- The Nowhere of Truth:Kierkegaard's Discourse on the Occasion of Confession (1845)
Picasso once said: "I do not seek, I find." If this sounds paradoxical it is because in the western philosophical tradition finding is somehow always understood as conditioned by, and relative to, a prior seeking. One cannot find without having sought—or, at least, this is taken as true with respect to the "highest" things. Even if one can stumble upon a deposit of gold without having sought it, one generally does not say this about the real, the truth, the absolute. But why not? How is it that the pursuit of truth, the search for it, has come to be regarded as essential to its legitimate acquisition? Whence derives the necessity of the search? This is a question at stake in a discourse Kierkegaard wrote on confession from a little book titled Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions (1845).1 Employing the theological idiom he inherits, the discourse asks: "what does it mean to seek God?" But what is really crucial in this discourse, I'll suggest, is the manner in which Kierkegaard interrogates and finally revaluates the very idea that truth is something that can be sought.
On the way toward clarifying an account of confession, this discourse traces an arc of revaluation in the notion of truth: from truth as the object of a search to truth as what is always already given, prior to any search. Kafka, a reader of Kierkegaard, managed to express this revaluation in his own way: "He who seeks does not find; but he who [End Page 987] does not seek will be found" (31). Kierkegaard pursues this revaluation on the occasion of confession. Confession was a very determinate occasion, both theologically and liturgically, in Kierkegaard's Lutheran Denmark.2 However, Kierkegaard takes confession up as an "imagined occasion" (tænkte Leilighed)—which will mean, not only a "thought up" occasion, but an occasion for thought. What is important here is that the occasion of confession consists in the prevailing of a certain "stillness" (Stilheden), in a cessation of both speech and activity. To conceive truth in another way than as the object of a seeking is to conceive it as what becomes available only within the context of stillness. Thus Kierkegaard links confession to a movement of becoming still: to confess truth will not mean to bring the truth to light in language, in a speech act, but to become still. Moreover, as I shall explain below, when Kierkegaard speaks of "stillness" he is invoking what he explicitly calls the "infinite nothing" from which it is impossible to separate human existence. The work of confession, we shall see, will involve allowing nothingness "to be."
The Metaphysics of the Search
Let me begin by considering how it is that seeking seems essential in relation to the truth. The question here is: under what condition does the truth, the absolute, present itself as the object or goal of a search? It is only necessary to seek truth on the condition that it is not immediately available in its full presence, or where it is present only under the form of its withdrawal. In other words, seeking the truth is necessary only on condition that the seeker initially lacks truth and understands himself or herself in terms of this lack. However, as Plato and Hegel both knew, the experience of lack is complex: it would seem that the experience of lack is but the obverse side of desire. Thus the search for truth may be understood as a modality of desire. To be in a condition of desire is to be oriented toward some absent plenum. Desire or eros, as Diotima said, is the offspring of poverty and plenty: to desire is already to be in relation to what would fulfill one, yet without overcoming the lack.3 If seeking is essential, then, [End Page 988] this presupposes an understanding of human existence organized around some missing plenum, some elusive object of desire. Indeed, in the western tradition, the very notion of philosophy, as the "love of wisdom," has been understood as the desire for wisdom. The philosopher is the...