Work in Progress. More on Kierkegaard on Repetition and Recollection


Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs

Translated by M.G. Piety

Edited by Edward F. Mooney and M.G. Piety

Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009


Recollection is the ethnic view of life, repetition the modern.  Repetition is the interest of metaphysics, and also the interest upon which metaphysics becomes stranded.  Repetition is the interest of metaphysics, and also the interest upın which metaphysics becomes stranded.  Repetition is the solution in every ethical contemplation, repetition is the condition sine qua non for every dogmatic problem.  

(Kierkegaard 2009, 19)


Repetition is identified in some pseudonymous works, but not the signed works, as fundamental to Christianity.  It is also fundamental to modernity and to philosophical advance on the Ancient Greeks.  Repetition is connected with the idea of not giving wishing to giving offence to someone we love, of not wishing to be right in relation to God, which can be found expressed in the ‘Ultimatum’ section of Either/Or, though not with reference to repetition.  That theme underlies the story of Abraham and Isaac in Fear and Trembling, and the issue of how Abraham comes to be committed to sacrificing his son.  The teleological suspension of the ethical, the expectation that Isaac will not have to be sacrificed in the end, itself creates a perspective for the not giving offence.  Maybe we don’t need to give offence, because we expect Gods behaviour to match our ethical law later, it not now.  ‘Repetition’ is explained in Repetition with regard to the story of Job, who expects a repetition of his love for God, eve as God takes everything away from him.  Job does not want to be in the right in relation to God, though God is behaving capriciously, cruelly and unjustly, even if it is through the agency of Satan.  

Repetition is contrasted with fake repetition and with recollection.  Fake repetition is explored in Repetition, where it is the desire to repeat the external circumstances of life.  This is immanent only, lacking the transcendence of repetition proper.  This transcendental movement is one in which love is repeated.  The suggestion is that is divine love, the kind of love explored in Works of Love (Kierkegaard 1995), rather than erotic or romantic love.  However, there seems to be a possibility that they could come together In Fear and Trembling, where the drive of the various stories is that faith would enable someone to marry someone else they believed would be harmed.  That seems to be the message of the suspension of the ethical in the story of Isaac and Abraham.  Have faith that God will not harm the one you love.  

‘Repetition’ is partly defined through opposition to ‘recollection’.  Recollection itself is defined with reference to the Meno, and  more briefly with reference to other related texts of Plato.  That is the way that Socrates/Plato works from the problem of knowledge as stated famously in the Meno.  That is the idea that we cannot look for what we already  know, and that we cannot look for what we do not know.  This was restated by Sextus Empiricus and more recently in Hegel, in the ‘Introduction’ to the Phenomenology of Spirit.  The famous solution  in Plato is what is generally known as  anamnesis, or a theory of recollection, according to which we have knowledge, because we remember the knowledge that has been implanted in us.  In Kierkegaard’s account, this is an immanent, move in presumably an example of the weakness of the immanent move.  The problem of knowledge is just displaced and given a bizarre solution.  The criticism of this theory is also significant in the context of the importance of Plato’s philosophy in defining Christian doctrine.  Aristotle and Neo-Platonism, particularly that of Plotinus also played a role here.  The implied suggestion in Kierkegaard is that it has an inappropriate place in Christianity and large part of Christian philosophy and theology has been wrong, or perhaps more moderately, that it would be a misunderstanding of the tradition of Christian thought to see it as a prolongation of Platonism in any form.  

Kierkegaard refers to repetition as the basis for dogmatics and which goes beyond ethics or metaphysics.  Repetition brings us to the singularity beyond universality.  These claims mesh with The Concept of Anxiety, where Kierkegaard suggests that dogmatics provides a basis for a second ethics, superior to a first ethics based on metaphysics.  It is worth iterating that all these texts are pseudonymous, and these claims don’t have a place in Kierkegaard’s signed texts, and that therefore his idea of Christianity really can only be understood with reference to the dialectical aesthetic pseudonymous texts, and not just the uplifting signed texts.  Dogmatics refers to Christian belief.  The link between dogmatics and repetition (along with anxiety) also introduces the idea that Christian belief is a form of repetition and that repetition is the essential form of Christian belief, and the substance is less essential.  This is certainly never Kierkegaard’s argument in any kind of explicit way, but there are certainly passages where Christianity seems to justified by repetition, rather than the other way round.   

The theme of repetition is itself connected with the paradoxes of understanding.  Understanding seeks paradox as the passion of understanding.  That is because understanding always seeks what goes beyond itself, and that brings us to a paradoxical situation, in which understanding tries to understand what is beyond understanding.  Kierkegaard compares Christianity with Socrates (as presented by Plato).  Socrates leads a life concerned with paradox and a midwifery of reason which means that he tries to introduce transcendent truths into the world of understanding.  Socrates’ paradoxes do not provide a challenge to reality though.  They are largely an adaptation to reality, and to the society in which Socrates lives, even if Socrates did come into conflict with that society.  

Christianity presents us with the paradox of observing God in man which is just as much as paradox for the first hand witnesses as it is for us.  This argument suggests that Kierkegaard does not think that those who observed Christ observed any evidence of his  divinity.  For them, as for us, Christianity cannot just be a matter of observable reality and normal understanding.  Pontius Pilate is the philosophy of Christianity, as Kierkegaard suggest, presumably with reference to his ‘what is truth?’ reaction to the accusations against Christ.  The implication is that a purely rational disinterested concern with truth provides no basis for faith,and maybe no basis for knowledge of any kind.  

Repetition belongs to the modern world, as Kierkegaard suggests, rather puzzlingly, since it goes back to the origins of Christianity.  Maybe Kierkegaard means that modernity depends on that Christian moment.  Certainly his writings on tragedy and on opera suggest that he believes that aesthetic production since the sixteenth century is premised on Christian separation between the ideal and the observable world.  His account of tragedy also suggests, in a rather Hegelian way, the weakening of ethical substance in modern tragedy and the greater isolation of the individual.  Repetition is part of the loss of the Greek polis with with its sense of individual embedment in strong communities of family, state, and pagan religion.  It is significant that in the Preface to Philosophical Crumbs, Kierkegaard refers to the crime of lack of civic duty in Athens, using the Ancient Greek word.  To some degree, Kierkegaard suggests that Christianity belongs to a world, or shapes a world, in which the ancient sense of belonging to the political community has disappeared. 








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