Lesson 4: Themes from the Fragments

The two works attributed to Johannes Climacus as author, which are meant to describe the movement away from philosophy - that is peculiarly philosophical misunderstandings - to a true realization of what it means to be a Christian, have a style appropriate to their target, but we must not think that their method is a philosophical refutation of the Kantian and Hegelian claims. These books are not philosophical in that sense. Like the other pseudonymous works they are exercises in indirect communication. They are devised to provide occasions for the nominally Christian thinker to see how distorted an account of Christianity he has philosophically accepted. At that point, he might jettison either his faith or his philosophy, but the hope is that he will see that his philosophical account is not an account of what Christianity truly is.

The Fragments

The initial step of the Fragments is to recall what we mean when we say that Socrates is a teacher. Socrates is of course the name of a definite historical personage and peculiar and distinctive doctrines are associated with his name. For example, that when we say we learn something we are really just remembering it. That is not the Socrates who has a role to play in the Fragments. It is not that his peculiar account is rejected but rather that it is seen as an instance of something generic that is found in any account of a human teacher.

The teacher addresses a student. Not only does this transaction presuppose that the student understands the language the teacher speaks, the teacher assumes that the students has the capacity to understand what he is saying. The teacher doesn't give that capacity but, again, presupposes it. This means that, if the student learns what is being taught, he does so by employing a capacity he already has. Thus, when he comes to understand what is taught, he understands. Of course, he acknowledges that the teacher was the occasion for this happening, but the teacher is not the cause of it in the sense that what is learned is held on the basis of the teacher's having taught it. When I understand that the sum of the internal angles of a plane triangle is 180 degrees I do not add "as Father Casey said." He did say this, of course, and he taught me plane geometry, but if I understand him I am no longer dependent on him, I don't hold the proposition to be true because he says so but because I understand it and know it to be true.

So those are two elements present when we speak of the human teacher, call him Socrates. Such a teacher presupposes that his student has the capacity to understand; furthermore, the teacher is an occasion for the student's understanding. And there is a third element and that is that the time I learned this truth is not part of what I learned. I don't learn that the sum of the internal angles of a plane triangle are equal to 180 degrees at 10.30 on October 1944, even if it should have been the case that that was the precise time I understood it. If that were relevant to my understanding it it would have to be relevant to you and anyone else understanding it, and of course it isn't. You listened to other voices in other rooms at other times and however you cherish those memories of your initiation into the mysteries of plane geometry they are not part of what you understand when you understand a geometrical truth.

Very well. All this is obvious. It is meant to be. Johannes Climacus lays it out far more elegantly than this. Then what? Then he suggests that we imagine what a non-Socratic teacher would be like. That is, a teacher whose activity did not involve the three elements of our generic Socrates' activities. All he need do is negate those elements.

The non-Socratic teacher will not presuppose the capacity for the truth is his disciple; rather, he will confer that capacity.

The non-Socratic teacher will not be a mere occasion for grasping the truth; he will be the truth grasped.

The non-Socratic teacher is one whose activity is characterized by the time in which he acts.

Climacus now begins to reflect on these negative elements in the case of the non-Socratic teacher. If in the case of Socrates, the student has the capacity and is inclined to the truth, in the non-Socratic case he is antithetical to the truth, receding from it. The capacity the non-Socratic teacher gives him must counter this polemical or negative attitude toward the truth. We might say that he saves the disciple from error. We might call the time in which he appears the Fulness of Time. The negative state of the disciple vis-a-vis the non-Socratic teacher may be called Sin.

At this point, Climacus imagines his reader's reaction. What he has proposed as a through experiment, a kind of construction of a possibility, has a very familiar ring to it. Indeed it does. Christ is not mentioned but the point indirectly being made is that Christ the Teacher is not at all like a human teacher, another Socrates. Everything about his teaching differs from that of the merely human teacher.

Has Climacus proved that there is such a non-Socratic teacher? No. All he hopes to do here is provide his reader who may have confused the truth of Christianity with natural or philosophical truth with an occasion to see that this is a distortion of orthodox Christianity. And what will the reader do then? That is up to him.

Proving God's Existence

The reduction of Christianity to the categories of philosophy by Kant and Hegel is vulnerable to the reminder made by Climacus. Theirs is a substitute for Christianity rather than a true grasp of what it is. The truths of Christianity are not amenable to teaching and learning in the usual sense. All that seems right as rain.

But Climacus is not content with this. Apparently he associates such Kantian and Hegelian distortions with any philosophical effort to arrive at knowledge of God. Thus, we find him attacking the whole effort to formulate proofs of God's existence. The heart of his criticism is sweeping indeed. The reason we cannot prove the existence of God is that we cannot prove the existence of anything. Proofs always presuppose existence; they do not establish it.

Is that true? When Sherlock Holmes identifies the perpetrator of a crime has he proved the existence of a criminal? If we assume that Fifi LaRue is a suspect and that Sherlock proves she did it, that is what he proves, not that Fifi exists. So Climacus may seem to have a point. But what if the upshot of the investigation is that no crime has been committed and that thus none of the suspects is the criminal. Here we might say that there is a state of affairs we took to involve a crime and now we see it does not. But we neither prove or disprove the existence of the state of affairs. Again, Climacus seems to have a point.

So let's try this. An astronomer has observed certain phenomena and he develops the hypothesis that their explanation is a planet called Zircon hitherto unknown, never observed, whose gravitational field explains the phenomena in question. We would not say that he has proved the existence of Zircon. Indeed, we can imagine him and ourselves asking, but is there a Zircon, does Zircon exist? Deep minds devote themselves to the matter. And then a brilliant suggestion is made. If there is such a planet it should become visible at exactly 11:24 at an observatory in the Midwest on such and such a date. Its appearance or non-appearance will be proof positive of the existence or non-existence of Zircon.

Telescopes are readied, trained on the spot, a hush falls over the northern hemisphere. Of two things one. 11:24 comes and goes and Zircon does not appear. Or 11:24 comes and voila, there is Zircon. Reporters report that the existence of Zircon has been proved. Are they guilty of sloppy thinking, of a fallacy perhaps? If Climacus were to say that the whole enterprise presupposed the existence of Zircon, would he be right? Only in the sense that the negative result too presupposed the existence of Zircon. Zircon is the name we give to the presumed cause of the phenomena with which we began. What Climacus could of course rightly say is that our proof does not produce the existence - or the non-existence - of Zircon. If Zircon did not exist we could not come to know that it does. But before we know it, we don't know it, and what proves do is to move us from not-knowing to knowing.

Well, one could go on. If this is meant to do away with the very possibility of a natural theology - that is, proofs of God's existence that function like other natural proofs - it just doesn't. Fortunately, that is not the major aim of the Fragments.

What Climacus is opposing, the philosophy he wishes to lead us from, is what St. Paul had in mind in Colossians when he said videte ne quis vos decipiat per philosophiam: watch out lest you be led astray by philosophy. This is philosophy forgetful of its limits. Philosophy that assumes that anything put forward as a truth must be subject to its canons and criteria. It is when philosophy presumes that the mysteries of the faith are either intelligible to natural reason, like any other truth claim, or are false, that philosophy has gone off the rails. It is the mysteries of faith, especially the nature of Christ the teacher, that Climacus is concerned to defend against the encroachments of false and presumptuous philosophy.


What characterizes the disciple of Christ is faith. How is faith described in the Fragments? In speaking of God - quite apart from attempted proofs - Climacus proposes that we recognize that God is the unknown. Moreover, he suggests the somewhat romantic notion that our desire of knowledge secretly wills its own downfall or failure. That is, the desire to know is a covert quest for the unknown, what cannot be known, what exceeds our capacity to know. If God is the Unknown then of course we have a kind of natural desire to know God, which means knowing that he cannot be known. All this is paradoxical, and the object of faith is a paradox.

Of course we might react in different ways to this affront on what we take to be the natural character of reasoning. What is proposed can be rejected as absurd, as nonsense. Well, that is what it is, in a sense. It lies behind our capacity to understand, is the secret telos of our passion to know. To reject it is called by Climacus the unhappy passion. On the other hand, the acceptance is the happy passion, which is another name for faith.

Faith does not understand what is proposed - it is an absolute paradox, not only the Unknown but the Unknown become present in time - but it withdraws all objects to it and rests in the acceptance of it.

On the title page of Philosophical Fragments we find the following complex question: "'Can a historical point of departure be given for an eternal consciousness; how can such a point of departure be of more than historical interest; can an eternal happiness be built on historical knowledge?'" If the Fragments as we have discussed it thus far may seem to be directed against the Kantian misunderstanding, we turn now to Climacus on the Hegelian misunderstanding.

Suggested Reading

Philosophical Fragments, chapters one and two.

Suggested Writing

Compare and discuss the reason for distinguishing the Socratic and the non-Socratic teacher.


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