D. Anthony Storm's Commentary on Kierkegaard

Second Period: Indirect Communication (1843-46)


  • Prefaces: Light Reading for People in Various Estates According to Time and Opportunity
  • Forord. Morskabslæsning for enkelte Stænder efter Tid og Leilighed
  • Nicolaus Notabene
  • 1844
  • KW9, SKS4, SV5

This was one of four books published in a ten day period, and appeared on the same day as The Concept of Anxiety. According to Kierkegaard these prefaces are "like tuning a guitar, like chatting with a child, like spitting out a window", the work of "a light-hearted do-nothing" (p. 6). Kierkegaard always stretched the definition of what a book is with his use of pseudonymity and polyonymity. Here he furthers his original dialectical program and style, publishing a work with a new pseudonym, in a style rich in satire. Prefaces is a series of satirical essays and reviews aimed at Copenhagen's literary society, most notably the very influential J. L. Heiberg, in the form of eight prefaces to eight non-existent works. Prefaces 1-4 are redrafts of a work that Kierkegaard planned for separate publication entitled "New Year's Gift, edited by N. N., published for the benefit of orphanages. Copenhagen 1844. Dedicated to every buyer of this book—and the orphans." The New Year's Gift refers to Heiberg, who published misguided and slipshod reviews of Either/Or and Repetition. The latter was reviewed in his publication Urania, which he described as a "New Year's gift intended for the esthetically cultured public".

The pseudonym Nicholas Notabene is sometimes rendered in the text as "N. N.", which was a Danish abbreviation denoting anonymity. Kierkegaard would sometimes misquote others since he relied on his formidable memory. McDonald in his translation concludes that since Notabene misquotes his sources much more frequently, that it is intentional on the part of Kierkegaard. Notabene's persona is, as McDonald notes, a pedant.

Prefaces, in its form as a "book" of "prefaces" that are not prefaces to any book is a paradoxical allusion to Hegel's remarks on philosophical prefaces in his preface to The Phenomenology of Spirit.... For Hegel, who considered it necessary for the reader to work through the body of the text in all its dialectical movements, a preface that is a master is paradoxical. It seeks to convey the truth of the text to the reader before he or she has made the dialectical movements necessary to a proper appropriation of truth (Florida State University Press, 1989, p. 15).

In the Preface to Prefaces Notabene explains that his wife would not allow him to be an author out of love for him. She is a "loving authority" who detests "teasing", by which she means dialectical games or faulty logic. She demands all his attention: "to woo you, as you once wooed me" (p. 9). An author, she says, makes for an absent husband, like a man who spends his time at a club.

"To be an author when one is a husband," she says, "is open infidelity, just the contrary of what the pastor said. For this is the validity of marriage, that the man sticks firmly by his wife, and nothing more." ...The result was that I promised not to be an author (p. 10, 12).

Notabene nonetheless decides that he can still write without breaking his promise: He will write prefaces to non-existent works, but not the works themselves. Preface One is a satire on Hegel and on Heiberg who claimed to have gone "beyond him". Kierkegaard lampoons the system of Hegel as it claims to be all-encompassing and able to digest all philosophy and dogmatics.

Accordingly I swear: as soon as possible to realize a plan contemplated for thirty years to publish a logical System, as soon as possible to honor my vow taken ten years ago concerning an esthetic System; furthermore I promise an ethical and dogmatic System, and finally the System. As soon as this has been published, future generations will not even need to learn to write, for there will be nothing further to write, but only to read—the System (p. 14).

In the second preface, Notabene notes that it is difficult to be an author in Denmark. Gossip surrounds the publication of a work, and seems to guide people's understanding of a work, without most of them actually reading the work. Critics are dull-witted and cannot rightly divine the importance of what they critique. Again, Kierkegaard has Heiberg's review of his works in mind.

...the critique should not be a bandit who attacks a published book, not a gossipmonger who clings fast to a work in order to get a place and hearing for his observations, not a haughty beggar-king who of a published book "takes the opportunity" to say something himself. A reviewer is and ought to be, ought to place his honor in being, a serving spirit (p. 20).

The third preface is quite brief. It purports to be the preface to a second edition of a work that sold a thousand copies in two months. Despite his second preface, he thanks kind reviewers for its success. As a show of kindness the second edition will sell at one-eighth the price of the former. Notabene calls it a "New Year's Gift". Again, this is a reference to Heiberg, who described a work of his as "a New Year's Gift".

The fourth preface is also on Heiberg's philosophical theology, as well as his venture into astronomy, in his 1844 publication called Urania.

Why, who indeed would be capable of unravelling the riddle of this man, who in recent times seems to go more and more intrepidly into the cryptic.... These contemporaries, like me, look forward with tense expectation to the outcome, even though like me they humbly entrust to men of the trade the judgment about whether the prof's late astronomical, astrological, chiromantic, necromantic, horoscopic, metoposcopic, chronologic studies will be to the benefit of science and humanity... (p. 24).

The fifth preface is a lampoon of societies like the "Temperance Society of Copenhagen". Kierkegaard's view of the importance of the individual over the "numeric masses" is evident here. Notabene says that if someone quits alcohol by himself he may still feel shame for prior weakness. But if someone should be aided by a temperance society, he is made to feel "infinitely important". Kierkegaard considered these social endeavors to be bandages instead of cures.

The sixth preface has H. L. Martensen as its target, the noted Hegelian professor and later See of Zealand. Notabene's preface introduces a book of twenty-four sermons, which he compares to Jakob Mynster's Sermons on all Sundays and Holy Days in the Years (1823). Mynster was a well-known pastor and figure in Copenhagen who was succeeded by Martensen. Mynster was also a friend of Kierkegaard's father. The Kierkegaards owned a copy of the Sermons. Notabene laments that the cultured no longer have a taste for sermons.

But what follows from this for the cultured person? He cannot read in this way, cannot be satisfied so easily, cannot be edified in this manner. Should this be the right way, then of course to be edified he must first be transformed.... [Sermons should encourage] self-examination, a deeper concern about oneself (p. 32).

Throughout Kierkegaard's period of pseudonymous writing he published "upbuilding discourses". The cultured, so says Notabene, see no benefit in religious discourses.

He does not want to be disturbed when he is to be edified, does not want to be reminded about all the petty things, the individual people, himself—for to forget all this is precisely the edification. The life of the congregation, the System's grand purpose, the purely human—all of which do not tempt the individual to think about himself or want to accomplish anything but only edify him by his reconsidering it all—are in the present writing the object of mediation (p. 32f.).

Notabene's satiric and ironic wit comes to the fore again when he considers the state of Christendom.

That toward which Christianity has strived through eighteen centuries is precisely to produce the cultured person, who is the Christian life's most beautiful bloom and richest unfolding (p. 33).

The seventh preface is longer than the previous ones. Notabene claims to be a dull man who has written a summary, that is, as he says, he has read ten books, culled their pages, and has written "an eleventh book". He addresses the concept of Hegelian mediation, which, he says, causes him dread and consternation. Hegel posited the famous triad: a thesis yields an antithesis, which then yields, along with the thesis, a synthesis or unity, which in turn becomes a new thesis. Kierkegaard asserted that this jeopardized belief in propositional truth, specifically the law of contradiction. A system that encompasses everything is self-negating, and collapses on itself. Kierkegaard deprecatingly spoke of Hegelians as "Assistant Professors". Notabene also cannot bear to hear that philosophy begins with doubt (Descartes) and that Being and Nothingness beget Becoming. Kierkegaard's main criticism of Descartes' philosophy lies in the tautology of his famous Cogito ergo sum. He also criticises Hegel because his system never finishes begetting theses, so that there is no end to enquiry. In subjective truth, the believer rests in his faith in the paradoxical (absurd).

The final preface introduces a periodical entitled Philosophical Deliberations, which in fact Kierkegaard had planned to publish. Notabene modestly says that since Heiberg's Perseus survived only two editions, his publication is not likely to fare well. He claims that the reason for this is due to his stupidity. As Stephen Crites says: "Nicolaus proposes to make the riches of philosophy available in simple enough terms that every man, including even perhaps himself, will be able to understand; hence the journal may be able to synthesize intellectual and commercial interests, unlike most philosophical journals, by turning a profit."

...when I was not able, in spite of every effort, to raise myself to the dizzying thought to doubt everything, I decided—in order to doubt at least something—to gather my mind for the human task of doubting whether all those philosophizing understood what they said and what was said. This doubt is conquered not in the System, but in life (p. 49).

Hegel's system is a view as if from the outside. But no man lives on the outside of things. We are in life. We exist in time and space. Cartesian and Hegelian doubt must itself be doubted. Kierkegaard may be thinking of Heiberg as well, since he is said to have gone "beyond Hegel". Thus, in this preface, Notabene, who cannot doubt, writes for doubters. He leaves us with a parting shot at the Hegelian triad.

I am so stupid that I cannot understand philosophy; the antithesis of this is that philosophy is so clever that it cannot comprehend my stupidity. These antitheses are mediated in a higher unity; in our common stupidity (p. 58).

For more on subjectivity see Concluding Unscientific Postscript. For more on Cartesian doubt see Johannes Climacus.