Tuesday, February 19, 2008

With Fear and Trembling, we approach Kierkegaard and his idea of faith and the absurd.-circa 02/13/2007

The following is a brief attempt to tackle a few of the pertinent ideas found in Johannes de Silentio's(S. Kierkegaard) Fear and Trembling....in the form of a Q&A with testudineous and myself:

I. Summary.

(H)- In short, de Silentio uses the story of Abraham and his son Isaac as an example of a great leap toward the absurd. The idea here is that we, as finite beings, struggle to find the difference between the Universal(ethical) and the Absolute(a relationship with God). There are many areas of thought that one might choose to focus on, but these are the ideas that strike me, as it were:
1. That there is a fundamental difference between allegiance to what is right and what is faithful.
2. That an issue of primacy exists between what is given, and he who is the giver.
3. That we, as finite beings, try to resolve this difference resulting in a 'spiritual trial', not to be confused with temptation.
4. To show this, he gives us the Knights of resignation and faith, the idea of 'duty to the absolute', and a possible 'teleological suspension of the ethical'.
In addition, there are general things to remember when reading this work
1. This is a primarily philosophical work that he, himself, thought of as different from his strictly religious works.
2. There is a purpose to the pseudonym used.
3. His audience, in part, was his contemporary church that he found 'passionless ' in its faith and application thereof.

(T)- herodotus has pointed out a few of the ideas he takes from Fear and Trembling, but perhaps a very brief exposition of the work is necessary for the uninitiated. Johannes de Silentio, our narrator, feels he has understood Hegel's philosophical "System" well enough, but there is one idea he feels he cannot fully grasp: faith. His attempts at defining faith are centered on the story of Abraham---the "father of faith"---and the ultimate test of his faith...God commands that he kill his only son, Isaac. However brave he feels himself, however much he believes he loves God, Johannes simply cannot admit that he has faith, has what Abraham exhibited.
In this attempt to define faith, in terms both positive and negative (i.e., what faith is not), several related dilemmas arise. herodotus has touched on the major issues above, although I'll add some of my own thoughts and responses here, before we move on to our dialogue. I think that, where my intrepid co-blogger cites the struggle to distinguish between the Universal and the Absolute, Kierkegaard instead struggles to reconcile the two. That is, for de Silentio the difference between them is obvious; it is how Abraham broke from the one into the other, while somehow maintaining his place in both, that our narrator just cannot comprehend. The use of "right," as opposed to "faithful," makes me nervous. I am not saying that it is incorrect, but it may be confusing for our lay readers (and it would open an entirely new debate). I would prefer we contrast "faithful" with "ethical." Finally, the difference is not so much "resolved" by a spiritual test, as it is proved or exposed. But the "teleological suspension" of the ethical is, as herodotus noted, the only way to "leap" from one sphere of life to the other. For me, this is probably the most debatable topic in Fear and Trembling. Assuming for a moment one can make the leap, can suspend the ethical or universal in favor of, at the same time, the individual and the absolute, how does one make the leap? More dangerously, why does someone make the leap? The suspension of the ethical is, by definition, perilous to a society or community, because an individual has abandoned the group ethos, the "ties that bind," in a quest to elevate him- or herself above the group to seek the absolute. I think this is an issue that will require illumination.

I, HERODOTUS: Kierkegaard's narrator, Johannes de Silentio, identifies himself with the Knight of infinite resignation by taking on "the guise [quality] of tragic hero" (p. 64). Why does he address us from the perspective of the first knight, looking up to one of faith, rather than directly presenting this Knight of faith?

(T)- First, I think it is important to note that, for Kierkegaard's era---the Age of Romanticism---the tragic hero is thought to be the very height of human accomplishment, the realization of individuality. He is attempting to show that something much higher exists. Furthermore, Kierkegaard wants to avoid any semblance of setting up a "System," in direct opposition to Hegel. That is, there is a need for skepticism and doubt, a need for subjectivity. The downside of this is that we are never given exactly how Abraham has "so easily" made his leap. I think he primarily wants to draw attention to the gulf that exists between the two knights, each called to a spiritual trial. It is even possible that, in infinite resignation, one cannot make the leap; one may need to make such a movement from another point. Both relate in their own way to an absolute---to God---but only one is credited with faith. I think Kierkegaard is showing us that suspension of the ethical is not enough for faith, as both knights have abandoned, or at least subordinated, the laws of their community the Hegelian Sittlichkeit in striving to become true individuals. Only the Knight of faith, however, succeeds in this, by getting beyond the Romantic's "unfulfilled longing"---an aesthetic end in itself---and fulfilling this longing for both individuality and the absolute. The synthesis of individual (infinite subjectivity) and the absolute (infinite universality) seems to be accomplished in the Knight of faith by a relating of the individual to the absolute.

(H)- I agree, for the most part. He is showing a 'higher' place, as it were, and does so by defining the 'other'. In fact, usually, there is no better way, illustratively, to define one's self than by defining the 'other'. Here we see, as the definition of the Knight of faith becomes clearer, his own identity(that of infinite resignation) becomes clearer, as well. This also points to a couple of other things of note. While it would be natural to suspect that there is a sense of inferiority in the person of resignation, this is not necessarily so. You see, J.D.S, while defining himself as one of resignation, infers that one cannot reach a point of faith without at least some action....which would initially put one in the state of resignation. It is only after this initial action that one gets to the precipice of the absurd action. This isn't to say that this movement is necessarily linear, but rather connected. Hence, J.D.S' description of Abraham's movement to the absolute as being 'so easily' done. For J.D.S, resignation is so very close to, as close as one might get to, faith, yet is still so very far from what is required. There isn't a sense of denigration for the resigned person, as he identifies himself as one.

I, HERODOTUS: You mention several times an individual’s “teleological suspension of the ethical” and relation to the “absolute.” Both the “ethical” and the “absolute” are forms of universality, in contrast to the individual. How does Kierkegaard, in Fear and Trembling, differentiate these two “universals?”

(H)- Well, there are a few issues here, and I will defer to testudineous to unpack most of them, so to speak. It is important to first recount, as best one can, J.D.S' delineation of the two. In short, the ethical would generally refer to the universal application of societal rules or 'should do's and don'ts'....i.e. a man should never kill his son. The absolute refers to the 'higher' realm of duty and responsibility...i.e. a man has a duty, when in relation to the absolute(God), to follow, however absurd the action or direction of movement. For J.D.S, one main issue here is one of primacy. Meaning, if man is bound first to the ethical, then the absolute(God) is subject to the ethical arena he created. If a law is absolutely wrong, no matter what, then this subordinates the absolute(God). More simply, a law is either wrong because it is wrong or because God declares it so. The former gives power to the law and subordinates the absolute(God), whereas the latter infers a conditional nature of the law...i.e. if God chooses something different, then...

(T)- Thanks for the deferral. Now, if only Sallie Mae would be so kind... I think the "ethical" and the "absolute" are universals, in that they each make claims on every individual. Every individual is cultivated in a community of some sort of Sittlichkeit, and this community must, to perpetuate itself, construct some sort of ethos to govern the behavior and identity of its members. (Community in this sense ranges from a locality to all humanity.) There is a relative aspect to this universality: an ethos holds true only for one who is in relation to it, whether by choice or otherwise. If, as Hegel sets forth, the ethical is the only (and thus highest) expression of human existence, its "limit and completion," then there is no need for any further universality. The individual is inextricably bound by his or her community; one is subordinated to the many, and it is only in the group that any identity can be found. Kierkegaard gives us an alternative: the individual raised above the group in relating to something greater than the group...an absolute. This absolute is universal in that it lies outside of the ethical, but relates itself (or is relatable) to the individual. This is one of my difficulties with Kierkegaard's philosophy, as set forth in Fear and Trembling: there seems to be no direct relation of the absolute to the ethical (or vice-versa). If the two relate at all, it seems to be only indirectly through the individual (e.g., loving God by loving one's neighbor). But for Kierkegaard, this is the essence of the relating of the individual to the absolute, of faith. One cannot even define faith in ethical terms, as they belong to completely separate categories. And in relating to the absolute---through faith---one elevates oneself above the community, above all humanity. Such exaltation is rife with all kinds of dangers.

I, HERODOTUS: You're referring to the "teleological suspension of the ethical." What qualifications does Kierkegaard make for such a move? For example, how would he or how does he exclude from his definition of faith someone who, like Abraham, hears a voice telling him or her to commit a heinous crime in the name of faith?

(H)-Wow. I really do not like this question. Not that it isn't valid....it's just incredibly difficult to qualify any kind of Kierkegaardian structure for this kind of movement(not that I can find explicitly, anyway). I would start by discussing the difference between the idea of, what testudineous and I term, an action that is offensive to the ethical and that of absolute faith. It seems to me that that J.D.S. infers that a distinction is found in man's natural movement. Meaning, in the universal(ethical) man's inclination is to offend and the universal constricts this movement. Whereas, in the absolute man's inclination is to move back to the ethical. There is a recoiling in both instances, but within the absolute, the recoiling is from the unknown or a freedom for absurd action. For one to make that 'leap', he must believe that the giver of the universal(ethical) will sustain him while he is in breach of the universal. J.D.S compares Agamemnon and Abraham to show the difference between these movements. Agamemnon's choice was one of ethical utility...i.e., should I kill 1 person to save 100, etc....while, Abraham's was a choice of obedience.
Now, here I'm going to step away from the text and talk a little about the practical implications of all this. The fact that S.K. can't face this subject himself shows how troublesome he thought his ideas here might be. If one takes this idea to its fullest, we have nothing more than modern Islam, as a general practice. Let me explain. While it is true that the existentialist mind places the individual above ethos, this doesn't necessarily preclude a communal application. I think we find in modern Islam an extension of Kierkegaardian movement to the absolute...a teleological suspension of the ethical....but with a Marxist materialism infused. Remember, a movement is made up of individuals that give themselves over to an action...individually. Though some may disagree, it seems to me that every time a mother/father gives a child over as a suicide bomber it is an act steeped in faith in the absolute. Now, is it a perfect linear extension of the Kierkegaardian tradition...of course, not. Still, the pathos is there...lurking beneath the surface. This is why, for any kind of personal application, it is impossible for one to apply any of this absent the presence of Christ on the cross. If one is inclined to believe the Biblical account of the Passion of Christ, it is there that one finds the kind of absolute mediation for a practical application. In that figure one finds the kind of fusing of both the absolute and universal that can preempt a nihilistic projection of faith.

(T)- herodotus is right. This question sucks. But it is one that needs to be addressed. What "answers" I found in the text give me no satisfaction whatsoever, as I believe that Kierkegaard in fact gives us no direct qualifications for faith. As I read it, there is no way to distinguish Abraham's trial from that of the woman who obeys a voice telling her to drown her children in a bathtub. (In response to herodotus, there is a distinction between Abraham and the jihadist. The latter would be comparable to Kierkegaard's Agamemnon, making his "sacrifice" for some greater good, in this case, the death of infidels and the expansion of sharia and the Dar al-Islam.) In fact, the only differences I can surmise between Abraham and some other murderer in this case are the subjective differences between the two individuals and the nature of the voice's speaker commanding them to kill. This is all my own deduction, however; it is simply not in the text. Really, Kierkegaard in Fear and Trembling is giving the reader a choice: either Abraham is the father of faith, or he is a contemptible murderer. We are given how the former case can be universally applied (Abraham as related to the the universal, the ethical), but we are given no universal or objective treatment of Abraham as the latter. Johannes de Silentio admits he can only go so far, and then he butts up against "the paradox." Kierkegaard will not even address us directly, instead presenting the entire matter from the vantage point of a pseudonym, whom he can distance himself from. Though I knew Kierkegaard was challenging any possibility of a systematic approach to philosophy (a la Hegel), unfortunately I was still hoping for a systematic explanation of faith. He gives none. All of this begs the question, then: Just what is Kierkegaard's purpose in all of this? I think his first purpose is to set up the idea that there is something beyond the ethical; for him, it is faith. Second, an individual can only truly be an individual by paradoxically rising above the universal and relating oneself to the absolute. Third, there is no formula for achieving this (at least from the perspective of de Silentio); it is a purely subjective experience, and no one outside of it can understand it.
None of this safeguards against the dangers of someone looking to directly apply such a philosophy. I think Kierkegaard's only safeguard in this case is making everything so vague and paradoxical, that no two people could find a concrete program to apply. Unfortunately, how do we then know whether the mother who drowned her children has faith? There is no standard from Fear and Trembling by which to judge such a case, so we must unfortunately decide based on external criteria. And I think the only way to "objectively" appraise her (if such is in fact possible) is to look at the outcome of her "faith." She has transgressed against her community and the absolute, evidenced when the absolute did not sublimate her actions. That is, her children remain dead, and if they were sent to heaven prematurely to "protect them from Satan," we have no proof that this offense was transformed into something higher, and the woman herself does not seem to be performing Kierkegaard's double movement. But this is all conjecture; Kierkegaard has nothing to say about such a case in Fear and Trembling. The danger is not so much that we cannot assess the presence of faith by the outcome of one's trial, but that we cannot assess it until the outcome is apparent, after it is too late. One possible way around this (not given in the text) is to consider the particular individual and the nature of the absolute before the trial, but I don't think that this is very helpful either, as what we thought we knew of God (in this context) is completely annulled by his command to perform human sacrifice. And again, following Kierkegaard, we come up against the paradox. The only response I have, then, is that faith can be considered from the outside, but no more. It can only be understood by the one actually performing the movement, becoming greater than the universal. Very dangerous.

(H)-Finally, there are a couple of things that need to be said:

1. We've not touched on Kierkegaard's relationship with Regine Olsen. Many believe that this work is a response to their failed relationship. To get a full understanding of this particular work, one must take this into consideration.
2. Again, it must be said that there are no explicit answers found in the text of Fear and Trembling. This said, when contemplating this work, one might find answers and solace in some of Kierkegaard's other works. It is quite possible that S.K. never intended this text to stand alone, and further commitment to Either/Or, et al....is needed.


Anonymous said...

Is the purpose of this post to post a conversation (on F&T) or to start a conversation (on the questions asked by F&T)?

herodotus said...

dr.z and all- both. generally, the idea here at the site is to open, deepen, and dive into conversation. specifically, with this post, the same is true. clearly, testud and i have different interpretations on some important things found in f&t. this said, the text is open ended in many ways, so.....pontificate on!

herodotus said...

after reading the intital post, i'm left with a couple of additional thoughts:

1. testud compares the jihadist to agamemnon and his 'greater good' dilemma , rather than abraham. my problem here is one of motive. in both cases(agamemnon and abraham) there is the 'teleological suspension of the ethical'...but only one is accorded faith for his action. if then, the jihadist's motive is for the 'dar-al-islam'...it is only this because of a direct order from an omnipotent God(absolute)....putting him closer to abraham. there is no ethical(universal)utility in the mass murder of infidels...only a direct commandment from an absolute to bring about his kingdom...through whatever means necessary....including the killing of other muslims. where agamemnon had a choice(given to him by the gods), there is no choice for abraham and the modern muslim jihadist...it is an issue of obedience...first and foremost.

2. none of the above is actually found in the text, and this difference is one of philosophical application, rather than textual analysis. again, s.k. is obscurant with regards to application or personal affiliation.

testudineous said...

Oh, but I must protest. First, Kierkegaard's Agamemnon did not suspend the ethical. He was still acting within the ethical if, as you say, his decision was a matter of utility. Second, I am not aware of any suicide bomber who has ever independently equipped him- or herself and set off on a mission without telling anyone. They are the function of a group mentality, an ethos, and this separates them from Kierkegaard's Abraham, severs them from his definition of "faith." Again, as per my original post, it is not so much obedience, blind or otherwise, that merits faith; it is the double movement---moving gracefully and "easily" in both the ethical and the absolute, and expecting a return in THIS LIFETIME. The jihadist and his or her parents simply do not have this, they do not make the double movement. If you really must, I could accede to them being knights of infinite resignation, as they relate to the absolute in SOME way, but it is not Kierkegaard's faith. Oh yeah, and Abraham DID have a choice (Lee Trevino: "Grizzly Adams DID have a beard."); even after choosing to go ahead with the sacrifice of Isaac, Kierkegaard relates three different possible choices AFTER that first choice, none of them resulting in faith. Hope I cleared that up for all of you.

herodotus said...


1. agamemnon's choice was given to him by the gods... resulting in ethical flexibility. abraham had no choice, but to obey...if faith is accorded him. abraham's choice was to obey the command 'faithfully'(jds)or to proceed in any manner...absent of faith. meaning, abraham was to obey faithfully, or not....agamemnon had no dilemma...he could choose.

2. o.k. i can agree that s.k.(jds) would say that the muslim jihadist is closer to the knight of resignation than one of faith. my main point here, though, is to say that the current practice of jihadist islam is descendant from the kierkegaardian idea of obedience to the absurd...as a necessary act of faith. let me re-state...this isn't in the text...just my attempt at application...or my attempt to point out current applications around us.

3. with your emphasis on the individuality of jds' idea of faith(and we agree here), would you definitively say that any residue of a group 'ethos' necessarily preecludes attribution of action or thought to s.k. or other existentialists?

Anonymous said...

As I said, I haven’t spent much time in the book in quite a while. So, I will stick more to addressing the questions set forth in it than I will to S.K.’s treatment of them.


The idea of a self-sustaining ethos:

One of the issues I have with the idea of the “teleological suspension…” is that it seems to approach the choice of one, as Abraham, as if the ethical were a universal, objective measure. I completely agree that the absolute is universal in that it places claims on all humanity, but the appliance of this standard to an ethos requires that the ethos be a truly universally understood and accepted measure which is simply not the case and has not been since the dawn of humanity. There has always existed, at the least, the tiniest variance of ethical persuasion from society to society, and the existence of even the tiniest variance compromises the universal application of any particular society’s ethical structure. The point in all this is to refute the idea that there can exist a distinction between the ethical and absolute where the belief or acknowledgement of the absolute exists. Simply put, one can only make a distinction between what is ethical and what is Godly when done so absent of a belief in God for the belief itself renders the ruling ethos obsolete and virtually inexistent. I believe Herodotus referred to this as the assertion of “the higher” or something of the sort.

In the advent of a universal ethos, both the absolute and ethical possess universality but only to the extent that their claims on every man are effective. So, the assent of the claims the absolute makes in the mind/life of the man directly result in the devaluating of the ethos he has been subjected to even if universally applied to all other men. As I see it, the claims of the ethical and absolute have to be inversely proportional in this sense. Not to say that they cannot make similar claims, but relevance is determined by the adherence of the man to one or the other, not in the existence of both claims.

More specifically, in a case like Abraham’s where the claims made by the ethical and the absolute seem to contradict each other, the idea of the “teleological suspension” only can exist for one other than Abraham himself (in other words one still claimed by the ethical and not the absolute) as his acknowledgement of and adherence to the absolute has replaced the ethical, not suspended it. This, of course, leaves the door open for comparing the modern-day jihadist to Abraham, but no further beyond that, I have no problem with this. Neither suspends their understanding of the ethical because, for both, the ethical has been redefined in light of the absolute, and the absolute commands them to kill.


Though this may distract from F&T, I thought it relevant to the discussion of Abraham’s ethical dilemma as it were.

The driving notion behind the question of “teleological suspension…” is the thought that Abraham was forced to either redefine or suspend the ethical in order to fulfill God’s command which was to “murder” his son. The most likely reality is that if Abraham were to have killed Isaac, it would not have been murder. While this doesn’t lessen the dilemma for Abraham, it does a lot to address the question of the ethicality of Abraham’s willingness to carry onward. Abraham’s actions could not have been murderous as Isaac most likely was compliant to his father’s wishes. How could this be? We’re taught to picture Isaac as being either a baby or a small child, partly due to linguistic assumption, when he had to have been at least a teenager (possibly even in his thirties) according to the Biblical chronology of events in Abraham’s life preceding God’s command for him to sacrifice Isaac. Also, from scripture we know that Abraham and Isaac left the two servants accompanying them at least a day’s travel from Moriah and that Isaac carried the wood for his own sacrifice. From this, we can know that Isaac had to have been at least big enough to carry the weight of the wood for an extended period of time (and up a mountain) and at least learned enough to understand the process of sacrificial worship as he is seen in scripture deducting from the wood, fire, and knife that they were to make a sacrifice upon reaching their destination. Lastly, the Hebrew word in this text that is translated to the English word “lad” does not indicate that he was necessarily young (I can’t remember the word offhand). Am I saying that he knew all along of his father’s intent? No, but if Isaac were old enough to do and understand these things, he was certainly old enough to elude or overpower his 100 year old plus father when being tied to the altar as he was. All I am saying is that it is more likely than not that, at some point, Isaac figured out what was going on and still wound up on the altar despite his ability to prevent it.

All that to merely suggest that questioning Abraham as having to have “suspended” his understanding of the ethical to accept God’s command may not be so accurate as in this case, it would not have qualified as murder. This leaves just the ethical question of human sacrifice. Abraham, at this point, was a stranger to his land and not subject to the ethos of his society as he was without the communities surrounding him most of which practiced human sacrifice as a regular part of the standard pagan Canaanite religious practice anyway.

Lastly, as I understand it, the point of this account is not to bring revelation of the absolute in relation to the ethical or absurd, but to bring revelation of the absolute as it relates to the desire of the individual. The sacrifice, and consequent attribution of faith, for Abraham was not of his understanding of what was right, but of what was his right, namely his right to Isaac (insert whatever you think is your right). I don’t have a hard time with his faith in the absurdity of God restoring the loss of Isaac because after all, this is a man that God had miraculously given Isaac to in the first place. So, the idea of the “ease” of the double movement is not so difficult for me as it relates to this particular instance.


Micah said...

Sounds great!

Cincinnatus said...

Wow guys, I wish I could offer something of value to your discussion.

As I recall, doesn't Silentio present the knight of faith as what society percieved to be a lunatic?

testudineous said...

Dr. Zeius, there is much in your comment I disagree with, but I will dispute just one point: that Isaac's ability to "elude" his father negates the latter's murderousness (in Ethical terms). I won't even refer here to all of our current legal definitions of murder and attempted murder (not to mention, as you nearly imply, that of assisted suicide). Simply this: Jesus was not only physically capable of eluding his murderers, but He also possessed divine power enabling Him to do so. I realize He said "No one takes my life from me BUT that I lay it down." [The "BUT" only makes the first clause conditional to the second; it does not mean His life is not taken from Him---indeed, just the opposite.] This does not abrogate the motives and actions of His killers: Jesus was murdered. That Isaac may have been willing to allow his father to kill him would not have cleansed Abraham's hands, in Ethical terms. It would still be filicide, murder. One can even argue that it was a case of attempted murder, which is de-facto murder. If there is any (Ethical) justice in the attempt to kill Isaac, de Silentio has nothing to write about, and we then have nothing here to discuss. "Fear and Trembling" exists only because God transformed an Ethically murderous action into one of faith. We, like de Silentio, are trying to understand how.