Part III: Kierkegaard’s Socratic Task

A guest post by Eric Lee, Doctoral Student of Theology, University of Nottingham

In my two previous posts (here and here), I explored, first, Kierkegaard’s admiration for Socrates and second, his comparison of himself with Socrates and the comparison of “associate professors” and certain “pastors” with Sophists whose highest end was profit. In contrast with this, Socrates stands as a ‘midwife’ to knowledge, wandering around Athens poor and barefoot; furthermore, Kierkegaard himself is a kind of midwife exhorting us to be infinitely concerned with Christ and Christianity over all else. In the following post I would like to briefly outline some of Kierkegaard’s earlier work (pseudonymous and otherwise) which dealt with Socrates.

When I first began my work on Kierkegaard and Socrates, I naively thought that Kierkegaard used Socrates univocally; that is, I thought perhaps that Socrates was only seen primarily as a figure of ‘irony’ in Kierkegaard’s thought.  After all, Kierkegaard tells us that irony is Socrates’ “position.”[1] While in many ways this is true, an article by Mary-Jane Rubenstein[2] helpfully shows that Socrates is viewed and used in different ways throughout Kierkegaard’s writings. She puts it simply:

In [Concept of] Irony, Socrates knows nothing and therefore falls short of the speculative. In [Philosophical] Fragments, Socrates knows everything from eternity and therefore marks the inception of the speculative. In the [Concluding Unscientific] Postscript, Socratic uncertainty, falling between the categories of knowing and not-knowing, might be sufficiently elusive to resist the speculative.[3]

To unpack this a bit, for Kierkegaard in Concept of Irony, Socrates and Socratic irony symbolize pure negativity. Kierkegaard says, “Socrates, in his relation to the established order of things, was entirely negative, that he is suspended in ironic satisfaction above all the qualifications of substantial life.”[4] As much as Kierkegaard regards the ironic Socrates as a “hero,”[5] he does make distinctions within the concept of irony, ultimately steering away from the “all the way down” irony of the Romantics such as Friedrich Schlegel, Ludwig Tieck, and Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand Solger (who follow Fichte’s egoist conception of the I).[6]

Kierkegaard ultimately rests upon a kind of “controlled” irony: “As soon as irony is controlled, it makes a movement opposite to that in which uncontrolled irony declares its life.” It has the ability to yield truth and content while at the same time it “disciplines and punishes and thereby yields balance and consistency.” [7] Of utmost importance (as we will see later), controlled irony places “the appropriate emphasis on actuality,”[8] this despite the fact that Kierkegaard sums up his thoughts on irony thus: “Irony as the negative is the way; it is not the truth but the way.”[9]

Moving on to Philosophical Fragments, Johannes Climacus seems to use Socrates as a kind of foil in comparing philosophy to Christianity in a ‘thought-project’ (although Christianity isn’t mentioned until the final pages).  As is well-known, Climacus focuses upon Socrates’ method of learning as recollection: whenever we learn anything, it is only a recollection of knowledge already known but hence forgotten in our state of ignorance, and thus the role of the teacher is merely as a midwife to the recollection of said knowledge. The role of the teacher is a kind of accident, “[t]he temporal point of departure [which] is a nothing.”[10] Climacus contrasts with this the idea of the god who is not only the teacher, but the teaching itself. The god gives us the condition in our condition of ignorance (called ‘sin’) to learn about the teaching, and the learning becomes transformed into a new person. Moreover, this moment of teaching is not merely an accident, but has decisive significance.[11]

While it would be really fun to work through the rest of Climacus’ fascinating text, allow me to fast-forward about 90 pages to the final page, entitled “The Moral.” Here Climacus says:

This project indisputably goes beyond the Socratic, as is apparent at every point. Whether it is therefore more true than the Socratic is an altogether different question, one that cannot be decided in the same breathe, inasmuch as a new organ has been assumed here: faith; and a new presupposition: the consciousness of sin; and a new decision: the moment; and a new teacher: the god in time. Without these, I really would not have dared to present myself for inspection before that ironist who has been admired for millennia, whom I approach with as much ardent enthusiasm as anyone. But to go beyond Socrates when one nevertheless says essentially the same as he, only not nearly so well—that, at least, is not Socratic.[12]

Climacus here says that he “indisputably goes beyond the Socratic” “at every point.” But I have to agree with Jacob Howland here who wonders if the “Moral” is not itself the final ironic gesture of the Fragments.  First, Howland notes that ironically, there is no lesson in this “Moral”![13] Second, if the Socratic hypothesis is true, then how can something be “more true” than something else?[14] Finally, despite the fact that Climacus paints Socrates as merely a midwife to learning as recollection, does not this actually paint a false picture of Socrates himself who had a ‘divine’ encounter?  That is, Socrates himself relied on the oracle of the god at Delphi for his entire philosophical mission of self-knowledge. As Howland puts it,

Socrates’ reliance on the god would call into question the representation of philosophy as recollection. In that case, Socrates’ self-knowledge would be God-knowledge in the sense that at least part of the truth, and thus of what he needs to know in order to achieve self-knowledge, is not accessible through his own efforts but must be given to him by the god.[15]

In a sense then, both Socrates’ self-description and Climacus’ description of Socrates do not sufficiently account for the full Socratic picture regarding the experience of the learner and his or her relationship to the teacher.  The god, for Socrates, turns out to be more than a mere occasion.[16]

In the Postscript, Climacus slightly changes his Socratic tune.  Now, instead of using Socrates as somebody (and something in so far as what Socrates represents) that he must move ‘beyond’, now Socrates becomes the existential thinker such that he resists the speculative. Here Climacus makes a distinction between Socrates and Plato on the issue of recollection, relegating the notion of recollection to Plato, and parceling out the notions of being an existing thinker and inwardness to Socrates in a long footnote.  Here is the relevant section:

The thesis [that all knowing is a recollecting] certainly belongs to both of them, but Socrates continually parts with it because he wants to exist.  By holding Socrates to the thesis that all knowing is recollecting, one turns him into a speculative philosopher instead of what he was, an existing thinker who understood existing as the essential.  The thesis that all knowing is recollecting belongs to speculative thought, and recollecting is immanence, and from the point of view of speculation and the eternal there is no paradox.  The difficulty, however, is that no human being is speculation, but the speculating person is an existing human being, subject to the claims of existence.  To forget this is no merit, but to hold this fast is indeed a merit, and that is precisely what Socrates did.  To emphasize existence, which contains within it the qualification of inwardness, is the Socratic, whereas the Platonic is to pursue recollection and immanence.[17]

Climacus even admits at the beginning of this footnote that this was in fact “a dubiousness in the design of Fragments,” but was meant to simply matters for the sake of exploring the same idea against that of speculation. As Rubenstein puts it, “as Climacus explains at the end of Postscript, he needed to excise those Socratic ideas that may have anticipated Hegel before he could begin reconstructive work, for ‘if a single concession is made to speculative thought with regard to beginning with the pure being, all is lost.’”[18]

The main use of Socrates in Climacus’ Postscript is this: “The Socratic paradox consisted in this, that the eternal truth was related to an existing person.”[19] Like a jazz musician, Climacus ‘vamps’ on this theme all throughout the Postscript, which draws upon the well-known passage from Plato’s Laches where Socrates’ deeds or work (ergon) matches up with his thought or speech (logos).[20] Climacus contrasts the figure of Socrates with the speculative thinkers of his day: whereas no person is speculation (which he repeats ad nauseum), Socrates is the existing thinker who exists in subjective inwardness.

Kierkegaard exhorts us in The Moment to be infinitely concerned with Christ and Christianity over and above payment and profit.  He tells us this after his own paean to Socrates as the only worthwhile thinker of humanity.  What makes Socrates distinctive as a thinker is precisely the fact that his speech matches up with his actions.  In an age where Christianity has been abolished by Christians, Kierkegaard puts forward the analogy of Socrates who ironically perhaps, becomes the anti-gnostic when compared to the melancholy Dane’s fellow speculative Hegelian Christians who have forgotten what it means to exist as Christians.  If Kierkegaard beseeches the ‘common’ person to exist inwardly as Christians—which is an existence which entails actually living a life beyond profit into the wealth of ‘repeating’ Christ in the life of the Church–then may we all become ‘common’.


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 214.

[2] Mary-Jane Rubenstein, “Kierkegaard’s Socrates: A Venture in Evolutionary Theory,” Modern Theology 17, no. 4 (October 2001): 441-474.

[3] Ibid., p. 443.

[4]Kierkegaard, Concept of Irony, p. 217, which is why Kierkegaard even points to Aristophanes as having the most accurate portrayal of Socrates as pure ironical joker even beyond Plato’s Socratic portrait. This, despite the fact that Kierkegaard also says that irony is an intermediate stage between potentiality and actuality (p. 211). Kierkegaard will later refine this position (as Climacus) in the Postscript where he says that irony lies on the borderlands between the aesthetic and ethical stages. On this see Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), pp. 501-2.

[5] Kierkegaard, Concept of Irony, p. 211.

[6] On this see ibid., pp. 272-323. Kierkegaard outlines the basis for Hegel’s attack on the Romantic ironists: “Everything established in the given actuality has nothing but poetic validity for the ironist, for he, after all, is living poetically. But when the given actuality loses its validity for the ironist in this way, it is not because it is an antiquated actuality that must be replaced by a truer actuality, but because the ironist is the eternal for which no actuality is adequate” (p. 283). For Hegel’s attack on Schlegel, see G.W.F. Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, vol. 1. trans. T.M. Knox (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), pp. 64-9.

[7] Kierkegaard, Concept of Irony, p. 326.

[8] Ibid., p. 328.

[9] Ibid., p. 327. Cf. John 14:6.

[10] Søren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments / Johannes Climacus, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985), pp. 9-13, here p. 13.

[11] Ibid., pp. 13-22.

[12] Ibid., p. 111.

[13] Jacob Howland, Kierkegaard and Socrates: A Study in Philosophy and Faith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 31.

[14] Ibid., p. 32.

[15] Ibid., p. 47.

[16] Ibid., p. 67. “The ultimate warrant for Socratic philosophizing is the authority of the god, which Socrates accepts on faith and without argument. …[T]he very questions that guide the philosophic quest derive from the oracle, or from what is given to Socrates by the god. In one sense, then, Socrates questions the oracle, but in a deeper sense he does not.  In particular he is willing to accept, on the authority of the oracle alone, that the quest for wisdom is a sensible and significant enterprise” (ibid).

[17] Kierkegaard, Postscript, p. 206 n.

[18] Rubenstein, “Kierkegaard’s Socrates,” p. 448.  She is quoting Kierkegaard, Postscript, p. 603.  In light of this, Howland remarks, “It is now clear that Climacus’s account of Socratic philosophizing in Fragments is essentially one-sided” (Howland, Kierkegaard and Socrates, p. 197).

[19] Kierkegaard, Postscript, p. 207.

[20] Laches 188c-e.  Howland points out that we know that Kierkegaard was familiar with this dialogue in Howland, Kierkegaard and Socrates, p. 16.  Cf. Kierkegaard, Concept of Irony, p. 54.

Part II: Kierkegaard’s Socratic Task

A guest post by Eric Lee, Doctoral Student of Theology, University of Nottingham

In my previous post, I focussed on the importance of Socrates for Søren Kierkegaard, emphasizing the privileged place he held in his thought not only at the beginning (Concept of Irony) of his thought, but also just before Kierkegaard died (“My Task,” The Moment 10). In the remainder of “My Task,” Kierkegaard claims that ” ‘Christendom’ lies in an abyss of sophistry that is even much, much worse than when the Sophists flourished in Greece.”[1] The pastors and assistant professors he knows are exactly like the sophists of Greece, pawning off false knowledge as if it were real, but in their case they are “making those who understand nothing believe something and then making this human number the authority for what the truth is, for what Christianity is.”[2]

Earlier that year in a news paper article, Kierkegaard said, “everyone must be able to see that official Christianity is not the Christianity of the New Testament, resembles it no more than the square resembles the circle, no more than enjoying resembles suffering,” etc.[3] But still, the ones assured of their Christianity in this state want Kierkegaard to loudly proclaim his Christianity, to wear it on his sleeve, as it were. In response to these requests, Kierkegaard calls upon Socrates once again:

O Socrates! If with kettledrums and trumpets you had proclaimed yourself to be the one who knew the most, the Sophists would soon have been finished with you. No, you were the ignorant one; but you also had the confounded capacity of being able (also by means of being yourself the ignorant one) to make it manifest that the others knew even less than you-they did not even know that they were ignorant.[4]

Socrates’ behavior thereby angered the Sophists because of his gadfly-like manner of revealing the latter’s unwitting ignorance. Likewise, Kierkegaard provokes rage against himself by pointing out that even though he is not a Christian, others calling themselves such-like the Sophists in light of Socrates’ acknowledged ignorance-are even less so.  “I am not a Christian; and it is rash to conclude that because I can show that the others are not Christians, then I myself must be one, just as rash as to conclude, for example, that someone who is one-fourth of a foot taller than others is, ergo, twelve feet tall.”[5]

Kierkegaard ends his last brief treatise with a summation of his entire project: “My task is to audit the definition: Christian.”[6] If the form this takes is Socratic, the content and form taken together (which can never ultimately be pried apart I would argue) are for Kierkegaard wholly unique: “In Christendom’s eighteen hundred years there is absolutely nothing comparable, no analogy to my task; it is the first time in ‘Christendom’.”[7] One supposes one could very well compare him with Hamann, that “Magus of the North” whom Kierkegaard called “the greatest humorist in Christianity.”[8] Hamann also saw himself as a Christian Socrates before Kierkegaard did.[9] But Kierkegaard here is still correct: what he is dealing with is a new beast on par with what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would later describe as “cheap grace” (albeit due to over-determined speculation vis-à-vis Hegelianism), whereas Hamann’s struggles were with the so-called pure reason of the Enlightenment. In this sense then, Kierkegaard is perhaps in a unique position within Christianity.

In auditing the definition of ‘Christian’, Kierkegaard’s hope is to remind people that Christ’s invitation is not easy, indeed it is the ultimate sacrifice:

[W]hen it comes down to brass tacks and it must be certain what it is that Christ invites them to (in imitation to become a sacrifice), and this is not turned into something that pleases everybody-then it will be manifest, just as in contemporaneity with Christ, that all will most decidedly decline this with ‘Thanks for nothing’ and that only exceptionally does a very rare individual follow the invitation, and of these individuals in turn only a rare individual follows the invitation in such a way that he holds firm that it is an infinite, an indescribable grace that is shown him: to be sacrificed. … It would indeed be almost nauseating, stifling, oppressive, embarrassing that to be loved by God and to dare to love him should spiritlessly and idiotically be saddled with having the idea that one would have profit from it![10]

Kierkegaard’s tone remains Socratic, constantly questioning the ability to (Sophistically) ‘profit’ from following Christ. Instead, one must do the opposite of profiting: “to be sacrificed.”  In Cynthia’s previous post entitled “A Redemptive Historical Biblical ‘Postscript’ to Fear and Trembling,” Cynthia rightly points out that the story of the (non-)sacrifice of Isaac only truly makes sense in the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ upon the cross, the former of which in Cynthia’s words “was itself a sign pointing beyond itself, a sign pointing to that future Christ-event in which ultimate existential expression of both suffering and love was displayed.” Kierkegaard here (like Saint Paul and many others after him)[11] is calling us to follow this same cruciform path. Like Saint Johannes Climacus reminds us,[12] not only do we climb up the ladder to Christ, but Christ himself is that ladder[13] and thus helps us along the way as he himself is that way, beginning and ending in love.[14]

Kierkegaard ends “My Task” with this exhortation:

You common man! I do not keep it a secret from you that, according to my concepts, to be a Christian is something so infinitely high that there are always only few who attain it (which both Christ’s life affirms if one pays attention to his contemporaries and his proclamation suggests if one takes it strictly)-yet it is possible for all. But one thing I beseech you for God in heaven’s sake and by all that is holy: avoid the pastors, avoid them, those abominations whose job is to hinder you in even becoming aware of what true Christianity is and thereby to turn you, muddled by gibberish and illusion, into what they understand by a true Christian, a contributing member of the state Church, the national Church, and the like. Avoid them; only see to it that you willingly and promptly pay them the money they are to have. One must at no price have money differences with someone one scorns, lest it be said that one was avoiding them in order to get out of paying. No, pay them double so that your disagreement with them can become obvious: that what concerns them does not concern you at all, money, and that, on the contrary, what does not concern them concerns you infinitely, Christianity.[15]

Kierkegaard here singles out more Sophists, it seems: the pastors, and the state Church. In his final exhortation, these concern him even more than the “associate professors,” his usual whipping boys. Like the Sophists of Socrates day, these are the figures who ultimately demand money and moreover profit for their services. Beyond this, Socrates wanders around poor and barefoot, acting as a midwife to learning, not charging anything for his ‘services’. The only analogy that Kierkegaard himself has before him is Socrates, and so Kierkegaard’s own task is to, beyond those who seek profit, exhort his readers to be infinitely concerned with Christ and Christianity.

Next week  I will conclude with a post reflecting on the themes of these last two posts in light of his earlier writings.


[1] Kierkegaard, The Moment and Late Writings, p. 341.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Would It Be Best Now to ‘Stop ‘Ringing the Alarm’?”, published April 7, 1855, in ibid., p. 52.

[4] Ibid., p. 342.

[5] Ibid., p. 343.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., p. 344.

[8] Journals and Papers II 1681 (II A 75 n.d., 1837).

[9] For example, Kierkegaard makes the same parallel of Hamann’s relationship to his contemporaries that he ultimately does with himself in “My Task”: “Hamann’s relationship to his contemporaries-Socrates’ to the Sophists (who could say something about everything)” (Journals and Papers II 1547 [III B 17 n.d., 1840-41]). On Hamann’s own works, see Johann Georg Hamann, Socratic Memorabilia: A Translation and Commentary, trans. and with an introduction by James C. O’Flaherty (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins Press, 1967) and “Part I: The Making of a Christian Socrates” in John R. Betz, After Enlightenment: The Post-Secular Vision of J. G. Hamann (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2009), pp. 23-87. On Hamann’s influence upon Kierkegaard, see John R. Betz, “Hamann Before Kierkegaard: A Systematic Theological Oversight,” Pro Ecclesia 16, no. 3 (Summer 2007): 299-333.

[10] Kierkegaard, The Moment and Late Writings, pp. 345-6.

[11] Romans 12:1. Cf. Hebrews 13:15; 1 Peter 2:4-5.

[12] After whom, of course, Kierkegaard named his pseudonym who wrote Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments.

[13] Jesus identifies himself with Jacob’s ladder in John 1:51.

[14] See John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1982). On similarities between The Ladder of Divine Ascent and Johannes Climacus’ Philosophical Fragments see Jacob Howland, Kierkegaard and Socrates: A Study in Philosophy and Faith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 12.

[15] Kierkegaard, The Moment and Late Writings, pp. 346-7. Also, for Kierkegaard’s affinity for the “common man” see Jørgen Bukdahl, Søren Kierkegaard and the Common Man, trans. and ed. Bruce H. Kirmmse (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001).

Part I: Kierkegaard’s Socratic Task

A guest post by Eric Lee, Doctoral Student of Theology, University of Nottingham

A warm thanks to Cynthia for inviting me to write a series of guest posts on Søren Kierkegaard. It is a welcome opportunity to serve as a kind of ‘midwife’[1] to a Kierkegaardian text that usually does not receive very much attention.[2] I want to blog through a piece entitled “My Task” which was the last piece of writing that Kierkegaard intended to publish in the series of writings known as The Moment. I will have two posts which work through the piece itself and then a final, third post which will attempt to show how these insights can be reflected back on Kierkegaard’s prior authorship in its pseudonymous guises.

While many familiar with Kierkegaard will know the phrase “the moment” (Øieblikket in old Danish, augenblick in German)[3] from his Philosophical Fragments[4] to define that moment of decision at which something absolutely new enters the picture such that it changes everything for the reception of a moment of transformation-Kierkegaard’s series by the same name of The Moment[5] signify a collection of writings in newspaper article and pamphlet form that intended to be a kind of ‘attack’ upon the Christendom of Copenhagen generally.  Specifically, they arose from his feud with Professor Hans Lassen Martensen.[6]

The religious climate of Kierkegaard’s time was such: because everyone was a Christian, baptised a Lutheran at birth, combined with a watered-down Christianity that used Hegelian terms to direct discourse and action (and not, say, the other way around)-the end result is that nobody in Copenhagen is thus a Christian.  Those familiar with Philosophical Fragments, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, and Practice in Christianity will be well-versed with Kierkegaard’s emphasis on the paradox of faith-the God-Man of Jesus Christ-and his concommitant bemoaning of the ‘slackening’ of this paradox such that the Christian faith is lived with no difficulty whatsoever. In fact, it is as simple as putting on one’s socks in the morning![7]

In light of this situation, Kierkegaard saw himself as a modern-day Socrates. He spells the form of this comparison in his The Point of View for My Work as an Author,[8] but in “My Task,” Kierkegaard goes into more depth concerning the comparison itself regarding both the person of Socrates as a distant echo of Kierkegaard as well as the culture of Athens and its own Sophistical leanings as an antecedent of Copenhagen’s Christians, especially Copenhagen’s “associate professors.”

To begin, Kierkegaard starts out with the following provocative declaration:

‘I do not call myself a Christian; I do not speak of myself as a Christian.’ It is this that I must continually repeat; anyone who wants to understand my very special task must concentrate on being able to hold this firm.[9]

Kierkegaard’s situation is that his entire culture has declared itself Christian, but in doing so, and in the way in which it has (among other things) forgotten the offense of the Cross,[10] it has put itself into a situation where they have abolished Christianity. So, if this is what Christianity has become, and if these are who the Christians are, then how can Kierkegaard call himself a Christian?[11] It is here where Kierkegaard makes the Socratic comparison, culminating into a paean to Socrates himself!

The only analogy I have before me is Socrates; my task is a Socratic task, to audit the definition of what it is to be a Christian-I do not call myself a Christian (keeping the ideal free), but I can make it manifest that the others are that even less.

You, antiquity’s noble soul, you, the only human being I admiringly acknowledge as a thinker: there is only a little preserved about you, of all people the only true martyr of intellectuality, just as great qua character as qua thinker; but how exceedingly much this little is! Even though over the centuries there have lived in Christendom a few isolated significant thinkers-how I long to be able to speak with you for only a half hour, far away from these battalions of thinkers that ‘Christiendom’ places in the field under the name of Christian thinkers![12]

And in his Journals and Papers, Kierkegaard says:

I have the deepest respect for Luther-but was he a Socrates? No, no, far from that. When I talk purely and simply about man I say: Of all men old Socrates is the greatest-Socrates, the hero and martyr of intellectuality. Only you understood what it is to be a reformer, understood what it meant for you yourself to be that, and were that.[13]

And later on in his Journals, Kierkegaard compares the martyrdom of Socrates to Christ:

Socrates is the only one, is “the martyr” in the eminent sense, the greatest man; whereas Christ is “the truth,” and it would be blasphemous to call him a “martyr.”

Why cannot Christ be called a martyr? Because he was not a witness to truth but was “the truth,” and his death was not martyrdom but the Atonement.[14]

If it was not already apparent through Kierkegaard’s continual use of irony and masks throughout his pseudonymous works-and even though Kierkegaard declares Socrates a “hero” in his Concept of Irony[15] dissertation before beginning his official authorship with Either/Or-Kierkegaard reminds us at the end of his life in The Moment and in his journals of the utmost importance of the person of Socrates for his work.  Socrates is not only the one thinker worth spending time with contra the Christian “thinkers” of his age, but Socrates himself, more than Luther and the Reformers and all their passionate writings (Kierkegaard himself a Lutheran!), is the only true and proper martyr to the intellect. Socrates, more than “a few isolated significant thinkers” in Christendom, is worth mentioning as “great” in both character and thought.

Why is this so? Aside from the fact that most philosophers in the 18th and 19th centuries held Socrates in extremely high regard,[16] it seems that Kierkegaard sees in Socrates a kindred spirit who is experiencing similar conflicts with his present age and dealt with these problems in a way most admirably in Kierkegaard’s eyes. In my next post, I will continue working through “My Task” in The Moment and thereby explore these themes further in Kierkegaard’s comparison of Christendom with a kind of Sophistry.


[1] Cf. Plato’s Theaetetus 150b-151d.

[2] There are a few exceptions, notably the recent essay by Paul Muench based on his PhD dissertation, see Paul Muench, “Kierkegaard’s Socratic Point of View,” in A Companion to Socrates (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2009), pp. 389-405. For his dissertation, see Paul Muench, “Kierkegaard’s Socratic Task” (PhD Dissertation: University of Pittsburgh, 2006). Accessed online, Major studies that tend to overlook these final “moments” are Benjamin Daise, Kierkegaard’s Socratic Art (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2000) and Jacob Howland’s otherwise extremely excellent Kierkegaard and Socrates: A Study in Philosophy and Faith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[3] Augenblick subsequently had prominent use in Nietzsche’s, Jaspers’, and Heidegger’s philosophies, although it is arguable that Nietzsche only had secondary familiarity with Kierkegaard’s work. On this, see Thomas H. Brobjer,  “Nietzsche’s Knowledge of Kierkegaard,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 40, no. 4 (2002): 251-63.

[4] See Søren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments / Johannes Climacus, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985. Also, for an important new translation of this text, see Søren Kierkegaard, Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs, trans. M. G. Piety (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). I have not read this yet but it looks hopeful!

[5] Previously, these writings were available in a collection entitled Attack Upon “Christendom, trans. Walter Lowrie (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1944; 1968).

[6] For an in-depth and impressively exhaustive look at this life-long feud with Martensen (among other local Danish Hegelian targets), see Jon Stewart, Kierkegaard’s Relations to Hegel Reconsidered (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[7] See Søren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 35.

[8] Søren Kierkegaard, The Point of View, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).

[9] Søren Kierkegaard, The Moment and Late Writings, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), p. 340.

[10] Cf. Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity, pp. 69-144

[11] Although he does not argue it here, Kierkegaard makes the case in The Point of View that the whole of his authorship poses the issue of “becoming a Christian” (pp. 55, 78, 93-4). It could thus be argued that the reason Kierkegaard cannot ever call himself a “Christian” is because ultimately he is only ever on the way to becoming one, and is never in a final state of “having arrived,” contra his fellow Danish Hegelians.

[12] Kierkegaard, The Moment and Late Writings, p. 341, emphasis in original.

[13] Søren Kierkegaard, Journals and Papers 2514, 3.80 (X2 A 559 n.d., 1850).

[14] Kierkegaard, Journals and Papers 2651-2, 3.160 (X.1 A 119-20).

[15] Søren Kierkegaard, Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 211: “At this point, I trust that two things are apparent-namely, that irony has a world-historical validity and that Socrates is not depreciated by my interpretation of him but really becomes a hero, so that he is seen going about his business, so that he becomes visible to the one who has eyes to see, audible to the one who has ears to hear.” C.f. Matthew 11:15 and Mark 8:18.

[16] One notable exception is Nietzsche, but even this picture is not as straightforward as Walter Kaufmann makes it out to be in his Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Anti-Christ, 4th edition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1974). On this see Werner Dannhauser, Nietzsche’s View of Socrates (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974) and Paul Harrison, The Disenchantment of Reason: The Problem of Socrates in Modernity (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994), pp. 121-76.

Charles Taylor on Gadamer’s Contributions to Philosophy

Over the past few months, I have become increasingly interested in Charles Taylor’s work.  In an essay entitled, “Gadamer on the Human Sciences,”[1] Taylor discusses some of the contributions Gadamer has made to philosophy by providing us an alternative way of understanding texts and events.  That is, rather than patten hermeneutics or even our knowledge of the other on the “scientific” model of grasping on object, we approach the text or other as a dialogue partner who can potentially change us as we expand our horizons to understand it or him/her.  As the essay unfolds, Taylor contrasts these two models of knowing or understanding: (1) knowing an object, and (2) coming to an understanding with a dialogue partner.  The first approach is unilaterial.  That is, in knowing the tree as object, I don’t have to consider its view of me.  I dictate the rules of the knowing activity, and there is little to challenge me by way of a genuine other as to whether or not my understanding is distortive of the other. Likewise, the two approaches have very different goals.  In knowing an object or the scientific approach, “I conceive the goal of knowledge as attaining some finally adequate explanatory language, which can make sense of the object, and will exclude all future surprises” (127).  In other words, the goal is to “attain full intellectual control over the object, such that it can no longer ‘talk back’ and surprise me” (127).  In contrast, when I come to an understanding of something or someone, this kind of (supposed) finality is not possible.  For example, when I understand something about text X or culture Y, these understandings are achieved through specific dialogue partners (texts are a kind of dialogue partner for Gadamer).  However, when I discuss text X or culture Y with another dialogue partner, new understandings come about.  In addition, the understandings of my various dialogue partners themselves are also in motion, ever-changing and expanding (as are my understandings).  They too are in dialogue with others and through their dialogic encounters are constantly making revisions to their understanding.  Given his claim that understandings are party-relative, some scholars have charged Gadamer with relativism and lumped him in with philosophers like Richard Rorty.  Taylor, however, disagrees and addresses this issue in a subsequent section (more on this shortly).Charles Taylor

Lastly, given that the goal of scientific knowing is to achieve intellectual control over the object, my objectives are never challenged.  I may make certain revisions to my conceptual scheme and even substantial ones; however, the goal remains the same:  to attain full intellectual control over the object (127).  The goal of coming to an understanding is decidedly not control.  Rather, “[t]he end is being able in some way to function together with the partner, and this means listening as well as talking, and hence may require that I redefine what I am aiming at” (128).

Gadamer clearly stands within the tradition of coming to an understanding via dialogic encounter, and the three features of his approach (as set forth by Taylor)-understanding as bilaterial, party-dependent, and open to revising one’s goal-have been challenged by many philosophers.  The objectors claim that these features cannot be aspects of real “science” or knowledge.  If party-dependence and revised goals characterize understandings, then they represent something distinct from knowledge (128).

So how does Gadamer respond to these criticisms?  First, he rejects the claim that knowledge of things human can be attained on the scientific model where the goal is full intellectual control over the object.  As Taylor explains, Gadamer expresses this in his discussion of experience in Truth and Method.

Following Hegel, he sees experience, in the full sense of the term, as the ‘experience of negation’ (Nichtigkeit, TM 354).  Experience is that wherein our previous sense of reality is undone, refuted, and shows itself as needed to be reconstituted.  It occurs precisely in those moments where the object ‘talks back.’  The aim of science, following the model above, is thus to take us beyond experience.  This latter is merely the path to science, whose successful completion would take it beyond this vulnerability to further such refutation (128-29; cf. TM 355).

For Gadamer, given his embrace of human finitude (which is, by the way, not a despairing embrace), the attempt to transcend human experience based on this scientific model of knowledge is simply not possible.  Gadamer takes seriously the role of culture in shaping and influencing human life and thought.  “Whatever we might identify as a fundamental common human nature, the possible object of an ultimate experience-transcending science, is always and everywhere mediated in human life through culture, self-understanding, and language.  These not only show an extraordinary variety in human history, but they are clearly fields of potentially endless innovation” (129).  In other words, whatever universal human nature we might arrive at is always mediated by our own cultural biases as well as the metaphors and languages we agree upon to express this human nature.  For example, consider the way in which race was understood in the West in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Certain races were considered inherently inferior to others and even sub-human, whereas the superior race always happened to be the white, European race (which, of course, happened to be the race of most of the advocates of the idea-Kant, Hegel, etc.).  Most today would have no reservations saying that surely cultural biases and self-understanding played a significant role in the conclusions of these philosophers on race.

As Taylor notes, here we come to a huge “watershed in our intellectual world.” That is, on the one side are those who want to secure an account of human nature “below the level of culture,” such that any significant cultural variation can be explicated by means of this more fundamental account (129).  Examples of this view include certain expressions of sociobiology and accounts of human motivation.  These types of accounts relegate cultural variation to a mere epiphenomenal status.  On the other side are those who find the first account unsatisfying because it doesn’t take serious enough the function, status and influence of cultural difference.  Gadamer, of course, falls within the second group and rejects the model of science as the model for understanding human life.

As we have said, Gadamer chooses a different model, the model of interpersonal understanding, which exhibits three central features:  it is bilateral, party-dependent, and involves revising-goals.  So how does he answer some of the major objections to his alternative model?  For example, how does party-dependence and goal-revising not turn into relativism?   According to Taylor,

The first [party-dependence] can be explained partly from the fact of irreducible cultural variation.  From this, we can see how the language we might devise to understand the people of one society and time would fail to carry over to another.  Human science could never consist exclusively of species-wide laws.  In that sense, it would always be at least in part, “idiographic,” as against “nomothetic” (129-130).

However, Gadamer conceives of party-dependence in more far-reaching way.  That is, not only does one’s account differ with respect to the persons or culture studied, but it also varies with respect to the one engaged in the studying.  Here Taylor gives the example of how an explanation of the decline of the Roman Empire by scholars in the eighteenth century will differ from an explanation offered by scholars in twenty-fifth century China and twenty-first century Brazil.  If this is the case, again, how is it not some version of relativism?

Before giving his answer, Taylor sets forth an additional way in which Gadamer departs from the general understanding of “science” (130).  According to Gadamer, it is not the case that scientific explanation (and scientific language), as we have been led to believe, is without presuppositions-a kind of neutral, clear, humanly untainted language.  One of the achievements, though in Gadamer’s view (and mine) not a good one, of the “seventeenth century scientific revolution was to develop a language for nature that was purged of human meanings” (130).  In contrast the “languages of ‘social science'” have not gone the route of purgation and “seem incapable of achieving the kind of universality we find with the natural sciences” (130).  Why is this the case?  Taylor offers the following explanation:

[L]anguages of human science always draw for their intelligibility on our ordinary understanding of what it is to be a human agent, live in society, have moral conviction, aspire to happiness, and so forth.  No matter how much our ordinary everyday views on these issues may be questioned by a theory, we cannot but draw on certain very basic features of our understanding of human life, those that seem so obvious and fundamental as not to need formulation.  But it is precisely these that may make it difficult to understand people of another time or place (131).

What Taylor has in view is Gadamer’s notion of prejudgments or more provocatively put, prejudices, which we all have and which we cannot completely shed.  When I attempt to understand, for example, the Russian culture on topic X, I bring with me a network of background understandings that influence every aspect of my attempt to grasp topic X.  In other words, I have a horizon that has been shaped by my own culture, education, upbringing and so, and I cannot completely suspend my assumptions, as natural science and some philosophers claim to do.  For Gadamer, however, we are not imprisoned by our horizons; horizons can and constantly do change and expand as we encounter the other in the other’s alterity.  “The road to understanding others passes through the patient identification and undoing of those facets of our implicit understanding that distort the reality of the other” (132).  In order for this to happen, I have to be open to allowing the other to genuinely challenge me, to be, as Taylor puts it, “interpellated by what is different in their lives” (132).  When this challenging is fruitful, two related changes take place:  (1) I recognize that a facet of my former way of thinking is particular to me, my culture or group and is not a universalizable feature of the human condition as such; (2) I perceive the equivalent feature of the other culture without forcing it to fit my preconceived grid of what topic X should consist in (132).  Does this mean that I have arrived a flawless, bias-free interpretation?  No.  However, my understand has been improved, and my horizon has been expanded, or better “fused,” with the horizon of the other.  “We may still have a long way to go.  But we will have made a step toward a true understanding, and further progress along this road will consist of such painfully achieved particular steps.  There is no leap to a disengaged standpoint which can spare us this long march” (132).


[1] Charles Taylor, “Gadamer on the Human Sciences,” in The Cambridge Companion to Gadamer, ed. Robert J. Dostal.  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002):  126-142.

Caritas in Veritate: The Mutual Implication of Charity and Knowledge and the Need for Interdisciplinary Dialogue Animated by Charity

In chapter 2, “Human Development in Our Time,” of his recent encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI calls for a commitment to interdisciplinary exchange among the various fields of knowledge in order to encourage genuine development of human beings.  This is a call to something beyond mere “joint action.”  The action must be directed to the proper end and must be animated by charity, as charity and knowledge belong together.  As Benedict explains,

In view of the complexity of the issues, it is obvious that the various disciplines have to work together through an orderly interdisciplinary exchange. Charity does not exclude knowledge, but rather requires, promotes, and animates it from within. Knowledge is never purely the work of the intellect. It can certainly be reduced to calculation and experiment, but if it aspires to be wisdom capable of directing man in the light of his first beginnings and his final ends, it must be “seasoned” with the “salt” of charity. Deeds without knowledge are blind, and knowledge without love is sterile (CV, 2.30).

Here the Pope calls for a “thicker” notion of knowledge and speaks against a reductionistic view of Benedict XVIknowledge as mere calculation.  Knowledge as mere calculation-at least one dominate Enlightenment version-promotes both a diminished understanding of reason, reality and human beings because it immanentizes each and rejects any genuine transcendence that might complete, transform or direct it.

Charity, rather than an “appendix to a work already concluded in each of the various disciplines,” must serve as a dialogue partner from the very beginning.  Charity and reason are harmonious and when in proper relation to each other, they neither contradict nor devalue the other.  Yet, reason formed by charity acknowledges its own lack and remains open to possibilities beyond its grasp and control; that is, it remains open to an Other who has made known what true humanity is by becoming one of us and embodying love in the fullest sense because He is love.  This openness to something more than, something beyond human reason does not mean that we abandon the genuine insights of reason.  “Going beyond … never means prescinding from the conclusions of reason, nor contradicting its results. Intelligence and love are not in separate compartments: love is rich in intelligence and intelligence is full of love” (CV, 2.30).

Wisdom then calls for an interdisciplinary dialogue animated by love in the service of humanity.  In this picture, science, theology, and metaphysics actually listen to one another, appreciating the insights each has to contribute and striving to integrate holistically the truths  discovered and made clear in each respective field.  Perhaps such a vision simply isn’t possible in our age; however, something along these lines is needed as a target for which to aim given the fragmented condition of the various fields of knowledge and the refusal to engage in healthy dialogue between differing groups (with guilty parties found on all sides of the debate, including those representing the Church).   Noting the difficulties in our current situation, Benedict writes:

The excessive segmentation of knowledge[1] the rejection of metaphysics by the human sciences,[2] the difficulties encountered by dialogue between science and theology are damaging not only to the development of knowledge, but also to the development of peoples, because these things make it harder to see the integral good of man in its various dimensions. The “broadening [of] our concept of reason and its application”[3] is indispensable if we are to succeed in adequately weighing all the elements involved in the question of development and in the solution of socio-economic problems (CV, 2.31).


[1] Cf. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio (14 September 1998), 85: AAS 91 (1999), 72-73.

[2] Cf. ibid., 83: loc. cit., 70-71.

[3] Benedict XVI, Address at the University of Regensburg, 12 September 2006.

Caritas in Veritate and Promoting Authentic Human Development

In chapter one, “The Message of Populorum Progressio,” of Pope Benedict XVI’s new encyclical, he brings Paul VI’s insights on charity and truth to bear on the present in a number of fascinating ways.  Paul VI wrote his encyclical, Populorum Progressio, in 1967 just after the completion of Vatican II.  The encyclical clearly identifies itself with spirit and concerns of Vatican II and the social justice teaching of the Catholic Church.  For example, the opening paragraphs of Populorum Progressio state,Pope Benedict XVI

The progressive development of peoples is an object of deep interest and concern to the Church. This is particularly true in the case of those peoples who are trying to escape the ravages of hunger, poverty, endemic disease and ignorance; of those who are seeking a larger share in the benefits of civilization and a more active improvement of their human qualities; of those who are consciously striving for fuller growth.[1]

With an even clearer awareness, since the Second Vatican Council, of the demands imposed by Christ’s Gospel in this area, the Church judges it her duty to help all men explore this serious problem in all its dimensions, and to impress upon them the need for concerted action at this critical juncture.”

Benedict XVI as well highlights the important of the Second Vatican Council and the role it played in shaping both Paul VI’s document and the social teaching of his magisterial successors.  Then the Pope mentions two important truths from Paul VI’s encyclical that still speak to us today.

The first is that the whole Church, in all her being and acting – when she proclaims, when she celebrates, when she performs works of charity – is engaged in promoting integral human development. She has a public role over and above her charitable and educational activities: all the energy she brings to the advancement of humanity and of universal fraternity is manifested when she is able to operate in a climate of freedom. In not a few cases, that freedom is impeded by prohibitions and persecutions, or it is limited when the Church’s public presence is reduced to her charitable activities alone.

Having just spent some time reading Hegel’s Philosophy of Spirit and parts of his Phenomenology of Spirit, I found it the Pope’s point about the need “to operate in a climate of freedom” to be in great continuity with Hegel’s thought.  For example, in the section on “Objective Spirit” in Hegel’s Philosophy of Spirit, he explores the concrete institutional structures that promote human flourishing.  According to Hegel, political institutions-those which over time have developed various traditions and customs-are the conditions required for the possibility of human advancement and flourishing.  Though I in no way agree with Hegel’s narrative regarding the details of the master/slave dialectic, he does claim that this dialectic must be overcome through recognition of our mutual rationality and freedom-that is, the other must be recognized not as my tool but as an “I” who has the ability to step back from the causal matrix and act as a free being.

The first triad under Objective Spirit is the movement from abstract right (thesis), to morality (Moralität, antithesis), to social ethics (Sittlichkeit, the synthesis of the previous two).  Abstract right deals with law articulating various rights and duties of the citizens.  Morality focuses on the individual conscience and what s/he takes as morally binding on her/himself.  When we get to social ethics, however, we have moved beyond mere private conscience (though private conscience has not be eradicated) to a higher synthesis of private morality and social living in the customary life of a concrete state.  Here the triad moves from the immediacy of the family to civil society to the state.  The structures of a civil society are based on contract and private interests where the most basic unit in the atomistic individual.  Yet, Hegel also emphasizes that a civil society should allow for voluntary entry associations such as churches, fine art societies and the like.  The state, of course, represents the synthesis of this triad, and it is here that we find not only the government of the people but the lifeblood of the people as well.  Here the individual finds greater meaning within the larger whole, while, according to Hegel, still remaining an individual.  Interestingly, Hegel stresses that the state’s constitution is not to be externally imposed on a people, but rather must arise from within the state’s own history and tradition.  That is, it must express the state’s innermost being-its Spirit/Geist.  Consequently, for Hegel, religion plays a huge role in the development of the state, as religion is tied to the ultimate and deeply felt concerns of human beings.  This is not to suggest that a state’s constitution ought to quote bible verses in its legislation; rather, the idea is that the intelligible principles and moral insights of religion have an essential role to play in public life and to bar religion (in that sense) from public life is to remove one of the key voices in the harmony of state.  (Charles Taylor seems to articulate something along these lines).

Hegel also notes that the history of states has gone through many developments.  In some expressions, freedom was experienced by few; however, in the modern state, the possibility of freedom for all has been unleashed.  In no way am I suggesting that what Hegel says is identical in all its details with what Benedict XVI articulates in his encyclical.  However, there are some interesting overlaps here to be explored, and I am simply applying the Pope’s own words as articulated in the introduction:

Fidelity to man requires fidelity to the truth, which alone is the guarantee of freedom (cf. Jn 8:32) and of the possibility of integral human development. For this reason the Church searches for truth, proclaims it tirelessly and recognizes it wherever it is manifested. This mission of truth is something that the Church can never renounce. Her social doctrine is a particular dimension of this proclamation: it is a service to the truth which sets us free. Open to the truth, from whichever branch of knowledge it comes, the Church’s social doctrine receives it, assembles into a unity the fragments in which it is often found, and mediates it within the constantly changing life-patterns of the society of peoples and nations [Cf. Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 76.]

In short, both Hegel and Benedict emphasize the importance of human freedom, the formative role of concrete institutions and tradition, and the need to appeal to common, shared truths available to all apart from revelation (which is not to say that Christians in the public square, for example, ought not to allow revelation to inform their views.  Indeed they should and must.  It’s the how that various Christians disagree over).

Returning to the text, Paul VI’s second important truth is that “authentic human development concerns the whole of the person in every single dimension” [Cf. Paul VI, Encyclical Letter Populorum Progressio, 14: loc. cit., 264.].  As Benedict explains,

“Without the perspective of eternal life, human progress in this world is denied breathing-space. Enclosed within history, it runs the risk of being reduced to the mere accumulation of wealth; humanity thus loses the courage to be at the service of higher goods, at the service of the great and disinterested initiatives called forth by universal charity. Man does not develop through his own powers, nor can development simply be handed to him.”

In what follows the Pope distinguishes his view from those who would claim that well-functioning human institutions in themselves are our salvation and hope. Rather, as the Pope states,

institutions by themselves are not enough, because integral human development is primarily a vocation, and therefore it involves a free assumption of responsibility in solidarity on the part of everyone. Moreover, such development requires a transcendent vision of the person, it needs God: without him, development is either denied, or entrusted exclusively to man, who falls into the trap of thinking he can bring about his own salvation, and ends up promoting a dehumanized form of development. Only through an encounter with God are we able to see in the other something more than just another creature [Cf. Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter Deus Caritas Est (25 December 2005), 18: AAS 98 (2006), 232.], to recognize the divine image in the other, thus truly coming to discover him or her and to mature in a love that “becomes concern and care for the other.” [Ibid., 6: loc cit., 222.]

I haven’t finished reading the encyclical yet; however, what I’ve read thus far, I’ve  found edifying and a “breath of fresh air” in an age in which the human beings are increasingly instrumentalized and often treated as a mere resource having no dignity of their own.


[1] All citations from Caritas in Veritate are taken from the online version of the document as found here: