Kierkegaard and the sermon problem

Wed 15 Feb 2006 09:21 AM

Academic philosophers typically write for a philosophical audience. There are problems that are understood, more or less, and you write to address them. If you want to reconstrue the problem, then you say as much.

This fact becomes a problem when academic philosophers write in response to one another until no one but the participants in the debate really care-- and even they only care for the next publication. Issues of substance can be tenderized into rarified word games by logic chopping.

Yet this fact is also the advantage of contemporary philosophy. Articles take place in the context of an ongoing conversation. Authors can begin by talking about what they mean to say.

I am teaching Kierkegaard now, and he is not like this. His writings-- almost all of them-- suffer from what I think of as the the sermon problem.

The sermon problem arises in church services in this way: The occasion of the sermon or the programmatic theme of the service require the preacher to begin with some motif. Yet the preacher wants to make some spiritual or religious point. For example, it is the special music service-- so the preacher begins with what is ostensibly a meditation about music, but steers it around to a more hifalutin topic like the human community. Typically, there is a rhetorical discontinuity along the way. The audience is left thinking that things would have been much clearer if we could have talked about God or the human community directly, rather than trying to find our way there through the laborious preamble.

The sermon problem can arise in contemporary philosophy, of course. Papers for themed conferences start out with a prescribed topic, and then often head off towards someplace the author cares to be. Papers in a Festschrift must begin with some eulogy for the honoree, but then seek after a more engaging topic. Sometimes authors are forced to begin talking about some hot topic, so as to be published, when in fact their aim is to talk about something less popular. However, these are not the usual cases. Typically, one means to write about X and so one does; X is in the abstract, the article is indexed for X, and so on.

Not so with Kierkegaard. The works that are billed by scholars as fine introductions or encapsulations of Kierkegaard's thought all suffer from the sermon problem. Fear and Trembling is a meditation on the Abraham story, but Abraham doesn't quite illustrate what Kierkegaard has in mind. The Present Age was written as a book review, and so at least a third of the essay is about issues that aren't Kierkegaard's real target. Kierkegaard's journals are filled with philosophy, but mixed indiscriminately with details of how his man servant left him, how he has been to see the king, and whatall else.

I have students reading Sickness Unto Death now-- not because I think it is the clearest thing he wrote, but because I think it is the among the most direct. The first few pages especially are written in a mock-Hegelian style, so I have been trying to explain how we can understand sentences like, "The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation's relating itself to itself in the relation." The claim is right to the point, however, once carefully parsed.

So, sermon problem or crypto-philosophy? I actually opted for some of both-- last week I had them read The Present Age.

As a caveat, I don't have an encyclopedic knowledge of Kierkegaard. There may be some other text that neither suffers from the sermon problem nor is rendered in mock-Hegelian locutions. If so, leave a comment; I'll take it under advisement for next time I teach existentialism.


from: Matt Brown

Wed 15 Feb 2006 03:01 PM

Have you thought about using W.H. Auden's collection of Kiekegaard? There's a lot of excerpting going on, and it is pretty idiosyncratic, but as I recall (I no longer have a copy), it managed to cut to the quick of some important issues in Kierkegaard. Or would this be too elementary for the level you're teaching at?

from: P.D.

Wed 15 Feb 2006 09:33 PM

Fair point, Matt. Perhaps an anthology of choice excerpts is the way to go. My general MO is to have students buy unabridged works and then to assign only part of them, but I don't have any good rationale for that.