“The Absolute Paradox”

from Philosophical Fragments, by Søren Kierkegaard

... Paradox is the passion of thought, and the thinker without the paradox is like the lover without passion: a mediocre fellow. But the ultimate potentiation of every passion is always to will its own downfall, and so it is also the ultimate passion of the understanding to will the collision, although in one way or another the collision must become its downfall. This, then, is the ultimate paradox of thought: to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think. This passion of thought is fundamentally present everywhere in thought ...

But what is this unknown against which the understanding in its paradoxical passion collides and which even disturbs man and his self-knowledge? It is the unknown. But it is not a human being, insofar as he knows man, or anything else that he knows. Therefore, let us call this unknown the god.1 It is only a name we give to it.


It hardly occurs to the understanding to want to demonstrate that this unknown (the god) exists. If, namely, the god does not exist, then of course it is impossible to demonstrate it. But if he does exist, then it is foolishness to want to demonstrate it, since I, in the very moment the demonstration commences, would presuppose it not as doubtful—which a presupposition cannot be, inasmuch as it is a presupposition—but as decided, because otherwise I would not begin, easily perceiving that the whole thing would be impossible if he did not exist. If, however, I interpret the expression “to demonstrate the existence of the god” to mean that I want to demonstrate that the unknown, which exists, is the god, then I do not express myself very felicitously, for then I demonstrate nothing, least of all an existence, but I develop the definition of a concept. It is generally a difficult matter to want to demonstrate that something exists—worse still, for the brave souls who venture to do it, the difficulty is of such a kind that fame by no means awaits those who are preoccupied with it. The whole process of demonstration continually becomes something entirely different, becomes an expanded concluding development of what I conclude from having presupposed that the object of investigation exists. Therefore, whether I am moving in the world of sensate palpability or in the world of thought, I never reason in conclusion to existence, but I reason in conclusion from existence. For example, I do not demonstrate that a stone exists but that something which exists is a stone. The court of law does not demonstrate that a criminal exists but that the accused, who does indeed exist, is a criminal. Whether one wants to call existence an accessorium [addition] or the eternal prius [presupposition], it can never be demonstrated. We shall take our time; after all, there is no reason for us to rush as there is for those who, out of concern for themselves, or for the god, or for something else, must rush to get proof that something exists. In that case, there is good reason to make haste, especially if the one involved has in all honesty made an accounting of the danger that he himself or the object being investigated does not exist until he proves it and does not dishonestly harbor the secret thought that essentially it exists whether he demonstrates it or not.

If one wanted to demonstrate Napoleon’s existence from Napoleon’s works, would it not be most curious, since his existence certainly explains the works but

the works do not demonstrate his existence unless I have already in advance interpreted the word “his” in such a way as to have assumed that he exists. But Napoleon is only an individual, and to that extent there is no absolute relation between him and his works—thus someone else could have done the same works. Perhaps that is why I cannot reason from the works to existence. If I call the works Napoleon’s works, then the demonstration is superfluous, since I have already mentioned his name. If I ignore this, I can never demonstrate from the works that they are Napoleon’s but demonstrate (purely ideally) that such works are the works of a great general, etc. However, between the god and his works there is an absolute relation. God is not a name but a concept, and perhaps because of that his essentia involvit existentiam [essence involves existence].

God’s works, therefore, only the god can do. Quite correct. But, then, what are the god’s works? The works from which I want to demonstrate his existence do not immediately and directly exist, not at all. Or are the wisdom in nature and the goodness or wisdom in Governance right in front of our noses? Do we not encounter the most terrible spiritual trials here, and is it ever possible to be finished with all these trials? But I still do not demonstrate God’s existence from such an order of things, and even if I began, I would never finish and also would be obliged continually to live in suspenso2 lest something so terrible happen that my fragment of demonstration would be ruined. Therefore, from what works do I demonstrate it? From the works regarded ideally—that is, as they do not appear directly and immediately. But then I do not demonstrate it from the works, after all, but only develop the ideality I have presupposed; trusting in that, I even dare to defy all objections, even those that have not yet arisen. By beginning, then, I have presupposed the ideality, have presupposed that I will succeed in accomplishing it, but what else is that but presupposing that the god exists and actually beginning with trust in him?

3 Cartesian dolls: tumbler dolls with off-center weights inside that make the dolls roll to their feet when released [D.C.A., after H.V.H/E.H.H., eds. and trans.]

anything better. For the fool says in his heart that there is no God,4 but he who says in his heart or to others: Just wait a little and I shall demonstrate it—ah, what a rare wise man he is! If, at the moment he is supposed to begin the demonstration, it is not totally undecided whether the god exists or not, then, of course, he does not demonstrate it, and if that is the situation in the beginning, then he never does make a beginning—partly for fear that he will not succeed because the god may not exist, and partly because he has nothing with which to begin. In ancient times, such a thing would have been of hardly any concern. At least Socrates, who did indeed advance what is called the physico-teleological demonstration for the existence of God,5 did not conduct himself in this way. He constantly presupposes that the god exists, and on this presupposition he seeks to infuse nature with the idea of fitness and purposiveness. If he had been asked why he conducted himself in this manner, he presumably would have explained that he lacked the kind of courage needed to dare to embark on such a voyage of discovery without having behind him the assurance that the god exists. At the god’s request, he casts out his net, so to speak, to catch the idea of fitness and purposiveness, for nature itself comes up with many terrifying devices and many subterfuges in order to disturb.

The paradoxical passion of the understanding is, then, continually colliding with this unknown, which certainly does exist but is also unknown and to that extent does not exist. The understanding does not go beyond this; yet in its paradoxicality the understanding cannot stop reaching it and being engaged with it, because wanting to express its relation to it by saying that this unknown does not exist will not do, since just saying that involves a relation. But what, then, is this unknown, for does not its being the god merely signify to us that it is the unknown? To declare that it is the unknown because we cannot know it, and that even if we could know it we could not express it, does not satisfy the passion, although it has correctly perceived the unknown as frontier. But a frontier is expressly the passion’s torment, even though it is also its incentive. And yet it can go no further, whether it risks a sortie through via negationis [the way of negation] or via eminentiae [the way of idealization].

What, then, is the unknown? It is the frontier that is continually arrived at, and therefore when the category of motion is replaced by the category of rest it is the different, the absolutely different. But it is the absolutely different in which there is no distinguishing mark. Defined as the absolutely different, it seems to be at the point of being disclosed, but not so, because the understanding cannot even think the absolutely different; it cannot absolutely negate itself but uses itself for that purpose and consequently thinks the difference in itself, which it thinks by itself. It cannot absolutely transcend itself and therefore thinks as above itself only the sublimity that it thinks by itself. If the unknown (the god) is not solely the frontier, then the one idea about the different is confused with the many ideas about the different. The unknown is then in diaspora [dispersion], and the

4 Psalms 15:1 (14:1 in some versions); Psalms 53:1 (52.1) [D.C.A.]
5 See Xenophon, Memorabilia, Book I, Chapter 4, Sections 2-7. [H.V.H/E.H.H.] Xenophon (about 431-352 B.C.E.) was a Greek historian. The “physico-teleological” argument for God’s existence is based on the premise that things in the universe act for a goal (telos in Greek). [D.C.A.]

understanding has an attractive selection from among what is available and what fantasy can think of (the prodigious, the ridiculous, etc.).

But this difference cannot be grasped securely. Every time this happens, it is basically an arbitrariness, and at the very bottom of devoutness there madly lurks the capricious arbitrariness that knows it itself has produced the god. If the difference cannot be grasped securely because there is no distinguishing mark, then, as with all such dialectical opposites, so it is with the difference and the likeness—they are identical. Adhering to the understanding, the difference has so confused the understanding that it does not know itself and quite consistently confuses itself with the difference. In the realm of fantastical fabrication, paganism has been adequately luxuriant. With respect to the assumption just advanced, which is the self-ironizing of the understanding, I shall merely trace it in a few lines without reference to whether it was historical or not. There exists, then, a certain person who looks just like any other human being, grows up as do other human beings, marries, has a job, takes tomorrow’s livelihood into account as a man should. It may be very beautiful to want to live as the birds of the air live,6 but it is not permissible, and one can indeed end up in the saddest of plights, either dying of hunger—if one has the endurance for that—or living on the goods of others. This human being is also the god. How do I know that? Well, I cannot know it, for in that case I would have to know the god and the difference, and I do not know the difference, inasmuch as the understanding has made it like unto that from which it differs. Thus the god has become the most terrible deceiver through the understanding’s deception of itself. The understanding has the god as close as possible and yet just as far away. . . .