Kierkegaard in 7 quotations, Part III: The limits of thought

Kierkegaard’s 200th birthday is Sunday. Until then, a quote a day.

Yesterday we saw how Kierkegaard denigrates those whose safe, unadventurous pursuits bore others. To him, it’s fairly trivial to grasp something that’s well within reach. We wouldn’t call someone a genius who had memorized all the state capitals or had counted the cats in Zanzibar. The great intellects go beyond the safe boundaries of the known; they go into the unknown, and, ultimately, the unknowable.

As is often the case, Socrates is Kierkegaard’s exemplary thinker in this passage from Philosophical Fragments (1844):

Although Socrates did his very best to gain knowledge of human nature and to know himself—yes, even though he has been eulogized for centuries as the person who certainly knew man best—he nevertheless admitted that the reason he was disinclined to ponder the nature of such creatures as Pegasus and the Gorgons was the he was not quite clear about himself, whether he (a connoisseur of human nature) was a more curious monster than Typhon or a friendlier and simpler being, by nature sharing something divine (see Phaedrus, 229 e). This seems to be a paradox. But one must not think ill of the paradox, for the 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 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.

In your high school physics class, your teacher held an object out over his desk to demonstrate potential energy, energy that could cause motion but at the moment was not. And then your teacher let the object go, and down it went. The paradox is that in order to show that there is potential energy in the object, the energy has to dissipate.

Something similar happens with the mind’s potential for thought. We can’t know in advance what the limits of thought are. We have to run into those limits first. But running into the limit also suggests to us that there is something beyond the limit. Our natural curiosity leads us to try to find out what that is, and we keep getting bounced back within the limits. For Kierkegaard, the question is going to become what we do once we’ve discovered all the boundaries. Do we just give up trying to know things? Do we keep running into the boundaries? Or do we see if perhaps there’s a alternate route past the boundaries, once we let go of thought?

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