Talking Kierkegaard With ‘Non-Traditional’ Students

Philosophy being the discipline it is, I often find myself commenting on the identity of my students: it is how I remind those on the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’ that there are possibilities here, not always acknowledged, of ways of thinking about the practice of philosophy, inside and outside the classroom. I offer this vague preamble to set up a brief note about a wonderful discussion that took place in my classroom yesterday morning.

Our assigned reading was an excerpt from Kierkegaard‘s Fear and Trembling: the section on the ‘Teleological Suspension of the Ethical,’ which draws upon the Old Testament legend of Abraham and Isaac. I was apprehensive about the reading assignment; Kierkegaard is not straightforward at the best of times.

I needn’t have worried; his central thesis, of individual, incommunicable to the rest of the world, departure from the universal ethical to a personally determined goal or purpose, was highlighted quickly. We were able to examine this claim in the context of the story of Abraham and Isaac and to contrast it with the behavior of the ‘tragic hero’ in the legend of Iphigenia:

The difference between the tragic hero and Abraham is clearly evident. The tragic hero still remains within the ethical. He lets one expression of the ethical find its telos in a higher expression of the ethical; the ethical relation…he reduces to a sentiment which has its dialectic in its relation to the idea of morality. Here there can be no question of a teleological suspension of the ethical itself….With Abraham the situation was different. By his act he overstepped the ethical entirely and possessed a higher telos outside of it, in relation to which he suspended the former.

The discussion in class was dominated by four women students: two African-American, one Pakistani, one Jewish. Each drew upon the text, drawing the class’ attention to passages–like the one above–they thought were crucial and deserving of closer attention and analysis. One of them–no prizes for guessing which one–placed the legend in a broader context, supplying details from the Old Testament which enabled a better understanding of Abraham’s actions. Each, by focusing on the text, enabled its close reading and analysis for the benefit of their class mates. My responses to these students–in making note of how such ‘individual faith’ can come to resemble madness, and how Kierkegaard finds Abraham simultaneously worth admiring and yet incomprehensible and “appalling”–invoked the examples of CS Lewisinfamous trilemma arguing for the Divinity of Jesus and Jon Krakauer‘s  Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. They responded to these, in turn, with sharp and perceptive insights and further questioning. (They responded to my little joke about how Sarah would have told God to get lost with a few chuckles.) In responding to these, and in trying to offer as charitable an interpretation of Kierkegaard’s claims as possible, we were able to revisit central existentialist themes and establish connections with Kierkegaard’s distinctive relationship to theism and organized religion.

I could not help thinking, as I interacted with these students, of what a distinctively pleasurable moment it was to see them, by their presence in the classroom, and their responses to the reading, demolishing preconceptions and helping reconceive philosophy and philosophical practice in the process.

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