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.” While in many ways this is true, an article by Mary-Jane Rubenstein 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.
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.” As much as Kierkegaard regards the ironic Socrates as a “hero,” 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).
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.”  Of utmost importance (as we will see later), controlled irony places “the appropriate emphasis on actuality,” 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.”
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.” 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.
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.
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”! Second, if the Socratic hypothesis is true, then how can something be “more true” than something else? 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.
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.
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.
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.’”
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.” 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). 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’.
 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.
 Mary-Jane Rubenstein, “Kierkegaard’s Socrates: A Venture in Evolutionary Theory,” Modern Theology 17, no. 4 (October 2001): 441-474.
 Ibid., p. 443.
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.
 Kierkegaard, Concept of Irony, p. 211.
 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.
 Kierkegaard, Concept of Irony, p. 326.
 Ibid., p. 328.
 Ibid., p. 327. Cf. John 14:6.
 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.
 Ibid., pp. 13-22.
 Ibid., p. 111.
 Jacob Howland, Kierkegaard and Socrates: A Study in Philosophy and Faith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 31.
 Ibid., p. 32.
 Ibid., p. 47.
 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).
 Kierkegaard, Postscript, p. 206 n.
 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).
 Kierkegaard, Postscript, p. 207.
 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.