Kierkegaard and the Philosophy of Love

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Michael Strawser
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , October
     2015.
     226 pages.
     $85.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780739184936.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Michael Strawser’s book, Kierkegaard and the Philosophy of Love, is an important contribution to understanding the universal human experience of love. Rather than attempting a metaphysics on the nature of love as an abstract concept, which has often been the task of theologians and philosophers, Strawser takes a phenomenological approach to the consciousness of the lover and beloved, attending to the pre-reflective experiences of love. He works through Søren Kierkegaard’s extensive writing on love to show that “Kierkegaard’s central issue can and should be understood more broadly and phenomenologically as the task of becoming a lover” (IX).

Throughout the book, Strawser brings Kierkegaard into conversation with other thinkers. He contrasts his philosophy of love with Baruch Spinoza’s, and compares his phenomenology with that of Max Scheler, Dietrich von Hildebrand, and Emmanuel Levinas. However, his primary interpreter is Jean-Luc Marion. Strawser utilizes Marion’s concept of erotic reduction from The Erotic Phenomenon as a lens through which to read Kierkegaard (103) and to develop a univocal view of love (14) in contrast to Anders Nygren’s sharp distinction between eros and agape (117) that has been very influential. The book examines four important aspects of love present in Kierkegaard: incitement, immediacy, intentionality, and eternity. This is followed by critiques of Kierkegaard’s views of self-love and the love of God that are incompatible with the understanding of love as erotic reduction that Strawser is developing.

For Kierkegaard, love is a first phenomenology given love is the substance of life and love precedes knowing (75). Central to this understanding of love is the incitement of love’s movement towards another “for it is through the back and forth relation of loving others and being loved in return that what we would call the existence of a particular person comes to be known” (75). The initial nature of the erotic reduction is concern for the Other and one can only fall out of love by not maintaining this movement (82). This is a valuable critique of Levinas’s ultimacy of the alterity of the Other (123) that sets up a necessary distance which can never be bridged without conquering. In contrast, the love of neighbor transcends dissimilarity because in being the Other we are all similar (100). Marion contrasts the body that withdraws with the flesh that involves an “opening unto the other” (81) in love’s immediacy. This finally takes on the character of eternality for the lover through the continuous repetition of acts of love. It is a beautiful exploration of the way love unites the self with the Other and brings deep joy. As Kierkegaard says, “loving people is the only thing worth living for” (187).

This methodological approach is not without limitations. “A phenomenological approach to the philosophy of love focuses on a unified approach while suspending theological and soteriological concerns” (119). At times, this results in Strawser stretching interpretations of Kierkegaard to fit his argument while at other moments simply disagreeing with Kierkegaard entirely. Strawser acknowledges that bracketing Christian metaphysics creates a number of problems for understanding Kierkegaard through Marion’s erotic reduction. For example, “because for the lover who only sees the other as lovable there is no occasion for forgiveness, since no sins are discovered” … “it is surely distinct from an experience of love” (106). A conception of love that precludes forgiveness seems quite alien to any Christian notion of love. He argues that forgiveness is always derivative, but without a Christian metaphysics of a perfect creation and a perfect eschaton, this leaves only the demand for a pure utopian love in the here and now. Additionally, Strawser simply disagrees with Kierkegaard on the centrality of the love of God. “We cannot understand the love of God and the love of humans in the same way” (169) because God does not appear for us as another embodied human does, there is no “crossing of flesh” (169). Christian theology has historically assumed this analogous relation, but Strawser makes theology antithetical to a true philosophy of love. “When we read Kierkegaard as a phenomenologist of love we will not be distracted by the metaphysical notions of self, sin, and salvation, for these can all be seen as related to an experience of fear, while none of them need to belong to the proper phenomenon of love” (179). Strawser concludes that “the phenomenology of love rightly centers its focus on loving others rather than either loving oneself or loving God” (183). To disagree with and attempt to bracket the fundamental priority of God’s love ultimately may obfuscate a full understanding of Kierkegaard’s conception of love rather than elucidate it.

Strawser’s phenomenological exploration of love in the writings of Søren Kierkegaard offers valuable insights into the philosopher’s life’s work. Although some elements of his methodology force Strawser to dismiss counter evidence at times, the resulting analysis of Marion’s phenomenology explores the profound experience of love and creates new ways for reading the many faces of Kierkegaard. If one is hoping for a more exhaustive exploration of the concept of love in Kierkegaard’s writings, one will have to look elsewhere. For those who would like an introduction into phenomenological studies of Kierkegaard, Strawser’s book is an approachable and engaging discussion that conveys the relevance of Kierkegaard for a contemporary world very much in need of more love.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Austin C. Kopack is a graduate student in Philosophy and Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
January 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Strawser is chair of the Department of Philosophy and associate professor of philosophy at the University of Central Florida.

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