The legitimacy of the comic : Kierkegaard and the importance of the comic for his ethics and theology.




Williams, Will (George Willis)

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While some consider the comic to be a trivial subject, fit mainly for amusement or distraction, Søren Kierkegaard disagrees. This dissertation examines Kierkegaard’s understanding of the nature of the comic and how he believes even the triviality of comic jest to be deeply tied to ethical and theological earnestness. First, I examine Kierkegaard’s understanding of the comic, irony, and humor, drawing primarily from Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846). I argue that, for Kierkegaard, the comic is a contradiction or misrelation that is essentially though not absolutely painless, providing a “way out.” The comic is a contradiction between norms, suggesting that it springs from one’s perspective in a way that holds important implications for one’s ethical and theological worldview. Kierkegaard believes that subjective development is closely tied to one’s capacity to perceive the comic, making the comic both diagnostic of and formative for one’s subjective state. For him, the Christian is far from humorless, instead having the maximum human capacity to perceive the comic. Next, I show that the previously argued conception of the comic can be found in other works by Kierkegaard: Prefaces (1844), Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits (1847), and the Corsair affair (c.1845-1848). Then, I examine representatives of the Deconstructionist tradition of reading Kierkegaard, namely Louis Mackey, Roger Poole, Elsebet Jegstrup, and Mark C. Taylor. I argue that, while they accurately perceive the widespread irony in Kierkegaard’s corpus, they incorrectly conclude that such irony is a sign of his lack of earnest interest in philosophy and theology. Their conclusion stems from a misunderstanding of what Kierkegaard believes the nature of irony to be. Finally, I consider two contemporary representatives of the tradition of reading Kierkegaard theologically, namely Murray Rae and W. Glenn Kirkconnell. I argue that, while their instincts regarding Kierkegaard are generally preferable to those of the Deconstructionist tradition, they lack the latter’s awareness of Kierkegaard’s use of the comic and willingness to let it influence their conclusions. Their already significant arguments would, I suggest, be strengthened and extended with an increased appreciation for the legitimate function that Kierkegaard believes the comic to play for ethics and theology.



Søren Kierkegaard., Comic., Humor., Irony., Ethics., Theology., Jest., Earnestness.