Kierkegaard: An Introduction
Review of C. Stephen Evans' book "Kierkegaard: An Introduction" by Conor Gilliland
C. Stephen Evans, Kierkegaard: An Introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 206 pages. $24.78. ISBN: 978-0-521-70041-2.
In C. Stephen Evans’ latest contribution to Kierkegaard scholarship, the reader is offered a concise yet rich briefing on the philosophy of Kierkegaard. The word “philosophy” here is chosen carefully, as opposed to “thought,” because it is Evans’ aim to present Kierkegaard not only as a religious thinker, but also as a serious philosopher whose arguments bear significantly in the areas of epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics.
Evans organizes his book around Kierkegaard’s three stages of existence–the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. Evans says the aesthetic life is characterized by avoiding commitments, pursuing novelty, and in some cases living one’s whole life as a work of art. The ethical stage is characterized by the tragic hero, like Agamemnon who sacrificed his daughter to benefit the Greek war effort, whose ethical duty to his child (the individual) is superseded by allowing the laws and customs of a culture to satisfy the “demands of reason.” The ethical life can also be seen as a procession to the religious life, which is primarily understood as “a general quest to understand how it is possible for an individual to become a Christian.” Ultimately, the religious stage is expressed in the religion of transcendence, the religion of revelation incapable of being invented by man, Christianity.
By organizing his book around these three stages, Evans affords himself the opportunity to stay true to Kierkegaard’s moderately “existential” approach to philosophy and also to introduce several key Kierkegaardian concepts such as the self, truth as subjectivity, and the Absolute Paradox.
The “self” is, of course, what the three stages are all about so it is not surprising that Evans introduces this concept early on in the book. He says that for Kierkegaard the self is a relation between the finite and the infinite, between the temporal and the eternal. This is the substance of the self, but the self is more than a substance. In addition to being a substantial being, the self is a becoming – a task to be achieved. The self achieves this task by relating to the “other.” The other refers to other people, to be sure, but the most true self grounds this relation in God.
For the self to make progress one must also develop the right kind of subjectivity, or inwardness. By subjectivity, Evans says, Kierkegaard means desires, hopes, fears, and so on. In fact, what we can know is conditioned by the kinds of people we are. And this is what Kierkegaard meant by “truth is subjectivity.” Evans argues, contrary to several interpretations, that Kierkegaard did not think truth was a creation of human subjectivity, but rather that one’s subjectivity needs to be embraced on the path to objective truth. In other words, it is more important to live one’s life in such a way that it reflects various objective truths, and that a person who lives in a way contrary to the objective truths he or she knows is living in a much worse kind of untruth.
One such truth for Kierkegaard is the Absolute Paradox. The Absolute Paradox refers to the Incarnation of Jesus. Kierkegaard calls this the Absolute Paradox because it is a synthesis of eternality and temporality; the God-man is the most improbable of all things. Many have taken Kierkegaard to mean that the Incarnation is an unintelligible logical contradiction. Evans rightly counters that interpretation saying instead that the Absolute Paradox is not against reason, but beyond reason.
Beginners and seasoned Kierkegaard scholars alike will be edified by this book because Evans keeps it concise, well-organized, and extremely readable as he takes the reader through a rich discourse on a profound philosopher.