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The European Legacy, Vol. 6, No. 3, pp.

305–318, 2001
Derrida and Kierkegaard: Thinking the Fall
Is it important to think the Fall? Is it equally, or perhaps more, important not to
think the Fall? Can one simultaneously think and not think the origin? What is the
relationship between thought and origin?
The paradoxical relationship between thought and origin becomes, in the texts of
Derrida and Kierkegaard, the basis for thinking through ideas of history, freedom, and
responsibility. For both thinkers, the concept or non-concept of origin is linked to the
biblical story of the Fall. In either asseverating or in placing under erasure the concept
of origin, the biblical story of the Fall, for Derrida as for Kierkegaard, expresses the very
structure of modern thought. It appears that, for Derrida, the biblical story of the Fall
uncritically presupposes the idea of origin, an idea that he then places under erasure. For
Kierkegaard, it is because the story of the Fall itself places the idea of origin under
erasure that he is then able to formulate a concept of origin that, as biblical, provides
the very structure of modernity. How are we to understand the difference in approach
that these two thinkers bring to the story of the Fall? How is this difference possible?
What is its origin? Does it have an origin? Do Derrida and Kierkegaard, in their
accounts of the idea of origin, also account for the relationship between their idea of
origin and the origin of their ideas?
Derrida accounts for the origin or possibility of deconstruction in two apparently
different ways.
First, Derrida appears to locate the condition of possibility for deconstruction in
the play of differences or traces which, he holds, constitutes the very nature of language.
In eliciting the aporias and paradoxes which follow upon the deconstruction of language
as constituted by the relationship between a signier and the originary self-presence of
that which it signies, he equally deconstructs the possible existence of a concept
immediately present either to itself or for thought. For Derrida, language in principle
makes the signication of meaning present in its transparency or original self-identity
impossible. In thus accounting for the possibility of deconstruction through the nature
of language, Derrida arrives at the notion of an auto-deconstruction that “always
already” will have occurred.
Derrida’s argument proceeds as follows. He claims that “the maintenance of the
rigorous distinction—an essential and juridical distinction—between the signans and the
signatum, the equation of the signatum and the concept, inherently leaves open the
possibility of thinking a concept signied in and of itself, a concept simply present for
thought, independent of a relationship to language, that is of a relationship to a system
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ISSN 1084-8770 print/ISSN 1470-1316 online/01/030305-14 Ó 2001 International Society for the Study of European Ideas
DOI: 10.1080/10848770120051321
of signiers.”
(We shall later return to Derrida’s notion that the distinction between
signier and signied is juridical.) For Derrida, all thinking modeled on the concept of
the sign inexorably acquiesces in the idea “inherent even in the opposition signier/
signied,” that which he calls the transcendental signied.
The transcendental signied
is that which, “in and of itself, in its essence, would refer to no signier, would exceed
the chain of signs, and would no longer itself function as a signier.”
It would remain
outside language, outside each and every text.
Derrida holds, however, that there is no(thing) outside language, no(thing) outside
the text. Not even philosophical discourse is to be accorded the exemplary privilege of
acceding to a truth either outside or prior to language. All such claims to systematize,
stabilize, or ground meaning in a transcendental signied tacitly presuppose, he holds,
a concept or an origin of meaning which, rather than producing, is itself the product
of, the opposition between signier and signied. Further, Derrida claims, it is not only
the existence of the transcendental signied which is thus brought into question, but
“from the moment that one questions the possibility of such a transcendental signied,
and that one recognizes that every signied is also in the position of a signier, the
distinction between signied and signier [also] becomes problematical at its root.”
Given that every signied is also in the position of a signier, the conceptual opposition
between the two is rendered unstable in principle. Derrida thus reconceives their
opposition as the expression of a non-originary play of differences, one that involves
what he calls the trace. “The play of differences supposes, in effect,” he holds,
“syntheses and referrals which forbid at any moment, or in any sense, that a simple
element be present in and of itself, referring only to itself. Whether in the order of
spoken or written discourse, no element can function as a sign without referring to
another element which itself is not simply present. This interweaving results in each
‘element’ … being constituted on the basis of the trace within it of the other elements
of the chain or system. … Nothing,” he repeats, “neither among the elements nor
within the system, is,” therefore, “anywhere ever simply present or absent. There are
only, everywhere, differences and traces of traces.”
Since there is no concept that is not
already the trace of a(nother) trace rather than the sign of an originary presence, the
very concepts of origin and presence are revealed as the contradictory, illusory, if
nevertheless inevitable extension of language (thinking) understood according to the
metaphysics of signication. Inasmuch as language in fact exceeds that metaphysics, the
concepts of origin and presence are, Derrida argues, “always already” subject to an
internally ordered, lawful auto-deconstruction. Thus, given the nature of language,
deconstruction will always already have been operating wherever thought surrepti-
tiously presupposes, in one form or another, the binary oppositions inherent in the
structure of the sign. The auto-deconstruction of the text, in other words, will always
already have occurred wherever thinking is conceived as a foundational enterprise, as an
attempt to recover its origin in full presence.
In his second account of the origin of deconstructive methodology, Derrida argues
that the “condition of possibility for deconstruction is a call for justice.”
It is the call
for justice, he holds, which “gives us the impulse, the drive, or the movement to
improve the law, that is, to deconstruct it.”
He therefore insists that “the fact that law
is deconstructible is not bad news. We may even see in this a stroke of luck for politics,
for all historical progress. But,” he adds, “the paradox that I’d like to submit for
Thinking the Fall
discussion is the following: it is this deconstructible structure of law (droit), or if you
prefer of justice as droit, that,” along with the call for justice, “also insures the possibility
of deconstruction. Justice in itself,” he writes, “if such a thing exists, outside or beyond
law, is not deconstructible. No more than deconstruction itself, if such a thing exists.
Deconstruction is justice.”
Yet, since there is, for Derrida, no(thing) in itself, no(thing) outside, and no(thing)
beyond the text of the law, the distinction between justice and law which he has just
outlined is already problematic. “Everything would still be simple,” he writes, “if this
distinction between justice and droit were a true distinction, an opposition whose
functioning was logically regulated and permitted mastery.”
His original formulation of
the relationship between justice in itself and law is thus aimed, it appears, at maintaining
the relationship between deconstruction as justice and justice as undeconstructible while
simultaneously deconstructing any possibility of justice as pure presence in itself. In
order to preserve the distinction between justice and law, without which deconstruc-
tion would not exist, Derrida re-articulates in three movements the paradox which
constitutes the condition of possibility for deconstruction. First, he writes, “the
deconstructibility of law … makes deconstruction possible.”
Second, “the undecon-
structibility of justice also makes deconstruction possible, indeed is inseparable from
Third, “the result” is that “deconstruction takes place in the interval that separates
the undeconstructibility of justice from the deconstructibility of droit …”
The interval that separates the undeconstructibility of justice and the deconstructi-
bility of law is charted by Derrida in a series of aporias that, he claims, are in fact “one
aporia,” the “one potential aporetic that innitely distributes itself.”
But how is one
to chart an interval that cannot be traversed? “It is impossible,” he writes, “to have a
full experience of aporia, that is, of something that does not allow passage. An aporia
is a non-road. From this point of view,” he says, “justice would be the experience that
we are not able to experience.”
Yet, he continues, “I think that there is no justice
without this experience, however impossible it may be, of aporia. Justice is an
experience of the impossible. A will, a desire, a demand for justice whose structure
wouldn’t be an experience of aporia would have no chance to be what it is, namely,
a call for justice.”
What, then, are we to make of the “interval” which separates justice and law? The
interval, the aporia, in which the call for justice is sounded and in which the relationship
between undeconstructible justice and deconstructible law is preserved, though neither
exists in themselves, Derrida here calls will, desire, and demand. It is, for Derrida, will,
desire, and demand which constitute the impossible experience of the aporetic and
which, as themselves the gap, the interval, the non-road in experience which preserves
us from presence, thus preserve the concepts of decision, responsibility, and singularity,
without which there would be no justice. It is, he writes, the impossible experience of
the aporetic “in which, between law and justice, deconstruction nds its privileged
site—or rather its privileged instability.”
Yet, given that it is will, desire, and demand
which constitute the interval in which, between justice and law, deconstruction nds
its privileged, unstable site, is it not will, desire, and demand which, always already, thus
constitute deconstruction?
Since both justice and law fall within the interval of will, desire, and demand,
Derrida intends the aporias which he sketches, and which we shall not take up in detail
here, to “make explicit or perhaps produce a difcult and unstable distinction between
justice and … the exercise of justice as law …”
As an experience of aporia, the
exercise of justice as law, the very possibility of a just decision, would involve, he
writes, “a reinstituting act of interpretation, as if ultimately nothing previously existed
of the law, as if the judge himself invented the law in every case.”
One must come
freely into relationship with—one must reinstitute “as if” begetting—the very history
of just decisions by “reinvent[ing] it in the reafrmation and the new and free
conrmation of its principle.”
What, however, is the principle of this history (the
history of this principle)? For Derrida, “the deconstruction of all presumption of a
determinant certitude of a present justice itself operates on the basis of an innite ‘idea
of justice,’ ” one which, even though there be no justice in itself, “is irreducible in its
afrmative character. … This kind of justice,” he continues, “which isn’t law, is the
very movement of deconstruction at work in law and the history of law, in political
history and history itself, before it even presents itself as the discourse that the academy
or modern culture labels ‘deconstructionism.’ ”
How, then, are we to understand the relationship between Derrida’s two accounts
of the possibility of deconstruction? In deconstructing the sign on the basis that
self-presence is the product of an illusory extension of a conceptual framework which
the very nature of language, properly understood, belies, Derrida arrives at the notion
that the auto-deconstruction of the text is one which will always already have occurred.
Yet, he in fact describes the distinction between signier and signied as one that is
merely “juridical.” Does he thereby mean that it is a distinction that is not yet just? Is
the law of the sign subject not merely to its structurally pregured auto-deconstruction
but also to deconstruction as justice, that is, to deconstruction as it is constituted in (by)
the aporetic interval of will, desire, and demand? How, in other words, are we to
comprehend the relationship between the notion of an auto-deconstruction which will
always already have occurred and the notion of agency which Derrida presupposes in
making the concepts of decision, singularity, will, desire, and demand central to
deconstruction as justice? Justice, for Derrida, is the very movement of deconstruction
at work in history, even before it becomes conscious of itself as such or is reduced to
its “isms.” What, then, is the notion of history which Derrida presupposes in claiming
both that the deconstruction of self-present certitude will always already have been
operating on the basis of an innite idea of justice and that the privileged site of
deconstruction is to be found in the aporia which is both one and innite and which
exists only insofar as it is reinstituted? Does Derrida reinstitute here the very paradox
central to the biblical concept of God as creator—the paradox that God as creator is
both one and innite—in order to describe the deconstructive interval of will, desire,
and demand? Does he continue to elucidate this deconstructive interval in terms of
biblical paradox—the biblical paradox of creation ex nihilo
—when he further claims
that a just decision is ultimately made as if nothing previously existed of the law? Is it
the case, in other words, that the deconstruction of the origin in fact presupposes
biblical thought as the origin of deconstruction?
When Derrida, in Of Grammatology, links the deconstruction of originary presence
to the auto-deconstruction of the sign, he writes that “The sign is always a sign of the
What, however, is the “Fall?” What does the Fall have to do with will, desire,
and demand? How is the Fall possible? How is its deconstruction possible? Is the
Thinking the Fall
question of how (its) deconstruction is possible the same as the question of how the Fall
is possible? In order to take up the relationship of deconstruction to the Fall, I shall now
turn to the exegesis of the story of Adam and Eve that Kierkegaard provides in The
Concept of Anxiety. In developing there the self-conscious concept of origin which he
understands as constituting the biblical story of the Fall, Kierkegaard also provides a
remarkable account of the origin of his concepts.
Central to Kierkegaard’s analysis of the possibility of the Fall are the relationships
between contradiction and paradox, sin and faith, fate and freedom, possibility and
actuality, and the Greek and biblical worlds. It is, for Kierkegaard, the Fall which, in
providing the critique of the very concept of origin which it appears to depict,
inaugurates the impossible interval of will, desire, and demand that separates the Greek
from the biblical world.
The narrative structure of the Fall, as Kierkegaard develops
it, is, however, presented so paradoxically that it often seduces its readers into accepting
its surface contradictions. Yet, it nevertheless presupposes as its ontological basis a
hermeneutic which enables its readers to confront as paradox the contradictions in
which both it and they freely enmesh themselves. As we shall see, the ontological basis
which the Fall presupposes is, for Kierkegaard, the freedom whereby the single,
responsible, just individual expresses existence as the paradox of the qualitative leap. It
is thus worth noting, in anticipation of his analysis of the Fall, that, for Kierkegaard,
“freedom is never possible; as soon as it is, it is actual …”
Is the Fall, too, possible only
once it is actual?
Kierkegaard begins his analysis of the possibility of the Fall with the question: “Is
the concept of hereditary sin identical with the concept of the rst sin, Adam’s sin, the
fall of man? At times,” he writes, “it has been [properly] understood so, and then the
task of explaining hereditary sin has become identical with explaining Adam’s sin.”
Yet, when thought inevitably met with difculties, “an expedient was seized upon. In
order to explain at least something,” Kierkegaard notes, “a fantastic presupposition was
introduced, the loss of which constituted the fall as the consequence. The advantage
gained thereby was that everyone willingly admitted that a condition such as the one
described was not found anywhere in the world, but,” he reminds us “that they forgot
that as a result the doubt became a different one, namely, whether such a condition ever
had existed, something that was quite necessary in order to lose it.”
As a result, “the
history of the human race acquired a fantastic beginning. Adam was fantastically placed
outside this history. Pious feeling and fantasy got what they demanded, a godly prelude,
but thought got nothing.”
The problem in comprehending the paradox that constitutes the story of the Fall,
Kierkegaard thus points out, is the temptation dualistically to oppose original and
hereditary sin. Adam is then placed fantastically, contradictorily, outside history,
Kierkegaard argues, with the result that thought gets nothing. If thought is not to
deprive itself of the true content of the Fall—and it will turn out that this content is
indeed what Kierkegaard calls the qualitative leap—it appears that the relationship
between origin and history must be conceived such that neither falls outside the other.
Kierkegaard in fact reiterates several times within the opening pages of The Concept of
Anxiety his opposition to any interpretation of the Fall that opposes origin and history
by piously placing Adam outside thought in fantasy. “No matter how the problem is
raised,” he claims, “as soon as Adam is placed fantastically on the outside, everything
is confused. To explain Adam’s sin is therefore to explain hereditary sin. And no
explanation that explains Adam but not hereditary sin, or explains hereditary sin but not
Adam, is of any help.”
Kierkegaard thus begins to indicate that Adam’s story is, and
indeed must be, our story if we are not to deprive thought of historical content, thereby
placing not only Adam but also ourselves outside history. “The problem,” he writes, “is
always that of getting Adam included as a member of the race, and precisely in the same
sense in which every other individual is included.”
Our task, our problem, is to
include Adam in the race and the race in Adam if we are to preserve the possibility of
the qualitative leap.
In addressing the contradictions that constitute the surface of the Genesis story,
Kierkegaard insists that, just as the story depicts Adam as both a single individual and
yet as the whole race, “at every moment, the individual is,” in fact, “both himself and
the race. This,” he writes, “is man’s perfection viewed as a state. It is also,” however,
“a contradiction, but,” he continues, “a contradiction is always the expression of a task,
and a task is a movement, but a movement that as a task is the same as that to which
the task is directed is an historical movement.”
It is only when the movement of the
task and that to which the task is directed are the same—it is only when they are not
opposed contradictorily—that we can speak of a task as historical and of history as the
appropriation of contradiction. The movement of the task must be directed,
Kierkegaard says, towards its own movement: the task must be its own critique. It must
presuppose a moment of self-referentiality if it is to overcome the apparent contradic-
tion of beginning outside, or without, history. A contradiction, in order to be
possible—that is, actual—presupposes a history by which it is already exceeded. Adam’s
original perfection, viewed as a state (of innocence), is thus a contradiction—it
contradicts both Adam and the interpreters of his Fall—until we see that what his (our)
story expresses is that he (we), as original, must already have a history.
In thus indicating that a contradiction is possible only given a larger ontology by
which it is exceeded, Kierkegaard continues to develop the alternative to any interpret-
ation of the Fall which places Adam outside history precisely by continuing to point out
the story’s apparent contradictions. “When it is stated in Genesis that God said to Adam,
‘Only from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you must not eat,’ it follows
as a matter of course,” Kierkegaard observes, “that Adam really has not understood this
word, for how could he understand the difference between good and evil when this
distinction would follow as a consequence of the enjoyment of the fruit?”
The story
of the Fall, Kierkegaard thereby indicates, in order to be—written or read—presupposes
knowledge of good and evil. The Fall presupposes itself as not merely possible but
as actual. Thus, Kierkegaard writes, “the Genesis story,” despite its apparent contra-
dictions, “presents the only dialectically consistent view. Its whole content is really
concentrated in one statement: Sin came into the world by a sin … The difculty for
the understanding is precisely the triumph of the explanation and its profound
consequence, namely, that sin presupposes” not a prior state of innocence but, rather,
“itself, that sin comes into the world in such a way that by the fact that it is, it is
For Kierkegaard, then, the hermeneutical import of the story of the Fall is that
there is no(thing) outside sin, no(thing) outside history. It is, in fact, the hermeneutical
structure of original sin which, in articulating Adam’s story as the story not of the rst
Thinking the Fall
individual but of each single individual, deconstructs the very notion of origin, the very
notion of what (who) is rst, the very opposition between that which is rst or original
and that which is second or fallen. “That the rst sin signies something different from
a sin (i.e. a sin like many others), something different from one sin (i.e. no. 1 in relation
to no. 2), is,” Kierkegaard writes, “quite obvious. The rst sin constitutes the nature of
the quality. … The new quality appears with the rst, with the leap, with the
suddenness of the enigmatic. If the rst means one sin in the numerical sense, no history
can result from it, and sin will have no history, either in the individual or in the race.
For the conditionality is the same for both, although the history of the race is not that
of the individual any more than the history of the individual is that of the race, except,”
he reminds us, “insofar as the contradiction continually expresses the task.”
Kierkegaard thus concludes that “sin comes into the world as the sudden, i.e. by a leap;
but this leap also posits the quality, and since the quality is posited, the leap in that very
moment is turned into the quality and is presupposed by the quality and the quality by
the leap.”
Yet, given that Kierkegaard identies the Fall with the leap, what, then, are we
to make of his exposition of the concept of anxiety as the psychological precondition
of original sin? “In a logical system,” he says, “it is convenient to say that possibility
passes over into actuality. However, in actuality it is not so convenient, and an
intermediate term is required. The intermediate term is anxiety, but,” he adds, “it no
more explains the qualitative leap than it can justify it ethically.”
Thus, throughout his
analysis of the Fall as conditioned by anxiety, Kierkegaard is clear that, when thinking
through the actuality of sin, “psychology can intrude only through a misunderstand-
Psychology can, at best, elucidate the ambiguity in which anxiety is related to
that which Kierkegaard describes as the nothingness that constitutes its object. Since the
Fall, however, presupposes the qualitative leap, and since the qualitative leap as the
commitment in freedom to freedom stands outside all ambiguity, “it could never occur
to the [psychological] explanation that it should explain the qualitative leap.”
even if we say that “the nothing that is the object of anxiety becomes, as it were, more
and more a something,” we nevertheless “do not say that it actually becomes a
something or actually signies something; we do not say,” Kierkegaard insists, “that
instead of a nothing we shall now substitute sin or something else, for what holds of
the innocence of the subsequent individual also holds true of Adam. All of this is only
for freedom, and it is only as the single individual himself posits sin by the qualitative
In saying this, he claims, “we have said what we again repeat, that sin
presupposes itself, just as freedom presupposes itself, and sin cannot be explained by
anything antecedent to it, anymore than can freedom,” for “freedom is innite and
arises out of nothing.”
In thus indicating that the Fall, the leap, freedom, and creation
from nothing all share the same hermeneutical structure, Kierkegaard concludes that
“the sense in which creation sank into corruption through Adam’s sin, how freedom
was posited by the fact that its misuse was posited … , the sense in which this had to
take place because man is a synthesis whose most extreme opposites were posited and
whose one opposite, precisely on account of man’s sin, became a far more extreme
opposite than it was before—all this has no place in a psychological deliberation …”
For Kierkegaard, original sin—the qualitative leap which expresses the very
paradox of existence—presupposes, posits by its very misuse, not anxiety but
freedom. Adam’s story, as our story, bespeaks the paradoxical leap of freedom, the
paradoxical leap of faith. “By a qualitative leap sin entered into the world, and,”
Kierkegaard reminds us, “it continually enters into the world in that way.”
Yet, he
adds, “when sin is posited in the particular individual by the qualitative leap, the
difference between good and evil is also posited.”
Their difference is, therefore, “only
for freedom and in freedom, and this difference is,” he insists, “never in abstracto but
only in concreto.”
The free knowledge of good and evil is never possible, but it is
always actual. Thus, Kierkegaard writes, although “innocence can indeed speak,
inasmuch as in language it possesses the expression for everything spiritual,” neverthe-
less, “from the fact that Adam was able to talk, it does not follow in a deeper sense that
he was able to understand what was said. This applies above all to the difference
between good and evil, which indeed can be expressed in language but nevertheless is
only for freedom …”
The Fall, the interval of will, desire, and demand, is only for, exists only in,
freedom. It can be spoken, it can be thought, it can be understood, only in freedom.
Is it the case, then, that language, as Derrida’s rst account of the possibility of
deconstruction appears to hold, will always already have been subject to its auto-
deconstruction? Is it language which, in light of the differential play of its constitutive
elements, is the condition of possibility for the auto-deconstruction of meaning and
concepts? Or is it not rather concepts—the concept of good and evil, the concept of
justice—which, through the difference that exists only in, for, and as freedom, are the
condition of possibility for meaning and deconstruction? Is, in other words, the
condition of possibility for deconstruction that which, in Works of Love, Kierkegaard
calls transferred language?
But if the distinction between good and evil is not for
innocence—if freedom, the leap, faith, sin, paradox, and contradiction are not for
innocence to express—what, then, is innocence?
“The narrative in Genesis,” Kierkegaard maintains, “also gives,” along with the
only dialectically consistent view of origin, “the correct explanation of innocence.
Innocence is ignorance,” that state in which sin is not yet presupposed.
In light of the
Genesis denition of innocence, it is, in the course of The Concept of Anxiety, the Greek
world with which Kierkegaard aligns ignorance. He comments that “it is usually said
of paganism that it lies in sin;” but, he reects, re-invoking the categories of psychology
which, he nevertheless continues to insist, do not explain the qualitative leap, “perhaps
it might be more correct to say that it lies in anxiety.”
If we thus ask “more
particularly what the object of anxiety is,” he continues, “then the answer, here as
elsewhere, must be that it is nothing. Anxiety and nothing always correspond to each
other … But what then,” he asks, “does the nothing of anxiety signify more particularly
in paganism? This,” he holds, “is fate,” the unity of unconscious necessity and the
“A necessity that is not conscious of itself,” he explains, “is eo ipso the
accidental in relation to the next moment. Fate, then, is the nothing of anxiety.”
is in fate that “the anxiety of the pagan has its object, its nothing. He cannot come into
a relation to fate, because in the one moment it is the necessary and in the next it is
the accidental. And yet he stands related to it, and this relation is anxiety. Nearer to fate
than this,” that is, further than fate, “the pagan cannot come.”
Because fate involves
the ambiguity of standing in relationship to that which permits no relationship,
“whoever wants to explain fate,” Kierkegaard notes, “must be just as ambiguous as fate.
Thinking the Fall
And this,” he says, “the oracle was.”
Yet, since the oracular pronouncement of fate
had, in order to maintain fate’s ambiguity, always to stand in self-opposition—to
“signify the exact opposite” of what it said—“the pagan’s relation to the oracle,”
Kierkegaard comments, “is again anxiety.”
It is in the relationship to fate as reected
by the oracle that Kierkegaard nds what he calls the “profound and inexplicable
tragicalness of paganism,” which, however, “does not lie in the ambiguity of the
utterance of the oracle but in the pagan’s not daring to forbear taking counsel with it.”
Since oracular counsel is always ambiguous, “even in the moment of consultation, [the
pagan] stands in an ambiguous relation to it … And at this point,” Kierkegaard exclaims,
“he reects on the oracle’s explanations!”
Greek thought, therefore, for which the
knowledge of good and evil is not the presupposition, is the expression, the reection,
of fate, the unity of the ambiguous relationship of unconscious necessity and accident,
to which thought could not (not) stand in relation.
What, however, does Kierkegaard mean here by the “unity” of Greek thought as
the reection of fate’s ambiguity? What is the relationship of this notion of unity to his
earlier conception of the contradictions wrought by the Fall as an historical task? For
Kierkegaard, the Greek world expresses the very “absence of spirit.”
If, therefore, he
re-invokes the category of anxiety in order to describe the ignorance which constitutes
the Greek world, it is to highlight once more that there can be no transition from the
unied absence of spirit in the Greek world to contradictory spirit as the paradoxical
task of history in the biblical world. “The concepts of guilt and sin in their deepest
sense,” he reiterates, “do not emerge in paganism. If they had emerged, paganism
would have perished upon the contradiction that one became guilty by fate. Precisely
this is the greatest contradiction, and out of this contradiction,” he insists, “Christianity
breaks forth.”
In Christianity, he continues, “the concepts of sin and guilt posit
precisely the single individual as the single individual. There is no question about his
relation to the whole world or to all the past. The point is only that he is guilty, and
yet,” Kierkegaard writes, as he goes on to express the full contradiction within which
the Fall or leap is often thought, “he is supposed to have become guilty by fate,
consequently by all that of which there is no question, and thereby he is supposed to
have become something that precisely cancels the concept of fate, and this he is
supposed to have become by fate. A misunderstanding of this contradiction,” he
cautions, “will result in a misunderstanding of the concept of hereditary sin; rightly
understood, it gives the true concept, in the sense that every individual is both himself
and the race, and the subsequent individual is not essentially different from the
rst … Anxiety at its most extreme point,” he remarks, “where it seems as if the
individual has become guilty, is not as yet guilt. So sin,” he concludes, “comes neither
as a necessity nor as an accident, and therefore providence corresponds to the concept
of sin.”
The Greek world of fatal unity with oracular ambiguity foundered, for
Kierkegaard, on the contradiction which it could not explicate as contradiction. For
contradiction—the contradiction that one became guilty by fate (that is, by necessity or
by accident)—can be explicated only on the basis of paradox—the paradox of freedom,
the paradox of sin, which posits the single individual as the single individual in whom
the contradiction that she is both herself and the race is, as a task, henceforth possible
(that is, always already actual). It is thus out of this contradiction—it is in having already
overcome this contradiction—that the single individual as the single individual breaks
forth in the Fall. “The real ‘self,’ ” for Kierkegaard, is thus “posited only by the
qualitative leap. In the prior state,” he claims, that of the Greek world, “there can be
no question about it.”
Let me indicate, before proceeding, that, with regard to the distinction between
the Greek and biblical worlds, I shall augment the reading of the Fall that Kierkegaard
provides in The Concept of Anxiety by making reference to selected other works from
his pseudonymous authorship. However we construe the relationships between the
various pseudonymous works, those to be cited here—The Sickness Unto Death, Fear and
Trembling, Philosophical Fragments, and Concluding Unscientic Postscript—are consistent
with The Concept of Anxiety regarding the distinction between Greek and biblical
The dramatic claim made by Kierkegaard that there is no self in the Greek world
is consistent with, and can be elucidated in light of, his earlier claim that the self is a
synthesis whose most extreme opposites were posited by the Fall. The self, for
Kierkegaard, is “a synthesis of the temporal and eternal,” “a synthesis of the psychical and
the physical; however,” he insists, “a synthesis is unthinkable if the two are not united
in a third. This third is spirit.”
Yet, if the positing of a synthesis is unthinkable outside
spirit, what would a self be whose extreme opposites, whose contradictions, were not
posited in spirit? Could a contradiction be historical, could it be a task, could it be the
will, desire, and demand for freedom, if its opposites were not posited by a third to
which they stand in absolute, rather than ambiguous, relation? The contradiction that
is not posited by a third, the contradiction that cannot become the task of freedom, is
what Kierkegaard calls, in The Sickness Unto Death, the “negative unity” of the self.
then, the story of the Fall is understood, as Kierkegaard understands it, as that story
which presupposes that humans are freely, not fatally, enmeshed in their contradictions,
the question of how the story of the Fall is possible, the question of how it is possible
to think—to read, write, and deconstruct—the Fall, is thus the question of how
contradiction is possible. The question of how contradiction is possible is, in turn, the
question of how knowledge of contradiction is possible. Knowledge of contradiction—
contradiction as historical task—is, for Kierkegaard, the paradox of spirit, the paradox
posited by spirit. Spirit knows its contradictions as its own history. It is, Kierkegaard
reminds us in The Concept of Anxiety, “precisely the secret of spirit that it has a history,”
a history for which there is no(thing) outside.
There is no(thing) outside paradox,
no(thing) outside spirit, no(thing) outside history.
What, then, if spirit knows its contradictions as its own, is the secret of this
history which, as innite, comes into existence from nothing? What impact would this
secret have on the notion of auto-deconstruction which Derrida holds always already
to have occurred in the text? The answer which we see in Kierkegaard is that
auto-deconstruction always already presupposes the biblical world. For the biblical
world, he shows us, in positing through the Fall the extreme (binary) opposites of
human existence, already presupposes not their negative unity but (their) deconstruction
as an historical task. Kierkegaard in fact develops, as distinctly biblical, two further
formulations of origin which, in re-articulating and deepening the paradox of origin
expressed by the Fall, together supplement the “always already” of auto-deconstruction.
He explicates the rst of these paradoxes in Philosophical Fragments and Concluding
Unscientic Postscript and the second in Fear and Trembling.
Thinking the Fall
The question with which Kierkegaard initiates Philosophical Fragments is whether an
historical point of departure can be given for an eternal consciousness in such a way that
it constitutes, for that consciousness, more than an historical—that is, more than a merely
temporal—interest. How, in other words, are the eternal and the temporal to be
preserved from their negative unity in the Socratic model of the teacher, a model in
which the moment vanishes in eternal recollection? In the Socratic model, Kierkegaard
writes, “the temporal point of departure is a nothing, because in the same moment I
discover that I have known the truth from eternity without knowing it, in the same
instant that moment is hidden in the eternal, assimilated into it in such a way that I,
so to speak, still cannot nd it even if I were to look for it, because there is no Here
and no There, but only an everywhere and nowhere.”
The question, for Kierkegaard,
is how the eternal and the temporal are to be thought as the absolute paradox of the
biblical Teacher. Given this Teacher, eternity and temporality are united as what he calls
the “absolute fact,” that to which all human beings, at all times, remain equally close
in faith.
When an historical point of departure is thus given to consciousness in such
a way that, where once it was not eternal, it now becomes eternal—or else, Kierkegaard
constantly reminds us, we return to the Socratic—consciousness then embraces the very
paradox, the very dialectic of the eternal, that “as soon as it is it must have been …”
To the rst paradox expressing the biblical dialectic of origin—that as soon as it
is, it must have been—Kierkegaard adds a supplement in Fear and Trembling, his
meditation on the biblical story of Abraham’s binding of Isaac. Whereas in Philosophical
Fragments Kierkegaard unites the eternal and the temporal in the absolute paradox, thus
preserving them from their negative unity in Socratic ignorance, in Fear and Trembling
he appropriates the ethical and the esthetic on the basis of faith, that which he calls the
absolute relation to the absolute. In the ethical, the individual gains her eternal
consciousness by mediating—by annulling—her singularity in the universal. The eternal
is, in this light, just as it was in Philosophical Fragments, the “invisible vanishing point”
for the individual: as immanent, it is everywhere; as the telos for everything which stands
outside it, it is nowhere.
In the esthetic, the individual asserts her singularity over the
universal, thus remaining in the realm of individual self-immediacy and hiddenness. In
ethical mediation, the individual is sacriced to the universal; in esthetic immediacy, the
universal is sacriced to the individual. Yet, if existence were circumscribed by the
opposition between the ethical and the esthetic, Kierkegaard writes, “then Abraham’s
conduct,” insofar as it involves concealing his undertaking from Sarah, Eliezer, and Isaac,
“cannot be defended, for he disregarded the intermediary ethical agents.”
In fact,
Kierkegaard maintains, if “there is in a person no residual incommensurability” with the
ethical “in some way such that this incommensurability is not” merely esthetic, and if,
therefore, the ethical “is the highest,” “then no categories are needed other than what
Greek philosophy had or what can be deduced from them by consistent thought.”
The incommensurability of faith with the ethical, however, “is not the rst
[esthetic] immediacy,” Kierkegaard writes, “but a later immediacy.”
The later
“immediacy” to which Kierkegaard refers is not a second self-immediacy but the absolute
relation to the absolute which, unlike the esthetic, is not the mere disrelation to the
universal. In faith the single individual “determines his relation to the universal by his
relation to the absolute, not his relation to the absolute by his relation to the
universal … From this it does not follow,” Kierkegaard holds, “that the ethical should
be invalidated; rather, the ethical receives a new expression, a paradoxical expression,”
in light of which it is transformed.
Since faith, as the absolute relation to the absolute,
establishes the category of singularity in light of which we are enabled to rethink the
law of the ethical on the basis of an absolute relation to God—an innite idea of
justice—faith is the paradox that “the single individual as the single individual is higher
than the universal …”
Faith is the “later immediacy” which transforms (deconstructs)
the ethical. Yet, if the just desire of the single individual does not continually bring faith
into existence as if, ultimately, nothing of it had previously existed—if faith is
indistinguishable from the mere application of an ethical code—it is then the case,
Kierkegaard writes, citing the second paradox which expresses the biblical dialectic of
origin, that “faith has never existed because it has always existed.”
It is the paradoxical, what Derrida would call the undecidable, relationship of these
two articulations of the biblical concept of origin—as soon as it is, it must have been;
but if it always has been, it never has been—which constitutes the Fall as the impossible
interval of will, desire, and demand. The hermeneutic underlying the Fall—that sin
presupposes itself—is the hermeneutic underlying deconstruction: there is no(thing)
outside sin, no(thing) outside history. As soon as the Fall is, it must always already have
been. But if the Fall has always already been, then it never has been. In placing under
erasure the concept of origin—in providing a concept of origin in light of which all
human beings are original—the hermeneutical structure of the Fall creates, as it
deconstructs, the very structure of modern thought. For it is precisely in light of the Fall
that the task of contradiction becomes not the contradiction of the task but the call for
justice. As Derrida acknowledges, the call for justice is at work in history even before
it is recognized as the deconstructive discourse on the undecidable, a discourse which
is so easily reduced to a contradictory “ism.” This is how we must understand what
Derrida means when he claims that we must constantly live in light of “the ghost”—the
spirit—“of undecidability,” which “is not merely the oscillation or the tension,” the
negative unity, “between two decisions” but is rather that which, in preserving the very
possibility of decision, “deconstructs from within any assurance of presence …”
requiring that we give ourselves, always already, over to the impossible decision, the
deconstruction—the auto-deconstruction from within—of any assurance of presence
thus presupposes will, desire, and demand. But in order to protect the “always already”
which attaches to the auto-deconstruction of the text—in order to preserve deconstruc-
tion from its “isms”—we must distinguish between two kinds of texts: those texts
whose contradictions fatally reect the negative unity of existence divided between the
temporal and the eternal, the esthetic and the ethical, and those texts whose contradic-
tions are preserved by the paradox of the Fall. To think the Fall is, therefore, as
Kierkegaard shows us, to think deconstruction. Deconstruction is always already
biblical. As soon as deconstruction is, it must have been. But if deconstruction always
has been, then it never has been.
1. Jacques Derrida, Positions (Translation: Alan Bass, Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1981), 19.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid., 19–20.
Thinking the Fall
4. Ibid., 20.
5. Ibid., 26.
6. Jacques Derrida and John D. Caputo, “The Villanova Roundtable: A Conversation with
Jacques Derrida,” in Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida, ed. John
D. Caputo (New York: Fordham University Press, 1997), 16.
7. Ibid.
8. Jacques Derrida, “The Force of Law: The Mystical Foundation of Authority,” translation by
Mary Quaintance in The Cardozo Law Review 11 (July–August, 1990): 943–5.
9. Ibid., 959.
10. Ibid., 945.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid., 959.
14. Ibid., 947.
15. Ibid.
16. Ibid., 957.
17. Ibid., 959.
18. Ibid., 961.
19. Ibid.
20. Ibid., 965.
21. When St. Augustine undertakes to examine the biblical concept of creation in his Confessions
and The City of God, he nds himself beset by the following dilemma. God, as creator, must
exceed creation. Yet it is impossible to say, without contradiction, that there is either any
time prior to or any space outside creation in which God can rst have begun to create.
For then God would not exist, in the beginning, as creator. The biblical conception of
origin, Augustine thus nds, involves and expresses both a conception of history and a
conception of interpretation which eschew a logic constituted by antithetical or binary
relationships: rst/last, before/after and outside/inside. Creation presupposes itself: it is, in
the beginning and always already, the re-iteration of its principle, the re-iteration of its
history. While Augustine does not ultimately resolve the relationship between time all too
human and eternity all too divine (he conceives the will of God to have existed before time
in eternity), the very logic of the biblical concept of creation ex nihilo exerts a hermeneutical
pressure upon his text which does not allow his antitheses to stand. Is it not this
hermeneutical pressure, instituted by the biblical concept of creation, which Derrida calls
deconstruction at work in history?
22. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (Translation: Gayatri Spivak; Baltimore and London:
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), 283.
23. The most comprehensive and original analysis known to me of the relationship of Greek
and biblical thought to modernity is provided by Brayton Polka in The Dialectic of Biblical
Critique: Interpretation and Existence (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986). In engaging the
tradition of biblical critique as developed not only by Kierkegaard but also by Spinoza, Kant,
and Hegel, Polka argues that Greek logic, in basing itself on what he calls the doctrine of
contradictory opposites, is unable to develop a conception of interpretation that does not
contradict existence, or a conception of existence that does not contradict the possibility of
interpretation. It is, he maintains, the hermeneutical demand expressed by the golden rule
of biblical critique—so interpret the existence of the other as you would have the other
interpret your existence—which provides the very basis of (impetus for) the continual
re-appropriation of the dualisms which haunt modern philosophy, theology, literature, and
art. See also his Truth and Interpretation: An Essay in Thinking (New York: St. Martin’s Press,
24. Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety (Translation: Reidar Thomte; Princeton: Prince-
ton University Press, 1980), 22.
25. Ibid., 25.
26. Ibid.
27. Ibid.
28. Ibid., 28.
29. Ibid., 33n.
30. Ibid., 28–9.
31. Ibid., 44.
32. Ibid., 32.
33. Ibid., 30–1.
34. Ibid., 32.
35. Ibid., 49.
36. Ibid., 23.
37. Ibid., 43.
38. Ibid., 61.
39. Ibid., 112.
40. Ibid., 58.
41. Ibid., 111.
42. Ibid., 112.
43. Ibid., 111n.
44. Ibid., 45–6.
45. Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love (Translation: Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong; New
York: Harper Torchbooks, 1962), 199.
46. Ibid., 37.
47. Ibid., 96.
48. Ibid.
49. Ibid., 97.
50. Ibid.
51. Ibid.
52. Ibid.
53. Ibid.
54. Ibid.
55. Ibid., 95.
56. Ibid., 97–8.
57. Ibid., 98.
58. Ibid., 79.
59. Ibid., 85, 43.
60. Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death (Translation: Howard V. Hong and Edna H.
Hong; Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1980), 13.
61. Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety, 66.
62. Søren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments (Translation: Howard V. Hong and Edna H.
Hong; Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1985), 13.
63. Ibid., 100.
64. Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientic Postscript (Translation: Howard V. Hong and Edna
H. Hong; Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), 573.
65. Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (Translation: Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong;
Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1983), 68, 54.
66. Ibid., 82.
67. Ibid., 55.
68. Ibid., 82.
69. Ibid., 70.
70. Ibid., 82.
71. Ibid.
72. Derrida, “The Force of Law,” 963–5.