Gloria Dell'Eva

Die Suspension der Ethik: eine bildhafte Erklärung

In the essay that follows, I will assess how the figure of Abraham in Fear and Trembling in connection with the concept of suspension allow one to interpret Kierkegaard’s understanding of the relationship between ethics and faith. In this way, the paper will address the following fundamental question: how should we understand Kierkegaard’s “suspended ethics”?

Kierkegaard deliberately uses the word suspension in an ambiguous way by employing all meanings which etymologically and semantically are implied in it. I suggest here to take the Latin meanings of the word into consideration in order to better understand Kierkegaard’s strategy. The etymological meaning (sub=under, pendere=to hang) is in actuality semantically more vivid in Latin than in Anglo-Saxon languages.

Suspendere means in Latin (1) to hang, to suspend from a point, from a support above and so indirectly to make dependent or contingent on and (2) to interrupt or to halt the flow of, to break temporally; and (3) to keep (a person or his mind) in a state of uncertainty or anxious expectancy, keep in suspense.

In Kierkegaard’s interpretation of the figure of Abraham, ethics, represented through Abraham’s paternal love toward Isaac, are abandoned because Abraham is willing to deny his own ethical principles in his willingness to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham does not know the outcome of the event, i.e. that he will regain Isaac, therefore his resignation to the loss of Isaac is radical.

This radical resignation or negation of the ethical, what Kierkegaard calls a “movement,” is one of two movements carried out by Abraham. At the same time, Abraham makes the paradoxical “movement,” often referred to as “leap,” of faith by regaining the ethical stance which he is willing to deny.

In consideration of the third meaning of the word “suspend” I presented, I argue Abraham is anxiously kept in “suspense” in the sense that, in him, resignation and certainty of faith are present at the same time. This creates a paradoxical situation, in which a human point of view, resignation as obedience to God’s command to kill Isaac, is simultaneously present with a conflicting divine point of view, the certainty that God will ultimately not request the sacrifice.

From a mere human perspective, the temporality of the suspension (see the second meaning of the term “suspend” above) is revealed at the final moment of the event. This reveals the same paradoxical situation in that Abraham, in “dialoguing with God,” he is all the time sure that it is just a trial and God will ultimately not ask him to kill Isaac.

Through the figure of Abraham, Kierkegaard wants to show a radical case of the suspension of ethics according to the first meaning of the word “suspend” I presented earlier. In following Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegelian philosophy, ethics are something absolute like a closed sphere, perfect in-itself. In Kierkegaard’s conception, by contrast, ethics are subordinated to something higher in which ethics hang from a higher sphere, namely, the sphere of salvation.

A central implication of my conclusions is that human language is unsuitable to express this paradoxical situation. Human speech itself therefore must be suspended. Kierkegaard in his works tries to express this ineffability through a stylistic escamotage: “-“ (a dash).