D. Anthony Storm's Commentary on Kierkegaard

Second Period: Indirect Communication (1843-46)


  • Repetition: A Venture in Experimenting Psychology
  • Gjentagelsen: Et Forsøg i den experimenterende Psychologi
  • Constantin Constantius
  • 1843
  • KW6, SKS4, SV3

Kierkegaard conceived of three stages, or "existence spheres" of life, consisting of the esthetic, the ethical and the religious. While he favored the term "stages" earlier in his writings, we are not to conceive of them necessarily as periods of life that one proceeds through in sequence, but rather, as paradigms of existence. Moreover, many individuals might not traverse a certain stage, for example, the religious. Repetition is concerned with the ethical stage.

Repetition, like Johannes Climacus, is an unorthodox philosophical work, in that it is in narrative form, like the unfinished Johannes Climacus. Kierkegaard presents the correspondence of a young man in love, who cannot consummate the relationship in marriage because that position falls into the area of ethical duty, and would require a dedication to one person, that is, repetition. Recollection, on the other hand, is in the category of the esthetic. The young man can only cherish the beloved after he leaves her, and then only poetically. The young man is likely the same young man, known as A, the author/editor of Part One of Either/Or. He appears again in the banquet scene in part one (the esthetic part) of Stages on Life's Way, entitled In Vino Veritas. Constantius himself appears as an interlocutor there where he belittles seduction as an esthetic game. He speaks of woman as a jest. Seducers are fools for making such a fuss about the pursuit. To him, eros has overreached himself.

The "author" Constantin Constantius observes a young man who is passionately in love with a woman, a love which he concealed for some time, but which at last was made known to our author. This young man seems to be totally consumed in his desire for his beloved. Yet this love brings him into a state of melancholy. Constantius wonders why this should be so. He remarks that love is usually the cure for melancholy, rather than its cause. As a result, the young man cannot fulfill his ethical duty by following through with his engagement.

Constantius comes to understand that the young man fears an ethical repetition. The idea of repetition is influenced by two Greek theories. The first is that of motion, actually, the impossibility of motion, which the Eleatics, notably Zeno and Parmenides, affirmed. It was asserted that motion is impossible, because if a man wants to go from point A to point B, he must first traverse a midway point—call it X—to get there. However, he cannot get to X unless he first gets to a midway point between A and X, and so forth. This reason is applied ad infinitum. Therefore motion is impossible, an illusion. Kierkegaard reminds us that one Greek sought to refute this merely by pacing back and forth without uttering a word.

The second Greek concept is Plato's idea of recollection, which has to do with knowledge acquisition. In the Phaedo we find Socrates discoursing on the acquisition of knowledge as a recollection of things from a previous incarnation. Ostensibly, this idea is put forth by Socrates as a way to comfort his friends. That is, if a man can learn anything he must have already known something about what he is going to learn or he would not be equipped to learn anything. And if he has known something without having been taught it (in this life), he must have learned it before his birth. And if the soul existed prior to birth it stands to reason that it survives death, and thus his friends have no cause for grief. This innate and prior knowledge is triggered into consciousness by sensory input. Plato is striving to work beyond a two-fold paradox. Namely, if a person does not know something, he cannot learn it since he knows nothing about it. If, on the other hand, he knows it, he does not need to learn it. Plato uses recollection to get beyond this problematical hurdle. This theory is also pursued in the Meno and the Philebus.

In the introduction Constantius writes:

Recollection's love, an author [A in Either/Or] has said, is the only happy love. He is perfectly right in that, of course, provided one recollects that initially it makes a person unhappy. Repetition's love is in truth the only happy love. Like recollection's love, it does not have the restlessness of hope, the uneasy adventurousness of discovery, but neither does it have the sadness of recollection—it has the blissful security of the moment (p. 131f.).

Constantius wonders about the young man's mental state in relation to motion and reflection. In Two Ages Kierkegaard criticizes his age for reflection without passion. Mere reflection is dull thought without passion and without commitment. Ethical repetition brings about motion and passionate commitment to the beloved. Though barely touched upon in this work, the religious stage is reached by the qualitative leap of faith, where one finds rest (motionless) in God.

Does he actually love the girl, or is she not once again simply the occasion that sets him in motion?... The split in him caused by his contact with her would be reconciled by his actually having returned to her. So once again the girl was not an actuality but a reflection of motions within him and an incitement of them (p. 185).

Recollection is confined to motionlessness and to the past. Kierkegaard's concept of repetition, on the other hand, is in constant movement and is connected to the ethical future. Repetition ends in addressing the religious sphere. Constantius' observations are followed by a correspondence between him and the young man. He then finishes with a closing letter to his reader. Kierkegaard does not return to the theme of repetition in his writings.