Philosophy in Practice | Cape Town


QA 43. The meaning of transgression

QA 43. The meaning of transgression

  • Posted by Helen Douglas
  • On July 28, 2013
  • Anne Carson, ethics, Franz Kafka, law, right and wrong, transgression

But the poet’s task, Kafka says, is to lead the isolated human being into the infinite life, the contingent into the lawful.

Anne Carson

The contingent: what sommer happens to be and could just as well be otherwise. South Africans drive on the left side, Canadians on the right. Some people wear black for mourning and some wear white. Statutory and customary laws are mostly contingent. We submit to these rules because they’re sensible and orderly for our particular contingent of humanity. It’s what one does here.


This kind of code has everything to do with being “one of us” and nothing to do with “me”. Under its light, we are interchangeable Tweedledees and Tweedledums. Some philosophers rail against this mundane morality, but it’s mostly innocuous and useful. As long as I don’t feel unduly constrained, as long as the rules are reasonable and reasonably fair and reasonably clear, I’m willing to go along. Even if I cut some corners of the letter of the law, I accept the spirit of its social contract. If I get caught, I’ll take the consequences. If not, lucky me!

The “lawful”, according to Kafka (according to Carson), is something else again: not contingent but necessary, not isolated but integral. Infinitely lively. We can be led to it, but we can’t make it up. It’s just there, unavoidable and compelling. There’s a sense of universality, with a certainty we can’t fully account for. We are moved to do the right thing and avoid the wrong. It’s a kind of choiceless awareness that still leaves us free to choose how we will act. And it is deeply personal: this concerns me and only me. I alone will respond.

This sense of right and wrong is ineffable but we try to capture it anyway, bringing it to bear in our moral principles, our laws and commandments. Then we run the risk of confusing the contingent with the necessary, the mundane with the sacred. We become fundamentalist, dogmatic, sure of our ground, certain of our ossified truth.

If we’re going to get right with getting right, if we want to live well, to be righteous without being self-righteous, the key lies in that immediate and unmediated experience of alignment with or sense of transgression against the Good. It’s a matter of practice and cultivation – and is the classical task of philosophy.

Elsewhere, Kafka wrote:

The true way is along a rope that is not spanned high in the air, but only just above the ground. It seems intended more to cause stumbling than to be walked upon.”

I find that helpful. To move from our “isolated contingency”, we don’t have to strive toward the heights of saints and angels. We need only attend to what trips us up.


1 Comment

David Glidden
I prefer a virtues-based ethic over codes, since codes trip us up with the interpretations they require and the semantical evasions they encourage. So, I prefer, say, Aristotle's Ethics to the Book of Proverbs. Virtues and vices spring out of our character, while codes encourage conformity to the authority of the Other, whoever and whatever it might be. There is such a thing as the idolatry of Rules and Conventions. Rather, perhaps we can see the latter only as guidelines for character, but not the rules of character commanding obedience.

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