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Dogmen- und Theologiegeschichte


Holmer, Paul L.


On Kierkegaard and the Truth.


Cambridge: James Clarke (Lutterworth) 2012. 342 S. = The Paul L. Holmer Papers, 1. Kart. £ 23,00. ISBN 978-0-227-68004-9.


Iben Damgaard

This is an unusual book in many respects. In the »Editors’ Preface«, it is described as their reconstruction of Paul L. Holmer’s »unpub­lished, and much-rumored, book-length manuscript on Kierkegaard« (XV).

We learn that H., who was a very influential figure in Kierkegaard-studies in the United States in the second half of the 20th Century, wrote several different drafts to this book from the late 1940s through the late 1960s , but never entirely satisfied with the result, chose not to publish it. After his death in 2004, the family gave 38 archival boxes with »The Paul Holmer Papers« to the Yale University Library, and this book is the first in a series of three books planned by the editors.

As a European scholar of a younger generation, who has not experienced this legendary teacher at Yale Divinity School, who inspired »several new generations of Kierkegaard scholars« (XVI) in the US one might initially worry about the relevance in publishing a book that was written more than half a century ago. Such wor-ries are unfortunately enhanced when reading Stanley Hauerwas’ open­ing »Foreword«, which praises H.’s book because it »challenges much of the scholarly consensus about Kierkegaard – a consensus not only present at the time H. was writing this book but one that largely remains today« (IX). Though it certainly would have been interesting to learn how the notorious conflict of interpretations in global Kierkegaard scholarship could possibly be described as a 50 year long consensus, Hauerwas chooses to say nothing about what this supposedly consensus is all about, he chooses instead to say too much about how this book will help us to find that fear of God makes joy possible.

It is, however, one of the many strengths of On Kierkegaard and the Truth that it does not postulate and preach like that Foreword, but on the contrary gives us a carefully argued and well written inquiry of Kierkegaard as a philosopher.

H. argues that Kierkegaard inaugurates »a New Way of Philosophizing« (37) by inventing a large variety of concrete examples of different ways of lives through which Kierkegaard makes everyday problems in one’s actual existence with all that it entails of con­-flicting interests, passions, moods, fantasies and emotions become subject to the neutral description, clarification and discrimination of his philosophical analysis, which is acutely attentive to the limits of communication and rationality. Thereby Kierkegaard initiates a »radical reorientation of categories« (48), that breaks with the comprehensive metaphysical systems in the philosophical tradition, which Kierkegaard finds »to caricature the ordinary world that everyone of us already knows« (110).

H. argues for the novelty in Kierkegaard’s insistence that »subjectivity – the emotions, passions, feelings – are not private. There are rules and practices; consequently there are also concepts. It is these that Kierkegaard is bringing into purview« (113). H. argues that Kierkegaard seeks to develop a philosophy that is a neutral and dialectical description of the subjective and passional existing of persons, which does not offer conclusions, results and truths to live by: »rather, one should say that the truths to live by are present in such profusion and variety that the directness of any communicat­ing author is balanced by the equally persuasive and clear message of another« (243). H. thus critically challenges every attempt to use Kierkegaard »as the fountainhead and apogee of the new irrationalism« (XXVI).

According to H., almost all of Kierkegaard’s writings are both an occasion for and an illustration and kind of defense of the thesis in Concluding Unscientific Postscript: »truth is subjectivity.« This book plays a key role in H.’s exposition, since he sees it as Kierkegaard’s most philosophical work by his most philosophical pseudonym, Johannes Climacus, aptly described as Kierkegaard’s »quixotic author« (87). H. carefully unfolds Kierkegaard’s description of ethico-religious »truth« as having an altogether different role than does »truth« in the context of historical research or logic or metaphysics. H. describes religious and ethical truth with a quote from Conclud­ing Unscientific Postscript as: »precisely the venture which chooses an objective uncertainty with the passion of the infinite« (156). H. carefully shows that this thesis is not some kind of primitive individualism and relativism, it is on the contrary »a technical reform in philosophy« (112), since Kierkegaard without denying objectiv­ity, develops a dialectical analysis that includes both a »what« and a »how« whereby he »is making a point, subsequently familiar to readers of the later Wittgenstein, that even the form of life is something to be considered when puzzling what it is that men say and see« (112).

H.’s account, however, leaves out that the thesis »subjectivity is truth« in Concluding Unscientific Postscript is followed by another thesis, which is: »So, then, subjectivity, inwardness, is truth.« Is there a more inward expression for it? Yes, if the discussion about »Subjectivity, inwardness, is truth« begins in this way: »Subjectiv­ity is untruth« (Kierkegaard’s Writings XII.1, Ed. and transl. by Hong & Hong, 207). Climacus points out that this second thesis at first sight appears as a contradiction of his first thesis, but it is rather to be understood as a clarification and a more inward expression of the first thesis. As such it is quite crucial to interpret what this qualification of the first thesis means in order to grasp the role of the negative in Kierkegaard’s thinking about subjectivity as it has been shown especially during the last 20 years in the works by Michael Theunissen and Arne Grøn. This aspect of Kierkegaard’s thinking about subjectivity and truth has been very important in the development of research on Kierkegaard’s way of philosophizing since H. wrote his book.

This does not alter the fact that H.’s book is still an important book to read particularly because of the fruitful and for his time very innovative way that H. uses the later Ludwig Wittgenstein in H.’s interpretation of Kierkegaard’s reorientation of thinking about religious, existential and ethical matters. H.’s early attentiveness to the connections in how Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein challenge the philosophical traditions has been formative for the by now long and strong tradition for reading these two thinkers in combination, as it is expressed for instance in the 1987 conference in honour of H. on »The Grammar of the Heart: Thinking with Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein« followed by a quite influential publication of the conference papers.

This symposium is mentioned in David Cain’s »Afterword«, but such perspectives are not developed in the editor’s preface. Instead of only situating H.’s book in relation to (mainly American) Kierkegaard scholarship before and while H. was writing the book, it would have been helpful if the editor’s preface also introduced the book in relation to what has happened in Kierkegaard scholarship since then in order to suggest why the posthumously publication of this book – 50 years after H. himself decided not to publish it – might still be seen as an important contribution to Kierkegaard scholarship today.