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Kierkegaard, Silence and Radical Hope


Kierkegaard, Silence and Radical Hope


John Lippitt

Is radical hope a form of silence? Philosopher John Lippitt discusses Kierkegaard’s reflections on silence and draws on the Kierkegaard-inspired concept of radical hope to ask whether the content of our hope in the face of climate change can be other than silence.

Søren Kierkegaard was a great admirer of silence. This might seem somewhat ironic for such a prolific writer: one whose extraordinary productivity one biographer, Joakim Garff, has called his ‘graphomania’. Yet Kierkegaard’s works explore different forms and meanings of silence, some described as ‘demonic’ and others ‘divine’, and one of his best-known texts, Fear and Trembling, is written by a pseudonym whose very name - Johannes de silentio - is silence. But what I want briefly to comment upon here is the silence that emerges as a theme in several of Kierkegaard’s ‘upbuilding’ or ‘edifying’ discourses: reflective religious texts published - under his own name - alongside the better known and more commonly read pseudonymous works, such as Either/Or and Fear and Trembling. The silence these texts commend tends to be one which expresses a trusting, receptive openness to whatever in life may be gifted to us, rather than disappointment at not getting what we want: what Gregory Beabout has labelled the virtue of ‘active receptivity’. I suggest that one of the ways that such a silence is significant is that it nurtures hope, and that much Kierkegaardian hope resembles what Jonathan Lear has labelled ‘radical’ hope.

If silence can nurture hope, in what way might this hope be ‘radical’?

Several of Kierkegaard’s journal entries denigrate ‘merely human’ speech in favour of ‘divine’ silence. One should not ‘drivel to other men’ about one’s relationship to the divinity: ‘Talking about one’s God-relationship is an emptying that weakens’. (In another journal entry, Kierkegaard notes with interest the early Church’s view that one can confess Christ by remaining silent.) Part of his objection, here and elsewhere, is a worry about the tendency of speech to degenerate into what he calls ‘chatter’ [snakke]. In Two Ages, he insists that ‘[o]nly the person who can remain essentially silent can speak essentially, can act essentially. Silence is inwardness … The inward orientation of silence is the condition for cultured conversation’. In some of his extraordinarily imaginative riffs on the theme of what we may learn from the lilies in the field and the birds of the air – mentioned in Matthew 6: 24-34, a biblical text to which he returns in no fewer than fourteen separate discourses – their silence is centre-stage, and is treated as a pathway to an experience of a hopeful joy that can calm our worries about the future.

If silence can nurture hope, in what way might this hope be ‘radical’? In his book Radical Hope, Jonathan Lear discusses the case of Plenty Coups, the last great chief of the native American Crow Nation, and his need to face up to the potential collapse of life as he and his people knew it, in which the norms and values that constituted an excellent life risked being rendered meaningless by the territorial advance of the white settlers. A central focus is how Plenty Coups manages to hold on to hope in these potentially desperate circumstances. His hope is radical in the sense that it involves commitment to a goodness that transcends his existing, limited understanding of the good. He holds out hope for a desirable possibility beyond his current imaginative capacities, one to which his existing conception of the good is unable to do justice. Extrapolating from his main example, Lear suggests that such hope is crucial in ‘an ethical enquiry into life at the horizon of one’s understanding’. Precisely because our present understanding of the good life is unable to capture the content of the hoped for good, such hope demands a kind of silence. Much Kierkegaardian hope is like this, and I have argued elsewhere[1] that such hope is an important but often neglected aspect of Kierkegaardian faith.

Precisely because our present understanding of the good life is unable to capture the content of the hoped for good, such hope demands a kind of silence.

The cultural catastrophe that faced the Crow was extreme, but does it have a contemporary equivalent? It has been suggested to me – and the philosopher Byron Williston has argued in print[2] - that with respect to climate change, we are the Crow. Just as, on Lear’s telling, Plenty Coups came to hope that his people ‘would survive (whatever that would come to mean) and hold on to their lands (whatever that would come to mean)’, so with respect to climate change, a belated recognition of its urgency – and the change in patterns of human activity that it demands - could mean that it may still be possible to hope for a world in which human beings can survive and thrive, albeit in potentially very different circumstances (whatever that comes to mean). The object of our hope is indeterminate: we hope that we may in such a world continue to flourish with our moral agency intact, but recognise, as Williston puts it, that ‘we can say next to nothing about what culture-worlds this capacity will help to forge’. Which is another way of saying that - with regard to the content of such radical hope - we can offer only silence.


[1] See my ‘Learning to hope: the role of hope in Fear and Trembling’, in Daniel Conway (ed.), Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling: a critical guide (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015) or my Routledge Guidebook to Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling (London: Routledge, 2016, second edition), pp. 175-196.
[2] Byron Williston, ‘Climate Change and Radical Hope’, Ethics and the Environment vol. 17 no. 2 (2012), pp. 165-186.


John Lippitt is Professor of Ethics and Philosophy of Religion at the University of Hertfordshire and Honorary Professor of Philosophy at Deakin University. His books include The Routledge Guidebook to Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling (second edition, 2016), Kierkegaard and the Problem of Self-Love (2013) and Humour and Irony in Kierkegaard’s Thought (2000). He is currently writing on the ethics and moral psychology of forgiveness in relation to humility, hope and love.