Europe after Habermas and the Populist Surge (me at the New APPS group blog) 

Shortly after elections to the European Parliament, and in the midst of political jostling over the name of the next President of the Commision, is a timing that makes a post on European politics and  the idea of Europe  timely, though the issues are constantly with us and I suspect that problems in the European Union will keep it constantly in the news. What looks like serious legitimacy problems for the European Union also has the consequence of creating a European public opinion of a kind, in that Europe is in the news across the nations of the continent. One theoretical approach to Europe seems to me very much questioned  though advocates presumably will not think so. That is the approach of Habermas, who has become the uncrowned philosophical prince of the European Union…

Now read on at New APPS.

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.

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.


Kierkegaard on Politics, posting extracts from my new book VII

Kierkegaard on Politics (Palgrave 2014, ISBN 97811337372314) Extract from Chapter 7 ‘Tragic Community’. The extract below is from the last two paragraphs of the section on ‘Modern democracy’, which look at Kierkegaard’s account of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, and the first two chapters of the concluding section ‘The return of antique tragedy’. The themes here the relation between Christian individuaity and democracy, antique city politics and fear of the individual who stones outside or in tension with the public sphere.  Kierkegaard’s writing on these themes is full of tension between admiration for ancient republican spirit and the apolitical foundation he finds in a Christian orientation towards the absolute within the individual and in God. Kierkegaard’s own writing style and focus on aesthetic references is a result of or reinforcement of those tensions.


Thinking about Kierkegaard’s political assumptions, the relation of the Don and his servant Leporello itself has elements of democracy challenging aristocracy. Kierkegaard puts this in the context of  the way that the Middle Ages places before its own consciousness an individual as representative of ‘the idea’ (a general idea, a general type), and then places another individual alongside him in relation to him. The relation is usually comical and is one in which one individual makes up for the other’s extreme qualities. These couples include: the king and the fool, Faust and Wagner, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Don Juan and Leporello. The story of Don Giovani comes from the Medieval Spanish story of Don Juan. The duality, particularly that between the Don and Loporello, is something that emerges in the Middle Ages, in Kierkegaard’s analysis, as the conflict between the flesh and the spirit within Christianity becomes a subject of reflection.  That is why Medieval culture created personified forms of both forces, according to Kierkegaard. In this duality, kingship and aristocracy are challenged by the people, by a representative of the democratic mass. Though the point of the dualities is partly to mock the less aristocratic one, the democratic voice gets its own heroism. The strongest example is the role of Sancho Panza in Don Quixote.

Kierkegaard’s implicit account of the transition between the aristocratic and the democratic, is one which prefers the democratic to the aristocratic , but also sees them as belonging with each other, as incomplete without the other. Despite the lack of enthusiasm for constitutional revolution in Kierkegaard, the democratic age has a structurally superior position, because that is the political equivalent to the spiritual meaning of Christianity.  The polis appears in Kierkegaard as appealing to the people as a whole in its foundation, and the universality of Christianity is emphasised  particularly with regard to love. The equalisation of humans as separate from God, spills over into political thought, even if Christianity has often been part of power, and even of the subordination of humans in unfree labour.  Christianity adds universality to the polis, but also at the same time weakens the passionate focus of the polis on itself. Once that focus is lost, democracy cannot be connected with the complete social, legal, cultural, institutional, and religious identity at its origin.  That loss is tied up with the advance of Christianity, and the suggestion that the individual person finds itself at a universal and abstract level. God replaces the polis.  Moments of repetition unify the individualism of Christian modernity with the intense republicanism of the polis..

There is an implicit reference to political repetition in Two Ages, and that is dependent on the loss of the Greek polis with with its sense of individual embedment in strong communities of family, state, and pagan religion. It is significant that in the Preface to Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard refers to the crime of lack of civic duty in Athens, using the Ancient Greek word, άπραγμοσύνε, which confirms that Kierkegaard regards Christianity as what belongs to a world, or shapes a world, in which the ancient sense of belonging to the political community has disappeared.

It is significant that in the Preface to Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard refers to the crime of lack of civic duty in Athens, using the Ancient Greek word, άπραγμοσύνε. To some degree, Kierkegaard suggests that Christianity belongs to a world, or shapes a world, in which the ancient sense of belonging to the political community has disappeared. The context in Philosophical Fragments is that Kierkegaard, using the pseudonym of Johannes Climacus writes a preface which suggests that the text is a very minor contribution to the discussions of the time.  Kierkegaard/Climacus compares himself with Diogenes (of Sinop presumably), according to a story in which while the citizens of Corinth prepare for an attack by Philip of Macedon, Diogenes moves the tub around, in which he lived so as to avoid being the only lazy person in the city. In this case Kierkegaard undermines the importance of what he writes by suggesting that it is just a gesture so that he can seem to participate in the great discussions on the time, while setting up a discussion about the limits of communication and understanding, with regard to the paradoxes which appear in fully developed philosophy, and which are necessary to Christianity, in Kierkegaard’s view. The irony is such that Kierkegaard is claiming that the text is superior to discussions of his time. So the crime of άπραγμοσύνε is committed more in a claim to superiority than in a withdrawal from the public duties of citizenship.  That suggests another way of understanding Kierkegaard’s attitude to the political part of ethics.




Kierkegaard on Politics, posting extracts from my new book VI

Kierkegaard on Politics (Palgrave 2014, ISBN 97811337372314) Extract from Chapter 6 ‘Ethics and Legal Community’.

After a regrettably long  break I’m back. A combination of travel in England, preparing a presentation on Nietzsche and virtue theory (a topic I’ve been interested in for some time, but I wanted to do some new work and thinking for the paper)  urgent work on preparing a co-edited book on Nietzsche and politics (more news when it is published later this year), working on proposals for new publication projects, and getting three courses started which are largely new in content (should feed into writing, including blogging, over time but start up demands on time and energy are considerable), knocked me out. I’m still busy enough, but I think I can get back to regular blogging now.  

Today’s extract focuses on William in Either/Or, also known as Judge or Assessor William. His letters in Either/Or I to an unidentified friend, who might be the author of Either/Or I, or The Diary of a Seducer, which concludes Either/Or I. All figures created by Kierkegaard within his philosophical fiction of course, all featuring within the pseudonyms and philosophical fictions he created over his career.  The total effect of which, at least to my way of thinking, is to create a body of work where all individual works are literary explorations of a fictional author, whether or not the works are ‘signed’ by Kierkegaard or a pseudonym, and in which we can never say for sure what is part of a fictional point of view and what is Kierkegaard’s own argument. Even the most ‘religious’ signed texts use rhetorical strategies and an implied authorial point of  view which is never absolutely the same as that of ‘Kierkegaard’. The issues raised in the extract below are round William’s attempts to integrated law, politics, friendship, and Christianity in harmony that is not possible for Kierkegaard, as we must accept the absoluteness of religion in relation to the others, as sovereign over  though without ever subsuming them into itself, without certainty ever emerging about what religions requires in other sprees except a willingness to see that they are relative in relation to God the Absolute. The extract is from the end of the section ‘The Judge and his Friend’.


William’s letters deal both with: friendship, the friendship for the man to whom the letters are addressed; and with love, the love between him and his wife. Both stand in contrast to Christian love, as explored by Kierkegaard in Works of Love [Kjerlighedens Gjerninger, 1847], which is love of the neighbour, that is love for all.  William’s understanding of marital love argues for its compatibility with romantic love, and that marital love over time is the only way that love can be properly understood as opposed to the romantic attitude of the Young Man. There is a political dimension in some of this, in that Nero (184-188/II 167-171) appears in the second letter, along with a mention of Caligula as an example of the individual who cannot deal with love, as a relation of equality, and has an aesthetic attitude. Nero is one of the more standard examples of tyranny from antiquity, and was the oppressor of the philosopher Seneca who was forced to commit suicide due to Nero’s paranoid anger. Seneca is only second to Socrates as the example of the philosopher martyred to political power. The Nero reference in Either/Or II connects back to a brief reference in Either/Or I  to Pelagianism (137/I 211) in the section on Scribe’s play The First Love. The point is that the aesthete is an autocrat in the same way that a Pelagian believes that the human individual can command grace. Pelagius was the antagonist of Augustine who argued that grace comes from individual human will, as well as the will of God. Kierkegaard develops the view that the tyrant is unable to understand grace from God, and therefore Christian love, because he is unable to accept anything above his own will. In this instance at least, Kierkegaard is implicitly a critic of absolute monarchy, as worse than the more republican understanding of the role of the state leader. This is the sense in which Plato and Seneca were republicans, and both influenced early modern republicanism, because they believed that the monarch must be restrained by law and morality above his will.

As we have seen, friendship is a part of antique republicanism, and of some republican influenced early modern thinking like that of Montaigne in relation to Etienne de la Boétie, the author of Discourse on Voluntary Servitude). Montaigne is monarchist on the more explicit level, but implicitly republican in his attitude to the defects of the French monarchy and its laws, and to the absolute requirements of friendship, even against the state (Fontana 2008). In Either/Or II, William’s attitude to friendship is remote from a political role, but is suggestive of a modern civil society where there are remnants of antique republican virtues.

William is educated and sincere, but he is not an imaginative or deep thinker, and there is a lot implied by his thoughts which his thoughts cannot incorporate. Friendship, martial love, modern civil society, and Christian love are not compatible to the degree that he assumes. He refers to the necessity of choice of the aut/aut (either/or), when addressing the young man, but he does not see all aspects of choice.  He tells the young man to choose the ethical over the aesthetic, in a way that assumes that Christianity will be adequately captured in the process. His understanding of depth of love over time, does not extend to repetition, that is the topic explored in Repetition [Gjentagelsen, 1843] and Concluding Unscientific Postscript [Afflutende uvidenskabelig Efterskrift, 1846] .  William thinks that the individual should accept universality, should find a station or duty, a very Fichtean view, and should accept the duty to marry. All of these conflict with Kierkegaard’s view of the relation between individual and social goals.  William criticises the mystic for separating himself from society, and while Kierkegaard was no mystic, the ways in which William criticises the mystic cannot be his own view, since it is clear that Kierkegaard thinks we should be ready to separate ourselves from social bonds and worldly concerns, and that a fully believing Christian is someone who at least makes some gesture in that direction. William criticises Aristotle for putting the state at the highest level, but his ‘letters‘ do accept the idea that the individual is defined by rules which ultimately refer to the state. Marriage, which William thinks is a universal duty, is defined by civil laws even where religious ceremonies are standard, and William himself is one of judges who interprets civil laws, that is those laws which originate in the state.
Civil law is an impersonal relation apparently distant from love. Kierkegaard demonstrates intriguing ambiguity about this though, when he has William act as the voice of law and of Christian ethics in Either/Or.  Kierkegaard leaves a lot to the reader to decide. There is no clear message from Kierkegaard about whether William is a adequate and apt defender of Christian love. We do not have the voice of his wife to explain how she experiences their marriage. The overall effect of the Judge’s letters is to suggest someone who understands Christianity in the abstract, but now how to make it alive, how to live it from moment to moment. He is certainly not concerned with challenging law, and the authority of the courts, from the point of view of love, and faith. It is true that Kierkegaard would also surely wish to recognise that law is part of the highest ends of the social individual and that views about law and laws, about how it can serve the highest ends, will lead to some encounter with the state and with politics, but as we have seen Kierkegaard finds conflict between these elements.

Kierkegaard on Politics, posting extracts from my new book V

Kierkegaard on Politics (Palgrave 2014, ISBN 97811337372314) Extract from Chapter 4 ‘Kierkegaard and the Danish Political Community’. I’ve selected a passage from the end of the first section ‘Kierkegaard and the Danish Political Community’. These paragraphs join the historical political context in Denmark with an outline of republican and liberal views regarding political institutions, contract, evolution, and liberty. The suggestion is that Kierkegaard brings together a kind of skeptical conservatism towards change with the same attitude towards original contracts, combining some slightly utopian tendencies about the possibilities of politics with awareness of the constant need to adjust imperfect political institutions.  I haven’t included full bibliographical information on the texts mentioned, but it’s very easy to get that online from the information provided.


There were reformist and reactionary periods in the progress towards democracy, and its institutionalisation, in Kierkegaard’s lifetime and later. Frederik VI who started off as a reformer was later seen as a reactionary, his successor Christian VIII recognised the principle of constitutional monarchy, but procrastinated through the whole of his reign in the application of that principle. Nevertheless, the time of Frederik VI and Christian VIII saw the abolition of serfdom, a land reform program which led to Denmark becoming the European country with the broadest distribution of land ownership, erosion of economic monopolies, regional representative assemblies, and other measures to establish equal rights of citizens.

We can see the successful development of liberal democracy and a culture of civic values, which Kierkegaard did not eulogise, but when he did refer to it, he did so in terms of a cautious welcome, as we see in ‘Armed Neutrality’ [Den væbnede Neutralitat, 1849]:

[M]y view is that the essentially Christian, unchanged, at times may need by way of new modifications to secure itself against the new, the new nonsense that is now in vogue. Let me clarify this relation by reference to another circumstance. In the far, far distant past, in times more simple than these, it was of course also the custom to draw up legal documents, contracts, etc. But if we take such a contract from olden times and compare it with a contract of the same kind from 1848, we certainly find the latter considerably modified. We must not, however, be in a hurry to say that this one is therefore better than the former, ironically it might turn out that it is still a question whether it would not have been better that all these modifications have become necessary. But since those simple times there have been so many rogues and swindlers that modifications have become necessary.

(Kierkegaard 1998b, 131-132/X B107 291)

This is the most minimal and indirect possible endorsement of a liberal constitution.  Kierkegaard does not even refer to the 1849 constitution in this text finished on the nineteenth of May 1849 (Kierkegaard 1998b, xxv), just before the constitution was signed by the King on the fifth of June.  Frederick VII conceded that the monarchy would become limited by a constitution in February 1848, and the  1849 constitution was the results of the deliberations of a constitutional assembly appointed afterwards. Maybe it is mere coincidence that Kierkegaard wrote about contracts days before the Constitution came into force, but it is a particularly propitious coincidence if so. The idea that the state and its laws is based on contract goes back to Hobbes, who was referring to a covenant to establish the sovereign, itself following up on Grotius, and we can keep going back in the history of philosophy and political thought to find precedents. We can take from this passage in Kierkegaard, the idea that political contracts have to be revised to adapt to the imperfect nature of humans. The first contract may have been the best one, but it had to be surpassed to adapt to deceptive and dishonest behaviour. Change is inevitable and law, therefore presumably constitutions, both become better and worse over time. Better because more resistant to dishonest, but worse because lacking in the original simplicity.  Extrapolating further, early constitutions may give power to kings, but their simplicity must later give way to the complexity of a contract, or constitution, designed by representative institutions. Kierkegaard’s liking for original simplicity connects him with both the monarchism of Humboldt and the republicanism of Montesquieu and Rousseau.  As we have already seen, in The Limits of State Action (1993, 39-40), Humboldt states a preference for the simplicity of royal government, the choice of early free people which avoids the multitude of demands for state action which follow from other governmental regimes, as the monarchy clearly only serves in the functions of army commander and chief judge. For  Montesquieu, simple democratic republics in which there is little inequality, and laws are indistinguishable from customs, have an elevated role, though that is certainly not the end of his discussion of liberty (The Spirit of the Laws, Part 1). For Rousseau, the ideal republic will be simple, poor and equal, and laws will be accepted as part of customs (Social Contract, II.12). Rousseau accepts that modern states are mostly larger in territory, and more complex in function. Hume had argued that the original contract completely disappears in history, so we are constrained by general respect for laws and political institutions and the recognition that they are generally beneficial (‘Of the Original Contract’ in Hume 1987). Applying Kierkegaard’s argument in context, we can say that political systems which have more laws and more representation are worse than pure kingship, but necessary as more functional in the face of human limitations

Kierkegaard on Politics, posting extracts from my new book IV

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.


Kierkegaard on Politics, posting extracts from my new book III

Kierkegaard on Politics (Palgrave 2014, ISBN 97811337372314) Extract from Chapter 2 ‘Tarquinius and Brutus: Political Fear and Trembling’. This is the very end of the chapter, the concluding section ‘The political meaning of fear and trembling’ together with a few preceding paragraphs. It tends to be easy when extracting to take the end of chapters, but I am not doing that in an automatic way I went through the chapter to see what might work best as an isolated excerpt and will do so for subsequent chapters.

Kierkegaard is certainly concerned with death and the attempt to overcome death, which from his Christian point of view is part of the struggle with sin, because it is the original sin which led humans to face death. Obedience to God also means that we have to contemplate the possibility of taking the lives of others, if God so commands. As the sermon which finishes Either/Or, the ‘Utimatum’ suggests, we cannot question God’s acts in bringing mass death in some passages of the Bible.  That is the central problem of Fear and Trembling, applied to a father commanded to kill his own son.  The problem for ethics, including politics, is that it cannot deal with these issues, without going beyond the terms of ethics strictly speaking. There is no ethical term which can explain why we should obey God, which in part means obeying our own subjectivity in its absolute relation with the absolute; and there is no ethical term which explains why we should follow ethical laws, leaving us to refer to our power of choice, which means our subjectivity, and that is real subjectivity in its absolute relation with the absolute. War has the same function within ethics as politics, inescapable but disruptive as part of politics. Killing people in war is necessary to defend the political community, or at least the willingness to carry out such acts, but can never be justified by justificatory political concepts alone. Principled pacifism is one reaction to that, it is a reaction which necessarily reduces the scope of politics, of the decisions the political community makes, and fits best with anti-political moral absolutism.

What unifies all these discussions of law, sovereignty, the state and war, is an interest in the moments where consensus and consent breaks down, or has not even appeared yet. Laws conflict, individuals confront each other outside the context of established laws and institutions, individuals refuse to accept the authority of established laws and institutions, revolutionary governments try to implement ideals, law following people observe revolutions in other countries that try to implement their own values, states take it upon themselves to go to war and therefore oblige citizens to sacrifice themselves in war. These are all moments where the idea that the state, political institutions, and laws are based on rationality, consent and on social consensus come under strain. Kant, Fichte, Humboldt, and Hegel are all concerned to give the state, political institutions and laws normative foundations.  Unlike what goes on in ‘normative theory’, i.e. Analytic political philosophy now, they feel obliged to deal with the difficult moments, with the moments where individuals are faced with the naked capacity for arbitrary violence at the heart of the state, or the arbitrary violence of individuals who have different norms. There is a recognition in Kant, Fichte, Humboldt  and Hegel, shared by Kierkegaard, that the norms at the basis of the political community are never completely consensual, are never completely consented to by those are under that state.  That is why Kierkegaard can make such a powerful analogy between the arbitrary violence of a king, and the arbitrary violence of God, or the individual who takes individuality, and the subjectivity of the distinct individual seriously.  There is no law, or norms, of any kind without the moment of choice, that is arbitrariness; and without the capacity to defend and enforce those choices, that is the necessary possibility of violence.

Returning to the quotation at the head of the chapter, Kierkegaard accepts the supremacy of existing political order, though it is significant that he feels the need to distinguish himself from those most radically in opposition to the government.  Presumably Kierkegaard found that his devotion to the single individual over conformity to existing ethical standards made him of interest to radical opponents of government. He did have that kind of effect in Denmark and his funeral is a good example. Kierkegaard who claims devotion to established political order refused the services of an established church priest, during his death struggle. The funeral service was attended by those who wished to make an oppositional gesture, including his nephew, who made a speech protesting at the involvement of the established church.  Kierkegaard rejected the transformation of his thought into political opposition, but was himself well known for criticism of the established church, including two succeeding primates of the Danish national church (Mynster and Martensen). The criticism of the crowd is one way in which Kierkegaard separates himself from organised radical politics. That raises the question of how far we can take Kierkegaard as apolitical conservative and how far as the radical creator of a form of individualism and anti-conformism which must be corrosive in relation to any religious and political order. Kierkegaard accepts order but has an unsettling sense of the violence which inhere in the preservation of order. That is something he is conscious of in monarchical authority (Tarquin) and the republican order (Brutus), even if it did originate in revolt against an older order.  The hope he expresses in Point of View for an establishment devoted to promoting good can have a very radical outcome.  Any government is open to criticism on the grounds that public good is sacrificed to the private benefits of people in government, individuals close to the government, and parts of society from which the government seeks support.  Kierkegaard wishes to be associated with political conformism, but his view of the single individual, his understanding of the dark side of power, and his questioning of authority all point towards a politics of radical individualistic non-conformism.


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.

Kierkegaard on Politics, my author copies have arrived, posting extracts. I

The author copies of my new short monograph Kierkegaard on Politics (Palgrave 2014, ISBN 97811337372314) arrived in my department at Istanbul Technical University yesterday. It went into print in November last year, but the author copies were held up in customs at Istanbul’s Atatürk airport. In order to commemorate the happy event in which an author gets to hold the physical product of his work for the first time, I’m posting a few extracts over the next few days. Firstly today the Introduction (part I), which can also be read through Amazon’s ‘look inside’ feature. After that the Introduction part II, followed by one extract from each chapter, day by day. After that I will finish with a post on where I might go with the ideas developed in the book  in later work. 

So read on for the approximate first half of the Introduction 

This book addresses political thought in a writer who was not attempting to make a contribution to political thought. Such a seemingly perverse enterprise is justified, and necessary, because political thought does not only exist in texts explicitly devoted to expounding a position in political theory. For example, understanding of political thought is clearly enhanced by knowledge of Homer, Greek tragedy, Shakespearean tragedy and the masterpieces of the ‘realist’ nineteenth century novel. This arbitrary list, which is by no means a complete selection, refers us to literary works which give an archaic view of kingship, a classical antique view of law and monarchy, a Renaissance view of government and  tyranny, and some more recent explorations of individual freedom and democracy. We can imagine someone engaging in political theory without knowledge of literature, but that theorist would have lost a lot in terms of understanding the different possibilities of thinking about politics. 

Equally the more epistemological and metaphysical parts of philosophy may use, or even depend on political ideas. Descartes partly explains the benefits of his attempt to reconstruct philosophy from first principles, in Discourse on Method 2 as like the creation of the best possible state through the laws of a single wise legislator, so that laws have a unified end(Descartes 1968, 36). In ‘Discourse on Metaphysics’ 36, Leibniz compares the metaphysical relation of God to the world with that of a Prince to his people in a law governed state (Leibniz 1998, 88-89). John Stuart Mill thought that knowledge benefits from the liberty of speech in general, in On Liberty 2 ‘Of the liberty of thought and discussion,’ and liberty is partly justified by that benefit (Mill 1991 52). Kant sets up his Critique of Pure Reason, in the Preface to the first edition, with reference to the model of government through law, as opposed to despotism or anarchy (Kant 1997, 99-100/Prussian Academy Edition A IX).  

One indirect, but significant, justification for thinking about Kierkegaard as a political thinker is then that he was a literary writer and narrative literature at least contains a good deal of material of political and social interest, by virtue of representing action over time in a properly formed social world. That argument is only going to have limited force if there is some more direct political content to Kierkegaard’s writing, whether taking him both as a literary and philosophical figure, and there is in two senses. One sense is that on occasion political issues are at the centre of his writing; the other sense is that  much of what Kierkegaard writes has  distinctly political implications. We can look at Kierkegaard as a political thinker in his literary and philosophical aspect; and taking into account  both explicit and implicit meanings. That is the program for the present book. 

It is not only that the literary nature of Kierkegaard’s writing suggests that we look for political thought there in the way we do for literary fiction, but also his philosophical discussions of literature which suggests that we look for implicit views about politics. Either/Or [Enten-Eller], Repetition [Gjentagelsen] and Stages on Life’s Way [Stadier paa Livets Vei] provide good examples of the former aspect; Either/Or also provides good examples of the second aspect as does The Concept of Irony [Om Begrebet Ironi]. The major example of Kierkegaard as political thinker through discussion of literature take place in his discussion of tragedy, a literary genre very directly engaged with political issues of law, kingship, justice, power, and tyranny; and his discussion of Romantic Irony, which touches on the politics of Romanticism. There is another way in which politics enters into Kierkegaard’s thought, in relation to the religious aspect of his writing. That is the role of God in Kierkegaard, which is clearly a major theme for this deeply Christian thinker, though it is not the constant object of direct attention. The idea of God and the idea of government have always been intertwined. The Leibniz reference above is an illustration of a connection that has always been made. The idea of just rule of the other world, or of the universe of the whole is never going to be completely separable from the idea of the just rule of a state in this world. Divine and secular governance can never be completely distinguished, and the idea of divine governance is a frequent point of reference for Kierkegaard, though most obviously from how it I distinct from political power rather than the long tradition of seeing a model.