Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein. Paradox

I haven’t been blogging for months. One reason is that I’ve been writing a paper about the philosophy of paradox in Søren Kierkegaard and Ludwig Wittgenstein. It looks like it will be published later this year in a collection on Wittgenstein.

I just looked at Wittgenstein’s first book. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, but a few books on Kierkegaarrd’s side since it is difficult to isolate his writings from each other. I quoted from ‘Johannes Climacus’, Fear and Trembling, Philosophical Fragments, and Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Similarities between Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein suggest influence of Kierkegaard on Wittgenstein. It is well established that Wittgenstein was an enthusiastic reader of Kierkegaard, but I did not look at how that works. I simply looked at connections of ideas between Kirkegaard’s writing concerned with literature, aesthetics, ethics, psychology, and religion in comparison with Wittgenstein’s thoughts on logical philosophy.

The major points I made include:
Kierkegaard is concerned with three stages of thought tied up with life
Aesthetic (experience of the isolated moment)
Ethical (experience of universal rules over time)
Religious (experience of the self as an absolute self over time)
The three stages are all concerned with paradoxes of thought, the way that contradictions are generated from within a point of view.
The aesthetic life is faced with the contradiction between momentary experience and experience over time
The ethical life is faced with the contradiction between the self which follows rules and the self which has agency, the decision making capacity, that can follow or not follow rules. This opens up the problem of why any individual would choose to follow rules.
The religious life is faced with the contradiction between the contingent self of the moment and the self that is absolute over time. That contradiction is also an affirmation of unity which extends to the contradiction and unity of the passing moment and eternity, and other paradoxes.

These paradoxes in Kierkegaard are compared with the the paradoxes Wittgenstein faces in the Tractatus, I look at those in the transitions between the 7 basic propositions on the Tractatus, which are joined by sub-propositions. For example, the transition from seeing the world as a whole to a world of distinct states of affairs. The reframing of propositions as they are shown to lead to contradiction establishes a structure which has parallels with Kierkegaard’s arguments.

The connection around the issue of paradox becomes particularly clear towards the end of the Tractatus as Wittgenstein refers to the world as a whole and the status of philosophy. I make some distinctions between Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein here, suggesting that there is an element of mystic quietism in Wittgenstein, in contrast with Kierkegaard’s embedding of paradoxes of thought in life.

Both Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein are deeply concerned with the paradoxes that come from trying to represent experience as whole, represent the world as a whole, represent representation itself. If we try to think about the limits of thought, we are trying to think about what cannot be thought.

Original version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.


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