Posts Tagged ‘Kierkegaard’


In the second volume of the Christianity & Western Thought series, co-authors Steven Wilkens and Alan Padgett set out to capture the major philosophical ideas and personalities of the 19th century. Considering the wealth of material encompassed by such an endeavor, the task is a formidable one.

The text begins by declaring Immanuel Kant to be the transitional figure and “agenda setter” for the 19th century. Thereafter, Wilkens and Padgett, in rough chronology, describe the major philosophical movements of the 19th century, starting with Romanticism and Idealism.  The text ends just inside the 20th century with the rise of social sciences.

The formula followed by Wilkens and Padgett is simple and effective: Each chapter, which encompasses one overarching set of ideas (e.g., Romanticism and Idealism), focuses largely on the people behind these ideas. A major figure is first presented through a brief biography. Next, the major works of the figure are examined with a noticeable bent towards objectivity. Direct quotes from the person’s works are prevalent, and often hard to distinguish from the author’s own summaries.  One is certainly left with the impression that every effort was made to present the historical figure faithfully, and on their own terms.  Finally, a section describing the figure’s contribution or influence to philosophy and religion is given, often with common criticisms of their work.

This formula is repeated for each person, from Hegel to Kierkegaard to Marx to Freud, with an occasional paragraph linking certain individuals or setting a broader context. The text concludes with four brief (and admittedly “arbitrary”) observations about the 19th century, and an almost playful comparison of the 19th century to our own adolescence: “it [19th century philosophy] was fun and exciting while it lasted.”

Most striking to me in this text was the optimistic view of humanity held by most of the figures it discusses. The general notion that humankind, through science and rational thought, can free itself from society’s ills, is amazing.  Marx’s communism, James’ pragmatism, and Spencer’s social evolution all drip of optimism in humanity or natural processes. Feuerbach seems to epitomize faith in mankind by claiming that man, with his “united powers” will “create a better life.” The ultimate exaltation of man is in Feuerbach’s exhortation to “replace the love of God with the love of man,” (sounds familiar!)  Some exceptions to optimism dot the way, however, in the more pessimistic existentialism of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Freud also appears a bit more balanced, perhaps due to his having one foot in each world war.

Standing in the 21st century, I am reminded that each of us is profoundly affected by our environment, culture and times. This seemed especially obvious for a man like Comte, whose theories drew from the 19th century’s love for the scientific method. Indeed, from my standpoint on the other side of two world wars, Hiroshima, Vietnam, the civil rights movement, and 9/11, it is difficult to place faith in the facilities of man or science.  I do not know what minds like Hegel or Feuerbach would invent if they were alive today, but I would guess their faith in humankind to be significantly diminished.

Lastly, it was noteworthy that most critics of Christianity presented in this text seemed to treat the gospels superficially, if at all. Strauss seems most guilty of this type of treatment by broadly defining myths and applying them to the gospels, without any discussion as to why Jesus’ immediate followers would propagate such “myths.” Marx and Freud seem to go a step further by just lumping Christianity in with “religion,” and painting very broad strokes as to its origins and purposes, ignoring the immense wealth of complexity and history in religious thought. In Freud’s treatment of religion, he is ultimately left with no other option than to declare all of the religious (and therefore the majority of the world) as “neurotic.” If his treatment of theistic origins (i.e., “totem”) were true, I would agree; instead, it is perhaps wiser to peer deeper into the history of belief, perhaps reaching a different conclusion.

In all, this is an excellent text to introduce the genesis of much of the modern thinking that still saturates our culture today.  Faith in science and reason is indeed no new worldview.  It is simply white-washed with new names and advocates.  The other principle difference is that it has much, much less to commend it, a few centuries of bloody history to wit.

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