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Becoming a Philosopher
Jonathan Rée on Søren Kierkegaard and the struggle to become a real thinker.
I am not a Christian, but in some ways I wish I was. Of course Christianity can be tiresome (as all Christians would agree) but it can also be fresh and crisply intelligent. And I find it hard to resist Christianity as it was interpreted by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard around the middle of the nineteenth century. For Kierkegaard, what mattered in Christianity was not so much the doctrine as the way in which the individual relates to it. The unit of Christian meaning was not the Universal Church but the individual Christian. You could not learn the meaning of Christianity except on the basis of your own sinfulness, ignorance and inadequacy. There was no such thing as being a Christian, therefore, for Christianity was not a steady state, but a restless quest. Being a Christian would mean ceasing to struggle, so it would imply not being a Christian after all. The task that Christians must set themselves was that of becoming a Christian.
A century later Jean-Paul Sartre paid eloquent tribute to Kierkegaard. Speaking as a militant atheist, he wanted to stress the difficulty of atheism just as Kierkegaard had stressed the difficulty of Christianity. You could not simply be an atheist, he argued; instead you faced the interminable task of becoming an atheist.
Kierkegaard would not have disagreed. He was of course a philosopher as well as a Christian, and he was well aware of the contradiction: philosophy was by origin and nature a pagan discipline. On the other hand, it had a Christ-like figure in its founder and hero Socrates, who, like Jesus, had willingly died for his beliefs at the hands of the state. And Socrates, unlike most of his successors down to the last and dreariest generations of philosophical professordom, had also known that philosophy was a charade unless we knew how to apply to it to our own case. The point was not to be a philosopher, but to become one.
Recently I was delighted to discover that Kierkegaard himself, in a little known early work, made great play with the notion of becoming a philosopher. It is a short story called ‘Johannes Climacus’, about a young man who goes to University hoping to learn about philosophy. It was written in 1842, just before Kierkegaard embarked on his astonishing literary career. (He would publish 32 books over the next 13 years, all of them meticulously crafted, some of them very long indeed, before dying in 1855 at the age of 42.) Johannes is a young man in love … but in love not with a girl, or for that matter a boy or a cat or a dog, but with thinking: “when his pensive head was nodding like a ripe ear of corn, therefore, it was not because he was hearing the voice of his beloved, but because he was listening to the secret whispering of his thoughts.” Perhaps he got it from his father, an outwardly unsuccessful fantasist who takes him on long and exhausting imaginary walks, trudging round the living room remarking on passers by and street scenes and the mountains and the sea. Perhaps he got it from his absent mother too, for he was “like a child who could not help remembering the pain that attended his birth, though his mother had forgotten it entirely in her joy over her new baby.”
People smiled at Johannes’s awkwardness, for as Kierkegaard wrote: “when we see someone carrying a precarious stack of fragile crockery, we are not surprised that he walks unsteadily, constantly struggling to keep his balance; but if we cannot see the crockery, we smile.” They smiled at Johannes, therefore, having no idea that his soul was carrying a stack far taller than they could ever believe possible.
But then he goes off to university, and hears all the clever students talking. In particular they chat knowingly about Descartes, and his claim that in order to philosophise it is first necessary to ‘doubt everything’. To Johannes, it is an appalling thought: after all if you really set out to sail the seas of doubt there would be no guarantee that you would ever return to the solid land of certainties; and if by chance you were lucky enough to return you would only be the palest shadow of your former self. But the philosophizers at the University seemed as cheery as could be. Perhaps, he thought, it was not necessary to do our own doubting on our own account, since we are lucky enough to be the inheritors of a rich tradition of doubt. Could we not take it for granted that earlier generations had already doubted sufficiently rigorously, thus sparing us the trouble of having to doing it all over again? Or should we each undertake to add a little scintilla of doubt for the benefit of future philosophers? But perhaps one philosopher had doubted for us all, as Christ suffered for us all, so that we need only believe in Descartes, without having to doubt for ourselves?
It was never going to work. Johannes was not a fool, but he could not understand how anyone who took doubt seriously could then speak about it glibly. Of course he could think for himself, and he could even read the great works of philosophy provided he took them very, very slowly. But they struck home to his most intimate thoughts, and he could not simply chat about them to others. Yet though he did not realise it, he himself was on the way to becoming a philosopher, and the clever chatterboxes were not. “He paid no attention to others, and never imagined that they might pay attention to him; he was and remained a stranger in the world.”
© Jonathan Ree 2001
Jonathan Rée is a lecturer in philosophy at Middlesex University. His I See a Voice was recently reissued in paperback.
[This article is adapted from a lecture given at the Institut Français in London on 24 October 2000 under the auspices of the Forum for European Philosophy. A new translation of Kierkegaard’s Johannes Climacus appears in The Kierkegaard Reader, edited by Jane Chamberlain and Jonathan Rée, published by Blackwell in April 2001.]