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Kierkegaard, Zen and Deliberate Confusion

originally written in 2017

Kierkegaard’s essays are notoriously tricky to read. His style of writing can come across as overtly verbose at times; a prime example being “The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself.” Apart from being a mouthful, it is also far from being easily comprehensible, and there are clearly much more concise ways to make his point. It is common for the reader to become frustrated with Kierkegaard’s lengthy litanies, that seem to only confuse rather than clarify his message. It is easy to think that Kierkegaard misses the mark on many issues and is too wrapped up in his own intellect, that he sacrifices succinct, clear articulation of his ideas, for fanciful, longwinded, almost self-minded poeticism. One may be quick to believe that Kierkegaard’s intentions, when writing, were to demonstrate his genius rather than to be understood. His language does not seem to prioritise ease of accessibility for the reader, but more so acts as a laudation of his own intelligence. As if Kierkegaard were indirectly stating “Look at the complexity of my thinking. What’s that, you can’t understand my writing? You find it hard to keep up with? Well, this is because you are not as smart as I am.”

Although potentially valid, I believe such a critique of Kierkegaard’s literary style is not his genuine motive for using such convoluted language. I think Kierkegaard was writing in such a way so as to befuddle the thinking, rational part of the mind, getting it to stop for a second, allowing a window of opportunity to open up in the person, where there is a space for the subject to temporarily move beyond thinking and into faith. As mentioned earlier, it is logically impossible for us to simultaneously consider the belief of being both finite and infinite, and as long as we are engaging in reason we will never understand such a paradox. Kierkegaard knew thinking could not take us to ultimate truth and so by stunning the intellect with perplexing sentences, we can begin (for a moment) to access the truth via another faculty of the mind — but only once reason is disengaged.

We know that Kierkegaard considered abstract thinking and theorising to be severely limited, and given that reading and writing is predominately an intellectual activity, Kierkegaard must have been aware that his words were not sufficient for conveying wisdom — after all knowledge has to be lived not merely considered, according to Kierkegaard. So, it makes sense that Kierkegaard would use his words as a means to get the reader out of their thinking, scheming head and into a state of passionate understanding. And given the medium Kierkegaard had to work with, a good technique for doing this is to write in a manner so confounding that the reader cannot understand, which can serve to stupefy the thinking mind, and allows for supra-rational means of knowing.

In the tradition of Zen Buddhism, the dominant sect of Buddhism in Japan, there is a thorough emphasis on the confines of logical thinking, and the tradition centres heavily around this understanding. An infamous aspect of Zen teaching comes in the form of kōans, which are presented as a kind of riddle or paradox for the student to solve, except kōans have no formal solutions. An example of a famous Zen kōan is “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Upon first inquiry, this question does not come across as particularly profound or even interesting, and often students fall into the trap of the kōan by trying to engage it with a logical mindset. Kōans are meant to be grokked via intuition or appealing to a deeper felt sense understanding — Kierkegaard may call this faith. Kōans do not require a verbal answer. When a teacher presents a kōan, he is not expecting the student to respond with anything, and in fact to give a reply is to miss the point of the kōan entirely. Kōans are used as a means for halting thought, getting the student to see beyond their intellect and obtain insight of truths that have to be experientially grasped.

I suspect that Kierkegaard wrote the way he did for similar reasons that Zen Buddhists use kōans. The words are a tool that alluded to something other than they themselves can suggest and so their content is not necessarily of the highest priority. One can imagine that Kierkegaard was not utterly concerned with his words being understood (otherwise he would have written in a much more intelligible manner) because his message was about more than philosophising truth. His main intention was getting the reader to move away from the letters on the page and look inside their own being, to discover something more fundamental, kōans serve this same purpose.

Or, I am simply giving Kierkegaard too much benefit of the doubt.

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