Doubting Johannes

April 23, 2008

Johannes Climacus, or De Omnibus Dubitandum Est (1843)
Johannes Climacus [Søren Kierkegaard] (Princeton, 1985)
60 p. First reading.

This is an unfinished work found among Kierkegaard’s papers when he died, but written many years earlier. It merits our interest, nonetheless, for being the first work of Johannes Climacus, one of Kierkegaard’s most incisive pseudonymous characters. It is an inquiry into the nature of doubt, and more precisely into the philosophical doctrine that “One must doubt everything”.

Johannes begins by setting forth three statements which he has come across in his reading, but been unable to understand: (i) philosophy begins with doubt, (ii) in order to philosophize, one must have doubted, and (iii) modern philosophy begins with doubt. Are these statements equivalent? Are they true? How should we understand them?

The third statement, about specifically modern philosophy, seems to be historical, not properly philosophical. Does it mean that philosophy may legitimately begin in different ways, with modern philosophy happening to begin with doubt, or does it imply that other beginnings, whether in the past or the future, are suspect, and perhaps don’t really result in philosophy at all? That is, is doubt intrinsic to genuine philosophy? If so, the third statement is equivalent to the first, but if not, the first statement must be false. But by what authority is philosophy defined in this way? If philosophy must begin with doubt, why is that so? He doesn’t know the answers to these questions, and when he consults others he finds that they conflate the first and third statements. He thinks this unwise, but decides to consider the first statement on its own merits.

The first statement, that philosophy begins with doubt, does seem to be a properly philosophical claim, for it is about the nature of philosophy as such. He compares it to the Greek claim that philosophy begins with wonder. There is a substantive existential difference between these two claims: “Wonder is plainly an immediate category and involves no reflection upon itself. Doubt, on the other hand, is a reflection-category.” Wonder is an absorption in the object, but doubt is a rupture involving a reflective comparison of the thing with one’s expectations. On account of this difference, to say that philosophy begins with doubt is to say that it begins with a polemic against what came before. But in that case the claim seems to have become historical again.

What sort of claim is the claim that all philosophy begins with doubt? Is it like the claim “Man is mortal”, the truth of which everyone affirms as soon as they think of it? It seems not, for not everyone who has called themselves a philosopher has begun in this way — not even after the principle was enunciated. Perhaps it is a thesis that requires the one stating it to have authority, and the one receiving it to be receptive and obedient. But that seems to contradict the spirit of the principle.

As always, Kierkegaard (or, if you prefer, Climacus) is intent on the subjective experience of the thinker. How should an individual person relate to this thesis, that philosophy begins with doubt, if they want to philosophize? What should they doubt, and to what extent? Surely they should not doubt the principle itself! Or should they? He gradually works his way around to the idea that the thesis is incoherent, and he expresses the problem in a lovely parable:

“In an old saga, he had read a story about a knight who received from a troll a rare sword that, in addition to its other qualities, also craved blood the instant it was drawn. As the troll handed him the sword, the knight’s urge to see it was so great that he promptly drew it out, and then, behold, the troll had to bite the dust.”

The sword is the thesis, for “when one person said it to another, it became in the latter’s hand a sword that was obliged to slay the former, however painful it was for the latter to reward his benefactor in that way.” With each beginning, one is destroying the very thing into which one is supposed to be entering. It seems, therefore, that far from being the key to genuine philosophy, this thesis is a lock.

If we cannot coherently maintain that philosophy begins with doubt, perhaps we may yet maintain the second statement: that philosophy should be preceded by a period of doubting, just as one’s entry into the monastic life is preceded by a period of ascetic rigour. Maybe the doubt prepares the novice to receive truths. Yet it seems that doubt is not a fitting preparation for any such thing, for “He who doubts elevates himself above the person from whom he learns, and thus there is no frame of mind less appreciated by a teacher in his pupil than doubt.” With this, Johannes is at an impasse.

The final section of the book, which is unfinished, is by far the most difficult. Johannes takes up the question “What must the nature of existence be in order for doubt to be possible?” The structure of doubt that he develops is (I believe) similar to that which I alluded to above: it requires a confrontation between real things and one’s ideas of them (in his language, between reality and ideality). But this section is quite opaque, and breaks off in mid-stream.

Johannes Climacus is a minor work, but worthwhile. It is humorously written, Johannes not neglecting to take a few shots at Hegelian philosophy, always especially odious to Kierkegaard. There is much whimsy along the way, as Johannes confronts this allegedly indispensable principle with all of the naivety he can muster. Surely if we are to take modernity seriously, we must take this principle seriously, no? But he finds that it simply doesn’t make any sense.

Though they are unrelated to the main argument of the book, there are several sections worthy of remembrance. One is an extended narrative about a beginning student’s joy in discovering the life of the mind, and the second is a vibrant portrait of Johannes as a young boy — which we may, I have been told, take as a portrait of Kierkegaard himself. His love of dialectic started early.

[Boyish enthusiasm]
His father combined an irresistible dialectic with an omnipotent imagination. Whenever his father on occasion engaged in an argument with someone else, Johannes was all ears, all the more so because everything proceeded with an almost festive formality. His father always let his opponent say everything he had to say and, as a precaution, always asked him if he had anything more to say before he began his response. Johannes, having followed the opponent’s case with keen attention, had in his own way a co-interest in the outcome. Then came the pause; his father’s response followed, and — look! — in a twinkling everything was changed. How it happened remained a riddle to Johannes, but his soul delighted in this drama. The opponent spoke again, and Johannes listened even more attentively, lest he lose the thread of thought. The opponent summed up his thought, and Johannes could almost hear his heart beating, so impatiently did he wait to see what would happen. –It did happen. In an instant, everything was turned upside down; the explicable was made inexplicable, the certain doubtful, the opposite was made obvious.

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One Response to “Doubting Johannes”


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