David Swenson and Soren Kierkegaard

David F. Swenson, scholar, teacher, friend (1940)

David F. Swenson was the first scholar to introduce Soren Kierkegaard to English readers. The first book of Kierkegaard’s that he translated into English was Philosophical Fragments (1844).  The book linked above was written by many of his students and was meant to honor his memory. These are a few quotes from the book which is available for free on-line.

kierkeaard and swenson

As many of you know, he was born in Sweden in 1876 and was brought to America, to Minneapolis, by his parents when he was six years old. His was an immigrant family, like many others from Scandinavia, outwardly in humble circumstances but inwardly rich in the things of the spirit, in respect for scholarship and culture, and in determination honestly to make good in the new land. The father worked at his trade — he was a shoemaker — and the children grew up, went to school, worked as they could, just as children did in thousands of other families in the Northwest.

One evening in the year 1901 he was browsing among the books in his neighborhood branch of the Minneapolis Public Library and chanced upon a work in Danish, by an author until then unknown to him. From his knowledge of Swedish he could read the book. Looking at it casually — perhaps attracted by its curious title, which we may call Concluding Unscientific Postscript — he became interested in some of its statements and took it home. There he devoured it and afterward read everything else he could find written by that author. Thus began Swenson’s acquaintance with the philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard, the philosophy to be outlined for us by Professor Norborg.

In 1920-21 he went as visiting professor of philosophy to the College of the City of New York. A colleague there afterward declared that Swenson should have taken a stenographer into class with him every day to catch the spontaneous outpourings, the quick flashes, the illuminating asides coming from him apparently with so little effort but all too likely to be lost beyond recovery.

Because David F. Swenson was the greatest Kierkegaard scholar in this nation, he never became a “Kierkegaardian.”

What Descartes is to France, Hume to England, and Hegel to Germany, Soren Kierkegaard is to his Denmark.

This strange “philosopher of the paradox” has exerted a deep, and in some cases decisive, influence on a great many of his later readers, some of whom are thinkers enjoying world-wide recognition. In literature we may mention the names of Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, and Georg Brandes. In philosophy there are thinkers like Unamuno, Berdyaev, Spengler, Jaspers, Heidegger, Brunner, and Przywara, to mention only a few. By the fourth decade of the twentieth century we find Kierkegaard eagerly studied by scholars of most cultured nations. The literature on Kierkegaard has by now become a little library, through the works of Rudin, Petersen, Bohlin, Geismar, Hirsch, Lowrie, and many others.

When Kierkegaard defines the true philosopher as the subjective thinker, he wishes to stress the necessity of a clearly personal equation in all philosophizing. The intellectual act is a personal form of existence. The task of a philosopher is not only that of seeking truth but the far more challenging and intriguing one of becoming concretely expressive of the Idea. In other words, the philosopher stands under the categorical imperative of expressing concretely the true Idea. In this existential perspective it is clear how Kierkegaard must reverse the Hegelian axiom. Where the Hegelian point of view demands that the philosopher become objective, Kierkegaard protests with a flaming passion that the real task before a philosophical thinker is the exact opposite; he must become subjective.

In summary it may therefore be said that Kierkegaard demands that the philosopher as the existential thinker understand himself “as an existing human being, essentially like all other human beings in status and task.

In order to understand life in its concrete validity or truth, Kierkegaard makes use of the term existential dialectics. Now Socrates’ logic is dialectical; dialectical are Hegel’s idealism and Karl Marx’ economic materialism. Kierkegaard’s existential dialectics, however, concerns the logic of human existence as concrete reality. This concrete existence is bifrontal, facing the here and now, my past and my future.

kierkegaard downed sin in the ocean


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