7 Jan 2009

Descartes References in Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling Preface

by Corry Shores
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In the preface to Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard quotes in Latin from two Descartes texts without indicating the source.

Below are the sections in English and Latin. I place in bold the parts that Kierkegaard quotes specifically. At the end I place the English translation of the relevant Kierkegaard passage from Fear and Trembling.

1) Principles of Philosophy

XXVIII. That we must examine, not the final, but the efficient, causes of created things.

Likewise, finally, we will not seek reasons of natural things from the end which God or nature proposed to himself in their creation (i. e., final causes), [Footnote: "We will not stop to consider the ends which God proposed to himself in the creation of the world, and we will entirely reject from our philosophy the search of final causes!"--French.] for we ought not to presume so far as to think that we are sharers in the counsels of Deity, but, considering him as the efficient cause of all things, let us endeavour to discover by the natural light [Footnote: "Faculty of reasoning."--FRENCH.] which he has planted in us, applied to those of his attributes of which he has been willing we should have some knowledge, what must be concluded regarding those effects we perceive by our senses;
bearing in mind, however, what has been already said, that we must only confide in this natural light so long as nothing contrary to its dictates is revealed by God himself. [Footnote: The last clause, beginning "bearing in mind." is omitted in the French.]

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LXXVI. That we ought to prefer the Divine authority to our perception:* but that, apart from things revealed, we ought to assent to nothing that we do not clearly apprehend.

Above all we must impress on our memory the infallible rule, that what God has revealed is incomparably more certain than anything else; and that we ought to submit our belief to the Divine authority rather than to our own judgment, even although perhaps the light of reason should, with the greatest clearness and evidence, appear to suggest to us something contrary to what is revealed. But in things regarding which there is no revelation, it is by no means consistent with the character of a philosopher to accept as true what he has not ascertained to be such, and to trust more to the senses, in other words, to the inconsiderate judgments of childhood than to the dictates of mature reason.

2) Discourse on Method

My present design, then, is not to teach the method which each ought to follow for the right conduct of his reason, but solely to describe the way in which I have endeavored to conduct my own. They who set themselves to give precepts must of course regard themselves as possessed of greater skill than those to whom they prescribe; and if they err in the slightest particular, they subject themselves to censure. But as this tract is put forth merely as a history, or, if you will, as a tale, in which, amid some examples worthy of imitation, there will be found, perhaps, as many more which it were advisable not to follow, I hope it will prove useful to some without being hurtful to any, and that my openness will find some favor with all.

From my childhood, I have been familiar with letters; and as I was given to believe that by their help a clear and certain knowledge of all that is useful in life might be acquired, I was ardently desirous of instruction. But as soon as I had finished the entire course of study, at the close of which it is customary to be admitted into the order of the learned, I completely changed my opinion. For I found myself involved in so many doubts and errors, that I was convinced I had advanced no farther in all my attempts at learning, than the discovery at every turn of my own ignorance.

From Fear and Trembling:

"But Descartes did it." Descartes, a venerable, humble and honest thinker, whose writings surely no one can read without the deepest emotion, did what he said and said what he did. Alas, alack, that is a great rarity in our times! Descartes, as he repeatedly affirmed, did not doubt in matters of faith. ‘‘Memores tamen, ut jam dictum est, huic lumini naturali tamdiu tantum esse credendum, quamdiu nihil contrarium a Deo ipso revelatur. . . . Praeter caeter autem, memoriae nostrae pro summa regula est infigendum, ea quae nobis a Deo revelata sunt, ut omnium certissima esse credenda; et quamvis forte lumen rationis, quam maxime clarum et evidens. aliud quid nobis suggerere videretur, soli tamen auctoritati divinae potius quam proprio nostro judicio fidem esse adhibendam." He did not cry, "Fire!" nor did he make it a duty for everyone to doubt; for Descartes was a quiet and solitary thinker, not a bellowing night-watchman; he modestly admitted that his method had importance for him alone and was justified in part by the bungled knowledge of his earlier years. "Ne quis igitur putet me hic traditurum aliquam methodum quam unusquisque sequi debeat ad recte regendum rationem; illam enim tantum quam ipsemet secutus sum exponere decrevi. . . . Sed simul ac illum studiorum curriculum absolvi (sc. juventutis), quo decurso mos est in eruditorum cooptare, plane aliud coepi cogitare. Tot enim me dubiis totque erroribus imblicatum esse animadverti, ut omnes discendi conatus nihil aliud mihi profuisse judicarem, quam quad ignorantiam meam magis magisque detexissem."

Descartes. Oeuvres de Descartes. Vol 6. Available online:


Descartes. Oeuvres de Descartes. Vol 8. Available online:


Descartes. Discourse on Method. Available online at:


Descartes. Principles of Philosophy. Available online at:


Kierkegaard. Fear and Trembling. Available online at:



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