Friday, 1 January 2021

Søren Kierkegaard. Fear and Trembling. Dialectical Lyric by Johannes de silentio (1843). 4. Problems 1 and 2. John Lippitt and Anthony Stadlen conduct Inner Circle Seminar 268 (23 May 2021)

Søren Kierkegaard
Fear and Trembling
Dialectical Lyric by Johannes de silentio (1843)
A close reading: Fourth seminar
Problem 1. Teleological Suspension of the Ethical?
Problem 2. Absolute Duty to God?

John Lippitt   Anthony Stadlen
Inner Circle Seminar No. 268
23 May 2021
10 a.m. to 1 p.m.   2 p.m. to 4 p.m.   9 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Søren Kierkegaard   
Abraham and Isaac

Fear and Trembling: A Dialectical Lyric by ‘Johannes de silentio’ was published in Copenhagen on 16 October 1843, together with two other books, Repetition: An Essay in Experimental Psychology by Constantin Constantinus’ and Three Upbuilding Discourses by Søren KierkegaardOur seminars on this extraordinary event in publishing history started on 14 October 2018, celebrating these three books’ hundred and seventy-fifth anniversary.

The author of all three books was in fact Kierkegaard (5 May 1813 – 11 November 1855), as he acknowledged in A First and Last Declaration’, the further postscript that he, in his own name, added to Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Crumbs (1846), itself purportedly written by his pseudonym Johannes Climacus.

We are exploring this in two series of seminars: one (Søren Kierkegaard: Fear and Trembling) a close reading of this text; the other (Kierkegaard: 16 October 1843) a detailed study of its context.

Professor John Lippitt is a world authority and author of many books and papers on Kierkegaard, including the pellucid and comprehensive Routledge Guide to Fear and Trembling (second edition, 2016). He has already guided us brilliantly through two of three seminars on the text. Today, in the fourth seminar,  he will focus on the region of maximal tension and anxiety: Problem 1: Is there a teleological suspension of the ethical? and Problem 2: Is there an absolute duty to God?

Fear and Trembling focusses with terrible intensity on the dialectic between Abrahams love and awe for God and love for his son Isaac. It is a ‘dialectical lyric’ on the Akedah, the Biblical account of Abraham’s ‘binding’ of his beloved son Isaac (Genesis, 22:1-19), fundamental for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The meaning of the Akedah has been debated and disputed for thousands of years by Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and (more recently) atheist thinkers. (The Qur’an does not name the son, and there has been debate in Islam as to whether it was Ishmael or Isaac, though today it is generally held to have been Ishmael.) The Akedah is chanted from the Torah scroll in synagogues at the New Year, with great precision, though there is no official interpretation of its meaning; in Christianity it is held to prefigure the crucifixion of Jesus; and in Islam animals are sacrificed round the world on Eid al-Adha (Festival of Sacrifice) to commemorate Abrahams sacrifice of a ram instead of his son. The Akedah has been the basis of many great works of art, music, drama, and poetry.

Also, during the first half of 2021, we are setting the context for Fear and Trembling, in five satellite seminars, again conducted by world authorities, including George PattisonMarilyn PietyC. Stephen Evans, and Mariam al-Attar, on Kierkegaards pseudonyms; the two other works (Three Upbuilding Discourses and Repetitionpublished with Fear and Trembling on 18 October 1843and the interpretations of the Akedah and divine command theory in Kierkegaard, the Hasidic masters, and Islam.

Kierkegaard insisted:
... if it should occur to anyone to want to quote a particular passage from the books, it is my wish, my prayer, that he will do me the kindness of citing the respective pseudonymous author’s name, not mine.
Johannes de silentioJohannes Climacus, and the other pseudonyms are like characters in a drama written by Kierkegaard. He called it ‘indirect communication’, a dialectic of perspectives which invites the reader to work out his or her own point of view. Much commentary on Fear and Trembling and the other pseudonymous works is misleading, because it ignores Kierkegaard’s urgent request that their pseudonymous nature should be respected.

However, the problem of the pseudonyms is complex and subtle, as Professor George Pattison will explain in the first seminar in the subseries on the context,  Inner Circle Seminar No. 263 on 14 February.

Kierkegaard, sometimes through a pseudonym (with the left hand’), sometimes in his own name (with the right hand’), introduced the word existential’ to convey thinking with all one’s being, as an ‘existing’ thinker: not constructing a ‘theory’ or ‘system’, which his pseudonym Anti-Climacus in The Sickness Unto Death (1849) said was like building a house in which one does not live.

Ludwig Feuerbach also used ‘existence’ in this sense, but he wanted to secularise religious thinking, whereas Kierkegaard affirmed authentic religion as irreducible to social ethics.

Kierkegaard’s idea of authentic religion differed from everybody else’s. He had utter contempt for the Danish Church and for ‘Christendom’, as he called it. For him, religion was radically individual. But his vision of the individual was the antithesis of an encapsulated, isolated, unsocial, worldless, reified ‘self’. Rather, as Anti-Climacus put it in The Sickness Unto Death, the ‘self’ is a ‘relation’ which ‘relates itself to its own self’; it was ‘that in the relation that the relation relates itself to its own self’, while ‘resting in the [divine] power that established it’; and, of course, as Kierkegaard insisted in his own name in Works of Love (1847), this self is only truly itself in loving friends, family, spouse, lover, children, neighbours, strangers.

The meaning of Kierkegaard’s pseudonym’s interplay of interpretations in Fear and Trembling, and the interplay of this interplay with the positions of his other pseudonyms, has been debated by generations of theological, philosophical, and psychological scholars for one hundred and seventy-five years.

Wittgenstein, a profound thinker of the 20th century, said Kierkegaard was ‘by far the most profound thinker’ of the 19th century’, ‘too deep for me’. But Ernesto Spinelli, an existential therapist, has denounced Kierkegaard’s ‘dangerous folly’ in allegedly admiring Abraham’s ‘self-evident lunacy’. This endorses clinical-psychiatric thinking: Dr Abraham Myerson in 1945 diagnosed Kierkegaard as ‘a psychiatric case’, and his writing as ‘a schizoid and certainly utterly incomprehensible presentation by a mind which is quite deviate’.

Are these demystifying insights? Or is the existential tradition here degenerating into abject uncomprehending psychiatric reductionism?

Rainer Maria RilkeTheodor HaeckerLudwig BinswangerKarl JaspersFranz KafkaPaul TillichLudwig WittgensteinMartin HeideggerJean-Paul  SartreHannah ArendtAbraham Joshua HeschelW. H. AudenR. S. ThomasThomas SzaszR. D. Laing, Jacques DerridaJohn UpdikeDavid Lodge, and many others acknowledged indebtedness to Kierkegaard. Others, such as Martin BuberEmmanuel Levinas, and Albert Camus, grappled with him.

Kierkegaard emphasised that the sole purpose of his vast authorship, both direct and pseudonymous, was religious, though he denounced institutionalised religion (such as Danish 19th-century ‘Christendom’) as a perversion of existential religion. But ‘existential’ therapists ‘secularise’ his writings; Binswanger did so with The Sickness Unto Death in ‘The Case of Ellen West’. Is this a betrayal, purporting to reduce the religious to the secular-social-ethical in precisely the way that Johannes de silentio is criticising in Fear and Trembling? Or is it a clearing away of religious rubble to reveal the human truth of these masterpieces?

One of Heidegger’s most important early courses of lectures was on The Phenomenology of Religious Life (1920-21). But existential therapists often disparage the religious experience of their clients, closed to its phenomenology. We shall try to show that Kierkegaard’s work includes a fundamental investigation of the existential phenomenology of individual, non-institutionalised, religious experience, indispensable for unprejudiced understanding of both religious’ and non-religious’ clients.

It is hoped that these ten seminars, five on the text and five on the context of Fear and Trembling, will enable existential therapists, Daseinsanalysts and others, to reflect more deeply on the foundations of their discipline.

This will be an online seminar, using Zoom.

Cost: Psychotherapy trainees £132, others £165, some bursaries; payable in advance by bank transfer or PayPal; no refunds or transfers unless seminar cancelled
Apply to: Anthony Stadlen, ‘Oakleigh’, 2A Alexandra AvenueLondon N22 7XE
Tel: +44 (0) 7809 433250    E-mail:
For further information on seminars, visit:

The Inner Circle Seminars were founded by Anthony Stadlen in 1996 as an ethical, existential, phenomenological search for truth in psychotherapy. They have been kindly described by Thomas Szasz as ‘Institute for Advanced Studies in the Moral Foundations of Human Decency and Helpfulness’. But they are independent of all institutes, schools and universities.

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