“Philosophical Fragments” by Søren Kierkegaard

Philosophical Fragments
How Far Can We Know the Truth?

In Plato’s Meno, an argument is raised that there is no such thing as a “truth seeker”, because if a man knows the truth already, there is no need to seek, and if he doesn’t, he can’t seek, since he wouldn’t recognize it even if he stumbles upon it. Socrates’ solution to Meno’s paradox is Recollection, i.e., the soul, which is immortal, already possesses knowledge of all things in herself from eternity, and only needs to remember or recollect them in the moment in time. “All learning is but Recollection”

A teacher or an authority cannot benefit an individual in any significant manner, because the teacher can’t give, or “teach”, the individual anything that he doesn’t already possess in his own soul. For this reason, Socrates likens himself to a “midwife” (Theaetetus), who though barren himself yet helps others give birth to knowledge. “It is quite clear that they never learned anything from me; the many fine discoveries to which they cling are of their own making. But to me and the god they owe their delivery”, but nothing more.

The Moment of Truth

To advance further than Socrates, Kierkegaard (under the pseudonym Johannes Climacus) posits that if the Teacher or the Moment is to have “decisive significance”, the individual has to be devoid of Truth prior to the Moment. This state of being devoid or deprived of Truth is Sin or Error.

Firstly, the individual cannot be in possession of the Truth while being unaware of it, since if he can become aware at any moment, the Moment would not have “decisive significance” — one moment is just as indistinguishable as another and there is no significant difference in the state of the individual before and after the moment.

Secondly, the individual cannot free himself from the state of Sin of his own will, since if he could will it at any moment, the Moment would lose its significance. IOW, for the Moment to have decisive significance, it must be irreversible, so to speak. “Just as one who throws a stone has power over it until he has thrown it, but not afterwards.”

Thirdly, there must be a break in the state or the being of the individual. If his being remains the same before and after the Moment, the Moment would not have “decisive significance”. This break is the Conversion, passing from non-being to being, the new birth. “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. … Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (John 3:3,5-6)

Empirical Being is the Prerequisite for Knowing

ZhuangZi, a Taoist philosopher in ancient China (who was born when, half way around the world,  Plato was entering his 60s), posed another interesting challenge in “Happiness of the Fish” (魚之樂 | 鱼之乐). One day when he and HuiZi were out on a stroll, ZhuangZi observed, “The minnows roam where they please. It’s the happiness of the fish.” HuiZi asked, “You’re not a fish, how do you know their happiness?” ZhuangZi replied, “You’re not me, so how do you know I don’t know their happiness?”

I suppose ZhuangZi “knew” the happiness of the fish because he reasoned thus: The fish were in a state (of freedom) that a man would enjoy if he were in a similar state, therefore the fish must be happy. This would be true only if man and fish share a likeness in their constitution, which is of course not necessarily the case.

Reason (Man) cannot know the Unknown (God), because they are absolutely unlike each other. Reason only knows itself and another based on itself, but nothing more. IOW, man as a self-centered being measures all things by himself. He is the ground and the reference point to which all other things are compared and evaluated. To comprehend means literally to grasp, but how can a finite being grasp the infinite? As in the parable of blind men and the elephant, reason can only deduce based on its limited vision and experience. The blind men fail to acknowledge let alone prove the existence of the elephant, instead they think that it is some other things because they “grasp” its likeness to those things.

If a man is in a state of Sin, it is impossible for him to know the Truth, because Sin and Truth are absolutely unlike each other. There is no communion between the two, as there is no common ground. To know the Truth, one must partake of the Truth; To know God, one must partake of the nature of God. “For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God.” (1 Corinthians 2:11-12)

The Love of Equals

Kierkegaard asserts that the most genuine and noble Love must be between equals. It can not be the relationship between master and slave, or pet owner and his pet, or that between pagan Greek gods and their love conquests, e.g., when Zeus transformed himself into a golden shower to impregnate Danae. In those relationships, there is no mutual understanding between the Lover and the Beloved, no reciprocity.

How can there be mutual understanding between God and Man, if they are absolutely unlike each other? This is the mystery of the Incarnation. “The Word of God Himself. He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God.” (St. Athanasius “On the Incarnation of the Word“)

Christ has become the ladder between Heaven and Earth, in Whom and through Whom Man has Communion with God, not merely a sharing of thoughts and emotions, but a sharing of essence. When a man is joined to his wife, they shall become one flesh, “But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him.” (1 Corinthians 6:17)

Faith and the Paradox

There is a “great gulf fixed” between Man and God, between Reason and the Unknown, between time and eternity, human existence and God’s eternal essence, mortality and immortality, and yet Christ has become the Conveyor across that gulf. This is the Paradox, and it is offensive to the individual, because it entails a break, a discontinuity of the individual. Similar instances of the paradox exist in love, in birth and in learning. Since in all three cases, the beloved, the begotten and the learner undergo transformations so profound that they receive a new nature in the process. In Love, self-love is annihilated and yet exalted when the person sacrifices his own being for his beloved; In Birth, the transformation is from non-being to being; In learning, old conceptions are destroyed and new ones come into being in their stead.

Just as an individual cannot will himself to be born, so he cannot will himself unto the Truth. This can only be accomplished by God through Faith, a new organ, without which man cannot accept the Paradox, which is beyond the grasp of Reason and immediate sensation and cognition.

“For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:25)


Faith is by no means partial to probability; to make such an assertion about Faith is to slander it.

Necessity, Possibility and Actuality

“Can the necessary come into existence? Coming into existence is a change, but the necessary cannot be changed, since it always relates itself to itself and relates itself to itself in the same way. All coming into existence is a suffering, and the necessary cannot suffer; it cannot undergo the suffering of the actual, which is that the possible (not only the excluded possibility but also the accepted possibility) reveals itself as nothing in the moment it becomes actual, for the possible is made into nothing by the actual. Everything which comes into-existence proves precisely by coming into existence that it is not necessary, for the only thing which cannot come into existence is the necessary, because the necessary is. … Possibility and actuality do not differ in essence but in being; … necessity is a determination of essence”

(Compare Aristotle’s doctrine of the two kinds of possibility in relationship to the necessary. His mistake lies in his beginning with the principle that everything necessary is possible. In order to avoid having to assert contradictory and even self-contradictory predicates about the necessary, he helps himself out by two kinds of possibility, instead of discovering that his first principle is incorrect, since possibility cannot be predicated of the necessary.)

All coming into existence takes place with freedom, not by necessity. Nothing comes into existence by virtue of a logical ground, but only by a cause. Every cause terminates in a freely effecting cause. The illusion occasioned by the intervening causes is that the coming into existence seems to be necessary; the truth about intervening causes is that just as they themselves have come Into existence they point back ultimately to a freely effecting cause. Even the possibility of deducing consequences from a law of nature gives no evidence for the necessity of any coming into existence, which is clear as soon as one reflects definitively on coming into existence.

Socrates’ Integrity

In the Socratic view each individual is his own center, and the entire world centers in him, because his self-knowledge is knowledge of God. It was thus Socrates understood himself, and thus he thought that everyone must understand himself, in the light of this understanding interpreting his relationship to each individual, with equal humility and with equal pride. He had the courage and self-possession to be sufficient unto himself, but also in his relations to his fellowmen to be merely an occasion, even when dealing with the meanest capacity. How rare is such magnanimity!

The Paradoxical Passion

The paradox is the source of the thinker’s passion, and the thinker without a paradox is like a lover without feeling: a paltry mediocrity. But the highest pitch of every passion is always to will its own downfall; and so it is also the supreme passion of the Reason to seek a collision, though this collision must in one way or another prove its undoing. The supreme paradox of all thought is the attempt to discover something that thought cannot think. This passion is at bottom present in all thinking, even in the thinking of the individual, in so far as in thinking he participates in something transcending himself.

Reason, in its paradoxical passion, precisely desires its own downfall. But this is what the Paradox also desires, and thus they are at bottom linked in understanding; but this understanding is present only in the moment of passion. Consider the analogy presented by love, though it is not a perfect one. Self-love lies as the ground of love; but the paradoxical passion of self-love when at its highest pitch wills precisely its own downfall. This is also what love desires, so that these two are linked in mutual understanding in the passion of the moment, and this passion is love.

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