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Kierkegaard and the Metaphysical Project (Part I) - Michael Weston


In Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard remarks that in his earlier Philosophical Fragments he had ignored the difference between Socrates and Plato: By holding Socrates down to the proposition that all knowledge is recollection, he becomes a speculative philosopher instead of an existential thinker, for whom existence is the essential thing. The recollection principle belongs to speculative philosophy, and recollection is immanence, and speculatively and eternally there is no paradox. Plato and Hegel mark the beginning and culmination of a particular project of human thought, metaphysics, which, for Kierkegaard, in its claim to reveal the truth of human existence represents a misunderstanding, and in its character as a human enterprise, expresses a deficient mode of human life.

In erecting that mode, ‘relative’ or ‘conditioned’ willing, to a position of pre-eminence, it constitutes a confusing of human existence whose proper criticism is ethical or religious. We can begin to see why he thought this to be so by examining the character of this project in Plato and Hegel. I Philosophy, Plato said, begins in wonder, for, as Aristotle later put it, ‘wondering involves a desire to understand, so that a thing that rouses wonder is a thing in connection with which we feel desire’. What it is which prompts the philosophical wonder and desire to understand is shown in Socrates’ account of his development in the Phaedo. Initially his interest had been aroused Kierkegaard and modern continental philosophy by the investigation of nature (peri phuseus) directed towards understanding the causal conditions for the coming to be, maintenance and perishing of the things he found around him. But the possible results of such an investigation do not seem able to satisfy the desire to understand which underlies his inquiry. He first gains an insight into the nature of this desire upon hearing someone reading from a book by Anaxagoras in which it was said that it is the mind (nous) that arranges and causes all things. This seemed to Socrates ‘somehow right’, but upon investigating Anaxagoras, he is disappointed, for ‘the man made no use of intelligence, and did not assign any real causes for the ordering of things, but mentioned as causes air and ether, and water and many other absurdities’. According to Socrates’ account, Anaxagoras appears to have been engaged on a more general version of his own initial inquiry, attempting to explain natural phenomena in terms of very general causal principles. What such inquiries neglect, and what Socrates comes to realize is the object of his own desire to understand, is ‘the good, which must embrace and hold together all things’ and it is in relation to this that he leaves the investigating of beings (ta onta) and turns to that of conceptions (tous logous) in order to understand the truth of beings. Socrates’ interest lay not in the causal conditions for the existence of things, which could be formulated in general empirical principles, but in what it is that makes these things the things they are: something is ‘beautiful for no other reason than because it partakes of absolute beauty; and this applies to everything’.

It is this sense of cause or reason (aitia) which provokes his desire to understand, and which is more fundamental than that of the causal conditions which the investigations of beings concerns itself with. Why this should be, Socrates indicates when he says ‘not only the abstract idea itself has a right to the same name through all time, but also something else, which is not the idea, but which always, whenever it exists, has the form [morphe] of the idea’. When we say ‘Simmias is greater than Socrates’ this is true by reason of the greatness he happens to have. But not only can the idea of greatness not admit of its contrary and so also be small, but ‘the greatness in us will never admit the small’. If ‘Simmias is greater than Socrates’ is true, then this truth has the character of changelessness, even if at one time Simmias is greater and at another smaller than Socrates. If a proposition is true, then it cannot become false, and the appearance to the contrary is the result of forgetting that statements about things in the world are always claims as to what is true of them at a particular time and place, and clearly what is true of them at one time and place may be different from what is true at another. The question which prompts Socrates’ wonder and so his desire to understand is how it is possible for there to be truth about beings, a possibility which is presupposed by the empirical inquiries into the causes of things which attempt to tell us particular truths. The issue which concerns Socrates Wittgenstein called ‘The agreement, the harmony, of thought and reality.’ ‘A wish seems already to know what will or would satisfy it, a proposition, a thought, what makes it true—even when that thing is not there at all! Whence the determining of what is not yet there?’ This question lay at the foundation of Wittgenstein’s early work, and in the preparatory studies for the Tractatus he had written: ‘My whole task consists in explaining the nature of the proposition. That is to say, in giving the nature of all facts, whose picture the proposition is. In giving the nature of all being.’ How is it possible for a proposition, a thought, to be true, to be satisfied by what is? As the reference to the proposition as a ‘picture’ suggests, Wittgenstein thought at this time that it must be because reality and thought share a common form. Propositions could only be true or false, correspond or fail to correspond with what is, if reality had intelligible form. A proposition, a thought, represents a situation, and is true if the situation exists. It can only agree or disagree with reality if this representing is possible, and that requires that there be an isomorphism of thought and reality: reality must essentially have the character of thought. The wonder that provokes Socrates’ desire to understand is that what is, ‘all being’, is thinkable, that truth is possible. What must the nature of all being be that this should be so? When Socrates is explaining this in the Republic he begins by saying: We predicate ‘to be’ of many beautiful things and many good things saying of them severally that they are, and so define them in our speech…And again, we speak of a self-beautiful and of a good that is only and merely good, and so, in the Kierkegaard and modern continental philosophy case of all the things that we then posited as many, we turn about and posit each as a single idea, assuming it to be a unity and call it that which really is.

Man is the being possessing logos, a word which means word, account, reason amongst others. He speaks and because he speaks he can be asked for and give reason, justification, for what he says. The most fundamental form of saying, for it appears any other kind must be built upon it, is identification, saying ‘This is that’: this is a cow, this colour is red, and so on. Even an utterance like ‘This is sweet’ is not merely a squeal of delight or disgust. It appears to involve a claim: that this taste satisfies what is meant by ‘sweet’. And that meaning appears to be something quite different from the taste itself. The taste comes to be and passes away, it is mine and not yours, it occurs here and at this time. But the meaning is not somewhere or at some time, is not mine or yours. It ‘is’ in a different way. Whereas the ‘is’ of the taste or of this table, this room, means ‘is here and now, at such and such a place and time’, the ‘is’ of the meaning does not. It is apparently a timeless ‘is’. And whereas the taste is tasted, the table seen and felt, the sound heard, the meaning can neither be tasted, seen, felt nor heard: ‘And the one class of things, we say can be seen but not thought, while the ideas can be thought but not seen.’ The ideas are objects of the intellect, nous, the taste, the table, the colour are objects of sense, aisthesis. And yet this is not a matter of different capacities being directed at quite unconnected objects. For we say the objects of sense are: the table, the colour, the taste. But that object is a table only in so far as it satisfies the idea of the table: its very being as a table depends on the idea. But should we say: very well, we experience by sense not the table but a brown physical object, then the same can be said. It is only a brown physical object in virtue of the ideas of brownness and of physical object. And if it is said, nevertheless we at least experience ‘this’, then that too, as something said, standing as it does for an object, is only possible in so far as there is a congruence with the idea of an object. Without the ideas we could not even say ‘This’. To say, or think, there is something is already to use language, and so presuppose meaning. Without meaning, without the ideas, there is—not even nothing, since for there to be ‘nothing’ there must be meaning. Nevertheless, we are forced at the limit to recognize what cannot be conceptualized. In order for there to be temporal beings through their relation to the ideas, there must be presupposed that which is first formed in accordance with ideas, ‘the Mother and Receptacle of this generated world’, which as it ‘is to receive all kinds’ is ‘devoid of all forms’ and so only ‘in some most perplexing and most baffling way partaking of the intelligible’. When we speak of ‘the class of things that can be seen’ we are already in the realm which presupposes the objects that can only be thought. Those objects are the meanings which, as timeless, cannot be subject to change, which can only occur in time. Hence, Plato says, they are ‘always the same’.

But their sameness is, at the same time, difference from other ideas, so that if we can state a meaning we do so by a definition, a distinguishing, and if we cannot state it, but merely intellectually apprehend it in its indefinability, we nevertheless do so in its distinction from all else. A definition, say ‘A triangle is a three sided plane figure’, is a truth which is neither spatially nor temporally delimited, as are all truths about objects ‘that can be seen’ which are in the realm of ‘becoming’. And we can see that the definition is a distinguishing of the triangle within a more general idea, that of plane figure, which also encompasses squares, rectangles, and so on. The idea of the plane figure is itself distinguished within a more general idea, that of figure, within which we have both two-dimensional plane and three dimensional figures. A definition, or the apprehension of an indefinable distinction, is always a distinguishing within the context of a more general idea, of a part from the other parts of this whole. This more general idea itself, that of figure, can only be distinguished as part within the realm of a yet more general idea. We rise from the idea of a triangle to plane figure to that of figure itself, the idea of geometrical ideas. But the idea of figure is itself a part of the more general category, the ideas which make possible things within time, within which it may be distinguished. That more general category is itself a part of the general category of idea itself, the other part being composed of those ideas which relate both to ideas themselves and to the application of such ideas to the realm of the temporal: sameness, difference, unity.
But ideas, temporal beings, and that which must be presupposed for the application of ideas within the temporal at all, are all themselves parts of being: they can all be said to Kierkegaard and modern continental philosophy ‘be’. But we cannot say what ‘being’ means by distinguishing it as part within a larger whole, for there can be no such whole. Rather, to say what being is, is to give its own parts, the temporal ‘is’ and the timeless ‘is’, in their relation. Thus Plato tells us that ‘becoming’ is for the sake of ‘being’ in the timeless sense, and ‘that for the sake of which anything comes to be is in the class of the good’. The Good is not an idea but the relation between temporal beings and the ideas which makes the latter the condition of possibility of the former. Hence ‘the good itself is not essence but still transcends essence in dignity and surpassing power’, granting existence and essence, their role as essence, to ideas, and so making possible our knowledge of them as essences, as what makes possible the objects we unreflectively take as real. Of course, Plato speaks of the Idea of the Good. But this is not something which can be apprehended by thought, since it is presupposed in the possibility of thought itself. If we do speak of the idea of the Good, it is in the sense of the Idea of idea itself, that which makes ideas essences either of what is not an idea or of subordinate ideas themselves, and that is the relation between the temporal and the timeless ‘is’. The realm of Being is not simply divided into two unconnected realms, of Becoming and timeless Being. They are a whole which we understand when we see that the latter makes the former possible. And when we recognize the idea of the Good, of this very dependency of the world we take unphilosophically to be the real one upon the realm of what is only available to the intellect, then we ‘arrive at the limit of the intelligible’. Here we see the Platonic resolution of our question: how is truth possible? Plato’s answer is that what we speak of nonphilosophically and so produce ‘truths’, the realm of becoming, is ‘for the sake of timeless being’: that what is in time is made possible by the timeless being of the ideas, the proper objects of thought, and so ‘participates’ in the intelligible. ‘The table is brown’ can be true only because there are tables and brownness in the world as temporal and spatial instantiations of the ideas of table and brownness, because the realm of becoming is a ‘copy’ or image of that which is available to thought alone. This ‘harmony between thought and reality’ we address in directing ourselves towards the idea of the Good: ‘Wise men tell us that heaven and earth and gods and men are held together by communion and friendship, by orderliness, temperance and justice, and that is the reason why they call the whole the Kosmos [order].’

Philosophy as love of wisdom thinks ‘the whole’ (to holon) and it does so in terms of order, without which the wholeness of the whole cannot be thought. This thinking takes place as ‘dialectics’: ‘For he who can view things in their connection is a dialectician, he who cannot, is not.’ The dialectician is one who systematically determines what each thing really is, the great difficulty lying in doing this correctly. The key to this is not ‘to separate everything from everything else’ which is ‘the mark of a man who has no link whatever with the Muse of Philosophy’ but to be governed by the aim of truth, the unity of the whole: ‘Whom do you mean, then, by the true philosophers? Those for whom the truth is the spectacle of which they are enamoured.’ The philosopher is enamoured of the spectacle of truth for he is directed not towards the production of truths but towards resolving the question of the possibility of truth, towards the truth of truth. Our everyday truths are possible because the reality we there address is intelligible, formed in accordance with what is truly intelligible, the ideas. But what, then, of ourselves? We speak not only of other things around us but of ourselves, and we can do so only if there is, timelessly, the idea of the human, of what in relation to the whole distinguishes man from other beings. Man is within the ‘visible and tangible’ and so has a body. Beings within space and time are either inanimate or living, the latter having the power of self-directed change, psuche, through which they approximate their ideas. If the Good is the relation of purposiveness which relates the temporal realm to the unchanging, then this process of imitation is the way in which temporal living beings reveal it. Their ‘good’ is their satisfaction, to the extent this is possible within the changeable, of the requirements of their idea. Psuche as the power of self-direction towards their good may be present unconsciously, as in plants, or with a degree of awareness of their end, as with animals which seek what is beneficial and flee from what is harmful. The animal has both sensation, which plants have too, and an unreflective consciousness of their good. But man, whilst sharing these forms of psuche, has too nous, intelligence, and logismos: that Kierkegaard and modern continental philosophy is, the ability to know ends by intelligence and to calculate means towards them. This gives him both the power of knowledge of other beings and of self-mastery of himself. Intelligence distinguishes man amongst living beings, and manifests itself in the very capacity for speech which requires some form of apprehension of meanings, ideas, but takes its proper form in knowing these intelligible objects explicitly and in knowing their relation to temporal beings.

At its highest development, this is the capacity for philosophy, knowing the nature of the All: We should rectify the revolutions in our head by learning the harmonies and revolutions of the All, and thereby making the part that thinks like unto the object of its thought, in accordance with its original nature, and having achieved this likeness attain finally to that goal of life which is set before men by the gods as the best life both for the present and the time to come. Man’s end, through which he best participates in his idea, that of an intelligent living being, lies in philosophical knowing within which all other beings, both temporal and unchanging, appear as they are. In this way, he reveals in its appropriate form the relation of purposiveness, the Good, which holds beings together in harmony. Hence ‘the greatest study’ is ‘to learn the idea of the Good’, through which it is possible for the good of man, apprehension of the truth of the whole, to be achieved. Those ‘who are uneducated and inexperienced in truth have no single aim and purpose in life to which all their actions, public and private, must be directed’. Human life finds its end in philosophical knowing of the truth of the All, and this is wisdom: The soul alone by itself departs to what is pure and always existent and immortal and unvarying, and in virtue of its kinship with it enters always into its company. Then it has ceased from its wandering and when it is about these objects it is always constant and unvarying because of its contact with things of a similar kind: and this is called wisdom. Truth is possible about the world since it is formed as an image of the purely intelligible, the ideas. But it is available to us because we have a ‘divine element’, intelligence, which enables us to apprehend what is changeless and so inhabit a world of becoming at all, for that depends for its being on changeless being. Unless there were this harmony between ourselves and the ideas, thought would be impossible for us. The soul must, therefore, be ‘unchangeable or something close to it’, for its judgements, and those upon it, if true, are changelessly so.


Our possession of nous makes possible not only our capacity for the apprehension of what is true about the world surrounding us, but also about ourselves, whose being is itself made possible by the idea of the human. Taking this as our pattern, we can attain ‘self-mastery and beautiful order’ making of ourselves ‘a unity, one man instead of many’. The idea of the human, that which distinguishes man from all else within the whole, is that of an intelligent embodied being, for whom, therefore, ‘it belongs to the rational part to rule, being wise and exercising forethought on behalf of the entire soul’. But that rational part engages in its own proper activity in understanding: so the capacity for ruling is identical with that of learning and knowledge. But understanding, as the progress of Socrates towards selfknowledge in the Phaedo shows, culminates in philosophy, which aims at comprehending the principle which holds together all being, man himself included. Philosophical contemplation, theoria, the fulfilment of this inquiry, thus constitutes the highest activity for humanity, the end of human life: it lies in making the cause of the harmony between thought and reality, the Good, manifest. Yet man can only play this role in the scheme of things, revealing the intellectual order of the whole, the truth, if there is such truth. The idea of the Good is the central principle of this order, that Becoming is for the sake of Being, that what is in time depends for its being upon non-temporal forms. That this is so is recollected through reflection upon the realm of becoming: we already say temporal beings are, and this is only possible in so far as forms are non-temporally. Without the forms we could not say anything, and so there would be no realm of Becoming. Nevertheless, this appears to rest on an assumption which it must, at the same time, be beyond intelligence to justify, since intelligence can at the most apprehend the forms and their relation to temporal being. Thus, Socrates, being asked to speak about the Good, asks: ‘do you think it right to speak as having knowledge about things one Kierkegaard and modern continental philosophy does not know?’ Given that we do say temporal beings are, then perhaps we must assume the existence of the forms and of their relation to such beings. But mightn’t it be that such initial saying were itself illusory, so that reflection upon it merely compounded the illusion? Of course, we could never know whether this is so or not. But if our reflection is to reveal the truth of the whole, we must begin with something which is itself, albeit imperfectly, true. Given that our aim is truth, how can we justify this initial starting place? Doesn’t the pursuit of truth involve us in an assumption which that very pursuit requires us to justify whilst at the same time prevents us from doing just that? How can we know we have any contact with truth at all? Only if the pursuit of truth could reveal itself as presuppositionless could its instability be rectified, and that, of course, is Hegel’s aim.

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