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.

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