Book Review: Kierkegaard For Beginners

Kierkegaard For Beginners, by Donald D. Palmer

This is a book I wish I had read when I was younger.  As a teenager just becoming interested in philosophy as a formal subject, this would have been a good book to read, not least because it paints Kierkegaard as a troubled but relatable person.  It is all too commonly the case that the philosophers of modern period have been particularly troubled souls, and that was certainly the case here.  Moreover, the sort of trouble that Kierkegaard faced is trouble that I can certainly believe, with his concern about ancestral curses thanks to the behavior of his father, the fact that he was a bright and caustically witty person who was bullied by peers when young and who grew up to be an eccentric and somewhat combative adult.  Even his awkward relationships with others, including a young woman he loved but did not marry, is something that strikes this reader at least as somewhat Nathanish, a matter that this book discusses in somewhat unpleasant detail, given that it appears to have been an important layer of meaning within his writings.  Obviously, when someone talks a lot about their personal life and happens to be a notable thinker it is worthwhile to understand their biography.

This book is a bit more than 100 pages and is divided into eight chapters.  The author begins with a biographical discussion that attempts to describe who Soren Kierkegaard was (1).  After that, the author discusses the very Nathanish idea of indirect communication that Kierkegaard used in his heavily ironic writings (2) as well as the tricky relationship between subjective and objective truth (3) that the author does not entirely correctly convey.  After that the author discusses “death” and “existence” as subjective truths (overlooking their objective reality) (4), and then discusses the way that consciousness is itself a problem by cutting ourselves from the objective reality outside of us (5).  After that the author discusses angst (dread, anxiety) and its importance for Kierkegaard (6) as well as the many-layered problem of despair that leads us into a genuinely faithful relationship with God (7).  After that the author ends his discussion with a description of Kierkegaard’s three spheres of existence, namely the aesthetic (where people focus on pleasure), the ethical (where people have made a decision to live according to right standards of living), and the religious (where people have a vulnerable but intense relationship with God) (8), at which point the book ends, having been full of illustrations and a good bit of dark humor.

Even so, although this book is enjoyable it is not quite perfect.  The author, unfortunately, misunderstands Kierkegaard as a subjectivist when he was in contrast a strong defender of objective reality, even if one who commented on the different between truth as intellectually known (and somewhat barren) and truth as lived out in acts of love and faith.  Like many intellectual people, Kierkegaard well understood the ethical demands of life but struggled to get out of his own head sometimes.  Likewise, the author is somewhat anachronistic in viewing Kierkegaard in terms of the thinking of Sartre rather than according to his own deeply Christian (if not very traditional) perspective.  The author’s misunderstandings are not the sort that would be fatal to someone who read Kierkegaard deeply, but it would likely give the sort of mistaken view that would especially appeal to young readers looking for the intellectual support for their own quixotic quests against authorities that young people tend to be frequently caught up in.   In short, this is a book that I would have greatly appreciated as a teenager, but it is one whose value to me in terms of instruction and example would have been a bit doubtful.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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