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Book 12

  1. Amis, Martin — London Fields (471 pages)
  2. Morpurgo, Michael — War Horse (182 pages)
  3. Winterson, Jeanette — Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (177 pages)
  4. Robinson, Bruce — Paranoia in the Launderette (43 pages)
  5. Carter, Angela — Heroes and Villains (152 pages)
  6. Burroughs, Edgar Rice — A Princess of Mars (209 pages)
  7. Hill, Susan — The Woman in Black (152 pages)
  8. Fowler, Karen Joy — Sarah Canary (293 pages)
  9. Rennison, Nick — 100 Must-Read Prize Winning Novels (174 pages)
  10. Beresford, David — Ten Men Dead (426 pages)
  11. Freedland, Jonathan — Bring Home the Revolution: The Case for a British Republic (245 pages)
  12. Kierkegaard, Søren — Fear and Trembling (150 pages)
Page count

I don't think I've read any serious philosophy since I studied at Amherst, and I've had a hankering for it for a while. The idea of reading Kierkegaard appealed to me because his philosophy has a Christian slant to it — he's a Christian existentialist — how fitting that his surname means "church garden"! — and beyond that I was completely unfamiliar with him.

I have to admit that I struggled to understand Kierkegaard's arguments, but I think that by the end I achieved a reasonable grasp.

In Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard uses the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac at Moriah to examine the concept of faith. His concern seems to be that people take the idea of faith too lightly, that upon examination faith is an impossible proposition.

For example, Kierkegaard expresses dismay at the way Abraham's sacrifice is often treated in contemporary sermons, as if the idea of sacrificing one's only son were easy or something to be rewarded. Thus, Kierkegaard emphasizes the pain and anguish Abraham must have suffered. After waiting all those decades for Isaac to be born — Isaac, his only son, miracle son of his old age born to his barren wife and through whom God's promise of countless progeny would be fulfilled — Abraham is supposed to kill him? Not just offer him up for God to swoop down and take, but actually plunge the knife into him? He can't tell anyone what he is intending to do (for nobody would understand him) and he has to contemplate all of this during an arduous three-day walk to Mount Moriah, not knowing God will intervene at the last and offer a ram in Issac's place? The usual emphasis on the end of the story seems to Kierkegaard too facile, too dismissive of Abraham's ordeal and what it means for Abraham to have faith.

And Kierkegaard also objects to the common acceptance that Abraham's actions were good. After all, not knowing the outcome, Abraham's intentions cannot be construed in an ethical context as anything but murderous. If there were some greater universal good (or oracular proclamation) Abraham was satisfying, if any thing in society's eyes could justify Isaac's death, then the story of Abraham becomes merely the story of the tragic hero, no different from Agamemnon and Iphigenia. Only by acknowledging that Abraham's intention to kill Isaac is ethically and morally indefensible can Abraham be considered as acting on faith. So, Abraham is a murderer.

Which, of course, is not Abraham's legacy, because there is something above the universal (that is, above the ethical). Faith requires both a resignation to the universal (for example, that killing Isaac is ethically unjustifiable), and a conviction that one's action is correct. This, of course, is a contradiction, for how can an action be correct if it cannot be mediated by the universal. Therefore, there must be something above the universal, some singular absolute, so that the "knight of faith" places himself, the individual, not in relation to the universal but above the universal in absolute relation to the absolute. This is rationally and ethically absurd. Faith requires a movement which is intrinsically paradoxical. An act of faith requires that the ethical be suspended for a higher purpose, that the individual find mediation only in absolute relation to the absolute, and that the individual remain silent, for an explanation of the act cannot be comprehended.

Yeah, it's pretty heady stuff, but I found that Kierkegaard's sense of humour helped get me through. There were times I felt a dense fog descending on my mind as I grappled with all the subtle arguments or the idea that faith requires a movement that is a paradox — or the constant references to Hegel's arguments, of which I am wholly ignorant — and a witty or light-hearted remark would perk me up. And Kierkegaard doesn't come across as preachy or holier-than-thou. Just the opposite, in fact. He claims he cannot understand Abraham, only admire him, and admits that he has not been able to make that movement past the universal, that "leap of faith." And though no human passion is higher than faith, though one can reach nothing further than faith, if one only gets as far as the ethical one will still find that life has plenty of tasks, and as long as one loves these tasks honestly life won't be a waste.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 23rd, 2012 02:28 am (UTC)
Like so many stories from the Bible, this of Abraham appears to me to be an attempt by leaders of the faith to get unquestioning obedience from their followers. "Look at what Abraham did, and the Lord rewarded him for his obedience." I see it as an arbitrary misuse of the power of authority. I see no paradox and no leap of faith.

I guess that's why I did so poorly in the only philosophy class I took in college.

The story of the garden of Eden is another that I tend to misinterpret. Others see it as an example of punishment for failure to obey. I see it as an example of authority trying to keep followers following by arbitrary abuse, saying;, "You shall not think! Thinking bears evil fruit!!".

How can anybody be considered a philosopher if they take the serious questions at face value and try to explain them instead of examining the questions and pointing out their flaws.

If you ask the wrong question, or if you ask the question wrong, you will certainly get a useless and misleading answer.
Apr. 23rd, 2012 03:27 am (UTC)
Re: Faith
"Look at what Abraham did, and the Lord rewarded him for his obedience" is precisely the sort of interpretation of the story that Kierkegaard dismisses as dangerous. He expresses a profound concern that somebody might indeed try to do as Abraham did to seek divine reward, and such a movement would be antithetical to faith and ethically abhorrent.

What gives you the impression that Kierkegaard takes any questions at face value? In fact, he begins Fear and Trembling with a section titled "Attunement" in which he completely turns the story on its head and considers several possible interpretations of it.

Kierkegaard was a Protestant and as such had no interest in propping up any supposed authority. Both Protestantism and existentialism (of which he is the first proponent) assert the individual's self-reliance in opposition to commonly asserted belief. Kierkegaard was a philosopher, not a theologian, a distinction he emphasises in his preface, and as such his interest lies in getting the reader to question, not accept blindly. He certainly at no point even approaches the thought that one must have faith, for that would be hypocritical, that would be asking the reader to do something he admittedly cannot.

Kierkegaard's writing is not an exercise in faith but an exercise in logic. If you cannot see the paradox in the statements "something is good which is not good" and "the individual is greater than the universal of which the individual is a part" then I question your ability to reason logically. This is the paradox Kierkegaard explains faith presents, the reason faith requires a movement in the direction of the absurd, the reason it cannot be rationally understood, as it makes no rational sense, is a rational absurdity. Did you bother closely reading my attempts to summarize Kierkegaard's arguments, or did you key in on the word "faith" and ignore the substance of the post?
Apr. 23rd, 2012 06:36 am (UTC)
Re: Faith
'Faith' is not a trigger word for me. Actually, it tunes me out and turns me off. And what you (and, presumably, Kierkegaard) call paradox I think of as a null statement, an assemblage of words with no content or meaning, which is, naturally, the reason it lacks meaning. "A and not A" is the null; "A or not A" is the universe. They are both without meaning. One is nothing, the other is everything. It makes no rational sense to attempt to apply the rules of logic to a faith-based argument as you will always wind up with either the null or the universal.

But the problem is not just faith (with or without misplaced attempts to glue logic onto it), it is more fundamental: when presented with a question in the arena of faith, you first must examine the question to see if it reduces to null or universe. Any operation on either is meaningless and will produce any result you strive to achieve.

I agree (with you and with Kierkegaard) that faith-based thinking is dangerous, as it can produce results that are invalid, unreasonable and irrational. But the starting point is to decide whether or not to discard the question before attempting to find an answer.
Apr. 23rd, 2012 11:14 am (UTC)
Re: Faith
Well, you're halfway there.

'Faith' is a trigger word for you precisely because it tunes you out and turns you off. It provokes an illogical reaction, causing you to close your mind to something and potentially missing its meaning.

Your distinction between "null statement" and "paradox" is purely semantic. What do you consider a paradox? The dictionary's first two definitions are "a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth" and "a self-contradictory and false proposition." So, yes, the whole point of a paradox is that it makes no rational sense.

Kierkegaard does examine the question. As I attempted to explain, by turning the story on its head and offering various possible interpretations, he questions whether the story can be interpreted as being about something other than faith and whether faith is even possible. The rest of his thesis takes the conditional "if faith is possible" (in other words, "let's assume for argument's sake") and spells out the conditions that would be necessary for a movement to be an act of faith (and not, say, simply a delusion).

Neither I nor Kierkegaard thinks faith-based thinking is dangerous. He breaks down the statement, "Look at what Abraham did, and the Lord rewarded him for his obedience," and demonstrates precisely why it is not faith-based and is misguided. The conditions for something to be faith-based are so rigorous and irrational that they certainly cannot be met so glibly.

Anyway, the point you seem to have missed is that nothing in Fear and Trembling is about faith-based thinking. The very term "faith-based thinking" is, Kierkegaard would argue, an oxymoron. He would tell you faith has nothing to do with thinking, and faith can never be reached by thinking, as it involves existing in a paradox, something that rational thinking cannot reach.

Kierkegaard makes a comparison between faith and love, both being passions, neither reachable via rational means. I doubt love can be explained rationally either, but one's failure to attain it is not cause enough to dismiss others' experience of it. There is more in this world — and this is me speaking, not Kierkegaard, but he would say there would have to be in order for faith to be possible — than what can be explained rationally.
Apr. 23rd, 2012 09:35 pm (UTC)
Re: Faith
"It provokes an illogical reaction, causing you to close your mind to something and potentially missing its meaning." Illogical? Logic has nothing to do with it. It may barely qualify as irrational. Mostly, though, it is habitual. Nor do I think I'm missing much in the way of meaning. I have thought about my beliefs for decades, but belief, in particular, has nothing to do with logic.

"So, yes, the whole point of a paradox is that it makes no rational sense." Rational in the sense of behavioral expectations perhaps, but I would substitute 'logical' for 'rational'. From the point of view of logic, null and universal statements contribute nothing but error to any logical argument. Logically, null meanings and paradox are the same but, for the purpose of meaningless argument, something meaningful is said to be added to meaninglessness to make the argument rational. Ignoring that something is nonsense doesn't give it meaning. As soon as I see somebody adding either a null or a universal to an argument, I discard everything they have said.

"There is more in this world ... than what can be explained rationally." True. But arguments that ignore logic don't explain anything. We have reached the point in science that belief in multiple universes is rational, reasonable and logical. We don't have proof (yet) but we have lots of good looking theories. My first novel, Chosen, invited consideration of the possibility that multiple universes might be fundamentally different from one another, including having different numbers of dimensions. A few centuries back, people were punished for thinking the Earth might not be the center of a unique universe. Well, since the invention of language, people have been punished for thinking for themselves.

Kierkegaard may examine the question but he fails to discard it when it becomes meaningless. Faith that relies on what you call paradox is on very shaky ground. Paradox allows you to invent anything you fancy. Break any link in the chain of logic and the whole structure comes apart. I see your paradox as a way to drive any set of facts to any desired conclusion, no matter how unreasonable. I also see that people of faith are afraid to lose the one thing that props them up against life's seeming irrationality. Having faith is one thing. People need faith, some people more than others. But any argument about faith doesn't work except by consensus of the faithful.
Apr. 23rd, 2012 11:23 pm (UTC)
Re: Faith
"Nor do I think I'm missing much in the way of meaning. I have thought about my beliefs for decades, but belief, in particular, has nothing to do with logic."

This is what you're missing. Nothing in my post mentioned a thing about belief. My post is a review of a philosophical treatise. Philosophy works on logical arguments. There is no room for belief in philosophy. As far as philosophy is concerned, even the self does not exist until it can be proven logically to exist.

And do not confuse faith and belief. They are two completely different things. Kierkegaard's work has nothing to do with belief. It simply delineates what the conditions for faith must be if it indeed exists.

"As soon as I see somebody adding either a null or a universal to an argument, I discard everything they have said."

There is a big difference between adding a paradox and recognizing its existence. You seem to think that Kierkegaard is arguing for the existence of faith and using a paradox as part of his argument. This suggests to me that you did not closely read what I wrote. He is doing no such thing. Rather, he is saying that the idea of faith is logically absurd because it involves a paradox.

"But arguments that ignore logic don't explain anything."

Nobody is making an argument that ignores logic. Just the contrary. You seem to be missing this point, either because you are willfully choosing to ignore it or because you're not reading what I am writing closely enough.

"Kierkegaard may examine the question but he fails to discard it when it becomes meaningless. … But any argument about faith doesn't work except by consensus of the faithful."

On the first point, no, he doesn't fail to discard it at all. He asks, "What must be involved for a movement to be an act of faith?" After close examination, he sees that it involves being in a paradoxical state and therefore determines that faith is rationally meaningless. And he admits that he cannot understand Abraham on that ground and that he isn't sure anyone actually has faith.

As for the latter, faith doesn't work by consensus. If there were any consensus, it would be ethics, or even aesthetics, or maybe belief or theology, but not faith. Faith is a solitary passion in which the individual is placed above any concensus, any mediation with others, in relation to an absolute, which Kierkegaard demonstrates is a paradoxical movement.

One need not agree with Kierkegaard, but his arguments are logically sound. His conclusions about the individual are what makes him an existentialist.

Perhaps your real quibble here is with my reduction of a logical argument that takes 150 pages into a mere few paragraphs. Think of a geometry proof (since philosophy has much in common with geometry): I am summarising the proof, but that is no substitute for the actual proof and will of necessity leave out important steps. Maybe you should read Kierkegaard's thesis yourself. It's available online.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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