Subjectivity and Faith in the Work of Søren Kierkegaard
Subjectivity and Faith in the Work of Søren Kierkegaard: An examination of the Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments
Human history is fraught with the attempts of wise men and philosophers to perceive and ascertain truth. The pursuit of this grail has enamored the greatest minds of history, resulting in a slew of opinions and possible answers to the question of the actual nature of truth, and whether it does indeed exist. For Søren Kierkegaard, it would seem that, not only does truth exist, but it is each man's vocation to strive to attain it.
Kierkegaard would postulate that there is a decisive route to truth, but the majority of his contemporary society has chosen the wrong path. In an effort to correct this erroneous course, he has written, under a number of pseudonyms, many volumes concerning the method by which truth may be, not merely discovered, but incorporated into the life of the existing individual. The correct method becomes clear in a dialectical comparison between the two possible conditions for seeking the truth: objective or subjective. Upon examination of his texts, it becomes readily apparent that the objective method is inferior to the subjective, inferior to the point of error if it is to be utilized in a quest for the truth.
Kierkegaard proposes that faith supersedes reason as the essential and necessary means by which truth can be attained by an existing individual. Such being the case, faith subordinates and transforms the role of reason, while becoming synonymous with truth, through its relationship to the existing individual. This becomes clear through a close examination of Kierkegaard's Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments. The case presented therein by Kierkegaard, or rather, Johannes Climacus, the pseudonymous author of the work in question, constitutes a solid and convincing argument in favor of his ideas. Although one may need faith in order to accept the truth, one does not need it in order to accept Kierkegaard.
Before an examination of the text can occur, the relationship between Søren Kierkegaard and the author of the Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments must be established and understood. The pseudonymous author goes by the name “Johannes Climacus.” It may, at first, seem senseless to try to divine the meaning behind the pseudonym when the true author is already known, but the name Johannes Climacus itself holds the key to understanding the issue at hand. The surname Climacus, a Latin word which is translated as climber, signifies the fundamental premise behind the pseudonymous authorship: Johannes Climacus does not yet have the truth, nor is he, therefore, a Christian. He merely presents an opposing, dialectic argument to the System presumably espoused by Hegel and his many followers. The text is subtitled A Mimic-Pathetic-Dialectic Composition An Existential Contribution. The first phrase makes it clear that it is Kierkegaard's intent to present, through the services of Climacus, an alternate, and presumably more favorable manner of encountering and attaining truth, in a rhetoric similar to that of Hegel. Climacus presents a dialectic composition to counter that of Hegel. The dialectic pits the objective against the subjective as possible means of ascertaining truth. The fundamental difference between the dialectic of Climacus and that of Hegel is inherent in the fact that Climacus, and presumably Kierkegaard, do not intend for the subjective to be synthesized with the objective, but rather for the reader to realize that a viable and acceptable dialectic between the two does not exist. There exists only one path to truth: subjectivity.
The most important and essential argument presented by Climacus involves the choice between the objective and subjective paths to the truth. It seems logical that Climacus examines these two methods because between them, they constitute the only ways in which the world can be perceived: either as a separate entity in and of itself, or as an integral part of the self. The truth, if it exists, must be held in one of these two realms. Climacus denies that the objective route can be taken if truth is to be the goal of the journey. His first, but not his most essential argument for the impotence of objectivity stems from his position that objectivity denies the subjective thinker:
The way of objective reflection makes the subject accidental, and thereby transforms existence into something indifferent, something vanishing.
Climacus argues that, while objective reflection leads to objective truths, this has little or no meaning to the existing thinker who reflects in this manner. The reason for this veritable collapse of objective “truth” involves the effect on which the pursuit of truth through objective reflection has on the reader. According to Climacus, “…the objective way of reflection leads to the objective truth, and while the subject and his subjectivity become indifferent, the truth also becomes indifferent, and this indifference is precisely its objective validity; for all interest, like all decisiveness, is rooted in subjectivity.”
In essence, Climacus argues that truth cannot really be truth if it does not relate to the seeker. How can the “truths” uncovered through objective reflection be of any value, and therefore true, if they not only are indifferent to the subject who reflects, but actually alienate him in their objectivity? The more objectively true a fact, the less meaning it has for the individual, and paradoxically, the less true it becomes.
By way of explanation, Climacus offers objectivity as an attempt to attain security concerning truth:
However, the objective way deems itself to have a security which the subjective way does not have (and, of course, existence and existing cannot be thought in combination with objective security); it thinks to escape a danger which threatens the subjective way, and this danger is at its maximum: madness.
Climacus believes that the objective attempts to attain a security from madness, the danger that threatens to corrupt subjectivity. At first, he concedes that “madness and truth become in the last analysis indistinguishable, since they may both have inwardness.” But this opinion is further expounded in the footnote. In his footnote to the text, Climacus explains the fundamental difference between madness and true subjectivity:
Even this is not really true, however, for madness never has the specific inwardness of the infinite. Its fixed idea is precisely some sort of objectivity, and the contradiction consists in embracing this with passion.
Here, the essential argument which Climacus will establish, proclaiming subjective reflection as the only true method of attaining truth, begins to emerge: the notion that subjective truth involves a passionate embrace of the infinite. By way of example, Climacus offers Don Quixote, because Quixote's passion embraces a finite idea. His passion does not include the infinite and eternal: God. The idea contained in this assertion, along with the previously mentioned parenthetical statement, “existence and existing cannot be thought in combination with objective security,” brings the reader to the essence of Climacus' argument: the inherent paradox in subjectivity, and eventually, in faith.
“The objective accent falls on WHAT is said, the subjective accent is on HOW it is said.” This statement clarifies the fundamental difference between the subjective and objective methods of reflection. How something is said, however, does not refer to the external manner or the demeanor of the expression, but “rather it refers to the relationship sustained by the existing individual, in his own existence, to the content of his utterance.” Climacus maintains that, while objectivity focuses on thought-content and, as he stated previously, on what is said, subjectivity turns inward to the individual and focuses on inwardness. Climacus goes so far as to say that “that what is in itself true may in the mouth of such and such a person become untrue.” Truth may only exist for the individual who relates it to himself. It will later become clear that truth cannot exist without this relationship to the individual.
Climacus continues by explaining the maximum, or extreme expression of subjective inwardness:
At its maximum this inward “how” is the passion of the infinite, and the passion of the infinite is the truth. But the passion of the infinite is precisely subjectivity, and thus subjectivity becomes truth.
Subjectivity, at its maximum, must be focused passionately on the infinite. There exists an inherent danger in this focus of subjectivity in that, if the passion of subjectivity is focused on the finite instead of the infinite, the individual confronts madness.
Thus, as subjectivity turns inward, it turns and examines itself. This, according to Climacus, is precisely the reason why subjectivity is the truth. It is the only avenue which offers a route to the eternal truth. The stage is then set for an examination of the relationship between faith and subjectivity.
The relationship between faith and subjectivity presents a complex and intertwined discussion which eventually leads to the conclusion that true subjectivity is faith. Since objective reflection has been ruled out as a potential method of discerning and attaining the truth, only the subjective remains. According to Climacus, the highest expression of the subjective revolves around the existing subject, as he refers to the one who seeks truth, passion, and, of course, God.
For Climacus, and apparently Kierkegaard, without God, truth does not exist, because God is the only necessary being, and therefore, the only possible source of truth. The assumption of God and His existence is one which Climacus spends little time arguing in Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments, and it only emerges later in the text when the idea of a necessary and absolute paradox is presented. At this point, however, the fact that God's existence cannot be proven through objective observation and reflection only serves to strengthen his argument. Before this discussion unfolds, however, the question of God as the absolute truth must be resolved.
In discussing why God cannot be brought to light objectively, Climacus reveals the reasoning behind his notion that God is the necessary subjective truth: “But this in all eternity is impossible [referring to the objective search for God], because God is a subject, and therefore exist only for subjectivity in inwardness.” It becomes clear that God is the only eternal being that can relate to the subjective individual, and what is truth if it does not relate in this way? It is precisely untruth, useless to the existing subject. Also, God represents the only eternal source of truth, or rather, God is the only eternal truth. And what is truth if it is not eternal? It becomes untruth, because, since it is not truth at all times, it cannot be absolute and eternal truth. There exists, however, an absolutely crucial difference between God and the human being, who is the existing subject: One is infinite and eternal, while the other is finite and lacking in truth.
A necessary point, which must be grasped in an effort to understand truth as faith, involves the role of the existing human being, the existing subject, in his pursuit of that truth. It must be understood as an continuous striving; continuous until the existing subject no longer exists. “But the 'how' which is thus subjectively accentuated precisely because the subject is an existing individual, is also subject to a dialectic with respect to time.” This dialectic with respect to time is the foundation for Climacus' proposition that faith is a continual striving. Climacus describes the passionate moment of decision in which the existing subject realizes the difference between objective and subjective reflection and thought, perceives his state of untruth, and realizes the necessity of subjectivity, as the point where “the road swings away from objective knowledge.” This divergence in the road, however, is not a singular occurrence. According to Climacus, because the moment occurs in temporal existence, it is not eternal, but precisely momentary. In order for the passion of truth to last throughout the existing subject's lifetime, it must be reaffirmed each moment:
But in the same moment the existing individual finds himself in the temporal order, and the subjective “how” is transformed into a striving, a striving which receives indeed its impulse and a repeated renewal from the decisive passion of the infinite, but is nevertheless a striving.
Thus, the connection between faith and truth continues to increase in its complexity and intricacy. Truth, as it exists in the eternal being, God, is veritably unattainable by an existing subject because he is not eternal himself. The pursuit of truth, therefore, becomes a continuous subjective striving to maintain faith, which translates as truth for the existing subject. The inability of the existing subject to attain parity with the eternal being, juxtaposed with his remaining ability to attain the truth that is faith, begins to hint at the ever-present and essential paradoxes inherent in faith itself
According to Climacus, paradox is absolutely necessary in order for the existing individual to grasp faith. In fact, Climacus proposes that an essential paradox derives itself from the objective:
An objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness is the truth, the highest truth attainable for an existing individual.
This is precisely how Climacus defines truth. Thus, faith is united with the truth by serving as the most extreme expression of subjectivity, and by representing the only manner in which the existing individual can accept paradox.
The paradox involving objectivity necessitates an acceptance of that which objectivity cannot prove, but merely approximate at best. This is what Climacus refers to as the objective uncertainty. Climacus would argue that an acceptance of objective uncertainty alone, does not constitute faith nor truth. This approximation, and the existing subject who adheres to it, leads only to error. The element of passionate belief, as opposed to mere acceptance, must be added in order to establish faith:
Thus the subject merely has, objectively, the uncertainty; but it is this which precisely increases the tension of that infinite passion which constitutes his inwardness. The truth is precisely the venture which chooses an objective uncertainty with the passion of the infinite.
Faith in objective uncertainty is more than a faith in, for example, mathematic propositions, for these are “indifferent truths.” True faith is focused on the infinite, and the only infinite is the divine, God:
Faith is precisely the contradiction of the infinite passion of the individual's inwardness and the objective uncertainty. If I am capable of grasping God objectively, I do not believe, but precisely because I cannot do this I must believe.
Climacus asserts that, for the very reason that God cannot be proven, and therefore believed objectively, subjectivity must be utilized to achieve the “leap” over the gap that the lack of proof for God creates. This leap is necessary to forge the passionate faith in Him, and therefore, in the truth. Faith in paradox does, however, generate a tremendous risk, but as Climacus counters, “without risk there is no faith.”
Climacus describes the risk of faith with the example of the biblical parable, “as to remain out upon the deep, over seventy thousand fathoms of water, still preserving my faith.” The inherent risk is derived from the paradox of having faith in a truth, a being, which cannot be perceived objectively. The paradox is exacerbated when the notion of Christian Faith is introduced.
The eternal and essential truth, the truth which has an essential relationship to an existing individual because it pertains essentially to existence, …is a paradox. …It becomes paradoxical by virtue of its relationship to an existing individual.
Because the eternal truth is unremittingly related to the existing, temporal, and therefore, finite individual subject, it must exist in a state of paradox. How can something eternal be necessarily involved with the finite; necessarily involved in the sense that it would not be truth to the existing subject if eternal truth did not include the existing subject? The picture becomes much more lucid when the argument is examined in the context of the Christian Faith; the context in which Climacus meant for it to be examined.
Climacus proclaims that, the more dramatic the paradox, and the less certain the objective uncertainty, the more potent and passionate the faith, “for without risk there is no faith, and the greater the risk the greater the faith.” The more drastic and improbable the leap across the chasm of the objective, the more passionate the faith must be to initiate it:
…the less objective security the more profound the possible inwardness. When the paradox is paradoxical in itself, it repels the individual by virtue of its absurdity, and the corresponding passion of inwardness is faith.
Thus, Climacus makes the transition from faith in the paradox that is created through objective uncertainty to faith in the paradox of Christianity. Christianity provides the most irreconcilable paradox imaginable to the existing subject; a paradox which will lead him to eternal truth.
Christianity, according to Climacus, provides the most irreconcilable paradox imaginable to the existing subject which will still lead him to eternal truth. The paradox is precisely that the eternal truth relates to the existing, finite individual, and in the realm of Christianity, the realm where the only subjective and viable truth is to be found, this translates into the paradox of Christ:
How does the paradox come into being? By putting the eternal essential truth into juxtaposition with existence. Hence when we posit such a conjunction within the truth itself, the truth becomes a paradox. The eternal truth has come into being in time: this is the paradox.
For Climacus, the eternal truth that has come into being is Christ. He is God, and yet at the same time, Man. It is this paradox that Climacus perceives as the origin of faith in Christianity. A passionate belief in this paradox represents a leap over the widest chasm of objective uncertainty. “The absurd is—that the eternal truth has come into being in time, that God has come into being, has been born, has grown up, and so forth, precisely like any other individual human being, quite indistinguishable from other individuals.” Climacus proclaims this event to be the absolute paradox. He compares it to and criticizes relative paradox by explaining that a relative paradox can in no way be compared to the fundamental and essential contradictions inherent in the absolute paradox of God as Man. “A relative paradox relates itself to the relative difference between more or less cleverness and brains; but the absolute paradox, just because it is absolute, can be relevant only to the absolute difference that distinguishes man from God….” The absolute difference between man and God allows for the absolute paradox because God, the eternal truth, existed at a specific point in time and history as a man, an existing and finite subject. “But the absolute difference between God and man consists precisely in this, that man is a particular existing being…, whose essential task cannot be to think sub specie aeterni, since as long as he exists he is, though eternal, essentially an existing individual, whose essential task is to concentrate upon inwardness and existing; while God is infinite and eternal.” This eternal gap between Man and God can only be bridged by the passion of subjective faith. Faith in the existence of God as Man represents the most extreme passion of the infinite through the subjective, the highest and absolute truth.
The arguments and statements Climacus uses to enlighten the reader as to the nature of truth are also used to condemn the speculative philosophers of his contemporary society. While a majority of his dialectic focuses on presenting a counter argument to Hegel's “System,” as Climacus refers to it, Climacus spends a large portion of the text in a general assault on the beliefs and views of these speculative philosophers. The reasoning behind his condemnation stems from his belief that faith subordinates reason, and that reason alone, because it is objective and can only lead to approximation and uncertainty, paves the road to error and sin.
Climacus derides the speculative philosophers primarily for their reliance on reason and objective reflection to generate faith, when only the subjective can create faith, and therefore lead to truth. He finds ceaseless error in their attempts to seek an objective proof and their use of reason to know the truth, because objectivity merely leads to approximation:
He wishes to have faith, but he wishes also to safeguard himself by means of an objective inquiry and its approximation-process. What happens? With the help of the approximation-process the absurd becomes something different; it becomes probable, it becomes increasingly probable,…. …Now it has become precisely impossible to believe it.
When the absurd, through the use of objective reflection and reason, becomes probable to the point where the individual is almost, but never quite completely sure that it is really no longer absurd, the temptation to believe in the objective, because it almost proves or reconciles the absurd with reason, is strongest and most dangerous. When the absurd is falsely construed as probable, and only then does belief supposedly occur, true faith cannot exist. It merely becomes an erroneous faith in the absurd, as opposed to true faith, which is passion focused on the infinite in the face of objective uncertainty at its most uncertain. It is precisely the speculative philosophers' lack of faith by virtue of the absurd which incites Climacus' criticism.
The greatest error in the thought of the speculative philosophers is their attempt to explain the paradox of Christianity. Climacus believes correctly that “explain” invariably serves as a disguise for “correct.” “An explanation of the paradox makes it clear what the paradox is, removing any obscurity remaining; a correction takes the paradox away, and makes it clear that there is no paradox.” Climacus' case seems rather strong, and his point accurate, when the work of the speculative philosophers is examined carefully. There is a distinct difference between explaining a thing, and “explaining it away.” The difference lies in the aim of the one who is confronted by the paradox. One who truly wishes to explain the paradox will work and act in such a manner that the intricacies of the paradox become more lucid. In no way, however, does the paradox dissolve after “reasoning” has diluted and obscured its true nature, but rather, the paradox becomes more striking and irreconcilable after its true nature becomes clear. The speculative philosophers, in an attempt to subordinate and delete the mystery of the paradox, choose to approximate its probability using reason and objective reflection. There is no faith in this, and no faith can come from this. To trust in the methods of the speculative philosophers is to trust and exist in error.
Climacus continues in his righteous condemnation of the manners and methods of the speculative philosophy by illustrating their most erroneous of statements: “There has been said much that is strange, much that is deplorable, much that is revolting about Christianity; but the most stupid thing ever said about it is, that it is to a certain degree true.” Climacus is not repelled by the fact that the speculative philosophers have begun to agree with his ideas, but rather, he correctly perceives such a statement as the quintessential example of their error. How can that which is truth be to a certain degree true? This flawed speculative view eventually serves to strengthen Climacus' argument.
The speculative philosophers have come to believe that “speculative philosophy grasps the truth of Christianity.” This, however, is not the case. The speculative philosophers have come to believe falsely that they can abrogate the paradox of Christianity; that they can explain the paradox in such a way that it is acceptable to their reason, when in fact, it is precisely its unacceptability and objective uncertainty that is necessary for faith. Thus, when the speculative philosophers examine Christianity and proclaim that it is to a certain degree true, they see the value in Christ's teachings, but not in the paradox of His existence: “…it is as if Christ were a professor, and as if the Apostles had formed a little scientific society.” This cannot be truth for, not only does it eliminate paradox, but it denigrates the position of the infinite as truth. Climacus accuses Hegel of precisely this infraction.
Climacus contests the entirety of Hegel's system and monistic view. Most notably, he contests the role of ethics and its relation to God and faith. Climacus points out an interesting fact concerning the attitude of many of his educated contemporaries, including Hegel. He proposes that the reason for the incorrect postulation that their exists something more to be attained than faith is that the attainment of the subjective of faith seems rather simple at first glance. When, however, one listens to the arguments and opposition presented by Climacus, it becomes clear that faith is indeed not easily attained nor maintained. Faith is a lifelong task and ends only when life ends. “…Becoming subjective is the task proposed to every human being, and his highest task, one which suffices for the longest life, since it has the remarkable trait that it ceases only when life ceases….” Faith cannot therefore be a stepping stone to a greater ethics, as Hegel would have it, but rather, it is the final pursuit, for existence is becoming. To look beyond faith for truth is precisely the temptation that the devout Christian should avoid for one cannot supersede the truth.
The ethics that Hegel proposes as Man’s highest goal is subordinated by faith in the same way that the reason and objectivity of the subjective philosophers is subordinated: faith is proven to be the highest truth Man can achieve. Nothing can supplant nor displace faith as truth. Hegelian ethics should, therefore, be mediated by God, rather than encompassing and superior to God. The monistic view is vanquished as Climacus posits that God's relationship to Man presents the greatest possible objective uncertainty and, therefore, forms the absolute paradox, faith and truth. Hegel, in an attempt to consolidate reality as a monism, eliminates the possibility of the absolute paradox by eliminating the possibility of an infinite and separate God. Thus, he eliminates truth.
Climacus' expresses faith as truth in a strong logical argument, and his progression from the denial of the objective as a potential path to the truth to the elevation of faith in the paradox of Christianity as the absolute and highest truth attainable by man is truly remarkable in its lucidity and fluidity. After understanding that “every human being is an unprofitable servant,” and that the best and highest goal one can hope to attain in life is to dedicate that life to the striving which is faith, Climacus' writing presents the only possible path to truth and salvation. Hegel and the subjective philosophers err fundamentally in their perception of the intended role of faith. Climacus illustrates the magnificence and glory of the faith in paradox in one final, masterful metaphor:
Sitting quietly in a ship, while the weather is calm is not a picture of faith; but when the ship has sprung a leak, enthusiastically to keep the ship afloat by pumping while not yet seeking the harbor: this is the picture. And if the picture involves an impossibility in the long run, that is but the imperfection of the picture; faith persists.
Faith which not only persists, but revels in all obstacles and adversity is the ultimate and absolute truth.
Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974.
Kierkegaard, Søren. Philosophical Fragments. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985.