By Christopher Wink | Jan 30, 2007 | Existentialism
I have never been confused for a great thinker. Philosophy is a world of thought, unprovoked and often aimless, an unlikely home for someone like me. I think I enjoy it anyway. I enjoy it because I have assignments that ask me to define an existential paradox.
This is no simple task, one page limit or not. I can now say that I have read Fear and Trembling by 19th century Danish philosophy Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), and I managed to understand enough to be forced into thought. Still, I am not uncomfortable with admitting that I was forced to do some additional research to even begin to define an existential paradox, and I will try my very best to convey whatever it is I learned.
Any paradox is simply a phrase that seems contradictory to intuition but may be true. In his 1980 essay entitled System and Structure, which appeared in Communication and Exchange, English writer Anthony Wilden defined an existential paradox as a “conscious or unconscious intentionalization… about life which denies the usually accepted categories of truth and falsity about ‘reality.” I didn’t know what this meant when I first read it. I probably still don’t.
San Francisco State Professor Bill Nichols took on the subject in a 1991 book on documentary film, and, after citing Wilden, went on to compare existential with logical paradoxes. Nichols used ‘I am lying’ as an example of a logical paradox. It is a logical paradox, but not existential, because its meaning can be pursued as a subject’s interpretation is involved. ‘Disregard this sentence,’ a paradox that Nichols describes as existential, is such, he claims, because, as a command, “it cannot be obeyed or disobeyed.” (Nichols 1991, 292)
With this brief background, it is my interpretation that while logical paradoxes can be understood – being the logical of the paradox world – existential paradoxes are a bit trickier and, while perhaps able to be true, present difficulty in rationalizing. Of course, something like possibility to understand has never stopped any self-respecting philosopher, has it?
So, with this knowledge in mind, I returned to my notes on and the text of Kierkegaard’s much beloved Fear and Trembling to find an example of and further explain the concept of an existential paradox. Rather predictably, I chose the very broadest and most often recurring theme of Kierkegaard’s work to serve as my example: the story of Abraham in the Old Testament.
The paradox of Abraham’s story is the seeming contrast his ethical and religious responsibilities find. When Abraham is asked by his God to sacrifice his own son, he follows those commands unflinchingly. Ethically, there are few things more reprehensible than killing one’s own son, the task Abraham traveled three days with his son Isaac to do. However, religiously, there was no other reaction than what Abraham did; his faith assured him that God’s commands were just and, as Kierkegaard suggests, Abraham understood that his personal religious responsibilities to Him far outweighed his societal and familial responsibilities to Isaac.
It is in this way that we can better understand the concept of the existential paradox. While the logical paradox, “I am lying,” employs word play, Abraham’s situation, as Wilden’s definition suggests, “denies the usually accepted categories of truth.” Killing his son is no longer immoral, a “teleological suspension of the ethical,” as Johannes de Silentio puts it. Under most circumstances, we would all agree that killing someone, particularly an innocent son, is wrong, but, these normal standards of morality and truth have been rejected, making it an existential paradox. Of course, Abraham’s response to God’s wishes brings up larger questions of faith and responsibility, but to explain the idea of existential paradox, there are few more effective examples.
Prepared for a class on Existentialism taught at Temple University by Professor Lewis Gordon.