Philosophical Fragments


Kierkegaard uses familiar Christian vocabulary to develop his own method for arriving at Truth. He presents two views, the Socratic and the religious. Socrates is considered an authoritative voice in the philosophic community so Kierkegaard begins with his ideas. He developed the doctrine of recollection which Kierkegaard makes use of in his explanation of Truth and ignorance.

His aim is to advance beyond Socrates, who was interested in finite truth, to another Teacher who explained Eternal Truth. The Enlightenment movement was intent on combining concepts of God, nature, knowledge and man into one world view. Kierkegaard was a counter-Enlightenment writer.[5] He believed that knowledge of God was a "condition" that only "the God" can give and the "Moment" God gives the condition to the Learner has "decisive significance".[6]

He uses the category of the single individual to help those seeking to become Christians. He says, "I am he who himself has been educated to the point of becoming a Christian. In the fact that education is pressed upon me, and in the measure that it is pressed, I press in turn upon this age; but I am not a teacher, only a fellow student."[7] And again, "Once and for all I must earnestly beg the kind reader always to bear in mente (in mind) that the thought behind the whole work is: what it means to become a Christian."[8] He can only bring an individual to the point of becoming a Christian because the single individual must choose to become a Christian in freedom. Kierkegaard says, either believe or be offended. But choose.

Philosophers and Historians tend to try to prove Christianity rather than teach belief in Christ through faith. Kierkegaard says,

"As long as I keep my hold on the proof, i.e., continue to demonstrate, the existence does not come out, if for no other reason than that I am engaged in proving it; but when I let the proof go, the existence is there." (...) "unless we hold fast to the Socratic doctrine of Recollection, and to his principle that every individual man is Man, Sextus Empiricus stands ready to make the transition involved in "teaching" not only difficult but impossible; and Protagoras will begin where Sextus Empiricus leaves off, maintaining that man is the measure of all things, in the sense that the individual man is the measure for others, but by no means in the Socratic sense that each man is his own measure, neither more nor less. Philosophical Fragments p. 29-30, 32 (See Works of Love, Hong 1995 p. 367-368)

Analogy: whoever believes that there is a God and also a providence has an easier time (in preserving the faith), an easier time in definitely gaining the faith (and not an illusion) in an imperfect world, where passion is kept vigilant, than in an absolutely perfect world. In such a world, faith is indeed inconceivable. If all the angels united, they would still be able to produce only an approximation, because in historical knowledge an approximation is the only certainty-but also too little on which to build an eternal happiness. Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 1846, Hong translation p. 29-30

A Project of Thought

Kierkegaard uses the Doctrine of Recollection as an example of how truth was found in Ancient Greek philosophy and is still found in psychotherapy and modern medicine. Both of these sciences are based on questioning the patient, "Learner", in the hope of jogging their memory about past events. The therapist could ask the right question and not realize he has received the answer he was looking for, this is known as Meno's paradox. Kierkegaard puts his paradox this way, "what a man knows he cannot seek, since he knows it; and what he does not know he cannot seek, since he does not even know for what to seek."[9]

The problem for the "Learner" is that he is in "Error", and is ignorant of his Error. He had the truth from birth, he knew who his creator was, but forgot. Kierkegaard calls this Error "Sin". How can he find out that he had vested his life in outer goods rather than the inner goods of the Spirit? A Teacher must bring him the "condition"[note 1] necessary for understanding the Truth.[nb 5] He explains the whole process this way:

In so far as the learner is in Error, but in consequence of his own act (and in no other way can he possibly be in this state, as we have shown above), he might seem to be free; for to be what one is by one's own act is freedom. And yet he is in reality unfree and bound and exiled; for to be free from the Truth is to be exiled from the Truth, and to be exiled by one's own self is to be bound. But since he is bound by himself, may he not loose his bonds and set himself free? For whatever binds me, the same should be able to set me free when it wills; and since this power is here his own self, he should be able to liberate himself. But first at any rate he must will it.
for he forges the chains of his bondage with the strength of his freedom, since he exists in it without compulsion; and thus his bonds grow strong, and all his powers unite to make him the slave of sin. -- What now shall we call such a Teacher, one who restores the lost condition and gives the learner the Truth? Let us call him Saviour, for he saves the learner from his bondage and from himself; let us call him Redeemer, for he redeems the learner from the captivity into which he had plunged himself, and no captivity is so terrible and so impossible to break, as that in which the individual keeps himself. And still we have not said all that is necessary; for by his self-imposed bondage the learner has brought upon himself a burden of guilt, and when the Teacher gives him the condition and the Truth he constitutes himself an Atonement, taking away the wrath impending upon that of which the learner has made himself guilty. Such a Teacher the learner will never be able to forget. For the moment he forgets him he sinks back again into himself, just as one who while in original possession of the condition forgot that God exists, and thereby sank into bondage. Philosophical Fragments, Swenson p. 12-13

Now he owes everything to his Teacher but is saddened that it took so long to find out that he forgot his soul belonged to God and not to the world, and he "Repents".[11] The "Moment"[12] the Teacher brings the condition the learner experiences a "New Birth". Kierkegaard says a "change has taken place within him like the change from non-being to being. He calls this change "Conversion".[13] He says, "When one who has experienced birth thinks of himself as born, he conceives this transition from non-being to being. The same principle must also hold in the case of the new birth. Or is the difficulty increased by the fact that the non-being which precedes the new birth contains more being than the non-being which preceded the first birth? But who then may be expected to think the new birth?"[14] This is a paradox.

When the seed of the oak is planted in earthen vessels, they break asunder; when new wine is poured in old leather bottles, they burst; what must happen when the God implants himself in human weakness, unless man becomes a new vessel and a new creature! But this becoming, what labors will attend the change, how convulsed with birth-pangs! And the understanding—how precarious, and how close each moment to misunderstanding, when the anguish of guilt seeks to disturb the peace of love! And how rapt in fear; for it is indeed less terrible to fall to the ground when the mountains tremble at the voice of the God, than to sit at table with him as an equal; and yet it is the God's concern precisely to have it so. Philosophical Fragments p. 27

How many an individual has not asked, “What is truth?” and at bottom hoped that it would be a long time before the truth would come so close to him that in the same instant it would determine what it was his duty to do at that moment. When the Pharisee, “in order to justify himself,” asked, “Who is my neighbor?” he presumably thought that this might develop into a very protracted inquiry, so that it would perhaps take a very long time and then perhaps end with the admission that it was impossible to define the concept “neighbor” with absolute accuracy – for this very reason he asked the question, to find an escape, to waste time, and to justify himself. But God catches the wise in their foolishness, and Christ imprisoned the questioner in the answer that contained the task. So it is with all Christ’s answers. Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love p. 96-97

The truth is within me, that is, when I am truly within myself (not untruthfully outside myself), the truth, if it is there, is a being, a life. Therefore it says, "This is eternal life, to know the only true God and the one whom he sent, the truth." (John 14:6 The Bible) That is, only then do I in truth know the truth, when it becomes a life in me. Therefore Christ compares truth to food and appropriating it to eating, just as, physically, food by being appropriated (assimilated) becomes the life sustenance, so also, spiritually, truth is both the giver of life and the sustenance of life, is life. Practice in Christianity, Hong 1991 p. 206

But Kierkegaard went deeply into the choice in his first book, Either/Or:

Let me make a little psychological observation. We frequently hear people vent their dissatisfaction in a complaint about life; often enough we hear them wishing. Imagine a poor wretch like that; let us skip over the wishes that shed no light here because they involve the utterly accidental. He wishes: Would that I had that man's intellect, or that man's talent etc. Indeed, to go to the extreme: Would that I had that man's steadfastness. Wishes of that sort are frequently heard, but have you ever heard a person earnestly wish that he could be someone else? It is so far from being the case that it is particularly characteristic of people called unfortunate individualities that they cling most of all to themselves, that despite all their sufferings they still would not wish to be anybody else for all the world. That is because such people are very close to the truth, and they feel the eternal validity of the personality not in its blessing but in its torment, even if they have retained this totally abstract expression for the joy in it; that they prefer to go on being themselves. But the person with many wishes is nevertheless continually of the opinion that he would be himself even if everything were changed. Consequently, there is something within him that in relation to everything else is absolute, something whereby he is who he is even if the change he achieved by his wish were the greatest possible. That he is mistaken, I shall show later, but at this point I merely want to find the most abstract expression for this "self" that makes him who he is. And this is nothing other than freedom. By this route it is actually possible to present a very plausible demonstration of the eternal validity of the personality. Indeed, even a suicide does not actually will to do away with his self; he, too, wishes-he wishes another form of his self, and this is why we certainly find a suicide who is very convinced of the immortality of the soul, but whose whole being was so ensnared that he believed he would by this step find the absolute form for his spirit. The reason, however, it may seem to an individual as if he could be changed continually and yet remain the same, as if his innermost being were an algebraic symbol that could signify anything whatever it is assumed to be, is that he is in a wrong position, that he has not chosen himself, does not have a concept of it, and yet there is in his folly an acknowledgment of the eternal validity of his personality. But for him who is in a proper position things take another course. He chooses himself-not in a finite sense, for then this "self" would indeed be something finite that would fall among all the other finite things-but in the absolute sense, and yet he does choose himself and not someone else. This self that he chooses in this way is infinitely concrete, for it is he himself, and yet it is absolutely different from his former self, for he has chosen it absolutely. This self has not existed before, because it came into existence through a choice, and yet it has existed, for it was indeed "himself." The choice here makes two dialectical movements simultaneous-that which is chosen does not exist and comes into existence through the choice-and that which is chosen exists; otherwise it was not a choice. In other words, if what I chose did not exist but came into existence absolutely through the choice, then I did not choose-then I created. But I do not create myself-I choose myself. Therefore, whereas nature is created from nothing, whereas I myself as immediate personality am created from nothing, I as free spirit am born out of the principle of contradiction and am born through choosing myself.
  • Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or Part II, Hong p. 215-216

The God as Teacher, Saviour and the Paradox

Kierkegaard leads his reader to consider how a teacher might become a teacher. He says life and its circumstances constitute an occasion for an individual to become a teacher and he in turn becomes an occasion for the learner to learn something. Socrates was such a teacher as this. But what about God? What would be the occasion that moved him to become a Teacher? God is moved by love but his love is unhappy. He wants to make himself understood just like a teacher but He's teaching something that doesn't come to an individual from the known world but from a world that is Unknown. "His love is a love of the learner, and his aim is to win him. For it is only in love that the unequal can be made equal, and it is only in equality or unity that an understanding can be effected, and without a perfect understanding the Teacher is not the God, unless the obstacle comes wholly from the side of the learner, in his refusing to realize that which had been made possible for him."[15]

God's goal is to make himself understood and, according to Kierkegaard, he has three options. He could elevate the learner to help the learner forget the misunderstanding. God could show himself to the learner and cause him to forget his Error while contemplating God's presence. Both options are rejected on the basis of equality. How can God make himself equal to man? Only by becoming man himself, but not a king, or a leader of an established order, no, for equality's sake he must become one of the humblest, a servant.[16][17]

But God can't make himself understood because he's completely unlike every other human being. God has not sinned, whereas every human being has. This is a paradox but the ultimate paradox is that a single individual who looks just like everyone else is God. "The thesis that God has existed in human form, was born, grew up; is certainly the paradox in the strictest sense, the absolute paradox." Christianity is also a paradox as well as the forgiveness of sins.[18] Kierkegaard is saying that the "Moment" the individual comes in contact with the Paradox is of utmost importance because this is where the decision is made. This is his Either/Or. Either believe or be offended.[19] Reason is attempting to understand the Paradox but comes to its own limit and can't understand what it knows nothing about.

how should the Reason be able to understand what is absolutely different from itself? If this is not immediately evident, it will become clearer in the light of the consequences; for if the God is absolutely unlike man, then man is absolutely unlike the God; but how could the Reason be expected to understand this? Here we seem to be confronted with a paradox. Merely to obtain the knowledge that the God is unlike him, man needs the help of the God; and now he learns that the God is absolutely different from himself. But if the God and man are absolutely different, this cannot be accounted for on the basis of what man derives from the God, for in so far they are akin. Their unlikeness must therefore be explained by what man derives from himself, or by what he has brought upon his own head. Philosophical Fragments, Swenson p. 34 (see 31-34)

Kierkegaard says Reason "collides" with the knowledge of the Unknown. If Reason and God have a happy encounter the individual comes to be a believer. If the collision results in an unhappy encounter the Reason is Offended. The Reason says that the Paradox is absurd and can get no meaning from the encounter. But when "Reason yielded itself while the Paradox bestowed itself, and the understanding is consummated in that happy passion, the individual is happy and asks for nothing more."[20][nb 6] Kierkegaard says Christ offers every single individual the "invitation."[nb 7]

The Disciple and the Disciple at Second Hand

Kierkegaard explores how a contemporary of Christ and succeeding generations receive the "condition" necessary to understand the Paradox that God has permitted himself to be born and wrapped in swaddling-clothes. A contemporary could have been living abroad and in that case the contemporary would have to hear the story from eyewitnesses. How reliable would they be? The only thing they saw was a lowly servant.[21] The immediate contemporary can "serve as an occasion for the acquirement of historical knowledge", an occasion to help the individual understand himself in the Socratic sense, or the contemporary could have received the condition from God and become a believer.[22]

The "condition" comes into existence. Kierkegaard says the "coming-into-existence is a kind of change, but is not a change in essence but in being and is a transition from not existing to existing. But this non-being which the subject of coming into existence leaves behind must itself have some sort of being. He asks his reader to consider whether the necessary can come into existence or if the necessary "Is", since everything that comes into existence is historical. But for Kierkegaard "all coming into existence takes place in freedom." The disciple freely chooses to follow Christ when the Holy Spirit convinces him that he's a sinner.

He finally discloses what this "condition" the "Moment" brings to the individual. He says, "faith[nb 8] has precisely the required character; for in the certainty of belief there is always present a negated uncertainty, in every way corresponding to the uncertainty of coming into existence. Faith believes what it does not see..." [24]

Through the objective uncertainty and ignorance the paradox thrusts away in the inwardness of the existing person. But since the paradox is not in itself the paradox, it does not thrust away intensely enough. For without risk, no faith; the more risk, the more faith. The more objective reliability, the less inwardness (since inwardness is subjectivity). The less objective reliability, the deeper is the possible inwardness. When the paradox itself is the paradox, it thrusts away by virtue of the absurd, and the corresponding passion of inwardness is faith. When Socrates believed that God is, he held fast the objective uncertainty with the entire passion of inwardness, and faith is precisely in this contradiction, in this risk. Now it is otherwise. Instead of the objective uncertainty, there is here the certainty that, viewed objectively, it is the absurd, and this absurdity, held fast in the passion of inwardness, is faith. What, then, is the absurd? The absurd is that the eternal truth has come into existence in time, that God has come into existence, has been born, has grown up, has come into existence exactly as an individual human being, indistinguishable from any other human being. Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Hong p. 209-210

An individual can know what Christianity is without being a Christian. Kierkegaard says, "By Baptism Christianity gives him a name, and he is a Christian de nomine (by name); but in the decision[note 2] he becomes a Christian and gives Christianity his name.[25] It would indeed be a ludicrous contradiction if an existing person asked what Christianity is in terms of existence and then spent his whole life deliberating on that-for in that case when should he exist in it?"[26][nb 9] [nb 10][nb 11]

Belief is not a form of knowledge, but a free act, an expression of will, it is not having a relationship with a doctrine but having a relationship with God. Kierkegaard says "Faith, self-active, relates itself to the improbable and the paradox, is self-active in discovering it and in holding it fast at every moment-in order to be able to believe."[27][nb 12][nb 13]

From the God himself everyone receives the condition who by virtue of the condition becomes the disciple. (..) For whoever has what he has from the God himself clearly has it at first hand; and he who does not have it from the God himself is not a disciple. (...) if the contemporary disciple gives the condition to the successor, the latter will come to believe in him. He receives the condition from him, and thus the contemporary becomes the object of Faith for the successor; for whoever gives the individual this condition is eo ipso (in fact) the object of Faith, and the God. Philosophical Fragments p. 60-61

Kierkegaard mentioned Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788) in his book Repetition p. 149 (1843) and this book, Philosophical Fragments (p. 38ff, Swenson), and what Kierkegaard writes is written also by Hamann in his book, Socratic Memorabilia, in this way:

The opinion of Socrates can be summarized in these blunt words, when he said to the Sophists, the learned men of his time, “I know nothing.” Therefore these words were a thorn in their eyes and a scourge on their backs. All of Socrates’ ideas, which were nothing more than expectorations and secretions of his ignorance, seemed as frightful to them as the hair of Medusa’s head, the knob of the Aegis. The ignorance of Socrates was sensibility. But between sensibility and a theoretical proposition is a greater difference than between a living animal and its anatomical skeleton. The ancient and modern sceptics may wrap themselves ever so much in the lion skin of Socratic ignorance; nevertheless they betray themselves by their voices and ears. If they know nothing, why does the world need a learned demonstration of it? Their hypocrisy is ridiculous and insolent. Whoever needs so much acumen and eloquence to convince himself of his ignorance, however, must cherish in his heart a powerful repugnance for the truth of it. Our own existence and the existence of all things outside us must be believed, and cannot be determined in any other way. What is more certain than the end of man, and of what truth is there a more general and better attested knowledge? Nevertheless, no one is wise enough to believe it except the one who, as Moses makes clear, is taught by God himself to number his days. What one believes does not, therefore, have to be proved, and a proposition can be ever so incontrovertibly proven without on that account being believed. There are proofs of truth which are of as little value as the application which can be made of the truths themselves; indeed, one can believe the proof of the proposition without giving approval to the proposition itself. The reasons of a Hume may be ever so cogent, and the refutations of them only assumptions and doubts; thus faith gains and loses equally with the cleverest pettifogger and most honorable attorney. Faith is not the work of reason, because faith arises just as little from reason as tasting and seeing does. Hamann’s Socratic Memorabilia, (Compiled for the Boredom of the Public by a Lover of Boredom), A translation and commentary by James C. O’Flaherty, 1967 Johns Hopkins Press p. 167-169
Only one who receives the condition from the God is a believer. (This corresponds exactly to the requirement that man must renounce his reason, and on the other hand discloses the only form of authority that corresponds to Faith.) If anyone proposes to believe, i.e., imagines himself to believe, because many good and upright people living here on the hill have believed, i.e., have said that they believed (for no man can control the profession of another further than this; even if the other has endured, borne, suffered all for the Faith, an outsider cannot get beyond what he says about himself, for a lie can be stretched precisely as far as the truth—in the eyes of men, but not in the sight of God), then he is a fool, and it is essentially indifferent whether he believes on account of his own and perhaps a widely held opinion about what good and upright people believe, or believes a Munchausen. If the credibility of a contemporary is to have any interest for him—and alas! one may be sure that this will create a tremendous sensation, and give occasion for the writing of folios; for this counterfeit earnestness, which asks whether so-and-so is trustworthy instead of whether the inquirer himself has faith, is an excellent mask for spiritual indolence, and for town gossip on a European scale—if the credibility of such a witness is to have any significance it must be with respect to the historical fact. But what historical fact? Philosophical Fragments p. 77
if it is the misfortune of the age that it has come to know too much, has forgotten what it means to exist and what inwardness is, then it was important that sin not be conceived in abstract categories, in which it cannot be conceived at all, that is, decisively, because it stands in an essential relation to existing. Therefore it was good that the work was a psychological inquiry, which in itself makes clear that sin cannot find a place in the system, presumably just like immortality, faith, the paradox, and other such concepts that essentially related to existing, just what systematic thinking ignores. The expression "anxiety" does not lead one to think of paragraph pomposity but rather of existence inwardness. Just as "fear and trembling" is the state of the teleologically suspended person when God tempts him, so also is anxiety the teleologically suspended person's state of mind in that desperate exemption from fulfilling the ethical. When truth is subjective, the inwardness of sin as anxiety in the existing individuality is the greatest possible distance and the most painful distance from the truth. Concluding Unscientific Postscript p. 269

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