Kierkegaard Against the Ethics of Aristotle

We are concentrating on Fear and Trembling here, which I am teaching in an Ethics course.

For Kierkegaard, Aristotle defines something accurately, that is the Ethics of the Ancient world. In Fear and Trembling, he does this more with reference to Arisotle’s Poetics rather than the Nichomachean Ethics, or any other of Aristotle’s texts on Ethics.

What Kierkegaard concentrates on in Fear and Trembling is the recognition of the sin of the tragic hero. There is disclosure and recognition through necessity beyond the control of the hero. Oedipus’ tragic error is revealed not by his confession but by the plagues which assault Thebes, where he is King.

For Kierkegaard, Aristotle defines a view in which the individual is not responsible for sin. It is the nation, the family or fate. Greek tragedy in Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides, shows that a sin is inherited from the family , or fate makes the sin inevitable, as when Oedipus actions to avoid the prophecy of his sin, leads to that sin.

In the modern world, it is clear that the individual is responsible for guilt, bears sin. The idea that ethics may contain conflict between the individual and the universal, for the social good, is replaced by an extreme of individual responsibility. The şissue of sin becomes harder to bear than the ethics derived from social habit in Aristotle.

Ethics must refer to subjectivity, Aristotle detracts from that in his view of humans governed by fate. The difficult situation that must be faced now is the melancholic within. The real anxiety we have to face now, on or own, is the need to have faith which will enable us to endanger another person with our melancholia. We can overcome melancholia as an expression of subjectivity that can only see itself as contingent. That may require silence and an inner suffering, which cannot be explained to another person. The universality of Aristotle’s ethics is replace by the bond that exists between the melancholic person and the person who might be a sacrifice to that melancholia. The melancholia that mişght lead us to think, Like Abraham that God has commanded him to kill Isaac . Ethics at its highest rests on a subordination of universal rules to the inner struggle to find the absolute within the contingency of the self.

Ethics at its highest is not obeying rules, it is developing the self that rises above itself in the dialectic of the absurd, in the passion for paradox, with regard to the actions in which the subject becomes ethical in the strongest sense. The self that can be ethical must emerge from the paradoxes of subjectivity. The self that is ethical because it has the capacity to be unethical. Ethics emerges fully when we take the risk that the unethical will destroy in our relations with others.

Repetition in Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard Commentary
Repetition does not feature much in Kierkegaard commentary. However, it is rather important. There is a book called Repetition and it features heavily in Concluding Unscientific Postscript. This lack of discussion reflects a failure for Kierkegaard commentary to develop properly. This certainly not a comment on the competence of individual commentators, but it is a comment on a tendency to put him in an over restricting framework, where concepts are applied to Kierkegaard without enough attention to how Kierkegaard’s thought might challenge those concepts . Over time this has given us: Existentialist Kierkegaard, Postmodern Kierkegaard, Deconstructive Kierkegaard, Literary Kierkegaard, Fideist theological Kierkegaard, Neo-Aristotelian Virtue Theory Kierkegaard.

Repetition and Recollection
A brief consideration of ‘Repetition’ will hopefully make some small contribution to grasping Kierkegaard himself. ‘Repetition’ is established in opposition to ‘Recollection’. Recollection is presented with reference to Plato’s Theory of Recollection from the Meno and the Republic. That is the theory that perceptions of the forms of things are present in our memory, so that knowledge in its fullest sense comes from recollection of those forms.

Metaphysics and Psychology
Kierkegaard suggest that his is a move at the heart of metaphysics. We can think here of Kierkegaard giving a psychological theory for the origin of Platonism and of metaphysics in general, paralleling his explicitly psychological account of Anxiety as essential to free will.

An Alternative to Anxiety and Melancholia
Recollection is a backwards move in which we establish the continuity of the self through orientating our state now to past states. It represents a subordination of subjectivity to objectivity, and a subordination of ‘living’ to abstraction. Recollection is a backward Repetition. Repetition is a forward recollection in which we live forward, actively repeating the past in order to establish the continuity of self. In this understanding, knowledge emerges from subjectivity instead of an impossible attempt of subjectivity to subordinate itself to objectivity. The relation between subjectivity and objectivity is irreducibly paradoxical for Kierkegaard, but the paradox must be approached from subjectivity because that is our irreducible starting point. Repetition is against the metaphysics which subordinates time to atemporal forms, and tries to crush subjectivity under atemporality. Subjectivity is temporal and time moves in a direction, from past to future. That direction enables Repetition in which past moments are seized in the present in a new context. Repetition is the condition of happiness, so it it provide a structural psychological alternative to his discussions of Anxiety and Melancholia.

Kierkegaard at the Main Event in British Philosophy
Fortunately Kierkegaard will be the subject of a plenary Session of the Joint Society of the Aristotelian Society and the Mind Association, in Aberdeen in July 2008. John Lippett and Michelle Kosch will speak. Given the under developed nature of Kierkegaard commentary
the organisers have made an interesting choice. The Joint Session is the big event of the philosophical year in Britain. Kosch and Lippett have a chance to make a difference to the interest in and understnad of Kierkegaard, I hope they use the chance to the full.