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:
(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.