D. Anthony Storm's Commentary on Kierkegaard

Second Period: Indirect Communication (1843-46)

Johannes Climacus

  • Johannes Climacus, or De omnibus dubitandum est. A Narrative
  • Johannes Climacus, eller De omnibus dubitandum est. En Fortælling
  • 1842-43, left unfinished, published posthumously
  • KW7, SKS15, Søren Kierkegaards Papirer

Johannes Climacus is the author of the Philosophical Fragments and its companion piece, the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, as well as this posthumous work Johannes Climacus, or De omnibus dubitandum est. He might thus be deemed the author of Kierkegaard's greatest philosophical works. The style of Climacus varies from each of the three productions, but they are singular as to their dialectical mission. Kierkegaard took this name from a Greek monk (c. 570-649) who was the abbot of Saint Catherine's of Alexandria on Mt. Sinai. He was the author of the work Klimax tou Paradeisou (translated into Latin as Scala Paradisi), or Ladder of Paradise (Klimax being the Greek for ladder). This book, incidentally, was the first book to be printed in the New World, translated into Spanish (Mexico, 1532). Climacus' work was written for a monastic audience. He says that no one should attempt the contemplative life without first warring against and subduing the passions. The ladder is thus a series of thirty steps which ultimately lead to impassibility and imperturbability, not entirely unlike the ataraxia of the Epicureans, except that Epicureans seek to escape the troubles of the world for quiet contemplative pleasure while Climacus strove for the heavenly vision. As The Imitation of Christ is one of the most popular devotional works outside of the Bible in the West, the Ladder has long achieved the same importance in the East. It is read every Lent in Orthodox monasteries, and is appointed to be read aloud in church or in the refectory.

For Kierkegaard, the pseudonym Johannes Climacus represents the subjective approach to knowledge, though this Climacus is not a believer. The ladder is not then the ascent to God but is meant to call to mind an ascending series of logical plateaus, where the logician, represented particularly by Descartes and Hegel, proceeds from one premise to the next. Johannes rejects this method in spiritual matters, thinking it ridiculous to approach the Absolute in any way except through faith. He is concerned with subjective knowledge and with the leap (for more on the leap see A Primer on Kierkegaardian Motifs). Though Johannes is no Christian, he leads the reader up to the point by which he can make a decision. Objective knowledge, which is the avowed goal of rational philosophers, is impossible to appropriate by subjective creatures. Thus Kierkegaard was concerned with knowledge that would encourage the soul to turn to God. But again, Johannes claims not to be a Christian, since he has not yet reached that knowledge of God. The rigorous ascent to God toward impassibility has been replaced by the very passionate and subjective approach to truth whereby the believer, by virtue of the absurd, finds himself before Christ.

Johannes Climacus, like Repetition, is an unorthodox philosophical work, in that it is in narrative form. Though unfinished as of 1843, Kierkegaard began it in the previous year. Here he uses the pseudonym as the subject of the work. The Latin subtitle means "One must doubt everything", and that is what Johannes sets out to do. This is meant to recall the young Descartes who began his Meditations by seeking to remove all presuppositions, except that which is unassailably self-evident. Descartes, in his famous dictum Cogito ergo sum [I think therefore I am], posited the existence of the self based on the activity or presence of the cognitive process. In other words, Descartes reasoned that since his "I" thought, he therefore had an "I" which existed in the process of thinking. He needed to posit the self so that he could posit God and the world. This does not mean that Descartes conceived God's existence to be less necessary. Ontologically, God's existence is prior to that of man. But epistemologically, Descartes felt constrained to give man primacy. This philosophical shift was a colossal moment in the history of thought.

However, Descartes maintained that the Scriptures were true. This would appear to make a divide between different kinds of truth. How did Descartes, after all, come to know the veracity of the Scriptures? Why were the Scriptures not the object of his scrutiny? His explanation for not appealing to an a priori acceptance of Scripture is that it would appear to unbelievers to be a circular argument. This might make it appear that his "method" was solely for unbelievers. Whether Descartes' nod to Scripture was also designed to satisfy the Church, I cannot say.

Kierkegaard would not suffer any such dichotomy of kinds of truth as metaphysical versus physical, and so forth. Nor would he consent to the methodology of skepticism. When Descartes reasoned that he had an "I" because his "I" was engaged in cognitive activity, could he not have equally claimed that he possessed an "I" because it was engaged in the act of faith or in the act of being in love?—realizing, of course, that the objects of thought, whether God or the world, do not exist because they are thought. (Descartes would have acknowledged this too.) However, one would like to know why this particular activity of his "I" was more important than any other activity, so as to posit it as the primary act of one's own existence.

In Concluding Unscientific Postscript Kierkegaard refers to the Cogito ergo sum, calling it a tautology. That is, the conclusion is a repetition of the premise.

If the I in cogito is understood to be an individual human being, then the statement demonstrates nothing: I am thinking ergo I am, but if I am thinking, no wonder, then, that I am; after all, it has already been said... (p. 317).

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) is the second philosopher that Kierkegaard has in mind. Hegel sought to devise a philosophical system that would encompass all thought. He posited the famous triad: a thesis yields an antithesis, which then yields, along with the thesis, a synthesis or unity, which in turn becomes a new thesis. Kierkegaard refused to place the highest premium on cognitive activity. His emphasis on the self was always on the self in relation to God, the self "before God", not the self in isolation, positing itself as a kind of summa summarum. In Johannes Climacus Kierkegaard seeks to show the impossibility of developing, much less living, such a philosophy. This is especially important because the popular and influential philosophy of his day, Hegelianism, was a comprehensive system. How, Kierkegaard often asked, could someone within the system (a philosopher) devise an all-encompassing system as if he were outside it? Hence Kierkegaard's utter rejection of speculative philosophy, especially Hegel's system.

Kierkegaard questions why modern philosophy begins with doubt. Why is skepticism a superior method of knowledge acquisition? Would not an utter skepticism be self-contradictory, since it would doubt everything except the very process of skepticism? Moreover, skepticism cannot outrightly reject the absolute, since the presupposition to doubt everything is an absolute. A true doubter may come to reject the method of doubt at some point. Could there be a different basis for philosophizing? In his journals, Kierkegaard offered an alternative, and a criticism of the limitations of skepticism.

What skeptics should really be caught in is the ethical. Since Descartes they have all thought that during the period in which they doubted they dared not to express anything definite with regard to knowledge, but on the other hand they dared to act, because in this respect they could be satisfied with probability. What an enormous contradiction! As if it were not far more dreadful to do something about which one is doubtful (thereby incurring responsibility) than to make a statement. Or was it because the ethical in itself is uncertain? But then there was something which doubt itself could not reach!

Man is in the world and yet before God. All that he does and says comes under the rubric of the ethical. One cannot apply skepticism coherently in one's daily living. True skepticism is speculative, hypothetical and decidedly non-existential.

Johannes Climacus is divided into two parts. Part One is entitled "Johannes Climacus Begins To Philosophize With The Aid Of Traditional Ideas". The narrative begins with Johannes pondering the three principles of philosophy which he has learned: "(1) philosophy begins with doubt; (2) in order to philosophize, one must have doubted; (3) modern philosophy begins with doubt." Thesis one was held by Descartes and Hans L. Martensen, 1808-1884, a professor of theology at the University of Copenhagen, and later Bishop of Zealand. Martensen was a Hegelian, whom Kierkegaard would later publicly oppose. Thesis two is again supported by Hegelianism, the prevailing philosophy of the time. Thesis three emphasizes modern philosophy, which is often thought to begin with Descartes. Kierkegaard is concerned not only with the presupposition of doubt in philosophy, but he also wished to question whether philosophy before Descartes presupposed doubt, that is, whether doubt is an integral, and therefore necessary, feature of philosophy. Chapter One is entitled "Modern Philosophy Begins With Doubt". After examining the theses, Kierkegaard asks:

How Did It Happen that Modern Philosophy Began with Doubt?

Kierkegaard first considers whether it was "by accident that modern philosophy began with doubt" but finds the evidence inconclusive. Next he asks, "Was it by necessity that modern philosophy begin with doubt?"

Now [Johannes] asked what the nature of that which preceded must have been in order to necessitate modern philosophy's beginning with doubt, whether that which preceded was a philosophy or something else. Answering his own question, he decided that, according to the wording of the thesis, it had to be a philosophy. Of what nature must the philosophy have been that could make it necessary for modern philosophy to begin with doubt? Whether that philosophy, which by way of its precedence had made it necessary for modern philosophy to begin with doubt, whether that philosophy and modern philosophy alone were philosophy, so that if there formerly had been a philosophy in the world that had begun some other way, that philosophy would have to reconcile itself to not being philosophy? He inquired further whether that antecedent philosophy itself was begun by accident or necessity. Lest he be led too far, he tried to explain the following: If modern philosophy by necessity begins with doubt, then its beginning is defined in continuity with an earlier philosophy. Then if we wanted to say something historical about what philosophy begins with, we presumably should rather mention that with which the antecedent philosophy began, inasmuch as the beginning of modern philosophy would be only a consequence within an earlier beginning.... The beginning philosopher could never be justified in saying: With me begins modern philosophy.... In all this deliberating, Johannes Climacus did not advance one step (p. 137f.).

Johannes concludes that philosophy must be exceedingly difficult. This is doubtless a reference to the snare of Hegelianism, specifically the concept of the Zeitgeist, literally time-spirit, which is the necessary and purposeful unfolding of history. This is a type of historicism, or a belief that history has a built-in telos.

Thus, the individual philosopher must become conscious of himself and in this consciousness of himself also become conscious of his significance as a moment in modern philosophy; in turn modern philosophy must become conscious of itself as an element in a prior philosophy, which in turn must become conscious of itself as an element in the historical unfolding of the eternal philosophy.... He became discouraged... (p. 140f.).

Chapter Two is entitled "Philosophy Begins With Doubt". Johannes again wonders how thesis one and three really differ, and how philosophy before and after Descartes (and Hegel) differ in their approach. He cannot see a difference in the premises. He asks "How Does The Single Individual Relate To That Thesis?" Descartes sat alone in his meditations and erased everything in his skepticism. Kierkegaard's solitary philosopher does not begin by positing only himself. On the contrary, "he was not, after all, asking about the relation of that thesis to philosophy, but about his relation to that thesis and his thereby possible relation to philosophy" (p. 150). For Kierkegaard it is the individual's relation or encounter with philosophy.

If, for example, a person elevated himself above sense perception in order to philosophize and someone else for the same reason doubted sense perception, both would perhaps arrive at the same place, but the movements would be different, and the movement, of course, was what he was asking about in particular (p. 150).

Johannes remained confused. The final, short chapter of Part One is entitled "In Order To Philosophize, One Must Have Doubted". Johannes can only assume that the role of doubting assists the teacher-disciple relationship, in that the disciple, by doubting, is on equal footing with the teacher. "Come what may", he says, he will see this principle to the end.

Part Two is quite short, as the work was left unfinished. It is called "Johannes Tries To Think Propriis Auspiciis [On His Own Behalf] De Omnibus Dubitandum Est". The narrative informs us that Johannes pondered these theses for some time within the depths of his soul. Johannes became discouraged listening to different philosophers. He decided to give up philosophy and "to make everything as simple as possible". The only chapter in Part Two is entitled "What Is It To Doubt?" It is a particularly difficult chapter.

[Johannes] had to take another route if he sought to find an answer to that question. He had to search out doubt's ideal possibility in consciousness. This, of course, had to remain the same, however different the occasioning phenomenon was, since it, without itself being explained by the phenomenon, explained the effect of the phenomenon. Then whatever produced doubt in the individual could be as different as it pleased; if this possibility were not in the individual, nothing would be able to evoke it.... He then sought to orient himself in consciousness as it is in itself, as that which explains every specific consciousness, yet without being itself a specific consciousness. He asked what the nature of consciousness would be when it had doubt outside itself.... Immediacy is precisely indeterminateness. In immediacy there is no relation.... Immediately, therefore, everything is true, but this truth is untruth the very next moment, for in immediacy everything is untrue. If consciousness can remain in immediacy, then the question of truth is cancelled (p. 167f.).

Unlike Descartes, Kierkegaard was anxious to ground philosophical truth in something more concrete than human consciousness. One can explain the effect of a phenomenon, if one cannot explain the phenomenon itself. Immediacy, which he later defines as "reality", is that which the thing is in and of itself without the mediation of language (or ideality). Utter reality cannot be absolutely determined in itself. Language's description of it is ideal, and not the thing itself. Moreover, to finite consciousness all immediacy (reality) is true or untrue equally until it is mediated. In other words, unmediated reality is opaque to us.

Immediacy is reality; language is ideality; consciousness is contradiction. The moment I make a statement about reality, contradiction is present, for what I say is ideality (p. 168).

Contradiction appears in the expression (through language) of reality (immediacy, that is, that which is not mediated by something). The contradictory nature of consciousness is Kierkegaard's answer to the various interpretations of things and to our ability to express them. Kierkegaard posits contradiction as the first principle of "reflection" in the consciousness. However, the mind (consciousness) which can stand outside of the contradiction is a third thing in the relation.

The categories of consciousness, however, are trichotomous.... Admittedly, language seems to conflict with this, for in most languages...the term "to doubt" is etymologically related to the word "two." ...this merely suggested the presupposition of doubt, all the more so since it was clear...that as soon as I as mind become two, I am eo ipso three. If there were nothing but dichotomies, doubt would not exist, for the possibility of doubt resides precisely in the third, which places the two in relation to each other. We could not therefore say that reflection produces doubt, unless we could express ourselves in reverse; we must say that doubt pre-supposes reflection, without, however, this prius [prior thing] being temporary. Doubt arises by way of relation between the two, but for this to happen the two must be.... Doubt is a higher form than any objective thinking, for it presupposes the latter but has something more, a third, which is interest or consciousness (p. 169).

Again, Kierkegaard is difficult to understand here. He seems to be saying that doubt is a positive stance for the negative, that is, doubt is not a pause, a hesitation that awaits further data, but a decisive stance against something. It is not a nothing, but a something. This fact is often overlooked. The skeptic positively asserts his epistemological position, whatever it may be. The "trichotimous" aspect of thought would seem to refer to the mediation that we apply to the two perceived sides of a cognitive issue. But the work ends abruptly with Johannes considering the Greek skeptics to be far more consistent than modern philosophers. The reader is left not quite sure how Kierkegaard would have explicated himself, or where he would have taken Johannes.

A journal entry suggests how Kierkegaard might have finished the work.

Doubt is conquered not by the system but by faith, just as it is faith that has brought doubt into the world (Journals, IV B 13).