Kierkegaard: An Introduction

September 24, 2009

This general introduction to Kierkegaard's thought proves a clear, sober and informative guide both for students coming to Kierkegaard for the first time and for more experienced readers. The book's primary audience is the non-specialist. Those familiar with Stephen Evans' major contribution to Kierkegaard studies over the past three decades will find the approach fairly familiar, and there are copious references to his more detailed discussions of topics. The effect is of being shown around town by a very experienced guide who knows the streets extremely well, and who has formed, over time, a view of what descriptions of their points of interest work.

Approaching Kierkegaard thematically rather than text by text, Evans follows a brief introduction to his life and works with a chapter on "indirect communication" and why the Danish thinker published so much of his work pseudonymously. The main focus thereafter takes us through the "stages on life's way" - the aesthetic, ethical and religious existence spheres - with the central theme of "becoming a self" never far from view.

The book ends with a chapter on Kierkegaard's "challenge to the contemporary world". This chapter contains a useful discussion of how Kierkegaard's account of selfhood is related to transcending various forms of despair and reflections on the demands of neighbour-love. There is nothing hugely original about this general layout (indeed, my own undergraduate course on Kierkegaard follows a very similar path). But it makes perfect sense, and allows for discussions of such topics as what kind of philosopher Kierkegaard is - how he manifests a Socratic conception of philosophy in contrast to the speculative thought of his age - and how each of the existence spheres attempts to provide an answer to a crisis of meaninglessness. There are some nice contemporary examples: I especially liked the comparison between the anonymous slander sponsored by The Corsair - a scurrilous periodical with which Kierkegaard had a major spat - and the cruelty of some internet blogs.

Inevitably, the book has its limitations. At several points, Evans steers his discussion in a particular direction on the grounds that his concern is to introduce Kierkegaard as a "philosopher" rather than a "theologian". But what this distinction amounts to and where the line should be drawn are interesting questions, and the answers far less clear than Evans seems to assume.

The final section of the last chapter, explicitly on Kierkegaard's "challenge to the contemporary world", is rather thin. There are two significant omissions here. First, Evans has discussed earlier what he calls the "no neutrality thesis": the idea that human reason is never neutral with respect to religious claims. The idea that Kierkegaard's view of faith can be offered as an interesting challenge to "evidentialism" is crying out for a reference to Dawkins and company, but none of the "new atheists" gets a mention, so the opportunity to show undergraduates how Kierkegaard may provide a thought-provoking sparring partner for them is lost.

Second, Evans discusses at length Kierkegaard's famous contrast between Religiousness A - a generic, "Socratic" religiousness characterised by resignation, suffering and guilt - and the distinctively Christian Religiousness B, based around the "absolute paradox" of the "god-man". On the former, Evans' well-informed discussion of suffering (Lidelse) helps us to understand that what Kierkegaard really has in mind is creatureliness: recognition of radical dependence upon God and the absence of wilfulness in light of this. But what a contemporary reader is likely to ask about this faith map is where other major world religions fit in, and on this Kierkegaard is largely silent. Disappointingly, so is Evans, who merely describes the questions of whether Kierkegaardian categories are useful in the context of other religious traditions - and thus what Kierkegaard may have to say to a religiously pluralistic world - as "open and fascinating" ones. Despite these gaps, I would highly recommend this as a clear, well-informed and sensible guide by one of the most prominent of Kierkegaard scholars.

Kierkegaard: An Introduction

By C. Stephen Evans. Cambridge University Press. 222pp, £45.00 and £15.99. ISBN 9780521877039 and 700412. Published 9 April 2009

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