16 Feb 2015

Somers-Hall, (0.4), Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition, ‘0.4 Kierkegaard (5–9/5–10)’, summary

Corry Shores
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[The following is summary. All boldface, underlining, and bracketed commentary are my own.]

Henry Somers-Hall

Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition.
An Edinburgh Philosophical Guide

Part 1
A Guide to the Text



0 Introduction: Repetition and Difference

0.4 Kierkegaard (5–9/5–10)


Brief summary:

Kierkegaard presents a notion of repetition in moral life which does not fit the idea of a universal law. Kant says that Abraham should not have assented to God’s request to kill his only son Isaac, since doing so goes against the categorical imperative. Kierkegaard thinks that there is an absolute (God) which is of a higher moral authority than the ethical universal. Repetition in moral life, for Kierkegaard, is not obeying the same law over and over, but rather obeying an absolute whose commands are not homogeneous or self-consistent. What is notable in this conception of repetition is that it is not the reiteration of the same action but rather each time behaving differently in a different situation.




“Deleuze claims that there are three thinkers who ‘oppose repetition to all forms of generality’: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Peguy (DR 5/6)” (SH 11). SH will treat Nietzsche’s eternal return later and for now focus mainly on “Kierkegaard’s alternative to generality” (11). Deleuze is concerned mostly with Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. Recall that here Kierkegaard tells the story of God testing Abraham’s obedience by commanding him to sacrifice his only son Isaac. Abraham was willing to do so, but God spares Isaac and allows a ram to be sacrificed instead (12). While Kant thinks that Abraham should not have attempted to kill his son, as this goes against the categorical imperative, Kierkegaard thinks that Abraham has a faith so strong that it overrides such ethical laws.

For Kant, the fact that the commandment to commit murder contravenes the categorical imperative means that it could not have been a commandment given by God, and hence Abraham acted immorally in being willing to fulfil it” (12).

[In Kant, the universal is the absolute. But in Kierkegaard, there is an absolute, God, that has a higher authority than the universal.]

The position that Kierkegaard puts forward in Fear and Trembling is rather that the incommensurability of Abraham’s actions with the moral law shows that Abraham’s faith is higher than any ethical considerations [the following sentence quotes Kierkegaard]:

The paradox of faith, then, is this: that the single individual is higher than the universal, that the single individual – to recall a distinction in dogmatics rather rare these days – determines his relation to the universal by his relation to the absolute, not his relation to the absolute by his relation to the universal. (Kierkegaard 1983: 70)

What ultimately justifies Abraham’s actions is a direct relationship with God that is incomprehensible from the point of view of universal law. This is a relationship that necessarily falls outside of the sphere of generality and law.
(12, quoting: Kierkegaard, Søren (1983), Fear and Trembling/Repetition, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, Princeton: Princeton University Press.)

[I do not find the following point regarding Job to be clear enough for me to summarize. I cannot grasp what about Job’s story is repetition. Is Kierkegaard saying that the reiteration of punishments is repetition, and Bildad argues that by letting them come repeatedly, that they will come to be exhausted? Is the thunderstorm the end of the reiterations, but in Deleuze’s interpretation, somehow a repetition?  I will quote it so you can interpret it properly for yourself.]

Kierkegaard makes clear the relation of this moment of faith to repetition in Repetition, this time with a discussion of Job. Job is also tested by God, who allows him to suffer misfortunes to prove to the devil that Job’s faith is not a consequence of God’s protection of him from misfortune. In this case, Job’s restoration is equated with repetition in a way that mirrors the return of Isaac to Abraham [the following paragraph quotes Kierkegaard]:

So there is a repetition, after all. When does it occur? Well, that is hard to say in any human language. When did it occur for Job? When every thinkable human certainty and probability were impossible. Bit by bit he loses everything, and hope thereby gradually vanishes, inasmuch as actuality, far from being placated, rather lodges stronger and stronger allegations against him. From the point of view of immediacy, everything is lost. His friends, especially Bildad, know but one way out, that by submitting to the punishment he may dare to hope for a repetition to the point of overflowing. Job will not have it. With that the knot and the entanglement are tightened and can be untied only by a thunderstorm. (Kierkegaard 1983: 212–13)

Repetition, therefore, is this moment that falls outside of the categories of reason (the thunderstorm introduced by Kierkegaard). It is not a physi-| cal repetition (the Bible tells us Job gets back twice what he lost, putting the repetition outside of the sphere of quantitative identity). Rather than being based on universality, as it is for Kant, for Kierkegaard (and for Deleuze) it is based on singularity.
(12-13, quoting Kierkegaard, same text)

Deleuze then summarizes the philosophies of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Peguy in terms of repetition, giving “four criteria for a philosophy of repetition” (13).

1. Make repetition something new by connecting it with a test that will affirm one’s freedom even in the face of moral and natural law demanding otherwise.

2. Oppose repetition to the law of nature.

3. Oppose repetition to moral law.

4. Oppose repetition to the generalities of habit and to the particularities of memory (13).

[The criteria seem to continue from the above discussion, except for the memory part. Here perhaps memory ties the present too often to the past, and redundantly so, by means of association.] Deleuze will ultimately reject Kierkegaard’s notion of repetition since it is based on the relationship between a subject and object and for that reason is tied too much to the physical and moral worlds [in where we make these distinctions, but which do not hold when we think more of pure difference itself.] “Nonetheless, Kierkegaard prefigures Deleuze in seeing the need for a radical rethinking of the nature of repetition.” (14).


Citations from:

Somers-Hall, Henry. Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition. An Edinburgh Philosophical Guide. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University, 2013.

Or if otherwise noted:

Kierkegaard, Søren (1983), Fear and Trembling/Repetition, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

1 comment:

  1. Kierkegaard is quite obscure on the question of repetition (necessarily so - he takes it to be 'belief on the strength of the absurd). The key point to note is that for Kierkegaard, as for Deleuze, repetition cannot be understood as the repeating of the same circumstances. In the text, Repetition, for instance, the author attempts to repeat by returning to Berlin, a city he’d visited in his youth. At first, as with the science experiment dealt with earlier, he discounts minor changes (he sits in a different seat in the carriage, he stays with the same landlord, though the landlord has married since his last visit). Gradually, however, these differences accumulate until he is forced to recognise that repetition is impossible. Kierkegaard’s claim, however, is that the reason the author (Constantin Constantius) is unable to repeat is precisely because he sees it as a repetition of the same states of affairs (and hence here we could draw a connection with memory – to repeat is not to do the same things, I guess). Repetition is impossible in the physical world because time moves on, and things change. Kierkegaard instead presents the possibility of reconceiving of repetition as involving what is being repeated not being the circumstances, but something instantiated in the circumstances (as we’ll discover later – what is repeated is the same virtuality in different actual states of affairs for Deleuze). Kierkegaard emphasises this point by noting that Job got back twice what he lost. If this were a merely quantitative repetition (or returning of what was there before), then he would get back the same as what he lost. Rather, within the passing of time, and hence, within changing empirical circumstances, something is repeated. Deleuze ultimately rejects Kierkegaard because what makes repetition possible for Kierkegaard is God. It is only God who can reconcile the becoming of the world with the possibility of repetition within that constant differing.

    I realise that’s all a little obscure, but I hope it at least points to why Deleuze might bring in Kierkegaard at this point.