interlude phil frags


  • Climacus begins this part as a kind of musical interlude, comically, to cover the 184 years that intervene between Christ's death and resurrection and the present day. 


This is absurd of course and SK knows that and does it for that very reason. It is absurd to interpose a few pages of writing to cover 184 years and equally absurd to expect people to wait 1843 years for what is to come. This adds to the general absurdity of the Xn proposal. 

He opens with a very complex riff on existence and essence, and their relationship to possibility, actuality and necessity. Along the way he criticizes Aristotle, who to that time had written the definitive sentences on such matters, for confusing essence (being as pure thought, what it is possible to think) with being or existence, the fact that X is or is not or comes to be. 

The first stage of the analysis gets to its nub on page 75, where Climacus rejects Ari's idea that "the possible can be predicated of the necessary." 

What can this mean? Climmie means that if something is necessary it cannot be possible because in existence, as opposed to in pure thought, when some Y necessarily exists it always already exists. It cannot come into existence, because if it did it would be a possible existent, and were it possible, it also might not be, and if it might not be it cannot be necessary. Therefore whatever is necessary has no relationship to possibility.

The subtext here, as elsewhere, is that if God is necessary being then he cannot appear in time as an existing individual because the very act of coming into existence from non-existence means the move from the possible to the actual and that is not possible for a necessary being; ergo, God cannot come into being in time, and yet Climacus has argued that if we assume that the truth is not in us, only a god can bring us the truth, and only in time, and yet reasoning tells us that god as necessary being cannot appear in time! So, what we were waiting for for 1843 years, the return or reappearance of God as an existing individual, cannot happen, according to reason. And yet it is the only answer that reconnects us to truth, if we assume that Socrates was more right when he worried that he did not know who he was than when he assumed that the truth is in us. 

Now we get a decisive and controversial paragraph, in which Climacus argues that all coming into existence must begin in freedom. Why does he say this? He argues that even when comings-into-existence (your birth or mine, as an example) seem caused and therefore necessary, they never are because ultimately the transition from possibility to actuality is, in a very serious sense, a completely blind spot in the progression from non-existence to existence. Clim's idea is that since there is nothing in non-existence that includes existence, existence cannot emanate from non-existence as a result. Hence there has to be a break, and a break that is not subject to conceptual imagining. This is what Clim means by 'freedom'. So, ultimately nothing can move from a state of non-existence to existence unless a "freely acting cause", which of course must already exist, chooses that transition, and such a choice and such a transition can never be forced, or necessary.

There is then, a radical and unbridgeable difference between existing things and necessary things, as well as a conceptually impenetrable freedom at the heart of all coming-to-be. It is not a long stride from all this to the conclusion that the ultimate "freely acting cause" has to be a necessary being (God?).



Climacus' riff on the historical (75-76) comes to this: having a history means having some form of beginning. Nature, in this decade before Darwin, still seems, at least to Climacus, only barely, but truly, historical, in the sense that for him nature only came into existence once and thus came into existence 'simultaneously', by which he means, with everything in it side by side, all starting at the same instant and then going on as an ensemble, in lock-step. We know today that this is ain't evolutionarily so. But the point is that nature has a history though a different sort of one than living subjects.

Living subjects in history are marked by what Climacus calls a 'redoubling'(76) which for C is the very essence of the dialectic of the historical: "a possibility of coming into existence within its own coming into existence."So, the strictly historical is that within which some being comes freely into itself within its already coming into being as an existing being. We become ourselves inside the act of becoming ourselves in the natural, less reflexive sense, and this tension of doubling constitutes the dialectic of history. And at the very heart of this coming to be inside coming to be is "a relatively freely acting cause (me choosing me within me) which in turn definitively points to an absolutely freely acting cause (God, or me choosing God paradoxically, or both?)

Our boy gets pretty systematic, nicht wahr?


Climacus also has some interesting and potentially radical things to say about the past, all of which speak to the Christian proposal in an indirect, philosophical way.

First, when we assert that the past cannot be changed in the present and say that what happened in the past is therefore in some sense necessary we are not being accurate. What happened then cannot now be changed, but it is not necessary because first it could have been different, because whoever acted in the past could, because they are free, have acted inside the act of coming to be, in a way different than they did, and so the unchangeability of the past has nothing to do with necessity but with the non-necessary fact that things went down in the way they went down. 

Second, and this is the secret radical element that motivated all that preceded it in this section, one can now actually change the past by repentance, "a higher change that nullifies" the past dialectically. This introduces a characteristically Xn category into the heart of the proceedings and enunciates one of  the central tenets of the existentialist (and oddly, self-help and 12 step) view of the world: we can, by our actions, alter the meaning of past events, not by obliterating them but by placing them in a different, non-determinative relationship to the present. I can then deny my past not by saying it did not exist but by withdrawing my relationship to it, or, by redrawing that relationship.

Climacus (and SK) see (77-78) the contemporary belief in the laws of history as an explicit rejection of this possibility and by extension as a mockery of the central idea of human freedom. If the past necessarily leads to, that is, causes, the future, and if that future has a determinable shape, then we have to say that when people act either to become something inside their becoming or to repent of what they have become, both these acts, which seem free, are  really not free, but as determined and caused as everything else. Climacus and SK find this position both repellent and conceptually flawed, and reject it because it makes repentance impossible and, on as deep a level, makes existence into a secondary and derivative category.



Here Climacus reflects on what, under his description, the past has to be.

First, he says that something genuinely historical, unlike nature which for him does not have a proper history, there is (79) "an intrinsic duplexity".

This means that at some moment everything now in the past was present; but, if present, it could always have been otherwise than what it was. So, even though it is "perpetually gone", it might not have been gone in just this way and so, it is both certain that it actually occurred and on some level not certain because as something that could have been willed to be otherwise, we cannot think of it as having had to be the way it was. So what has happened is always a dialectical tension between its actuality and what it also might have been. For Climacus the past cannot be seen as necessary, either as a construction or as a manifestation. 

By 'construction' here Climacus means the idea that each past event is a particular instance of a universal type, that the event indicates, or exemplifies, a more abstract principle. Climacus wants ultimately to reject such explanations as fictions. They might be useful in certain circumstances but they are always misleading, and they are especially dangerous when applied to past events in the life of the individual because they misrepresent the uncertainty, the might-not-have-been-ness, of each event. If every event is not an occasion, an accidental trigger for something timeless, but an irreducible free event, then every past event still matters because it is still 'live', uncertain, and its value can be remade via, per exemplium, repentance.

The key in all this is that when we know the past we do not know necessity; nothing must have happened. It could all have been otherwise and therefore what is now is equally tinged with uncertainty.

And this is where passion re-enters our picture. (80) Climacus clearly attributes philosophical wonder, which both Plato and Aristotle see as the source of philosophy, to knowing that the past is uncertain. If events are examples of necessity there is nothing to wonder about, no opening out and (possibly) up out of the iron system.  

The nub of this, on bottom 80, top 81, is the idea that when we look at the past we can see the presence of events but not their origin; the coming-into-existence is always "illusive" (not 'elusive'), in the sense that we imagine it but can neither think nor experience it. Events, for Climacus, erupt out of non-existence into existence with no process or transition. What is, just is, and always could either not have been or could have been otherwise. 

Climacus gives a nice little analysis, on page 81, of what apprehending an event is like. We will not reproduce it here but do it in class. The upshot is this lovely passage:


"It is clear, then, that the organ for the historical .... must have within itself the corresponding something by which in its certitude it continually annuls the incertitude that corresponds to the uncertainty of coming into existence -- a double uncertainty:the the nothingness of non-being and the annihilated possibility, which is also the annihilation of every other possibility."



"This is precisely the nature of belief. Thus, belief believes what it does not see" We cannot see coming-to-be, and must believe that whatever is present must have, and also that it might be other than it is. (top of 82)

There follows a highly sophisticated take on Greek skepticism, which according to Climacus had nothing to do with doubting the immediate deliverances of the senses, which are always just what they are, but involved suspending judgments about what these meant, thus making skepticism not a matter of epistemology, in which one is forced into doubt, but of will and attitude and spiritual position, in which, to produce inner tranquility, one suspends judgments that could lead one astray while maintaining one's belief in the deliverances of the senses. And this suspension of judgment, this unwillingness to judge, has ultimately everything to do with the recognition of how uncertain we must always be about the coming-into-existence of what is present. (82-83)

This leads to a more complete formulation of the nature of belief:

(83)"Belief is not a knowledge but an act of freedom, an expression of will. It believes the coming into existence and has annulled in itself the incertitude that corresponds to the nothingness of that which is not."

It also wills to 'forget' the inherent otherness involved in coming into existence, namely the idea that what is present either might not have been or might have been present in a different way.

In both circumstances (84) belief is not "a conclusion, but a resolution, and thus doubt is excluded." 


And Climacus goes further -- neither belief nor doubt are cognitive acts, "they are opposite passions" (84) because 

"Belief is a sense for coming into existence, and doubt is a protest against any conclusion that wants to go beyond immediate sensation and immediate knowledge."

He ends the section with an equally subtle riff on historical knowledge. He says that to get history we have make what is past present by experiencing it in its immediacy and therefore also in its irreducible uncertainty (it popped into existence and could have been otherwise), so that (85) what is historical can never be seen as necessary but as always made contingent by its radical coming-into-beingness. If the historical were necessary then it would never come into existence. The necessary is the purely, conceptually possible, never the actual.



 SK's central complaint against philosophy, and which he illustrates in the PF, is that it must always remain in the realm of the subjunctive, or, the merely possible. It  is always written, whether that is evident or not, in the mode of the Kantian "als-ob".(Vaihinger). Even those philosophers who claim to access Being, the philosophers of presence condemned by Derrida and company, present a virtual or hypothetical, a thought Being, rather than the lived experience of being, according to SK.

This pays off in a particular way in Plato's ideas about the immortal soul. What Socrates thinks he can prove, that there is an immortal soul in every human body, means in practice that what Socrates is committed to proving is that there is an hypothetical rational soul, a purely rational soul, but not an individual, existing soul. What I mean is that the soul Socrates argues for, the soul that can be reminded of timeless truths and thereby, indirectly, of its own timelessness, has only an accidental, that is an inessential, connection to the lived consciousness of the individual, the memory of which will become irrelevant to the real rational soul, as soon as the soul is separated from the body. With death, whatever memories and feelings and experiences made up the individual, disappear because individual histories, for Plato and the later Platonists, mean nothing. 

Two related points:

First, the logical outcome of this Platonic view of the soul is that there cannot ultimately be any ore than one soul, a single reasoning timeless Being into all individual 'shards' or refractions or instances necessarily return when the individual dies. We certainly find echoes of this idea in Plotinos and in the work of several of the Islamic and Jewish Platonists/Aristotleians like Averroes and Avicenna and Maimonides who worked during the Christian Middle Ages.

This also leads to the accusation that Spinoza was a pantheist and to Leibniz' doctrine of the monad, which recapitalutes all reasoning and knowing in its own aspect/perspectival knowing of the world. 



So this is a pamphlet, an insubstantial collection of softbound pages, not a book, not a scholarly article, not even an op ed piece in a newspaper. Companies trying to sell things give out pamphlets; religious tracts most often come in pamphlet form; political manifestoes and arguments are often in this form. It tends to be polemical — trying to make some point in an aggressive way — or rhetorical in the same manner, when it is trying to sell something.

The pamphlet is also somewhat disreputable, marginal, less respectable than a book or article that has been peer-reviewed. Climacus self-published this thing; the 21st century analog is a blog that anyone can post.

Climacus does not add to our trust when he writes that he does not write from good motives (more Latin, to confuse us with his erudition, which seems entirely out of place in such a sketchy product). Rather, says C, “I am a loafer … (by inclination)”. Climacus is lazy, does not want to produce a proper book or article, and so offers this ‘lazy’ form of writing, the off-handed, self-published throwaway pamphlet — and yet this pamphlet more than 100 pages in length! We get introduced to Kian irony early in the game and understand, or begin to suspect, that SK is entirely in control of the diction, of the rhetorical ‘weather’ in which we find ourselves. 

He then adds that he is a “loafer” “for good reasons”, but does not, at least not yet, tell us what those reasons are. 

We take off in a different direction, adding layers to Climacus’ self-presentation. The pamphlet is an “intervention” into “public activities”, in which one must be engaged under threat of committing a “political offense”. Again the reference is classical, to Periclean Athens, where one could lose one’s citizenship if one did not actively engage in the political process. Climacus is writing into a charged political situation, in the interval between the upheavals of 1830 and 1848. (1845) Denmark, though a stable monarchy and a stranger to revolution, was in the throes of political tugs of war between conservatives and liberals. Climacus reminds the reader that in ancient times political inactivity could even be a capital crime during such periods. This reminds the reader that this is serious business, a public intervention into a politically fraught situation, and also reminds one that if inactivity under certain circumstances could cost one one’s life, one was equally at risk if the one’s intervention was the wrong one. An ‘opportunity’ for disaster always lurks behind activity that seeks to replace inactivity; sometimes doing the wrong thing is far worse than doing nothing.

This is also a strong reminder that writing is a form of public political activity, an act into a public sphere where power is at issue, never innocent, never ‘just’ writing as opposed to doing. For Climacus, for SK, and now for us, writing is  doing. 


Climacus’ crime however is not that he might say that wrong thing in some obvious way, like a Mel Gibson rant or a Joe Biden misspeaking, but that what he says will stop the public conversation altogether by “giving rise to confusion.” Think what this means. It does not mean that someone writes something with which many people disagree — such writing is part of the ongoing ‘game’, expected if not loved, but that one writes something that at first seems as embarrassingly off the point and puzzlingly inappropriate as the awkward non sequiturs one often mutters when one is nervous or feels threatened. It is not that what Climacus writes will offend; it will cause people to scratch their heads and ask, ‘Why did he say that?”

Climacus’  point is that not everyone who writes, writes neatly into the current of discussion. He cites two classical examples. First he reminds us that the famous Syracusan Archimedes ( give me a fulcrum and I will turn the world) was not paying any attention when the Romans occupied his city, Syracuse. He was, instead, attending to the circles he had drawn and then described mathematically, which had nothing at all to do with the Roman occupation. When everyone else around him was in Occupation World he was still entirely lost in Archimedes’ Circle World. The Roman soldier who came upon him expected some recognition of who he was and what jhe was doing but instead got an Archimedes whose only concern was not the solider but his circles: “Nolite perturbare circulos meos”.This got him killed.


Climacus then is indirectly comparing himself to the greatest scientist of classical Greece and to one who was killed because he was preoccupied with something true and valuable that was no part of the day-to-day conversation around him; the disconnect between what Archimedes was doing and thinking and what the soldier was doing and thinking led to his death.

Is C suggesting that his pamphlet writing is as important and true as Archimedes’ work on circles (spheres and cylinders), and/or that it is sufficiently off the mark to place him in danger of being either literally or metaphorically killed? If either suggestion is offered with any seriousness Climacus thinks pretty highly of his own self. 

The question is — is Climacus interested in his own good or that of the public? For whom, then, is this pamphlet written? Is it like Archimedes’ circles or does it have wider application? Is the fact that it is confusing evidence that it has no reference to a larger audience or is the confusion evidence of the opposite — namely that precisely because it is  confusing this pamphlet should interest the public — but perhaps not as a ‘public’ but as unique existing individuals, as prepolitical or nonpolitical beings. Let’s see. 






When we read SK (Kierkegaard) we have to be very very careful because, like any really good philosopher, he can lend himself to a smart, plausible reading that is deeply misleading. I know that this sounds mighty suspicious of me but I am convinced that most readings of the Big Guys/Gals fill me with trepidation.


So, in this spirit, let's proceed to look at SK' Fragments.


We start with his analysis of the project of philosophy. He begins, as Climacus, with Socrates and Plato, and with the Meno and the Phaedo. Here Climacus first sketches out, with some precision if not textual length, a very insightful reading of what Plato was intending.

SK/Climacus takes this as indicative of the philosophical project in general, at which I will get in a moment.

What does Plato say? He argues that the question, 'Can we learn the truth?', is central to philosophy, and it is, for obvious reasons. If we cannot learn the truth then there is nothing for philosophy, which is a search for wisdom, to do. If we always already knew the truth philosophy's job would be done before it began. But if we do not currently know the truth there must, pari passu, be a problem, namely that although we might be able to learn the truth, we do not at the moment know how to learn it, and therefore cannot currently know whether any of the beliefs we have are true or not. (This, by the way, is also close to where Descartes begins his Meditations 2,000 years later, with the question of how he can trust his current beliefs if cherished beliefs he once honestly held to be true have now been proven false.)

Plato's question, If I do not now know the truth how can I possibly learn it? If I do not possess the truth then I cannot know when I am presented with it, and so no one can teach me how to discern it. The problem hinges on the relationship between having the truth and then having the condition that allows me to recognize it. 

I must somehow have the condition, the inner ability to discern what is true from what is nontrue, before I can learn the truth but I cannot learn this condition any more for example than my dogs can learn the condition of thinking of things in terms of property lines or political divisions like cities and towns. No matter how well and clearly and often I explain counties and states to Bella and Coltrane they will understand nothing because they do not previously possess the condition for knowing these things.

Plato's very clever answer to this seemingly unanswerable conundrum, a conundrum that must have an answer or people would never know that such a thing as truth existed, and they do, is that human beings must always already be is possession of the condition that makes learning truth possible. That is they must already know what the truth is, and what truths there are, and they must always haveknopwn.

Thus the wise person or teacher cannot actually teach in the sense of telling people something that they do not know -- this is for Plato an impossibility -- but he/she can remind the learner of what she already knows. Thus, being a philosopher does not consist in finding out the truth but in helping others to bring it basck, and in organizing and naming correctly what has been brought back. 

The assumption here has to be that everyone is always in the truth and that the temporary condition of not knowing this can be overcome by the learner. 
Under this description -- and this matters terribly to Kierkegaard -- the occasion under which one gets reminded of the truth is not important in itself because it is accidental to getting the truth. The historical instant may have sentimental importance but is not metaphysically crucial. One can miss this moment but catch the next and nothing is lost because the truth is always timelessly there and thereforeany occasion can lead to it. Plato's view of truth entirely devalues history, or momentary existence, and also devalues the individual as the  who learns the truth because the truth that one learns or recalls is not one's own individual truth but the truth in the most general sense, which belongs in exactly the same way to everyone who remembers it.

This is one of the unnoted tensions in Plato's Phaedo, his dialogue about the immortality of the soul. Socrates interlocutors, Simmias and Cebes, are not so much skeptical about whether the soul survives the death of the body -- they admit that Socrates has proven his case -- but are to the end of the piece dispirited by the fact that the soul whose immortality the Socrates so cleverly and so often proves is an impersonal one with no reference to the thoughts and feelings of the individual who dies. What survives is Reason, the Truth, not me as an historical. accidental individual. And it is this that Kierkegaard is interested in and which Plato never takes up.