Kierkegaard, Repetition & History

Note: this post is intended for philosophy & theology geeks only!

In Soren Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous work Repetition, the “author” / protagonist / narrator Constantine Constantius performs an unusual kind of experiment. Nostalgically recalling a past trip to Berlin (from Copenhagen), he begins to wonder if he could replicate such an experience again. He means this literally, and so he decides to try to repeat the trip exactly has it happened before, complete with every sensation, impression, thought, pleasure, pain, etc. The question with which this philosophical novel opens, then, is: Is repetition possible?

The answer, it turns out, is no. But as the Constantine tells his larger story, which involves a “young man” enmeshed in a botched love affair strikingly similar in all its details to that of the “historical” Soren Kierkegaard, we realize a deeper philosophical truth. While identical repetition is not possible, it turns out that, at another level, nonidentical repetition is nevertheless not only possible, but absolutely necessary.

In Catherine Pickstock’s treatment of this Kierkegaardian theme (in her 2014 Repetition and Identity, especially chapter 5, “The Repeated Self”), she puts it like this, channeling the spirit of Charles Péguy: in order for a thing to be (or for an event to occur) it must occur twice, and this in all sorts of senses. As a banal example, take an ordinary object in the world such as a tree: in order for it to be a tree at all, it must also be perceived or conceived in the intellect. This intellectual event—the perception or conception, or indeed imaginary anticipation or memory—is the “doubling” of the object.

A key point which Pickstock brings out is has to do with spatial points and temporal instances. Such “entitities” don’t really exist in the world in some sense, and yet our minds supply them, in some sense co-constructing our space-time reality by means of them. Indeed, they supply them by necessity. That is, without these mentally supplied points and instances, all things run together; every thing flows into and out of every other thing, in a kind of Heraclitan flux. Even to say “the cup is here and the napkin is there” requires the presence of such mentally supplied points. Such points, then, are (in Pickstock’s terms) fictive. It is Zeno of Elea who originally expounded such truths. On this point both the Eleatics and Heraclitus agree: such points (and instances) don’t really exist at all. Pickstock’s point (with Kierkegaard and Péguy—and Gilles Deleuze) is that without them, the world is unintelligible.

We have seen that … pure thinghood is devoid of … ontological content, and, yet, that, without these null divisions [of point and moment], there would be no coherent entities and no coherent events. Similarly, they are devoid of meaning-content and signify nothing, being empty even of sound and fury. And yet, without them, there would be no meaningfully distinct entities and no significant or distinguishable events. (Pickstock, Repetition & Identity, 76)

Let us now take this train of thought one step further, extending it to the realm of history and the logos of history. As for points and moments, so also for fictional narratives in general. The only way the human intellect can articulate (put into words) a historical event, occurrence, period, or epoch is by way of some kind of narrative. And at one level the narrative is fictive: like points and instances, in some sense it is not real. And yet, without it, historical accounting or articulation is literally impossible. Narratives are to history what points are to spacial reality.

The narrative fiction, then, is another instance of this intellectual doubling, and without it no logos of history, indeed no graphê  of history, is possible. For history—in any form—to happen once, it must indeed happen twice. It must be repeated.