Kierkegaard on Politics (Palgrave 2014, ISBN 97811337372314) Extract from Chapter 3 ‘Previous Perspectives on Kierkegaard and Politics’ There are some difficulties in selecting a passage from a chapter concerned with a large number of commentators on Kierkegaard, which does not lend itself to extracts which read well on their own. The passage below stands up reasonably as self-contained writing not too dominated by an argument with the commentators concerned. I haven’t included full bibliographical information on the texts mentioned, but it’s very easy to get that online from the information provided. Themes covered include pre-political and anti-political attitudes, Antique republicanism, Hegel, liberalism and conservatism.
A big issue in thinking about Kierkegaard on politics is his attitude to democratic tendencies of his own time, particularly with regard to the 1848 constitutional revolution in Denmark. Too many commentators on Kierkegaard mistake scepticism and reserve about democracy for rejection, as in Jon Stewart’s preface to Kierkegaard’s Influence on Social-Political Thought (Stewart 2011). It is true that the default assumption about Kierkegaard’s political attitudes has been that he was both apolitical and conservative, and this is broadly correct, going back to his student days (Kierkegaard 1990, 34). There are reasons to qualify that claim though. The harshness of Kierkegaard’s conservatism has been exaggerated, and the liberal side understated. That is we should see Kierkegaard more as a liberal or at least a constitutional conservative, and less as a reactionary ultra-conservative monarchist absolutist. The apolitical side should not be confused with the claim that Kierkegaard’s writings have nothing important to say about politics. The apolitical way of reading Kierkegaard is most obviously linked with a conservative reading, but has also been linked with a moralistic anti-political leftism, which shows how difficult it is to stop talking about politics in Kierkegaard. What is being argued for here is a contextualisation of apolitical and conservative Kierkegaard, looking at how there are political implications in his work, how they are on the liberal side of conservatism, or even radical liberal, and arguing that he makes significant contributions to political thought in those directions.
There are some political interpretations which capture some aspect of Kierkegaard’s thought, even if they go to far in attributing reactionary conservatism of Kierkegaard, and which do contain evidence for political richness of his work. A good example of the very conservative, even reactionary, reading of Kierkegaard can be found in Robert Perkins’ ‘Kierkegaard’s Critique of the Bourgeois State’ (1984). Some similar points are made in Bruce Kirmmse’s ‘Kierkegaard and MacIntyre’ (in Davenport and Rudd, 2001). Perkins quotes from Two Ages [En Literair Anmeldelse, 1846], and elsewhere to establish, correctly to some degree, Kierkegaard’s criticism of bourgeois liberalism. What Perkins focuses on is a lack of absolute foundations to bourgeois politics, though that that is also a positive claim from the point of view of the liberal, who is trying to define the political rules of a society where there are different values.
This fits with a correct appreciation of the tension between the pluralist goal of liberalism and the need to have a starting point, which is supplied by utilitarianism, deliberative reflection on norms, natural law, or something which is presented as pre-political, as far as that is possible. However, recognising that is not the same as the rejection of liberalism, since we could consider such efforts of liberal thinkers as the best that come be done in a world of plural values. Certainly attempts at radical alternatives from the authoritarian right, Marxist left, and allied phenomena have tended to be folded back into liberalism, in a general tendency for political thought in all traditions to be pulled towards liberalism. Going back to Perkins’ argument, he does not explain what Kierkegaard’s alternative to liberalism is, nor does he he provide any evidence of a longing on the part of Kierkegaard for a lost paradise of monarchical absolutism. Perkins thinks of Kierkegaard as thinking in a Hegelian way about the inevitability of the unfolding of new political forms over history, which surely does not lead inevitably to a reactionary form of conservatism, as Perkins recognises. Hegel’s views were certainly not reactionary conservative by the standards of the Prussia of his time. Perkins interprets Hegel as mourning the loss of Periclean Athens, which has some truth to it, but then every moment in Hegel’s arguments about history and politics is a loss of some unity, never to be regained. Clearly Hegel thinks Periclean Athens lacks advantages which result from Roman law, Christianity, Protestant Christianity, civil society and other outcomes of the movement of history since the time of Pericles. As Perkins notes, Kierkegaard was displeased by the fate of Socrates under Athenian democracy, but then so are all modern liberals. Anyway, like Hegel, Kierkegaard sees that modern liberalism has some origins in Christianity, and his own views of subjectivity and individuality cannot be understood without the model of liberalism, however much Kierkegaard may sometimes write as if he is just returning to the Bible. In addition, the fact is he does not always write like that. Perkins tries to draw too sharp a distinction between: a Hegelian position, which he defines in terms which are both progressivistic and nostalgic; and a Kierkegaardian position, which he defines as a religious scepticism about political community. While it is right to say that Kierkegaard had more an individualistic-religious scepticism about political communities than Hegel, there is much common ground in accepting that the progress of liberty is apparent in history, as well as seeing antique polities as allowing a kind of connectedness between individual and political community lost in the modern world.