory. For example, understanding of political thought is clearly enhanced by knowledge of Homer, Greek tragedy, Shakespearean tragedy and the masterpieces of the ‘realist’ nineteenth century novel. This arbitrary list, which is by no means a complete selection, refers us to literary works which give an archaic view of kingship, a classical antique view of law and monarchy, a Renaissance view of government and tyranny, and some more recent explorations of individual freedom and democracy. We can imagine someone engaging in political theory without knowledge of literature, but that theorist would have lost a lot in terms of understanding the different possibilities of thinking about politics.
Equally the more epistemological and metaphysical parts of philosophy may use, or even depend on political ideas. Descartes partly explains the benefits of his attempt to reconstruct philosophy from first principles, in Discourse on Method 2 as like the creation of the best possible state through the laws of a single wise legislator, so that laws have a unified end(Descartes 1968, 36). In ‘Discourse on Metaphysics’ 36, Leibniz compares the metaphysical relation of God to the world with that of a Prince to his people in a law governed state (Leibniz 1998, 88-89). John Stuart Mill thought that knowledge benefits from the liberty of speech in general, in On Liberty 2 ‘Of the liberty of thought and discussion,’ and liberty is partly justified by that benefit (Mill 1991 52). Kant sets up his Critique of Pure Reason, in the Preface to the first edition, with reference to the model of government through law, as opposed to despotism or anarchy (Kant 1997, 99-100/Prussian Academy Edition A IX).
One indirect, but significant, justification for thinking about Kierkegaard as a political thinker is then that he was a literary writer and narrative literature at least contains a good deal of material of political and social interest, by virtue of representing action over time in a properly formed social world. That argument is only going to have limited force if there is some more direct political content to Kierkegaard’s writing, whether taking him both as a literary and philosophical figure, and there is in two senses. One sense is that on occasion political issues are at the centre of his writing; the other sense is that much of what Kierkegaard writes has distinctly political implications. We can look at Kierkegaard as a political thinker in his literary and philosophical aspect; and taking into account both explicit and implicit meanings. That is the program for the present book.
It is not only that the literary nature of Kierkegaard’s writing suggests that we look for political thought there in the way we do for literary fiction, but also his philosophical discussions of literature which suggests that we look for implicit views about politics. Either/Or [Enten-Eller], Repetition [Gjentagelsen] and Stages on Life’s Way [Stadier paa Livets Vei] provide good examples of the former aspect; Either/Or also provides good examples of the second aspect as does The Concept of Irony [Om Begrebet Ironi]. The major example of Kierkegaard as political thinker through discussion of literature take place in his discussion of tragedy, a literary genre very directly engaged with political issues of law, kingship, justice, power, and tyranny; and his discussion of Romantic Irony, which touches on the politics of Romanticism. There is another way in which politics enters into Kierkegaard’s thought, in relation to the religious aspect of his writing. That is the role of God in Kierkegaard, which is clearly a major theme for this deeply Christian thinker, though it is not the constant object of direct attention. The idea of God and the idea of government have always been intertwined. The Leibniz reference above is an illustration of a connection that has always been made. The idea of just rule of the other world, or of the universe of the whole is never going to be completely separable from the idea of the just rule of a state in this world. Divine and secular governance can never be completely distinguished, and the idea of divine governance is a frequent point of reference for Kierkegaard, though most obviously from how it I distinct from political power rather than the long tradition of seeing a model.