Kierkegaard: The Point of View

March 30, 2012

The Point of View for my Work as an Author
Søren Kierkegaard (1848)
170 p.

These notes originally written 28 January 2006.

In some respects Kierkegaard’s authorship presents a bewilderment. The proliferation of outlandish pseudonyms — Johannes de Silentio, Constantin Constantius, Hilarious Bookbinder, Anti-Climacus — is bound to leave a newcomer scratching his head. And there is this: although Kierkegaard is commonly regarded as a philosopher, his works bear little resemblance to traditional philosophical texts. Indeed, he commonly avers that he himself has nothing to teach, no doctrine to expound, no syllogism to unfold. What then is he up to? A good friend, who went to the trouble of writing a doctoral dissertation on Kierkegaard, once remarked to me that he thought that, rather than calling him a philosopher, we ought to call him an evangelical psychologist. This is exactly right.

Yet the reason for the insistance with which he obscured his authorship remains something of a mystery. His pseudonyms were pretty unconvincing, so why bother with them? I had assumed that, as he did not wish to teach an original doctrine, he did not wish to be regarded as an authority, and so refused to put his name to his work. This may be partly true, but it is weakened by the observation that in many cases he did put his name to his work, and not just in one period, but intermittently throughout the course of his life.

In The Point of View for my Work as an Author, which appeared rather late in his authorship, many of these questions are addressed and answered. Kierkegaard let the masks drop, not just to speak with his own voice, but also to explain why he was wearing the masks in the first place. In this way he illuminated his entire body of work in a particularly direct way, and the book serves as an excellent introduction to his writing, his methods, and his central concerns.

Early in the book he gives a summary of his position:

The contents of this little book affirm, then, what I truly am as an author, that I am and was a religious author, that the whole of my work as an author is related to Christianity, to the problem ‘of becoming a Christian’, with a direct or indirect polemic against the monstrous illusion that we call Christendom, or against the illusion that in such a land as ours all are Christians of a sort.

By calling himself a religious author he intends, of course, to contrast himself with an aesthetic author. In his taxonomy, a person living in the aesthetic sphere of life — which by Kierkegaard’s reckoning includes most people — is attuned to the sensual rather than the spiritual, to the temporal rather than the eternal, to a life oriented outward rather than inward, to pleasure rather than duty or love. The great task which he undertook was to seek out those who were capable of greater depth — that is, those who were capable ‘of becoming a Christian’ — and helping them toward greater inwardness. His task, he said, was to make people aware, to wake them up. He knew that people have a tendency to settle into a crowd, to take their bearings from those around them, to abdicate their own responsibility for working out their salvation in fear and trembling. He believed that his responsibility was to be concerned with the inwardness and spiritual awakening of ‘the individual’.

He knew, however, that to simply berate people for their faults and failings was more likely to provoke them to anger than to repentance and new life. And so, he says, he undertook a program of indirect communication, in which he disguised himself as one living an aesthetic life in order to show, from the inside, the deficiencies of that life, and so to compel his readers to seek higher things. He calls this method one of “incognito and deceit” which “does not begin directly with the matter one wants to communicate, but begins by accepting the other man’s illusion as good money”, for “if you can find exactly the place where the other is and begin there, you may perhaps have the luck to lead him to the place where you are.”

This clarifies a few things about his writing. The aesthetic writings, such as Either/Or, Fear and Trembling, Philosophical Fragments, and Stages on Life’s Way, were pseudonymous precisely because in them he was not speaking with his true voice. He was presenting himself falsely in order to gain a greater victory. He seems troubled that it was necessary to adopt this method, but insists that it was only “truth’s way of deceiving”. He had to speak indirectly if his point was to be heard.

This is what is achieved by the indirect method, which, loving and serving the truth, arranges everything dialectically for the prospective captive, and then shyly withdraws (for love is always shy) so as not to witness the admission which he makes to himself alone before God — that he has lived hitherto in an illusion.

In contrast, the works in which he was speaking candidly, as a religious author, such as in his Edifying Discourses, were published from the beginning under his true name, for in them he writes with no covert design.

After this explanation of how his overall authorship should be understood, he goes to some trouble to relate how his personal life was a reflection of his writing at each stage. Kierkegaard believed that an author was more than his words; the integrity of his words was derived from his life. He relates how, when writing the aesthetic works, he took pains to live as though he were indeed a target for his own designs. You might think this would occasion a little internal confusion (and might wonder why he would commit himself to this virtuosic, perilous, and not obviously necessary challenge) and you would be right to do so; he returns again and again to his need of intense interior focus so that in the thick of his artful deception his overall purpose should not be forgotten.

That he should not forget was critical, and a recurring theme in his writings is that he — and all of us with him — must struggle not to lose consciousness of ourselves and our responsibilities. He could not fall into forgetfulness or complacency because this task of awakening his readers was not something he had chosen to do, but a task that had been laid to his charge by Providence, and he was answerable for the results. The final section of the book discusses this aspect of his work, relating the ways in which he perceived divine guidance in his life and his vocation as a writer.

To anyone who is beginning to read Kierkegaard, I cannot think of a better place to begin than with this little book.

6 Responses to “Kierkegaard: The Point of View”

  1. Mac Says:

    Just now getting to this, after you linked to it Friday from my blog. It does sound in one way like a good place to start. But I wonder if not knowing the other works would make some of it less meaningful. Well, maybe it would be the other way around–reading this first would make others more meaningful.

  2. cburrell Says:

    I think reading this would give you a better idea of how to interpret the other books, especially in an edition which outlined the books falling into each ‘stage’ of his authorship. (I don’t think he spells out exactly which books belong to which part of his grand strategy.)

  3. msiebert Says:

    Craig, this is a very nice post. My understanding, though, is that there are three levels of human existence (not just two) in Kierkegaard’s taxonomy: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. The pseudonymous works are directed at one of the first two levels, and the works in his own name are directed at the third. The first part of Either/Or, for example, is an ‘aesthetic’ work, and the second part is an ‘ethical’ work. Fear and Trembling is an ethical work, looking at the transition to religion. The Edifying Discourses, as you mentioned, is a religious work. I haven’t read “The Point of View” but does it really not mention the ethical level?

  4. cburrell Says:

    You are exactly right, Michael. I was rather sloppy in what I wrote above, and I wrongly described Either/Or (Part II) and Fear and Trembling as aesthetic works. They are ethical.

    My only excuse is that I originally wrote this post about 6 years ago, when I was even more of a Kierkegaardian neophyte than I am now, and my understanding was not quite up to snuff. I posted it here in a hurry, and didn’t take the time to fix the mistakes. I ought to have.

    Happy Easter!

  5. msiebert Says:

    Happy Easter to you too!

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