Kierkegaard: Thinking Christianly in an Existential Mode
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In Repetition , the character and pseudonymous author Constantin Constantius congratulates the Danish language on providing the word for an important new philosophical concept, viz. This may explain the sense of urgency that drove Kierkegaard to write so prolifically in the years leading up to his 34th birthday. The breaking of the engagement allowed Kierkegaard to devote himself monastically to his religious purpose, as well as to establish his outsider status outside the norm of married bourgeois life.
It also freed him from close personal entanglements with women, thereby leading him to objectify them as ideal creatures, and to reproduce the patriarchal values of his church and father. The latter included viewing women in terms of their traditional social roles, particularly as mothers and wives, but also in their traditional spiritual roles as epitomes of devotion and self-sacrifice. This problem was compounded by the fact that Denmark had recently and very rapidly been transformed from a feudal society into a capitalist society.
Given this problematic in this social context Kierkegaard perceived a need to invent a form of communication which would not produce stereotyped identities. On the contrary, he needed a form of rhetoric which would force people back onto their own resources, to take responsibility for their own existential choices, and to become who they are beyond their socially imposed identities. In this undertaking Kierkegaard was inspired by the figure of Socrates, whose incessant irony undermined all knowledge claims that were taken for granted or unreflectively inherited from traditional culture.
In his dissertation On the Concept of Irony with constant reference to Socrates Kierkegaard argued that the historical Socrates used his irony in order to facilitate the birth of subjectivity in his interlocutors. Kierkegaard sought to provide a similar service for his own contemporaries. He used irony, parody, satire, humor, and deconstructive techniques in order to make conventionally accepted forms of knowledge and value untenable.
He was a gadfly—constantly irritating his contemporaries with discomforting thoughts. He was also a midwife—assisting at the birth of individual subjectivity by forcing his contemporaries to develop an inner life through critical self-reflection. Hegelianism promised to make absolute knowledge available by virtue of a science of logic.
Kierkegaard thought this to be the hubristic attempt to build a new tower of Babel, or a scala paradisi —a dialectical ladder by which humans can climb with ease up to heaven. Instead of seeing scientific knowledge as the means of human redemption, he regarded it as the greatest obstacle to redemption. Instead of seeking to give people more knowledge he sought to take away what passed for knowledge. Instead of seeking to make God and Christian faith perfectly intelligible he sought to emphasize the absolute transcendence by God of all human categories.
Instead of setting himself up as a religious authority, Kierkegaard used a vast array of textual devices to undermine his authority as an author and to place responsibility for the existential significance to be derived from his texts squarely on the reader. Kierkegaard distanced himself from his texts by a variety of devices which served to problematize the authorial voice for the reader.
He used pseudonyms in many of his works both overtly aesthetic ones and overtly religious ones. He partitioned the texts into prefaces, forewords, interludes, postscripts, appendices. Sometimes Kierkegaard appended his name as author, sometimes as the person responsible for publication, sometimes not at all. Sometimes Kierkegaard would publish more than one book on the same day.
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These simultaneous books embodied strikingly contrasting perspectives. He also published whole series of works simultaneously, viz. All of this play with narrative point of view, with contrasting works, and with contrasting internal partitions within individual works leaves the reader very disoriented. Christian faith, for Kierkegaard, is not a matter of learning dogma by rote. This belief is offensive to reason, since it only exists in the face of the absurd the paradox of the eternal, immortal, infinite God being incarnated in time as a finite mortal.
These works fall into three genres: i deliberations; ii edifying discourses; and iii reviews. The point of indirect communication is to position the reader to relate to the truth with appropriate passion, rather than to communicate the truth as such.
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It draws on irony, the comic and is high-spirited, in order to get thoughts into motion prior to action. A deliberation is a weighing-up, as a propaedeutic to action. It seeks to build up the faith that it presupposes.
Kierkegaard published many of his Edifying Discourses in short collections to accompany particular pseudonymous texts, then later published them again in larger collections. These are particularly intimate addresses to the sincere Christian, who strives to deepen the subjective passion of faith through confession and through acceptance of divine forgiveness.
This was aimed at subverting our focus on worldly goals in order to refocus on other-worldly goals. Our struggle to accept divine forgiveness can become mired in despair, including the second-order despair over the impossibility of forgiveness of our sins and the demonic despair of defiance in which we refuse to accept forgiveness. The first is the aesthetic, which gives way to the ethical, which gives way to the religious.
The aesthetic stage of existence is characterized by the following: immersion in sensuous experience; valorization of possibility over actuality; egotism; fragmentation of the subject of experience; nihilistic wielding of irony and scepticism; and flight from boredom. The figure of the aesthete in Either-Or Part One is an ironic portrayal of German romanticism, but it also draws on medieval characters as diverse as Don Juan, Ahasuerus, and Faust.
Johannes the seducer is a reflective aesthete , who gains sensuous delight not so much from the act of seduction but from engineering the possibility of seduction. His real aim is the manipulation of people and situations in ways which generate interesting reflections in his own voyeuristic mind. The aesthetic perspective transforms quotidian dullness into a richly poetic world by whatever means it can. That is, the aesthete uses artifice, arbitrariness, irony, and wilful imagination to recreate the world in his own image.
The prime motivation for the aesthete is the transformation of the boring into the interesting. This type of aestheticism is criticized from the point of view of ethics. It is seen to be emptily self-serving and escapist. It is a despairing means of avoiding commitment and responsibility.
And it is self-deceiving insofar as it substitutes fantasies for actual states of affairs. But Kierkegaard did not want to abandon aesthetics altogether in favor of the ethical and the religious. As far as the aesthetic stage of existence is concerned what is preserved in the higher religious stage is the sense of infinite possibility made available through the imagination. But this no longer excludes what is actual.
Nor is it employed for egotistic ends. Aesthetic irony is transformed into religious humor, and the aesthetic transfiguration of the actual world into the ideal is transformed into the religious transubstantiation of the finite world into an actual reconciliation with the infinite.
Language and all other media of representation belong to the realm of the ideal. No matter how eloquent or evocative language is it can never be the actual. Therefore, any representation of faith is always suspended in the realm of ideality and can never be actual faith. In fact Johannes Climacus acknowledges this implicitly when at the end of Concluding Unscientific Postscript he revokes everything he has said, with the important rider that to say something then to revoke it is not the same as never having said it in the first place.
His presentation of religious faith in an aesthetic medium at least provides an opportunity for his readers to make their own leap of faith, by appropriating with inward passion the paradoxical religion of Christianity into their own lives. These works include those by Anti-Climacus, who represents the Christian point of view par excellence , beyond where Kierkegaard placed himself.
Kierkegaard also used many biblical figures and stories with poignant and striking effect in the religious writings he published under his own name. As a poet of the religious Kierkegaard was always preoccupied with aesthetics. In fact, contrary to popular misconceptions of Kierkegaard which represent him as becoming increasingly hostile to poetry, he increasingly referred to himself as a poet in his later years all but one of over ninety references to himself as a poet in his journals date from after Kierkegaard never claimed to write with religious authority, as an apostle.
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His works represent both less religiously enlightened and more religiously enlightened positions than he thought he had attained in his own existence. Such representations were only possible in an aesthetic medium of imagined possibilities like poetry. It is used to denote both: i a limited existential sphere, or stage, which is superseded by the higher stage of the religious life; and ii an aspect of life which is retained even within the religious life.
The Dialectic of Faith and Reason in Cornelio Fabro’s Reading of Kierkegaard’s Theology
These social norms are used as reasons to make sense of, or justify, an action within a community. Even human sacrifice is justified in terms of how it serves the community, so that when Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia he is regarded as a tragic hero since his community understands that the sacrifice is required by the gods for the success of the Greek expedition to Troy Fear and Trembling. Kierkegaard, however, recognizes duties that cannot be justified in terms of social norms.
That is, Abraham recognizes a duty to something higher than both his social duty not to kill an innocent person and his personal commitment to his beloved son, viz. However, he cannot give an intelligible ethical justification of his act to the community in terms of social norms, but must simply obey the divine command. In order to raise oneself beyond the merely aesthetic life, which is a life of drifting in imagination, possibility and sensation, one needs to make a commitment.
That is, the aesthete needs to choose the ethical, which entails a commitment to communication and decision procedures. The metaethics or normative ethics are cognitivist, laying down various necessary conditions for ethically correct action. These conditions include: the necessity of choosing seriously and inwardly; commitment to the belief that predications of good and evil of our actions have a truth-value; the necessity of choosing what one is actually doing, rather than just responding to a situation; actions are to be in accordance with rules; and these rules are universally applicable to moral agents.
The choice of metaethics, however, is noncognitive.
Philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard
There is no adequate proof of the truth of metaethics. The choice of normative ethics is motivated, but in a noncognitive way. The Judge seeks to motivate the choice of his normative ethics through the avoidance of despair. For Judge Wilhelm, the choice of normative ethics is a noncognitive choice of cognitivism, and thereby an acceptance of the applicability of the conceptual distinction between good and evil.
Therefore it is possible, as Johannes de Silentio argues was the case for Abraham the father of faith , that God demand a suspension of the ethical in the sense of the socially prescribed norms. Since public reason cannot decide the issue for us, we must decide for ourselves as a matter of religious faith. These analyses amount to a subtle moral psychology, which borders on virtue ethics.
It is not enough simply for God to issue a command; we need to hear and obey. But obedience is not straightforward.