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Søren Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments is the central work in a series of books marked by a consistent theme, a most unusual manner of presentation, pervasive irony, and a single-minded effort to present Christianity in a fashion that requires the reader to reach some sort of decision about it. The irony of Kierkegaard is evident even in the title of the book: Philosophical Fragments. Very few philosophers would entitle their main work a “fragment” or try to present the core of their position in fewer than one hundred pages.
The Three Stages
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To read Kierkegaard with some degree of understanding, it is necessary to have some knowledge of the general plan of his literary work. One of the essential features of his philosophical position is the doctrine of the “stages.” Kierkegaard believed that people can be separated into three groups, depending on the values they hold as fundamental. He calls these three groups “aesthetes,” “ethicists,” and “religionists.”
Aesthetes are people who live for the interesting; they want entertainment and variety in their lives and seek to avoid boredom, which they regard as the worst evil that can overtake them. They live to find immediate satisfaction and avoid making any long-term commitments. All people have the aesthetic as the basic material of their lives; many remain in the aesthetic stage throughout life. However, some people move into another sphere, the ethical.
Ethicists live for the sake of doing their duty; they replace struggles over the interesting versus the boring with those involving the good versus the bad. The kind of person German philosopher Immanuel Kant had in mind when he urged people to do their duty rather than follow their inclinations is the kind of person Kierkegaard called the ethical person. Ethicists’ lives are successful if they take on as many obligations to other people as possible and do their best to discharge these obligations.
Kierkegaard contrasted the ethical person with the aesthete in his first book, Enten-Eller (1843; Either/Or, 1944), by posing the question of love and marriage. Aesthetes fall in love, live for a multitude of engagements (but no marriages), and want romance in the Hollywood sense. Ethicists do not fall in love but rather choose to love, want a short engagement so that they may enter the state of being married (and thereby become duty-bound to another person for the remainder of their days), and find their romance in daily routine rather than in secret, passionate moments.
A great many people with this kind of ethical concern base the ethical rules that govern their lives in God’s will. For such persons, there is no difference between being ethical and being religious. However, Kierkegaard felt that the Christian religion demanded a different orientation from that which characterizes the ethical person. Kierkegaard did not believe that the Christian concept of sin could be explained by saying that to sin is to break an ethical rule. Sin is not violation of rule but violation of the person of God. Kierkegaard contrasted the ethical person’s orientation with the religionist’s orientation in Frygt og Bven (1843; Fear and Trembling, 1939), in which he considered the problems arising out of biblical figure Abraham’s intended sacrifice of his son, Isaac. As Kierkegaard saw it, Abraham had to choose between the ethical demand to avoid murder and the religious command from God that he sacrifice his son. Kierkegaard raised the question whether it might not be the case that religious commitment sometimes requires a person to suspend his ethical concern. The religious person may at times face the temptation to be good rather than holy.
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Another feature of Kierkegaard’s writing is the technique Kierkegaard called “indirect communication.” This technique implied that the doctrine of the stages should not be stated directly. The representatives of the various stages should not be described from the point of view of an external observer but presented “from within,” so to speak. To this end, Kierkegaard often adopted pseudonyms in his books. He felt he could best present the aesthetic stage by imagining an aesthete, then writing out what such a person would say. Either/Or, for example, is an extended correspondence between “a young man” and his older friend, Judge William. Kierkegaard does not directly enter the picture, and he offers no judgment between the two views of life presented by the young man and the judge; the reader is left to decide. Kierkegaard was quite successful in this matter, even presenting the imaginary characters with different writing styles. The young man writes beautifully, is poetic, sensitive, and lyrical; the judge writes in a pedestrian style, lecturing as he goes, paying little attention to literary graces.
The pseudonymous author of Philosophical Fragments is Johannes Climacus—one who is writing about something that is at the climax of the total problem that concerned Kierkegaard throughout his literary and philosophical career. Climacus is detached, ironic, and supposedly noncommitted on the immediate problem he is considering—namely, the possibility of giving a different view of religious truth from that presented by Socrates. Socrates is used in the book as a foil, as a man holding a position against which an alternative view can be seen more sharply. Christianity, as Kierkegaard understood it, is the alternative, of course, but although the reader understands this quite early in the book, the position is not called Christianity until the last paragraph.
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The “Socratic” position that Climacus assumes in the book is a rather common interpretation of the Socrates of Plato’s dialogues. It may be stated briefly as follows: Truth in religious matters does not differ from other kinds of truth. The point of religion is to hold true beliefs about God and to act in accordance with them. Coming to hold true beliefs, in religion as in other areas of human concern, is essentially a matter of recollection, of remembering what a person knew in the realm of the Ideas before birth but forgot when the soul was imprisoned in the body. The teacher, in this case, does not introduce anything new to the learner but merely serves as midwife, helping the learner to recall what he or she once knew. After the recollection occurs, the learner adjusts to the true propositions, and the teacher drops out of the knowing relation. The teacher is an occasion, but not a condition, for knowing.
The essential elements in the (Christian) alternative position regarding religious truth are set forth quite openly by Kierkegaard’s pseudonym in the “Moral” that he appends to Philosophical Fragments. The Christian “hypothesis” (as Climacus calls it) differs from the Socratic position, as sketched above, in assuming faith as an organ of knowing, in presupposing that there can be a consciousness of sin in people, in supposing that there can be a moment of decision that changes the course of a person’s life, and in assuming a different kind of teacher from Socrates—namely, God in time (that is, Jesus Christ). The detachment of Climacus can be seen in the fact that he states these new assumptions so clearly in this “Moral,” thus enabling the reader to reject Christianity simply and yet with understanding, if he so desires. Furthermore, Climacus merely states that the hypothesis he has been elaborating differs from Socrates’ position in these respects. The question of which hypothesis is true is an entirely different question, he says, and he makes no effort to settle this latter question.
Now if Socrates is right, Climacus argues, the truth is within a person. The teacher merely helps pupils realize what they had known all along. In such a case, a person is in the truth rather than in error. In addition, the teacher is not important, because the teacher neither removes the learner from error nor introduces the individual to new truth. Further, the time at which a learner recalls the truth is not important. All in all, the situation is similar to what happened with most, if not all, people when they learned the basic elements of arithmetic: They can no longer remember from whom they learned them or when. The important thing is that two and two make four, and they always have and always will.
The alternative to this view obviously involves assuming that one is not naturally in the truth but is naturally in error. If this is the case, then the teacher must first give the learner the condition for leaving error and apprehending truth. Then the teacher must provide the truth for the learner to apprehend. The moment at which the learner leaves error and apprehends truth is now quite important and decisive for the learner. In addition, the teacher must be more than an ordinary person, because the teacher is essential to the learner’s apprehension of the truth. Indeed, the teacher is so crucial that he or she is even necessary in order that the learner may recognize that he is in error. Such a teacher, Climacus says, one could appropriately call “Savior.”
These elements in Climacus’s alternative hypothesis are obviously elements in the traditional Christian account. The fact that one is naturally in error rather than in the truth and also that one does not even recognize such a condition clearly refer to the Christian doctrine of sin, and Climacus does call being in error “sin.” The truth that one gains from the teacher is just as obviously the faith that Christians possess. The very unusual teacher who is essential to coming into the truth is, as Climacus calls him, “God in time”; that is, Jesus of Nazareth. The crucial moment in which a person leaves error for truth is the conversion experience that is the object of so much preaching in Christian churches. Climacus leaves no doubt that these identifications are appropriate because he often speaks to the reader about what he has written, citing the original sources of the “hypothesis” he is developing.
In outline, then, the account in Philosophical Fragments is a very familiar one, differing from the usual Christian account only in the words used to express it and in the reference to the Socratic alternative. There are, however, some implications of Climacus’s simple account that are deserving of further treatment. Two matters should be looked into further here: Climacus’s account of “the Absolute Paradox,” and the question of the “disciple at second hand.”
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The Absolute Paradox is a discussion of the philosophical significance of the Christian claim that God was incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. The Socratic view that the truth is somehow within humanity and needs only to be drawn out by a skillful teacher such as Socrates implies that the human mind is adequate for knowing the truth, even religious truth. If, on the contrary, people do not have the truth within themselves in some sense, then what a person ought to know or needs to know is beyond the self—it is the unknown. Or, as Climacus calls it, it is “the other,” the absolutely other. However, if it is the absolutely other than humanity, then a person’s reason is not competent to know it. Yet people, if they are to achieve the truth, must come to know this absolutely other. To this end, so Christians hold, God—the absolutely other—became incarnate in humanity; that is to say, the absolutely other became not absolutely other. This requires us to say, then, that the Unknown (God) is both absolutely other and not absolutely other than humanity. This statement, clearly, is a self-contradiction.
One of the senses of the word “paradox” is such that a paradox is an apparent contradiction that is seen, on examination, not to be a contradiction. Thus, it is paradoxical to say of a certain member of a group, who is very talkative, that he says less than anyone else in the group. Here, at first glance, it looks as if we are saying that the person both talks a great deal and does not talk a great deal. However, the puzzle is resolved quickly when attention is called to the way the words “talk” and “say” are used; namely, although he talks a great deal, he says very little. Most of his talk is insignificant; it is idle chatter. Such a paradox, then, can be resolved by making some kind of distinction between the apparently incompatible predicates.
In saying that his paradox is “Absolute,” however, Climacus seems to be saying that it cannot be resolved. The reason the paradox cannot be resolved lies in the uniqueness of the particular paradox in question. It is essential to Climacus’s paradox that the word “absolutely” be included. God both is and is not absolutely other than humanity. If one said of Jones that he is other and not other than Smith, one could go on to specify the similarities and differences between the two people: Both are philosophers, but one is interested only in logic, while the other is interested only in ethics. They are alike, yet they differ. However, if Jones were said to be absolutely other than Smith, then no comparisons could be made at all. When using the expression “totally different” in ordinary speech, one usually intends to emphasize a difference that is really only partial. One means that two things differ fundamentally in some (but not all) respects. However, Climacus is using “absolutely other” in a rather strict way, and this means that even to express the total difference is to go beyond the strict limits of language and understanding. Strictly speaking, one cannot even mention a total difference between two things. The very mention of them indicates at least one respect in which they are not totally different; namely, they are alike in that they can be talked about.
If this is the case, however—that God or the Unknown is both totally like and totally unlike humanity and that one should not even be able to state this—then the paradox Climacus is expressing cannot be resolved. It cannot be resolved because the very language of this paradox, in one sense at least, does not have meaning. The paradox is absolute. Yet one must express oneself—or at least Christian people feel that they must express themselves. There is an urge in people, Climacus feels, which drives them to try to express the inexpressible. (Reason, Climacus says, seeks its own downfall.) To come at this point in a somewhat different way, most people can remember trying to express the uniqueness of their beloved in a language that has its power in virtue of expressing the common features, the repeatable elements, the universally instanced qualities of experience. People try to express the unique in terms of the common, and the result is often the paradoxical or the trite.
If Christianity is true, then its central claim—that God was incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth—leads to a paradox, a paradox that cannot be resolved as paradoxes usually are. However, there is also another sense of the word “paradox” that is involved in the discussion in Philosophical Fragments. Another meaning of the word (its etymological meaning) is “contrary to the received opinion.” The Absolute Paradox is paradoxical also in this sense, and this leads to another point Climacus makes in connection with the paradox.
Climacus’s discussion of the Absolute Paradox is followed by a section in which he claims that humanity’s response to the paradox is to be offended. The religious person, having passed through the “moment” and having changed from being in error to being in the truth (to having faith), upsets ordinary value commitments. Some of Jesus’ remarks, at least as they are reported in the Christian Scriptures, surely run counter to the prevailing values of everyday life. Common sense surely does not suggest that one turns the other cheek when a person strikes one, nor does it agree that the meek shall inherit the earth. What people usually adopt as a pattern for life is in conflict with the pattern set forth in the Christian Gospels. People usually want “success” rather than “peace” (in the Christian sense). Therefore, the Christian recommendation, based on its being a revelation from a transcendent God, offends people. Why should one love one’s neighbor rather than sell to him or her at a profit? Because God says so. However, this recommendation is unreasonable. True enough, but who is to say that God is reasonable? Did not God reveal himself in a most unexpected way? Namely, as the apparently illegitimate son of a poor Nazarene woman, born outside wedlock and in the ancient equivalent of a garage? The Christian account is so contrary to the received opinion of what is of real value that it offends the hearer. Such is Climacus’s observation.
Another consequence of the Christian account is that if God revealed himself in Jesus of Nazareth, then it seems he gave special advantages to those who were contemporary with Jesus and knew Jesus personally, advantages that are denied to those who are not contemporaries of Jesus. Climacus argues that the immediate followers of Jesus, the “contemporary disciples,” enjoyed no advantage over the noncontemporary, the “disciples at second hand.” The paradox is the key to Climacus’s position here. What the contemporary saw was not God but the man Jesus. It was not apparent or obvious to a normal observer that Jesus was more than simply a good man. The divinity that Christians attribute to Jesus was not evident to the senses but represented an additional characteristic about Jesus that people recognized only in the light of what traditionally has been called the gift of grace from God. People did not naturally look at Jesus and see his divinity; they beheld only his manhood. Only if God granted grace to the observer, did the observer “see” the divinity of Jesus. Again using the traditional Christian terminology, even the Apostles could not recognize the divinity of Jesus without having been enlightened by the Holy Spirit. Thus, the contemporary disciple enjoyed no advantage over the disciple at second hand insofar as Jesus’ divinity is concerned. The only advantage the contemporary enjoyed concerns Jesus’ manhood, his historical existence. Indeed, if there is any advantage, it is the advantage that the disciple at second hand enjoys in having the testimony of several generations that the man Jesus is also God. The reiteration of this claim brings it home as a possibility in a way that the contemporary disciple did not experience.
Such, then, is the position set forth by Kierkegaard, through the pseudonym “Johannes Climacus” in the Philosophical Fragments. It is what is at the heart of the (religious) “existentialist” position to which Kierkegaard gave the name. The position is elaborated, by the same pseudonym, in a much longer and more involved book, Afsluttende uvidenskabelig Efterskrift (1846; Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 1941)—that runs to more than five hundred pages as compared with the ninety-three pages of Philosophical Fragments—but it is the same position nevertheless. It is stated clearly and succinctly in the Philosophical Fragments as a hypothesis; in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, an attempt is made to discuss what would happen if a sophisticated person were to attempt to put into operation in his or her own life what is discussed merely as a possibility in the Philosophical Fragments. In Kierkegaard’s later work, Climacus concerns himself with the personal question: How do I become a Christian? However, the later work depends on Philosophical Fragments, and Philosophical Fragments is really the central statement of Kierkegaard’s position. Rarely does one find such an important question as the philosophical account of Christianity stated with the precision, clarity, and wit that Kierkegaard exhibits in the Philosophical Fragments. Kierkegaard was possessed of a keen intellect, a logical passion, and an ability to give expression to one of the most significant alternatives in Western civilization in a manner that retains the kernel of Christianity, yet makes possible its discussion in the modern milieu. To have done this is a philosophical and literary achievement of the first order.
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Allen, Diogenes. Three Outsiders: Pascal, Kierkegaard, Simone Weil. Cambridge, Mass.: Cowley Publications, 1983. The chapter on Kierkegaard examines his time period and its influence on his ideas. The author discusses how Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel influenced Søren Kierkegaard by breaking the hold of the eighteenth century Enlightenment on European philosophy. Also includes the influence of Socrates on Kierkegaard.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Soren Kierkegaard. Modern Critical Views series. New York: Chelsea House, 1989. A collection of essays discussing the importance of Kierkegaard and his philosophy. The editor’s introduction places Kierkegaard in historical context, relating him to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and others.
Evans, C. Stephen. Kierkegaard’s “Fragments” and “Postscript”: The Religious Philosophy of Johannes Climacus. Atlantic City, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1983. An analysis of the two books that Kierkegaard wrote under a pseudonym in which he reveals much of his religious philosophy. Evans’s book is basically a commentary on the two books by Kierkegaard.
Hannay, Alastair. Kierkegaard. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. A study that asserts the philosopher developed his ideas in response to his own personal struggle with the Danish church.
Hannay, Alastair, and Gordon D. Marino. The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998. The sixteen essays in this volume look at Kierkegaard’s contribution to philosophical, theological, and spiritual issues. Contains bibliography and index.
Lowrie, Walter. Kierkegaard. 2 vols. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1970. This is the definitive biography of Kierkegaard, written by one of the most prominent translators of his writings. Traces Kierkegaard’s life chronologically, providing a list of dates for major events and publications. Also includes a helpful fifteen-page synopsis of Kierkegaard’s works.
Pattison, George and Steve Shakespeare. Kierkegaard: The Self in Society. New York: Macmillan, 1998. This volume presents twelve essays from the 1995 meeting of the Kierkegaard Society of the United Kingdom. These essays challenge the notion of Kierkegaard as an extreme individualist.
Rae, Murray. Kierkegaard’s Vision of the Incarnation: By Faith Transformed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997. Rae, chaplain at the University of Auckland, examines Kierkegaard’s view of the Incarnation. His sympathetic interpretation contrasts with that of many other commentators. Contains an extensive bibliography.
Ree, Jonathan, and Jane Chamberlain, eds. Kierkegaard: A Critical Reader. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1998. The nine essays in this work attempt to determine the role of Kierkegaard’s work in philosophy and religion in modern society. Includes index.
Sontag, Frederick. A Kierkegaard Handbook. Atlanta, Ga.: John Knox Press, 1979. A systematic approach to Kierkegaard’s philosophy, which Kierkegaard himself avoided. A study of major concepts that provides a companion reader to the student of Kierkegaard.
Stack, George J. Kierkegaard’s Existential Ethics. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1977. An explanation of the ethical concepts in Kierkegaard’s existentialism. This volume examines the philosopher’s connection to the developing philosophy of nihilism and helps readers understand how his personal struggles affected his philosophy.
Walker, Jeremy. Kierkegaard: Descent into God. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1985. Walker examines Kierkegaard’s remarks on the importance of Socrates, discusses his ethical positions, and attempts to reveal the effect of personal sorrows on his philosophy. The title refers to the philosopher’s difficulty in explaining exactly how a person becomes a believer in God.
Watkin, Julia. Historical Dictionary of Kierkegaard’s Philosophy. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow, 2001. A handy aid to the study of the philosopher’s work.
Westphal, Merold. Kierkegaard’s Critique of Reason and Society. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1987. A discussion of different aspects of Kierkegaard’s philosophy. Chapter 6, “Kierkegaard and the Logic of Insanity,” is a lecture-essay that discusses the difficulty in understanding many of Kierkegaard’s concepts.