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Kierkegaard: A Biography
Kierkegaard: A Biography
Alastair Hannay
Cambridge University Press, 2011
522 pp., 36.99

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C. Stephen Evans

Kierkegaard Among the Biographers

The hermeneutics of suspicion.

Kierkegaard has not been well served by his English-language biographers. Walter Lowrie wrote two early biographies, one immense and full of long quotations from Kierkegaard's as yet untranslated works, and later the much-read and much-loved A Short Life of Kierkegaard. Though not completely uncritical (as a cleric Lowrie could hardly fully endorse Kierkegaard's later attack on the church), Lowrie's works are today often dismissed, too hastily in my view, as hagiography, since he certainly loved Kierkegaard and generally puts the best face possible on the famous episodes in Kierkegaard's life. Josiah Thompson swung to the other extreme in his biography The Lonely Labyrinth, debunking many of Lowrie's views and generally viewing with suspicion almost every claim Kierkegaard made about himself and his own work. (Thompson's suspicious nature ran deep; after writing his work on Kierkegaard he left academe and became a private investigator, author of Gumshoe: Reflections in a Private Eye, and a prominent controversialist about the assassination of John F. Kennedy.)

It is therefore noteworthy that two new biographies have appeared in the last several years: Alastair Hannay's Kierkegaard: A Biography, and Joakim Garff's much-praised Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography, translated from the Danish. Both books are the result of many years of work on Kierkegaard, and both have much to offer the reader. Neither, however, will supplant Walter Lowrie as my first recommendation for someone interested in Kierkegaard's life. Kierkegaard is still waiting for his ideal biographer.

Hannay, a British philosopher born to Scottish parents, spent most of his career teaching in Norway. He was a pioneer in studying Kierkegaard using the tools of analytical philosophy, author or editor of several important works, and has done a series of readable translations of Kierkegaard for Penguin Books. The current book aspires to be, in Hannay's own words, an "intellectual biography," one that looks to the life to help us understand the works and to the works for help in understanding the life. The twin focus gives Hannay's work a lot of its strength; each work of Kierkegaard that is discussed appears in the context of Kierkegaard's own personal struggles, and Kierkegaard's life does offer new angles for understanding those works. Hannay is generally careful to avoid the fallacy of assuming that the biographical context of a work exhausts its meaning, and he is certainly knowledgeable about both the works and the life.

Nevertheless, I found Hannay's book unsatisfying, for two odd reasons. The first stems from one of Hannay's virtues as a philosopher: his ability to see complexity and nuance. This philosophical strength, however, leads to a weakness in the book: Hannay poses multiple possibilities for understanding the episodes of Kierkegaard's life but often finds himself paralyzed when he considers them. Too often the reader is left guessing where Hannay stands himself. One might think that this is a virtue, since Hannay is granting the reader the freedom to make his or her own decisions about the subject, but given that the reader is unlikely to know as much as Hannay himself, the indecisiveness of the author tends to be conveyed to the reader. Frequently the reader discovers that "it is possible that Kierkegaard thought such and such" or that "Kierkegaard might have been motivated by this or that" or simply that "in the end it is unclear" what Kierkegaard was up to. Perhaps Hannay here simply reflects the undecidability that inheres in actual human beings, but it leads to frustration for the reader who longs to know Kierkegaard better, or who at least longs for a vigorous portrait from Hannay with which to interact.

The second problem is that, despite Hannay's philosophical gifts, and the inordinate amount of space given (in a biography) to the interpretation of Kierkegaard's works, I found Hannay not always reliable in his judgments about those works. The unreliability sometimes shows itself in simple factual mistakes, such as his claim (p. 174) that Kierkegaard "never once owned up publicly or even privately" to have written the pseudonymous Either/Or. (I find it unfathomable how a writer as knowledgeable as Hannay could ignore the "First and Last Declaration" that Kierkegaard appended to Concluding Unscientific Postscript, in which he takes legal and literary responsibility for all his pseudonymous works, even while asking his reader to recognize the distinction between the views of the pseudonymous "character authors" he has created and his own personal views.) At times Hannay gives what I would call serious misreadings of Kierkegaard's texts, and here, in contrast to the restraint he often shows as historian, he tends to make over-confident judgments about matters that are at best controversial.

I made a long list of such instances, but here I can only cite a couple of examples. On p. 387, Hannay considers Kierkegaard's own claim that his writings served the purposes of "Governance" or divine providence, and asks whether it might be true that Kierkegaard was serving God's purposes: "Surely not. The very idea of God transcends purpose, and thus prudence and imprudence too." This mysterious theological edict is offered without justification or explanation, even though if taken seriously it makes the idea of divine providence impossible. A second example can be found on p. 361, where Hannay discusses Kierkegaard's penetrating discussion of love in Works of Love, and, much to my astonishment, judges that Kierkegaard, like Nietzsche, places little value on pity and compassion: "in the struggle out of which Kierkegaard's individual emerges there is, as we saw, a hardening against the pity one is disposed to feel for human suffering … ." From my perspective, this is the exact opposite of the truth.

My own hunch is that many of Hannay's misjudgments arise from a fundamental lack of sympathy for Kierkegaard's Christian faith. Hannay himself was a signatory to the 1980 "A Secular Humanist Declaration," and though, unlike some commentators, he is aware of Kierkegaard's Christian faith and its importance, I find he often views issues connected to that faith through the wrong end of the telescope.

Joakim Garff's Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography is an altogether different kind of book. While even longer than Hannay's work, Garff's biography sparkles from a literary perspective. (This may be partly to the credit of Bruce Kirmmse's excellent translation.) Though Garff spends almost as much time discussing Kierkegaard's works as Hannay does, Garff never loses sight of the story. He knows how to tell a tale, and while certainly long, the book is always a good read. Indeed, much of Garff's biography reads like a novel.

According to Danish historian Peter Tudvad, Garff's work is too much like a novel; that is, it plays fast and loose with the facts. Although Garff's work has received numerous awards, including the prestigious Brandes Award in Denmark, and though the English language version has been extravagantly reviewed by such notables as John Updike, Tudvad, author of Kierkegaard's København (Kierkegaard's Copenhagen) and an expert on the period, has shown that Garff's book is riddled with mistakes. Many of Tudvad's findings have been communicated to English-speaking readers by philosopher M. G. Piety.1 (Everything I say about this below has been derived from Piety's articles, though I first heard about the controversy when a Danish friend sent me a newspaper article from Copenhagen. Moreover, I am referring to the first English edition of Garff's book, published in 2005; a revised paperback edition, not yet available at the time of this writing, is promised.)

Many of the mistakes are unimportant, but overall the errors show a clear bias: Garff consistently interprets Kierkegaard in a suspicious manner, putting a negative spin on most of the crucial episodes. Here is one example: Garff wants to interpret Kierkegaard as a self-indulgent man who lived luxuriously. So, for example, in a section called "A Dandy on a Pilgrimage," Garff claims that during Kierkegaard's trip to the ancestral family home in Jutland he was accompanied by "his servant, Anders Westergaard" (p. 154). The problem is that Westergaard, who later was employed by Kierkegaard, was actually a soldier during this period and could not have accompanied Kierkegaard on the journey.

A similar mistake occurs later in the book when Garff transforms one Frederik Christian Strube into another one of Kierkegaard's "servants." The problem, according to Tudvad, is that Strube was actually a journeyman carpenter, and would have been required by law to work at his job 12 hours a day for six days a week, leaving little time for domestic service. Kierkegaard allowed Strube, who was mentally disturbed, along with his family, to live with him for three and a half years, professing concern for Strube's mental health, a concern which Garff ridicules. In the same vein Garff, relying on a previous author who painted Kierkegaard as a man who lived extravagantly while giving little to charity, describes Kierkegaard as having little concern for the poor. In reality there are no reliable records to tell us what Kierkegaard gave to charity. (Tudvad reveals that a figure often cited as the total amount Kierkegaard gave to charity in a particular year is in reality the amount given by Kierkegaard's servant.)

Tudvad argues that the mistakes point to a more fundamental problem: Although Garff clearly knows Kierkegaard's writings and the secondary literature about Kierkegaard extremely well, he relies on that secondary literature in a quite uncritical way, thus perpetuating many of the myths that have developed around Kierkegaard over the years. Even worse, according to Tudvad, Garff's reliance on secondary sources sometimes descends to the level of plagiarism, quoting from other authors virtually verbatim without attribution and borrowing original theories and ideas (such as Carl Saggau's theory that Kierkegaard's father believed himself to be afflicted with syphilis), again without citing his sources.

An amusing example occurs when Garff, copying without attribution from Jørgen Bukdahl, claims that there were rumors that a Danish religious figure, J. C. Lindberg, "was to be incarcerated and executed (Danish henrettes) on Christiansø, a notorious prison island" (p. 33). What Bukdahl actually wrote was that Lindberg was to be incarcerated and "exiled" (Danish hensættes). Evidently, Garff miscopied or misread his own notes. Sadly, for reasons I will speculate about later, Tudvad's exposing of Garff's errors has created more difficulties for Tudvad than for Garff, leading eventually to his resignation from his position at the Kierkegaard Research Centre. (Still, the promise of a revised edition with substantial corrections suggests that Tudvad's work has not been in vain.)

As serious as these problems that Tudvad has raised are, they by no means exhaust the flaws in Garff's work. As a general rule, Kierkegaard commentators can be divided into those who regard Kierkegaard's own The Point of View for My Work as an Author as reliable testimony and those who, like Garff, regard The Point of View as self-serving fiction (p. 562). In The Point of View Kierkegaard claims that his central purpose has been to "reintroduce Christianity into Christendom" and that he was "from first to last a religious author." It is true, and Kierkegaard himself affirms this clearly, that he did not have a clear plan for his whole "authorship" when he began writing, but as he wrote, he himself was "educated" by "divine governance." This admission by Kierkegaard, however, by no means implies that his account is untrue; every author realizes that one's intentions in a writing project change as the project itself is implemented, and it is thus quite conceivable that Kierkegaard's account is true.

Garff pours sophisticated scorn on Kierkegaard's account, offering in its place a psychologized version: here Kierkegaard is seen as crippled by an abusive father, incapable of normal relations with women, and hungry for literary fame. Garff offers us a Kierkegaard whose writings served as a kind of therapy, or perhaps psychological defense, against his pathological guilt and depression.

There is truth in all of these charges. Kierkegaard, like his father and like all the rest of us, was a flawed human being. (Though not nearly so flawed as Garff makes him out to be.) The question is whether this all-too-human story is the whole story, or even the most important part of the story.

Throughout my career I have written about Kierkegaard as a prophetic figure who had something important to say both to the secular world and to the Church. To the secular, intellectual world Kierkegaard presents a powerful case that the decline of faith among European intellectuals is not rooted in intellectual problems or the growth of scientific knowledge but in diminished imaginative power and the loss of an emotional grasp of what it means to exist as a human being. To the Church, Kierkegaard presents a powerful protest against "Christendom," the domestication of Christian faith by the equation of faith with human culture. The power of these two messages is evidenced by the continued fascination with Kierkegaard's writings among Christians and non-Christians alike.

However, the power is also evidenced by the lengths to which both of Kierkegaard's polemical targets sometimes go to obscure or eviscerate his message. Sadly, Hannay and Garff, though both have spent much of their lives studying and writing about Kierkegaard, may be examples. As a secular philosopher, Hannay really does not take Kierkegaard's Christian challenge seriously. Perhaps this is what one should expect, given Kierkegaard's own claim that people who are not themselves gripped by the passion of faith will find Christianity offensive.

Garff, on the other hand, could be seen as a representative of the Danish establishment, ensconced in the Christendom Kierkegaard attacked so vigorously. Although his writings about Kierkegaard might suggest that Garff is a professor of literary criticism, he is in fact a trained theologian, having graduated from the pastoral seminary in Denmark; he is also a product of a distinguished Danish family. It is not surprising, then, that Garff finds ways of making Kierkegaard's protest against the Danish establishment the expression of a sick mind and sickly personality. I do not claim this actually explains Garff's motivations; I of course cannot really know what his motives are. But it is a possibility that will at least occur to anyone who knows the history of Kierkegaard's reception in his native Denmark. Nor, sadly, is it surprising that Peter Tudvad, in daring to challenge Garff, has suffered for the same kinds of reasons that Kierkegaard himself suffered, both during his lifetime and posthumously.

If someone takes Kierkegaard's testimony in The Point of View as credible, is not that person in danger of being duped, if Kierkegaard is, as Garff claims, fictionalizing his life and works? Is it not safer to take the critical, suspicious road that Garff himself travels? Kierkegaard himself addresses this question in Works of Love in some reflections on the Pauline claim in 1 Corinthians 13 that "love believes all things." In this section of the book, he argues that a loving person and a mistrustful person may have the same knowledge about a given individual, but they draw different conclusions from what they know, the loving person always choosing to interpret the individual in the best possible light. The mistrustful person regards this as gullible foolishness, an invitation to be deceived. Yet there are many ways of being deceived. To allow one's suspicion and mistrust to cheat one out of love is to be deceived in the most terrible way about the most important thing in life. The lover who believes in another may be deceived about some finite, temporal event, but has a sure grasp on the most fundamental truth.

Those who are unashamed to be described as lovers of Kierkegaard may take some comfort from these thoughts. Of course they forfeit the status of being shrewd, superior beings, who have seen through Kierkegaard's web of deception. But perhaps they partly escape the fate of those people that Johannes de Silentio, the pseudonymous author of Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, calls "associate professors," whose "task in life is to judge the great men." The lives of these judges display a "curious mixture of arrogance and wretchedness—arrogance because they feel called upon to pass judgment, wretchedness because they do not feel their lives are even remotely related to those of the great."2

I confess that—as a professor—I feel the sting in those Kierkegaardian words. I have my disagreements with Kierkegaard, and there are episodes in his life—particularly the broken engagement to Regine—that I find distressing. I realize that Kierkegaard's motives were doubtless mixed. Still I believe that Kierkegaard struggled hard to be honest with himself, with God, and with his readers. His claims in The Point of View that his authorship centers around his vocation as a Christian seem right to me, not just because he makes them, but because they make sense of the writings in a way that no other view does. And this leads me to humbly confess my love and appreciation for a man whose greatness will withstand the work of biographers and commentators alike.

C. Stephen Evans is University Professor of Philosophy and the Humanities at Baylor University. Among his recent publications are Kierkegaard's Ethic of Love: Divine Commands and Moral Obligations (Oxford Univ. Press), Kierkegaard on Faith and the Self: Collected Essays (Baylor Univ. Press), and an edition of Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, coedited with Sylvia Walsh (Cambridge Univ. Press).

1. A summary of some of Tudvad's findings can be found in the Danish publication Faklen http://www.faklen.dk/artikler/tudvad04-01.php. An English summary/translation by M. G. Piety is available at www.faklen.dk/ english/eng-tudvad07-01.php. Piety has written several articles recounting and defending Tudvad. The examples I provide are taken from "Some Reflections on Academic Ethics," ASK, The Journal of the College of Arts and Sciences at Drexel University, September 2005, and "Who's Søren Now?" in The Philosophers' Magazine, Vol. 31, 2005. (The latter is available online but only by subscription.)

2. Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, ed. by C. Stephen Evans and Sylvia Walsh, trans. Sylvia Walsh (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2006), p. 55.

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