Selfhood and Otherness in Kierkegaard's Authorship

A Heterological Investigation

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Leo Stan
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , October
     248 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This book is a revised version of Leo Stan’s dissertation. It is a very thorough survey of Kierkegaard’s primary works, as well as the relevant secondary literature on the focused issue of “heterology,” meaning the relationships of the person with others. There are six chapters and a conclusion, covering roughly two hundred pages.

The general outline follows the three main spheres of existence in Kierkegaard: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious, with the greatest amount of attention paid to the religious. The psychological state described as aesthetic is to a great extent “heterophobic” in that it has a negative attitude toward other human beings and God, and remains trapped in solipsism. Stan seeks to complicate this picture, however, by noting that Johannes the Seducer, even though he is manipulative of those around him, does show a slight opening toward, at least, awareness of their existence as separate selves from himself. Judge William, who represents the ethical sphere, shows awareness of and concern for others, particularly one’s spouse and family. He also seeks to support a social order in which human beings can rely on guidelines for relating to others morally, and on a sense of fairness and justice. 

The four major chapters on the religious sphere begin with one devoted to Kierkegaard’s understanding of sin. Because God is holy and human beings are sinners, there is an inescapable sense of God’s otherness, which is expressed in the phrase “the infinite qualitative distinction between God and man” (82). The possibility of redemption and spiritual transformation made possible by God’s grace entails an inner heterology within each human being: we are sinners, yet we are called to become saints. This tension is another form of otherness within human experience. The next chapter explores more fully Kierkegaard’s understanding of God’s character. God is other than human beings in being an omnipotent creator, ruler, and judge, but God is also other in being a “salvific father whose core motivation is love”(106).

The next chapter focuses on Kierkegaard’s christology, stressing the paradoxical otherness of Christ in relation to all fallen sinners, which is held in tension with his identification with all human beings through his incarnation. Christ possesses divine qualities, which is an aspect of his difference from other human beings; his holiness, in particular, instantiates the ideal of what it is to be a human being, an ideal that sinful human beings will always fall short of. Nevertheless, the Christian is called to be an imitatorof Christ, a point that receives great stress in Kierkegaard’s writings. Stan recognizes this tension (how can we imitate the one who is ontologically different from us?), but does not give it as thorough an exposition as the reader might wish.

This is followed by a chapter on Kierkegaard’s comments on social relations, viewed from a religious point of view. On the one hand, Kierkegaard is harshly critical of crowds, publics, mobs, and all of the falsity and violence to which they contribute. But he also has positive things to say about the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Stan considers the critiques of Kierkegaard as an acosmic individualist made by Martin Buber, Theodore Adorno, and Emmanuel Levinas; however, he finds the critiques largely unconvincing and off the mark, although he does concede that the charge of individualism has been made so often that it cannot be entirely baseless. Stan’s main argument is that Kierkegaard did have a positive vision of social relations and neighborly love, articulated in the idea that if one is rightly related to the God who is love, then one will act in the world as one who loves the neighbor. To hate the neighbor is empirical evidence of a mis-relation with God. Stan admits, however, that there is a prioritization of the individual’s relation to God in Kierkegaard that seems to relativize and very subtly demote the importance of one’s relation with others. 

Overall, this is a very readable and thoroughly researched treatise on an important aspect of Kierkegaard’s thought. I recommend its purchase by academic libraries and scholars who have an interest in its subject matter. My one point of criticism is that the author could have developed more carefully the notion that there is a dynamic “oscillating fan” image at work in Kierkegaard’s overall message. Human beings grow up and are socialized into “crowds” in the negative sense; the call to disentangle the individual from the crowd and lift him or her up to a relationship with God is not an end in itself. Rather, the individual hears the command of God—“you shall love your neighbor as yourself”—and is thus sent back down to the horizontal plane as an agent of change. The spiritual life of the Christian is a constant oscillation from the upward tilt to the vertical, from the individual to the social. Stan has analyzed the structural elements very carefully, but could have done more with this dynamic aspect of Kierkegaard’s thought, and how that might be relevant in our world today.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Charles K. Bellinger is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics at Brite Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
June 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Leo Stan earned his doctorate at McMaster University.


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