A very deep intellectual exercise or “gymnastic skill” is the ability to critique a giant of intellect without flippancy or fear.
To acknowledge someone’s absolute greatness but sense human blindnesses and logical omissions is not childish or sophomoric but simply acknowledges the truth that one mind can’t “swallow” all of truth, as William James teaches us.
Take the case of Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), the Danish genius thinker. His thinking is endlessly deep and rich. However, since life is a mix of “stances” (explored by people like Kierkegaard with profundity) and “circum-stances” (the hyphen is used here intentionally to emphasize that these practical details and situations surround us).
Consider this insight into Kierkegaard’s family finances:
About his birth S. K. (Kierkegaard) once remarked with somber wit that “it occurred in that year (i.e., 1813) when so many worthless (literally, ‘mad’) notes were put in circulation.”
He had in mind the great inflation which only two months before his birth brought financial ruin to most of the well-to-do families in Denmark.
To provide for its part in the Napoleonic Wars the government had issued a prodigious number of bank notes, which resulted of course, in a complete collapse of credit. The only security which did not sink to a a small fraction of its nominal value was the so-called “Royal Loan.”
Upon that, because the bonds were held briefly by foreign governments, Denmark was obliged to pay the stipulated interest in gold. The elder Kierkegaard had invested his whole fortune in this security, and therefore, from the general crumble of values he emerged not only as rich as he was before but relatively richer than ever.
(A Short Life of Kierkegaard, Walter Lowrie, Princeton University Press, 1974, page 23)
This Walter Lowrie standard biography of Kierkegaard shows you how these “circum-stances” were a kind of material background or financial basis which gave him, Kierkegaard, the basic economic and financial support system his life “stood” on. His genius was his own but his family background and financial realities cannot be completely ignored. Lowrie’s biographical book in various places tells you how Kierkegaard went on to manage his estate and how unlucky he sometimes was in financial matters.
A person “walks” on two practical “legs,” money and health.
When Kierkegaard (or Dostoyevsky, say) maps out the human soul, he tends to ignore these “preconditions” or economic supports so a completely reverential admirer of his could say that his depth psychology might have been even better had he included these two “practical legs” in his analyses.
Remember too the first sentence of the great American classic novel, The Magnificent Ambersons, where the author, Booth Tarkington, tells you that the magnificence of the Ambersons dated from 1873 when they uniquely got a “bounce” from the grave financial crisis which sank just about everybody else.
This reminds us of the Kierkegaard family, 1813, when the family, whether by dumb luck or shrewdness, benefited from the turbulence of Danish war finance.
“Stances” and “circum-stances” would be linked in an even deeper synthesis where these historical and financial dimensions are part of the story.
Such a critique of Kierkegaard (say) is not meant to be brickbats for their own sake or cranky grousing or facile negativity but a signpost as to what is needed to get even more out of these geniuses.