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Is Kierkegaard correct in thinking that there is such a thing as ‘the
teleological suspension of the ethical’?
Vince Vitale
Many commentators have been frustrated by the apparent tension in Søren Kierkegaard’s
work between a teleological suspension of the ethical and an absolute duty to God. This
tension has been read in both directions. If there is truly an absolute duty to God, it seems
there should be more than a mere suspension of the ethical—possibly a rejection. If there is
only a suspension of the ethical, how then can there be a duty to God that is by nature
absolute?
I believe this interpretive difficulty is due to an under-motivated assumption about
what Kierkegaard means by his claim that the ethical is teleologically suspended. The
suspension Kierkegaard espouses in Fear and Trembling is not—as is commonly thought—a
temporal suspension, to be conceived along the lines of a suspension from school. It is not a
claim that in certain exceptional circumstances ethics cease to apply for a time. Rather,
Kierkegaard’s suspension is closer in meaning to a physical suspension, for example when a
bridge is suspended by cables. The bridge is at all times held up by the cables and reliant on
them for its existence and function. Likewise, for Kierkegaard the ethical is suspended in the
sense that it finds its grounding and proper function in its divine telos—that which,
metaphorically, holds it up. In what follows, I argue for this interpretation. Then, in closing, I
suggest that, properly interpreted, Kierkegaard is correct that there is a teleological
suspension of the ethical.
1. Kierkegaard’s philosophical universe
Kierkegaard’s philosophical framework consists of the aesthetic sphere, the universal
sphere, and the religious sphere. Broadly speaking, the aesthetic is the sphere of
individualism. It is characterized by a hedonistic attitude of self-concern and unreflective
immediacy. The sphere of the universal is opposed to the individualism of the aesthetic. It is
the sphere of collective identity, morality, and responsibility.1
The culminating sphere in the Kierkegaardian framework is the religious. This sphere
includes two “movements”, that of “infinite resignation” and that of “faith”. Infinite
resignation is the movement by which a person renounces everything that belongs to him—
his life and his most prized possessions. He who has infinitely resigned “is enough unto
himself,”2 and finds “peace and repose”3 in this life despite the pain of his resignation. By
infinitely resigning, the religious individual enters into an eternal consciousness that
transcends the finite world.
Yet it is the second movement that sets apart Kierkegaard’s “knight of faith” and
places the knight juxtaposed to the universal sphere. In the movement of faith, the knight
believes against all rational calculation that the desires he has infinitely resigned will
nonetheless be fulfilled in this life—that somehow God can give back to him that which he
has given up. For the knight, this experience is radically individual. It transcends any relation
to society as a whole and is not readily communicable. It therefore goes beyond the universal
sphere. For Kierkegaard, “faith is just this paradox, that the single individual is higher than
the universal . . . [H]aving been in the universal, the single individual now sets himself apart
as the particular above the universal.”4 In practice, this double movement of the religious
sphere results in what Kierkegaard terms the teleological suspension of the ethical.
1
Cf. Mooney, 22.
Kierkegaard, 73. All references to Kierkegaard are to Fear and Trembling, unless otherwise noted.
3
Kierkegaard, 74.
4
Kierkegaard, 84.
2
2. Kierkegaard’s target—Hegel
Kierkegaard identifies his conception of the universal with the Hegelian ethical
system. In Fear and Trembling, each of the three Problemata begins “The ethical is as such
the universal.”5 And when Kierkegaard identifies the ethical with “social morality”, the
Danish word translated “social morality” is the equivalent of Sittlichkeit, the term used in
Hegel’s works to denote a high social ethics.6
In Hegel’s ethical system, behaviour is moral when it aligns with preexisting social
values. Behaviour is sinful whenever the individual asserts his particularity over the
universal,7 whenever he acts without reference to the good of society as a whole.8 For Hegel,
his system of social ethics is the highest form of Christianity. It goes beyond faith to an
objective network of modernity’s ultimacy. Ronald Green summarizes Hegel’s position thus:
“The state itself…is an earthly deity (Irdisch-Göttliches) that commands our highest
loyalties.”9
Kierkegaard characterizes the Hegelian system as a shallow ethics of my station and
its duties.10 He attacks Hegel for claiming that the individual’s telos is found in the ethical
life,11 and for ordering social ethics as ontologically prior to faith. Kierkegaard laments that
passion and personal commitment—what he takes to be the preconditions of genuine
faith12—are lost in the science of a universalized and demonstrable system.
5
Kierkegaard, 57, 96, and 109.
This point is made in Westphal, 109.
7
Kierkegaard, 83.
8
Kierkegaard, 15.
9
Green, 265. Cf. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, § 272, p. 307.
10
This characterization is discussed in Mooney, 69.
11
Kierkegaard, 83.
12
Pattison, 21-22.
6
The practical means of Kierkegaard’s reaction to Hegelian ethics is the Genesis 22
account of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac in accordance with a divine
command given exclusively to Abraham. This, for Kierkegaard, is the full price of faith, the
price of a radically personal relation to the absolute telos. But Abraham’s actions are absurd
to Hegelian ethics. Abraham has become the most evil of sinners by forfeiting all of his social
duties—as father, husband, and leader of his tribe13—for a good that is intensely personal and
incommunicable.
3. Criticism without rejection
Though Kierkegaard makes a stark criticism of Hegel’s attempt to elevate the
universal sphere above faith, Merold Westphal is correct that Kierkegaard is “never simply
anti-Hegelian.”14 In Either/Or, Kierkegaard considers the first two spheres and concludes that
the universal exceeds the aesthetic by making the general choices to recognize ‘good and
evil’ and to take responsibility for one’s actions.15 Kierkegaard even implies in his
Concluding Unscientific Postscript that Hegel is the greatest of all philosophers.16 Edward
Mooney concludes that, for Kierkegaard, “The universal is a necessary but not sufficient
source of personhood.”17
Similarly, while Kierkegaard intends to emphasize the value of subjectivity in his
prioritization of faith, his criticism of Hegel’s objectivity is not a dismissal of objectivity as
13
Abraham’s sin is worsened in Hegelian terms because Isaac was the son chosen to sustain the blessed line to
Christ. Therefore, sacrificing Isaac would have had societal repercussions reaching far beyond Abraham’s
particular context.
14
Westphal, 101.
15
Cf. Rudd, 74-76.
16
Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 124. See also the interpretation of this portion of
Kierkegaard’s work in Westphal, 102.
17
Mooney, 95.
such.18 Underlying the argument of Fear and Trembling is that for Kierkegaard there is an
“eternal divine order,”19 and that the knight of faith, though he cannot justify himself, “should
be prepared to offer some criterion for distinguishing the paradox [of faith] from a
temptation.”20 Westphal helpfully identifies the synonym for Kierkegaardian subjectivity as
“inwardness,” not “arbitrariness.” And, given this understanding, Mooney seems right that
“…reason and objectivity are fully compatible with a full-blown Kierkegaardian
subjectivity.”21 For Kierkegaard, subjective experience and choice are not ends in
themselves; they are means to accessing objective truth, and they allow one to be in proper
relationship to the objective absolute—God.22
In his critique of both Hegelian ethics and objectivity more generally, Kierkegaard’s
criticisms are best interpreted by contextualizing them within a broader framework in which
the value of that which is criticized is preserved. Thus, in attempting to understand
Kierkegaard’s constructive proposal to teleological suspend the ethical, there is reason to
look for an aufhebung of some sort rather than for an outright rejection.
4. The interpretive challenge of the teleological suspension of the ethical
The assumption that Kierkegaard’s “suspension” should be understood temporally has
made it difficult for many to reconcile how for Kierkegaard there can be both a suspension of
the ethical and an absolute duty to God. James Bogen, for example, argues that if the ethical
is suspended, then the application of the ethical term “duty” must also be suspended, and
18
In this way Kierkegaard’s position differs from the subjectivism of some subsequent existentialists. Cf. Sartre,
Existentialism and Human Emotions.
19
Kierkegaard, 57.
20
Kierkegaard, 85.
21
Mooney, 74.
22
For discussion of this point, see Mooney, 75.
hence cannot be applied absolutely to our relation to God.23 A related concern is that if the
ethical is generally authoritative, suspended only in exceptional circumstances, then the duty
to God cannot be exclusive in the sense required for it to be absolute. John Donnelly offers
the reverse conclusion, that an absolute duty to God eliminates the possibility of a mere
temporal suspension of the ethical.24 By nature of the duty being absolute, its object must be
the sole authority and must require, in Pattison’s words, “complete and undivided
devotion.”25 Further, as a precondition to faith the knight has already resigned everything
finite—including the ethical—infinitely,26 so it seems odd to speak of suspending the ethical
merely for a time.
Donnelly’s thinking coheres with Kierkegaard’s claim that the true knight of faith is
“always absolute isolation.”27 The knight makes the double movement of faith at “every
instant,”28 for it must be made “continually.”29 Even when the knight appears “just like a taxgatherer,”30 he is invisibly making the movements of faith. Abraham’s faith is not a secret
weapon to be called upon only when a rare form of moral dilemma presents itself. The
knight’s whole life is characterized by the paradox of faith. As Kierkegaard explains, “…the
whole earthly form he presents is a new creation on the strength of the absurd.”31
But if a temporal suspension of the ethical is too weak of a claim, an outright rejection
of the ethical is too strong. Kierkegaard’s leap to faith is not a mere abstraction from the
world. As noted earlier, Kierkegaard does not reject the universal sphere altogether in his
critique of its insufficiency, nor does he negate objectivity as a whole in his critique of
universal reason. Rather, he affirms their necessity when properly related to their divine telos.
23
Bogen, 314-15. Bogen’s position is discussed in Rudd, 148.
See Donnelly, “Kierkegaard’s Problem I and Problem II: An Analytic Perspective.”
25
Pattison, 12.
26
Kierkegaard, 75.
27
Kierkegaard, 106.
28
Kierkegaard, 78.
29
Kierkegaard, 67.
30
Kierkegaard, 68.
31
Kierkegaard, 70.
24
Moreover, a simple rejection of the ethical would undermine the coherency of Kierkegaard’s
work, which clearly recommends not a rejection but a teleological suspension.
5. Towards a new reading
One aim of Fear and Trembling is to correct what Kierkegaard sees as Hegel’s philosophical
backwardness. Hegel has claimed that faith can be brought within the teleological confines of
the universal. Kierkegaard wants to assert the opposite by reordering Hegel’s philosophical
framework. Though opposed, the arguments of these two philosophers show structural
parallels, and we can learn something of Kierkegaard’s treatment of the ethical by
understanding Hegel’s treatment of Christianity.
Kierkegaard takes Hegel to have stolen the authority of faith while preserving it as a
mere façade. Hegel’s system “lets everything remain standing but cunningly steals away its
meaning.”32 Faith is valued only indirectly, only insofar as it is an expression of the
superiority of the universal.33 And yet God is not eliminated. The faithful relate to God by
properly performing their duties to society. What we have here is not a temporal suspension
of Christianity, but an ontological reordering of it.
There is a structurally parallel theory at work in Kierkegaard’s suspension of the
ethical. When suspended, the universal is, according to Kierkegaard, “not forfeited but
preserved in something higher.”34 The knight of faith continues to perform the just demands
of the ethical, but only insofar as his universal duties are grounded in his absolute duty to
God. As Kierkegaard puts it, the knight “determines his relation to the universal through his
32
Kierkegaard, Two Ages, 77. This passage is discussed in Pattison, 17.
Kierkegaard, 28.
34
Kierkegaard, 83.
33
relation to the absolute…”35 Mooney remarks that for someone first experiencing this
transition to faith, it may seem like a temporal suspension of the ethical.36 However, the
faithful never descend back into conventional societal ethics. Rather, through the movement
of faith the ethical is transformed; it is understood and experienced anew—“continually” and
at “every instant”—by being subsumed into the sphere of faith. It is for this reason that
Kierkegaard speaks of two distinct ethics in The Concept of Anxiety, the second of which is
characterized by Philip Quinn as a “distinctively Christian ethics”37 and is developed by
Kierkegaard in Practice in Christianity and Works of Love.
Importantly, this interpretation is consistent with the language Kierkegaard uses in
“en teleologiske Suspension af det Ethiske”. Suspension is not the standard Danish word for a
temporal suspension. It is a foreign loan word adopted from medieval Latin, and only the
verb form—suspendere—is defined in the Ordbog Over det Danske Sprog (Dictionary of the
Danish Language). Adding these definitional considerations to the fact that Kierkegaard is
using suspension within a technical phrase intended to denote a new concept, we should not
be surprised to find distinctness in Kierkegaard’s use of the term. Suspension can be taken to
mean a temporal suspension in Danish. But it can also denote a physical suspension. This is
seen in Den Danske Ordbog (The Danish Dictionary), where the second definition given is a
physical suspension that can be applied to particles suspended in liquid or to a bridge
suspended by cables. As with suspension in English, suspension can be used metaphorically
in Danish to describe other things that can be likened to physical suspension.38
Moreover, it is in keeping with Kierkegaard’s rhetoric and underlying Socratic39
pedagogy to challenge his readers to look beyond a more superficial meaning of a word to a
35
Kierkegaard, 97.
Mooney, 80.
37
Quinn, 349.
38
I am grateful to William McDonald for very insightful discussion of the Danish language and its relevance to
interpreting Kierkegaard’s writings.
39
For more on the influence of Socrates on Kierkegaard’s rhetoric and pedagogy, see Kierkegaard’s On the
Concept of Irony with Constant Reference to Socrates.
36
deeper meaning. Kierkegaard draws attention to what he calls the “inverted dialectic” of
Christianity. William McDonald characterizes this dialectic as demanding that the knight of
faith “exercise ‘double vision’, to see in worldly things their spiritual opposites, such as hope
in hopelessness, strength in weakness and prosperity in adversity.”40 Likewise, my thesis is
that Kierkegaard is challenging his readers to see in suspension not a setting aside but a
receiving back. Kierkegaard’s language and rhetoric allow for a reading of his teleological
suspension that is not a temporal suspension but a metaphorical application of a physical
suspension, such that the ethical is held up by, in the sense of deriving its value from, its
divine telos.
In addition to the evidence already amassed, this interpretation is textually supported.
Kierkegaard comes closest to a definition of his teleological suspension in the opening
paragraph of Problema 1: Is there a teleological suspension of the ethical?. There he
questions whether Hegel’s thought can sustain a teleological suspension of the ethical. He
answers himself:
…in that case it would be a contradiction to say that one surrendered that telos
(i.e. suspended it teleologically) since by suspending the telos one would be
forfeiting it, while what is said to be suspended in this sense is not forfeited
but preserved in something higher, the later being precisely its telos.41
Here we have a glimpse of the suspension process as Kierkegaard understands it. To suspend
something teleologically is to surrender it in a way that allows it to be preserved in a higher
telos. Hegel cannot suspend the ethical because for him the ethical is the ultimate telos; there
would be no higher telos for the ethical to be preserved in if it were surrendered.
This language of suspension as being “preserved in something higher” fits more
naturally with a metaphorical use of physical suspension—whereby the location of one object
is preserved by being suspended from a higher object—than with temporal suspension.
40
41
McDonald, section 2.
Kierkegaard, 83.
Moreover, the argument Kierkegaard gives for why suspension of the ethical is not possible
in Hegel is not compatible with a temporal reading. Kierkegaard suggests that teleological
suspension is (1) incompatible with “forfeiting” what is suspended and (2) necessarily
includes preserving what is suspended in something higher. But a temporal suspension meets
neither of these conditions. Firstly, a temporal suspension is precisely to forfeit that which is
suspended, at least temporarily. When a student is suspended from school, her right to attend
classes is forfeited. Secondly, a temporal suspension does not require the thing suspended to
be preserved in something higher. One can be suspended from school without one’s
education being preserved elsewhere, let alone in something higher. Likewise, one can
suspend obedience to the ethics of society without adopting a higher ethical standard.
Kierkegaard’s subsequent discussion of teleological suspension also suggests
rejecting the temporal reading. Kierkegaard never speaks of the knight of faith returning from
a suspension, as one would expect if he intended the suspension to be understood temporally.
A more textually affirmed understanding is that for Kierkegaard faith doesn’t just help out
when the ethical is temporally suspended, but faith grounds and perfects the ethical at all
times. The ethical is not sufficiently explained by societal norms but primarily by the nature,
actions, and commands of a loving God. For this reason, the Kierkegaardian knight of faith is
said to be set “above”42 the universal and to be “higher”43 than it. However, the universal is
never “done away with,”44 not even temporarily. Instead, it gets a new expression whereby,
Kierkegaard explains, “…love of God can cause the knight of faith to give his love of
neighbor the opposite expression to that which is his duty ethically speaking.”45
Two passages in Fear and Trembling are prima facie problematic for my
interpretation. The first passage is a rare instance in which Kierkegaard seems to speak of
42
Kierkegaard, 84.
Kierkegaard, 85.
44
Kierkegaard, 98.
45
Kierkegaard, 98.
43
Abraham returning to the universal sphere. The passage reads, “This paradox [of faith]
cannot be mediated; for as soon as he tries to Abraham will have to admit that he is in a state
of temptation, and in that case…he must return repentantly to the universal.”46 This can be
read in two ways. The problematic reading for my interpretation would be that the knight of
faith, who always returns to the universal unrepentantly following a temporal suspension of
the ethical, must in this specific instance return repentantly. We have already considered
textual evidence against this reading; that evidence explicitly states that the movement of
faith is one made in “every instant”, “continually”, and at all time presupposing an infinite
resignation of the universal. In addition, we should be suspect of this reading because it is
clear in Kierkegaard that a knight could never return to the universal unrepentantly. Even if
the knight sought such a return, the universal could never accept him, for the universal
demands that the unrepentant individual justify his actions to other ethical people. The
knight, however, can never justify himself; his actions cannot be mediated or made
intelligible to society at large.
Thus, “return repentantly” must be taken as the only possible type of return to the
universal. And on this reading, it is only the false knight who can make such a return. For a
genuine knight of faith to return to the universal repentantly would undermine Kierkegaard’s
effusive praise for Abraham. It would be to deny faith’s supremacy. It is only the person who
makes the movements improperly and incompletely who finds himself in this “state of
temptation”—that is, with the desire to “return”. Hence, when read in context, this rare
reference to a return to the universal is spoken not of Abraham the knight of faith, but of a
hypothetical Abraham who gives only a false appearance of knighthood. The biblical
Abraham is unable to return repentantly or unrepentantly. Faith will not allow the former; the
universal will not allow the latter.
46
Kierkegaard, 85.
The second potential difficulty for my proposed interpretation of Kierkegaard’s
teleological suspension is found in the third Problema where Kierkegaard claims that “in the
decisive moment Abraham suspends [the ethical].”47 This seems to imply a temporal
suspension, whereby Abraham suspends the ethical only in this “decisive moment”. But this
reading is untenable on two accounts. First, it is clear from Kierkegaard’s praise of Abraham
that Abraham suspended the ethical at least from the time of God’s command to the moment
when God provided a ram to be sacrificed in place of Isaac. This is a period of three and a
half days, and it would be strange to speak of three and a half days as a “moment”.
Furthermore, Kierkegaard clearly defines this “decisive moment” in his subsequent work
Philosophical Fragments. There Kierkegaard presents the decisive moment not as a moment
of temporary suspension, but as the moment of eternal, ontological transformation. This
moment marks the transition from the preceding state of “untruth”48 into the continual state of
faith. In the decisive moment, a “new person”49 is created, a knight is born. In Kierkegaard’s
words, “…the break has occurred, and the person can no longer come back…”50
My reading of Kierkegaard’s teleological suspension of the ethical is the culmination
of the redemptive theme developing through Kierkegaard’s treatment of Hegel and of the
objectivity/subjectivity distinction. This reading resolves apparent inconsistencies in
Kierkegaard’s position, is consistent with Kierkegaard’s language usage, and is textually
supported. I conclude that the teleological suspension of the ethical is not a teleological
suspension from the ethical, but a teleological suspension of the ethical (from the absolute).
Kierkegaard’s suspension is not like a suspension from school. It is more like a bridge
suspended by cables, whereby the bridge’s existence and proper function are dependent on
the cables it is suspended from. We might say that the ethical is suspended ontologically
47
Kierkegaard, 142.
Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, 120.
49
Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragment, 123.
50
Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, 124.
48
(rather than temporally), and perhaps redemption is the most fitting term for this type of
Kierkegaardian aufhebung.
6. Is There a Teleological Suspension of the Ethical?
Is there, then, a teleological suspension of the ethical in Kierkegaard’s sense? Now
that the meaning of the question is clarified, I will begin to sketch an answer. Yes, there is a
teleological suspension of the ethical; there is such a suspension in both a metaphysical sense
and an epistemological sense.
Metaphysically, there is a case to be made that ethical value is grounded in either the
commands or the nature of a loving God. Versions of the Euthyphro dilemma challenge this
case by arguing that either the goodness of God’s commands (or nature) presupposes an
independent standard of value or else God’s commands (or nature) are arbitrary. But Robert
Adams makes a sophisticated case for the divine grounding not just of ethical value
generally, but of moral obligations in particular.51 Assume, as many find intuitive, that moral
obligations are best accounted for by some form of social contract theory. Then a problem
arises. It is strongly intuitive that it would remain wrong to treat each other in certain ways
even if society degraded to such an extent that we no longer (explicitly or implicitly) entered
into social contracts with one another. Likewise, it is intuitive that we would have some
moral obligations to Martians even if they had just arrived and we had had no prior
interaction—let alone contract-developing interaction—with them. Adding God to the society
of persons capable of forming (implicit or explicit) social contracts can help explain the
51
For a well-developed theory of how God can ground moral obligations that is related to the theory I go on to
outline, see Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods, Chapters 10 and 11.
intuition that moral obligations would exist even in circumstances in which the contracts
between finite beings are explanatorily insufficient.
There is also an epistemological aspect to the divine grounding of the ethical. Alvin
Plantinga develops a concern shared by C.S. Lewis52 and dating back to Charles Darwin
himself53 about why we should trust beliefs formed by an evolutionary process that is aimed
at survival, not at truth. Plantinga notes that “Natural Selection doesn’t care what you believe;
it is interested only in how you behave.”54 But while there are a limited number of true beliefs
that will result in any given survival-conducive behaviour, there is no limit to the number of
false beliefs (however fanciful) that will do so. What follows, Plantinga claims, is that we
should be radically skeptical about the veracity of our beliefs.55 This applies to all of our
beliefs, and a fortiori to our ethical beliefs.
Brian Leftow develops a second reason for thinking that ethical knowledge relies on
divine grounding. He argues from various intuitions, including intuitions suggesting that
there would be moral truths even in (physically) empty universes, that the best theory about
the grounding of morality will be broadly Platonic. But Platonic objects are generally thought
to be abstract, and this surfaces a concern raised by Paul Benacerraf.56 Knowledge seems to
require some sort of causal connection between the knower and the object of her knowledge.
But then how can persons know moral truths if the objects of such knowledge are abstract
objects, typically thought to be causally inert? Leftow argues that grounding moral truths in
God—a concrete particular with causal powers—allows the theist to avoid this concern.57
52
Lewis, 26-28.
In a letter to William Graham, Darwin wrote, “With me, the horrid doubt always arises whether the
convictions of man's mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at
all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey's mind, if there are any convictions in such
a mind?”
54
Plantinga, “Introduction,” 4 (my italics).
55
Plantinga develops this argument—which he terms the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism—first in
Warrant and Proper Function and more recently in Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and
Naturalism.
56
Benacerraf raises this concern in Benacerraf, “Mathematical Truth.”
57
Leftow, 74-75.
53
Each of the arguments of this section is worthy of much fuller development. But they
suggest several ways in which—in a Kierkegaardian sense—the ethical is suspended from,
upheld by, grounded in, and revealed through its divine telos.
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