kierkegaard and politics

I am currently in the process of reading/writing for the purpose of preparing a paper I’m presenting at the Society for the Study of Theology annual meeting at the University of Durham next week. As the topic of the conference is ‘Theology and Politics’, I’m attempting to explore an alternative political subjectivity in the works of Kierkegaard. This is partly due to selfish reasons, as I want to figure out if it actually is possible to map out a non-deconstructive/postmodern political reading of Kierkegaard, as my projected PhD involves doing just that in relationship to contemporary french philosophy, and particularly in relation to the political ontology of Alain Badiou. Thus far the most exciting thing I’ve read is Kierkeggard’s Two Ages, which up until this point I had never read. I honestly think anyone reading Kierkegaard, and especially anyone looking for a solid political line to emerge in his thought, should read this book immediately. So far I have found that going back and reading Fear and Trembling, Practice in Christianity, and The Sickness Unto Death, with Two Ages in mind has really illuminated the political potential to be found within the work of Kierkegaard. I don’t have my notes with me at the moment, but I’ll try to post some of my favorite quotes from Two Ages in the near future. Along with this re-reading of political subjectivity in Kierkegaard, I am also going to (possibly) attempt to build a bridge between the political thought of Kierkegaard with recent Latin American Liberation Theology. Luckily, I stumbled across a passage in Mark Dooley’s The Politics of Exodus, in which he states that “..Kierkegaard’s God is the God of Liberation Theology…” (p. 19); this should help provide at least a smudge of credibility to making this claim. If anyone has any thoughts/advice/suggestions on re-thinking Kierkegaard’s political thought, please share.

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16 thoughts on “kierkegaard and politics

  1. Eric Lee says:

    This is extremely interesting. It would be worthwhile to explore Anti-Climacus’s notion of the Church ‘militant’ in Practice and making Christianity ‘difficult again’ with the notions of struggle/dialectic that Liberationist Theology might inherit from Marx/(Hegel). I’m extremely ignorant about how the Marxist critique actually plays itself out in Liberation Theology, so feel free to disregard this comment.

    Also maybe see Dooley’s essay on Kierkegaard, Derrida, and Levinas in The New Kierkegaard?

  2. Alex says:

    It would be pretty great to see Kierkegaard come together with liberation theology and fun too since it would be hammering together the arch anti-Hegelian with in some sense Hegel’s greatest heir. Off the top of my head, I think one could perhaps look at Kierkegaard’s concepts of the crowd and the kind of alienation (not in Hegel’s) and apply this politically, maybe somehow coming out that his concept of alienation is better than Hegel’s or Marx in that it accepts subjectivity as being really important, where as, again this is very very sketchy, for these others subjectivity is entirely determined by something outside subjectivity – class structure for example.

    “ethically and ethically-religiously the crowd is untruth, the untruth of wishing to work by means of the crowd, the numerical, of wishing to make the numerical the criterion which decides what truth is”

    This is from The Single Individual. You could run this in a kind of way that “the crowd” accepts a consensus viz., say, economic production, while we should break from it – a kind of militant practice. Economic forces and the totalising structures of capital, of course, dehumanise and do not respect single individuals (them being parts in a machine or whatever), and this might be something to go for also. This notion of “becoming subject” would probably well plug in to Badiou, as I am sure you are aware.

    I’m gonna pick up Two Ages tomorrow, since Wikipedia tells me that it talks about money as an abstraction and I think it would be interesting to read this with Goodchild. Me and Anthony were discussing how it was sad that we couldn’t stick Kierkegaard into any of our respective projects, but I am just gonna damn well try and stick him in there anyway. Particularly because I want to defend him against Macintyre who is a dick about him. Back in the day, my original PHD project was going to be something on Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, concentrating on one of the aspects of their thought and comparing them.

  3. Alex says:

    Oh and I’ve always thought, which I probably stole from Anthony like almost everything! that certain very pro-Church theologies could do with a Kierkegaardian kick up the ass.

  4. Alex says:

    Also, just look up politics and related comments in his journals, well worth it!

  5. michaeloneillburns says:

    good call on the ‘militant’ notion in Practice; it’s also going to help me do a bit to bring Badiou and Kierkegaard together. RE: Dooley, I really enjoyed his book up until he brought in the argument that Kierkegaard is really just a good Derridian; it really just sounded like Caputo’s version of Christianity where the political is pushed aside for the sake of an abstract ‘ethical’…i can’t stand that crap. I’ll see if we have that volume in our library though, some of the essays look interesting.

    Yes, check out two ages. fucking brilliant book. good points on a lot of that stuff too, and i’m hoping the badiou-kierkegaard thing works; my projected PhD is depending on it! I had any idea to have a small ‘re-reading kierkegaard’ conference sometime, so maybe next year we can all get together and throw out our heterodox readings of Kierkegaard…

  6. Oh and I’ve always thought, which I probably stole from Anthony like almost everything! that certain very pro-Church theologies could do with a Kierkegaardian kick up the ass.

    Yeah, you did. Fucker. Just give me a footnote, so at least when I don’t get anything fucking published, I’ll be well footnoted.

  7. Alex says:

    Would be good, and I’m not joking, to make the Re-reading Kierkegaard conference a big thing, with large-ish speakers. Maybe be even more “crazy” and call it The Political Kierkegaard to avoid people running around with deconstructive readings and concentrate on drawing out something very different from his work. I’ve never really thought about it, but he really is quite the political figure, even actively in the Corsair controversy etc, commentaries on current events etc.

    We all know Jesus was just Derrida, except Heidegger hadn’t arrived yet. Blessed are the deconstructors for they will be called sons of God.

    Yesterday, I considered writing in my Rome conference proposal (Radical Nihilism: Speculative Realism and Radical Orthodoxy) “drawing on the work of Anthony Paul Smith and others engaged in a critique of this movement”. No joke.

  8. michaeloneillburns says:

    Good idea. As soon as I figure out for sure where I will be next year I’ll start trying to plan something, maybe for next spring. Also, brilliant idea for the rome proposal. I’m emailing some of the SR people today to try to get someone to come to rome, keep your fingers crossed…

  9. Alex says:

    I’ll have to do that, or just stare into the void.

    Seriously though, there is a real gap in the market for a Kierkegaard and The Political book.

  10. michaeloneillburns says:

    yes. but let’s keep the idea in our circle so no one steals it. the last thing we need is James Smith getting Caputo and Carl Raschke to help him with a book on ‘kierkegaard and emerging politics’ or some terrible atrocity like that.

  11. Alex says:

    Carl Raschke’s contribution would be “Why Kierkegaard is much, much better than Metal”.

  12. Ryan says:

    I think the Kierkegaard/liberation theology marriage is provocative, but in the end lacks serious textual confirmation.

    In Two Ages, Kierkegaard explains the need for “revolution” incognito; the religiously aware individual must not become a temptation by becoming an object of admiration. His leadership is “from behind” as he stealthily guides others toward their own existential awakening. His manner of indirect communication (think of the socratic maieutic) is necessarily subtle so as to leave the subject alone with his decision–the decision must always be made alone.

    While I think Two Ages has a lot to say about social theory–i.e. true community is only possible when the group consists of existentially developed individuals– it refuses to be political. There is no single political “system” that Kierkegaard recommends, this is antithetical to his project. The best politic is one that refuses to think politically and instead addresses sociological revolution one individual at a time.

    Also, Kierkegaard himself was apathetic when it came to supporting the Democratic revolution in Denmark–if anything, he favored authoritarian regimes.

    As for Dooley’s “de-constructed Kierkegaard”, he has reshaped SK into a Derrida disciple and, in doing so, presents a compromised interpretation of his “political thought”. See Stephen Evans’ review of Dooley’s The Politics of Exodus, International Philosophical Quarterly, 42:2 (2002) 281-283, for a brief critique of a deconstructionist-Kierkegaard.

    I’d like to read your paper though…if your comfortable please email me a copy.

  13. Ryan says:

    In re-reading my post it comes off as quasi-pretentious and that’s not at all what was intended. I’m also interested in the Kierkegaard re-readings that have come to light in the last few years, especially because I sense early commentaries butchered him.

    I too think Kierkegaard has a lot to offer sociology and he undoubtedly has a certain kinship with Marx. Each fought against the alienation of modern culture in their own way. However, Kierkegaard seems to be unique in that his politics, and I don’t think “politics” is necessarily a misnomer, surrounds the awakening of the individual and, therefore, there can’t be a general political program, only a society of developed individuals. It’s a top-to-bottom process, existentially mature people gathering together together to engage in genuine community.

  14. Ryan,
    Sorry I’m just responding to this, and there is a good chance you’re not checking back, but none the less…

    I really appreciate your comment (and it wasn’t pretentious at all). When I gave my paper at SST I received some similar feedback regarding being an ‘orthodox’ reader of Kierkegaard, etc. I think that trying to be an ‘orthodox’ reader of SK makes it quite impossible to build a real politic, but, I think there is a lot of latent political potential in his work. Obviously, this requires that one break with being a ‘Kierkegaardian’ in all senses and more or less ‘use’ his work for explicitly political ends; but in a way I feel like the moment one becomes a ‘Kierkegaardian’ they fail to be a good reader of Kierkegaard. I think there is enough ‘raw material’ there to develop a political ontology at least heavily influenced by Kierkegaard. If nothing else, this can be seen in Sartre, who really wasn’t that original and relied on Kierkegaard much more than he ever admitted. Both the Critique of Dialectial Reason and Search for a Method (as well as the essays in Existentialism and Humanism) exemplify his blend of Kierkegaard and Marx. James Marsh does this to a good extent as well.

    Also, I complete agree with you regarding Dooley. I’ll have to read that review.

    But thanks again for the comment. I’m editing that paper to turn in for a module next week, so I’ll post the edited (shorter) version up here then.

  15. Peter Thompson says:

    Dear All
    one of the figures who has been largely forgotten or ignored in the whole debate about liberation theology is Ernst Bloch, who, as a Marxist, took as his starting point the attempt to define the message of exodus in the old and new testaments as a self-misunderstood rational for the uprising of the subaltern. Verso are just re-publishing this work in English translation and I think it could answer some of the debates going on on this (excellent) blog. He anticipates much of the stuff which Badiou, Zizek, Meillasoux etc. have argued and posits the possibility of transcendence without the transcendental. The book can be found at
    or and has an intersting and very good new introduction (hey, if I don’t say it no-one else will!)

  16. liz says:

    For Kierkegaardian liberation theology read VII: Mercifulness, a Work of Love Even If It Can Give Nothin and Is Able to Do Nothing in Works of Love.

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