Passionate Thinker

Valdemar Ammundsen, an early commentator on Kierkegaard's work, once remarked, "Where Kierkegaard was wrong, that goes on his account. Where Kierkegaard was right, the bill comes to us."1 We can rephrase this comment even more pointedly: "Where Kierkegaard was wrong, that is a matter between him and God. Where Kierkegaard was right, that is a matter between God and each and every one of us." It is his ability to confront the reader - you and me -with the deepest issues of human existence, and to provoke us into asking questions of ourselves, the nature and purpose of our lives, and our relationship with God, that makes Kierkegaard such an uncomfortable and disturbing, yet exciting and invigorating, thinker. When we read Kierkegaard we are confronted with an author of passion, an author who wishes each of us to become passionate not about the things of the world but about Christianity. Our relationship with God should be a passionate love affair. Anything less is unworthy of God and demeaning to human beings.

In his writings, Kierkegaard raises fundamental questions concerning the nature of human existence and the human being's relationship with God. These are not abstract philosophical questions, but questions that are posed of each and every one of us. The answers we give to these questions determine the sort of people we are and the sort of God-relationship we have. In his writings Kierkegaard stresses repeatedly that it is not his intention to provide his reader with "information" or "knowledge," but to challenge the reader - you and me -to think long and hard about what it is to be a self: not an abstract, philosophical self, but the self that you and I are and have the potential to become. Reading Kierkegaard is thus much more than merely an academic exercise; it is above all an exercise in self-discovery. It is this intention of Kierkegaard's to prompt or provoke his readers into asking questions of themselves that accounts for the most distinctive and puzzling features of his work, namely, the literary and stylistic diversity of his authorship, his use of pseudonyms, and his employment of what he calls "indirect communication."

The sheer diversity, richness, and complexity of the Kierkegaardian corpus present the reader with a considerable interpretative challenge. Kierkegaard's works range from the aphoristic and novelistic to the psychological and philosophical. The situation is complicated still further by the fact that there are two distinct types of authorship, namely, the pseudonymous authorship and the works which Kierkegaard penned under his own name. Either/Or, for example, purports to be a collection of diverse manuscripts written by a hedonist, a magistrate, and a country parson, which were published by "Victor Eremita" after his chance discovery of them in a secondhand writing desk he had purchased. It was Kierkegaard's custom to accompany the pseudonymous works with the publication of "upbuilding" and "Christian discourses" to which he appended his own name.

The motivation for the remarkable diversity of Kierkegaard's authorship is his conviction that existential and religious truths cannot be communicated directly, but must be imparted in such a way that the onus is on the reader to appropriate these truths. In pursuit of this aim of existentially educating the reader, Kierkegaard employs indirect communication. He constructs a Socratic dialogue with the reader, whereby the reader is prompted or provoked by the possibilities and open questions of Kierkegaard's works to raise and answer questions concerning his or her own existence.2 It is this aim of existentially educating the reader that prompts his use of pseudonymity. Each pseudonym represents a "definite life-view,"3 which is presented to the reader as a possibility for his or her own existence. But Kierkegaard uses the pseudonyms not only to portray possible life-views, but also to criticize them. The pseudonyms interact with each other, highlighting the inadequacies of rival modes of existence. This can be seen at its clearest in Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, in which the pseudonymous author Johannes Climacus summarizes and exposes the weaknesses of the existence-possibilities represented by the pseudonyms of earlier works.4

It is consequently ill advised to take the various views expressed in the pseudonymous works as Kierkegaard's own. The convention in Kierkegaardian scholarship, following Kierkegaard's exhortation in "A First and Last Explanation,"5 with which Postscript concludes, is to treat the pseudonymous writings as discrete works and to cite them by the names of the pseudonyms under which they were published. This does not mean, however, that there is nothing in the pseudonymous works to which Kierkegaard would personally subscribe. The pseudonyms that probably most closely represent Kierkegaard's views are Johannes Climacus and Anti-Climacus, which is indicated by the fact that Kierkegaard was prepared to put his name as editor on the title page of the works penned by these pseudonyms.

This raises two important, perennial questions in the interpretation of the Kierkegaardian corpus, namely, the unity of the authorship and the relationship between the pseudonymous and non-pseudonymous works. The answer to the first question is provided by Kierkegaard in Point of View, in which he states that "my whole authorship pertains to Christianity, to the issue: becoming a Christian."6 The unity of Kierkegaard's authorship, then, is the existential education it offers the reader by exploring and ultimately discarding alternative worldviews on the road toward Christian existence. This unified religious purpose of Kierkegaard's pseudonymous authorship provides us with the key to understanding the relationship between the pseudonymous works and the works penned under his own name. The pseudonymous and non-pseudonymous works are united by their common aim of leading the reader toward Christian existence. The non-pseudonymous works are more overtly religious meditations on themes touched upon in the pseudonymous works.

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