Kierkegaard, Communication, and Virtue: Authorship as Edification

Kierkegaard, Communication, and Virtue: Authorship as Edification

by Mark A. Tietjen


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In contrast to recent postmodern and deconstructionist readings, Mark A. Tietjen believes that the purpose behind Kierkegaard's writings is the moral and religious improvement of the reader. Tietjen defends Kierkegaard against claims that certain features of his works, such as pseudonymity, indirect communication, irony, and satire are self-deceived or deceitful. Kierkegaard, Communication, and Virtue reveals how they are directly related to the virtues or moral issues being discussed. In fact, Tietjen argues, the manner of presentation is a critical element of the philosophical message being conveyed. Reading broadly in Kierkegaard's writings, he develops a hermeneutics of trust that fully illustrates Kierkegaard's aim to evoke faith in his reader.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253008541
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 06/12/2013
Series: Philosophy of Religion
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Mark A. Tietjen is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at the University of West Georgia.

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Kierkegaard, Communication, and Virtue

Authorship as Edification

By Mark A. Tietjen

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2013 Mark A. Tietjen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-00871-8


Blunt Reading

There is likely to be minimal disagreement over the claim that Kierkegaard's upbuilding discourses and other religious writings like Works of Love and For Self-Examination function to edify the reader. If there is opposition to this claim, the burden rests on those who see other intentions on behalf of the author, and it is not my objective to anticipate such arguments here. More difficult to defend, but much more interesting, is the thesis that the pseudonymous writings share this edifying function. This is not to say that all the pseudonymous authors themselves aim to edify or that taken alone, a particular pseudonymous book is intended this way, but rather that Kierkegaard, through the pseudonyms, works toward this end.

In this chapter I will turn to the work of Roger Poole, whose primary interest is Kierkegaard's pseudonymous authorship. Poole's interpretation of the pseudonymous literature and his correlative advice for reading it represent the view of a growing number of scholars who approach Kierkegaard's writings primarily from a literary perspective. Central to Poole's reading is the idea that the views found in the pseudonymous literature are ultimately "undecidable" and that one cannot justly discern a common theme or purpose on the part of Kierkegaard. As Pattison puts it, "Roger Poole has asserted that Kierkegaard's multiple pseudonyms are fundamentally distinct voices whose various points of view cannot be harmonised but, following Kierkegaard's own stated 'wish' and 'prayer,' must be kept forever apart." Entailed by Poole's position (and claimed explicitly, although in a more caustic way) is that readings that affirm edifying interests on the part of Kierkegaard are misguided. Poole seems closed to the possibility that one might address seriously the pseudonymous texts in ways that credit the ethical, religious, edifying, and clarifying aims many commentators see in the authorship.

In the end I do not believe Poole's reading is successful. In fact, his reasoning rests largely on a false dilemma: either take seriously Kierkegaard's use of indirect communication, commonly taken to include devices such as irony and pseudonymity, or read him "on religious grounds," as edifying or as having a serious message to convey through the pseudonyms. Poole claims that those who look for edifying purpose in Kierkegaard's pseudonymous literature read him bluntly, though in the end I contend that it is Poole's reading that is blunt given its narrow understanding of what constitutes an indirect communication. I will present my own understanding of indirect communication in chapter 3, where I review Kierkegaard's lectures on communication.

Poole on Kierkegaard's Reasons for Writing

In the introduction I claimed that an important way Kierkegaard seeks to edify his reader is through conceptual clarification. We saw how both Kierkegaard and his pseudonyms express frustration over the pervasive misunderstanding and misuse of moral and religious terminology—especially concepts central to Christianity. The pseudonym Johannes Climacus diagnoses his age as one where "it is very easy to confuse everything in a confusion of language, where estheticians use the most decisive Christian-religious categories in brilliant remarks, and pastors use them thoughtlessly as officialese that is indifferent to content" (CUP, 269). Accordingly, Kierkegaard (and Climacus) seeks to make clear what such concepts mean—to draw important distinctions between, for instance, the Christianity of the New Testament and that reflected in Christendom.

Despite such textual support for Kierkegaard's and his pseudonyms' interest in clarifying moral and religious terminology, Poole argues that Kierkegaard is doing no such thing. Poole insists that one cannot expect to find a "clear position," a "definite result," "'his' position," or "final 'closure' on the matter of 'his' meaning." According to Poole, "Kierkegaard writes text after text whose aim is not to state a truth, not to clarify an issue, not to propose a definite doctrine, not to offer some "meaning" that could be directly appropriated." Speaking of the aesthetic (i.e., pseudonymous) works from Either/Or to Stages on Life's Way Poole continues this line of thought: "the aesthetic stream has as its purpose not to deliver a univocal communicatum. The aim of the aesthetic texts is not to instruct, or to inform, or to clarify, but on the contrary to divert, to subvert, and to destroy clear biographical intelligibility."

These claims raise the following question: why would Kierkegaard go to the lengths he does if he did not have some serious interest in the concepts he addressed? For example, what would be the point of the six-hundred-page "postscript" published shortly after Stages? Surely the comic effect of publishing a postscript considerably longer than the original would have come through in three hundred pages? What would motivate one to go on and on about the different sorts of religious pathos in such depth as Kierkegaard does through his pseudonym Johannes Climacus? Poole offers two reasons. The first pertains to a desire on the part of Kierkegaard to lure his reader alongside himself into an inescapable labyrinth: "The reader has to be gathered in as a potential ally, seduced and intrigued by the typographical and rhetorical waylayings of the text, and then involved in a kind of detective work, up to that point where (under ideal conditions) there is no unadorned instruction or doctrine or objective fact to be had, but onlythe mutually shared experience of perplexity." In his pseudonymous writings up to Postscript, Kierkegaard invites, or perhaps manipulates, his reader into trying to assemble along with himself a very complex puzzle; only, as it turns out, not all the pieces are available to the reader, if they exist at all. What would possess Kierkegaard to undertake such a project, especially given his knack for philosophical rigor, not just literary brilliance?

Poole offers a second reason: Kierkegaard's own whim. Concurrent with the early pseudonymous writings, Kierkegaard publishes upbuilding religious writings in his own name. Poole believes that a proper understanding of the relation between the two sets of writings is one characterized by the sort of perplexity noted above. Upon completing "the first authorship" (i.e., both pseudonymous and upbuilding writings up to 1846), Kierkegaard, according to Poole, sits back and smirks to himself: "He has concluded this whole literary campaign for his own amusement, to keep bitterness or bile at bay, and he has indeed achieved just that. The indirect communication had been a pleasure to set up, a pleasure to work with, and was now a pleasure to conclude." Poole's characterization of Kierkegaard likens him to the reflective aesthete of Either/Or I. He is a seducer whose object of amusement is not a particular young woman, however, but all of Copenhagen. To put Poole's position in Kierkegaardian terms, Kierkegaard is engaged in much jest at the expense of earnestness.

Prior to fleshing out Poole's arguments in detail, I want to voice two initial reservations with this approach. The first is based on Poole's emphasis of Kierkegaardian jest over earnestness. This position follows from his conviction that a "responsible reading" of Kierkegaard is one that proceeds first and foremost from a particular kind of literary perspective. Such an approach makes much of Kierkegaard's play, his form and style, and much less of Kierkegaard's message, the content of his philosophical or existential argument, what he seems serious about. In Practice in Christianity, the pseudonym Anti-Climacus compares one form of indirect communication to a knot of jest and earnestness. Such indirect communication requires one to untie this knot by oneself if one hopes to receive the communication's message. The intention of the indirect communication—which is composed of both jest and earnestness—is not endless play with the knot, just as the intention of the Rubik's cube—contrary to my own experience—is not endless play. Rather, the intention is to work on the problem of the knot, to struggle with it, and eventually to untie it and, in accomplishing this, receive the message of the indirect communication, albeit in a particular (playful) way. Poole's account, however, fails to take into consideration the apparent earnest intention of the indirect communication suggested in this particular text and others.

My second reservation pertains to a sort of contradiction inherent in Poole's advice about how to read Kierkegaard. On the one hand, Poole writes as though he wants to appeal to the everyday reader who picks up Fear and Trembling at the local bookstore. He offers the relieving thought that "learning and erudition" are not required of Kierkegaard's reader. He writes, "meaning will not be found by an act of intellectual virtuosity, but by an act of courage, undertaken by 'that individual.'" But what Poole says differs from what he does throughout his writings, where he explores in laudable detail the literary intricacies and subtleties that, he reminds us, even Kierkegaard's educated contemporaries did not understand. The postmodern lens through which he reads is hardly something one gains without "learning and erudition." In Kierkegaard: The Indirect Communication, he writes:

A naïve reading of a pseudonymous text believes that it has found the truth when the various original characters and events can be detached from their fictional guise and restored to the world of public intelligibility. And that was the reading that Kierkegaard got in his lifetime.

We today, having read Derrida and de Man, can see that Kierkegaard has crammed his text with such devices as supplément and différance to such an extent indeed that they can clearly have no other aim than that of creating a series of aporias.

In this sort of statement there is neither hint nor suggestion that Poole's intended audience is someone without "learning and erudition." It is undoubtedly admirable to have interest in assisting the everyday reader who picks up one of Kierkegaard's texts; however, Poole's deconstructionist assumptions are hardly available to the everyday reader.

Clearly Kierkegaard did not downgrade his level of writing to the lowest common denominator. However, I think it is reasonable to believe he did intend for his writings to be understood. What I would call Poole's "dominant literary approach" fails to acknowledge that literary acumen is not what Kierkegaard requires or hopes for from his reader but instead someone with enough earnestness—note that this is an ethical and religious category—to wrestle with the knot Kierkegaard has tied and, in doing so, to come to a realization of some truth or message that, for whatever reason, Kierkegaard sought to communicate indirectly. This does not entail that one must deny or ignore the jest. As the pseudonym Quidam writes in Stages on Life's Way: "true earnestness is the unity of jest and earnestness" (SLW, 365).

Poole's Charge of Blunt Reading

Commentators who believe that Kierkegaard does present clear ideas and concepts (whether "existentialist," Christian, or otherwise) are the object of Poole's polemic, best represented in a 1998 article that assesses the reception of Kierkegaard in the twentieth century. There he accuses those who inherited Kierkegaard from his early American translators, David Swenson and Walter Lowrie, as furthering a legacy of "blunt reading." According to Poole,

Blunt reading is that kind of reading that refuses, as a matter of principle, to accord a literary status to the text; that refuses the implications of the pseudonymous technique; that misses the irony; that is ignorant of the reigning Romantic ironic conditions obtaining when Kierkegaard wrote; and that will not acknowledge, on religious grounds, that an "indirect communication" is at least partly bound in with the pathos of the lived life.

He continues, "the tradition of 'blunt reading' insists on interpreting Kierkegaard as a 'serious' writer who is didactic, soluble and at bottom, 'edifying.'" In a previous article that contains the seeds of this full-blown criticism, Poole chastises a blunt reading of Kierkegaard's employment of pseudonymity: "The tradition of "blunt reading" mixes quotations and concepts from all or any pseudonyms in a single sentence, attributes to them all an equal valency and weight, and deliberately refuses the hard conceptual job of thinking one's way, through 'différance,' through the very specific conceptual worlds the pseudonyms inhabit." He continues, "The tradition of 'blunt reading' ... is forever prepared to ignore or to downgrade this literary background, and to slip into that happy no-man's-land where the names of the pseudonyms, and the name of 'Kierkegaard,' can be gradually and painlessly elided." And in a more recent paper, "For forty years, the view persisted, very largely due to the early American translators, that the reader need not take any notice of the pseudonyms, that 'Kierkegaard' lay not far behind each text, and that each and every text reflected 'Kierkegaard's' views."

The following is a list of the salient features of a blunt reading, collectively drawn from Poole's work on Kierkegaard:

1. Downplaying (or in the worst, ignoring) the literary facets of Kierkegaard's writings.

2. Looking for serious or straightforward meaning in each work, particularly of a religious or edifying nature.

3. Attributing to Kierkegaard a pseudonym's view or making mention of "a Kierkegaardian view," the derivation of which comes from "a dozen conflicting and warring sources."

4. Ignoring the indirection, which includes irony, but especially pseudonymity or the implications of pseudonymity, or conflating the views of the pseudonyms.

I assume that the first and fourth features, taken carefully, serve as important correctives that should be considered seriously. There is no question that Kierkegaard is a literary genius, a poet, who has mastered many different rhetorical techniques and genres. Poole credits Louis Mackey for bringing to light such insights about, for example, Either/Or. Mackey writes, "Like Wilhelm Meister, Either/Or was to be a Bildungsroman, a novel of the formation of the human personality, unfolding and shaping the manifold potentialities of its protagonist, and exploiting all the Romantic conventions: the narrative, the letter, the aphorism, the essay and the monologue." And concerning the fourth, Poole is correct that one cannot simply ignore the irony or pseudonymity; further, it seems to defeat the purpose of employing different pseudonyms if their views are carelessly conflated.

Let us consider the second and third aspects more carefully. In the second, Poole warns against looking for serious or straightforward meaning in Kierkegaard's works, particularly of a religious or edifying nature. He is correct to draw the reader's attention to the fact that Kierkegaard often communicates in subtle ways where the most poignant messages are less than obvious to the superficial reader. The question remains, however, whether serious meaning necessarily exits the stage along with straightforward meaning. Why cannot irony or the use of pseudonyms serve an ethical or religious purpose? There is no good reason to deny this possibility, and the pseudonym Johannes Climacus thinks to do so would be ludicrous: "the presence of irony does not necessarily mean that the earnestness is excluded. Only assistant professors assume that" (CUP, 1:277n).

The third factor of a blunt reading involves attributing to Kierkegaard a pseudonym's view or making mention of "a Kierkegaardian view." Poole helpfully points the reader to a passage from the signed postscript to the pseudonymous Concluding Unscientific Postscript called "A First and Last Explanation." There Kierkegaard requests that one not attribute to him views presented by the pseudonyms. This does not entail, however, that Kierkegaard lacks a view himself or that his pseudonyms serve no purpose in addressing and clarifying important concepts. The fact that Kierkegaard writes some books in his own name, writes others in other names, and then requests one not attribute those others to him seems to suggest one can still attribute Kierkegaard's writings to Kierkegaard. In the least, it does not follow that because Kierkegaard uses pseudonyms he himself has no views he wishes to convey, whether through a pseudonym or in a signed work or in some complex combination of them both. Further, there is no reason to deny that Kierkegaard's views might, at times, coincide with a view of one or more of his pseudonyms. I can agree with Poole about certain theses (just as a novelist can agree with certain views of a character), but this does not entail confusion about our identities.

Undecidability and Différance

Poole thinks most blunt readings of the indirect communication err in their treatment of Kierkegaard's pseudonyms. Poole's approach to pseudonymity relies heavily on Jacques Derrida's concept of différance. In fact, Poole sees Kierkegaard as "a philosopher who uses all the major tools of deconstructive theory long before they were given a local habitation and a name by Derrida." Before considering how Poole employs différance in his analysis of Kierkegaard, let us briefly examine the concept as presented by Derrida.

Derrida begins Of Grammatology by discussing the problem of language or, more precisely, the devaluation of the term "language" based on its inflated and careless employment across the disciplines. By way of a necessary movement language has finally come to be recognized as derivative of the more fundamental category of writing, thereby leveling language and depriving it of the metaphysical baggage accumulated since Plato. The significance of this turnabout is that language does not reflect some primordial truth about the world but—like writing—is a human construct. Drawing on the work of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, Derrida claims there is no inherent connection between the signifier and signified, between a word composed of letters and the thing the word concerns.


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Table of Contents

Introduction: Philosophy and Edification

Part I. Jest and/or Earnestness
1. Blunt Reading
2. Alternatives to Différance
3. Communicating Capability

Part II. Suspicion or Trust
4. Deconstructing The Point of View
5. Trusting The Point of View

Part III. Faith and Virtue
6. The Pseudonymous Dialectic of Faith, I
7. The Pseudonymous Dialectic of Faith, II
Conclusions: Kierkegaard, Virtue, and Edification

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Stetson University - Sylvia Walsh

Tietjen's critique of deconstructionist readings of Kierkegaard along with an emphasis on employing a hermeneutic of trust clearly distinguishes his work from other treatments of Kierkegaard as a virtue ethicist and edifying writer.

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