Errant Affirmations

On the Physical Meaning of Kierkegaard's Religious Discourses

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David J. Kangas
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , November
     2017.
     208 pages.
     $114.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781350020054.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Inhabiting the phenomenological boundaries between disclosure and concealment, belief and doubt, hope and hopelessness, Errant Affirmations: On the Philosophical Meaning of Kierkegaard’s Religious Discourses offers a poetically-inclined, philosophically-rooted opening into Søren Kierkegaard’s oft-ignored religious discourses. Through David J. Kangas’s deft hand, texts such as Without Authority and Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses gain a richness and interpretive depth that allows them to flourish as works that transcend any attempt to place them merely within a religious frame. To endeavor to narrowly insert them into such a limited locale, according to Kangas, restricts the possibility of being enveloped by the edifying twists and turns within these discourses. Instead, he posits that they call a reader into an attunement towards existence rooted in wonder and doubt, rather than certainty and conceit, that rises out of the recognition of the fragility of human projects and powers. 

Any text that tackles these discourses requires being sensitive of Kierkegaard’s overall project (as in a critique of the speculative philosophy of Kant and Hegel and institutional-centered Christianity) as well as his method (which is both unsystematic and labyrinthine-like). To do this task well entails echoing the themes of these texts, rather than attempting to describe them. Kierkegaard styled his writing as a type of poetry, and the discourses in particular add a sermon-like form to the lyricism of his authorial voice. Here, Kangas is a master at eliciting their serpentine-like qualities, thereby duplicating in their interpretation the very authorial method that Kierkegaard used. 

Structurally, the text is organized into three parts. The first, on inversions of thought and speech, intertwines this focus with four different edifying discourses written between 1843-1844. Kangas reads Kierkegaard as critiquing a view of subjectivity that emphasizes self-overcoming as the highest human capacity. Here, self-transcendence leads one to believe that one is in control over the temporal forces of existence. Themes such as expectation, in which one projects into the future a self-predicted outcome, as well as the nature of gift as anticipating the reception of a specific object, reveal our seeming capacity to transcend time. Yet, Kangas finds in these texts Kierkegaard’s stress on the reality of human existence as being fundamentally about incapacity. Our inability to overcome the radical contingency of the world lies at the center of human concerns and projects; existence is a gift as such. The discourses are then like a “work of art: in giving time and space to the gift of being they dilate the cramped attunement of the human being as informed by care, that is, by the project structure and the all-ravenous effort at knowledge, technique and manipulation” (X). Kierkegaard offers an endless re-discoverable correction that excises the phantom-like error of seeing humans as project-constructed beings.

This affirmation of the incapacities inherent in subjectivity ties the textual whole together. The next two parts interlace this corrective through concerns such as affirmation (part 2) and “Bloomings” (part 3).

Within affirmation, Kangas uncouples the search for truth from actually finding the truth; he glimpses in Kierkegaard the expression of an awareness that understanding God as well as one’s eventual death are impossibilities. A wonder towards each moment of existence is instead the proper response to questions about truth. Likewise, the “blooming” discourses (such as The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air) reveal an attitude towards life in which the care-structure behind human projects must be left behind, to be replaced by an appreciation of the whylessness of existence. 

As a whole, what unfolds is the melting away of a particularly Heideggerian ontological structure that defines subjectivity along the lines of a being grounded in care, especially about death, into a subjectivity that is more flexible and open to the constant interplay of the deformation and reformation of temporal existence. He finds wisdom in Kierkegaard, a form that is ambiguous about theistic commitments, yet deeply aware of the tragic excesses that frequent existence. Moments of joy and grief, of sublimity and confusion, of love and hate, of power and powerlessness are all given new textures in their disclosive power, ever transcendent of human control and expectation. More fundamental than any human endeavor is our human incapacity to comprehend and control the life formed by our breathing and babbling.

It is difficult not to see that Kangas wrapped himself into this project, as he completed the text while he was dying of cancer. He evokes a meditative wandering into questions of life and ultimate reality, one structured by Kierkegaard’s texts as an event that erupts into the liminal spaces within human experience. The deep beauty of the text is how he exemplifies Kierkegaard’s own voice in a manner that speaks to a post-Christian context. It is deeply affecting as such, sparking a wistful yet hopeful openness to the twists and turns of life. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Peder Jothen is Assistant Professor of Religion at St. Olaf College.

Date of Review: 
January 7, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David J. Kangas was Associate Professor of philosophy at California State University, Stanislaus USA. He is the author of Kierkegaard's Instant: On Beginnings (2007) and Errant Affirmations: On the Philosophical Meaning of Kierkegaard's Religious Discourses (2017).

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