One time my suitemate popped his head into the room and mentioned that he wanted to read Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard.
“I’ve heard tons of people talk about him,” he said. “But nobody reads him.”
“Bet,” I replied.
Within the hour, we had looked up some basic biographical facts on Kierkegaard and ordered matching copies of “Either/Or.”
Now, I had doubts about Kierkegaard. Almost everyone I know who reads him turns into some quasi-cult member. What’s all the hype?
Regardless, when Thanksgiving and Christmas break came along, I really dug into the text. I highlighted every line that I found interesting and wrote a number in the margins next to it, putting a corresponding number and comment in a google doc.
I am only halfway done with the book, but let me say this: I am now a cult member.
Kierkagaard ought to be included in Hillsdale’s Introduction to Philosophy (PHL 105) courses. Here are my two reasons why.
First, Hillsdale students are in touch with their hearts. Despite the constant emphasis on reason and faith, much of the vigor of the community comes from its strong emotional quality. There is nothing these people are not passionate about, and Kierkegaard deals with emotions in a way other philosophers do not. He treats human nature on an intimate level, such that some of his foremost assertions are about love, desire, sorrow, anxiety, and depression. This is a fairly unique field amongst philosophers: many treat logos, some eros, but almost none make an attempt at thumos. Thus, there is a great potential for affinity between his writings and our students.
Second, Kierkegaard can rescue philosophy from its most common difficulty here at Hillsdale College. I mean, let’s face it: how many times have you talked to an English or philosophy major who says he is “depressed about philosophy” or a Christian who has an almost axiomatic distrust for philosophy? This comes from two main factors. First, that a common theme of the books we read in our core English courses is the Miltonic Principle of being “lowly wise.” This can easily be misconstrued into Hume’s suggestion of playing backgammon and abandoning philosophy since “reason entirely subverts itself.” Sometimes, students conclude that they might not need philosophy or reason to act in accordance with their nature. But the opposite is true: resonance with one’s nature requires understanding — in short, the liberal arts — philosophy, English, theology, and geometry.
The modernists and postmodernists we read in PHL 105 have a singular incompatibility with Christian faith. A close reading of Locke, Descartes, Hume, Kant, or Nietzsche can cast someone into serious doubt about the use of philosophy, or reason, or even about their personal faith itself. As Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn likes to point out, education is dangerous. The PHL 105 course often reads like a rollercoaster — it’s all downhill after the initial climb of Plato’s “Republic.”
Kierkegaard can save us. He grew up Lutheran, entered seminary, and was betrothed to a woman he loved dearly, but gave that life up to devote himself fully to philosophy. He constantly references the Bible in his writings — but not in the cryptic way of Neitzsche and many others. His writings are littered with ideas from, and comparisons to, the Greeks, and his outlook participates in many central Christian beliefs. For example, he writes that “it is through sin that one first catches sight of salvation,” and “the religious is the expression of a paternal love.”
There are, of course, many philosophers who are highly influential and deserve a spot in any survey course. Some students speculate that there should be two semesters of PHL 105 in order to treat thinkers like Hegel, Heidegger, and even contemporaneous writers like MacIntyre. These may be argued at a later date, but Kierkegaard remains singular amongst the philosophers in his holistic treatment of man. The Western Canon is vast, but Kierkegaard holds a unique position to speak to the hopes, fears, minds, and hearts of undergraduates. He deserves a spot in our Introduction to Philosophy course.
Joseph Teti is a sophomore studying English.