Force of Norms: The Mystical Foundation of Concepts

In some unpublished ‘lectures on communication’ from 1847, Kierkegaard seeks to lay out why ethical communication cannot be equated with or derived from communication about objective knowledge. Ethics, he argues, is indirect communication. It does not seek to transfer a piece of objective knowledge from one person to another. Instead, it serves to awaken a capacity in the other. Its aim is to lure out of the individual what is already within them, in order that they may stand alone (i.e. they are not dependent upon the other for the exercise of their duty). As he writes elsewhere under the Johannes Climacus pseudonym, ‘the secret of communication specifically hinges upon setting the other free’.

In order to accentuate his point Kierkegaard tends to draw the lines between different forms of communication strongly. However, it occurs to me that his arguments can be extended – or perhaps twisted – to shed light on the relationship between norms and concepts more generally.

A digression on Robert Brandom might help here. As far as I understand him, Brandom argues that the basic language game, upon which all other uses of language depend, is the giving of and asking for reasons characteristic of making assertions. To command, enact or otherwise perform something through language always implies the practice of making claims. By making claims, we assert things which act as support for other claims, whilst also standing in need of justification themselves.

Brandom is interesting for the way in which he combines rationalism (it’s the giving and receiving of reasons that is basic to our discursive practices) with pragmatism (the norms which govern our application of concepts, and the responsibility we assume for those applications, are socially derived – there is no natural or supernatural foundation for them).

My suggestion is that we should not see a huge divide between Brandom’s rationalism and the kind of ‘existential’ approach of Kierkegaard; or even between the former’s pragmatism and the latter’s concept of faith.

The use of concepts depends upon norms, norms which have no objectively specifiable foundation. This is not to suggest that the factual content of what is asserted is irrelevant (or merely ‘relative’ or ‘subjective’), but that such content only counts as ‘being-asserted’ through the application of norms whose warrant is itself not open to a final, rational confirmation.

Now this might seem to open the door to all kinds of fideistic nonsense, rushing in to fill the vacuum left by the absence of foundations. However, such fideism involves a category mistake: seeking to ground normativity in an (irrationally accessed) objectivity simply raises again the question of why such an objectivity should count as imposing normative obligations upon us in the first place.

A different response is offered by Judith Butler in Giving an Account of Oneself. Butler’s interest there is in the inevitable incompleteness of our ability to give an account of ourselves, and therefore to assume responsibility for ourselves. We are always preceded by discursive practices and social norms which shape in advance what counts for us as giving and receiving recognition. We can never offer a total, final and therefore ‘objective’ narrative of who we are, and it would seem we always lack the clarity required for being responsible for ourselves and our actions.

However, Butler denies that this leads to determinism or quietism. In fact, she turns things upside down: it is the opacity of the subject to itself which is the opening of ethics and responsibility, where the latter does not imply total self-clarity, but the interruption of claims to a total comprehension of self and other. This opacity also conditions the subject’s agency and capacity to resist identities imposed upon it by the norms of others.

Kierkegaard appears to be engaged on a similar pursuit. His attempt to make distinctions between types of communication, and the norms which govern them, is evidence that his thought is not simply a fideistic flight from philosophy. His concern, I’d argue, is to explicate the intrinsically normative dimension of communication, but also to offer a ‘religious’ resistance to absolutising those norms.

This brings me back to the lectures on communication. Here, Kierkegaard says that religious communication is distinct from the ethical variant, because it does involve a communication of objective knowledge as a ‘preliminary’ to faith. Usually, this is taken as meaning that a person must ‘know’ the Christian claim that Jesus is the God-Man before they can make the decision of faith. There is, it seems, some objective revealed content to Christian claims. However, I don’t think this is the only valid interpretation.

Faith, for Kierkegaard, results from a passion of reason to know what cannot be known. To paraphrase, this means reason’s intrinsic desire to ‘give an account of itself’, to think the unthinkable conditions for its own emergence. Faith is not the provision of a transcendent ‘answer’ to this quest, but the actualisation of reality’s own paradoxical disjuncture, and the militant disavowal of naturalism and supernaturalism (Michael O’Neill Burns’ work is crucial here, though he is in no way to blame for my own take on this!).

On this account, the ‘objective knowledge’ required for religious communication is not a static dogmatic content. It is the paradox’s resistance to capture by our concepts and norms, a resistance which is entailed by the use of any and every such concept or norm. More positively, it is also the condition for the emergence of new conceptual and normative commitments.

Sketchy as all this may sound, I think there is at least an interesting line of dialogue here between pragmatic rationalism and the focus on faith and opacity more familiar within the continental tradition, but without the colonising assertion that the former is religion or theology ‘in disguise’.

Antigone and Abraham in Melancholia

One of the most striking scenes in Melancholia comes when Justine and Claire step outside the mansion to see the sky lit up by two large heavenly bodies: the moon and the planet Melancholia. Claire suddenly notices that Justine is missing, and when she finds her, Justine is splayed out nude, basking in the uncanny light. This is a striking contrast to Justine’s previous behavior — during the wedding sequence, she can muster up no desire for her new husband, and when she takes aside a young man and has sex with him, it is more an expression of dominance and spite than lust. In the second half of the movie, she has difficulty sustaining any kind of affect whatsoever, recoiling from a warm bath and declaring that a favorite meal tastes like ashes. Yet here she is, responding to the prospect of the world’s annihilation with unmistakable erotism.

This scene serves, for me at least, as a kind of “quilting point” tying Melancholia to the story of Antigone. Continue reading “Antigone and Abraham in Melancholia

Further thoughts on separating theology and “belief”

What is the difference between philosophy and theology if it’s not the personal belief stance of the thinker in question? What makes the pursuit of something like theology distinctive compared to what one would normally call philosophy? I should say from the first that I think this has to be regarded as an open problem, because philosophy and theology are both critical and speculative discourses undertaken in dialogue with a historical tradition. Given such similarities, it is understandable that one would cast about for factors external to the discourse itself, such as the “personal belief” of the thinker. I think that such a difference is both nonsensical and boring, however, and I propose that a more reasonable and interesting difference must be found within theological discourse itself.

Continue reading “Further thoughts on separating theology and “belief””

Scattered thoughts inspired by the teaching of Fear and Trembling

  • I had always thought that the “everyday” knight of faith in the Preliminary Expectoration was strangely disproportionate to the extraordinary act of Abraham, but this time around I realized that Abraham’s huge achievement was not to murder his son — surely not an uncommon or extraordinary act.
  • When I asked the students to compare the “everyday” knight of faith with Augustine’s self-assessment in book X of the Confessions, the first section thought he was only a knight of infinite resignation and the second thought he hadn’t even attained that level yet.
  • Bruce Rosenstock once said in comments or in an e-mail to me that Hegel believed that the only consolation for modern people was philosopy — we can never have the holistic, harmonious life putatively enjoyed by the Greeks, but at least we’ve reached a point in history where we can “comprehend our era in thought.” If this is an accurate reading of Hegel, perhaps Kierkegaard’s critique is more precise than many seem to think, insofar as “infinite resignation” ultimately means exchanging the realization of your desire for an idealized, eternal, spiritual/intelligible version of it — that is, “infinite resignation” simultaneously negates and preserves the desire. The dialectic of thought can move on from this point in many ways — for instance, by demonstrating how the desire itself was inadequate — but the dialectic of faith moves beyond it in action.

Kierkegaard’s System

Last weekend, I spent a lot of time going back over Kierkegaard texts, in preparation for an exam (miraculously already graded and passed, so I must be an expert on this topic). I was struck with a vertiginous sense that all of this, the play of names, the variety of genres, etc. — all of it fits together into a unified whole. All of it can be taken into account and systemaized. In fact, “systematized” might not be the right word: it already is a system, one revealed progressively from a variety of perspectives, but integral and coherent.

I obviously can’t demonstrate this in the context of a blog post, but if I ever do demonstrate it, it will be in a book entitled Kierkegaard’s System — a book of under 200 pages, most likely.