Kierkegaard on Politics, posting extracts from my new book VIII

Kierkegaard on Politics (Palgrave 2014, ISBN 97811337372314) Extract from Chapter 8 ‘Political Irony’. This is the most wide ranging chapter of the book, because I followed Kierkegaard’s own discussion of irony in antique and modern aspects in The Concept of Irony. That structure itself suggests a parallel with the distinction between ancient and modern understanding of liberty, which I think goes back to Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury during the 17th century, but was formulated explicitly by Benjamin Constant in the early 19th century. We could turn it into the difference between Greek and Roman liberty, and enter into many other complications. Partly because of those kinds of complications I have not said much about how Kierkegaard’s attitude to antique and modern aesthetics , religion, and politics relates to the political theory discussion of antique and modern liberties. I have just indicated the parallels. I am engaged in further work on this topic, particularly round Foucault and hope to look at at it further in relation to aesthetic and literary concepts  later, which will certainly include a return to Kierkegaard. For the purposes of this book, I wanted to focus on Kierkegaard and just indicate the various contexts for reading Kierkegaard in a political way. The extract below is from the end of section of the chapter on ‘Possibility and Actuality’.


Kierkegaard builds up his view of possibility and actuality, as aspects of the aesthetic and the ethical, but what Kierkegaard also suggests in Concluding Unscientific Postscript is the value of taking all possibilities seriously as real, that is concentrating on the Aristotelian move from possibility to reality, the movement of potentiality (Carlisle 2006).  The word in English used by Aristotle is kinesis, since Kierkegaard uses the Greek original κίνεσις pronounced similarly to the English word. Aristotle’s use of the term concentrates on a meaning of κίνεσις which is more physicalist than Kierkegaard’s own discussion of it as the movement from potentiality to actuality (1992a, 342/VII 296). The context in which Kierkegaard refers to κίνεσις is of the movement from ethical abstract to deed, and the criticism of ethical eudaemonism. It is the movement, or leap, from ethical abstraction to action which counts, not the abstract commitment to ethics. That movement is never at this moment, but has always happened or will happen. It evades our awareness of the present moment, so disrupting time and presumably for Kierkegaard directing us to eternity away from normal temporality. Abstraction is equated by Kierkegaard with a Parmenidian world of is without change, while the act, and the movement of κίνεσις towards it, requires time for the process of change. Κίνεσις does not happen in an instant, but as a process. The criticism of eudaemonism, which could extend to all antique ethics, is of the idea that the good is its own reward, which could be taken as inherent to the antique association of ethics with living well, flourishing of life, the good or happy life. Kierkegaard argues that eudaemonism is undermined by κίνεσις because doubts creep into the mind during the time it takes to get from thought to deed.

Time and κίνεσις undermine antique ethics because the possibility of reflection, which requires time, is the possibility of doubt about what should be done.  The existence of this kind of gap between human living and the act which conditions human living, undermines the idea that the rules of such acts spring emerges from living, in a largely pre-reflective way.  Antique ethics does of course allow for reflection, and its benefits, but sees them as expressions of our nature, and the flourishing of our natural being. If we consider this to be applicable to politics, and the ethics of Plato and Aristotle certainly does include politics, then we can draw the following conclusions. Firstly, political acts cannot be the pre-reflective outcome of the life of the community.  Secondly, the life of the community does not gives us political acts without deliberation and movement.  Thirdly, political acts are the result of time and deliberation.  Fourthly, politics cannot be said to an area in which we have reward in doing what is good in an immediate way.  Fifthly, political theory refers to a world of unchanging ‘is’, disrupted by the time and κίνεσις of concrete political acts.  We can see this as part of Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel, since Hegel thinks of the state as belonging to Sittlichkeit, or the customary life of the community, taken to be constituted by mores with ethical status.

Political theory does not guide political acts in any automatic and predictable way; politics does not rest on the immediate reward of doing good. These are claims which are directed against Aristotle as well as Hegel. Politics is not part of human nature or the highest good on Kierkegaard’s account of κίνεσις in ethics. One side of that is clearly a rejection of politics, but the other side is that it could be taken as just a rejection of the over idealisation of politics. Outside the highest ethical good, or immediate product of ethics, the framework of politics may be emancipated as a sphere of non-moralistic human practices characterised possibly by terms such as play, competition, contestation, struggle, competition, contingency and pragmatism. Going further than that, ethics itself is diminished by Kierkegaard as something non-ideal in relation to theory, so maybe ethics should be characterised in the same way as politics. Kierkegaard does not give ethics as abstract system a high status. The discussion of κίνεσις, of the interruptions between abstraction and action, taken with the other aspects of Concluding Unscientific Postscript is a call to appreciate the role of subjectivity in ethics. Kierkegaard builds on the German Idealist concern with human practice and consciousness, in looking for a more subjective theory of ethics than Kant, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, and looks for a theory of subjectivity which does not collapse into pure relativity and contingency.



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