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“Grim Positivism” vs. Truthiness in Biography

Photograph Source: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Paris, France – CC BY 2.0

Clare Carlisle took exception to my review in the Times Literary Supplement of her biography of Kierkegaard (“Alone for dinner” TLS 4 October 2019). She accused me in a letter to the editor in the next edition of being either “unable or unwilling to approach [her] life of Kierkegaard on its own terms, i.e., as a literary work combining biography and philosophy” (“Letters,” TLS 11 October 2019). I have no objection, however, to combining biography and philosophy. In fact, I can’t imagine a biography of a philosopher that wouldn’t do that. How would it be possible to treat fully the life of a thinker without giving any attention to the character of his or her thought? (You can read my response to Carlisle’s letter here.)

No, what Carlisle objected to was not that I failed to approach her life of Kierkegaard on its own terms, but that I did actually approach it on its own terms and exposed it as flawed on those terms. Carlisle didn’t claim that the book was a combination of biography and historical fiction, but that’s what it, in fact, is in that it invents thoughts that Kierkegaard might plausibly have had and then attributes them to him directly, without this qualification.

Carlisle accuses me of “grim positivism” as if I had an objection to a biographer speculating about the inner life of his or her subject. I have no problem with that, though. My objection was to presenting speculations as fact. If Carlisle had simply prefaced her speculations with qualifications such as “at this point, Kierkegaard might well have been thinking…” or “it is reasonable to suppose that Kierkegaard’s thoughts now turned to…,” etc., etc., I’d have had no problem with them.

The charge of “positivism” is a straw man. Positivism, according to Oxford University Press’s online dictionary, means “A philosophical system recognizing only that which can be scientifically verified or which is capable of logical or mathematical proof, and therefore rejecting metaphysics and theism.” I don’t think we should recognize only things that can be scientifically verified or proved with mathematical precision, and I didn’t even imply in my review that I thought such a thing. In fact, it is precisely because of the impossibility of pinning down any historical fact with the precision that is required in the hard sciences that the line between fact and fiction must be rigorously maintained.

Historical facts are established as such not by pinning them down with scientific or mathematical precision, but by showing they are supported by the preponderance of available evidence, all the while laboring to uncover more evidence either to support the existing interpretation of the evidence or to tip the scales in favor of an alternative interpretation.

What Carlisle objected to was not my purported “positivism,” but that I exposed that there were errors in the book that would have been flaws even in a work of historical fiction, to the extent that writers of historical fiction endeavor to get the historical facts on which they creatively elaborate correct. That is, she not only imputed thoughts to Kierkegaard without qualifying them as speculations, she made claims about him that were demonstrably false according to the generally accepted standards of the verification of historical claims, standards that are far looser than those required by positivism, but which are standards nonetheless.

Charges of “positivism” are the last bastion of intellectual scoundrels —i.e., people whose claims have been exposed as having insufficient evidence to support them. Nothing outside the hard sciences can be proven with scientific or mathematical precision, they point out, so the requirement that a particular claim needs more evidence to support it is portrayed as a misguided demand for the impossible. There is an enormous difference, however, between a demand that a claim be supported by a preponderance of available evidence and a claim that it should be proven with mathematical precision. To conflate the two is either an expression of disingenuousness, as in the case of the tobacco industry’s repeated denial that there was proof cigarettes caused cancer, or feeblemindedness, as is the case with some, if not all, climate-change deniers.

Does it matter very much whether we ever get a really good biography of Kierkegaard? Probably not. That we endeavor assiduously to maintain the line between fact and fiction, however, no matter how challenging that may be, matters a great deal. If intellectuals abandon that distinction, there is little hope that anyone else will maintain it.

M.G. Piety teaches philosophy at Drexel University. She is the editor and translator of Soren Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs. Her latest book is: Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology. She can be reached at: mgpiety@drexel.edu