Reply to a comment by Suzanne Smith concerning my book Kierkegaard on Politics

I’ve suffered the likely fate of anyone who brings out a book, a comment I don’t think fairly represents the book. Of course the one thing worse than a comment about a book that misrepresents is no comment, so I should not complain very much. It is also the case that if you put work into circulation you defend it and if you think a misleading representation is in circulation you try to act against it. This is what I am doing in this post.

A book review of three recent books about Kierkegaard ‘From Martyr to Tyrant: Politics and Love in Kierkegaard’, by Suzanne Smith (who appears to be this Dr Suzanne Smith, a Lecturer on History and Literature in Harvard)   in Perspectives on Political Science (published online June 22 2016, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10457097.2016.1190262, accessed July 3 2016) refers briefly to my work on Kierkegaard. It does not include my book as one of the titles reviewed and the journal has not reviewed my book at all.

My book does feature briefly in Suzanne Smith’s review as a example of a predictable way of looking at Kierkegaard and with an implicit sneer for bringing together ‘apolitical’ and ‘conservative’. You may have difficulty in viewing this article if you don’t have access to the online resources of an institution which subscribes to some version of the Taylor & Francis Online package which includes the journal concerned. Anyway, here is the vital passage, which you can most find readily online by going to the first place that ‘7’ appears in the text.

 He has variously been seen as “antipolitical,” “conservative,” or even, confusingly, “apolitical and conservative.”7 The notion that this is the standard narrative of Kierkegaard’s politics, which conceals a much less conservative politics perceptible to those who have eyes to see is itself the basis of the “standard narrative” of Kierkegaardian politics in the past twenty-five years

The ‘7’ gives the publication details of Kierkegaard on Politics. No page reference is given to justify this interpretation of my book, but the blurb on the back of the book does contain the comments mentioned. So Dr Smith has judged my book and implicitly  used it as an example of the mediocre and habitual in the interpretation of Kierkegaard’s politics, purely on the basis of the blurb.

What would Dr Smith, or anyone else, see in my book were they to take the radical step of going beyond looking at the blurb on the back cover or on the publisher’s website or an online book seller, and actually read some of the book itself? Let us say Dr Smith, or anyone else were to go so far as to look at the contents page. There it can be seen that chapter three is devoted to ‘Previous Perspectives on Kierkegaard and Politics’. This is surely a bit of a clue that I try to rise above saying previous commentators have only seen Kierkegaard as apolitical and/or conservative and I reveal another truth, for the first time!

A section on ‘Liberalism and conservatism’ (pp 30-37) does indeed refer to the conservative and even reactionary ways of reading Kierkegaard’s politics, which are quite widespread and real and not the mere product of the imagination of mediocre Kierkegaard commentators. A section in the same chapter on ‘The limits of politics’ (pp 37-42) explores existing non-conservative readings of Kierkegaard, so it is clearly unfair and a misrepresentation to suggest that I misrepresent previous commentators as only referring to conservative readings.

It is difficult to be sure in such a brief comment, but Dr Smith appears to be dismissing my linkage of conservative of apolitical as unnoticed paradox. I have to say, I am very puzzled by this. It is surely nothing strange to say that conservatism claims to be apolitical, to prefer existing habits and institutions to the innovations and changes which are the stuff of political thought. It is a familiar claim whether or not one agrees with it.  Of course there is a paradox here, but it is the paradox put forward by conservatives. The classic text here is Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution. Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method can be added, along with many other conservative classics. I take a critical view of this in chapter three in Kierkergaard on Politics as I also take a critical view of a kind of left moralism, which claims to be apolitical that I present as an important part of the ways in which Kierkegaard has been treated politically.

All of the above three paragraphs would come as a great surprise to anyone who relied on Dr Smith’s brief remarks as guidance to what my book argues. I expect readers to maybe not have as high an opinion of my work as I hope. I can surely also expect that fellow scholars will read my work, and show some evidence of doing so, before circulating a dismissive and misleading summary.

I am referring to

Kierkegaard on Politics 

Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

2014

ISBN 978-1-137-37233-8 EPUB

ISBN 978-1-137-37232-1 PDF

ISBN 978-1-137-37231-4 Hardback

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