Saturday, December 29, 2012

On "Fear and Trembling" by Soren Kierkegaard ***

It's been a long time since I read any Kant and I've never read Hegel directly, so I come to this book with a certain deficit of necessary background. Still, Kierkegaard is one of the heavies among Danish writers, so I couldn't well skip him, even if his subject matter isn't one normally to my taste. On the whole, for a work of philosophy, this text was fairly approachable.

The introduction provided by C. Stephen Evans and Sylvia Welsh provides some of the necessary background information. In it, they discuss Kant's and Hegel's views of ethics. Both contend, in a way, that the ethical stems from the universal. Kant sees ethics as derived from reason apart from experience. Hegel, however, says that this reason gets embodied in customs, laws, and traditions, and that people don't necessarily a priori have knowledge of what is moral via their reason.

Enter Kierkegaard, who dispenses with both views through a discussion of faith--and in particular through the actions of Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac at the behest of God. Faith cannot fall under "normal" rules of ethics, Kierkegaard says, for a number of reasons. First is the fact that the man of faith is not in touch with the universal but with the absolute. Faith skips the universal. What might seem ethical to everyone else, the person of faith doesn't care about--he cares only about what's ethical to God, and as such, he speaks with God directly, via the self. The "glorious" act is performed for one alone, though it makes no sense to everyone else and isn't in their eyes glorious at all.

Kierkegaard also discusses the difference between resignation and faith, and between tragedy and faith. In the case of resignation, one might perform a glorious act knowing that one has no other choice. But the act of faith is not done out of a mere acceptance of a tragic end. It is done with a full belief in the "glorious" end. Hence, the man who accepts his death to save his comrades might be resigned to his fate, but the man, like Abraham, who kills his son knowing that God will take care of the promise he has already afforded him (to give him nations through that son) is a man of faith--a believer in the "absurd."

These are interesting distinctions that I'm not so sure make a heap of difference in the world and that, on some level, I can't help but be a bit uncomfortable with, in a world where men crash planes into buildings and kill thousands of others in the name of their faith. And while a person of faith myself, I understand how mad we might appear to be to others, I can't help but wonder about the ethics of certain actions done in the name of others' faith. Does faith then resign us to a world of continual subjectivity, each person listening to his own version of the absolute no matter the consequences for others? This isn't to say that I think Hegel or Kant are correct either; societal customs can be immoral, and reason is only good if the premise one starts with is correct--and given that we often start with the wrong premise (see societal customs), we often end up with immoral conclusions (witness, for example, the ways in which different times have rendered different verdicts regarding a number of moral issues--it's not that humans progress, for in many cases we regress on one thing as we progress on another).

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