Kierkegaard on Politics, posting extracts from my new book IX (final)

Kierkegaard on Politics (Palgrave 2014, ISBN 97811337372314) Extract from Chapter 9 ‘Conclusion’. I’ve reached the end of this series rather later than I had anticipated, it’s been a tiring two semesters (3 weeks away from the end of classes in the 2nd semester) due to the amount of new material I gave myself to teach and the existence of some other unavoidable responsibilities in my academic work. After some digestion, I intend for the teaching preparations to feed into my blogging and in a rather more long term way into my publishing. Unfortunately blogging has been slower than I hoped for months. Looks like I’ll have a serious task to complete this week, and then I should  have a bit more time for writing posts. For now the brief conclusion to my book Kierkegaard on Politics, which places Kierkegaard’s approach to politics in general, historical, and literary terms, ending with a very compressed account of his approach and how to continue it.


Where should we place Kierkegaard in political theory?  The most illuminating comparisons are with those writers who deal with an existential commitment to politics and direct experience of its phenomenal forms, or ifs ways of being in the world, either from personal experience or style of thinking. In addition, those philosophical essayists who did not develop a complete political theory, but who have important things to say about government, the state and law, as part of general considerations on life and human thought.  These are the two groups of writers who draw attention to particular judgement  in political action, the difficulties of harmonising individual action, law and sovereignty; subjectivity, political forms, and types of power. Before Kierkegaard that includes Machiavelli (1995, 2003) among those who focused on political thought, along with Montaigne (Essays in Montaigne 2003) and Pascal (1966) among those for whom politics appears in a more occasional way. Since Kierkegaard,  it is Tocqueville (1966, 1970), Nietzsche (1994); Weber (1994, particularly ‘Between two Laws’ and ‘The Profession and Vocation of Politics), Schmitt (1985a, 1985b, 1986, 1996, 2007), Arendt (1990, 1998), Derrida (particularly in The Politics of Friendship, 1997), and Foucault, particularly in his writings on antiquity 1985, 1986, 2001, 2005, 2010, 2011), who have contributed most along those lines.

That leaves Kierkegaard open to many political interpretations and uses by thinkers of many different persuasions. The history of his political theory reception confirms this.  One achievement of Kierkegaard in political thought is then to suggest a way of making political judgement, of understanding the place of the human individual within political community.  His own apolitical, and even anti-political, attitudes are an advantage in providing a point of view for interpreting the modern world, in which politics as participation, or as any kind of direct encounter with sovereignty, seems remotes.  Even in a giant political unity like the Roman Empire, sovereignty had a kind of sacramental dramatic aspects, reflected in the provinces, lacking in the modern world. We might think here of Foucault’s account of changing forms of punishment from ritual imposition of personalised sovereign power to a rationalised disciplinarity, in Discipline and Punish (1991), or Weber’s account of legal-rational authority, of sovereigns operating through law.  There has been a growth of the extent of commercial and civil society, which makes the individual and the social relations of the individual, seem remote from relations with sovereignty and with the political community.

The closest to Kierkegaard amongst thinkers since the mid-twentieth century include Arendt, MacIntyre, Fleischacker (1999) and Geuss (1996).  All show some historical awareness of changes in political community and their relation to individuality.  Arendt brings out the tension between the ideal of political participation and the consequence of routinisation of politics. MacIntyre brings out the tension between different ways of belonging to a community and relating to political power within it, and the difficulty of ending the resulting conflicts. Fleischacker brings out the importance of a well developed self-relationship and autonomy, in relation to the political community. Arendt is the closest in literary talent and in political ambiguity. Fleischacker is closest to the egalitarian and the liberal aspects of Kierkegaard. MacIntyre is closest to the conservative, hierarchical and traditionalist element in Kierkegaard. Geuss brings out the element of religious passion for equality applied to the secular sphere, in conjunction with an ambiguous sympathy for antique ideas of private individuals finding their goals in the sphere of public affair. They express differing views about the value of political life for the human community, corresponding to Kierkegaard’s own ambiguity.

An ideal Kierkegaardian political thinker would have a passion for writing and a high level of literary style, comparable with Franz Kafka to mention one literary author strongly affected by Kierkegaard, and one whose writings have enigmatic religious and political aspects. The protagonists in The Trial and The Castle seem to be both oppressed by some mysterious power which could be supernatural or could be legal state institutions; they could also be seen as guilty characters experiencing the cost of selfishness and irresponsibility. The paradoxical nature of law and state power is suggested, it could be unjust or the product of an incomprehensible justice. None of this is the direct expression of claims in Kierkegaard, but there is considerable resonance with the paradoxical view Kierkegaard takes of ethics, law and political claims.

Kierkegaard provides reasons for putting the individual at the centre of politics, just as the individual is always at the centre of aesthetics, ethics and religion. The primary concern of the individual must be orientation towards God and the absolute, as understood through the Bible. Kierkegaard never recommends complete rejection of the world though, so it is in the spirit of Kierkegaard to think about his ideas work in relation to politics. The subjective nature of the individual, its capacity for self-relation and relation with the absolute, within itself and externally, is why the individual has value. The individual is faced with a cost of individualism, the loss of antique unities of self, state, family and religion, in which it can find a place. Individualism taken seriously leaves the individual without a place because of those absolute aspects of individual subjectivity. So politics must become the best possible attempt to reconcile the absolute value of the individual with political and social structures. Politics can be sen as itself stretched between those opposing poles and requiring individuals to find some strength from inside; or as only justly stemming from the basic form of human community in individual love for all other individuals.

Political thought in the spirt of Kierkegaard will emphasise the difference between antiquity and modernity, the different kinds of individual flourishing possible in those periods, the need for a Christian influenced modern individualism to learn from antique forms of individual belonging to a participatory polity, the tension between idealism and pragmatism in politics, the tragic relation of individuals to ethics, the tragic relation of state violence to ethically based laws, the mixture of dictatorship and consent in any possible polity, the need for general principles to influence practice, the irony of all communication including communication of ideas about the public good, the embedding of individual, universal and absolute values in national culture and language. Most fundamentally Kierkegaardian political thinking must put the single individual at the centre. For Kierkegaard the highest goal of the single individual must be to find God according to Christian definitions. Adapting that idea of absolute goals to secular life, we can say that a Kierkegaard influenced political thought will see laws and political institutions that promote the single individual who will be able to see absolute goals, above politics. Single abstract ideals must be tested in movement, kinesis and action for Kierkegaard, we can say that political thought should include discussion of how individuals can put those thoughts into practice, along with nothing the tension of passion and reflection in politics.

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