Kierkegaard’s Subjectivity and Foucault’s Style of Life-Juridification Distinction

My latest post at the New APPS group blog

Continuing from my last post on ‘Style of Living versus Juridification in Foucault’, there seems to be me to be something to be gained by thinking about Kierkegaard’s ethics here, even if Kierkegaard’s Christianity and Foucault’s aesthetic self seem rather distinct. The emphasis in Foucault on style or aesthetics of life or existence seems to be be already the object of criticism, in Kierkegaard’s account of the aesthetic (as a mode of life rather than with regard to the appreciation of art and beauty). However, Foucault does refer on occasion to the self as acting on itself in Kierkegaard. So Kierkegaard has a particular importance in suggesting that the self is not just an observing consciousness.

Kierkegaard’s attitude to the self , and modes of living, is in some degree structured by an understanding of the relation between individuality and the state as a political entity. It is an understanding that draws on Hegel, but which tries to resist what Kierkegaard takes to be an absorption of the self into history and communal morality in Hegel’s philosophy. That continuation of aspects of Hegel includes a distinction between antique and modern communities, which itself draws on an enormous amount of earlier thought going back to the Renaissance regarding the distinction between antiquity and the present. [Read on here]



Philosophy of the Novel IV: Romantic Irony and Kierkegaard

(Summary of a research project unlikely to be realised in the form articulated, but which is guiding current projects. For earlier posts in this series, see posts of October 3rd and  27th August)

In Concept of Irony, Kierkegaard considered irony in the Jena Romantic/Romantic Ironist group which gathered briefly in 1798 and 99, and which published some of their work in the Atheneum journal.Kierkegaard analyses their literary and philosophical production as the outcome of Fichte’s philosophy in the first two editions of the Science of Knowledge (1794), leading us back to the aesthetic significance of German Idealism. Kierkegaard looks at the way that the Fichean ego appears in Irony, in endless reflections and shifts of perspective.

Romanticism marks an elevation of the aesthetic. The emergence of art an autonomous realm culminates in its elevation into the realm of autonomy where the freedom of imagination enables an act of pure creation. The rise of Romantic aesthetics coincides with the elevation of ethics in philosophical legislation, where the laws of ethics reveal the essence of philosophy as legislation.  Aesthetics becomes the absolute expression of freedom, legislating for itself; ethics became the absolute expression law legislating for freedom.

In the Romantic urge for aesthetic absolutism, there is the urge to find the absolute source of law; in the law’s urge for the ethical absolute, there is the urge to establish a realm of freedom where individuals have autonomy and can legislate for themselves. There is a strong complicity between these positions, which Kierkegaard gives form to in his remarks on Fichte in The Concept of Irony, which demonstrate how Romantic aestheticism arises This is the way that Kierkegaard writes in Either/Or and his life of writing is of using different styles and perspectives, even in his more ‘direct’ Christian discourses.

In The Concept of Irony, Kierkegaard criticises the ironists for destroying the strength of the self, which is the subjective origin of irony. In Concept of Irony, Kierkegaard also expresses some support for Hegel on the question of irony.  Kierkegaard’s positive account of Hegel in Concept of Irony is in contrast with his later tendency to take Hegel as the main object of criticism. Kierkegaard both depends on Hegel’s analyses and moves on from them, and we can this in The Concept of Irony as Kierkegaard develops a position, which accepts to some degree Hegel claim that Roman Irony tends to dissolve reality, including the reality of the subject that ironises, but maintains a position in which Romantic Irony has some continuity with the philosophical achievements of Socrates who was the first great hero of irony.

There is wish to avoid the absolute ‘historicism’ in Hegel, so absolute that the absolute take over from the historicism, and allow for a tension between subjectivity and the collective forms of spirit which Hegel with all his awareness of conflict and paradox, sees as able to absorb subjectivity, so that anything left over is negative, even ‘evil’. Kierkegaard’s own more aesthetic texts, particularly his narratives, Either/Or, Repetition and Stages on Life’s Way, themselves serve to show and alternative to Hegel and to show the philosophical and religious possibilities of the novel. He puts into practice more successfully than the Romantic Ironists argued for with regard to the fusion of poetry and philosophy in the novel, while exploring the problems he found in an idea of absolute romanticism, an idea that there can be a self-producing imagination without limit, unrestrained by anything external. There are forms of absolute we encounter in our subjectivity and in the foundations of that subjectivity for Kierkegaard, and the exploration of that brings him into exercises in novelistic form, which illuminate the nature of the genre.

Kierkegaard, Irony, Narrative, and the Ethics of Literature

My latest post at the group blog NewAPPS

This is in part a followup to a post from two weeks ago on irony. Irony is the object of Kierkegaard’s first major work, The Concept of Irony, and then disappears from view as a direct object of discussion in Kierkegaard’s writings. That is not to say that irony disappears from Kierkegaard, but the criticisms of Romantic Irony in The Concept of Irony give an indication of why Kierkegaard did not want to take irony as a maor theme, which is that the Romantic understanding (referring to the Jena Romantics in the last few years of the 18th century)

of irony leads towards a self-destructive subjectivity. The irony cannot be understood as just belonging in literary texts, including Socratic dialogues, but must be thought of as the way in which the subject communicates itself. As a matter of the history of ideas, this is to some degree a reference to the way that the Romantic Ironists were drawing on Fichte’s ideas of subjectivity in the first two editions of the Wissenschaftslehre (often, but misleadingly, known in English as The Science of Knowledge).

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Notes on the History of Irony, my latest post at the group blog, New APPS

Recent research has led me to look at the role of irony in aesthetics and philosophy. My interest was most immediately stimulated by section 408 of Vico’s New Science, which seems to me to point towards the role of irony and literary aesthetics in the Jena Romantics and Kierkegaard. Vico does so by referring to the simultaneous emergence of philosophical reflection and consciousness of irony in the Athens of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

The idea of irony is not directly addressed much by Vico, but his approach needs to be grasped to understand his full argument about the significance of the ‘persona’ as object of Roman law (that is the creation of a personality in law distinct from ‘life’ personality). The reading great significance into brief passages of Vico in terms of his overall argument and the resonance of his work with later thought, is inevitable given the nature of his argumentation and the structural oddities of the New Science.

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Foucault’s lectures on Subjectivity and Truth, I.1.

I will be summarising and commenting on the most recently published of Michel Foucault’s lecture series at the Collège de France, on subjectivity and truth (Subjectivité et Vérité. Cours au Collège de France, 1980-1981. Eds. François Ewald, Allesandro Fontana and Frédéric Gros. Paris: Seuil/Gallimard, 2014). As with the series I’ve just finished on the punitive society, I will proceed lecture by lecture, with two posts for lectures I find stimulate the most elucidation and commentary. That is the case for the first lecture.

Lecture of 7th January 1981
Foucault begins with a discussion of texts with passages on elephants, which refer to their supposed sexual restraint and marital devotion. At this point he does seem like a thinker invented by Borges, the French philosopher who introduces discussion of truth, subjectivity and is it turns out sexuality and desire, with elephant fables. This may not be an accident, Foucault brings Borges into the opening of The Order of Things and may be engaged in a deliberate self-parody and parody of Borges here. In any case it is entertaining to think about this.

He first refers to an early seventeenth century devotional text by François de Sales, bishop and saint. Sales seeks lessons for humans from nature, including the example given by the elephant in marriage. Te make elephant purifies himself in a river after sex, before returning to the herd. Foucault describes this as making the elephant an emblem of good conjugal conduct. The word he uses ‘blazon’ (blason in French, which is the original English spelling) has heraldic overtones.

In the New Science of Giambattista Vico, which Foucault occasionally refers to elsewhere, but not in these lectures, the word is used on three accessions in the form of ‘blazonry’ (paragraph 28), ‘blazoning’ (paragraph 542) and ‘blazonings’ (paragraph 930). It refers to heraldic, or linked marks of aristocracy, which Vico associates with the first aristocratic-heroic age he believes is represented in Homer, and as an institution lasts into the city state eras in Greece and Rome, when they were characterised by aristocratic domination. Vico believes that age was repeated in the period of aristocratic-knightly domination in the Middle Ages, where there is a return of aristocratic blazons. This may be stretching the interpretative significance of the lecture, but Foucault might be in some part inspired by Vico in thinking of the importance of visual image communication in some stages of thought and social order.

The discussion of elephants in this lecture appears in the ‘Introduction’ to History of Sexuality II, The Use of Pleasure, but much compressed and with reference to blazoning. Anyway, Foucault goes on to find some similar comments on the chastity of the elephant in the writings of a naturalist, Ulisse Aldrovandi, contemporary with Sales. In the eighteenth century, the naturalist Georges Bouffon has a favourable moralising way of writing about elephants s having social virtues that are a model for human society. He emphasises the intensity of the pleasure of the sexual act for the elephant linked with the secrecy in which it performs this act, which is different from Sales and Aldrovandi, but still connotes the elephant with modesty and restraint.

This interest in the modesty of the elephant does not come from the ethical rigour of the Reformation or Counter-Reformation, or the formation of modern conjugality. It has ancient sources. There are various versions in the Middle Ages, including comments by the theologian Albert the Great and a bestiary known as Physiologus, which goes back to the fourth century, so late antiquity. The latter text emerges from allegorical Christian versions of the attributes given to animals in pagan science, as in Pliny (presumably Pliny the Elder).

The discussion of the elephant goes back to Aristotle’s History of Animals, which gives human attributes of intelligence to the elephant and a sexual reserve, so that supposedly the male elephant does not have sexual relations with his ‘wife’ while she is pregnant. References to elephants are rare before Aristotle, partly because they became better known to Greeks after the conquests of Alexander the Great. The deeper reason though is that before Aristotle, Greek culture might draw a moral lesson from animal behaviour (presumably as continued in Aesop), there was no idea of a systematic reading of nature for moral lessons.

This is also implicitly at least a bit Viconian, the increasing abstraction of ancient Greek throughout moving from imaginative universals in poetry to abstract universals in philosophy. The idea of a permanent lessons for human conduct in nature rests on two conditions. Nature must be considered as ruled by a global and coherent rationality. There must be a general government in nature that is everywhere and is permanent, in which nature is traversed by rationality. In this way of thinking human reason and virtue rests on obeying the laws of nature as well as the laws of the city. Foucault suggests this is at the core of Stoicism.

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.