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The Paradoxical Rationality of Søren Kierkegaard

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Richard McCombs presents Søren Kierkegaard as an author who deliberately pretended to be irrational in many of his pseudonymous writings in order to provoke his readers to discover the hidden and paradoxical rationality of faith. Focusing on pseudonymous works by Johannes Climacus, McCombs interprets Kierkegaardian rationality as a striving to become a self consistently unified in all its dimensions: thinking, feeling, willing, acting, and communicating. McCombs argues that Kierkegaard’s strategy of feigning irrationality is sometimes brilliantly instructive, but also partly misguided. This fresh reading of Kierkegaard addresses an essential problem in the philosophy of religion—the relation between faith and reason.

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1 A Pretense of Irrationalism

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Be ready always to give an answer to every man that asks you a reason for the hope that is in you. (1 Peter 3:15)

 

The noble lie [is] useful to human beings as a sort of remedy. (Republic 414c, 389b)

 

What I have wanted has been to contribute . . . to bringing, if possible, into these incomplete lives as we lead them a little more truth. (PV, 17)

 

The truth must never become an object of pity; serve it as long as you can, to the best of your ability with unconditioned recklessness; squander everything in its service. (PV, 211)

 

Temporarily suppressing something precisely in order that the true can become more true . . . is a plain duty to the truth and is part and parcel of a person’s responsibility to God for the reflection [thinking capacity, reason] granted to him. (PV, 89)

 

[Sometimes the wise teacher] thinks it most appropriate to say that he does not understand something that he really does understand. (PV, 49)

 

2 Paradoxical Rationality

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But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret. (Matthew 6:17–18)

 

Most people have no intimation of this superiority over oneself . . . of wanting to be incognito in such a way that one seems lowlier than one is. (PC, 129)

 

How strange or odd some’er I bear myself (As I perchance hereafter shall think meet to put an antic disposition on). (Shakespeare, Hamlet)

 

Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t. (Hamlet)

 

The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King. (Hamlet)

 

The reason he is pretending to be crazy is to enable another knight to recover his lost senses. (Cervantes, Don Quixote)

In Judge for Yourself! Kierkegaard stages the following dialogue: “‘Do become reasonable, come to your senses, try to be sober’—thus does the secular mentality taunt the Christian. And the Christian says to the secular mentality, ‘Do become reasonable, come to your senses, try to be sober’” (JFY, 96). There is a sense in which Kierkegaard’s whole authorship is this little dialogue writ large. The voices of the dialogue are two rival versions of rationality, which Kierkegaard calls the “secular mentality” and “the Christian” in the quotation, but more generally, objectivity and subjectivity.

 

3 Reverse Theology

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Unknown, and yet well-known. (2 Corinthians 6:9)

 

No man hath seen God at any time, [but] he that hath seen me hath seen the Father. (John 1:18; 14:9)

 

My Father is greater than I, [but] I and my Father are one. (John 14:28; 10:30)

 

In his existence-relation to the truth, the existing subjective thinker is just as negative as positive, has just as much of the comic as he essentially has of pathos. (CUP, 80)

 

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. (Shakespeare, Hamlet)

In the estimation of Climacus, his contemporaries were uncritical, dogmatic, and altogether too positive about such things as worldly wisdom and the Hegelian System. In order to chasten and correct this foolish positivity, Climacus wielded the power of the negative (CUP, 80–93). As understood and practiced by Climacus, negative thinking is critical, iconoclastic, and ironic: it refutes error, exposes the limitations and incompleteness of the System and other idols of thought, and satirizes complacency and presumption.

 

4 The Subtle Power of Simplicity

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To give subtlety to the simple. (Proverbs 1:4)

 

The traversed path is: to reach, to arrive at simplicity. (PV, 6–7)

 

He now followed the method he was in the habit of following—namely, to make everything as simple as possible. (JC, 165)

 

Do you not come your tardy son to chide, That, lapsed in time and passion, lets go by The important acting of your dread command?

(Shakespeare, Hamlet)

Just as one would not expect to hear a panegyric on meekness and modesty from Nietzsche, the author of the doctrines of the superman and of the “will-to-power,” so one does not expect to hear high praise for simplicity from Kierkegaard, the subtle and sophisticated “indirect communicator.” But, if we listen attentively to Kierkegaard, this is exactly what we hear.

Writing under the Climacus pseudonym, he praises Lessing for writing simply, invites his readers to “talk quite simply about” “great tasks” “as neighbor speaks with neighbor in the evening twilight,” and claims that “the simple” is both essential and the “most difficult” thing “for the wise person to understand” (CUP, 99, 145, 160). We also learn from the philosophical biography of Climacus that his method and habit is “to make everything as simple as possible” (JC, 165). Similarly, Kierkegaard himself speaks highly of simplicity, often refers to his hero Socrates as that “simple wise man of old,” and claims that both the “traversed path” of his authorship and the “Christian movement” are “to reach, to arrive at simplicity” (JFY, 116, 119; PV, 7; original emphasis).

 

5 A Critique of Indirect Communication

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I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves; be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. (Matthew 10:16)

 

By indirections find directions out. (Shakespeare, Hamlet)

 

More matter, with less art. (Hamlet)

 

The track of writing is straight and crooked. (Heraclitus)

In many ways Climacus creates a false dichotomy between indirect and direct communication: He gives the false impression that there is a neat and tidy distinction between these two modes of writing, when in fact they shade into one another, interpenetrate one another, and differ from one another as much in degree as they do in kind; he idolizes indirect communication by exaggerating its strengths and ignoring its weaknesses, and demonizes direct communication by exaggerating its vices and ignoring its virtues, when it would be more just of him to admit that each mode of writing has both advantages and disadvantages for the communication of subjectivity; and, finally, he employs and recommends a strategy of writing that relies too much on indirect communication and too little on direct communication, when a wiser policy would be to use both of them in tandem as complements and correctives of one another.

 

6 The Figure of Socrates and the Climacean Capacity of Paradoxical Reason

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I have said that ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most high. But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes. (Psalms 82:6)

 

That . . . ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world. (2 Peter 1:4)

 

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure. (2 Philippians 2:12–13)

 

A human being is a synthesis of the finite and the infinite, and of the temporal and the eternal. (CUP, 56, 92)

 

What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties . . . in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god . . . and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? (Shakespeare, Hamlet)

Philosophical Fragments officially confines human beings within seemingly rigid limits,1 but it also suggests that the man Socrates transcends these limits. For example, Fragments claims that all non-Christians “move away” from the truth of Christianity, but it also intimates that Socrates longs for and prepares himself for the mystery of Christ. Bearing in mind that a climacus is a ladder,2 we might say that Fragments dramatically depicts Socrates as a climacean figure, or as a climber over boundaries and a transgressor of limits, and that the function of this depiction is to provoke readers to become aware of their own climacean capacity and to inspire them to use it. This present chapter is an explication of Kierkegaard’s artful use of the climacean figure of Socrates in Philosophical Fragments.

 

7 The Figure of Socrates and the Downfall of Paradoxical Reason

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Unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal. (John 12:24–25)

 

Christ . . . willed his own downfall. (PC, 246)

 

It is . . . the ultimate passion of the understanding to will the collision . . . that must become its downfall. (PF, 37)

 

An eternal happiness is specifically rooted in the subjective individual’s diminishing self-esteem acquired through the utmost exertion. (CUP, 55)

 

He who is by art a tragic poet is also a comic poet. (Socrates in Symposium, 223d)

 

Virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it. . . . What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves all. (Shakespeare, Hamlet)

In the drama of Philosophical Fragments Socrates not only climbs the ladder of paradoxical reason, he also falls. We might suspect that his fall is a tragic climbing accident resulting from ill-advised overconfidence in his climacean capacity, or a divine punishment for impious and immoderate ambition. In fact, it is a voluntary self-humbling: Socrates himself wills the downfall of his own understanding.

 

8 The Proof of Paradoxical Reason

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If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. (John 8:31–32)

 

I am the way, the truth, and the life. (John 14:6)

 

The truth in the sense in which Christ is the truth is not a sum of statements . . . but a life. (PC, 205)

 

This is eternal life, that they may know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent. (John 17:3)

 

That is, only then do I know the truth, when it becomes a life in me. (PC, 206, commenting on John 17:3; emphasis added)

Kierkegaard appears to reject the requirement of reason that he critically evaluate the beliefs grounding both his own and his rival’s ways of life. But in fact he affirms this requirement.

We have already examined some of Kierkegaard’s reasons for appearing to reject rational evaluation of ways of life. He thinks that he needs the incognito of irrationalism to help his readers become more rational, but if he unambiguously set about critically assessing lives with arguments pro et contra he would blow his cover. He also thinks that the task of reason is not so much to think the truth as it is to live it. Of course living the truth includes thinking it, but it also embraces feeling, willing, and enacting it. Since he wishes to encourage his readers to live what they know and believe, and since he is aware that they are very prone to substitute thinking for living, he avoids writing in such a way as to promote or excuse an obsession with thinking. Obviously, guarding in this way against an obsession with thinking does not permit publishing forthright and extensive rational evaluation of ways of life.

 

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