Kierkegaard, on the nature of offense

From Soren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Crumbs (2009), pp. 253-254:

All offense is fundamentally passive. It is here as with that form of unhappy love just mentioned. Even when self-love […] proclaims itself in foolhardy exploits, in astonishing deeds, it is passive, it is injured, and the pain of the injury produces an illusory expression of power which looks active, but can easily disappoint, especially since self-love wants to hide its passivity. Even then, when it tramples upon the object of love, even when it masochistically disciplines itself to a state of hardened indifference and martyrs itself in order to show its indifference, even then when it surrenders itself in triumphant delirium that it succeeded […], even then it is passive.

Thus it is also with offense; it can express itself however it will. Even when it arrogantly celebrates the triumph of spiritlessness, it is suffering independently of whether the offended one sits crushed and stares almost like a beggar at the paradox, paralyzed by his suffering, or whether he arms himself with derision and aims the arrow of wit as if from a distance—he is passive and is not at a distance; even if offense came and took the last crumb of comfort and joy from the offended one or made him strong—offense is still passive, it has wrestled with the stronger and the agility of its apparent strength is, with respect to the body, like that of one whose back is broken, which does indeed give a kind of suppleness.


But precisely because offense is thus passive, the discovery, if one wishes to use such an expression, does not belong to the understanding, but to the paradox, because just as the truth is index sui et falsi, so also is the paradox, and offense does not understand itself, but is understood by the paradox. While offense, however it expresses itself, sounds from somewhere else, yes from the opposite corner, so it is the paradox that echoes in it, and this is an acoustic illusion. But if the paradox is index and judex sui et falsi, offense can be viewed as an indirect test of the correctness of the paradox; because offense is the erroneous calculation, is the consequence of error, which the paradox thrusts away. One who is offended does not speak with his own voice, but with the voice of the paradox, like one who mimics another, who does not produce anything himself, but merely copies another. The more deeply passionate is the expression of offense […], the more it reveals how much it owes to the paradox. Offense is not then an invention of the understanding, far from it. If this were the case, then the understanding would also have to have been able to invent the paradox. No, offence comes to be through the paradox.


What do student evaluations in philosophy measure?

Philosophy teaching evaluations measure faultless wonder.

Wonder is the passion one undergoes not in learning knew knowledge, but in the prior learning that such knowledge exists to be discovered. It is what one undergoes when a whole world, as it were, opens up before the wonderer to be explored. Such wonder is faultless when the prior ignorance of what one discovers is not held to be culpable.

How is this engendered?

By teaching philosophy in the manner of a personal enrichment course. This is done best when teaching is broad, relativistic, and non-judgmental. Breadth is achieved by introducing students to a wide variety of problems or figures at a pace too fast to cover them sufficiently; relativism, by leaving what views to accept a matter of personal decision. Philosophy teaching is non-judgmental when assessment is minimal and grades are generous. Lay out the figures and problems of philosophy like a gourmet to feast on, served buffet-style, at a low cost.

What does it perpetuate?

Today, the concern to keep philosophical wonder faultless perpetuates the assimilation of philosophy to positive science. Why? Because the alternative – that philosophy is not a specialist’s domain, but rather concerns those matters closest to us from the first – brings with it an air of culpability: once philosophy is stripped of its jargon, its subject and claims become something I should have recognized. The removal of the threat of culpability, in turn, perpetuates an approach to philosophical problems as pastimes, games without any real import. A literature whose existence is self-justifying is generated, and teaching becomes a matter of socializing students into the vocabulary and opinions expressed therein. This, in turn, reinforces the racial and class homogeny of philosophy: poor people and minorities just don’t have time for that kind of bullshit.

Can it be stopped?

In most places, probably not. Philosophy instructors who perform well on evaluations are tempted to see these as a sign of teaching quality; instructors who do not are eliminated. Philosophy departments benefit from a student body contented by their conflation of faultless wonder with actually learning philosophy – a student body happier in this way is one with more majors and minors, and this means a more secure department; and deans and colleges benefit financially from providing students courses that satisfy them as a break from the ‘real’ work of science and business.

Experimental philosophy of mathematics

Of all philosophy’s subdisciplines, philosophy of mathematics has been that most resistant to the adoption of empirical methods. The difficulty this poses to experimental philosophy is considerable; and sadly, experimental philosophers have not recognized its seriousness.

Until now.

We (I) realized (believed) the transformation of philosophy into a respectable, scientific discipline would not be complete so long as this bulwark stood firm. So we stormed this citadel of armchair philosophy, to raze it to the ground. Or capture the fortress. Whichever metaphor you prefer.

We decided to conduct an X-PERIMENT! (a survey). Our mission: to settle once and for all the debate raging among philosophers of mathematics about what numbers really are. We went out into the wild habitat of New York city and surveyed 500 ordinary people. Not like us at all, really.

Here is what we asked them:

‘Is the number two the set containing the set containing the null set as its only member? Or is it the set containing both the null set and the set containing the null set?’

This is what they said:


That should settle it.

Please clap.