Kierkegaard Exposition & Critique

  • Oxford University Press
  • Date of publication: 25 April 2013; USA 4 June 2013
  • ISBN: 978-0-19-967323-0
  • 320 pages

Kierkegaard: Exposition & Critique was launched at Blackwell's Bookshop on Broad Street in Oxford, on the 18th of April 2013.

Cover image of Kierkegaard: Exposition & Critique by Daphne Hampson

The book should be:

  • Profoundly useful to students in that it explicates complex texts carefully
  • Comprehensible to an educated public providing a general introduction
  • Of considerable interest to scholars in setting Kierkegaard in his Lutheran context
  • Stimulating to all kinds of people for the provocative questions that it poses

It should be appreciated that a synopsis of what is a 320-page text is necessarily an over-simplification of the book. Nevertheless it should serve to give a sense of the eclectic nature Kierkegaard’s authorship and of the range of questions up for consideration in this book.

Genesis and Aims of the book

Having been interested in Kierkegaard for some years, I first read these texts in 1971 as a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School. Subsequently I taught them to students at the universities of Stirling, St Andrews and most recently Oxford. Difficult they may be, but also fascinating. The bicentenary of Kierkegaard’s birth, falling on 5 May 2013, seemed the ideal time to launch a book aiming to enable the serious reader to tackle them. I keep quite closely to Kierkegaard’s text, setting the works in their philosophical and historical context. I then proceed to carry on a running debate with Kierkegaard, over matters theological, ethical and political. Hence the subtitle: ‘Exposition & Critique’. I believe that Kierkegaard enables us the better to consider many matters of import, whether the viability of Christianity or the nature of the relation of the self to God. He is also a delight to read.


Introduction: Why Read Kierkegaard? – and what of this present book?

Kierkegaard has much to say of interest in many spheres. But his pre-eminent merit is that, better than any other author of whom I am aware, he makes evident the challenge that modernity represents to Christian claims, recasting how Christianity must present itself in the light of this. As one probes deeper however one comes to recognise that, though he contended that faith was always held to in the face of reason, he himself held presuppositions that are decidedly pre-modern, and which served to support what he believed. It is peculiarly fascinating that one who lived so recently could think so differently from we today.

What does it mean to consider questions of truth and ethics in relation to the thought of a past thinker? It must always be a one-sided dialogue. Nor is it – as Kierkegaard himself queried, quoting Hamann – that the dead come back as posterity. There is fundamental change, not least on account of our knowledge of scientific reality. Though the past may be intelligible, one can never quite stand in its shoes. Again, in the field of ethics we have new biological knowledge, for example as to the relation between the sexes. Kierkegaard, likewise, cannot simply go back to Luther, the latter lacking post-Enlightenment sensibilities.

The chapter considers why the choice of Kierkegaard, in many ways a conservative thinker, as one in relation to whose thought to ask quite fundamental questions. It further speaks of the stature of his writing, its different modes and moods, his use of pseudonymity, and the variety of texts grappled with in this book. Behind this authorship lay a very human life, one lived to the full, with exuberance, if also melancholy.

Chapter 1: Kierkegaard’s Intellectual Context

The chapter aims to enable those with less background in Continental philosophy to get on board. It also elucidates the structure of Lutheran thought, so little known and so vital for comprehending Kierkegaard. A good way to read Kierkegaard is to say that he translated the structure of Lutheran thought into an epistemological sphere, drawing out its implications beyond what it had occurred to the sixteenth century Reformers to do, that he might respond to the import of the Enlightenment for Christian claims. But in proclaiming faith in the face of reason one might well ask whether he did not build a castle in the air (something of which he accused Hegel), lacking any foundation in the thought of modernity.

The chapter discusses Kant’s philosophy; Hegel; and the eighteenth century background in Leibniz and Lessing, such that a disjuncture had opened up between a truth held to be absolute (God) and historical ‘truths’. With Kant’s Religion (1793) the question was posed as to whether Christianity was not a myth that ‘carried’ human truths, a question which led in the 1840s to Feuerbach’s contention that it was a projection to be overcome. Schleiermacher’s inspired attempt to find a new way forward floundered on the lack of particularity given to Christ. The 1830s saw the further challenge of Strauss’ Life of Jesus and the rise of biblical historical criticism. It was a prescient moment that Kierkegaard came on the scene.

Kierkegaard’s discovery of Hamann gave him the key he needed: faith is incompatible with philosophy. The chapter moves into a discussion of Lutheran thought which, unlike the ‘linear’ structure of Catholicism, is built around a dialectic. Faith consists in a ‘transfer of centre of gravity’ to God, while sin is the staking out of a self-enclosed independence (whereas the creature should be dependent on the Creator). The relationship to God is always prior, constituting the self, this leading in turn to the relation to the world and to the neighbour.

Finally the chapter discusses our present-day presupposition that nature and history form an inter-related causal nexus, such that there is regularity to nature and a repeatability of that which is possible (not a determinist notion). Thus, whether or not Caesar crossed the Rubicon, it is thinkable that he should have done so. A good definition of Christianity is, by contrast, that Christians believe a uniqueness to have occurred in the Christ event, such that Christianity is what has been called a ‘historical’ religion, a faith based on the ‘scandal’ of a claim to a particularity having occurred in history.

Chapter 2: Fear and Trembling

The book concerns in the first instance the nature of faith. Grasping their incompatibility, Kant had opted for human moral responsibility rather than the potential heteronomy intrinsic to the claims of religion. Meanwhile Hegel had subsumed Christianity within culture, its scandal becoming lost. Considering the akedah (Gen. 22, where in response to God’s command Abraham binds Isaac, thinking to slaughter him), Kierkegaard differentiates this stance from that of the tragic hero Agamemnon, who thinks to sacrifice his daughter that the fleet might sail to Troy. Agamemnon remains within the bounds of comprehension, acting for what he considers the greater good. Abraham must pursue alone the path that winds higher (obedience to God); the (Kantian) ethical universal being suspended in view of a higher telos. The wildness, unpredictability and ‘otherness’ of such a conception of God is deeply Hebraic, and again Lutheran. One could say Kierkegaard is attempting to open up a world that (with Hegel) has become closed to transcendence. But the question that confronts us is what kind of a God this is; moreover whether this is the only way to give the space to the individual that, in view of Hegel’s cramped world that demands conformity, Kierkegaard desires.

Chapter 3: Philosophical Fragments

The importance of this text is scarcely to be exaggerated. Kierkegaard throws down a gauntlet in the face of Hegel and the Enlightenment. He sets up a position ‘A’ (which had better not have been called ‘A’ until the possibility of any other had been spoken of). This is Socratic: all is already given to humanity, present with the world or known through the human self (Socrates believed in recollection). One can well extend this beyond idealism; an Einstein on a desert island could discover empirical facts and think out mathematics and ethics. What, Kierkegaard asks, would it be to say something other; which escapes these categories? It would be to say that the truth is given in time (the claim to a historical particularity); the teacher a Teacher who is himself ‘the God’. He may perform a miracle to alert the contemporary, but it is left to him what he will choose; there is no way in which one could prove that the eternal (something other than the historical) is existing in time. In relation to such an ‘event’ the present-day disciple stands in the same position as does the contemporary. The problem with this, if it is an apologia for Christian claims, is the lack of recognition that the Chalcedonian statement of faith (that Christ was in one entity God and human) came about over time within history; indeed was differently nuanced then than it is now, given it was born in a world of ‘real universals’, whereas now Christ becomes an oddity. Kierkegaard will not face but rather evades biblical historical criticism. He advances a strange argument, as though all ‘change’ were ab initio, failing to recognise that after Newton/Hume/Kant we know of regularity and predictability within a causal nexus. Rather does he apparently think in terms of ‘figuralism’, whereby God in working his purposes out intervenes in history in an ever-increasing crescendo; something often recognised about Kierkegaard’s position.

Chapter 4: The Concept Angst

This mysterious text which would appear to plumb the depths, but which many a reader has found beyond comprehension, is in fact explicable. Kierkegaard tries to find a way between the Scylla of Kant’s position, whereby the human is fully imputable for his or her sin, and the Charybdis of the seeming determinism of a belief that hereditary sin passed down from Adam through the generations. For Kierkegaard ‘Adam’ is both himself and the race (each one of us). Living in the 1840s, he cannot but have been aware of the widespread cognisance of evolution, though (pre-Darwin) not the mechanism of its operation. It is unfortunate that, perhaps reluctant to abandon biblical witness, he casts his recognition of the social dimension of sin (should we be tough on crime or, rather, on the causes of crime) in terms of a historical ‘Fall’. But the book is chiefly remarkable (having an impact far beyond Christian circles) for the way in which Kierkegaard delineates the freedom, yet un-freedom, in which, not predetermined to fall, we do not however consciously choose to do so. Angst is likened to a dizziness in which freedom succumbs. The book is predicated on an incipient definition of what it is to be a self (fully developed in Sickness Unto Death). The self is a synthesis, one that can only be in the moment as the person has faith in God (the Lutheran presupposition). There is thus in this text a fascinating discussion of ‘time’; such that the self both lives ‘from’ God (or another reality) and is also present in history: the Lutheran simul justus et peccator we may say.

Chapter 5: Love’s Deeds

Central to the dynamic of Lutheran faith is the understanding that, loved by God with an agapeistic love (a love that loves irrespective of the worthiness of that which is loved), we are set free in like manner to love the neighbour. This contrasts with the understanding of love present in the ancient pagan world whereby, whether eros or philia, the other is loved or desired on account of their lovability or perfection. In this beautiful book, a spiritual classic, Kierkegaard rings the changes on this theme, thinking through the implications for human relations and Christian living. But in the course of his discussion he exhibits profoundly conservative views and presuppositions. Willing to accord the dignity to the beggar (who has not much else to bring to an encounter) of exercising consideration for those whom his presence may disturb, he finds this of greater moment than whether the man should live or die. Likewise the cleaning lady should not trouble herself with improving her status, given that this world is but ephemeral and coram deo, before God, all are equal. We are brought up against the extraordinary changes in outlook, not least the possibility of social engineering to improve society, which have taken place since Kierkegaard’s time. But at the same time Kierkegaard’s insights, for example into an encounter between one at fault who is repentant and the other who would give him back his dignity, is remarkable and moving. Some of the hints as to what we might mean by God, who is love itself, in this book are remarkable. 

Chapter 6: Concluding Unscientific Postscript to ‘Philosophical Fragments’

In the ‘Postscript’ to Fragments Kierkegaard, pushing the Lutheran system of thought to a point where it becomes ridiculous (and hilariously funny), so that the book becomes a kind of skit, sending up Hegel, considers what it is to be a human being living in the world with the thought of God (or eternal life). That is to say our human has a double identity. The task is to die away from the world and, more difficult still (as has already been considered in Fear & Trembling), to regain the world while one’s reality lies elsewhere. Since there is no objective proof of the truth of Christianity (as we have seen in Fragments), the Christian, out of his subjectivity, must hold fast to a proposition held to be objectively true. That is to say there is such a thing as the ‘truth’ of one’s disposition – and Kierkegaard is the ur-existentialist. In the case of Christianity there is an added twist: in that that truth to which one holds fast has existed in time, one has a paradoxical relation to one who in himself is a Paradox (the God/human). The book raises an abundance of questions. There are those already considered in relation to Fragments. But furthermore questions arise in relation to a manner of living that involves ‘faith’ (rather than the exercise of ratiocination). Can Kierkegaard rightly be charged with being the progenitor of fascist modes of thought? The question is not easy of adjudication, though it should be noted that he himself hated ‘the mob’ and what he regarded as political fanaticism. Interesting also to consider is that Kierkegaard’s thought bears a very different relation to ‘the future’ than one finds in Hegel, or Marx, where the hope of a changed reality is to be realised within history. The book has been influential for its ‘existentialist’ style of writing and concern for the subjectivity of the individual.

Chapter 7: The Sickness Unto Death

In a complex formula Kierkegaard finds the self to come into its own as, willing to be itself and relating to itself, it consents to find itself in God. Neither of these conditions is prior, or dispensable; a lack of the first results in a ‘feminine’ life of immediacy, of the second to a ‘masculine’ hubris whereby the person makes a wager at self-sufficiency. Either represents ‘sin’, the failure to be the particular self that God made one to be. Kierkegaard acquires his understanding of the self as a dynamic self-relation, formed in relation to what is other than self, from Hegel (and ultimately one might say from Luther); while he challenges Hegel in that for Kierkegaard (as also for Luther) it is only the grounding in that other that is God that allows of human flowering. In the second part of the book Kierkegaard transposes this into a Christian framework, with the effect that anything other than acknowledgement of the ‘truth’ of the Paradox that is Christ ranks as ‘sin’. As within Lutheran faith as a whole, ‘sin’ becomes the opposite of ‘faith’, not of virtue. This may be thought highly problematic as secular (or Catholic) and Kierkegaard’s Lutheran-Christian understandings stand in uneasy juxtaposition. In later work (considered also in conjunction with this book), Kierkegaard develops a remarkable formulaic picture of the self (which I have considered in detail in my Christian Contradictions) whereby the self increasingly comes into its own as it is dawn in love to God.

Chapter 8: Practice in Christianity

The clash between the conception of the nature of the church and the demands of Christian discipleship held on the one hand by Kierkegaard, on the other by Jacob Peter Mynster and Hans Lassen Martensen, in succession Primus of the Danish Church, led during the final months of Kierkegaard’s life to a ‘church struggle’ which caused uproar in Kierkegaard’s society. The issues remain pertinent today. Kierkegaard scholars have one-sidedly supported Kierkegaard, but much is to be said for the broad conception of the church, that shall encompass all the people, held by those who were placed in positions of responsibility for it. Kierkegaard thought their conception unrecognisable as Christianity; a faith for which people had died as martyrs. A consideration of the dispute allows for an intriguing window into Danish society, as people struggled to come to terms with what it meant to be Christian in modernity. As is ever the case, personal animosities were entangled with genuine differences in aspiration. Denmark had undergone a remarkable revolution to constitutional democracy with wide enfranchisement in 1848-49; a revolution which Kierkegaard had judged a disaster, but he now took advantage of freedom of the press to critique his age. In little more than a decade, the young man unsure of his allegiance to the Christian cause had moved to a radical Christian faith as Kierkegaard thinks through the practical implications of his Christology.

Chapter 9: The Point of View for Kierkegaard’s Work as an Author

In his posthumously published The Point of View for my Work as an Author (basically penned in 1848) Kierkegaard contends that, from the start, the authorship had but a religious telos; moreover drawing attention to the importance both politically and theologically of the category of the individual. Yet the authorship certainly develops. I discuss here the masculinist nature of his notion of God, predicated on the human father, his view of woman, his suspicion of the scientific advances of the day (which he thought diverted people’s attention from what mattered, the relationship to God), and his wilful blindness to biblical scholarship. Nevertheless in each of these spheres his position is a nuanced conservatism. Given that he lived subsequent to the upheavals of the Enlightenment and Romanticism, one may ponder what tectonic plates have shifted, such that the majority of (at least) Europeans think quite otherwise than he today, both in social and political matters and also as to what they can believe. Kierkegaard’s legacy has exceeded anything he could have imagined, influencing diverse movements of thought in the twentieth century. That which he himself judged the import of his authorship, to state what Christianity entails, remains germane today.