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Philosophers as Trickster Figures

All cultures have their mythological trickster figure, Hermes in Greece, and Coyote in various Native American traditions. The trickster mixes up categories, makes fun of the powerful, gets his way by intellectual tricks, and is both sacred and annoying.

Listen to this description of Soren Kierkegaard as a schoolboy, from Garff biography:

“He was a skinny boy, always on the run, and he could never keep from giving free rein to his whimsy and from teasing others, using nicknames he had heard, or laughter, or funny faces, even though this often earned him a serious beating. I do not recall that his language was ever genuinely witty or cutting, but it was annoying and provocative, and he was aware that it had this effect even though he was often the one who had to pay for it. These outburst of his passion for teasing seemed to be absolutely unconnected with the rest of his otherwise silent and unspeaking existence among us, with the withdrawn and introverted character he displayed most of the time. During these outburst his most remarkable talent was the ability to make his target appear ridiculous, and it was especially eh big, tall, and powerfully built boys he chose as the objects of his derision…[W]hen our classmate, H.P. Holst, would read us his attempts at poetry or a Danish composition, Soren Kierkegaard was always one of the first to interrupt his reading by throwing a book at his head.”

Kierkegaard went on to write books under fake names, claim that Christianity was the highest form of life but that he wasn’t a Christian, argue in dense parodic philosophic works that the highest truth was subjectivity. He also mercilessly teased Hegel the big man in nineteenth century European culture, and also everybody in the Danish church.

In this he was imitating Socrates, the subject of his doctoral dissertation, archetypical trickster of the European tradition, who was so annoying that the big, tale powerfully-buit boys he made fun of had him killed.

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