21 things about Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling

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  1. Fear and Trembling is about the story of Abraham. Particularly, the part where Abraham takes Isaac up Mount Moriah to sacrifice him at God’s command.
  2. I’m maybe 80% sure this book is just Kierkegaard making fun of Hegelians.
  3. This could also be because I started Fear and Trembling right after I finished Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.
  4. Kierkegaard wrote Fear and Trembling under the pseudonym of Johannes de silentio. This makes it difficult to attribute anything in the book to Kierkegaard’s own viewpoint.
  5. Kierkegaard/de silentio call the book a “dialectical lyric.” For Hegel, dialectics is something that operates using concepts as opposed to “images.” One encounters an image immediately, one cannot grasp an image as one would a concept, because, for Hegel, concepts can only be grasped through mediation (the German word for “concept” is “Begriff” which shares roots with the word “greifen” which means “to grasp,” as any Hegel professor will tell you). The problem with a “dialectical lyric” is that a lyric tells a story: it deals with images. A lyric thus cannot be dialectical (in Hegel’s understanding of dialectics). Already we have a seemingly unresolvable contradiction.
  6. Furthermore, each of the Problemata in the book begin with some variation of the claim that “the ethical is the universal.” There is no movement in this dialectic: we stay in the same place.
  7. Does Kierkegaard even know what dialectics is? Does Johannes de silentio know what dialectics is? Do I know what dialectics is?
  8. As I mentioned in thing #17 in my post on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel believes that Christianity has the correct content but incorrect form. Christianity expresses its content in images, while philosophy’s job is to express this same content in concepts. For example, instead of giving a concept of the good, Christianity gives the image of the Good Samaritan (I’m just making this up, I have no idea if Hegel would agree that the Good Samaritan is the image whose content is the good).
  9. de silentio takes this project of philosophy as the conceptualization of the content of Christianity seriously. However, he finds a problem when he comes to the story of Abraham. The main question of the work is: if the story of Abraham is the image whose content is faith, how are we to conceptualize faith?
  10. Particularly, the problem he runs into is that the concept of faith found in the story of Abraham is in direct contradiction with Hegel’s ethics which de silentio assumes to be true. For an act to be ethical, for Hegel, it must be done in the universal, that is, done out of the universal duty of father to family, of citizen to state, etc. But nothing about Abraham’s actions are universal; he is not acting out of duty to the family, to his son, to society, to the law, or any other universal. He is acting as a particular individual to prove his own faith in God.
  11. As de silentio puts it: “[Abraham] has, as the single individual, become higher than the universal. This is the paradox which cannot be mediated.” It cannot be mediated because mediation involves a movement into the universal: X and Y seem to be unreconcilable, but from the perspective mediated by the universal they can be.
  12. The book begins and ends with economic metaphors. The economy is probably the last thing that would come to mind when one thinks of Abraham. de silentio begins by saying that “in the word of ideas […] our age is putting on a venerable clearance sale,” and ends with a story about spice merchants in Holland dumping some of their product into the sea to raise prices, asking “is it something similar we need in the world of spirit?” To be honest, I’m still not sure what the purpose of these economic metaphors are.
  13. One somewhat contentious claim in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is that, between what we mean to say and what we actually say, what we say is always the truer. That is, if we want to express an opinion and we cannot express it in language without running into contradiction, our opinion must be wrong. At the beginning of the book, de silentio wonders “had he known Hebrew then perhaps it might have been easy for him to understand the story of Abraham.” He’s saying: maybe what I think is a problem wouldn’t be a problem if I spoke the language that the story was originally written in. Maybe Hebrew can express what I mean to say in a way that doesn’t run into contradiction. Nevertheless, I do not speak Hebrew, and thus it is a problem.
  14. Two famous figures that de silentio provides in Fear and Trembling are the Knight of Resignation and the Knight of Faith. The example he uses to distinguish them is their behaviour after falling in love with a royal, someone they know they cannot have. Knights of Resignation will accept that their love will never be fulfilled, yet they will not give up their love. They make the “infinite” movement of resignation; they do not give up their love, but rather keeps it infinitely with the knowledge that it will never be returned. Knights of Faith make this infinite movement of resignation as well, however, rather than remaining in the infinite, they return to the finite; they have faith that, even though their love is impossible, it will one day be requited and they take joy in this belief.
  15. This is the movement that de silentio finds baffling: how can one take joy in the finite after having made this infinite movement?
  16. And yet Abraham, after being prepared to sacrifice his son, after making the infinite movement of resignation that he will lose his son, comes down from the mountain and finds joy in being with Isaac: he returns to the finite.
  17. He can do this because he is both resigned that he will lose Isaac forever, yet truly believes that he will get Isaac back in this life.
  18. In the three Problemata of the book, de silentio outlines three approaches to a conceptualization of Abraham’s actions as ethical, each of which fail. I: Abraham’s ethical duty to his son is suspended for a separate yet unethical end which involves Abraham as a particular individual being placed above the universal/ethical. II: Abraham has a particular duty to God which he values above the ethical/universal duty. III: Abraham does not and cannot express the reasoning for his action in a way that is understandable, thus, because the ethical is universal and must be understood by everyone, Abraham cannot be acting ethically.
  19. de silentio concludes: “either there is a paradox, that the single individual as the particular stands in an absolute relation to the absolute, or Abraham is done for.” Either Abraham is the father of faith paradoxically, or Abraham is no better than any other murderer.
  20. Kierkegaard has jammed the dialectic.
  21. The result of all this, it seems, is to put a stop to the Hegelian compulsion to keep going further, and overcoming. To put to rest the idea that the dialectic must keep marching blindly on. Faith, for Kierkegaard, is one thing that cannot be overcome, yet still must be worked at by each generation.
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