Kierkegaard on Politics, posting extracts from my new book II.

(second half of the Introduction)

The idea of God as model of political government is just one part of how Christian themes in Kierkegaard have a political aspect. The other major part is the status of the single individual, just one word in Danish, Enkelte, and a word that Kierkegaard often uses, as essentially in relation to God, but with less directly religious aspects of the single individual also coming into his writing. Further references to Ekelte will be in English as ‘the Single Individual’ or in Danish with the definite article ‘den Enkelte’. The Single Individual is defined by a relationship with God, but the connections with political understandings of individuality are unavoidable (Kierkegaard 1998a, 76), and further connect with Kierkegaard’s more direct  social and political comments.

Questions of how we can have a relation with God, know of God, have faith and communicate with the absolute being, are central to Kierkegaard, and connect with questions of the existence of societies as unified political entities under some supreme agency of sovereignty. We come to two political theory issues now. First the issue of what the individual is who has political interests and rights, and why the individuality of that single individual is important in politics. Second the issue of the relation between the single individual and the state, or the political world as a whole. The individual is a particular compared with the universal nature of the political sphere and of civil laws; the individual is a particular compares with the absolute nature of sovereignty, wherever it is we locate sovereignty, the people, the ruler, the state and so on.  The issues of the relation of subjective particularity to ethical universality and to the absolute sovereignty of God are at the heart of Kierkegaard’s writing.  The nature of that subjectivity, that moral agency, raises issues about political liberty; the history of subjectivity’s understanding of itself in relation to its social world in Pagan and Christian worlds is intertwined with the history of political liberty, of the changes the concept of that liberty in ancient and modern times.

Kierkegaard’s own references to the political events, and conflicts, of his time are brief, but no less significant for their brevity. He lived through the one really successful transition to constitutionalism and representative government, amongst the many European revolutions of 1848. Kierkegaard was sensitive to this drama, and the underlying tension it exposed in modern politics: the tension between revolutionary idealism and mundane pragmatism, a tension which parallels his view of Christian life. He was critical of democracy as a political movement and as a social tendency towards equality, but much of his criticism is similar to that of those recognised as thinkers about liberal democracy, who wished to protect it against its own negative tendencies.  Our understanding of thinkers like Tocqueville and Mill will be enriched by comparison with Kierkegaard, as will our understanding of Kierkegaard.

The reading of Kierkegaard that follows is one that rejects any idea that philosophical texts can, or should be, identified as only pertaining to some one very well defined and delimited branch of philosophy.  Kierkegaard is a particularly strong example of a philosopher, whose work does not even try to divide itself between discrete branches and sub-branches of philosophy, in different texts, and which does not engage in well ordered steps of pure deduction, within texts. Kierkegaard certainly makes arguments that are well ordered and deserve reconstruction and reflection, but he is not purely engaging with one step at any moment. His works demand to be read in a dialectical or interactive way, with regard of interaction of ideas, interaction of texts, interaction between the parts and the whole of his thought.  Furthermore his thought cannot be defined as just philosophy, as it also compasses theology, literary writing, religious sermons, and journalism.  These are not all equally present at all times, but Kierkegaard’s work as a whole is conditioned by their interaction. That interaction provides a rich context for Kierkegaard’s relatively limited explicit comments on politics.

The approach taken to Kierkegaard here is the extension of a very broad movement over some decades to look at political theory, not just as about a series of isolated classics studied in connection with each other, but in a larger context including minor classics and forgotten works of theory, everyday political culture and texts, linguistic and rhetorical analysis, religious background, and so on. This development has various sources, but Cambridge School of political thought is the most recognisable label for this current. Certainly reading ‘Cambridge School’ writers like Quentin Skinner and J.G.A. Pocock has had some influence on the approach of this book. Skinner, himself, refers to the influence of Michel Foucault on his work (1998,112), and that influence is very present for the current book, as is indicated in some of the scholarly apparatus. The more direct influence is not so much the very total approach Foucault takes to discourse in the book referenced by Skinner, Archaeology of Knowledge (1989), or in Discipline and Punish (1977), and more the texts referenced during the book which develop overarching historical understanding of the development of ethical, legal and political concepts. Writing on Kierkegaard as a political theorist builds on the Cambridge School and Foucauldian approaches by looking at how an apparently non-political thinker is sometimes directly concerned with political themes, and is very often indirectly concerned, something that become clearer by looking at Kierkegaard’s work as a whole, and its context in Danish history.

This Introduction is not the only introduction the book has. Inevitably Chapter One has some introductory characteristics in setting up the ways of looking at Kierkegaard and the frames that can be used. Even Chapter Two has introductory characteristics, because a large part of it is literature review. Rather than follow one classic scholarly pattern in which the literature review precedes exposition of an argument, the present book reviews literature where this is useful in the exposition of the general argument. The literature review is most concentrated in Chapter Two, where it helps to further build up the approach to Kierkegaard presented in Chapter One, but is also dispersed across the book according to where discussions of literature are most necessary.


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