Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Why a Dialectician Is Not a Philosopher: The Poetics of Dialectics in Kierkegaard's Frygt Og Boven

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Why a Dialectician Is Not a Philosopher: The Poetics of Dialectics in Kierkegaard's Frygt Og Boven

Article excerpt

"Dialektik tanker man sig i Almindelighed temmelig abstract, man taenker naermest paa de logiske Bevaegelser. Livet vii imidlertid snart laere Een, at der gives mange Arter af Dialektik, at naesten enhver Lidenskab har sin egen." (Enten--Eller. Forste del)

KIERKEGAARD'S Frygt og Boven raises many questions concerning faith and our cognitive capacities. In the preface, the pseudonymous author, Johannes de Silentio, depicts the contemporary age as an age of abstract, speculative--apparently Hegelian--philosophy, detached from actuality. The thinkers try to explain faith by reason, that is, they "komme[r] ud over Troen" (105) ["go beyond faith" (9)]. (1) But that is precisely what they cannot do because "Troen netop begynder der, hvor Taenkningen horer op" (147) ["faith begins precisely where thought stops" (53)]. The thinkers have not yet even reached faith, so they cannot accurately speak of "at gaae videre" (102) ["going further" (7)].

In order to demonstrate the futility of such an approach, Johannes de Silentio tries to approach by way of thoughts/words that which according to him cannot be thought/pronounced. (2) As he approaches the incomprehensible, he continually refers to his inability to enter it: "I Abraham kan jeg ikke taenke mig ind, naar jeg har naaet Hoiden, falder jeg ned, da det, der bydes mig, er et Paradox" (128) ["I cannot think myself into Abraham; when I reach that eminence, I sink down, for what is offered me is a paradox" (33)].

In Frygt og Boven, the relationship between logos and paradox is one of mutual exclusion. The ability to reason is a hindrance to faith: "Jeg er af Naturen et klogtig Hoved og ethvert saadant har altid store Vanskeligheder ved at gjore Troens Bevaegelse" (128) ["By nature I am a shrewd fellow, and shrewd people always have great difficulty in making the movement of faith" (32)].

Johannes is not able to grasp faith by reason, he can only approach it. He devotes many pages to assuring the reader that one cannot understand the paradox of faith, epitomized in its absolute form in the story of Abraham. At the very end of the text, however, Johannes says something different that should not escape the reader's attention:

   Man vel kan forstaae Abraham, men kun forstaae ham saaledes, som man
   forstaaer Paradoxet. Jeg for mit Vedkommende kan vel forstaae Abraham, men
   fatter tillige, at jeg ikke hat Mod til at tale saaledes, ligesaa lidet
   sore jeg har Mod til at handle sore Abraham. (emphasis added; 207)

   One perhaps can understand Abraham, but only in the way one understands the
   paradox. I, for my part, perhaps can understand Abraham, but I also realize
   that I do not have the courage to speak in this way, no more than I have
   the courage to act as Abraham did. (emphasis added; 119-20)

The reader is puzzled. Johannes seems here to be saying something quite different from what he has been claiming on the previous pages. But precisely how can Johannes "understand" the paradox when he says, "only in the way one understands the paradox"? I suggest that the key to answering these questions lies in the subtitle of the book: "Dialektisk Lyrik" (99) ["Dialectical Lyric" (1)]. It follows from the text that Johannes has in mind a different kind of understanding from that philosophers of his time wrote about. In the following presentation of the problem, I will argue that Johannes underscores this difference by--besides calling himself a poet--not calling himself a philosopher, but a dialectician. While many Kierkegaard scholars have commented extensively on the poetic dimension of Johannes's undertaking, the dialectic aspect is often misunderstood. I will show how important it is to distinguish between "dialectician" and "philosopher," and not to conflate them, as many critics have done.


Johannes contends throughout his essay that he is not a philosopher, but a dialectician and a poet. …

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