WHAT ABOUT ISAAC?: Rereading Fear and Trembling and Rethinking Kierkegaardian Ethics



In this essay I offer a reading of Fear and Trembling that responds to critiques of Kierkegaardian ethics as being, as Brand Blanshard claims, “morally nihilistic,” as Emmanuel Levinas contends, ethically violent, and, as Alasdair MacIntyre charges, simply irrational. I argue that by focusing on Isaac's singularity as the very condition for Abraham's “ordeal,” the book presents a story about responsible subjectivity. Rather than standing in competition with the relation to God, the relation to other people is, thus, inscribed into this very relation. Fear and Trembling, I contend, advocates a bidirectional responsibility that is constitutive of subjectivity itself and, as such, actually resonates with certain aspects of Levinasian ethics. I conclude by suggesting that Abraham's ordeal is not due to the conflict between a nonreligious duty and the duty to God, but instead reflects a tension that is internal to the life of faith itself.