Kierkegaards Way of Contextualizing Reason

If our earlier guides can be classed as "premodern," our final mentor managed to presage much that is "postmodern," as well as to share with Newman an admiration which Wittgenstein reserved for few thinkers, and these two alone among theological minds. Seren Kierkegaard exploited pseudonyms in order to be able to dramatize the diverse postures which religious persons can (and often should) assume toward the faith which continues to beckon them. For while a faith tradition can lay claim to our allegiance, we can only respond in kind by way of critical reflection, which must at once scrutinize what the tradition offers as well as let that tradition challenge currently touted norms of rationality. Kierkegaard displayed his appreciation of this call for "mutual clarification" by creating within himself and his readers enough space for reflection on the deliverances of faith and of reason, in order to show how each could indeed illuminate the other. The pseudonym most apt to display the inner reciprocal relation between faith and reason (or theology and philosophy) is that of Anti-Climacus in Sickness unto Death.16 For it is conceived by way of contrast to that of Climacus in the more directly philosophical Concluding Unscientific Postscript, so that the work can be "edifying," and thereby stand on the very threshold of a properly religious work. Anti-Climacus anticipates the work of Pierre Hadot by reminding us that a philosophy which leads beyond itself will require of its adherents as well as its novices a set of practices designed to "build up" in them the appropriate responses to the calls they have heard, and so facilitate their hearing yet others, while the interaction between practices and reflection will help us discern the authenticity of the calls.

The rhetorical structure of the work is designed to dethrone the reigning conception of philosophy, that of Hegel's "system," and to do so by displaying an alternative which will alone be capable of leading one to what the Enlightenment sought: "the individual." He names the sickness which structures this inquiry "despair," and by "despair" he means the recurring and often acute sense of privation which we cannot help but feel in being unable to attain "that unique individual" which we are called to become. The human ideal opened up by the Reformation and endorsed in an autonomous fashion by the Enlightenment is in fact unattainable, yet we human beings regularly mask that fact from ourselves by countless distractions (as Pascal remarked), while philosophers do so in a more elaborate way by constructing "systems" in the image of Hegel. Yet the claim to an autonomous philosophy which would supersede the older medieval faith is issued in a mode of discourse so abstract that it bypasses the very goal of that endeavor: to make of oneself "an individual." The polemical portions of this work (not to be attributed, tout court, to Kierkegaard himself) will engage us with a prose redolent of "the system," thereby showing us how "tolerably well" he knows it, yet designed to display how wide of the mark it will carry us. The mark, again, is a conception of the human person able both to delineate our specificity as well as lead us to realize it individually. The conception to which we are introduced is that of relating, borrowed from the medieval articulation of spirit as what is able to "relate to all things" (itself cribbed from the opening lines of Aristotle's Metaphysics) and of the earlier Cappadocian attempt to articulate the triunity of God by identifying the "persons" of the divine trinity as "subsistent relations."

This conception, introduced by a definition which takes the form of a conceit but which formulates precisely the specificity of human beings by accentuating the gerundive form, "relating," is opposed to that of a synthesis, by which he can distinguish himself from a favorite ploy of Hegel's. Yet he also implicitly targets Aristotle's definition of human beings as "rational animals," thereby showing his own modernity while trenchantly criticizing its current icon. Indeed, this gesture reminds us of an aporia in Aristotle's work: if living things, indeed human beings especially, and notably Socrates, serve as paradigms for his decisive category of substance, he nonetheless fails to bring out how humans transcend that very category in the very act of defining it. This, of course, is what Hegel showed so well, and in that sense Kierkegaard is building on him while rejecting the omnivorous instincts of his philosophical legacy. So we are not "a relation" but "a relating," which accentuates how our very being is already an activity, and also how as a relating it is a "being towards." (Aquinas had noted how the very "to-be" [esse] of creatures is "to-be-related" [ST 1.45.3].) Yet the transcendence proper to rational creatures which allows them to fulfill their destiny (or reject it) is also present in this very "being-related" as an inner exigency. That is to say, Kierkegaard adopts a classical view of freedom as a "hunger for the good," steadfastly refusing the modern reduction of freedom to aimless choice, or the mere "ability to do otherwise," with its roots in Scotus. This sets the stage for his evocative use of "despair," which captures a range of attitudes linked to the experience of a privation, that is, something which ought to be present yet is not.

It is this "category" of despair which signals our awareness of being spirit, that is, of being-related in the very constitution of our being. Yet such an awareness must be "everywhere dialectical," as he puts it, executing what Hegel proposed as the heart of an authentically philosophical logic better than even Hegel knew how to do. That is, most of us find ourselves living lives of "quiet desperation" because we are indeed "in despair" but remain oblivious of the fact, save for a nagging sense of "not being there" or of "not being able to get through," which becomes his operative sense for despair. Get through to what? Kierkegaard's answer reveals how much his view of human being and of human freedom is rooted in Plato's inner quest for "the good," yet the path he takes reveals the power of this dialectical logic. It is in fact a dialectic of consciousness, of degrees of awareness of one's own state of inner alienation from one's proper good. The stages move from the common one of endemic lack of awareness to an acute awareness (which is close to our poignant use of "despair") and on to the demonic despair of refusing any remedy for our situation, which Anti-Climacus cannily likens to a manuscript error which takes on a life of its own to challenge the writer by insisting that it "will not be corrected." Short of demonic despair, there is but one way out of the acute awareness of having "missed the mark," and that lies in our being able to name the good from which we have alienated ourselves as the God who reveals a forgiving face in Jesus, thereby calling us to faith via repentance. This dynamic retains accents of his Lutheran formation and also displays the finest lineaments of Dante's sensibility, by showing just how redundant is forensic judgment when our own inner orientation suffices to foreshadow the way we must go. We are unable to overcome despair ourselves, yet it will evaporate once the relating finds itself "rooted in the power which constitutes it," a point where the definition of self transmutes into that of faith.

What Kierkegaard helps readers to do, in Sickness unto Death, is to appropriate Hegel's dialectic in a way that allows it both to reveal and to serve a profoundly human movement to faith in the "power which constitutes" us, namely, the creator who is also our redeemer. So Kierkegaard's own faith perspective directs him to a novel use of Hegel's acute philosophical tools, and one which displays Hegel's acuity far better than the "system" which had captured him for later generations, and threatened to undermine authentic Christian faith by making it subservient to a sovereign and omnivorous reason. In short, Kierkegaard succeeds in turning the tables on the pretenses of "philosophy" by utilizing those very philosophical skills to show how it can best fulfill its own aims by serving an innately human movement to faith. The operative premise, of course, is that we are in fact creatures of this God, which this work does not set out to prove since its peculiar pseudonym had identified the author as one on the way to faith. Indeed, Anti-Climacus is teetering on its very threshold, open to exploring how a key premise like the free creation of the universe might illuminate a philosophical, indeed a proto-psychological, picture of humanity. So if Kierkegaard's clearly pseudonymous works make him appear to be an "irrationalist" to philosophers, that should alert us to the polemical steps he felt it necessary to take in the face of a reason captured by "rationalism." This mediating work, however, utilizes the attentuated pseudonym of "Anti-Climacus" to show how reason and faith can collaborate in illuminating what it means to be human in a far more searching way than the current rationalist paradigm allowed. Once again, a properly rhetorical use of reason, employed to show how Christian faith can illuminate the darker reaches of the human spirit, offers a fresh paradigm for self-understanding.

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