Lee Braver on Kierkegaard and Transgressive Realism

Here are some blog-adapted scraps I’ve decided not to use for a paper, but seem to me to be nonetheless worth saving. They also touch on some of the issues I’ve been gesturing toward in Hart and Zuidervaart in previous posts.


In an essay entitled “A Brief History of Continental Realism,”[1] Braver offers a historical genealogy of the development of “Transgressive Realism,” an ontological and epistemological position he develops with the help of Kierkegaard. His genealogy contains three “steps,” which I will briefly rehearse: (1) Kant and active mind, (2) Hegel and objective idealism, and (3) Kierkegaard and transgressive realism.[2] As Braver narrates, Kant’s Copernican Revolution yields an “Active Mind,” a vision of the human person’s relation to the world as a mind which is not a blank slate on which nature writes, per Locke, but rather an active and intentional mind which grants stability to the contingencies of experience. In order to avoid total idealism, however, Kant posits the noumena in order to retain a mind-independent reality to which the mind relates. Thus Kant is able to have his cake and eat it, too; the best of empiricism is preserved, retaining reality as independent of ideas, yet the human mind is intentionally engaged in organizing experience of that reality. Positing the noumenal realm is a necessary and highly creative move on Kant’s part—yet it is exactly what will be Kant’s undoing. In another essay entitled “On Not Settling the Issue of Realism,” Braver suggests “Noumena represent the vestigial remains of traditional metaphysics in Kant’s system, like an ontological appendix, and it threatens to burst.”[3]

It is Hegel, says Braver, who will perform an appendectomy. According to Hegel, Kant’s position is a “subjective idealism,” as it is ultimately only ideas, not reality itself, which humans are able to know and discuss. A conclusion such as this is a hard price to pay for refuting empirical skepticism, and it seems to cause more trouble than it’s worth. As Braver writes, “The knowledge Kant purchased turns out to be counterfeit: We can circulate this phenomenal currency amongst ourselves, but there is no way to cash it in for anything of true value.”[4] Reality lies forever beyond our reach. Hegel replies to this problem by denying the noumenal altogether. Speaking about the noumenal at all, even if it is to simply suggest the noumenal exists or that we are barred from discussing it, is self-defeating, for it betrays the very nature of the noumenal to refuse to have anything said whatsoever about it. Thus Hegel removes the noumenal and replaces Kant’s “subjective idealism” with an “objective idealism.” For Hegel, there is no domain of reality which cannot be taken up into a higher conceptual plane, which is the domain of truth. “The historical journey of consciousness,” writes Braver, “is the progressive ‘en-souling’…of reality, whereby Geist assimilates everything that initially appears to be outside of us, cancelling its apparent independence while raising it to a higher, spiritual level.”[5] History, then, is the story of infusing the world with meaning, an infusion which attempts to overcome sensory data and experience through idealist transfiguration. Braver notes that this view admits no transcendental outside, and that the transfiguring process is teleologically latent from the beginning.[6]

Such consequences are the grounds for Kierkegaard’s protest. Though Hegel’s criticisms of Kant yield a new ontological framework, a fundamental problem haunts both, namely, a lack, or denial, of surprise, which is the evidence of an outside. On Kant’s view, reality can and must always conform to our conceptual a priori, and on Hegel’s, though there is a historical development of Geist and therefore a certain plurality of concepts,“[w]hen surveyed as a whole,” writes Braver, “…this apparent variety snaps together into a circle which hermetically seals in the set of all possible ways of thinking as tightly as Kant’s single set.”[7] Hegel assures us, like Kant, that the world will always come to us intelligibly; all that is emergent emerges for us. This ontology works itself out ethically in Hegel’s notion of Sittlichkeit, the current instantiation of Geist which yields the best laws, norms, etc. to date. Thus, Braver notes, “Applying this view to ethics yields Hegel’s belief that there is no great difficulty in knowing the right thing to do… simply examine the laws of your government and the mores of your community, as they represent the highest form of Geist at any available time.”[8] Ontologically speaking, this ethical privileging of communal instantiation reflects Hegel’s general commitment to digest that which appears to be outside—everything is fodder for the gullet of Geist. Thus the exception must always be mediated back into the whole.

Hegel’s ontology comes under radical scrutiny from Kierkegaard from a variety of domains. Epistemologically, Kierkegaard criticizes both a recollective model of knowing and Hegelian mediation for failing to account for that which is genuinely new.[9] Further, and this is the point Braver wishes to drive home, Kierkegaard’s understanding of Christian revelation requires that there is something other than human categories and knowledge which is capable of delivering truth to human beings. As Braver writes,

The Christian teacher…brings us something we not only lack, but which we lack the ability to attain, perhaps even to understand or become aware of. Rather than Hegel’s canceled and incorporated otherness, these lessons represent ‘the different, the absolutely different,’ which so exceeds our capacities that we cannot grasp it without a profound change, undergoing something like a conversion rather than merely acquiring a new fact.[10]

Yet greater than the epistemological objection is an ethical one. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard’s pseudonym Johannes de Silentio thematizes the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, as an event wherein our conceptually secure ethical constructions are relativized, “teleologically suspended,” via a radical, Divine interruption. Abraham is asked to commit literally the unthinkable, to murder the son who is supposed to be the vehicle for God’s promise to Abraham, the dissemination of descendents and blessing. Of course, even more than the logical contradictions (this defies the accepted ethics of our time! how will the promise be fulfilled! what validates such a radical command!) is the bond of love between parent and child. In the Akedah, no amount of philosophical ethics will save Abraham from the anxiety and, more importantly, the task to which he has been called. The presence of this story in the Bible throws a massive wrench in the ethical gears of both Kant and Hegel. God is supposed to be the highest expression of ethical truth—yet here, we are forced to either wrestle through the radical demand God has made of Abraham or condemn God and/or Abraham in light of our rational ethical systems.[11]

Of course, Kierkegaard is banking on the fact that his readers do not want to condemn God or Abraham, something we can hardly take for granted today.[12] Yet the philosophical kernel of what is going on here, which is what interests Braver primarily, is of the utmost importance. “Whereas Kant and Hegel place morality entirely within our reach,” writes Braver, “Kierkegaard insists that we dare not claim to know all that morality is and can be. In short, ethics and reason acquire an outside.”[13] What Kierkegaard thus develops philosophically via religion is a third way other than Kant and Hegel, a third way which is not a mediated way but a new way. “Not only is there an outside, as Hegel denies, but we can encounter it, as Kant denies; these encounters are in fact far more important than what we can come up with on our own.”[14] Summarizing Transgressive Realism, Braver writes:

Kierkegaard created the position by merging Hegel’s insistence that we must have some kind of contact with anything we can call real (thus rejecting noumenal), with Kant’s belief that reality fundamentally exceeds our understanding; human reason should not be the criterion of the real. The result is the idea that our most vivid encounters with reality come in experiences that shatter our categories…[15]

Braver’s position is a creative reading of Kierkegaard’s project. At the very least, it contextualizes some of the problems to which Kierkegaard responds historically. Reading Kierkegaard as a realist is also not wholly alien to Kierkegaard studies (see the work of C. Stephen Evans, M. G. Piety, and others). In the remainder of the essay, Braver also puts Levinas and Heidegger in dialogue with a Kierkegaardian Transgressive Realism, arguing for a line of continuity which is worth pursuing (and this, too, is noted in secondary literature on Kierkegaard, especially by Merold Westphal). Problems remain, however; Kierkegaard’s Hegel is certainly only one version of Hegel, and challenging this reading of Hegel is something of a lucrative business these days in contemporary philosophy. While this wouldn’t necessarily challenge the exegetical/historical points Braver is making, it does pose some potential issues for Transgressive Realism. Further, commentators like Jon Stewart and David Kangas have suggested reading Kierkegaard as a figure who subverts Idealism from the inside, pushing it to a radical conclusion–these readings may be able to corroborate Braver’s analysis, but they do seem to complicate matters a little further. In the end, however, I find Braver’s analysis to be a very useful tool in articulating a dynamic at work in Kierkegaard’s thought as a whole, which might give Kierkegaard more purchase in contemporary debates. After all, if there’s a “Speculative Turn,” it’s only a matter of time before Kierkegaard returns, perhaps with a Socratic vengeance, or perhaps with an edifying word. Braver’s analysis allows both paths.


[1] Lee Braver. “A brief history of continental realism.” Continental Philosophy Review. 2012. 45:261-289.

[2] Braver. “A brief history.” 262-263, 263-266, and 266-271, respectively.

[3] Lee Braver. “On Not Settling the Issue of Realism.” Speculations: A Journal of Speculative Realism. IV. 2013. 10.

[4] Braver. “A brief history.” 263.

[5] Braver. “A brief history.” 264.

[6] Braver. “A brief history.” 265.

[7] Braver. “Á brief history.” 267.

[8] Braver. “A brief history.” 267,

[9] Braver notes Philosophical Fragments as a place where Kierkegaard’s criticism of recollection functions also as a criticism of Hegel. It is important, however, to note that Kierkegaard differentiates recollection and mediation elsewhere, as in his book Repetition—thus the theories are not necessarily conflated, but Kierkegaard will note that they come to the same problem, namely, being unable to account for genuine difference. See Braver. “A brief history.” 268. For an excellent exposition of Kierkegaard’s concept of repetition and its relation to mediation and recollection, see Edward F. Mooney. “Repetition: Giftsin World-Renewal” in On Søren Kierkegaard: Dialogue, Polemics, Lost Intimacy, and Time. Ashgate Publishing Company. Burlington, VT. 2007.

[10] Braver. “A brief history.” 269.

[11] Braver seems to suggest Fear and Trembling has its sights primarily on Kant, where Kierkegaard attempts to show a problem for universalizing ethics of a Kantian stripe, but it is important to note that Kierkegaard is explicitly targeting both Kant and Hegel on this score. See Braver. “A brief history.” 269-270. While Kierkegaard commentators are divided, at times, on whether or not to see Fear and Trembling as primarily a criticism of either Kant or Hegel, it seems unnecessary to pick only one target—neither system is capable of dealing with Abraham, and this appears to be Kierkegaard’s ultimate point.

[12] And something Levinas was quick to point out in his criticisms of Kierkegaard, which have, curiously, been themselves criticized by Derrida, not to mention several Kierkegaard scholars. Still, however, in today’s philosophical climate, and especially with regard to Braver’s audience which is largely comprised of self-proclaimed materialists, this point requires some revision. This is the strength of Braver’s analysis.

[13] Braver. “A brief history.” 270.

[14] Braver. “A brief history.” 270.

[15] Braver. “A brief history.” 261.

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3 Responses to Lee Braver on Kierkegaard and Transgressive Realism

  1. efmooney says:

    What a nice introduction to Braver, and to the Kant-Hegel-Kierkegaard sequence, Dean! Braver continues the story in his 2012 MIT book, “Groundless Grounds: A Study of Wittgenstein and Heidegger.” WIttgenstein said that SK was the greatest philosopher of the 19th century, and Jack Caputo says that Being and TIme is a series of footnotes to Kierkegaard. In his book, Braver cites SK about 20 times. I think he’s a great resource for linking SK to current debates in metaphysics, epistemology and ontology. (We DO need a little help from our friends . . .)

    • efmooney says:

      Noting your “related” button above, I ‘clicked,’ and quickly realized I could have read your May 2013 post on Braver FIRST, and saved myself parts of the comment just above. But I stand by its spirit, and like the spirit (and content) of your post of a year ago, as well as today’s post!

      • Dean says:

        Both of your comments here are more than welcome, Ed. Thanks so much for your contribution! I think there’s a lot of intriguing material going on in Braver’s work; there are rumors that his position on Transgressive Realism may be worked out in book form sooner than later, a project I would definitely welcome. For Kierkegaard folks like us, I can only imagine this would be a great resource to make still further connections with those in and outside the fold of Kierkegaard-scholarship, something you’re already so adept at doing.

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