Kierkegaard and Socrates: A Study in Philosophy and Faith

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These features of the text cast doubt on whether we should understand the principle of recollection literally.

In both the Meno and the Phaedo, Socrates ties the possibility of philosophy to the immortality of the soul. It is in the Phaedo, however, that his reason for doing so becomes fully apparent. Immortality entails that the soul can exist in separation from the body. For Socrates — and as we shall see, for Climacus as well — an existing human being is a paradoxical combination of the temporal and the eternal. Socrates accordingly has companions, but no students, and he engages in dialogue, but does not lecture.

In some dialogues Plato makes explicit the eternity of the beings or Ideas, while in others he merely suggests it. The divine craftsman of the Timaeus fashions time as an image of eternity in the course of constructing the cosmos after the model of unchanging being 38b—c. In the Phaedrus, Socrates assigns the things that truly are to the region beyond the roof of the rotating heaven.

The beings thus seem to stand outside of time.

Speculative philosophy, as Johannes Climacus has already shown, fails on both accounts. As we have seen, Fragments begins with three questions about the acquisition of an eternal consciousness and eternal happiness. It is now reasonably clear how the Socratic or philosophical hypothesis about learning responds to these orienting questions. The principle that learning is recollection implies that there is a historical point of departure for an eternal consciousness a consciousness in possession of the eternal truth , but that this point of departure has merely historical interest.

One way to interpret this statement is to understand God-knowledge as the knowledge of eternal being and truth. To know oneself is to know what is eternal, both because the soul is itself somehow eternal although it also exists in time and because the truth that is in the soul and available for recollection is eternal truth.

One could state the same point in terms of transcendence and immanence. The eternal, unchanging truth transcends the instability and evanescence of mortal existence, but the insight that makes philosophy possible is that the truth is also immanent or latently present within our souls, and thus available for recollection.

Philosophy is the attempt to ascend to transcendent being and truth by bringing to consciousness, and thinking through, this immanence. The Thought-Project 47 There is, however, another and indeed opposite sense in which, for Socrates at least, self-knowledge may be God-knowledge. Is the god who examines Socrates or the god who commissions his examination of others assuming, as Climacus seems to, that these are one and the same a mere occasion for Socrates to learn the truth on his own, or something more?

But does the oracle teach Socrates something that he could not have learned on his own because it was not immanent in his soul? Yet his immediate acknowledgment of the importance of the god makes his presentation of Socrates and the philosophical hypothesis no less ambiguous that his self-presentation in the Preface. Whether the oracle of the god is indeed more than a mere occasion for Socrates to learn the truth can only be determined by an examination of the Apology. What role would faith then play in philosophy, and how might we characterize this faith?

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Climacus now entertains a different presupposition about the moment when I awaken to my eternal consciousness. This question guides Climacus in developing the hypothesis of religious faith. This is a crucial presupposition of Socratic inquiry, which supposes that someone who has been reminded of his own ignorance will be able to ask meaningful questions and thereby advance toward knowledge. One who is untruth, however, lacks this condition.

On the religious hypothesis, then, the principle of recollection cannot 13 See ch. How is one who is untruth to be reminded of what he has never known, and what would be the use in reminding him? Climacus begins to answer the latter question by considering what sort of teacher would be required. Yet the teacher does not help the learner to recollect that he actually does know the truth. Rather, he helps the learner to call to mind his untruth. Climacus insists that the learner must discover his untruth on his own.

This means that the teacher must be more than a mere occasion for the learner to discover the truth on his own. Because sin involves choice, it springs from the will; the choice of sin, however, entails a corruption of the will and the intellect that makes subsequent free choice impossible. A good book does Climacus have in mind the Good Book?

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In the moment of awakening to the truth the learner liberates himself from the bondage of sin. The teacher who sets him free should thus be called a savior and a deliverer, for he saves the learner from himself and delivers him from his self-imprisonment. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics a3— He is quite ready to admit the justice of this accusation. As we have seen, philosophy is essentially nothing other than, and can never be anything other than, Socratic philosophizing.

Kierkegaard and Socrates : A Study in Philosophy and Faith by Jacob Howland (2008, Paperback)

For this reason, the claim of the speculative philosophers among others to go beyond Socrates is effectively an admission of their lack of self-knowledge. Something similar obtains in the case of faith. According to St.


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John Climacus, the ladder to the Absolute is nothing other than Jesus Christ, for ascent to God takes place through the imitation of Christ. John Climacus is thus in the deepest sense not the author of The Ladder of Divine Ascent: everything he writes in his book was taught to him by Christ. The notion of being reborn, he maintains, cannot have occurred to anyone who has not already been reborn, just as, by analogy, the notion of birth can only occur to one who has already been born But just as one who has been born did not invent birth, so, too, one who becomes aware of his rebirth in the moment did not invent the moment Hence no human being, much less Climacus himself, has invented the religious hypothesis.

Climacus , If Hegel goes beyond faith, it is only insofar as he deconstructs it by translating its mysteries into the conceptual language of philosophy. Roberts , 21—3. Philosophy permits full justice to be done to the content The Thought-Project 53 that speculative philosophy is an unself-conscious and therefore inferior imitation of both Socratic philosophizing and Christian faith.

On both hypotheses, the teacher reminds the learner that he is ignorant of the truth. Climacus expresses the contrast as follows: Just as the person who by Socratic midwifery gave birth to himself and in so doing forgot everything else in the world and in a more profound sense owed no human being anything, so also the one who is born again owes no human being anything, but owes the divine teacher everything. And just as the other one, because of himself, forgot the whole world, so he in turn, because of this teacher, must forget himself.

Viewed from the perspective of the religious hypothesis, the philosophical midwife, who is himself untruth, further enslaves the learner by encouraging a false independence of thought. Viewed from the perspective of the philosophical hypothesis, on the other hand, the religious notion of a divine teacher encourages a slavish dependence of Religion through the speculative Notion [Begriff ], which is thought itself. Thus Religion has a content in common with Philosophy, the forms alone being different; and the only essential point is that the form of the Notion should be so far perfected as to be able to grasp the content of Religion.

The Truth is just that which has been called the mysteries of Religion. The truth of either hypothesis is the untruth of the other. He correctly assumes that self-knowledge is at bottom knowledge of the eternal truth, and that in this sense God can be found within himself. He who has lost this condition, however, is untruth, which is to say that his own being provides no access to God or the eternal truth.

In the remaining chapters of Fragments, Climacus uses the philosophical hypothesis as a kind of foil against which the elements of the religious hypothesis may be more clearly discerned. Given the apparently total incompatibility of the two hypotheses, this fact might lead one to assume that Climacus himself has decisively broken with philosophy. As we have already seen, however, The Moral with which Fragments concludes argues strongly against this assumption.

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The Moral and the Preface are thus matching bookends for Fragments, insofar as Climacus continues to regard Socrates as the touchstone for the adequacy of thought. And this means that the philosophical hypothesis as set forth in Chapter One of Fragments does not adequately capture the nature of philosophy. Like Socrates, Climacus stands in a place that is not fully described by either hypothesis.

Had he been unable to set aside the preconceptions that he himself attributes to philosophy, he would have rejected the religious hypothesis either directly or by trying to assimilate faith to philosophy after the manner of the Hegelians. The understanding of Socrates that Climacus expresses in The Moral suggests that Climacus continues to remain open to the claims of both philosophy and faith because he is in essential respects a Socratic philosopher.


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  • He is devoted to philosophy as a way of life in which deed harmonizes with speech, he has no doctrine and emphasizes questions rather than answers, and he insists that we think for ourselves. How is philosophical passion or eros — which for Socrates leads the soul through immanent truth to transcendent being and divinity, and which draws the young Climacus up the scala paradisi of coherent thought — connected with the god?

    These questions become more pressing in subsequent chapters of Fragments, in which Climacus turns directly to the topic of love. It therefore makes sense for us to pause in order to address these matters directly.

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    If Climacus refers to the Apology as a whole rather than 24 It also means that there are reasons to doubt the claim of some authors that Fragments and Postscript are intended to show the vanity of philosophy cf. Mackey , and Thompson , , quoted at Evans , 4—5. Rather than showing the vanity of philosophy as such, Climacus forces us to rethink our preconceptions about what philosophy is. What does the Apology reveal about this relationship?

    Is the god more than an occasion for Socrates to engage in the independent, erotic pursuit of wisdom? It is to the Apology, then, that we now turn. For Climacus, philosophy begins with passion. Passion gives birth to his attempt to philosophize, and it has the power to confer authority upon philosophical claims. Climacus recognizes that the essential truth of certain sorts of claims cannot be independently assessed, but depends instead on what one might call the existential commitment of the philosopher.

    The authority of a religious or ethical thesis derives not simply from the intellectual talent of the one who enunciates it, but also from his willingness to believe and to do what he says. As we have seen, Fragments echoes these notions of truth and authority. In his Preface, Climacus associates himself with Socrates, who he suggests was able to hold philosophizing together with existing in a way that eluded both Archimedes and Diogenes, and that continues to elude the speculative philosophers.

    Yet Climacus also leads us to ask whether authority — philosophical talent wedded to existential commitment — is all that one needs in order to attain the truth. Does the god act as more than an occasion for Socrates to learn the truth? If so, does Socrates have a kind of faith?

    In the 57 58 Platonic Interlude Apology, Socrates is on trial as a result of his public, philosophical activity. He is accused of failing to show due reverence to the gods of Athens and introducing new divinities into the city. For these and other reasons, he also faces the third charge of corrupting the young.

    Instead, he uses his trial as an opportunity to try to explain and to justify his philosophizing to his fellow Athenians.

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