Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Philosophical Myths: Kierkegaard never talked about the 'leap of faith'

The Myth
A student presentation today in 'Introduction to Philosophy' brought up that persistent myth again. The myth that Kierkegaard used the phrase 'leap of faith'. The phrase is often attributed to Kierkegaard but was never used by him.

Irrationality and Subjectivism
This is not just some purely accidental slip in the history of philosophy. There are reasons people can believe that Kierkegaard used this phrase. They are based on a misunderstanding of Kierkegaard's philosophy. The misunderstanding is the belief that Kierkegaard was a subjectivist of an irrational kind who thought that beliefs can and should be adopted without reason, particularly the belief that a Christian God exists.

Fear and Trembling
Kierkegaard never held the view that reason should or could be subordinated to irrationality or that faith is a matter of an arbitrary decision. Part of the problem comes from the way that Kierkegaard's most widely read book, Fear and Trembling, is understood.

Abraham's Paradox
In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard refers to the story of Abraham and Isaac. That is the story that Abraham is commanded to kill his son Isaac, by God. Abraham is ready to obey God's command, but at the moment Abraham raises his knife, a sheep appears as a substitute sacrifice. This has been understood as if Kierkegaard justifies anyone committing murder who claims to have heard a command from God. The point is that Abraham does not kill Isaac. The story is contrasted, by Kierkegaard, with the story of Agamemnon and Iphigenia in Euripides' play Iphigenia in Tauris. Agamemnon does sacrifice his daughter so that he can sail to Anatolia and attack Troy. Abraham has a 'teleological suspension of the ethical'. The 'teleological suspension of the ethical' is not permission to ignore ethics. It refers to the 'dialectic of the absurd, 'dialectic of paradox', according to which Abraham must recognise both the following theses:
1. God is absolute, and is therefore above ethics.
2. God will always follow ethics.

From Subjective to Absolute via Anxiety
The context for this dialectical dilemma is not a motiveless subjectivist view of decisions. Kierkegaard does favour subjectivism over objectivism. It is important to follow the argument.

The argument is that objectivism is contradictory because it requires subjectivity to know what is outside itself, which objectivity must be.

The problem of relating subjectivity to something outside itself is dealt with inside subjectivity. Subjectivity can relate to something outside itself because subjectivity can only exist as what goes outside itself.

The argument starts by looking at subjectivity in a rather Humean way, that is subjectivity as a series of distinct moments in time which have different contents and are unconnected. Subjectivity seeing itself as a series of discrete moments and aware of the freedom which comes from its indeterminacy arrives at melancholy and anxiety. These come from awareness of the nothingness in subjectivity and fear of making a decision when free will exists on a premise of non-determinism which means that decisions lack motivation.

Melancholia exists over time, it is in melancholia that we can grasp ourself as existing over time. We grasp the absolute in subjectivity. That is the basis of God in Kierkegaard, not a motiveless leap of faith. Even in his more pious religious texts, Kierkegaard is coıncerned with how a relaiton with God the absolute rests on a relation of subjectivity with the absolute within itself, Love of the neighbour depends on love of the self.


Chris said...

But Kierkegaard does talk about a leap of faith, or at least a leap into faith, at length in The Concept of Anxiety. It's not, of course, the sort of "leap of faith" that most people think of when they hear the phrase. He lays out what he means by leap with his discussion of the "leap" into sinfulness, which is a complete qualitative change from sinlessness to sinfulness. It can only be so, because there's either sin or no sin, and sin has to come from an act of sinning. The same's true of faith -- you either have it or you don't, and it can only come from an act of faith.

Barry Stocker said...

Thanks for the clarification Chris. I don't think it really undermines what I was saying though. Kierkegaard never did say 'leap of faith' and the difference between that and 'leap to faith' matters. I realised while writing the post I had lost my copy of Concept of Anxiety, it's currently on order with Amazon. ıf I had the book to hand, I might have referred to the exact formulations there. As it was,i I still referred to the way that Kierkegaard used a language of dancing and jumping in relation to faith. I also argued that the structure of argument is what is important. I think the structure of argument in COfA is that questions of anxiety and faith involve a moment of decision, but the moment of decision has a context. It is a way of dealing with paradox, and it is not an arbitrary decision in the sense of arbitrary in which there is no reason to go one way or another. Kierkegaard builds up a picture of the contradictions of objective thinking and of the fear subjectivity has of its own free will. The moment of decision is where subjectivity gets through this in a way which does not refer to metaphysical system or objective reality. The moment is never an isolated moment, and the jump or the leap, is a move from one stage of thinking to another not a sudden arbitrary jump of subjectivity into accepting the absoluteness of faith and God's will. Of course as a religious believer, Kierkegaard is open to the idea of sudden transformation, but the detail of his argument is really for transformation of a more lived and gradual kind as subjectivity works through melancholia and the contradictions of objective metaphysics. Thanks for the comment which does help with sharpening up the kind of clarification and distinctions I'm trying to make.

Chris said...

Oh, I agree with you, and his concept of "leap" with respect to faith is generally mischaracterized, but it's easy to see why people, particularly students, get it wrong. Both The Concept of Anxiety and Fear and Trembling are really complex books, and given the shallow colloquial definitions of faith we have to work with today, and the involvement of his concept of the absurd (which is difficult to grasp) it's all too easy to interpret Kierkegaard as talking about a blind leap.