We were forced to purchase the Penguin translation!


Sadly, Gray Davis missed out:
According to Penguin Classics, Kierkegaard's famous text, The Sickness unto Death, is "one of the most remarkable philosophical works of the nineteenth century."

What the heck! Now that we've got your attention, here's the entire synopsis:
PENGUIN CLASSICS: One of the most remarkable philosophical works of the nineteenth century, The Sickness Unto Death is also famed for the depth and acuity of its modern psychological insights. Writing under the pseudonym Anti-Climacus, Kierkegaard explores the concept of "despair," alerting readers to the diversity of ways in which they may be described as living in this state of bleak abandonment—including some that may seem just the opposite—and offering a much-discussed formula for the eradication of despair. With its penetrating account of the self, this late work by Kierkegaard was hugely influential upon twentieth-century philosophers including Karl Jaspers, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. The Sickness unto Death can be regarded as one of the key works of theistic existentialist thought—a brilliant and revelatory answer to one man's struggle to fill the spiritual void.
It's fairly clear that Penguin thinks The Sickness unto Death is one of the truly great texts.

We aren't telling you that's wrong! We're telling you that this "remarkable" book actually starts like this:
KIERKEGAARD: A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation which relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself. A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two. Considered in this way, a human being is still not a self.

In the relation between two, the relation is the third as a negative unity, and the two relate themselves to the relation and in the relation to the relation; thus under the qualification of the psychical the relation between the psychical and the physical is a relation. If, however, the relation relates itself to itself, this relation is the positive third, and this is the self.

Such a relation that relates itself to itself, a self, must either have established itself or have been established by another.

If the relation that relates itself to itself has been established by another, then the relation is indeed, the third, but this relation, the third, is yet again a relation and relates itself to that which established the entire relation.

The human self is such a derived, established relation, a relation that relates itself to itself and in relating itself to itself relates itself to another...
More precisely, that's the way the book starts out in the Princeton University Press edition, as translated by Hong and Hong. Yesterday, we asked a perfectly sensible question:

If a book starts off that way, should a student just keep reading?

For what it's worth, the Penguin Classic edition carries a different translation. As noted yesterday, we purchased a copy of the Penguin edition on January 28, 1995, one day before Super Bowl XXIX, at a college bookstore in San Diego.

Here's how the purchase went down:

We were in San Diego to perform at a Saturday night pre-Super Bowl dinner. The guest of honor would be Gray Davis, California's lieutenant governor.

Under the circumstances, we thought a bit of the formerly most depressed person in Europe might help us keep things in perspective. But we discovered that we had forgotten to pack our copy of The Sickness unto Death, and so we rushed out to purchase another.

Yes, the college bookstore was open—but no, they didn't stock the Princeton edition. We had to buy the Penguin Classic—but we found that its translation wasn't quite ornate enough for our needs, and so we had to amend our planned remarks.
Penguin's translation was done by Alastair Hannay, a British-born philosophy professor who had mainly resided and taught in Norway. Tomorrow, we'll show you how his translations starts, and we'll quote a bit of his Introduction.

At least for today, we'll let our existing question stand:

Is it possible that this whole canon is out of order? Additionally, doesn't that resemble what the later Wittgenstein said?

This report is adapted from the author's forthcoming book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Translators' Introductions.


  1. Why did Somerby ever become a philosophy major, and why did he continue being one after encountering stuff that didn’t appeal or make sense to him?

  2. “If a book starts off that way, should a student just keep reading?”

    It depends on the student. Part of the interest lies in trying to understand the mind and the thinking of another human being. Reading the entire book and thinking about it gives the student a chance to see if the author has made sense. There is also the joy of discovery and the appeal to the imagination that works like this can appeal to.

    There is also the desire to think logically and identify logical flaws or strengths of the text.

    Philosophy deals with questions that are often outside the pragmatic thinking of most of us. But they can be interesting nonetheless.

    No one needs to see philosophy as ever settled. Philosophers are on a continuing journey.

    But if that doesn’t appeal to the student, that’s ok too.

    1. Philosophers can be freaking incoherent and you do wonder if they're just having everyone on.

    2. Then don’t major in philosophy if you feel that way.

      It’s also possible you don’t understand them.

    3. I've de facto taken the advice in your first sentence and unhestitantly acknowlege the truth of your second one.

      However, this is a blog I read, not a class I enrolled in.

  3. This is not for ordinary minds, dude. Too profound. Metaphysical dialectics 'n shit. Shut up and marvel...

  4. The announced theme here is translation, or at least reading a translation of a difficult text. Prior posts (I'm thinking especially of those dealing with popular science texts purporting to make difficult physics easy to understand) should make us focus on the question: do we really understand what we are reading, just because we understand the words? This connects the topic with this blog's broader concerns about whether media helps us understand what's going on, or just makes us feel satisfied that we do. And we should be on the lookout for irony. It often seems to go undetected, judging from many comments.

  5. Could Kierkegaard have gone with the spirit being the self and being also a relation in that it relates consciousness to the self?

  6. "A synthesis is a relation between two.”

    That was written a long time ago, back when synthesis didn’t have the astounding powers of science to really know what true synthesis really means. I will recommend, as I have before, E.O. Wilson’s “Consilience” as a tome worth reading. Well, if you’re interested in this kind of thing.

    Not a large book itself, but heavy.

    “At higher, more specific levels of organization, beyond the traditional realm of physics, the difficulties of synthesis are almost inconceivably more difficult. Entities such as organisms and species, unlike electrons and atoms, are indefinitely variable. Worse, each particular one changes during development and evolution. Consider this example: Among the vast array of molecules that an organism can manufacture to serve its needs are simple hydrocarbons of the methane series, composed entirely of carbon and hydrogen atoms. With one carbon atom, only a single kind of molecule is possible. With 10 carbon atoms the number is 75, with 20 it is 366,319, and with 40 it is 62 trillion. Add oxygen atoms here and there on the hydrocarbon chains to produce alcohols, aldehydes, and ketones, and the number rises even more rapidly with molecular size. Now select various subsets and imagine multiple ways they can be derived by enzyme-mediated manufacture, and you have potential complexity beyond the powers of present-day imagination.”


    Still plowing through this amazing book.


    1. I can't find the quote but at one point I think it was Stephen Hawking who said that the subject of astrophysics was finite, biochemistry infinite.



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