Kierkegaard’s Distinction between Modern and Ancient Scepticism

  • José R. Maia Neto
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives Internationales d’Histoire des Idées book series (ARCH, volume 145)


In this paper I show that Kierkegaard’s attention to and interpretation of Greek scepticism provides him with a major tool in his critique of Modern philosophy and in his apology for Christianity.


Christian Faith Eternal Truth Christian Doctrine Christian Philosophy Objective Uncertainty 
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  1. 1.
    Richard H. Popkin was the first to link Kierkegaard with Modern sceptical traditions: on the one hand, with Hume and Kant (“Hume and Kierkegaard” in Richard H. Popkin, The High Road to Pyrrhonism,[San Diego: Austin Hill Press, 1980], pp. 227–236, first published in The Journal of Religion 31 [1951]: 518–523), on the other hand, with Christian sceptics of the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries in “Kierkegaard and Scepticism” first published in Algemeen Nederlands Tijdschrift voor Wijsbegeerte en Psychologie 51 (1959): 123–141. My paper differs from Popkin’s also in that I am not primarily concerned with Kierkegaard’s own scepticism, but with his view of Greek and Modern scepticism and with the role scepticism plays in his view of Christian faith. I thank Professor Popkin and Professor Richard A. Watson for reading a draft of this paper.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    René Descartes, The philosophical writings of Descartes vol. 2, trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch (Cambridge, New York, New Rochelle, Melbourne, and Sydney: Cambridge University Press, 1985 ), p. 125.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    This is for Kierkegaard a central feature of “speculative” or “abstract” thought. Although he points out that “speculation” begins with Plato, he takes it as characteristic of Modern philosophy. “Because abstract thought is sub specie aeterni it ignores the concrete and the temporal, the existential process, the predicament of the existing individual arising from his being a synthesis of the temporal and the eternal situated in existence.... And something else, too, follows for the abstract thinker himself, namely, that since he is an existing individual he must in one way or another be suffering from absent-mindedness.” (Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript,trans. David F. Swenson and Walter Lowrie [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974], p. 267.)Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong ( Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983 ), p. 5.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Ibid., p. 7.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    “Hyperbolic doubt” is for Kierkegaard the “watchword” of Modern philosophy whose project is to develop a philosophy without presuppositions. Kierkegaard attributes this project not only to Descartes, for historians of philosophy and Spinoza and Hegel are mentioned as supporting the claim that “modern philosophy begins with doubt.” (From Kierkegaard’s journals, quoted in Søren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments & Johannes Climacus,trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985], p. 324.) Ronald Grimsley suggests that Kierkegaard’s first contact with Descartes’s philosophy is through Martensen’s lectures given in the Winter of 1838. Grimsley notes that in these lectures Martensen presents Descartes as the father of Modern philosophy that leads to Hegel. In 1838 Kierkegaard writes a satirical philosophical play in which Descartes’s principles cogito ergo sum and de omnibus dubitandum est are treated as “the State’s philosophical watchword, a palladium which will remove all heresy.” The first mention to Descartes in Kierkegaard’s Journal is from 1836–37, but according to Grimsley, “only in 1842 does Kierkegaard seem have undertaken the serious study of Descartes’s own works” (“Kierkegaard and Descartes,” Journal of the History of Philosophy,4 [1966]: 32–33).Google Scholar
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    Fear and Trembling,pp. 6–7.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 7.Google Scholar
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    Walter Lowrie, Kierkegaard (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983); and Josiah Thompson, Kierkegaard ( New York: Alfred Knopf, 1973 ).Google Scholar
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    Johannes Climacus,pp. 118–119.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 120.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 131.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    From the date of the earliest entries in Kierkegaard’s Journal about Greek scepticism, it is clear that he became acquainted with the Greek sceptics shortly before he began working on Johannes Climacus. (Søren Kierkegaard, Søren Kierkegaard Journals,trans. H. V. Hong and E. H. Hong [Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1967].)Google Scholar
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    Postscript,p. 228.Google Scholar
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    Excerpt from Kierkegaard’s journals. Phil. Frag. & J. Climacus.,pp. 234–235.Google Scholar
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    Phil. Frag. & J. Climacus,p. 165.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Ibid., p. 170.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Lev Shestov makes a similar point in his interpretation of Dostoevsky’s “Notes from the Underground.” The certainty provided by the mathematical truth “2 + 2 = 4” does not conquer the underground man’s doubt (Lev Shestov, In Job’s Balances,trans. Camilla Coventry and C. A. Macartney [Athens: Ohio University Press, 1975], pp. 3–83).Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    The subject implicated in consciousness is not the mere “cognitive subject” of Descartes but “the ethically existing subject.” “The real subject is not the cognitive subject, because in knowing he moves in the sphere of the possible [i.e., sub specie aeternis,the sphere of concepts, not of reality to which existence belongs], the real subject is the ethically existing subject.” (Postscript,p. 281.) Note also the following comment on Descartes’s cogito: “For an abstract thinker to try to prove his existence by the fact that he thinks, is a curious contradiction; for in the degree that he thinks abstractly he abstracts from his own existence.” (Postscript,p. 281.)Google Scholar
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    Phil. Frag. & J. Cilmacus.,p. 170.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 170.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 82Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 81.Google Scholar
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    “We say that ‘he does not dogmatize using’ dogma in the sense ...of assent to one of the non-evident objects of scientific inquiry, for the Pyrrhonean philosopher assents to nothing that is non-evident.” (Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism [New York: Loeb Classical Library, 1933], vol. 1, p. 11.)Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    Sextus Empiricus, op. cit., p. 17.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Phil. Frag. & J. Climacus,p. 82.Google Scholar
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    Postscript,p. 282.Google Scholar
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    Phil. Frg. & J. Climacus,pp. 82–83.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    “With regard to the objects investigated by philosophy...some have claimed to have discovered the truth, others have asserted that it cannot be apprehended...the Sceptics keep on searching.”(Sextus Empiricus, op. cit., p. 3.)Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    Phil. Frag. & J. Climacus,p. 262.Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    Ibid., p. 262.Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    Ibid., p. 84.Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals,vol. 2, p. 319 and vol. 6, p. 21.Google Scholar
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    Blackwell, Constance, “Diogenes Laertius’ Life of Pyrrho and the interpretation of ancient Scepticism in history of philosophy — Stanley through Brucker to Tennemann,” in Scepticism and Religion in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, R. H. Popkin (ed.) ( Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1993 ), pp. 324–357.Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    Sextus Empiricus, op. cit., p. 19.Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    Bumyeat, Myles, “Can the Sceptic Live His Scepticism?” in Doubt and Dogmatism: Studies in Hellenistic Epistemology, M. Schofield, M. Burnyeat, and J. Barnes (eds.) ( Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980 ), p. 39.Google Scholar
  37. 37.
    Sextus Empiricus, op. cit., p. 15.Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    Ibid., p. 21.Google Scholar
  39. 39.
    Ibid., p. 3 and p. 15.Google Scholar
  40. 40.
    Myles Burnyeat, op cit., pp. 51–52.Google Scholar
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    Hegel is another important source of Kierkegaard’s view of scepticism. For Hegel, genuine scepticism is the affirmation of conscience through the negation of the finite external. “This certainty of itself thus has as a result the rest and security of the mind itself, which is not touched with any grief, and of which doubt is the direct opposite. This is the standpoint of the imperturbability of Scepticism” (George W. Friedrich, Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy [London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 18960, vol. 2, p. 333 ).Google Scholar
  42. 42.
    Postscript,p. 180.Google Scholar
  43. 43.
    Marie Mikulova Thulstrup, “Studies of Pietists, Mystics, and Church Fathers,” inKierkegaard’s View of Christianity,eds. Niels Thulstrup and Marie Mikulova Thulstrup (Copenhagen: C. A. Reitzels Boghandel A/S, 1978), pp. 60–80.Google Scholar
  44. 44.
    Cited by W. von Kloeden, “The Early Period,” in, ibid., p. 47.Google Scholar
  45. 45.
    Cited by Louis P. Pojman, “Kierkegaard on faith and freedom,” Philosophy of Religion 27 (1990): 47.Google Scholar
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    Jackie Kleinman, “Kierkegaard - Some Unfinished Business,” Inquiry 19 (1976): 486–492.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. 47.
    Cited by T. H. Croxall, “An Assessment,” in Søren Kierkegaard, Johannes Climacus ( Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1958 ), p. 23 ).Google Scholar
  48. 48.
    Louis P. Pojman, op. cit., pp. 41–42.Google Scholar
  49. 49.
    Louis P. Pojman, The Logic of Subjectivity, Kierkegaard’s Philosophy of Religion ( University: The University of Alabama Press, 1984 ), pp. 131–143.Google Scholar
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    Postscript,p. 182.Google Scholar
  51. 51.
    This is one of Shestov’s main concerns and the reason for his extreme opposition to Kant.Google Scholar
  52. 52.
    Postscript,p. 316.Google Scholar
  53. 53.
    Ibid., p. 188.Google Scholar
  54. 54.
    Ibid., p. 299.Google Scholar
  55. 55.
    This objection is raised by Terence Penelhum (“Sceptics, Believers, and Historical Mistakes,” Synthese 67 [1986]: 145); Henry Allison (“Christianity and Nonsense,” in Essays on Kierkegaard,ed. Jerry H. Gill [Minneapolis: Burgess, 1969], p. 144); and Louis Pojman (The Logic of Subjectivity,pp. 123–124).Google Scholar
  56. 56.
    Postscript,p. 153.Google Scholar
  57. 57.
    This criticism is raised by Terence Penelhum (God and Scepticism [Dordrecht, Boston, and Lancaster: D. Reidel, 19831]); and by Françoise Caujolle-Zaslawsky (“L’interprétation du scepticisme comme philosophie du doute religieux: analyse d’un malentendu,” Revue de Théoloqie et de Philosophie 27 [1977]: 81–112).Google Scholar
  58. 58.
    Blaise Pascal is another partial exception. I argue for this view in J. R. M. Neto, The Christianization at Pyrrhonism: Scepticism and Faith in Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Shestov ( Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1995 ).Google Scholar
  59. 59.
    David J. Gouwens, “Kierkegaard’s Understanding of Doctrine,” Modern Theology 5 (1988): 13–22; Joseph Rouse, “Kierkegaard on Truth,” Idealistic Studies 18 (1988): 145–168; and Robert Solomon, “Kierkegaard and `Subjective Truth’,” Philosophy Today 21 (1977): 202– 215.Google Scholar
  60. 60.
    Postscript,p. 291.Google Scholar
  61. 61.
    Ibid., p. 116. One must be careful at this point, however, because Kierkegaard, but not Climacus, claims in his book on Adler that Christianity is objective (cf. Per Lonning, “The Period up to the Ethical Religious Essays,” in Kierkegaard’s View of Christianity,p. 144).Google Scholar
  62. 62.
    Sextus Empiricus, op. cit., p. 17.Google Scholar
  63. 63.
    Postscript,p. 166.Google Scholar
  64. 64.
    Ibid., p. 350.Google Scholar
  65. 65.
    Ibid., p. 350.Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1996

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  • José R. Maia Neto

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