Kierkegaard on the Need for Indirect Communication

Dissertation, Indiana University (2008)
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This dissertation concerns Kierkegaard’s theory of indirect communication. A central aspect of this theory is what I call the “indispensability thesis”: there are some projects only indirect communication can accomplish. The purpose of the dissertation is to disclose and assess the rationale behind the indispensability thesis. A pair of questions guides the project. First, to what does ‘indirect communication’ refer? Two acceptable responses exist: (1) Kierkegaard’s version of Socrates’ midwifery method and (2) Kierkegaard’s use of artful literary devices. Second, for what end does Kierkegaard use indirect communication? There are two acceptable responses here as well: (1) helping others become religious and (2) making others aware of the nature of existence. These responses are interrelated. First, Kierkegaard’s notion of religion places restrictions on the means he can use to get readers to become religious. These restrictions ultimately entail that the only viable form of religious pedagogy is the midwifery method. Second, Kierkegaard engages in the midwifery method in part by making readers aware of the nature of existence (especially religious existence). But given the problems plaguing his readers, he thinks a straightforward approach to this project will likely fail. An approach that used artful literary devices such as deception and humor would be more successful. Third, Kierkegaard believes that there is one aspect of religious existence (viz. subjectivity) that people can come to know only first-hand. As such, he cannot directly impart knowledge of subjectivity to his readers. He argues that this means he must use the midwifery method. And he thinks the most productive way to do so is to provide readers with the kind of fictional narratives found in his early pseudonymous writings. Thus artful rhetorical devices play a role here as well. All of Kierkegaard’s arguments for the indispensability thesis turn on debatable assumptions. But the arguments concerning artful rhetorical devices have the additional defect of being merely probabilistic in nature. They lack the strength to support the indispensability thesis even if we grant the relevant background assumptions. Therefore, to the degree that the indispensability thesis has merit, it lies with the arguments concerning the midwifery method.
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