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Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein

  • John W. Cook (a1)


In recent years there has been a tendency in some quarters to see an affinity between the views of Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein on the subject of religious belief. It seems to me that this is a mistake, that Kierkegaard's views were fundamentally at odds with Wittgenstein's. That this fact is not generally recognized is, I suspect, owing to the obscurity of Kierkegaard's most fundamental assumptions. My aim here is to make those assumptions explicit and to show how they differ from Wittgenstein's.



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page 200 note 1 The Journals of Soren Kierkegaard, ed. and trans. Dru, Alexander (London: Oxford University Press, 1938), §633. Notice Kierkegaard's qualification here: it is human science, human understanding, that can reach only so far. This, as we will see, is an important escape clause for Kierkegaard, for he is prepared to allow that God can understand (can conceive or think) what a mere human cannot.

page 200 note 2 Hegel, G. W. F., Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, trans. Speirs, E. B. (New York: Humanities Press, 1962), vol. III, p. 76.

page 200 note 3 Ibid.

page 200 note 4 Ibid. p. 77.

page 201 note 1 I have here summarized, although without all of Hegel's categories, the argument implicit in Hegel's thought (ibid. pp. 33–100). A critical point is that Hegel held that God is timeless. God, he says, is ‘beyond time’; His ‘eternity is contrasted with time’ (ibid. p. 3).

page 201 note 2 Concluding Unscientific Postscript, trans., Swenson, David F. (Princeton, 1944), p. 191. Subsequent references to this volume will be placed in the text with the abbreviation CUP followed by the page number.

page 201 note 3 Kierkegaard's, most directly stated opposition to Hegel is this: ‘Christianity is no doctrine concerning the unity of the divine and the human; nor is it any other of the logical transcriptions of Christianity’ (CUP, p. 290).

page 202 note 1 On this point Hegel and Kierkegaard are echoing a long tradition in Christian theology, which includes Anselm, Boethius, Aquinas, and Schleiermacher, all of whom held that God knows all things in a timeless present. The most direct influence on Kierkegaard was, very likely, Schleiermacher, whom he studied diligently during his preparation for the ministry. Pike's, NelsonGod and Timelessness (New York: Schocken Books, 1970) provides an excellent treatment of this theological tradition.

page 202 note 2 Philosophical Fragments, trans. Swenson, David F. (Princeton, 1946), p. 62.

page 203 note 1 Reprinted in Moore, G. E., Philosophical Studies (London, 1922), pp. 197219.

page 204 note 1 Ibid. p. 199. Bradley, having argued that time is unreal (is mere appearance), entertains an objection to this, namely, that time cannot be unreal because change ‘is a matter of direct experience; it is a fact and hence it cannot be explained away’. He replies: This ‘is indubitable. Change is a fact.… And, if we could not in any way perceive how the fact[that this or that changes] can be unreal, we should be placed, I admit, in a hopeless dilemma.’ But this dilemma doesn't arise, he continues, because it is wrong to think ‘that an appeal to experience can prove reality. That I find something in existence in the world or in myself, shows that this something exists, and it cannot show more. Any deliverance of consciousness…. is but a deliverance of consciousness.… It is a fact, like other facts, to be dealt with, and there is no presumption anywhere that any fact is better than appearance.’ (Quoted by Moore, Ibid. pp. 201–2, from Bradley's Appearance and Reality.)

page 204 note 2 Ibid. pp. 209–11.

page 204 note 3 Ibid. p. 214.

page 204 note 4 The phrase ‘whatever exists’ does not include God, for according to Kierkegaard, , ‘God does not exist, he is eternal’ (CUP, p. 296).

page 205 note 1 If one wonders how, in keeping with the above-quoted passage ridiculing Hegelians, Kierkegaard could possibly agree with Bradley that time is unreal, it need only be recalled that Bradley, while insisting that Time is mere appearance, also insisted that it would be absurd to deny that appearances exist. ‘For the present’, he says, ‘we may keep a fast hold upon this, that appearances exist. That is absolutely certain, and to deny it is nonsense.… Our appearances, no doubt, may be a beggarly show, and their nature to an unknown extent may be something which, as it is, is not true of reality. That is one thing, and it is quite another to speak as if these facts had no actual existence.… And I must repeat that such an idea would be sheer nonsense. What appears, for that sole reason, most indubitably is; and there is no possibility of conjuring its being away.’ (Quoted by Moore, , op. cit. pp. 198–9.)

page 207 note 1 Kierkegaard states another of the Christian paradoxes as follows: ‘That “original sin” is guilt – that is the real paradox. How paradoxical that is may best be seen thus. It is formed by compounding qualitatively different categories. To “inherit” [in Danish ‘original sin’ is inherited sin’] is a natural category [a category of nature]; guilt is an ethical and spiritual category. Now who would ever think, says reason, of putting them together, of saying that something is inherited which by definition cannot be inherited.’ The Journals of Soren Kierkegaard, op. cit. § 1061.

page 207 note 2 Kierkegaard, remarks that ‘the language of [Hegel's] abstract thought…ignores the concrete and the temporal’ (CUP, p. 267).

page 208 note 1 Kierkegaard, writes that the existing individual ‘thinks before and after’ (CUP, p. 293) and also that ‘an existing individual…. translates all his thinking into terms of process’ (CUP, p. 79). Here, however, he has stated the matter carelessly, for he surely does not mean to suggest that we must invariably, no matter what the subject matter, think in temporal terms. He would no doubt allow that I can think of the square root of, say, 625 without thinking of the square root in temporal terms – without thinking that at present (or for the time being) 25 is the square root of 625. Also, Kierkegaard, is prepared to allow that – indeed, he insists that – the plain man's concept of God is the concept of a timeless being, of a being that is not ‘in time’. It is when we think of ourselves and the phenomenal world that we cannot but think in temporal terms. Possibly, he thought of himself as simply following Kant here.

page 209 note 1 Kierkegaard explicitly says that the non-believer will see nonsense where the believer will not: ‘The absurd, the paradox, is composed in such a way that reason has no power at all to dissolve it in nonsense and prove that it is nonsense; no, it is…. a riddle, a compounded riddle about which reason must say: I cannot solve it, it cannot be understood, but it does not follow thereby that it is nonsense. But, of course, if faith is completely abolished, the whole sphere is dropped, and then reason becomes conceited and perhaps concludes that, ergo the paradox is nonsense.… Faith [on the other hand] believes the paradox.’ (Soren Kierkegaarďs journals and Papers, ed. and trans. by Hong, Howard K. and Hong, Edna H. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 19671970), vol. I, §7.) I take Kierkegaard to be making three claims here: (I) Since it cannot be proved that there is no God, it cannot be proved that the paradox is nonsense; nevertheless (2) if someone does not believe that God exists, he will alsò\believe that the paradox is nonsense, whereas (3) the believer will not take the paradox to be nonsense – on the contrary, he will believe it is true despite the fact that he cannot see in it anything other than a contradiction.

page 209 note 2 There are two points to be noticed here. First, the phrases ‘for God’ and ‘for man’ are essential to any proper statement of Kierkegaard's position. That is, when he speaks of the God-Man as a paradox or a contradiction or an absurdity, he does not do so without qualification. On the contrary, he says that ‘it involves the contradiction that something that can become historical only in direct opposition to all human reason, has become historical’ (CUP, p. 189), that it is ‘an absurdity to the understanding’ (CUP, p. 191), that it is ‘contradictory to all thinking’ (CUP, p. 513), and so on. Accordingly, we find Climacus saying in the Postscript: ‘If speculative philosophy wishes to say…. that there is no paradox when the matter [of the God-Man] is viewed eternally, divinely, theocentrically – then I admit that I am not in a position to determine whether the speculative philosopher is right, for I am only a poor existing human being, not competent to contemplate the eternal either eternally or divinely or theocentrically’ (CUP, p. 190). Making the same point, Climacus says that ‘only eternity possesses the explanation’ (CUP, p. 499). It is important to bear in mind here that Climacus says that he is not a Christian, and that is why he, unlike a believer, can say no more than that it is possible that if the matter were viewed eternally (in a timeless consciousness) there would be no paradox, no contradiction. By contrast, Kierkegaard, the believer, writes in his Journal: The paradox in Christian truth is invariably due to the fact that it is truth as it exists for G. The standard measure [of truth]…. is superhuman; and [for a man] there is only one relationship possible: faith(The journals of Soren Kierkegaard, op. cit. § 1061).

page 209 note 3 This is implied in Kierkegaard's, remark: ‘It is impossible to conceive existence without movement [i.e. change and succession], and movement cannot be conceived sub specie aeterni’ (CUP, p. 273). Inasmuch as Kierkegaard assumes that God does conceive whatever it is he does conceive sub specie aeterni, it follows from the foregoing that he holds that that which God conceives is timeless. (Many passages suggest that he assumed that the objects of God's thought are Platonic ideas.) In another context he writes: ‘For God it may be so; because he has in his eternal [i.e. timeless] consciousness the medium which alone provides the needed commensurability between outer and inner. But the human spirit cannot see the world-historical in this manner.…’ (CUP, p. 126).

page 209 note 4 We find Kierkegaard remarking: Language is an ideality which every man has gratis. What an ideality – that God can use language to express his thoughts and thus man by means of language has fellowship with God(Soren Kierkegaarďs journals and Papers, op. cit. vol. III, § 2336). Although Kierkegaard does not here say so, it may be that he found it remarkable that God can express his thoughts, which are thoughts of matters beheld timelessly, in the temporal language men understand. Of course, if I am correct, Kierkegaard also thought that it would be a mistake to regard the language of Scripture as being merely human language, so that where we find a contradiction we can judge it to be sheer nonsense. And in fact we find him saying: ‘The Christian language uses the same words we men use, and in that respect desires no change. But its use of them is qualitatively different from our use of them.…’ (Ibid. §2333). Although the example Kierkegaard goes on to give is an example of a moral teaching, I take it that what he says here about Scriptural language was meant to cover also the use of temporal language in Scripture to express God's thought of what is not (ultimately) temporal.

page 210 note 1 In the Postscript Kierkegaard, writes: ‘Is it not the case that eternity is for an existing individual not eternity, but the future, and that eternity is eternity only for the Eternal, who is not in process of becoming?.… It is undoubtedly for this reason that Christianity has announced eternity as the future life, namely, because it addresses itself to existing [i.e. temporal] individuals’ (CUP, p. 273). In his Journal, however, he writes that in eternity a person is not in the succession of time’, meaning that in surviving death a person ceases to be in time (Soren Kierkegaarďs journals and Papers, op. cit., vol. 1, §842). Elsewhere he uses the phrases ‘as long as I live in time’ (Ibid. § 705) and ‘so long as one is in time’ (CUP, p. 499).

page 210 note 2 In The Concept of Dread Kierkegaard remarks that a ‘perfect spirit’ has no history, and adds: ‘…. hence no angel has history. Even though the Archangel Michael had recorded all the missions on which he was sent and which he performed, this [record] nevertheless is not his history’ (Princeton, 1957), p. 44.

page 210 note 3 ‘The object of faith is not a doctrine, for then the relationship would be intellectual, and it would be of importance not to botch it, but to realize the maximum intellectual relationship.… If Christianity were a doctrine, the relationship to it would not be one of faith, for only an intellectual type of relationship can correspond to a doctrine. Christianity is therefore not a doctrine.…’ (CUP, pp. 290–1). Kierkegaard's assumption here seems to be that if religious belief were belief in the ordinary sense, i.e. belief that such and such is the case, then Hegelian philosophers could undertake to establish, by philosophical means, the truth of these religious propositions. Accordingly, he thought that the only thing that could prevent philosophy from replacing faith with knowledge, and thus making faith obsolete, is that the object of faith should be something that, for human beings, is a contradiction, something we can make no sense of (see CUP, p. 195).

page 211 note 1 Kierkegaard writes: ‘…God also handles everything in such a way that he can only become the object of faith, always making the relationship one that contends against reason Take all the difficulties in Christianity which free-thinkers seize hold of and apologists want to defend… [These] difficulties are simply introduced by God in order to make sure that he can become only the object of faith (although it is also necessarily implicit in his essence and in the disproportion between the two qualities: God and Man). This is why Christianity is a paradox; this explains the contradictions in Holy Scripture, etc.’ (Soren Kierkegaarďs Journals and Papers, op. cit., vol. 1, § 1144).

page 211 note 2 Kierkegaard makes this explicit when he writes: ‘Faith has in fact two tasks: to take care in every moment to discover…the paradox; and then to hold it fast with the passion of inwardness’ (CUP, p. 209). Further on he writes: ‘The thing of being a Christian is not determined by the what of Christianity [i.e. by the content of any doctrine] but by the how of the Christian. This how can only correspond with one thing, the absolute paradox. There is therefore no vague talk to the effect that being a Christian is to accept, and to accept, and to accept quite differently, to appropriate, to believe, to appropriate by faith quite differently (Al of them purely rhetorical and fictitious definitions); but to believe is specifically different from all other appropriation and inwardness. Faith is the objective uncertainty due to the repulsion of the absurd held fast by the passion of inwardness, which in this instance is intensified to the utmost degree’ (CUP, p. 540). In his Journal, where he is speaking with his own voice, Kierkegaard seems to be endorsing this when he writes: ‘It is clear that in my writings I have given a further definition of the concept of faith, which did not exist until now’ (The journals of Soren Kierkegaard, op. cit., vol. 1, § 1147; see also §843).

page 212 note 1 The Blue and Brown Books (Oxford, 1958), p. 28.

page 212 note 2 Culture and Value (Chicago, 1984), p. 28.

page 212 note 3 Ibid. p. 64.

page 212 note 4 Ibid. p. 32.

page 212 note 5 See, for example, Zettel (Oxford, 1967), §256–60.

page 213 note 1 M. O'C. Drury reports Wittgenstein as having said that ‘Kierkegaard was by far the most profound thinker of the last century’ and that Kierkegaard, ‘is too long-winded; he keeps on saying the same thing over and over again. When I read him I always wanted to say, “Oh all right, I agree, I agree, but please get on with it.”’ ‘Some Notes on Conversations with Wittgenstein’, in Recollections of Wittgenstein, ed. Rhees, Rush (Oxford, 1984), pp. 87 and 88.

page 213 note 2 Op. Cit. p. 53.

page 213 note 3 Lectures and Conversations (Oxford 1966), p. 57 f.

page 214 note 1 Culture and Value, op. cit. p. 22.

page 215 note 1 The journals of Soren Kierkegaard, op. cit. § 1031.

page 215 note 2 ‘Time and Eternity ’, in A Handbook of Christian Theology (Cleveland, 1964), 107.

page 215 note 3 Op. cit. p. 190.marshals, Pike his evidence regarding confessional literature on pp. 180–7.

page 216 note 1 The journals of Soren Kierkegaard, op. cit. §849.

page 216 note 2 Drury, O. M'O., The Danger of Words (New York, 1973), p. xiv.

page 217 note 1 Conversations with Wittgenstein’, in Recollections of Wittgenstein, op. cit. pp. 107–8.

page 217 note 2 The Blue and Brown Books, pp. 4 and 47 and Philosophical Investigations, § 36.

page 217 note 3 In my essay ‘The Metaphysics of Wittgenstein's On Certainty’ (Philosophical Investigations, 04 1985, pp. 81119) I have argued that Wittgenstein never did abandon the phenomenalism that was so prominent in his writings and lectures of the 1930s. I am also prepared to argue that, despite his protestations to the contrary, he was a behaviourist – albeit, not a behaviourist of the sort represented by either J. B. Watson or the logical positivists.

page 217 note 4 ‘Conversations with Wittgenstein’, op. cit. p. 148.

page 218 note 1 ‘Some Notes on Conservations with Wittgenstein’, op. cit. p. 88.

page 218 note 2 On one occasion he remarked to Drury: ‘There is a sense in which you and I are both Christians’. ‘Conversations with Wittgenstein’, op. cit. p. 114.

page 218 note 3 Culture and Value, op. cit. p. 63.

page 218 note 4 ‘Remarks on Frazer's “Golden Bough”’,The Human World, III (05, 1971), pp. 28–9.

page 219 note 1 In the Treatise Hume writes: ‘Thus upon the whole we may infer that when we talk of any being…as endow'd with a power or force, proportion'd to any effect; when we speak of a necessary connexion betwixt objects, and suppose that this connexion depends upon an efficacy or energy, with which these objects are endow'd; in all these expressions, so applied, we really have no distinct meaning, and make use only of common words, without any clear and determinate ideas. But as’ tis more probable that these expressions do here lose their true meaning by being wrongly apply'd, than that they never have any meaning; ‘twill be proper to bestow another consideration on this subject, to see if possibly we can discover the nature and origin of those ideas we annex to them’ (Bk. I, Part III, § xiv). What Hume goes on to do in his further consideration of this topic is, of course, to invent a reductionist meaning of the word ‘cause,’ so as to accommodate that word to his empiricist metaphysics.

page 219 note 2 See Nielson, Kai, ‘Wisdom and Dilman on the Scope of Reason in Religion’, Philosophical Investigations, Autumn, 1980, pp. 114; and his Philosophy and Religious Commitment: A Response to Dilman’, Philosophical Investigations, Spring, 1981, pp. 5860.


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