Category Archives: Paradox

Kierkegaard, Levinas, and an Inwardness Higher Than Itself

One cannot (probably) have too much Kierkegaard on his birthday. This is a great bit from Mary-Jane Rubenstein on Kierkegaard that wraps up all sorts of Kierkegaardian themes as they work themselves out in response to a critique by Levinas:

illustrator © Archipictor Ossi Hiekkala

illustrator © Archipictor Ossi Hiekkala

Emmanuel Levinas claims that the Kierkegaardian subject, as radically inward, is egocentric: “Kierkegaard very powerfully rehabilitated the topics of subjectivity, uniqueness, and individuality.  He objected to the absorption of subjectivity into Hegelian universality, but he replaced it with subjectivity that was shamelessly exhibitionistic.” In order to demonstrate this self-important selfhood, Levinas refers to the Abraham of Fear and Trembling, the most offensive instance of “a subjectivity raising itself above the ethical to the level of the religious.”103 Yet Levinas makes such subjectivity far too easy.  The self thus constituted by repetition does not precede repetition itself, but emerges through it, and is thoroughly infused with the God-relationship. This subjectivity, then, is relational rather than identical and, insofar as the religious subject is constantly in a state of becoming, thanks to what Gillian Rose calls “the eminence of futurity at the intersection of eternity and time,”104 dynamic rather than static.  Repetition, as Deleuze reminds us, is always a gift and, as such, a scandal; the subject cannot merely summon repetition and constitute himself qua subject.  Kierkegaardian subjectivity, I would argue contra Levinas, does not raise itself above the ethical; rather, it is raised above the ethical. Between the two there is an absolute difference. And the subject that emerges through the madness of repetition is not a self-identical individual, alone in inwardness; it is rather a subject related at every turn to the eternal.  The highest form of this selfhood is only selfhood insofar as it exists in the God-relationship—inwardness, in other words, gives rise to something infinitely higher than inwardness (Mary-Jane Rubenstein, “Kierkegaard’s Socrates: A Venture in Evolutionary Theory,” Modern Theology 17, no. 4 (2001), p. 467).

Emphasizing the paradoxical nature of such an inwardness, Rubenstein says, “The very locus of the subject’s self is beyond him. In other words, this subjectivity, which cannot be considered by itself but only repeated, is profoundly ecstatic” (ibid).

103. Emmanuel Levinas, “Existence and Ethics” in Kierkegaard: A Critical Reader, Jonathan Rée and Jane Chamberlain, eds (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), pp. 26-38; p. 34.
104. Gillian Rose, The Broken Middle: Out of Our Ancient Society (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), p. 99.

A LOST theory in the wake of “This Place is Death”

In the wake of the most recent episode of LOST entitled “This Place is Death” (Season 5, episode 5), an idea occurred to me while listening to the recap of the show on the most recent Jay & Jack LOST Podcast.  Because all of what follows assumes that the reader has seen all the episodes up to this point and would thus contain SPOILERS for those who have not caught up, I will place the bulk of the post below the fold.

Get the whole story »

Symposium on Christ, History and Apocalyptic

A series of posts has begun around Nate Kerr’s book Christ, History and Apocalyptic: The Politics of Christian Mission over on the Church and Postmodern Culture blog.  First up is Joshua Davis on the introductory chapter 1, who has just posted his engagement on Monday.  The conversation is already picking up nicely.

Here is the rest of the schedule:

  • 19 January – Chapter 2: “Ernst Troeltsch: The Triumph of Ideology and the Eclipse of Apocalyptic”, response by David Congdon
  • 26 January – Chapter 3: “Karl Barth: Foundations for an Apocalyptic Christology”, response by John McDowell
  • 2 February – Chapter 4: “Stanley Hauerwas: Apocalyptic, Narrative Ecclesiology, and ‘the Limits of Anti-Constantinianism’ “, response by John W. Wright
  • 9 February – Chapter 5: “John Howard Yoder: The Singularity of Jesus and the Apocalypticization of History”, response by Douglas Harink
  • 16 February – Chapter 6: “Towards an Apocalyptic Politics of Mission”, response by James K. A. Smith
  • 23 February – Concluding response by Nathan R. Kerr (although he has already been providing helpful clarifying comments already)

Also, Nate informs me that Cascade Books is still offering a 40% off discount if the book purchased through their site using the discount code “KERR40”, bringing the book down to $16.80 (significantly cheaper than Amazon).

Dave Belcher informs us that there will be a panel at this year’s Wesleyan Theological Society conference on Nate’s book as well.  Panelists include Scott Daniels, John Wright, Sam Powell, and Michael Cartwright, with Nate responding, and Dave Belcher at the moderating helm.

Brief Thoughts on Irony


It is often said by the British that Americans do not understand irony. I think this is true depending upon which swath of Americans are being referred to, but by no means is it true in my circles of friends on the West coast. If I remember correctly, though, the place I heard this generalisation uttered was referring more to American pop culture: whereas American pop culture is more defined by glitz, glorification of celebrity, explosions and violence on television on movies, British pop culture, from what I can tell thus far, seems to be more defined by–yes–irony, wittiness (or attempts thereof), and sly humour.

Having now lived in England for a short period of about six months, I’m not so sure if irony is as ‘essential’ to the culture (if there can be such a thing) as just the fact of societal indirectness. When it comes to humour, this is great. But when it comes to relationships it seems like at its worst, such indirectness can quickly become passive aggressive writ large. Although, perhaps Americans are just too direct, too aggressive.

Now, on one level, as long as it moves beyond it’s stylistic embodiments in culture, irony is perfectly fine. Heck, I even wrote an MA thesis partly on irony (“Contradiction, Paradox, and Irony: Theological and Philosophical Stances of Hegel and Kierkegaard”). Søren Kierkegaard, in more ways than one, was an ironic figure, and even extoled the virtues (so to speak) of indirectness and indirect communication. In so many ways, especially within his context of Christendom, Kierkegaard’s approach seems to me the right one — and are we not in the same context?

Yet, I am not always so sure about this. Because of it’s tendencies toward sarcasm (of the biting kind), and because real relationships don’t really seem to work very well if one person thinks they can really be a gadfly, I am reminded of when Jesus said that we should let our “yes be yes” and our “no be no” (Matthew 5:37Open Link in New Window; James 5:12Open Link in New Window). Quintilian’s definition of irony is that the “phenomenon is different from the essence”; in other words, that when one speaks, they do not mean what they say. This is the famous definition of Socratic irony.

I am not entirely sure what to make of this yet… I went to sleep last night thinking of this for some reason. Clearly, I am not going to make some banal claim such that “see, Socrates isn’t Christian” or other obviously anachronistic idiocies. Kierkegaard/Anti-Climacus is correct when he talks about the indirect communication of the God-man in Practice in Christianity, which is something quite different from one’s communication. It’s like the indirectness of the God-man was more an existential one of stance or ‘comportment’. But then, I am reminded that Jesus Christ is the Father’s communication as the Word, so then I get confused again. I’m just thinking aloud.

Absolute and the Divine

The absolute paradox would be if the Son of God became man, came to the world, went around in such a manner that absolutely no one recognized him; if he became an individual human being in the strictest sense of the world, a person who had a trade, got married, etc. . . . In that case God would not have been God and Father of mankind, but the greatest ironist. . . . The divine paradox is that he becomes noticed, if in no other fashion, then by being crucified, by performing miracles, etc., which means that he is recognizable, after all, by his divine authority, even if faith is required in order to solve its paradox.[1]

[1] From Kierkegaard’s journals as quoted in Garff, Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography, p. 265, emphasis mine.  C.f. Kierkegaard, Point of View, p. 16.

When I first read this, I missed the difference between absolute and divine. Wow. If this is a real difference, and I think it is, this is an extremely illuminating passage from Kierkegaard’s journals. I only wish that there were better citations in Garff’s biography so that I could find this passage easier for the full context. Although journals are often fragmentary, so maybe there is not much more (?).  Those are Garff’s ellipses above though, not mine, so I dunno.

The Paradox of the Preface

gp2.jpgTaken from here:

Many authors introduce their books with a caution: it is inevitable that somewhere in this book there is an error. This is a common claim in prefaces. But do the authors that write these claims believe them or not?

If the author is asked of each specific claim in the book Is this an error? then he will say No. For each individual claim that the author makes, he believes that it is true.

If the author believes that each claim is true, though, then mustn’t he believe that every claim is true? A collection of claims, none of which is an error, contains no errors. The author believes that his book is a collection of such claims; he believes that it contains no errors.

Yet the author also believes that somewhere in the book he will have made a mistake. Aware of his fallibility, he believes that not every claim in the book is true, that somewhere in the book there is an error.

What is really odd about this is not that authors have inconsistent beliefs, it is that the author is being perfectly rational in believing both that his book does and does not contain errors.

In Graham Priest’s article “What Is So Bad About Contradictions?” Journal of Philosophy vol. 95 (August 1998), he cites this paradox, which is a perfectly acceptable example, as proof that “Rational belief is not, therefore, closed under logical consequence.” Otherwise, if it was, every author who has a claim like the above would think their book contained a contradiction, but they do not.

And yes, that man in a Karate-style pose pictured above is Graham Priest!

(pseudo-)Paul and the Liar’s Paradox

“Paradoxes have not been handed down through the generations solely by virtue of their intrinsic interest.  Often they hitch a ride on some weightier matter.  For instance, the liar paradox owes some of its currency to the fact that Paul unwittingly packed it into the Bible.” – Roy Sorensen, A Brief History of the Paradox: Philosophy and the Labyrinths of the Mind (New York: OUP, 2003), p. 83.

After reading this statement, re-reading the opening line from Kripke’s “Outline of a Theory of Truth” seemed a lot less ridiculous than I first thought:

Ever since Pilate asked, “What is truth?” (John XVIII, 38), the subsequent search for a correct answer has been inhibited by another problem, which, as is well known, also arises in a New Testament context.  If, as the author of the Epistle to Titus supposes (Titus I, 12), a Cretan prophet, “even a prophet of their own,” asserted that “the Cretans are always liars,” and if “this testimony is true” of all other Cretan utterances, then it seems that the Cretan prophet’s words are true if and only if they are false.  And any treatment of the concept of truth most Somehow circumvent this paradox. (Saul Kripke, “Outline of a Theory of Truth,” Journal of Philosophy, vol. 72 no. 19 [November 6, 1975], p. 690).

Liar’s paradox modification in Labyrinth


Top Red Guard: “You can’t ask us. You can only ask one of us.”
Top Blue Guard: “It’s in the rules, and I should warn you that one of us always tells the truth, and one of us always lies. That’s a rule too.” Gesturing to the TRG, “He always lies!”
TRG: “I do not! I tell the truth!”
TBG: “Oh, what a lie!”
“Alright,” to the TRG, “answer yes or no: would he [TBG] tell me that this door leads to the castle?”
TRG: “Uhhh…yyyes?”
Sarah: “Then, the other door leads to the castle, and this door leads to certain death.”
Both Guards: “oooOOoooh.”
TRG: “How do you know? He could be telling the truth!”
Sarah: “But then he wouldn’t be. So if you told me that he said ‘yes’, I know the answer is ‘no.'”
TRG: “But I could be telling the truth!”
Sarah: “But then he would be lying. So if you told me that he said ‘yes,’ then I know the answer would still be ‘no.'”
TRG: “Wait a minute,” to the TBG, “is that right?”
TBG: “I don’t know –I’ve never understood it!”

Quotations on Irony, Contradiction, and Paradox

“Irony is a way of containing two opposites in your head at the same time.”

–Douglas Coupland, “The Post Modern Ironic Wink,” in To the Best of Our Knowledge, Wisconsin Public Radio, Jun 26, 2005. 

“The Socratic personality was ethical precisely because it was neither fully presented nor at one with itself but in a state of constant presentation.  Indeed, contrary to both traditional and modern readings of Socrates, the Romantics also stressed the contradictions of irony and Socratic irony (Albert 1993).  Irony was not just signaling the opposite of what was said; it was the expression of both sides or viewpoints at once in the form of contradiction or paradox: ‘Irony is the form of paradox.  Paradox is everything simultaneously good and great’ (Schlegel 1991, 6).  And any reader who feels that ‘behind’ the irony there is a hidden sense has fallen into the very simplicity and singleness of viewpoint that irony sets out to destroy.  For Schlegel, therefore, the dissimulation of Socrates was not in the service of intending another higher or non-contradictory idea that the privileged few might understand and that might resolve the dialectic; it was about allowing—almost involuntarily—both sides of a tension: 

Socratic irony is the only involuntary and yet completely deliberate dissimulation.  It is equally impossible to feign it or divulge it.  To a person who hasn’t got it, it will remain a riddle even after it is openly confessed.  It is meant to deceive no one except those who consider it a deception and who either take pleasure in the delightful roguery of making fools of the whole world or else become angry when they get an inkling they themselves might be included.  In this sort of irony, everything should be playful and serious, guilelessly open and deeply hidden . . . It contains and arouses a feeling of indissoluble antagonism between the absolute and the relative, between the impossibility and the necessity of complete communication.  It is a very good sign when the harmonious bores are at a loss about how they should react to this continuous self-parody, when they fluctuate endlessly between belief and disbelief until they get dizzy and take what is meant as a joke seriously and what is meant seriously as a joke. (Schlegel 1991, 13).” 

Claire Colebrook, Irony: The New Critical Idiom (London: Routledge, 2004), pp. 53-4. 

“Irony is a disciplinarian feared only by those who do not know it, but cherished by those who do.  He who does not understand irony and has no ear for its whispering lacks eo ipso what might be called the absolute beginning of the personal life.”

–Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony (1841) 

“…Where the ideas are in action, we have drama; where the agents are in ideation, we have dialectic. 

Obviously, there are elements of ‘dramatic personality’ in dialectic ideation, and elements of dialectic in the mutual influence of dramatic agents in contributing to one another’s ideational development.  You might state all this another way by saying that you cannot have ideas without persons or persons without ideas.  Thus, one might speak of ‘Socratic irony’ as ‘dramatic’ and of ‘dramatic irony’ as ‘Socratic.’ 

Relativism is got by the fragmentation of either drama or dialectic.  That is, if you isolate any one agent in a drama, or any one advocate in a dialogue, and see the whole in terms of his position alone, you have the purely relativistic.  And in relativism there is no irony.  (Indeed, as Cleanth Brooks might say, it is the very absence if irony in relativism that makes it so susceptible to irony.  For relativism sees everything in but one set of terms—and since there are endless other terms in which things could be seen, the irony of the monologue that makes everything in its image would be in this ratio: the greater the absolutism of the statements, the greater the subjectivity and relativity in the position of the agent making the statements.)”

–Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1969), p. 512.