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Ronald M.

Green

Kierkegaard and Kant: The Hidden Debt

Albany: State University of New York Press 1992, xviii + 301pp.

Kierkegaard and Kant: The Hidden Debt is a work of Ronald M. Green, a Kant scholar who

has published several articles on Kierkegaard and Kant (both before and after writing this

monograph). Kierkegaard and Kant investigates the degree and extent to which Kant

influenced Kierkegaard. Green identifies the historical point of contact between the two

thinkers, as well as which works of Kant that Kierkegaard owned and can be said to have

studied (chapter 1). He then gives an overview of Kants ethics and philosophy of religion

(chapter 2) and provides an analysis of agreements and disagreements between Kant and

Kierkegaard (chapters 3-4).1 Finally, Green reinterprets Kierkegaards views on ethics and

religion by setting them against the background of the Kantian ideas explored in previous

chapters (chapter 5).

Greens main thesis is that Kant influenced Kierkegaard far more than what has been

acknowledged by previous scholarship. Green believes that Kants influence on Kierkegaard

has gone largely unacknowledged because Kierkegaard himself intentionally hid his debt to

Kant (possibly due to the anxiety of influence, the fear of being regarded as derivative).2

Green describes his book as a detective story that tries to put an end to this cover-up.3

1Green writes: Freedom, the rigor of the moral law, human beings inevitable failures before
its ideality and their corresponding need for divine assistance in fulfillment of the human
moral projectthese were Kants great insights that Kierkegaard took over and made the
foundation of his vigorous modern assertion of Christian orthodoxy. Ronald M. Green,
Kierkegaard and Kant: The Hidden Debt, Albany: State University of New York Press 1992,
p. 181.
2Ibid., p. xviii, p. 212, p. 214, p. 216. Cf. William C. Davis, Ronald Green. Kierkegaard and
Kant: The Hidden Debt, Religious Studies, vol. 30, 1994, pp. 119-21, p. 120. Green refers to
Harald Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence, New York: Oxford University Press 1973, p. 64.
3Cf. Merold Westphal, Kierkegaard and Kant: The Hidden Debt. By Ronald M. Green,
Theological Studies, vol. 54, 1993, pp. 389-90, p. 389.
2

Although Green hardly articulates and defends his methodology,4 it seems clear that he

represents a historical approach similar to so-called contextual history of philosophy.

Kierkegaard and Kant is one of the first major studies of the relation between Kant and

Kierkegaard, and is the very first monograph to deal with this relation written by an

accomplished Kant scholar.5 Green reacts to the tendency of earlier scholarship to see

Kierkegaard as being opposed to German rationalist philosophy (including Kant and Hegel).6

Although Green acknowledges that some aspects of his work had been anticipated by other

scholars (for example, C. Stephen Evans, Alastair Hannay, John Glenn, Robert Perkins, and

R.Z. Friedman),7 he adds to the existing literature by giving a more comprehensive account of

the relation between Kant and Kierkegaard. Whereas earlier scholars confine themselves to

identify conceptual parallels, Green wants to trace Kants influence on Kierkegaard.8

The thesis that Kierkegaard intentionally hid his debt to Kant has been criticized since the

books initial publication.9 Greens thesis seems problematical if Kierkegaards debt to Kant

really is hidden, as it can hardly be falsified or tested. However, it should be noted that Green

claims to have shown that Kant did influence Kierkegaard, something which suggests that the

debt is not completely hidden, but rather something to be uncovered by historical research

(through what Green describes as a detective story). As a response to his critics, Green later
4This is pointed out in Ulrich Knappe, Theory and Practice in Kant and Kierkegaard, Berlin:
de Gruyter 2004, p. 5.
5See the bibliography in R.M. Green, Kant: A Debt both Obscure and Enormous, in
Kierkegaard and his German Contemporaries, Tome I, Philosophy, ed. by Jon Stewart,
Aldershot: Ashgate 2007 (Kierkegaard Research: Sources, Reception and Resources, vol. 6),
pp. 179-210; see pp. 206-210.
6Green, Kierkegaard and Kant, p. xi
7Ibid., p. xiii
8Ibid., pp. xiii-xiv.
9Westphal, Kierkegaard and Kant: The Hidden Debt. By Ronald M. Green, p. 390; Davis,
Ronald Green. Kierkegaard and Kant: The Hidden Debt, pp. 120-1; Jack Verheyden, The
Ethical and the Religious as Law and Gospel, in Kant and Kierkegaard on Religion, ed. by
Dewi Z. Phillips and Timothy Tessin, Houndsmill and New York: Macmillan and St. Martins
Press 2000 (Claremont Studies in the Philosophy of Religion), pp. 153-177; Eivind
Tjnneland, Ironie als Symphom. Eine kritische Auseinandersetzung mit Sren Kierkegaards
ber den Begriff der Ironie, Bern: Peter Lang 2004 (Texte und Untersuchungen zur
Germanistik und Skandinavistik, vol. 54), p. 68.
3

writes that The deliberate hiddenness of Kierkegaards debt to Kant was the least important

of my claims.10 Presumably, Greens important claim is that Kierkegaard is heavily indebted

to Kant, while the intentional hiddenness of the debt is relatively unimportant.

In any case, most of the material Green references in order to show Kants influence on

Kierkegaard provide circumstantial evidence rather than proof. As Knappe points out,

Greens analysis consists of rather loose comparisons between quotes of Kant and

Kierkegaard.11 Although Green is quite successful in pointing to similarities and overlap

between Kant and Kierkegaard, on the whole he fails to look for alternative (primary and

secondary) sources of Kierkegaards ideas (for example, Danish Kantianism, Romanticism,

Danish and German idealism, or even more traditional Christian and Platonic thought).12

Thus, even when Green does show overlap or agreement, he does not thereby necessarily

show that Kierkegaard was influenced by Kant. Merold Westphal makes a similar point when

he concludes,

The case is considerably overstated, for, as Green himself keeps reminding us,

themes that Kierkegaard may have read in Kant are often not distinctively Kantian

and were available to him from other sources as well, especially the pietistic

Lutheranism to which both he and Kant were heirs and the larger Augustinian

tradition to which it belonged. When all these materials are set aside, what is left

hardly seems as important as Greens overall presentation suggests. Still, he has

10Ronald M., Green, Kant and Kierkegaard on Time and Eternity, Macon: Mercer University
Press 2011, p. 2.
11Knappe, Theory and Practice in Kant and Kierkegaard, p. 5.
12Cf. Davis, Ronald Green. Kierkegaard and Kant: The Hidden Debt, pp. 120-1;
Verheyden, The Ethical and the Religious as Law and Gospel, pp. 157-66, p. 173;
Tjnneland, Ironie als Symphom, p. 68.
4

called attention to an important part of Kierkegaards intellectual background well

deserving of attention, even if only more modest claims about it are warranted.13

Aside from Greens claim about Kants influence on Kierkegaard, we are left with many

indications of overlap between the theories of Kant and Kierkegaard, indications which do

indeed call for more contemporary investigation. Much new scholarship on Kants

philosophy of religion, aesthetics, and his anthropology has arisen since Green published his

study in 1992.14 Similarly, there is today much more Kierkegaard scholarship available, most

notably the new critical edition of Kierkegaards works (Sren Kierkegaards Skrifter) and

their commentary volumes.

Having examined much of the source material myself,15 I do not believe that there exists

much promising material showing influence that Green has overlooked (with the possible

exception of the Danish Kantians16 and a very few secondary sources17). Thus, it is my view

13Westphal, Kierkegaard and Kant: The Hidden Debt. By Ronald M. Green, p. 390. Davis,
Ronald Green. Kierkegaard and Kant: The Hidden Debt, pp. 120-1 and Verheyden, The
Ethical and the Religious as Law and Gospel, pp. 153-54, pp. 157- 77, both reach a quite
similar conclusion.
14Green does not try to deal with Kants aesthetics and anthropology in a detailed or
systematic manner.
15Roe Fremstedal, Kierkegaard and Kant on Anthropology and Religion: Evil, Faith, and
Hope, Trondheim: NTNU 2010 (Doctoral theses at NTNU, 2010:214).
16It does not seem probable that Kierkegaard read much of the Danish Kantians, since they
for the most partbelonged to the earlier period from 1790-1800. However, this need not
mean that these Kantians (or the early German reception) were unimportant or something left
entirely behind by the 1840s. Notably, many Danish philosophical terms were coined by the
Danish Kantians. Also, the early Kant reception in Denmark and Germany (notably Reinhold)
established a picture of Kant that even later thinkers (notably the German and Danish
idealists) relied on. Regarding Danish Kantianism, see Harald Hffding, Danske Filosofer,
Copenhagen: Gyldendal 1909, pp. 26-7; Sren Holm, Kampen om Kant, in his Filosofien i
Norden fr 1900, Copenhagen: Munksgaard 1967, pp. 33-43, p. 13, p. 33; Anders Thuborg,
Den Kantiske periode i dansk filosofi 1790-1800, Copenhagen: Gyldendal 1951, pp. 17-8, pp.
121-49, p. 181; Carl Henrik Koch, Dansk oplysningsfilosofi 1700-1800, Copenhagen:
Gyldendal 2003, passim.
17One example of a secondary source Kierkegaard owned and could possibly have used is
C.C.E. Schmid, Wrterbuch zum leichtern Gebrauch der kantischen Schriften, Jena: Crker
1798 (ASKB 770). For an example of how Kierkegaard might have used Schmid, see
Fremstedal, Kierkegaard and Kant on Anthropology and Religion, p. 91 note 7.
5

that the source material does not lend itself very well to historical research into Kants

influence on Kierkegaardalthough Green does give a plausible account of Kierkegaards

reading of Kant.18 Put differently, Kierkegaards texts make it hard to improve upon Greens

workestablishing the exact nature of Kants influence on Kierkegaard any more reliably or

definitively proves quite difficult. Accordingly, it is my view that a systematic or thematic

approach is generally more promising than a historical approach which focuses on how Kant

influenced Kierkegaard.

One further difficulty should be mentioned. Green tries to show that Kants doctrine of

radical evil leads to the need for divine assistance in fulfillment of the human moral

project, since this doctrine implies that human beings inevitably fail before the ideality of

the moral law.19 Green argues that Kant cannot solve this problem, and presents Kierkegaard

as solving it by appealing to divine grace.20 Thus, Green depicts Kierkegaards Christian

religiousness as overcoming problems in Kants ethics and philosophy of religion. However,

he hardly shows how Kant could have responded to Kierkegaard. Although this is at least

partially a result of Greens methodology, I find that it leads to a somewhat one-sided

presentation of the relation between Kant and Kierkegaard, a presentation which does not do

full justice to the subject matterespecially to Kants theories and concepts. It should also be

noted that Greens book involves a Kierkegaardian critique of Kant that is controversial.

Aside from Kant scholars who downplay the importance of radical evil, there are more recent

commentators who see Kant as developing an account of divine grace that quite successfully

addresses the problems Green identifies.21 These commentators would dispute Greens claim
18Green does this by distinguishing between Works of certain familiarity, Works very
likely read and Works for which evidence is lacking. Green, Kierkegaard and Kant, pp. 9-
31.
19See ibid., p. 181. See also p. 221.
20E.g. ibid., p. 221, pp. 167-75.
21E.g. Chris L. Firestone and Nathan Jacobs speak of Greens lack of assistance in placing
(and defending) Kants introduction of divine grace. Chris L. Firestone and Nathan Jacobs,
In Defense of Kants Religion, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press 2008, p. 61, cf. pp. 57-
61, p. 244 note 46. See also Jacqueline Marina, Kant on Grace: A Reply to his Critics,
6

that Kants theory collapses and leads to Kierkegaardian religiousness. In any case, Green

deserves praise for showing that Kierkegaard relies on Kants doctrine of moral rigorism

(dubbed the ideality of ethics by Green), and that this doctrine entails that any moral failure

or wrongdoing whatsoever makes one infinitely guilty and in need of divine grace.22 Clearly,

this is a point that is important for an understanding of how Kierkegaard interprets the

relation between ethics and religion.

In any event, there can be no doubt that Greens work represents a contribution to the

secondary literature which remains valuable today. Within Kierkegaard scholarship, Green

has called attention to, and improved our knowledge of, Kantian philosophy and theology.

Greens work contributes to a more balanced and detailed assessment of the relationship

between Kant and Kierkegaard by moving beyond stereotypes (rationalism vs. irrationalism,

autonomy vs. heteronomy, etc.). By doing this, Green has helped pave the way for new

studies of the relation between Kant and Kierkegaard. Green still stands as the foremost

representative of a historical approach to the relation between Kant and Kierkegaard, and his

Kierkegaard and Kant remains mandatory reading for anyone working on Kierkegaard and

Kant.

Roe Fremstedal

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Religious Studies, vol. 33, 1997, pp. 379-400; Stephen Palmquist, Kants Ethics of Grace:
Perspectival Solutions to the Moral Difficulties with Divine Assistance, The Journal of
Religion, vol. 90, 2010, pp. 530-53.
22Green, Kierkegaard and Kant, pp. 150-67.
7

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