The Paradoxical Rationality of Søren Kierkegaard

The Paradoxical Rationality of Søren Kierkegaard

by Richard McCombs


View All Available Formats & Editions
Members save with free shipping everyday! 
See details


Richard McCombs presents Søren Kierkegaard as an author who deliberately pretended to be irrational in many of his pseudonymous writings in order to provoke his readers to discover the hidden and paradoxical rationality of faith. Focusing on pseudonymous works by Johannes Climacus, McCombs interprets Kierkegaardian rationality as a striving to become a self consistently unified in all its dimensions: thinking, feeling, willing, acting, and communicating. McCombs argues that Kierkegaard's strategy of feigning irrationality is sometimes brilliantly instructive, but also partly misguided. This fresh reading of Kierkegaard addresses an essential problem in the philosophy of religion—the relation between faith and reason.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253006479
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 03/04/2013
Series: Philosophy of Religion
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Richard McCombs teaches at St. John's College in Santa Fe.

Read an Excerpt

The Paradoxical Rationality of Søren Kierkegaard

By Richard McCombs

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2013 Richard McCombs
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-00647-9


A Pretense of Irrationalism

Be ready always to give an answer to every man that asks you a reason for the hope that is in you. (1 Peter 3:15)

The noble lie [is] useful to human beings as a sort of remedy. (Republic 414c, 389b)

What I have wanted has been to contribute ... to bringing, if possible, into these incomplete lives as we lead them a little more truth. (PV, 17)

The truth must never become an object of pity; serve it as long as you can, to the best of your ability with unconditioned recklessness; squander everything in its service. (PV, 211)

Temporarily suppressing something precisely in order that the true can become more true ... is a plain duty to the truth and is part and parcel of a person's responsibility to God for the reflection [thinking capacity, reason] granted to him. (PV, 89)

[Sometimes the wise teacher] thinks it most appropriate to say that he does not understand something that he really does understand. (PV, 49)

One can deceive a person out of what is true, and—to recall old Socrates—one can deceive a person into what is true. (PV, 53)

This was sometime a paradox, but now the time gives it proof. (Shakespeare, Hamlet)

Søren Kierkegaard often seems to reject reason, but in fact he affirms it. There are two principal causes of his appearance of irrationalism. First, his conception and use of reason, which he calls subjectivity, is so different from conventional versions of rationality that it often seems irrational, especially at first sight. Second, and more importantly, Kierkegaard does not attempt to correct his misleading appearance of irrationalism, but instead deliberately cultivates it, precisely because he thinks that he needs such deception in order to assist his readers to become more rational. Thus it might be said that Kierkegaard pretends to be irrational in order to communicate rationality. In his own colorful words, he is a spy "in the service of the truth" with the absurd or irrational as his incognito (CUP, 467; PV, 72; FT, 34; CUP, 500).

Kierkegaard's strategy of feigning irrationality in the service of reason has both divine and human models and is grounded in both faith and reason. The divine prototype is the incarnation of God in the man Jesus Christ. As God humbled himself to become an individual human being so that individual human beings might become divine, so Kierkegaard humbles himself to appear irrational so that his readers might become (more) rational. Whereas the incarnation is the "absolute paradox," because it transcends reason and therefore cannot be explained, comprehended, or demonstrated, Kierkegaard's serving reason by seeming unreasonable is only a "relative paradox," because it initially seems absurd, but can be explained, understood, and justified.

The human model for Kierkegaard's incognito of irrationalism is Socrates. If Socrates ironically feigned ignorance in the service of knowledge, Kierkegaard "goes further" and ironically feigns irrationality in the service of reason. Rarely has any thinker conceded so much with an argumentum ex concessis.

Just as Kierkegaard's pretense of irrationalism is derived in part from Socrates' profession of ignorance, so, more generally, his indirect mode of communication is derived in part from Socratic midwifery. Even more generally, Kierkegaard's whole conception and use of reason—which includes his "indirect communication"—is modeled on Socratic rationality.

Like Kierkegaardian communication, Kierkegaardian rationality is paradoxical. What I am calling paradoxical rationality, Kierkegaard himself calls subjectivity. Subjectivity is paradoxical in that it strategically expresses itself in ways that make it seem irrational, at least initially, and in that it is an imitation by the finite, temporal, particular, and conditioned human being of an infinite, eternal, universal, and absolute ideal. Subjectivity is rational in that it uses the human mind to discover these opposites within human nature and strives to live and act consistently with this discovery. Thus subjectivity, like all rationality, is consistency. But, unlike some versions of rationality, it is a consistency not just of thought with thought, but of the whole person. More fully, it is an "existence-attempt" at "infinite self-consistency," an uncompromising striving to integrate in one project all the elements of the self, including thinking, feeling, willing, acting, and communicating (CUP, 318; SUD, 107).

Insofar as subjectivity is an attempt to apply one's convictions to life and action, it bears a strong resemblance to what is often called "practical reason." Indeed, Climacus strongly implies that he sees subjectivity as "usus instrumentalis of reason," an instrumental use of reason (CUP, 377). Nevertheless, insofar as subjectivity does not narrowly focus on action, but endeavors to embrace and do justice to the whole human person, it is more accurate to call it holistic or humane rationality.

Most great thinkers who value reason desire to seem reasonable, and more or less effortlessly succeed in fulfilling this desire. Moreover, if they have a message to communicate that they know will initially seem unreasonable, they explain that the rationality of their message will become apparent if only their readers will bear with them for a while. Therefore, the fact that Kierkegaard neither seems reasonable to most people nor explains that he aims to be reasonable is an indication of how much Kierkegaard's conception and use of reason differs from those of other thinkers and of how much most people stand to learn from him about rationality and communication—if, that is, he is correct about these things. This present book represents an attempt to learn from Kierkegaard important and essential truths about the character and communication of rationality.

If Kierkegaard's method of communicating rationality by pretending to be irrational were entirely correct, it would be meddling foolishness to expose and explain it. Conversely, if Kierkegaard's feigning of irrationality were wholly misguided, then studying it would scarcely be worth the effort. But in fact, as I will argue, his pretense of irrationality is rational enough to be instructive and mistaken enough to need correction. Alternatively, Kierkegaard's strategy of feigning irrationality is a good idea in principle and is often so in practice, but it has succeeded so well—in that many readers who sincerely try to be open and receptive to Kierkegaard's writings never (adequately) discover his rationality—that it needs to be explained. Hence I will dare to explicate the method in Kierkegaard's mad stratagem of pretending to be irrational in order to communicate rationality.


In this first chapter, I argue that Kierkegaard is committed to reason and that he often pretends to be irrational in order to communicate rationality. In the second chapter, I follow up this argument by explaining not only Kierkegaard's conception and use of reason, but also why he thinks feigning unreasonableness is required for the communication of rationality. Each of the remaining chapters explicates a paradox that is a part of the paradox that Kierkegaard feigns irrationalism in the service of reason, or derived from this paradox, or analogous to it. In chapter 3, we will investigate why Kierkegaard thinks that the best way to reveal the goal of paradoxical reason is artfully preserving silence about it. In chapter 4, we will look into Kierkegaard's claim that the most psychologically subtle and the most powerful means to the goal of paradoxical reason is simply to try as hard as one can to attain it. Chapter 5 evaluates Kierkegaard's claim that the simple means of paradoxical reason must be communicated with bewildering complexity and indirection. In chapter 6, we will investigate why Kierkegaard thinks that the most artfully drawn limits to human reason form a ladder to transcendence. Chapter 7 explicates the Kierkegaardian assertion that the downfall of reason is its perfection. And, finally, chapter 8 examines and defends Kierkegaard's claim that the most cogent demonstration of ethics, religion, and Christianity is not a philosophical argument, but a life.

The Relation of Kierkegaard and Johannes Climacus

This present book is about the paradoxical rationality, not just of Kierkegaard, but also of Johannes Climacus, the persona created by Kierkegaard to be the pseudonymous author ofPhilosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. Climacus's conception and use of reason are similar to Kierkegaard's, but with an important difference: Climacus's rationality is more philosophical than his creator's is. Kierkegaard creates Climacus specifically to address and appeal to philosophical readers, or, as Kierkegaard might say, in order to find such readers "where they are" so as then to lead them to subjectivity (PV, 45).

Since Climacus is more philosophical than Kierkegaard, he is also less rational—at least in Kierkegaard's estimation. For Kierkegaard believes that philosophy tends to be abstract, incomplete, and inconsistent, or that philosophers overemphasize thinking to the neglect of enacting or applying what they think. Climacus himself is very concerned about putting thought to the trial of action. That is to say, he writes a lot about it and heartily recommends it. But, as a self-professed humorist, Climacus fails to put into practice the highest things that he understands and admires and is consequently inconsistent and irrational by his own standards (CUP, 451). Therefore, in addressing his readers through the persona of the (partially) irrational Climacus, Kierkegaard in a way pretends to be irrational—since readers naturally tend to suppose that Climacus speaks for Kierkegaard.

It would be cumbersome always to be explicitly marking the agreements and disagreements of Kierkegaard either with Climacus or with his other pseudonymous authors by writing "Kierkegaard and Climacus agree about this or that," or "Climacus thinks this, but Kierkegaard disagrees and thinks this other thing." Therefore, I propose the following convention. The reader is to assume that I think Kierkegaard agrees with his pseudonymous authors, unless the context makes it clear that he disagrees with them, or unless I explicitly call attention to their disagreement. Sometimes, when I think that it is uncontroversial that Kierkegaard agrees with a pseudonym, I will even go so far as to attribute opinions quoted from a book he wrote pseudonymously to Kierkegaard himself. The previous paragraph should make it clear that I do not adopt this policy in the opinion that the distinction between Kierkegaard and his pseudonymous authors is unimportant.

Evidence That Kierkegaard Is an Irrationalist

There is no denying that Kierkegaard often presents a quite convincing appearance of irrationalism. Consequently, the first step in the argument for the thesis that in order to communicate rationality Kierkegaard pretends to be irrational is to describe Kierkegaard's irrational appearance.

Kierkegaard often appears to deny the power of reason or of the human mind to know things that he thinks are immensely important. For instance, in Philosophical Fragments, Climacus denies the power of reason to demonstrate the "existence of God" (PF, 39–44). Similarly, another pseudonymous author of Kierkegaard, Anti-Climacus, claims that "one cannot know anything at all about Christ" (PC, 25; cf. 23, 35).

Sometimes Kierkegaard appears to deny the value or relevance of rational arguments or of knowledge, or even to assert that seeking rational evidence is foolish, perverse, or evil. For example, Anti-Climacus dubs the person who first practiced apologetics, which is the attempt todefend Christianity with reasons, "Judas No. 2" (SUD, 87, 102–103).

Kierkegaard sometimes appears to go farther than denying the power and value of rational evidence, by suggesting that human excellence consists in believing or acting contrary to reason. For example, Climacus, who regards Christian faith as an attractive possibility, claims that if a person is to become a Christian, his understanding, that is, his reason, must "will its own downfall," step aside, be discharged, be surrendered, or even crucify itself (PF, 37–39, 59, 54; CUP, 559). Moreover, he claims that one believes in Christ "against the understanding," or "in direct opposition to all human understanding" (CUP, 568, 211). He even calls the Christian claim that God was made man in the person of Jesus Christ a contradiction, thereby giving the impression that it is a logical contradiction (PF, 87). Obviously, if the doctrine of the incarnation is logically self-contradictory, then faith in Christ involves a violation of the most basic principle of reason. It is not surprising, therefore, that another pseudonymous author, Johannes de Silentio, frequently claims that one has "faith by virtue of the absurd" (FT, 35).

Kierkegaard's elevation of the "single individual," or of the particular, above the universal also seems to constitute a rejection or demotion of reason, since reason typically if not always emphasizes the universal over the particular. Similarly, the Postscript' s polemic againstobjectivit y and objective truth often looks like a denial of rational norms and goals, while its panegyric of subjectivity and subjective truth frequently appears to be subjectivism, individualism, or relativism.

Evidence That Kierkegaard Is Rational

Lessing, a thinker whom Kierkegaard greatly admired, trenchantly criticized the apologetics of a certain Pastor Goeze of Hamburg in the following words: "Herr Pastor! Herr Pastor! Does the whole rationality of the Christian religion consist only in not being irrational? Does your theological heart feel no shame at writing such a thing?" It seems to me that Lessing is right: A defense of the rationality of anything or of anyone that argues only that it or he is not irrational is not yet a sufficient defense of their rationality. Therefore I will argue not only that Kierkegaard is not an irrationalist, but that he is a robustly rational thinker, even though he is not a rationalist in any ordinary sense of the word, and maybe not even a philosopher. Though I will begin arguing for the robust rationality of Kierkegaard here in this chapter, the argument will not be complete until the end of the next chapter.

While it is easy to find evidence that Kierkegaard and his pseudonymous authors are irrationalists or skeptics, the evidence they that affirm reason and knowledge is unspectacular, inconspicuous, and sometimes even hidden—which is exactly what we should expect, if Kierkegaard often pretends to be irrational.

Kierkegaard and his pseudonymous authors occasionally affirm reason (JFY, 91, 96; CUP, 41, 145, 161, 377) and knowledge by name, but more often than not, they affirm them by way of euphemisms: dialectic, reflection, or thinking, for reason; and understanding, awareness, consciousness, or clear conception for knowledge. Moreover, these affirmations of reason and knowledge tend to be hidden away in the less exciting, and therefore less read, portions of Kierkegaard's authorship, that is, either in the books to which he signed his own name—what I call alethonymous books—or in the two books by the pseudonymous author named Anti-Climacus. Finally, these affirmations are often only implicit and consequently in need of explication. Our present task therefore is to uncover and unfold the evidence that Kierkegaard and (many of) his pseudonymous authors affirm both reason and knowledge.

Kierkegaard values knowledge very highly, as the following passage indicates:

Believe me, it is very important for a person that his language be precise and true, because that means his thinking is that also. Furthermore, even though understanding and speaking correctly are not everything, since acting correctly is indeed also required, yet understanding in relation to acting is like the springboard from which the diver makes his leap—the clearer, the more precise, the more passionate (in the good sense) the understanding is, the more it rises to action. (PC, 158)

In this passage, Anti-Climacus asserts that understanding, or knowledge, is "very important"—not, however, for its own sake, but insofar as it supports and informs action. In other words, Kierkegaard values practical understanding, or practical knowledge.

Kierkegaard similarly affirms practical knowledge and rational thinking in the service of practice when he writes that "the condition for having had benefit [of a practical sort] is always first and foremost to become aware," and "no earnest person ... wearies of tracking down illusions, because ... he fears most to be in error" (WL, 85, 124).


Excerpted from The Paradoxical Rationality of Søren Kierkegaard by Richard McCombs. Copyright © 2013 Richard McCombs. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. A Pretense of Irrationalism
2. Paradoxical Rationality
3. Reverse Theology
4. The Subtle Power of Simplicity
5. A Critique of Indirect Communication
6. The Figure of Socrates and the Climacean Capacity of Paradoxical Reason
7. The Figure of Socrates and the Downfall of Paradoxical Reason
8. The Proof of Paradoxical Reason

What People are Saying About This

Baylor University - C. Stephen Evans

A strong and original argument that goes against popular understandings of Kierkegaard.

Customer Reviews