Necessity and empiricism via Kierkegaard

Curious+new+scaffolding+cover+at+the+local+art+gal.jpg_5672222806925141970The first three elements in Fear and Trembling are the ‘preface’, the ‘attunement’ and the ‘exordium’. In the preface Kierkegaard makes an almost direct, if somewhat ironic and sarcastic, appeal to the audience, an audience beyond his contemporaries. The tone ranges from a side-swipe at those who would be reading him, an almost arrogant assumption that he will be read, to a hubristic tragedy in which no matter who reads him he is to be misunderstood. It’s amusing to read these rather brash lines and there is a lightness that we read into him which might be less kindly if he were to be taken seriously. From the beginning Kierkegaard makes the reader of FT feel as though they are in the midst of someone who says a little too much for their own good, whose passion is as readable as their words. Moreoever, he does so in the mode of doubt. He makes us doubt this ‘Silentio’ from the start. He seems a little smug, a little too perfect and yet he also seems to be standing up against that mob, that crowd of dumbskulls, that queue we find ourselves in for no reason.

The attunement is far more beautiful a piece of writing, the beginning of the beauty of FT. The preface might mark its opening philosophical moment, though even then we might instead want to mark this point in the lines of the epigraph. It is the epigraph that signposts the issue or method of indirect communication with which FT is entwined. Here, in the short moment during which Tarquin slices off the heads of the poppy flowers whilst walking with the messenger, we find the idea that a story can have two drastically different meanings. The messenger might recount the story of his walk with Tarquin and gain nothing of its murderous intent, merely report accurately and verbatim – a true representation – what happened. Tarquins son might understand something different, moreover he might understand the truth of the message hidden under the representation.

The attunement, then, is a far more beautiful piece of writing that the preface, but it is so by being less immediately a sign of indirect communication than by being an indirect communication. It is the exordium that first settles us into the trance of the story, that gentleness that hides a curious intent. Think of the central image of the attunement, which is not Abraham but the mothers’ breast and the weaning of the child, sometimes through blackening it, sometimes through hiding it. Think of the way this image is reversed and the pain of the mother is then brought to the fore, followed by the way the healthy movement that is meaning is presented. This variety of an image in its multiple forms, the plurality of this image, acts both as a metaphor for the moment of which Abraham is the focus and for the reader about to enter the text. It acts as a kind of gateway rather than a sign, something that is passed though or undergone rather than understood. We don’t understand the metaphor when we can redescribe it, rather we undergo it when we read the rest of Kierkegaards’ FT after reading this image, after letting it contract the rest of the philosophical work around itself, after having taken it to heart.

The epigraph then is a sign, the preface a kind of extension of this into a mis-en-scene and the attunement the first act of the theatre that is FT. Indirect communication is a methodology, a manner of doing things such as this, such as trying to engage with ideas, including ideas close to our personal existence as a particular type of being. The specific idea that FT engages with – is faith, but this word is too often restricted by its association with religious faith. During the course of the work it thematises not just faith, however, but a number of connected and complicit ideas such as; distance, language, silence, existence, ethics and necessity. It is this last, perhaps the least obvious, that I want to turn to.

Descriptions need agreement – this agreement might be grounded in a conventional or realist manner, but the agreement needs to have some force. Descriptions cannot be arbitrary as descriptions even though the words or elements which make up the components of the description might be. To be a description is to be something that has a force of agreement behind it, a force of compulsion, a force which reaches its peak in the encounter with necessity. A description that doesn’t work isn’t a description, though we might say ‘that description doesn’t work’ when we in fact mean something more like ‘that description doesn’t seem to work very well, it misses something’. To be a description the statement or image or manner in which the description is encountered needs to contain something of a compulsion that makes the description a description and not mere gobbledygook. The more force we encounter in the presentation the more we tend to ascribe a higher level of correctness to that which is presented in understanding it as a description. What, at its heart, is a description? Perhaps an impossible question to begin from, so why not instead ask, what fulfils the function of describing? Whatever it is, it seems to have the force of ‘this is how it must be with the world’. A description has a realist force, even if it were grounded in a conventionalist account of language. What it does is say something about the world but not as it is rather as it must be. This is the real heart of a description, a kind of ethical ought which renders any ‘is-ought’ distinction entirely problematic.

It is the entire complication of empricism produced by the introduction of the concept of force, particularly when it is entwined with logic or form to produce the force of necessity, that underpins the thought of Deleuze. This is the problematic named with the concept of ‘transcendental empricism’. This claim, of course, rendering homage to a kind of intra-Deleuzian thinking. Empiricism is made impotent unless it somehow gives justice to necessity. It is already half-way there in that it is Hume who is most clearly at the heart of the challenge to necessity, a challenge that does in fact derive its roots from a crucial aspect of empiricisms modern incarnation as an anti-dogmatic, anti-metaphysical and anti-theological thought. Necessity is the dirty secret of philosophy, most powerfully discovered in its secrecy by Descartes and its filth by Hume. There is still good reason these two thinkers tower over the discipline of philosophy. No doubt there is still good reason that it is Descartes who is more celebrated, even though this celebration is of the youngster achieving his first real breakthrough. Of course we don’t agree with Descartes – we’re all anti-cartesian now, didn’t you know – but he is still vital to teach in a philosophy degree. Not something you’re likely to hear about Hume quite as often.

If Hume is half-way there in rendering justice to necessity by acknowledging its power over thought it is in Kierkegaard that we find the explicit rendering of this problem as a problem with the force rather than the form of necessity. For Hume it was almost like an encounter with a logical hole – it can be shown to be there but it cannot be shown how it is there. He skirts the outside of the swirling black hole that is necessity. Descartes slips inside to meet God in some serene trust. Kierkegaard stands on the edge of the hole screaming back at us through the inrushing winds. It is peaceful, I was drawn to it, drawn to the trust but suddenly realised there was no way back and as soon as I turned around to change my mind I found the winds, the rushing winds crashing into me as the peace revealed an incessant turmoil. How is it possible, now I feel the turmoil, to ever perceive the serenity again? It’s like an optical illusion, like the old lady young woman illusion, in which you shift perception from the one to the other and find yourself trapped, unable to see again the image you know lies in front of you if you could only somehow re-arrange how you saw the world. Kierkegaard specifically encounters the force of necessity as it clashes with the form of the representation, the form of the presentation of a description1.

This emphasis on necessity in Kierkegaards work can be found in the work of Lev Shestov, in the book ‘Kierkegaard and the existential philosophy’. We can find here a clear identification of Faith with a certain power of resisting necessity. “Without possibility, just as without air, man suffocates. At times it seems his inventive imagination is itself the creator of possibility. But in the last analysis one thing remains: for God all things are possible.” This is Shestov quoting Kierkegaard (KEP 95). Shestov conjoins God and the formal statement ‘all is possible’2. In fact it is, for Shestov, Kierkegaard who combines these two Ideas. The very idea of God might be thought to already contain the formal statement so in what sense could it be combined with it? The idea in the formal statement ‘all is possible’ is taken for the heart of God in relation to the human faculty of faith. It is this encounter with a heart of an Idea that is Kierkegaards real innovation, his real thought. This is why Deleuze calls Kierkegaard one of the first to truly make a theatre of philosophy, because of this innnovation of thinking the heart.

The question, somehow, at the back of all this might be posed like this: is necessity the real heart of reason, perhaps even of what we call man? There’s a problem in necessity that Kierkegaard articulated in a momentous way. Shestov focusses on the moment of Kierkegaards betrayal – or perhaps better, action – towards Regine. Kierkegaard withdraws from the promise he had made. The promise cannot, in that sense, have been made in all good faith since it wasn’t maintained in good faith. This is the faith which hubristically is compared with that of Abraham. This is that secret necessity which prompts all the drama of universal necessities.

Shestov isn’t alone is identifying this moment with Regine as the crux, the navel and the heart of Kierkegaards work. When we turn now to the preface of FT it seems gauche, a youth ripping open his heart and declaring that such an act is the very heart of thought as well. This is almost an embedded image of the romantic idealist, the self-imolator, the martyr. Isn’t this account of Kierkegaard driving him into the realms of resentiment? The Platonic dimension of Kierkegaards work is rendered vivid in its romantic hue by Lukacs in his early essay. “Kierkegaard was a troubadour and a Platonist, and he was both these things romantically and sentimentally” (SF 35). Is the man of resentiment effectively a Platonist or perhaps rather, is a Platonist the man of resentiment? Is Kierkegaard either?



1Meillassoux argues that Goodman renders Hume’s problem of induction invalid by registering it as requiring an undecibable premiss, the principle of the uniformity of nature (CVII 56). He rightly, in my view, shows Goodman as shifting focus from the field of the problem of induction as centrally focused on continuties of time to the extraction of rules from cases. This move to the extraction of rules that are not principles because of their local rather than global scope is productive analytically but the problems of the force of necessity in rules – the genesis of agreement – is transcendental to any case of rule-following activity from which rules can be extracted. It will have to be deduced rather than extracted. In the continuities of time there are far more resources for philosophical work, as has perhaps been attested by the central role time has played in work as varied as Husserl, Heidegger, Derrida and Deleuze. Time and necessity are intimately entwined and more explicitly so, perhaps, then rules and necessity. This is the route that takes us through the thought of destiny rather than anything that might be mere anything.

2What is meant by ‘a formal statement’? One in which only logical relations hold rather than material relations. All three components of the statement ‘all is possible’ are quantifiers in some way – the all, universally, the possible, modaly and the is, existentially. Plainly a whole tradition of talk about ‘quantifiers’ would be mortified at this since for them existential quantifiers are contained in ‘some’ or ‘all’. This is an issue for another time.



FT: Kierkegaard – Fear and Trembling, Penguin 2006

KEP: Lev Shestov – Kierkegaard ad the existential philosophy, Ohio University Press 1969

SF: Georg Lukacs – Soul and Form, Merlin 1974

CVII: Collapse – philosophical research and development, Urbanomic 2007

Article written by

philosopher and filmmaker from brighton, currently teaching philosophy at the Free University of Brighton

3 Responses

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  1. Discreet Anonym
    Discreet Anonym at |

    How do you think Kierkegaard (or various pseudonyms) thematizes the relationship between freedom/possibility and necessity? It isn’t clear to me that he thinks of them as antipodes. I can give two examples of this: first, in Repetition, the act of repetition (literally, re-taking) is something akin to actively taking up that which is already determined. It is taking a particularly attitude toward a determinant future like the attitude of Job (the Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord). Second, in The Sickness Unto Death, the self is constituted by “resting transparently in the power that made it.” Is this not resting in necessity (but it is that which constitutes the self – the relating of self to self in the language of SUD)? It is almost as if choosing that which is determined or already set before a person is the highest form of freedom.

  2. Discreet Anonym
    Discreet Anonym at |

    Quietism is a real worry if freedom and necessity are synthesized in the way I suggest, and I like how you consider the social implications of K’s work. But, then again, whether embracing necessity leads to quietism just depends on how one conceptualizes one’s calling. Perhaps that’s why K thought his calling was to be a critic and polemicist? If Kierkegaard embraced a “free choice of necessity,” then his life speaks against the quietistic implications.

    If I implied that there is some antipodean relation between freedom and necessity in kierekegaard then that was a mistake and I didn’t intend to do so

    In the paragraph where you discuss Shestov, it seemed that you claimed that faith was resisting necessity, and then you mentioned quotes about all things being possible with God. That the particular passage that made me think you were presenting necessity and possibility/freedom as antipodes. I’m not so sure that necessity and possibility as characterized that way for K. Perhaps, perhaps not.

    I appreciated the post. Thanks.

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