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.

12 thoughts on “Part III: Kierkegaard’s Socratic Task”

  1. Fine work–a lot to think on! I like the idea of Kierkegaard as a jazz musician. Climacus closes the Postscript by retelling a story that he mentioned earlier and even saying that he was doing so. He says earlier: one who writes that subjectivity is truth should endlessly vary one’s expressions just as subjectivity itself is endless.

    The progression from Socratic ignorance to omniscience to existing thinker makes a neat dialectic. What does most justice to Socrates, I am not sure, but then, if it is with Socrates as it is with Climacus’ Lessing, then the point is that one essentially does not know the subjectivity of a subjective thinker, and one’s exposition of it is essentially one’s own work (and somehow an exposition of one’s own subjectivity). And Socrates could never say to any interpreter, “You are right,” without becoming direct and therefore losing his subjectivity.

    Of course, if subjectivity is perfectly hidden, then neither Kierkegaard nor Climacus could know that people, philosophers or common folk, are not Christians. If I may ask you, how does Kierkegaard (or Climacus) envision the means by which to know others’ subjectivity? Is it by their actions, by their speeches, or by virtue of oneself having at least as high a “pitch” of subjectivity as those in question?

  2. Another great post, Eric! I totally agree with your point about SK and his pseudonyms’ employment of Socrates non-univocally—something that mirrors Plato’s non-univocal character development (of Socrates) as well. Irony also seems to be used in many senses, and I wanted to ask a few questions in that regard. E.g., SK also described irony as a kind of boundary zone between the aesthetic and the ethical—a transition zone of sorts that comes about when a person has become existentially aware of the inauthenticity of the aesthetic life but has yet to cross over and fully embrace the ethical life. This boundary zone seems to be the condition of the possibility of moving into the ethical—kind of like the movement that occurs in Augustine’s _Confessions_, when he comes to see the shallowness of his youth and yet hasn’t fully embraced a life of continence. In other words, he sees the vanity of his attempts to make transitory human goods absolute, as they always fail to fully satisfy. Would what I’ve described so far “harmonize” with the idea of irony as the negative way, that is—it is the condition that one must “go through” ; yet, when “there” one has no necessarily embraced the truth, if by truth, we have in mind Christ, who identifies Himself with Truth (as there is a clear biblical reference in view)?

    Also, could we understand the statement that the project goes beyond the Socratic and is “more true” as a literary way to say that grace builds on nature. That is, it seems that SK and some of his pseudonyms want to embrace whatever truth they find in Plato, Socrates and other “pagan”; yet, he believes they fall short and that at least one of the most significant points of “failure” is the lack of taking sin seriously. This failure then results in a failure to see how dependent we are on God or the god and how in need we are of (ongoing) transformation.

    Your point about Socrates receiving revelation from the oracle is a good one. I do wonder though about the status of the “gods” in the Platonic corpus; they seem to be regularly called into question and I wonder whether SK would see them as genuinely transcendent in nature. (Just thinking out loud here). Could Socrates have come to his self-knowledge of his ignorance without the oracle? I’m inclined to think that he could. Whereas, it seems to me that one of SK’s and his pseudonyms’s points is that the pertinent revelation needed for humans is something which they could only receive from “the outside”, though the receiving has an active component (as it can also be rejected, misunderstood etc.).

    Again, thanks for doing this series. I’ve enjoyed reading it and dialoguing with you about it!

    Best wishes,

  3. Thanks, Michael. I thought my jazz comment would find some welcoming ears in the readers of this blog :)

    Regarding the point about the different views being a kind of dialectic, it could be seen that way, but we also have Kierkegaard (as Constantin Constantius) pointing out that it may be ‘repetition’ which was wrongly thought to be mediation. With that in mind, especially considering the fact that the dialectic here is a reverse one (1. Socrates as nothing/negativity, 2. S. as everything/speculation/recollection, 3. S. as existential thinker, which is the reverse order of Hegel’s dialectic of say, Being, non-being, and becoming), I would probably agree with your original point that these are different kinds of non-identical repetitions of Socrates, varied expressions of Socrates’ own subjectivity as you put it.

    I would perhaps suggest that your question at the end may have some unnecessary ‘Kantian’ overtones (i.e. how can we ‘know’ things outside of ourself). But, it’s still a valid question.

    I think the way to begin to answer that question is to point out that subjectivity for Kierkegaard/Climacus is itself essentially ecstatic. At the end of Mary-Jane Rubenstein’s excellent article cited above, she says, “The very locus of the subject’s self is beyond him. In other words, this subjectivity, which cannot be considered by itself but only repeated, is profoundly ecstatic” (p. 467). The subject “is related at every turn to the eternal. The highest form of this selfhood is only selfhood insofar as it exists in the God-relationship—inwardness, in other words, gives rise to something infinitely higher than inwardness” (ibid). [And for more context on this, see my earlier post here on my blog.]

    So, perhaps to answer your question in a different vein, one “knows” other’s “subjectivity” precisely by being known, that is, by participating in the eternal God-relationship. I am attempting to echo 1 Corinthians 8:2 -3 which says, “Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.”

    I don’t think the point of the “inwardness” talk about subjectivity is entirely about it’s hiddenness as much as it is about subjectivity’s inherent finitude and fragmentary nature seen against ‘speculation’. An essentially ecstatic subjectivity can’t help but at least be known in part, like a fragmentary scrap, or crumb of paper which reveals so much in some sense, while at the same time you still recognize that it’s just a piece of the bigger picture.

    I think I would agree that Socrates would never be as so direct to say “you are right”, because even the very form of such a comment is one that closes off further dialogue. I think he would continue to ask questions.



  4. Thanks, Cynthia. I just saw your comment (I think there was some overlap when I replied ot Michael). I am going out for the evening but will reply soon.

  5. Cynthia,

    Your point about Augustine vs. Climacus’ spheres seems close, but I think there may be a difference in stance here. I think the main difference is that for SK, irony mains it’s classical definition of the “phenomenon” being different than the “essence”, viz., outward appearances being different from what’s really going on. He says in CUP, “The irony emerges by continually joining the particulars of the finite with the ethical infinite requirement and allowing the contradiction to come into existence” (p. 502). So, to use the example of Abraham and Isaac, his outward form is ‘silent’, but at the same time he has made the move of infinity in faith, so a contradiction emerges. As Johannes de Silentio says in Problema III of Fear and Trembling, “[Abraham’s] response to Isaac is in the form of irony, for it is always irony when I say something ans still do not say anything” (p. 118 in Hong ed., but cf. p. 117 where he says the opposite must be maintained for Socrates in the face of his own death, that is, not being silent). Also, we can see on pp. 111-2 where Silentio tells us that the New Testament commends irony as in the case of annointing your head with oil so that people can’t tell that you’re fasting and being dismal like the hypocrites, but instead “so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt 6:18).

    So, with all that being said, you said in regards to Augustine: “the movement that occurs in Augustine’s _Confessions_, when he comes to see the shallowness of his youth and yet hasn’t fully embraced a life of continence. In other words, he sees the vanity of his attempts to make transitory human goods absolute, as they always fail to fully satisfy.”

    I’ve been trying to think about this since last night, and I think perhaps the main difference is that this ‘hinterland’ of irony that Climacus describes between the aesthetic and the ethical is different from what you describe in Augustine insofar as for Climacus, this state of irony is itself not necessarily one of transition as it is an existence-state once one has already made the decision or ‘leap’ into the infinite (and here Climacus says that even Socrates himself borders on the religious because he owes his self-knowledge to the god [p. 469: “That old master Socrates did the opposite; he gave up astronomy and chose the higher and more difficult thing: before the god to understand himself”]).

    I think maybe what you’re describing in Augustine is something more akin to the fact that he has now been given the “condition” by the teacher to recognize his sin (to use the language of Fragments), but he has not yet himself committed to the way of existence, even though he can see it. It’s a tough question. Perhaps like Climacus himself, he knows what he must do, but has not fully taken the leap? He may be still living in a kind of contradiction, that is, Augustine knows for himself what he must do but his existence-state does not yet line up with it. If there is an irony, it is a bad irony maybe. It’s a really good question because it’s one of the most difficult things to figure out with the Confessions concerning when exactly that “moment” really is, isn’t it?

    I think I would say that even at that point that you describe, Augustine has not even gotten the “way” figured out yet truly for himself, but even then, Socrates himself did have the ‘way’ of irony figured out, but obviously not the truth of it. Hamann, for instance, necessarily thinks that Christianity is itself an ironic existence, and so does Kierkegaard, but I think both would say that the ‘way’ of it isn’t synonymous with the truth itself.

    Re: the ‘more true’ and grace building upon nature, I guess I hadn’t thought about it that way before, but that’s definitely a valid reading for sure!

    Could Socrates have come to his self-knowledge of his ignorance without the oracle?

    You say you’re inclined to think that he could have, but I’m inclined the other way. Considering Socrates makes such a point of it in the Apology to defend the fact that he was not an “atheist”, pinpointing this singular event of his encounter with the Delphic oracle as the starting point for his journey of philosophy, and considering even the fact that Climacus himself, as well as Hamann, and D. C. Schindler and Jacob Howland all highlight this as something important for the “messy” origin of Socratic philosophy, I guess I’m inclined to agree with them. Hamann also points out in his Socratic Memorabilia that Socrates’ daimon is a kind of ‘forerunner’ to the Holy Spirit, etc. There’s definitely a tradition of seeing these things in Socrates in particular as forerunners to or hints of Christianity. Justin Martyr declared Socrates to actually “be” a Christian. But perhaps I would instead agree with Kierkegaard in this:

    “True, [Socrates] was no Christian, that I know, although I also definitely remain convinced that he has become one” (Point of View, p. 54, my emphasis).

    At the same time, don’t let the mere number of voices act as an argument, as there is still a ‘midwifery’ role to play on the part of truth as it has to be discovered dialectically through dialogue, indirection, etc.:

    “Christ certainly had followers, and, to take a human example, Socrates also had followers; but neither Christ nor Socrates had followers in the sense that the thesis as I have presented it would become false–ethically, ethically-religiously, the crowd is untruth, the untruth of wanting to exert influence by means of the crowd, the numerical, of wanting to make the numerical the authority for what truth is” (Point of View, p. 126).

  6. Hi Eric,

    You continue to make me want to pawn something so that I can come up with $100 to buy Schindler’s recent book on Plato. Maybe he’d send me a free copy if I reviewed it on my blog? : )

    I suppose I’m not settled in my own mind as to what I think the status of the gods is in Plato’s corpus. It does seem clear that there is a change from Homer to Vergil and even a different presentation of the gods in Homer from the Iliad to the Odyssey. In the Odyssey, e.g., the emphasis is on Athena, Poseidon and Hermes (as well as Zeus) to the practical exclusion of the rest of the pantheon. In other words, there is a shrinking of the pantheon. As some scholars have pointed out, there is one step on the way to monotheism. By the time we get to Plato, who is re-working the Homeric tradition, the gods become Forms (cf. end of book II of the _Republic_)—forms which are eternal, changeless, always what they are, etc. The gods are now always good (as opposed to the Homeric tradition, where we have Zeus the philander, whose justice is questionable etc. etc. The songs about the gods (cf. _Republic_ and the censorship program) must always be positive. So what are the “gods” of the hoi polloi—are they the creations of the rulers of the polis to keep the masses in line? Then again, one has to keep in mind that the city in thought is not a real city to be instantiated. Rather, Socrates is showing the absurdity of an attempt to control Eros by mathematical/calculative, reason—all attempts at this repeated fail (cf. the marriage number). All this is to say, I simply haven’t read enough in the literature on Plato to be able to decide definitely, but at this point, I’m inclined to think that a genuine transcendent revelation of the kind involved in Christianity isn’t what’s taking place in Plato. As Gadamer would say, those are my prejudices at this time, but I’m open to seeing otherwise. : )

    With all good wishes,

  7. …I’m inclined to think that a genuine transcendent revelation of the kind involved in Christianity isn’t what’s taking place in Plato…

    No, not exactly, and I would agree with you there, and even Kierkegaard repeats that the only analogy at all that he has for these things in Socrates, which still falls short, and there’s an infinite difference in magnitude to these things, etc (see the end of the quotation in my recent post).

    But I think it’s still in a lot of ways too uncanny, at least in form, there is an odd similarity which shouldn’t be overlooked. In a lot of ways, the ‘way’ is similar (and it’s even inspired Christians), but it is not the truth, to echo Kierkegaard :)

  8. Thank you, in turn.

    I’ll drop the point about dialectic. “Non-identical repetitions” may be the most adequate expression for the relation of the three, although it seem difficult to say, then, what is repeated.

    Now I’ll press you will with a point of exactness. I did not mention knowing “things outside ourself” but the subjectivity of other individuals. Naturally, one might include “other minds” in the genus of those things outside ourself, but I wished especially to get at that one species.

    Your appeal to the relatedness of the subject to the eternal, moreover, does not seem initially to get any closer to an answer. Perhaps by extension, it does, and if you say so, do articulate the extension for me. One would have to say how knowing the eternal (which one presumes to be codeword for God, although I admit that its signification could be a bit subtler than that) by extension means knowing other subjectivities.

    The concept of the subject’s self having its locus beyond him does seem promising, and I like to think that this concept is shown on just about every page that Kierkegaard ever wrote. I do not know, however, that he ever states it directly, and I do not know where I would begin to try to convince another person that it is indeed shown on those many pages.

    Interpreting inwardness more in the direction of fragmentary finitude, I have not heard before, especially as an alternative to interpreting it more in the direction of hiddenness. Kierkegaard speaks often about hiddenness. And he is known to speak about infinite inwardness (as Climacus, at least). I do not really doubt that Kierkegaard believed that a person can know something of the subjectivity of another person–that the other person has some subjectivity at all, I imagine,
    is a given–and only the sort and degree of subjectivity remains the thing to be known about the other person (e.g., perhaps, mildly angry or very committed ethically).

    Michael Jones

  9. Michael,

    Thanks for pressing the point and for clarifying. Admittedly I am going beyond his texts a bit here. To return to your original question:

    “Of course, if subjectivity is perfectly hidden, then neither Kierkegaard nor Climacus could know that people, philosophers or common folk, are not Christians. If I may ask you, how does Kierkegaard (or Climacus) envision the means by which to know others’ subjectivity? Is it by their actions, by their speeches, or by virtue of oneself having at least as high a “pitch” of subjectivity as those in question?”

    And then you end your last comment not doubting that Kierkegaard must have believed he could “know something of the subjectivity of another person.”

    It is a good question. I think a couple of basic approaches could be taken. The first is that at a major level, Kierkegaard himself was shying away from making one’s subjectivity too well known, especially in distinction from the ‘speculative’ objectivity that his fellow Danish Christians were espousing. So, we find Kierkegaard in his various guises emphasizing things like inwardness, hiddenness, subjectivity, etc. When he really focusses intently on this, in the figure of Abraham, say, what emerges is this concept of anxiety which he later writes an entire book about. The final ‘problema’ (III) of Fear and Trembling is precisely about Abraham’s lack of speech, his silence on the matter of his “sacrifice” of Isaac. How does Johannes de Silentio really “know” Abraham’s subjectivity? Honestly, I’m not exactly sure, as I think the concept itself is a bit paradoxical.

    Secondly, Climacus himself notes how recongizing the ironist, etc. can itself be a bit dodgy because you may not really understand what mode of existence or inwardness is being displayed. I’m in the middle of a move and all my Kierkegaard books are at my new place (and I’m not there at the moment) so I can’t reference the text, but it’s in the pp. 500-510-ish area where Climacus is talking about the irony and humour that lies in the hinterlands between the aesthetic, ethical, and religious spheres. So, at least in some sense he recognizes that this problem can occur.

    There’s definitely negative ways he talks about to illustrate how to discern one’s negativity which mainly focusses on hypocritical things. So, when he references Jesus’ words on not looking all dismal when fasting but to annoint one’s head with oil; or when he critiques Christian art in Practice in Christianity as a critique of direct communication; or when he critiques Christians who, based on their “enlightened” position in history, think they have it all figured out and being a Christian is now very easy — these are all examples of Kierkegaard critiquing bad subjectivities whose outward forms are already suspect because of bad stances: direct communication or speculative “objectivity.”

    So perhaps in these forms, it’s easy to assume that the subjectivity involved is already out of kilter whereas he wants us to move toward a more “ironic” existence where such subjectivities are in fact more hidden. To return to the figure of Socrates, what makes him so important for Kierkegaard/Climacus is that he is an “existential” thinker whose deeds matched up with his thought. But, because there are definitely both things that Kierkegaard is arguing against as well as for regarding both the content and the form, I would say that it is not a pure form devoid of content that Kierkegaard uploads (contra, say, MacIntyre. Tom P. S. Angier has some good stuff to say in this regard in his Either Kiekgaaard /Or Nietzsche book).

    Probably not fully a satisfying answer, and I’m not fully satisfied with it myself, but perhaps that’s a start. It would definitely make for an interesting essay topic!



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