Philosophical Fragments is a systematic presentation of Christian religious dogma without using Christian terminology, without a speculative philosophical system, and without any appeal to authority, such as the Bible or the Church. In the process, Fragments explores metaphysical questions centering about time and eternity, Being and Becoming, how things come into existence, and how religious or ethical truth is learned.
When Soren Kierkegaard ("SK") wrote Fragments, a new philosophical jargon, invented by G.F.W. Hegel, was at the peak of its popularilty. Large chunks of Fragments, e.g. the entire Preface, are anti-Hegelian rants. The very name of the book was meant to convey a "fragmented", "unscientific" approach, in opposition to Hegelian "systematic" and purportedly scientific method. History validates SK's concern. Hegelian jargon lent itself to pernicious abuse. The pretense to a superior scientific truth was misused by facists and communists alike.
In 1844, however, and writing in Danish, the most likely targets of SK’s wrath were Danish Lutheran churchmen who used Hegelian jargon to appear hip and clever. Later in his career, SK made the attacks on the Danish church explicit, personal and very public. In this book, however, SK writes under a pseudonym, Johannes Climacus. Johannes Climacus is a character from a previous book (Johannes Climacus, or De Omnibus Dubitandum Est) who is not yet a Christian believer and uses the methods of philosophy. When he is done ranting, SK has Johannes Climacus recover distinct Socratic and Christian messages from the dustbin of "History".
After Hegel, "History" acquires a capital "H" and is a synonym for the unfolding manifestation of the World Spirit. Also, the scholarly search for the historical Jesus begins about this time in the 19th Century, along with efforts to validate bible texts and translations through archeological ("scientific") methods. Hegelians assume that after 2000 years of blending, synthesizing and rehashing (what they call "mediation") some progress was made in answering the ultimate questions of existence. The lesson to be learned from, or remembered in reading Philosophical Fragments is that no such progress is possible, collectively, or in an objective, "scientific" way. "Progress" toward the Truth is subjective, and possible for an individual only through the grace of God.
Plato’s Meno began with question, “Can virtue be taught?” SK asks “Can the Truth be taught?” "Truth" here means ethical/religious truth, and so it is the same question. “Virtue” (arete; excellence) presupposes some ethical knowledge. Courage, for example, is not foolish aggression. The difference is knowing when to be brave. Justice requires knowing when to punish, and when to show mercy. The “Truth” we are speaking of, then, is a knowledge of the good in action. Other kinds of “truth”, for example, the truth of mathematical propositions, are interesting only as simple examples. Empirical truths are not interesting at all. No amount of knowledge about what “is” can tell us what “ought” to be.
Kierkegaard then reviews the “Socratic” answers to this question. Discussing them as “Socratic”, rather than Platonic, is itself a subtle message. There are no writings of Socrates. We know about him through Plato, Xenophon, and scattered references in other classic works. Similarly, we only know about Jesus Christ through Paul and the writers of the Gospels. (SK doesn't refer to "Jesus" in his discussion, or even "God": he refers to his hypothetical divine teacher as "the God"). In some ways, "the God" would act just like Socrates: the first step is unlearning your wrong opinions. After that, however, Socrates and "the God" are very different.
The "Socratic" answer to the question is that ethical Truth cannot be learned. It must be innate, and is remembered or "recollected". The alternative, which the reader can guess is Christianity, assumes to the contrary that the Truth is not in us and must come from without. Not only that, but we ourselves must be changed ("converted") in order to perceive the Truth. To make matters worse, we may encounter the Teacher but fail to recognize that he is anything more than another human being, perhaps as clever as Socrates, but no more. Meeting the Teacher in person is no guarantee that you will recognize his divinity. Recognizing divinity is a matter of faith. Thus, we are in a better position to apprehend the Teacher as "the God" than the Teacher's own contemporaries. Since we have no direct contact with the Teacher, we cannot mistake his direct communications for the more important, but indirectly communicated, Truth.
This would appear to negate the historical significance of Jesus and the Incarnation, but at the same time, SK insists that the God had to become a mortal human being in order to accomplish the conversion of mortal human beings. SK names the tension between these two positions --that the Truth must be eternal and ahistorical, but Jesus had to have a temporal and historical existence in order to be significant for us-- the Absolute Paradox. The Absolute Paradox should not be reasoned away (or "mediated", as the Hegelians would say) but must be held fast with a passionate desire for the Truth. This passionate desire for the Truth, which holds together the mutually repellant worlds of time and eternity, is Kierkegaard's philosophical definition of Christian faith.
Kierkegaard, Soren, Philosophical Fragments, Tr. Howard and Edna Hong (Princeton, 1985)
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