Monday 1 January 2018

Kierkegaard. Fear and Trembling. 1. Anthony Stadlen conducts Inner Circle Seminar 244 (14 October 2018)

Søren Kierkegaard

Fear and Trembling
Dialectical Lyric by Johannes de silentio (1843)
1. Preliminary overview and Preface

Anthony Stadlen

Inner Circle Seminar No. 244
14 October 2018
10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Søren Kierkegaard   
Abraham and Isaac

This is the first of a subseries of eight all-day seminars devoted to one short book, which is much cited and quoted, as well as misquoted, by existential and other therapists, but often with little understanding of, or even relation to, the text, let alone the Biblical text it discusses. For example, the notion of a knight of faith’, taken from this book, is often solemnly applied to a client in psychotherapy, without recognition of the comic resonances of Don Quixote in this description of Abraham, who set out on a donkey to sacrifice his son; and without awareness that in the Hebrew of the Biblical story there is no mention of ‘faith’ or ‘obedience’, but only of ‘trust’ and ‘listening’. Again, it is very rare for those who appeal to, or try to apply, the argument of the book to take account of the fact that its author insisted that its pseudonymous narrator should not be taken as representing his own position. These eight seminars are an attempt to remedy this situation.

The book is Fear and Trembling: A Dialectical Lyric, by a certain ‘Johannes de silentio’, published in Copenhagen on 16 October 1843. The first of our eight seminars, therefore, will celebrate the book’s hundred and seventy-fifth anniversary (two days early).

The actual author was, of course, Søren Kierkegaard (5 May 1813 – 11 November 1855), as he acknowledged in Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846). But 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 silentio and the other pseudonyms are like characters in a drama by Kierkegaard. He called it ‘indirect communication’, a dialectic of different possible perspectives through which the reader is invited to work out his or her own point of view. Much commentary on Fear and Trembling and the other pseudonymous works is therefore naive and misleading, because it ignores Kierkegaard’s urgent request that their pseudonymous nature should be respected.

Kierkegaard was the thinker who introduced, sometimes through this or that pseudonym (as he said, with the left hand), and sometimes in his own name (with the right hand’), the word existential’ to convey the project of thinking with the whole of one’s being, as an ‘existing’ thinker, rather than constructing a ‘theory’ or ‘system’, which he said was like a house in which one does not live.

Feuerbach also sometimes used ‘existence’ in this sense, but his project was to secularise religious thinking, whereas Kierkegaard’s primary aim was to affirm authentic religion as irreducible to social ethics.

But Kierkegaards idea of authentic religion differed from everybody elses. He had utter contempt for the Danish Church and for Christendom, as he called it. For him, religion meant something radically individual. But his vision of the individual was the very antithesis of an encapsulated, isolated, unsocial, worldless, reified self’. Rather, a true individual was 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 loving friends, family, spouse, children, neighbours.

Fear and Trembling is itself a foundational document for existential thinking. 

HeideggerJaspersBinswanger, and Sartre acknowledged their indebtedness to it. The meaning of Kierkegaard’s (pseudonym’s) interplay of interpretations in Fear and Trembling has also been the subject of a continuing comprehensive conversation by generations of theological, philosophical, and psychological scholars for one hundred and seventy-five years.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, himself generally regarded as one of the most profound thinkers of the 20th century, held that Kierkegaard was ‘by far the most profound thinker’ of the 19th century. However, Ernesto Spinelli, widely regarded as a leading existential therapist, has recently denounced  Kierkegaard’s ‘dangerous folly’ in apparently admiring Abraham’s ‘self-evident lunacy’ in Fear and Trembling. This is in line with traditional clinical-psychiatric thinking, for example the psychiatrist Abraham Myerson’s 1945 diagnosis that Kierkegaard was ‘a psychiatric case’, whose writing was ‘a schizoid and certainly utterly incomprehensible presentation by a mind which is quite deviate’.

Are these important demystifying insights into a pretentious and over-rated writer? Or is the existential tradition here degenerating into abject capitulation to uncomprehending psychiatric reductionism?

Fear and Trembling 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 all three Abrahamic religions: 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.) Today, the Akedah is chanted from the Torah scroll in synagogues at the Jewish New Year, with great precision, though it is open to anyone to propose an 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. 

Kierkegaard emphasised that the sole purpose of his entire vast authorship, both direct and pseudonymous, was religious, though he fiercely denounced institutionalised religion (such as Danish 19th-century ‘Christendom’) as a corruption and perversion of living, existential religion. But ‘existential’ therapists in particular routinely ‘secularise’ his writings. Are they betraying them by purporting to reduce the religious to the secular-social in precisely the way that Johannes de silentio is criticising in Fear and Trembling? Or are they clearing away the religious rubble and revealing the human truth of these great works?  

One of Heidegger’s most important early courses of lectures was on The Phenomenology of Religious Life (1920-21). But existential therapists all too often disparage the religious experience of their clients and are ignorant of its phenomenology. We shall try to show that Kierkegaard’s work is, among many other things, a fundamental investigation of the existential phenomenology of individual, non-institutionalised, religious experience, indispensable for an unprejudiced understanding of our clients. But does it not also illuminate secular, non-religious experience?

We shall be greatly helped by the participation in a number of the seminars of one of the world’s authorities on Fear and Trembling, Professor John Lippitt, Professor of Ethics and Philosophy of Religion at the University of Hertfordshire and Honorary Professor in the European Philosophy and History of Ideas research group at Deakin University in MelbourneJohn Lippitt is the author of many books and papers on Kierkegaard, including the pellucid and comprehensive Routledge Guide to Fear and Trembling (second edition, 2016).

In eight seminars, of which you may attend any or all, you are invited to explore in depth the rich variety of interpretations of both the Akedah and Fear and Trembling and their relevance for the practice of psychotherapy; and perhaps to arrive at your own interpretation.

Venue: Durrants Hotel, 26–32 George Street, Marylebone, London W1H 5BJ
Cost: Psychotherapy trainees £132, others £165, some bursaries; coffee, tea, Durrants rock, mineral water included; payable in advance; no refunds or transfers unless seminar cancelled
Apply to: Anthony Stadlen, ‘Oakleigh’, 2A Alexandra Avenue, London N22 7XE
                  Tel: +44 (0) 20 8888 6857     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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