“To exist in such a way that my opposition to existence expresses itself every instant as the most beautiful and safest harmony, that I cannot.” — Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling
“What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me? I can understand only in human terms.” — Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
Incommensurability is the lack of a common measure between two things. The incongruence that presents itself in the situation of incommensurability gives us two options: We must either abandon one term or leap from one to the other without explanation. We are put in the position to choose when faced with a paradox; something that is self-contradictory demands that we either refuse to grant one of the terms that contradicts the other or transcend our understanding - leap over it - and grant both terms despite their incommensurability. If, as many thinkers declare, human life involves a paradox, then simply living demands that we choose one of these options. Existentialism, as a branch of philosophy that concentrates heavily on paradox, offers many different perspectives on the significance and implications of the incommensurable aspects of the human condition. Kierkegaard and Camus referred to man’s position in the world as “the absurd;” though the term is shared between them and their definitions are not dissimilar, their approach to the absurd and the conclusions they draw therefrom are, well, incommensurable. In both of our thinkers’ writings, man with his concrete experiences represents one of the terms of the incommensurable; the other is what man longs for: unity, clarity, justification - in a word, God. What should we do without a common measure between what we live and what we want, the former being certain, the latter being unknowable yet desperately longed for? Is there a correct attitude toward the paradox? Since Kierkegaard and Camus share a similar starting point and end worlds apart, one leaping over the understanding and the other revolting against the incomprehensible, a discussion of their attitudes toward the incommensurable will provide two extreme positions for analysis. This could result many ways: One of these poles may stand out as the clearly correct approach; perhaps neither will ring true, but their extremity may refer us to a middle path; perhaps no conclusion can be found for such a question, because paradox may not admit of a right or wrong approach.
When discussing the lack of a common measure between man and the objects of his desire, we know the instrument of measurement of the first term: the understanding. The absurd is that which surpasses the understanding, that which defies its logic and offends its sensibility. The absurd is the incommensurability between man and God. Kierkegaard, a zealous Christian, is often referred to as the father of existentialism - interesting to consider today, since the modern connotation of “the existentialist” is highly atheistic, or at least agnostic. Kierkegaard’s thought, though, is a clear precursor to modern existential philosophy; in his treatment of paradox, he diminishes the status of reason and exalts human passion. His preference of a lyrical writing style over the more traditional linear, dialectical structure indicates his emphasis on mood rather than logic. His ideas of paradox and the absurd unfold in his writings on faith, namely, in Philosophical Fragments and Fear and Trembling.
Philosophical Fragments concerns man’s ability to know truth. In it we find the Socratic idea of midwifery and immanent truth called into question. Kierkegaard does not provide an argument against it, but provides an alternative based on a hypothetical premise: If we are divorced from truth, how can we learn it? His answer is, of course, Jesus, but this is not the focus of my present discussion. The most relevant part of the Fragments for my concerns is Kierkegaard’s chapter on what he calls the “absolute paradox.” What he describes here is essentially a drive toward intellectual self-destruction. “This…is the ultimate paradox of thought: to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think.” (37) Thought wants to transcend itself, but it cannot, since this would require pulling itself over its own limits. Kierkegaard gives a name to that against which the understanding wants to destroy itself: the unknown, or the god.