Saturday, March 25, 2006

David B. Hart, his critics, and "The Laughter"

As noted in the post of "The Laughter of the Philosophers," Professor Hart provoked some outrage of his comments. Below are various letters to the editor and Professor Hart's response.

Laughing Matters

I am gratified that much of my assessment of Kierkegaard’s humor is confirmed by a critic as distinguished and rigorous as David B. Hart (see “The Laughter of the Philosophers,” January).

In his critique, Mr. Hart has focused intently on a single sentence concerning the gauntlet that the book lays down, which is simple and explicit: “Bundle together any other ten philosophers who have made a major impact in the history of philosophy. I challenge any reader to assemble a selection of humor from all of them put together that is funnier than what you find in this volume of Kierkegaard.” What I intended as a provocative metaphorical goad, Hart took literally as a definite and categorical challenge, which I welcome. Whether his candidate, J. G. Hamann, has indeed had a major impact on the history of philosophy, or whether he in fact is a philosopher, Hart himself debates. It is only when someone produces a book on the humor of Hamann (plus nine other philosophers) that by some form of common consent exceeds The Humor of Kierkegaard that the question of who is the funniest can begin to be settled. Meanwhile the gauntlet remains down.

Against Kierkegaard’s light-hearted charge that latitudinarian Danish Christendom has become something like a “‘Christian’ whorehouse,” Mr. Hart surprised me by going so far as to argue that indeed “there are ‘Christian’ whorehouses.” This made me want to learn a lot more than I presently know. It is dubious that such Kierkegaardian analogies are more vitriolic than Mr. Hart’s own favorite whimsical anecdote about Schopenhauer throwing an old lady down the stairs. Which is funnier is a question of aesthetic assessment about which reasonable persons can disagree.

I have made entirely clear my sole criterion for making these selections: Are they funny to me? What other criterion would have been possible to an anthologist of humor? I leave it entirely to others to judge whether portions of the book are funny. I respect their judgment and hope they will recognize mine as a feeble attempt to do justice to the task, however necessarily subjective it is. From the outset I warned my reader that many of these episodes are “merely a droll analogy, witty reasoning, or a ridiculous metaphor.”

Hart would have preferred a shorter volume. Many seasoned Kierkegaard readers have a favorite story and would have been outraged had I left it out. I did not include every anecdote but preferred to err by amplitude rather than by paucity.

Thomas C. Oden
Department of Theology Drew University Madison
New Jersey

For the sake of a Christianity that is philosophically informed and exploratory, I strongly protest David B. Hart’s comments on Immanuel Kant in the January issue of First Things. Mr. Hart dismisses the texts of Kant’s philosophical maturity, presumably including all three Critiques, as well as the Prolegomena and the Groundwork, on account of their “sublime spiritual sterility.” It is hard for me to believe that Mr. Hart has ever read these works with any care, if at all. He has almost certainly not read Karl Jaspers’ little book on Kant, nor has he, even though an Eastern Orthodox theologian, apparently paid much attention to the writings of Nicolas Berdyaev. Although not a Christian by profession, Jaspers’ philosophy was Christian in many of its tenets, and he was also systematically Kantian. Jaspers’ book on Kant brings out the Prussian philosopher’s rich spiritual resources. Berdyaev, whose writings seem to me quite the opposite of spiritually sterile, admired Kant above all other philosophers, and he counted himself, at least at times, a Kantian (and at the same time, of course, as Christian). It goes without saying that the bearing of Kant’s philosophy on Christianity is open to debate. What is not open to debate, however, is the relevance of that philosophy to spiritual concerns.

Mr. Hart also considers Kant to be “the most boring man ever to darken a wigmaker’s doorway.” This presumably is due to his being so sublimely spiritually sterile. I grant that Kant was not a gifted or graceful writer. I grant, too, that reading him is hard, and sometimes exasperating. Need I point out, however, that his impact on writers and thinkers ever since the publication of The Critique of Pure Reason in 1781 has been explosive? He has no doubt misled some of them, whether wittingly or not, but he has not bored them.

I don’t feel that statements so uninformed and unthinking as Mr. Hart’s should be published in a serious intellectual journal. But perhaps I am just lacking a sense of humor. That this is the case is perhaps indicated by the fact that I do not find “amusing” the story of Schopenhauer’s throwing a cleaning woman over a balustrade to the landing below.

Glenn Tinder
Lincoln, Massachusetts

In “The Tangled Web” (Public Square, November 2001), Richard John Neuhaus referred to Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians as an “effetely sneering exercise in debunking one’s betters.” I was reminded of that as I read David B. Hart’s “The Laughter of the Philosophers.” Here we discover that Kant was “the single most boring man ever to darken a wigmaker’s doorway” and that his Critique of Pure Reason is “nearly as fanciful, silly, and diverting as Alice in Wonderland,” that Hegel possessed a “grindingly pompous soul,” that Derrida was insufferably self-infatuated, that Kierkegaard’s contribution to philosophy is “dubious” and his understanding of Christianity “disastrously false,” and that Isaiah Berlin was “one of the twentieth century’s most indefatigably fraudulent intellectuals.” Perhaps as he flounders in such deep waters, Mr. Hart’s struggles for breath become raspberries. But why would First Things publish such tripe?

Ben M. Carter
Irving, Texas

David B. Hart is appealingly hopeful about those who, while themselves undedicated to Christ, may yet be haunted by the love of Christ communicated to them through the signs and symbols of a once-Christianized society. But he is still too quick to exclude the legitimate place of shrillness in the community of the lapsed or the lazy. (From within the Orthodox tradition, one thinks of the almost unbearable urgency of St. Symeon the New Theologian.) As for Mr. Hart’s attack upon Kierkegaard’s Attack Upon Christendom, it seems that for all of Hart’s interest in gnomic communication, he takes Kierkegaard a bit too straightforwardly here. For one thing, this particular work was never meant as a complete statement upon Christianity in the world. One need only read Kierkegaard’s journal to see this. Nor was it intended as an object for pure contemplation (let alone entertainment). It was a self-consciously hyperbolic wake-up call, a “shock-book.” To judge it according to the criteria Mr. Hart employs is to detach it from its context.

Would one object to the Prophet Amos because he was shrill in denouncing empty liturgical show? Should Kierkegaard, too, have been more spiritually advanced—somehow—than to get himself all worked up over hypocrisy? Mr. Hart’s hero of faith, Hamann, may have been beyond such things. Scripture, though, along with the bulk of the patristic and canonical tradition, is shrill and tiresome rather more in the manner of Kierkegaard.

Will Cohen
Doctoral Candidate in Theology Catholic University of America
Washington, D.C.

David B. Hart’s article was an essay in praise of J. G. Hamann disguised as a review of Thomas C. Oden’s book. The author expresses such antipathy toward Kierkegaard’s thought that one wonders why he would agree to review a work on Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard’s humor is said to be tiresome, his philosophical contributions dubious, his understanding of Christianity false in significant respects, his critique of another’s philosophical positions obvious at best, his assault on “Christendom” barren and unsubtle, and his presentation of the Christian paradox a meretricious and misleading appeal. Have Hart and I read the same author? (I, too, am a believer.)

According to Mr. Hart, Hamann, not Kierkegaard, deserves the title of “most amusing” philosopher. Kierkegaard turns out to be an epigone of Hamann and only questionably a humorist. Meanwhile, Thomas Oden’s book is damned by faint praise.

But not to worry: Kierkegaard can be enlisted in Thomas Oden’s defense. And as usual he has the situation well covered in his own astute (and humorous) way:

A reviewer he cannot properly be called, but the whole episode, like many earlier ones in literature, reminds me of what one sees in daily life. On market day, the farmer drives in with his wares; he has them carefully packed in clean wrappings; he is already happily anticipating that when he opens up, everything must look clean, inviting, and tempting to the buyers. But the buyer does not come first. No, first come three or four loathsome marketplace loafers who paw and tear at the wares and soil the clean meat with their loathsome handling. This reviewer can best be compared to that kind of marketplace loafer; they have not only loathsomeness in common but also their aim: to earn a little drink money—by carrying home and by reviewing.

Or did Hamann say this also? And better?

Robert B. Scheidt
Van Wert, Ohio

David B. Hart describes Hegel’s philosophical prose as “leaden, caliginous bombast.” But there is another Hegel, possibly influenced (like Kierkegaard) by Hamann, who is tremendously witty and an able competitor with Kierkegaard. This is the Hegel who says that Kant, whose Critique of Pure Reason asks us to understand reason before trying to use it, is like the “scholastic who wanted to learn to swim” before getting in the water; who says that Kant’s description of the cosmological proof for God’s existence as a “nest of contradictions” applies best to Kant’s own moral philosophy; who compares emotivist philosophers to those about whom the Psalmist says “God gives them wisdom in their sleep” (and thus what they produce is only dreams); who characterizes the “Absolute Idea” of Schelling as the in which all cows are black” and an “infinite abyss” into which all concrete content vanishes; who advises those who wonder whether they can really know sense objects to consider the wisdom of brute animals, who don’t stand paralyzed before sense particulars but just “gobble them up”; and who speaks about the humor of nature, which “combines the organ of its highest fulfillment, the organ of generation, with the organ of urination.”

Howard P. Kainz
Philosophy Department Marquette University
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

David B. Hart replies:

The danger of writing an ostentatiously opinionated piece, and of using flippancy as a means for securing a few cheap laughs, is that the objects of one’s irreverence are often the objects of others’ sincerest devotion. That said, I remain largely impenitent regarding this article, principally because I do not believe—nor do I think it legitimate to conclude—that every unflattering remark made about some aspect of a philosopher’s work or personality is equivalent to a complete rejection of that philosopher. Of many of the figures I mock, I am both an admirer and a student.

Thomas C. Oden is correct to defend his selection from Kierkegaard’s works; I remain firm in my opinion—which is of course a purely subjective judgment—that the volume contains many passages that are not very amusing, and some that are not meant to be. It is an excellent selection for all that, and gives me yet another reason to admire Professor Oden’s scholarship. As for my remark about Christian whorehouses, it was—in context—clear enough I think; in case I am wrong about this, however, please be assured that I was not attempting some devious defense of illicit entertainments. It was, I should mention, the express desire of the editor of the article that I should attempt to take up Prof. Oden’s “gauntlet”; given the nature of the anthology, he wisely thought that a more interesting course to pursue than writing a simple review.

I can assure Mr. Tinder that I have read all of Kant’s major works, often and carefully. To remark that Kant was a very boring man is to say nothing that even his admirers would not generally acknowledge, and to confess my low opinion of the developed form of his transcendental idealism is hardly to deny his epochal significance or his genius. I do in fact like several aspects of Jaspers’ treatments of Kant. I have not read much Berdyaev, though, since my early twenties; I tend to think that this is about the time at which one should stop reading him, but perhaps a second look is called for. As for the Schopenhauer anecdote, de gustibus non est disputandum.

While I am of course entirely disarmed by the richness of Mr. Carter’s argument, I am not confident he can properly assess the degree of my intellectual buoyancy or determine whether I am indeed “floundering in deep waters” (and, surely, in the cases of Derrida and Berlin, the metaphor should have been something more like “thrashing in the shallows”). I suspect (or at least hope) that First Things publishes my tripe because the editors believe that my judgments, however misguided, at least proceed from some measure of scholarly competence. It is, I like to think, a very high quality tripe.

I must add, though, that Mr. Carter has attributed to me a remark I did not and would not make; it was the Critique of Practical Reason—not Pure Reason—about which I was so rude, and my remark was anything but frivolous. Frankly, the second Critique has been so often and so devastatingly taken apart (Hegel’s attack on Kantian ethics, for instance, is a tour de force) that it is a wonder that the poor beast has not long since slouched off to some secluded grotto to expire peacefully from its wounds. Let me point to just one notorious defect of Kant’s ethical thought, identified originally by such contemporaries of Kant as Tittel and Pistorius: that the categorical imperative’s universality cannot be demonstrated apart from an examination of consequences. Hence Kant’s infamous appeal (in the Grundlegung) to the trustworthiness of money lending, which all at once renders what is supposed to be an austerely deontological ethics indistinguishable from pure utilitarianism.

This is not a momentary wobble: at this point the acrobat has slipped off the high wire altogether and brought the show to a tragic halt. Simply said, it is manifestly false that the moral law can be grounded in the transcendental subject; reason—at least as Kant understands it—cannot establish the categorical imperative in itself: either it must submit to some calculation of consequences or it must degenerate into sheer assertion, premised upon a transcendental feat of will. This latter course, in fact, is already adumbrated at certain junctures in the Opus Postumum. This is one reason why the transcendental project could not help but gravitate towards the metaphysics of the will in Fichte and even in Schopenhauer (who correctly viewed himself as a child of Kant) and Nietzsche (as Heidegger so acutely recognized). It is also one reason why I (personally) find the second Critique fanciful, silly, and diverting.

If I could grant that Kierkegaard was indeed a prophetic (or, as he might have it, apostolic) witness to Christian truth, I would concede Mr. Cohen’s point without reservation. But this I cannot fully grant, for the reasons I give in my article, and for others.

Mr. Scheidt treats certain of my remarks about Kierkegaard as though they were obiter dicta, insouciantly tossed off without context or explanation. Since I said at some length both what I admire in Kierkegaard and what I do not, I feel little need to explain myself further. Mr. Scheidt is clearly distressed to learn that there might be theologians and Christian philosophers whose appreciation of Kierkegaard is more equivocal than his; but I am far from being unique in this regard. As for the (really very badly written) quote Mr. Scheidt adduces from Kierkegaard’s private papers, it is a good specimen of precisely those aspects of Kierkegaard’s work I find so disheartening. It might have been apposite to my article if Kierkegaard’s work were only now appearing on the scene; it scarcely applies to a considered opinion upon his entire legacy 150 years after his death. And yes, as it happens, Hamann did say much the same thing, but with much less peevishness and far more wit.

With Professor Kainz I am mostly in agreement. I did not mean to give Hegel short shrift. I observed that his prose was turgid and his character pompous, which is correct on both counts. He also, however, possessed a savage and sometimes surgically exact wit. Moreover, he possessed one of the most majestic philosophical minds the world has ever seen, and no one else’s thought excites in me so intoxicating a combination of rapt admiration and sincere dread.

Which is only to emphasize, once again—as the excitable Mr. Carter would do well to remember—that irreverence is not the same thing as contempt. Occasionally it is a sign of long familiarity and perhaps an absence of misplaced piety.