Thoughts on Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers

(2nd of sequence of weekly posts referring to texts in the philosophy and tragedy course I am giving this semester)

In the second play of the Oresteia trilogy, Orestes avenges the murder of his father in a vindication of an ethic of revenge and the of blood to cleanse pollution, but also with a sense of horror and wish to atone for the murder of his mother. His mother Clytemnestra had conspired to kill her husband King Agamemnon of Argıos, working with her lover Aegisthius, who carries out the deed. Clytemnestra’s crime is motivated by Agamemnon’s absence for 10 years during the Trojan War, and by the sacrifice Agamemnon made of their daughter Iphigenia so that the Greek fleet could sail to Troy. Orestes has been in exile since his father led the Greek alliance to Anatolia, and that is part of his grievance against his mother mentioned as he is about to murder her.

Orestes’ sister Electra also has a part in the drama. They meet at the beginning of the play after many years of separation. Electra does not recognise Orestes while mourning at Agamemnon’s burial mound; it is the sight of a lock of his hair which leads her to realise that he is nearby. We have the issue of family bond in that recognition and reunion, a family bond which is under extreme oppression with all the killing that takes place between members of the House of Atreus. An unbreakable bond of physical resemblance, of shared physical characteristics is suggested between brother and sister. The brother-sister bond is famously at the centre of Sophocles’ Antigone, and we will look at that play in a few weeks.

The recognition and reunion between brother and sister in The Libation Bearers gives the opportunity to show different attitudes to the death of Agamemnon. Orestes wishes that he had died as a hero at Troy, while Electra is disturbed by the idea of a battlefield burial in a distant land, preferring the idea that he could have come back and reigned again. The son’s wish that the father had died before returning to Argos brings an interesting tension into his speech and actions. Is there some way in which Clytemnestra and Aegisthius were acting out his wish? Does that explain the murderous revenge, followed by a mixture of triumph and remorse?

Orestes partly justifies his double murder with reference to curses from his father and a fate he cannot escape except through murder. The chorus calls for a killing which will be so deep that it will cleanse the House of Atreus of all the blood since Agamemnon’s father Atreus tricked Thyestes into eating his own dead cooked children . The punishment refers to the earth, the powers of the underworld and to blood. This is in contrast with the role Apollo plays as the god behind the order Orestes claims to uphold. There is tension between the underworld elemental force of revenge and the world of Olympian divinities protecting a political, legal and social system. The title refers to the opening scene in which Clytemnestra has sent women to pour libations on Agamemnon’s grave, though the libation bearers could also be Orestes and Electra.

Orestes is the exile who brings justice to his homeland, the very act of sending him away from Argos adds to his mother’s guilt. His home coming is a murder of his mother and her lover. He appears as a stranger, accepting hospitality from Clytemnestra before killing her. This is an echo of the abuse of hospitality when Paris took Menelaus’s wife Helen back to Troy with him, and the abuse of hospitality of the suitors of Penelope when Odysseus was away at the Trojan War and travelling home. Orestes’ violence is also an echo of the slaughter of the suitors by Odysseus and his son Telemachus. His return to his home in disguise is an echo of Odysseus’ return to Ithaca. The issue of hidden identity and reversed identity is s major issue in The Odyssey followed up various Greek tragedies. Aeschylus stands at the beginning of tragedy bas a major literary for.

Orestes’ killing of Clytemnestra uses a the garment within which he says Clytemnestra and Aegisthius trapped Agamemnon; Orestes refers to the danger of a trap in the opening scene when Electra says that he might be part of a trap, and he responds that is the one in danger of being trapped. This suggests the traps of fate, pollution and revenge they are all caught in, and a general triumph of death, as the garment is a funeral shroud. Electra refers to words which will arouse the angry dead, and the inadequacy of Clytemnestra’s attempts to appease the powers of the earth by sending libation bearers.There is constant fear of death, of dark underworld powers combined with attempts to use them. The play ends with Orestes both transfixed by the passion of his killing and its justification, but also aware that it might be see as unjust violence. He is ready to tae his case to Apollo, the god of law and light, while also facing the threat of the Furies invoked by his mother.

Kierkegaard on Movement, Negation and Sin in Hegel; Reading The Concept of Anxiety VIII

The fourth paragraph of the Introduction to The Concept of Anxiety, including a long footnote, carries in with an ambiguous discussion of Hegel. The condemnatory aspect concentrates on the role of the negative in Hegel, starting with its role in the logic. The starting point for Kierkegaard’s discussion (presented under the pseudonym Vigilius Haufniensis) is the relation between the negative and movement in Hegel’s logic, which Kierkegaard finds most unconvincing. The negative is something that is needed but disappears in Hegel’s account, as soon as it is used, according to Kierkegaard/Haufniensis. In this respect, the negative has the same status as immediacy. Kierkegaard has already attacked Hegel’s account of immediacy, largely with regard to the danger of placing faith in the category of immediacy. Immediacy as a category in Hegel’s system disappears as soon as it is used, because according to Hegel any acknowledgement of immediacy turns into a concept, that is something which exists as more than a moment of immediacy. Kierkegaard does not want faith to disappear in this way. As he indicates in the fourth paragraph, the discussion of movement is necessary in philosophy. Discussion of movement, particularly with reference to the Ancient Greek κίνησις (kinesis) appears elsewhere in Kierkegaard, and cannot be dealt with at present, but its importance should be noted. At first, Hegel’s account of movement seems to be a disaster, springing out of the account of negation as what disappears. The point about negation is not fully explained, but is presumably a reference to the way that in Hegel negation is always a form of determination, so that defining something includes the negation of various  qualities. Negation is a necessary component of defining, because no one quality can be the complete definition, which means that any quality of a thing is negated in describing it fully, negating in limiting it in relation to other qualities.

The issue of sin in Hegel comes up, appropriately as that is the topic of The Concept of Anxiety. Following on from the assault on Hegel’s account of negation in the logic, there is an assault on the idea that sin is negation. No time to check precise references right now, but this could refer to The Phenomenology of Spirit or Lectures on the Philosophy of Right. It might refer, for example, to the Philosophy of Right account of evil emerging from the individual negating the external world as negative from a purely subjective point of view. The background to this is in Kierkegaard’s criticisms of ethics as founded on communal values in Fear and Trembling and Either/Or, both published the year before The Concept of Anxiety. What Kierkegaard is attacking, to some degree, is Hegel’s view that individual ethics should be directed by the ethical life of a community, a position that Kierkegaard believes brought comfort to antique life, but which is not adequate to a Christian understanding of individuality at the basis of sin and ethics.

Another part of the background to sin as negation is the view of Plotinus, the ancient Neo-Platonist who saw evil as negation of being. This is generally held to be a major influence on Augustine’s view of sin and evil and therefore an influence on the whole Christian tradition on evil and sin. However, Kierkegaard seems more concerned in The Concept of Anxiety with the argument about evil as it develops much later, in Kant’s position on radical evil, and in Schelling’s Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom. The Kant discussion in Religion within the Bounds of Mere Reason is more concerned with the subjective than Schelling. That difference between Schelling and Kant is discussed in paragraph three, as has been explained. The Schelling discussion of evil can be more obviously be traced back to Plotinus. On the basis of paragraph four, it seems likely that Kierkegaard thought that evil as negation should be less the topic of discussion than the transcending nature of ethics. Ethics as a logical category of negation cannot achieve what we expect of ethics, which remains stuck in the immanent, the world of experience as explained by logic. Transcendence in Kierkegaard can only be subjective (though not subjectivist or voluntarist) in basis, concerned with the single individual (Enkelte in Danish).

The footnote mollifies the account of Hegel by suggesting that Hegel was correct to bring movement into logic and to correct the categorical arrangements, presumably a reference to the Aristotelian tradition of arguments about categories and syllogistic reasoning. However, hegel used these necessary corrections to run free, as suggested in the last sentence of the footnote. The running free is not explained, but presumably refers to Hegel’s belief that he had some kind of absolute knowing and that his system captured reality, including the subjectivity of the single individual

Kierkegaard on Reality, Ethics and Faith: Reading The Concept of Anxiety VII

The last two posts have been about the third paragraph of Kierkegaard’s Introduction to The Concept of Anxiety, published under the pseudonym of  Vigilius Haufniensis (Latin for something like ‘Copenhagen sentinel’). The aim has been to untangle a remarkably rich and complex bit of writing.  Having gone through some details, the time has come to try to explore the overall argument and the general significance of that passage.

The points that Kierkegaard conveys.

1. Faith (or in more philosophical terminology, the absolute relation of the self with the absolute) does not exist in an immediate way, it rests on presuppositions.

2. The problem with defining faith as immediacy is that this is a logical category, which only exists in order to negate. Here Kierkegaard  is referring to Hegel’s logic, which is a mixture of metaphysics and not very formal versions of syllogism, unified in order to create a complete picture of world as it is known through abstract categories. Right now it is not entirely clear to me how far Kierkegaard regards that as faulty and how far he regards it as just incomplete, leaving issues of subjectivity, in particular. Maybe the answer is that Kierkegaard sees Hegel as very correct within his own system, but misleading in presenting it as a complete picture of how the subjective individual has a world of experience. His account of ‘immediacy’ in Hegel’s logic suggests that he regards Hegel as guilty of some kind of intellectual manipulation which fails to account for experience, which would lead us back to subjectivity, the nature of the concrete individual as where Kierkegaard sees Hegel going wrong.

3. The questions of ethics requires references to both metaphysics and religious dogmatics, as becomes clearer later when we see that there is ethics from the point of view of metaphysics and then of dogmatics. The point here is to get ethics away from the view that questions of dogmatics are questions of God’s word, or logos, if logos is taken to be governed by logic. The drive in Kierkegaard’s argument is towards the idea that dogmatics must be grasped subjectively, as part of the self’s absolute relation with the absolute. For Kierkegaard, an account of subjectivity must be paradoxical particularly with regard to communication, temporal endurance, and any use of universal concepts. This is particularly clear in Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments ,which is several times longer than Philosophical Fragments (also known in English as Philosophical Crumbs).

4. We can assume that Kierkegaard regards questions of logos as something that ought to be approached from the subjective point of view, and that is the only way of getting to a good dogmatics. Dogmatics must involve some reference to the contents of the Bible and to an absolute which exists independently of our subjectivity. From The Concept of  Irony onwards, Kierkegaard rejects the more extreme kinds of subjectivism and agrees with Hegel in rejecting any immediate move from subjective experience to knowledge or faith. The point for Kierkegaard is that all the references to what is more than subjectivity, the universality of ethics and the absolute nature of God, or reality as a whole, are conditioned by the tension between subjectivity and those categories, and a tension within subjectivity itself between its more contingent and its more absolute properties.

5. If we separate dogmatics from logos as logic, and separate ethics from dogmatics, we can see the interaction between the categories of Christian doctrine, communication, logic, and ethics, which can only be held together by subjectivity, and the absolute nature of subjectivity. Subjectivity itself is not absolute, it is absolute as enduring over time compared with the contingent temporally conditioned parts of subjectivity. There is nothing absolute about any isolated subjectivity, that can only come in a relation with the absolute which itself emerges from the relation of the self with itself, that is its capacity to connect with different temporal episodes and states of itself.

6. For the paragraph in question at least, F.W.J. Schelling, has a privileged position with regard to his concept of ‘intellectual intuition’, which is brought up as an alternative to Kant’s scepticism about a correspondence between subjective experience and the objective world, on one side; and as an alternative to Hegel’s denial of the problem, on the other side. Unlike Hegel, Schelling does not eliminate subjectivity in its more meaningful aspects, since ‘intellectual intuition’ is the way that the self exists as what perceives itself. This joins the purely subjective side of the self with its concepts of reality. Schelling regards art as the way that the intellectual intuition capacity of the self becomes concrete. This could be important background for why some of Kierkegaard’s writing is philosophy as fictional literature (Repetition, Either/Or, Stages on Life’s way), and the rest is very literary in quality fiction often intervening.



Kierkegaard on Reality, Ethics and Faith: Reading The Concept of Anxiety VI

The third paragraph of the Introduction to The Concept of Anxiety continues with a discussion of reconciliation and atonement in philosophy. Kierkegaard is using the ambiguity of the Danish word Forsoning, which can mean both. The translators of the Princeton University Press edition, Raidar Thomte and Albert B. Anderson, translate Forsoning as ‘reconciliation’, leaving ‘atonement’ to be explained in an end note as a possible translation. It is the case that ‘reconciliation’ can be taken to include situations of atonement, but this does not really show the full force of Kierkegaard’s thought on the issue. It is a double manoeuvre since Kierkegaard both draws attention to the duality of meaning in Forsoning, while arguing against a confusion of logic and ethics, which might be a possible consequence of fusing philosophical reconciliation and religious atonement, though Kierkegaard does not say so directly. He focuses rather on ethics and dogmatics becoming confused, which he says is enhanced by the idea λόγος (logos) has it doctrine in logic, confusing the nature of dogmatics (assertions of Christian faith) since that is considered to be λόγος (logos). Presumably, what Kierkegaard is getting at there is that the word of God as λόγος (logos) is the object of theological dogmatics. Ethics and dogmatic fight over reconciliation in a fateful borderland, as Kierkegaard says in one sentence towards the end of the paragraph. This seems to be the consequence of the confusion of spheres. What he seems to be aiming as is the separation of logic from dogmatics, and the separation of ethics from dogmatics, though ethics can only be fully understood with regard to dogmatics. I take that to be a reference to the superiority of religious language, the language of the absolute, over ethical language, the language of the universal. Claims which structure two books published the year before The Concept of Irony: Fear and Trembling and Either/Or. We lose site of the absolute relationship of the self with the absolute in religion, if we think of logic here. The categories of logic are inadequate here, not that Kierkegaard is proposing the loss of reasoned language when discussing, faith, the religious and dogmatics. Reasoned language suffers from over extending logic, which Kierkegaard understands more as metaphysics than as formal logic. As he makes clear later in The Concept of Irony, the distinction between metaphysics and dogmatics is fundamental to understanding ethics and sin.

What Kierkegaard focuses on with regard to the philosophical aspects of ‘reconciliation/atonement’ is the reconciliation of thought on the whole with reality. He takes that to be a basic assumption through antiquity and the Middle Ages up to the philosophy of Kant. Kierkegaard seems to be mocking German Idealism in general at some points, but the overall argument is to distinguish Kant and Schelling from Hegel, who is the major target. Schelling is the one who comes out most favourably, as Kant is mentioned in connection with scepticism, and Hegel is mentioned as concealing the consequences of Kant’s scepticism with a dubious understanding of that scepticism. Schelling is the one who has an honest answer, which is in terms of intellectual intuition. Kierkegaard (or his pseudonymous persona Vigilius Haufniensis) assumes the  reader understands the reference. The footnoting of Thomte and Anderson is very thorough on this point, but not very helpful for those who do not have the collected works of Schelling in German to hand. The best way of checking ‘intellectual intuition‘ in Schelling is to to use the Peter Heath translation  of  System of Transcendental Idealism (University Press of Virginia, 1978). Ownership, or at least use, of this is the cornerstone of any study of Schelling in English. An online German text can be found at,+Friedrich+Wilhelm+Joseph/System+des+transzendenten+Idealismus, but not with the pagination used by Thomte and Anderson. As I reminded myself, ‘intellectual intuition’ in Schelling refers to the self’s knowledge of itself, in which the knowledge of that thing is the same as its existence. There is no way of distinguishing my awareness of my own self, and the existence of that self. This is evidently a modification of Descartes famous suggestion that I think therefore I am, along with whatever bits of Medieval and late Antique philosophy you might think anticipate Descartes on this point, Augustine and Avicenna are the most frequent references on this point. The context of reaction to Kant and Fichte is very different from Descartes’ context though, and Schelling is trying to show how the sensory and theoretical aspects of knowledge can be reconciled, in a manner that  puts the productivity of the self at the centre. The status of the intellectual intuition is made concrete in artistic production, according to Schelling.

There more to add about Schelling and Kierkegaard, along with related issues, but that will have to wait for the next post on The Concept of Anxiety, which will be third and last on the Introduction.

Colin Gordon, A Note On “Becker On Ewald On Foucault On Becker” (2013)

Colin Gordon, A Note On “Becker On Ewald On Foucault On Becker” (2013).

Key quotes below

Foucault does not in fact say this [Gordon is referring to insinuation that Gary Becker’s work on investment in human capital advocates racial discrimination], on these pages or elsewhere. The point actually attributed by Foucault to neoliberals – one to which, it is worth emphasising, Foucault seems willing to accord genuine analytic merit – is that global locations and times of strong economic growth are associated with strong preceding investments in human capital: this is the meaning of the sentence Bernard Harcourt goes on to quote:

Only a fine analysis of the composition of the human capital, of the way this human capital has been augmented, of the sectors in which it has been augmented, and of the elements which have been introduced as investment


in this human capital, can account for the real growth of these countries. (232)

The claim being discussed here is that there is an association between economic growth and investment in human capital – not the claim that only some human capital is worth investing in. There may well be, in the neoliberal economic literature, discussions of which locations or forms of investment in human capital are more or less effective in generating economic growth – but Foucault does not discuss or mention any here; nor, for that matter, does Bernard Harcourt. Harcourt’s hypothesis of a neoliberal economic rationale for the mass incarceration of the black urban underclass in the USA seems still to be in want of a satisfactory evidential basis, or at least of a basis in these lectures. 


If we want to think our own thoughts which go beyond the remarks in these lectures, we are – of course – free to do so. It would the most perverse of homages to Foucault’s work to deny either its limits or its unfinished status, or to deny to ourselves or others the aspiration to continue his project. We are at liberty to imagine, and indeed (given the talent) write the books we would like Foucault to have written, or which he should or would have written. But it is perhaps better that we take our own responsibility for any new items we bring to the party. 

Thoughts on Aeschylus’ Agamemnon: Horror, Kingship, Hospitality and Lucretius

The picture of human existence in Agamemnon, is of suffering. It is suggested that humans only become wise through suffering, but even more darkly that human happiness leads to disaster and downfall. The idea of a following a middle course of avoiding extremes appears, and idea particularly associated with Aristotle among ancient thinkers, but the idea is present throughout antique philosophy and culture that self-restraint and moderation are at the heart of happiness, the good life and ethics. Good fortune seems to lead to bad fortune, as it seems inevitable that humans will make bad decisions so that good fortune will become the instrument of bad fortune. Good fortune, at the extreme, may attract the malevolent interest of divine forces, which always wish to keep things within proportion and are even jealous of greatness. There is a suggestion that to be a king necessarily attracts that divine jealousy. Those who live in palaces will be noticed by divine forces and punished for standing out too much. Aeschylus is writing at a time when there are no kings in Athens, and the Greeks generally  have adopted some kind of sharing as power in most cases.  For Aristotle a good king has something divine about him, a man of really exceptional goodness would be like a god and would have to be king. By the time Aristotle is writing the Macedonian monarchy, with which he was associated, has established hegemony over Greece, including Athens. Aeschylus died before the birth of Philip II who established that Macedonian monarchy. It is useful to remember that Aristotle’s own comments on Greek tragedy are separated from the time of the great tragedies. The tragedies themselves refer to an even bigger gap in time, the gap between classical Greece, and Bronze Age Greece, or Mycenaean palace civilisation. Between Bronze Age Greece and Classical Greece there is the Greek Dark Ages and Archaic Greece, which produced the Homeric epics, to which the tragedians refer. So the tragedians use this lost age to approach issues of a world which no longer exists, but also in someway that are present in classical antiquity. One message of the time is that concentration of power in one person, or in one family leads to disaster.

The ethics in the tragedies is partly one of avoiding pollution. Clytemnestra creates a pollution that has to be expelled from the community when she murders her husband. Her polluting act is itself a response to an earlier polluting act, Agamemnon sacrificing their daughter. That Clytemnestra is acting out of revenge is not regarded as an extenuating factor in the play. There must  be some sympathy created in the audience, but as the audience was  mostly if not entirely male, there must be a predominant fear and hatred of the woman who pollutes her family and her community by murdering her husband. Her act serves divine vengeance but demands an act of vengeance itself, which the play indicates will come from Orestes, the son of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon. Her adultery with Aegisthus who plans to seize the throne increases the revulsion for the original audience. Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter is itself presented as criminal and polluting, even as madness.There is a complete loss of the general moderation apparently endorsed by Aeschylus. Again, his act serves divine purposes but is in no way excused by that. There is background to that act of madness in the preceding murderous violence within the House of Atreus and the crime of the Trojan prince in seducing the wife of King Menelaus. That is an example of the good fortune which leads to bad fortune, since Menelaus’ happiness with Helen is doomed to be replaced  by the devastation of her departure . There is the suggestion that the greatest good fortune must come from crime, and so must be polluting with catastrophic consequences. If not the crime of that person, then the crime of an ancestor which in this case is Atreus, father of Menelaus and Agamemnon.  The form of tragedy is to show how excess happiness comes from polluting crime and leads to downfall. Clytemnestra’s happiness at killing Agamemnon is just an extreme example of this. These errors of judgement which are so intense they are acts of madness are compared with the failure to understand nature, like the shepherd who looks after a lion cub unit the cub becomes a full grown lion that attacks the shepherd.

The reason for launching a huge navy to take a Greek army to Troy is the breach of laws of hospitality and friendship committed by Paris when he seduced Helen and took her to Troy. The bonds of hospitality and friendship are of extreme importance in the societies of the time of Aeschylus. Friendship is a major aspect of ethics for Aristotle, though in this he is abstracting from customary codes which we can see in the Homeric epics, where hospitality and friendship are among the deep issues. Troy shares the guilt of Paris, because King Priam shelters both him and Helen. The breach of hospitality and friendship, including familial ties, is at issue when Agamemnon returns to his palace in Argos to be murdered by his cousin, who has become the lover of this wife. The Paris-Helen adulterous coupling has been replaced by Aegisthus-Clytemnestra. Agamemnon finds himself the victim of inhospitality in his own home which has become a hostile place in his absence. Clytemnestra appears to offer the most extreme hospitality, treating him like a Persian king (an anachronism since Persians do not appear in the Homeric world). The play rests on the destruction of royal families, containing the suggestion that all kings are by nature of the role excessive, going beyond bounds, so inviting some kind of divine attack. Agamemnon is presented as a consultative law abiding king, so maybe a resisting excess. Clytemnestra’s attempted transformation of him in absolutist king is part of his destruction. The message seems to be that kingship is an excessive form of power, perhaps mitigated by respect for law and consultation, but definitely ripe for destruction when it goes beyond those bounds.

The destruction of the king is part of  vision of human life. The destruction has a dream like aspect, foreseen by Cassandra (the salve woman and prophetess from Troy) whose visions mingle the slaying of Agamemnon, Atreus murdering the sons of Thyestes, and the total violence of the fall of Troy, which consumes everyone including babies. The chorus early on suggests that life becomes vague, something like a dream in old age. Menelaus is reported to have such a state after his loss of Helen. Human existence stands on an abyss of horror which emerges in the dream like vision of the old, the grief stricken and those who communicate with the gods.

The killing of Agamemnon is preceded by Clytemnestra treating him as a very exalted king, which disturbs Agamemnon since he thinks that exaltation makes him like a Persian king, not a Greek king who follows law and consults his people. He is a model of kingship from that point of view, though the play at least once indicates that his murder of his daughter did not even serve the purpose it was supposed to satisfy of bringing a wind to take the Greek ships to Troy, something to be achieved by a sacrifice to Artemis. Towards the end of the pay, this act is presented as done to appease the superstition of his men and not as a cruel necessity imposed by the gods. It may be this passage that Lucretius is thinking of in On Nature when he refers to overcoming the superstitious fear that led to the sacrifice of Iphigenia.

Kierkegaard on Faith and Immediacy: Reading The Concept of Anxiety V


A one sentence comment at the beginning of the Introduction defines it as concerned with deliberation on a psychological matter that becomes a matter of (theological) dogmatics. That is presumably the transition from the psychology of anxiety to the dogmatics of hereditary sin. Kierkegaard (writing under the pseudonym of Vigilius Haufniensis) begins the main body of the Introduction with reference to the nature of science, presumably the science of psychology is what is at issue. Scientific issue have a limited and defined place within science as a whole. There are two things this serves. The first is the pious and melancholic love of the scientist for science. It is what restrains the scientist from lawlessness and losing sight of the mainland. The second purpose served is to prevent the deliberation from going beyond its proper limits. This prevents going too far in scope and bringing things that differ too much into agreement, and going beyond the scope of existing knowledge. This resembles some of Kant’s comments on the limits of knowledge, and is probably directed against Hegel for going too far in claiming to have a complete system. However, there is also some resemblance with Hegel’s criticisms of subjectivism, of putting an isolated individual point of view at the centre.

The following paragraph confirms that Kierkegaard’s main target is Hegel, though we should keep in mind the qualifications above. In particular, he attacks Hegel for ending the Science of Logic with a section on Actuality. Kierkegaard argues that logic and actuality are both served poorly by such a move as they do not belong together. We cannot understand the contingency of Actuality through the nature of logical judgements; logic cannot appropriate Actuality, it can only presuppose it.

The argument moves from Hegel (though not for long) to the nature of faith. Kierkegaard suggests that a fault is widespread in thought about faith and religion, even amongst orthodox believers, which parallel’s Hegel’s error in trying to assimilate Actuality into Logic.That is where theological dogmatics refers to faith as immediate. Kierkegaard does not directly suggest which dogmatics is at fault, he is presumably attacking Danish theologians of the time, which still leaves the question how much of a place this error as in the history of theology, and whether it affects the great theologians. Kierkegaard never does much to locate his writing within theological tradition. His point here is that faith itself rests on historical presupposition. If we ignore that faith loses, since we overlook its real nature, and dogmatics loses since it does not deal with the real beginning of faith. The failure to grasp this is the first error for Kierkegaard, so it looks like a core idea for him. He refers to immediacy as a legitimate topic for logic, so the problem is not the idea of immediacy, but of placing faith there, just like Hegel apparently puts actuality there. The idea of a historical presupposition might suggest that Kierkegaard is thinking of a philosophy of history as the appropriate reference for faith rather than categories of logic. That might just be a way back to Hegel, who could be said to have subsumed everything into philosophy of history in The Phenomenology of Spirit. Probably the right approach to Kierkegaard here is to think of him as putting history at the centre, as Hegel at least sometimes appears to, but approaching history from a different direction. Hegel is trying to unify phenomenology with logic, where Kierkegaard puts psychology, subjectivity, the single individual, and the paradox at the centre of of an approach to history, Humanity is historically located, but in the impossibility of  unity of individuals and of different generations. There is no unifying spirit unfolding history, but more the historically located individual encountering the difficulties of grasping time and history.

In logic immediacy can be properly regarded as what is immediately annulled, presumably on the Hegelian model according to which the there is no stable ‘this’ since any naming and discussing of ‘this’ loses the moment of ‘this’ at the centre of perception. Faith cannot be annulled in that way, but we may get into thinking that faith can annulled if we think of it as immediate. By implication, Kierkegaard is claiming that faith is always more than an immediate moment of encounter with God. Other parts of Kierkegaard suggests that he puts the possibility of a relation between contingency and the absolute, at the centre, including the difficulty of reconciling the contingent temporal self with the absolute self outside time. Faith is where we are dealing with that in someway rather than the immediate experience of the absolute, which leaves the experiencing subject without any way of harmonising itself with the absolute.

(We are in the middle of the long and important third paragraph of the Introduction. More on that paragraph in the next post).

Kierkegaard on Denmark and on Authoritative Individuals: Reading The Concept of Anxiety. IV

The Dedication, The Preface

There is a fulsome dedication to Poul Møller, the university teacher that Kierkegaard most admired and who was a major influence on him. He was a classicist, philosopher and poet with a theological background. His range of interests coincides with that of Kierkegaard, and his capacities in teaching and personal tutoring seem to have made a strong impression on Kierkegaard, for whom he was a role model. One notable aspect of the dedication is the emphasis on Danish identity and pride. Møller himself spent a long time in Norway as an academic, with great nostalgia for Denmark to which he was happy to return. The Dedication can be compared with ‘A Letter to the Reader’, ‘Concluding Word’ in Stages on Life’s Way which has a tribute to Copenhagen in terms of memory, nature and intimate size (487 in the Princeton University Press edition,VI 452-45 in the standard Danish edition of Kierkegaard). These references to Denmark and Copenhagen should be put in the context of an element of nostalgia in Kierkegaard’s attitude to ancient city republics. The comparison of Møller with Socrates reinforces that attitude. The unity of individual life, ethnic community, city religion, and political community in antique republics offers a ind of happiness lacking in the modern Christian state. Maybe for Kierkegaard, the ancient city republic offers the closest kind of happiness possible in the secular world. The idea of the Christian heaven as a version of the ideal ancient city can be found in Augustine, that is the underlying idea of City of God.

The idea of the imitation both of Møller and of Socrates, whom Møller imitates in Kierkegaard’s understanding, itself related to Kierkegaard’s arguments in The Concept of Anxiety, beginning with the Preface, about the relations between generations, and the relations between Adam and those who sin after Adam. As the Preface suggests, generations are responsible for themselves, individuals are responsible for themselves. No one individual can assume responsibility for a generation, or claim to be typical of it.

In the Preface difficulties also emerge about how to interpret a text which is written under a pseudonym. Vigilius Haufniensis. The Preface partly serves as a warning about this, because it creates a distancing that is lacking in the main body of the book. Haufniensis refers to his tolerance any source of authority. That itself could be a reference to ancient republics, since Haufniensis refers to an authority for a year. That sounds like the two consuls of republican Rome, or the ‘strategos’ of Athens, or the five ephors of Sparta. There isa shift In register from religious to secular, which may confirm that Kierkegaard sees a relation between ancient republics and the city of God.

The republican references are reinforced when Haufniensis expresses his indifference to the forms of appointing authority, whether through lottery, ballot or passing the position between burghers. The last possibility undercuts any grandeur of the republican references since the reference is to representatives on a board of arbitration, so the more everyday and bureaucratic aspects of modern bourgeois society. The use of lottery to appoint member of public bodies was understood to be a more pure form of democracy in antiquity than electing people, which might be understood as a way of conferring aristocratic status, or even monarchical status for the most important elected office. The appointment of someone like a consul in ancient Rome had an element of passing it between different oligarchs in the senate, even if it was not the case that the honour passed between all senators in order. We could interpret that indifference between forms of authority as a nostalgia for ancient republics in which the existence of the republic is important, not its political form. That matches Kierkegaard’s general attitude towards politics, though it also has to be said that he sees something positive in the absolute claims of both monarchs and revolutionaries, presumably as a way of connecting the political sphere with the nature of God, and our relation with God.

The issue of relations between individuals and generations is partly one of deflating claims to represent a generation. It is not those who make a noise about representing the era who are developing the self, so we see Kierkegaard’s emphasis on the single individual (Enkeleten) as the starting point. This also applies to the board of arbitration. Whether Kierkegaard uses irony or seems to speak more directly, the individual is the starting point and is at the centre. The way of not falling into a ridiculous position is to recognise the individual at the centre, and not detract from individuality.

Kierkegaard on the Limits of Understanding: Reading The Concept of Anxiety III

Kierkegaard provides an  epigraph to The Concept of Anxiety, which features Socrates and  Johann Georg Hamann. The epigram to Fear and Trembling, published the year before in 1843, was a quotation from Hamann. Hamann was certainly one of Kierkegaard’s favoured author, but the relationship has not been greatly studied in English and is unlikely to be studied as long as so little Hamann is available in English. The end of the epigraph is a quotation from Hamann, but Kierkegaard does not give the textual reference, and unfortunately neither do the two editor/translators of the Princeton University Press edition of The Concept of Anxiety, Raidar Thomte and Albert B. Anderson.


The point of the epigram is to praise Socrates, and it enables the reader to understand that Kierkegaard’s interest in Socrates across various texts is connected with Hamann’s view. What Socrates is praised for here is a capacity to make distinctions, a capacity Kierkegaard thinks was more present in antiquity than in the modern age. Socrates is referred to as simple and as make distinctions in his life, as well as in his words. The vital distinction recognised by Socrates in his way of living and in his thought is that between what he understood and what he had not understood. This is a distinction that Kierkegaard claims has been vanquished by the ‘system’, which can be a reference to Hegel. The making of distinctions has become considered eccentric, so that is how Hamann is understood in Kierkegaard’s own time, as an eccentric. That means that Kierkegaard considers himself to be an eccentric, and he is unified with Hamann and with Socrates in his commitment to the distinction between what he can understand and what he cannot, which is a commitment in words and in living. The suggestion is that Hegel, and his followers, do not make the distinction, and do not approach philosophy in life s well as in words. Presumably this arises from the scope of Hegel’s philosophy, the claim to have shown the whole structure of the world as it can be apprehended in consciousness and structured from the point of view of judgement. Hegel refers to absolute knowledge, and that is an impossible claim, in Kierkegaard’s  view.


There are arguments that Hegel’s view of absolute knowing is one which allows for a continued unfolding of ‘spirit’ (possible contents of consciousness) and that Kierkegaard was more attacking Danish interpretation of Hegel, than he was attacking Hegel. None of this really undermines the distinction Kierkegaard creates himself and Hegel. He is preoccupied with the ‘single individual’ (Enkelte) in a way that has no parallel in Hegel, and the same can be said for the paradoxes of dialectic in Kierkegaard, and the contrast he creates between Hegelian meditation and his own idea synthesis when talking about the unity of opposites. From Hegel’s point of view there isa subjectivity in Socrates which separates him from knowing of the best kind. Kierkegaard implicitly lays claim to that subjectivity as his position, and there is plenty of evidence of that across his work.


What he more directly lays claim to in the Epigraph is eccentricity, the distinction between what he understands and what he does not, and a philosophy which is in his life not just his words. Kierkegaard does deal at various points with the unresolvable nature of paradoxes of thought. This is a central topic particularly of Philosophical Fragments (also known as Philosophical Crumbs), and can be found in various places including the ‘absurd’ in Fear and Trembling and the discussion of modern philosophy in Johannes Climacus. These are the ways in which limits to understanding appear as an issue in Kierkegaard. His life is one in which philosophy merges with life partly because he lead a life of writing, which is reflected in books where the writing of life is central to the book. Examples include Fear and Trembling, Either/Or, Stages on Life’s Way, and Repetition. His writing refers to the end of his engagement, the life of faith, and the nature of life in Copenhagen. We cannot find the same elements in Hegel’s writing, though sometime, particularly in The Phenomenology of Spirit, it does have some poetic power and a struggle to defeat destructive forces. All of this gets absorbed into an absolute point of view in Hegel. The absolute is an issue in Kierkegaard, who suggests that the self needs a relation with the absolute, which included an absolute relation with the self and with the absolute. There is a constant tension and awareness of paradox in Kierkegaard though.