Novel of the week

Johannes Climacus: a life of doubt

Soren Kierkegaard, translated by T H Croxall, edited by Jane Ch

Johannes Climacus is a work of philosophy. It is also a novella. In its simplest terms, it is the story of a young man whose joy is to "live apart, concealed, and in quietness". His isolation leads many to consider him either melancholy or in love. The latter is true: he is in love, but the object of his dreams is not a girl - it is thought or, more precisely, thinking. He adores the quiet intuition and the ramifications of dialectic, the thrilling capacity of his father to make the clear obscure and the certain doubtful. So impassioned by thinking and the beauty of paradox, Johannes makes his choice - which no one but he can make - to become a philosopher. He goes to the university and finds Hegelian system-building to be the unquestioned vogue. The foundation from which the systems are said to proceed is the maxim: everything must be doubted (de omnibus dubitandum est). Through his own examination of this idea, he unravels paradox after paradox - and exposes the intellectual dishonesty of his former philosophical peers.

Kierkegaard and Johannes Climacus are one and the same. Three other pseudonyms feature in Kierkegaard's career: Anti Climacus, Vigilius Haufniensis and Johannes de Silentio, the author of Fear and Trembling. The singularity of the eponymous hero of Johannes Climacus lies in the dramatisation of his passion as he labours in the slough of analytical thought. There is one virtually unthinkable moment when he concludes that the consciousness of the philosopher must encompass not only his own personality, but also the philosophy of the whole world as the unfolding of the eternal philosophy. He is overwhelmed by the idea - and faints. This may or may not be an instance of Kierkegaard's sense of humour. What is irrepressible, though, is the degree of intensity and enthusiasm.

The maxim that everything must be doubted is overflowing with difficulties. The philosophers at the university proceed from this declaration to try to create an objective theory of knowledge without doubting the maxim in the first place. The problem is whether there could ever be a person who doubted everything. Even Descartes, the instigator of doubt as method, did not doubt his faith or his God. And the problem is, how is the maxim to be passed on? If one person advises another to doubt everything, the recipient must surely doubt such advice and everything about its donor.

In association with the maxim, Johannes hears it often pronounced that "modern philosophy begins with doubt". He hears this thesis used interchangeably with the thesis that "philosophy begins with doubt". Historical and eternal categories are wantonly confused. If modern philosophy begins with doubt, does this preclude another beginning in the future? And what does it say about the philosophy that precedes it? If doubt is an essential condition of philosophy, then how can it be confined to the historical event of modern philosophy?

The struggles of Johannes with the maxim that everything must be doubted brings him to disillusionment with the philosophers at the university, and he rejects them. His dialectic is reminiscent of Socrates, who, as Kierkegaard himself said, "placed individuals under his dialectical vacuum pump, pumped away the atmospheric air they were accustomed to breathing, and left them standing there".

Johannes Climacus is unfinished. As with all of Kierkegaard's work, it is the freedom of the individual subject to choose that emerges triumphant: it is the individual who resolves to elevate himself to thinking and to becoming a philosopher. It is his moral choice alone - and therein its justification. Johannes Climacus is surely the sort of work Kafka had in mind when he wrote that "a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us".

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The diva of Downing Street