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Kierkegaard For Beginners Paperback – August 21, 2007
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From the Back Cover
The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard was one of the most original thinkers of the nineteenth century - and one of the most enigmatic men who ever walked the earth. Philosophically, Kierkegaard was the "bridge" that led from Hegel to Existentialism. Kierkegaard abhorred Hegel's abstract, know-it-all idealism that tried to capture reality in a few words. Kierkegaard's attack on social and religious complacency and his single-handed assault on traditional Western philosophy generated a crisis that produced a radically new way of philosophizing and made him the founder of the school that would later be called Existentialism. To Kierkegaard, reality was personal, subjective - it began and ended with the individual - and philosophy was not something one merely talked about, it was the way you lived. For such a brilliant thinker, the way Kierkegaard lived was ... somewhat too interesting. His "abstract" love affair? His obsession with death? His "Leap of Faith", his cynicism, his marvellous sense of humor - how do you put all that into one man?
About the Author
Donald Palmer is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the College of Marin in Kentfield, California. Currently he is Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is also author of Sartre For Beginners, Looking at Philosophy, and Does the Center Hold?.
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The format of the For Beginners series is very inviting and helps make the subject matter less daunting and far from boring, which is the point, and a good reason to use this series' versions whenever getting to know a thinker for the first time. You will get a broad overview of the person's career without getting bogged down too quickly in any one particular life phase. Once you see what it is you appreciate in the career timeline, you can more easily zero in on that selection of books and go from there.
Kierkegaard For Beginners covers the Either/Or argument, the felial Abraham sacrifice delimma and explores Soren's own Christian commitment in a way that will charm and attract even nonchristians as it did me. His inspired figure of the "Knight of Faith" is a fascinating hook and resolves his existentialist concerns heroically.
At the bottom of his writing is the need to account for and deal productively with the bitter anxiety bedrock of the human psyche, and how to resolve that energy and bring it into a sort of freeing self-affirmation by resolving one's will on the issues on which it brings anxiety to bear (thus the "Either/Or" theme elsewhere in title by same name). The comical critique of this is "which breakfast cereal ought I to eat today?!" but the practical application is more in line with "should I renounce playing bridge with the back-stabbing cretins at the moose lodge and take up philosophy/working with kids/see Tibet.") The concern is on changing those things that make one anxious so that they no longer cause anxiety. This said, there is a positive spin on anxiety as the doorbell that "God" rings when he is ready to visit. The feeling of dread, thus, is the threshold over which one comes into contact again with the Divine or whatever makes your life unquestionably, profoundly worthwhile.
This book, as typically the series does, makes the full nature of the life and work roughly, excitingly intelligible in the space of about an hour. No small feat. Definite MUST for Kierkegaard beginners.
Kierkegaard is difficult to understand, partly because his thought system is complex, but also because he often chose to write in what Palmer calls a "parable" format, for example espousing his views on the "aesthetic" stage by writing pseudonymous pieces in the aesthetic voice. Palmer clearly explains this device while simultaneously explaining the major tenets illuminated by the device, no mean feat of summarizing in so brief a space. He pretty well does the same with most of Kierkegaard's major ideas, which is exactly what you would hope for from a book like this.
My quarrel with the book is with the illustrations and some insufficient treatment of some key ideas. The illustrations are many, they are not funny or helpful, they are distracting, patronizing and annoying. And they take up space that would have been better spent explaining more fully some points that are not made sufficiently clear. I would include most notably in the latter category a more lucid explanation of Kierkegaard's views of the subjective and objective realms and just exactly why (instead of merely that) Kierkegaard maintains that life is only fully lived when its tenuousness, or emptiness, is realized. This idea is an important link with eastern philosophies and was first introduced into Western thought by Kierkegaard. It would have been helpful to have gone a bit deeper into this core idea, and room could perhaps have been made by eliminating a fatuous "illustration" or two. I would not have been as cranky about the illustrations if they had been of the same quality as the text or as amusing as those in the "For Dummies" series.
Those criticisms said, the book does manage to deftly explain, in very accessible summary fashion, the principal ideas of this rather inaccessible but important thinker. Even the ideas that are not as thoroughly treated as one would have liked (even in so concise a summary) are at least mentioned, and the reader is referred to the work, and even page number, where Kierkegaard sets them forth.
My interest in this series is to read summaries of the work of thinkers I am curious about but whose principal works I may never quite get to. I decided to test the series by starting with this book, because I actually have read most of Kierkegaard. I'm more impressed than I thought I would be, and I will try some more in the series.