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

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...

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Indirect Communication

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.

Religious Truth

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...

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Absolute Paradox

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...

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Additional Reading

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...

(The entire section is 595 words.)