Monday, February 16, 2009

Knights of faith - question on Fear and Trembling

The feed from popped up with a discussion that has seemed to go nowhere the last few weeks.
I've started writing in answer to this question about three or four times and each time I get stuck somewhere, so I thought I'd try and work it out here.

The thread can be found at

Cadmus asks :
I've recently finished Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, and was continually asking myself, 'Though Abraham, as a Knight of Faith, was asked to kill; he did not kill. And insofar as he did not kill, how was he acting unethically toward the universal? He did not commit the unethical deed, but only considered committing the unethical deed. Therefore God, nor Abraham, were acting unethically.
Okay, so here is where I've been going with the posts I almost put up.
The thing I've been trying to say in my many abortive attempts at replying to this question, is that Kierkegaard turns almost all the the usual categories that Cadmus is using on their heads - in a very interesting way.

In the beginning of Problema 1, Kierkegaard says that 'The ethical as such is the universal, and as the universal it applies to everyone, which can be put from another point of view by saying that it applies at every moment' - okay, so the universal and the ethical are somehow the same - note that he could have said that the ethical is that which is legislated by God, this is pretty important in answering Cadmus' question because it already gives us a clue - if God was the universal legislator of all ethical principles, God's command for Abraham to sacrifice Issac would have simply been the ethical course of action, no problem.
Kierkegaard's way of dealing with the ethical is stronger than the God-as-legislator solution in that it 'applies to everyone ..[and] at every moment' but also less ... umm ... absolute because it seems to me that the ethical/universal isn't somehow supposed to be built into the fabric of the cosmos (as it would be, I presume, if the ethical was just what God commands).
Okay, so what exactly is the ethical in that case?
This is the interesting part - the ethical/universal is that which makes our actions intelligible to others and to our-selves. Now I'm not really too clued up in the philosophy of action, but as I understand it for it to be said that we have done something willfully, performed some action, that action stands in relation to things like our intention in performing that action, the reasons we would put forward for justifying that action and so on. Now these things like intending, providing reasons and so on can only really make sense when embedded inside of a culture. We can only really understand ourselves as agents, or as selves, acting intentionally (as opposed to just running on instinct - something Kierkegaard refers to as 'lower immediacy', a term lifted from Hegel) if we have this kind of cultural/linguistic background against which we can act and which makes our actions intelligible to ourselves and others. This is not me saying that 'truth is relative to culture' or some other such paradigm relativist stuff, it's just to say we need a language and culture for our actions to make sense (think about it this way, if there was no language and culture, would we be worried - of even be able to be worried - about our actions making sense? Let me ask my cat ....)
The textual evidence for all this culture stuff can be pulled from his discussion of whether there are any examples where someone sacrifices one they love for some 'higher universal' and Kierkegaard points to the examples of 'Agamemnon, Jephthah, and Brutus' - regardless of what pain was caused by their killings, their actions were understandable in their culture.
Kierkegaard says that in Abraham's culture the call to kill Issac and his willingness to do it (although this is a really weak way of saying it, rather read F&T) was totally unintelligible.

This brings us to the question of sin - how are we to understand someone sinning in Kierkegaard's scheme - well, sin is somehow 'falling from the universal'.
Now this is the part I had trouble with (but the book is all about absurdity and paradox, so it's okay to not understand a lot of it I guess) - because we can actually understand sin, right? I mean, the actions of thieves are just as understandable as the next mook's aren't they? But we will skip over this, and I'll read some of F&T again when I've got a moment to see if I can figure it out (if anyone has any answers, please tell me).
Right, well - regardless of this difficulty we can see how it is that Abraham was sinning even though he didn't actually do anything - first, even though he was called to do something 'by God' Kierkegaard is absolutely certain that he here falls out of the universal, he says that
'Abraham cannot be mediated, which can also be put by saying he cannot speak. The moment I speak I express the universal, and when I do not no one can understand me. So the moment Abraham wants to express himself in the universal, he has to say that his situation is one of temptation, for he has no higher expression of the universal that overrides the universal he transgresses'
Check it - 'he cannot speak' - i.e. there is no ways to make his actions intelligible, and every time he tries to explain what he is doing (namely, taking Issac off to sacrifice) he has to admit to those with whom he speaks that he is sinning, even though he knows - non-cognitively perhaps - that what he is doing is somehow not a sin. That is, to everyone else he is sinning, and even if he had to put what he is doing into words (that is, even to think it) he would have to say that he was sinning - but somehow was he was up to wasn't a sin.
Okay, so here we have a contradiction - it is a sin and it's not a sin - so how is it resolved? This is where God comes in (I think) as a kind of field of possibilities that allows such contradictions. I'm really fuzzy on that though and need to give it a whole load more thought and read a lot more Kierkegaard - this is the part where my attempts at answering that question usually come to a halt, because although I've shown (I hope) that Kierkegaard uses the notions of Ethical,Universal, and God in very special ways, I'm not a Kierkegaard scholar, or even someone whose read his stuff or, in fact, any secondary literature on the guy.

I think the best thing to do would have probably just have been to quote the summary that Kierkegaard gives us at the end of Problema 1 - and that's what I'll do here -

But now I return to Abraham. In the time before the outcome either Abraham was a murderer every minute or we stay with the paradox which is higher than all mediation.
So Abraham's story contains a teleological suspension of the ethical. He has, as the single individual, become higher than the universal. This is the paradox which cannot be mediated. How he got into it is just as inexplicable as how he stayed in it. If this is not how it is with Abraham, then he is not even a tragic hero but a murderer. To want to go on calling him the father of faith, to talk of this to those who are only concerned with words, is thoughtless. A tragic hero can become a human being by his own strength, but not the knight of faith. When a person sets out on the tragic hero's admittedly hard path there are many who could lend him advice; but he who walks the narrow path of faith no one can advise, no one understand. Faith is a marvel and yet no human being is excluded from it; for that in which all human life is united is passion, and faith is a passion.