Review: Kierkegaard, Metaphysics and Political Theory

Kierkegaard, Metaphysics and Political Theory: Unfinished Selves by Alison Assiter (Continuum) £65 (hb)

Søren Kierkegaard

Søren Kierkegaard

While there has been no shortage of secondary literature on the work of Søren Kierkegaard, until quite recently the general consensus amongst scholars seems to have been that the writings of this troubled religious thinker have little to offer contemporary debates in social and political thought.

Instead Kierkegaard has long been considered the father of modern existentialism, and following the critique of Emmanuel Levinas and others, is often thought to offer little more than a philosophy of the drastically individual and a-social human subject for whom truth is nothing but a matter of subjective decision. Rather than offering a social and political critique which pre-figures contemporary critical theory, Kierkegaard’s philosophy has often been seen as an existential analysis of personal religious salvation.

Recently however, there have begun to appear a number of texts seeking to recover Kierkegaard as a potential resource for critical social theory. Allison Assiter’s Kierkegaard, Metaphysics, and Political Theory: Unfinished Selves is the most recent intervention in the growing body of social and political secondary Kierkegaard literature.

Whereas the majority of work on Kierkegaard proceeds by placing his thought in the context of recent European philosophy, Assiter instead considers Kierkegaard in relation to the metaphysical assumptions underlying the liberal political tradition. Of primary concern for this project is a critique of the conception of the self Assiter identifies as underlying the broadly Rawlsian liberal political project. The secondary concern is to construct an alternative conception of the self to underlie both liberal theory and the accompanying liberal human rights tradition.

Assiter’s analysis begins by drawing out the implicit metaphysical picture of the person underlying the liberal tradition, which is that of an autonomous, self interested and rational individual. Assiter wants to oppose this liberal conception of the self with a self that is embodied, connected with others, needy, and loving. Rather than attempting to critique the liberal human rights tradition as such, Assiter seeks to replace the underlying picture of the self at the heart of this tradition.

Assiter’s primary critique of Rawls and the liberal tradition is its inherent sense of reason and justice said to be possessed by all rational individuals. The underside of this inherent sense of reason is that those who fall outside of the community of the reasonable can be regarded as evil, and subsequently be excluded from the community of those with reason and rights. In this tradition, the individual precedes all communal and collective relations, and the mad or un-reasonable person can be excluded.

Against this individualism Assiter claims, against Rawls, that there is a common nature to all humans which precedes the emergence of the individual. The import of this point is that one is not excluded from human community on the grounds that they are mad or without reason. Rather, Assiter argues for an original and universal community which pre-figures any individualism. Rather than being grounded in universal reason, Assiter wants to make love the metaphysical foundation of morality and ethics.

While it sometimes seems as if Kierkegaard’s name is out of place in the title of this work, Assiter finally deals explicitly with the work of Kierkegaard in the final chapters.

Assiter avoids interacting with the religious tropes present in the work of Kierkegaard and instead attempts to naturalise Kierkegaard’s political and social thought. Whereas Kierkegaard theorises love as being a relation between the human and the divine, Assiter removes this divine-human relationship and instead makes the self-love of humanity the primary form of loving existence. While useful for making Kierkegaard more palatable to the tongue of secular political theory, Assiter too easily glances over the subtle complexity of Kierkegaard’s vision of love.

Rather then advocating either a purely supernatural or natural view of the human, Kierkegaard offers a paradoxical theory by which the human, and love, occur at the point of intersection between the supernatural and natural, or, infinite and finite. Assiter seems to miss the ontological subtlety of this all too easily, and subsequently fails to realize the relational and socio-political potential of Kierkegaard’s paradoxical theorisation of reality.

Another problem in the work is Assiter’s confusing use of terminology. While framing the work around developing an alternative metaphysic of the self, it seems that rather than a metaphysic she is developing an alternative anthropology, and the work as a whole would be much more effective if the key issue was framed in explicitly anthropological terms.

While this book will be of interest to those looking to push beyond the individualism of liberal political theory, it will likely disappoint those who expect a full scale study of Kierkegaard in relation to metaphysics and politics. While only hinting at the political potential within the work of Kierkegaard, Assiter nonetheless opens up the space for further research into this untapped socio-political potential within his work.

Michael O’Neill Burns is a PhD Student in philosophy at the University of Dundee

Leave a Reply

Trackbacks and Pingbacks: