Friday, August 06, 2004

Did Kierkegaard reject all objectivity?

An interlocutor asks whether Kierkegaard adheres to any epistemological commitment to an accessible reality. He tends to think that Kierkegaard denies that there is "an objective dimension." He says that in the relationship to truth delineated by Kierkegaard is inwardly appropriated and seemingly cannot be demonstrated by rational proofs or apprehended by human reason. In this regard, he notes, Alasdair MacIntyre writes:

"The fundamental doctrine of Soren Kierkegaard is that not only are there no genuine objective tests in morality; but that doctrines which assert that there are function as devices to disguise the fact that our moral standards are, and can only be, chosen" (A Short History of Ethics, 215).

For my part, I'm aware of this reading of K. It's nearly 'standard' in some circles. It was Francis Schaeffer's reading at L'Abri in Switzerland where I studied one year. I agree that it seems to be supported by many passages in K. My problem with it is that I think K may be in two minds about these assertions, or, if not in two minds, then ironic. Irony pervades his work. As you know, his thesis was written on the concept of Socratic irony. And he's forever saying things like "It was intelligence and nothing else that had to be opposed. Presumably that is why I, who had the job, was armed with an immense intelligence." If K is ultimately a "corrective," as McInerny suggests, then I can see how K might be read as 'erring' on the side of subjectivity, as it were, in order to counter-balance the error he clearly perceived on the side of objectivism. Ultimately, in my view, the upshot of his philosophy is to say that we've been peering through the binoculars in search of the duck, all the while oblivious to the fact that it's been perched on our head. In other words, "that solitary existent," the "individual" in his lived experience-- his Erlebnis -- has been largely overlooked in the positivistic legacy that focuses only upon the objective facticity of truth. I don't think that a proper appreciation of the subjective dimensions of the apprehension of truth need lead one to reject the objective side of truth; and I'm not at all certain that K, despite his language, really means that we should. To take him at his prima facie word would be to take him for an out-and-out subjectivist, who thinks that authenticity and sincerity are all that matter in worship, for instance, and that it doesn't matter whether one is finally worshipping "the true God" or "an idol," as he suggested in that passage. I don't think this is finally a plausible reading of K, when all is said and done. I could suppose that he was merely confused about things, but I find that impossible for a genius of his intelligence. I chaulk it up to irony.

Philosophical interlocutor:
"That still does not mean that K espouses or advocates objectivity as a viable path to truth. He seems to say that truth, at least in its fullness, is ONLY subjective. He certainly does not believe that the objective proofs of the System constitute truth."
Reply: I take him to mean that objective probabilities are simply that. They're not necessarily untrue, but just not something that engages "that solitary existent." When we're talking about that for which one can live and die, we're engaging the subject's will and life and death. Hence, I wouldn't agree with your statement that for K truth is "ONLY subjective," but I WOULD agree with your qualifier that it's only subjective "in its FULLNESS." Which is to say, an objective truth, such as "Jesus died for the redemption of the world," is not a "living, meaningful truth" for an secularized apostate such as Martin Heidegger. It doesn't touch him. But for the person who wagers his entire existence upon it, like Blaise Pascal, it becomes a certainty to which he clings while knowing he cannot prove it to the skeptic. Objectively, the proposition is true for Heidegger, though he doesn't apprehend the fact; but the fullness of that truth is realize only for Pascal, who embraces it with the passion of inwardness.

Now, having said that, I would refuse the view that would deny that the proposition is objectively true for Heidegger, despite the fact that he doesn't apprehend it; he simply hasn't subjectively recognized that it's true for him too, thereby denying himself the full subjective plentitude of that truth.

Philosophical interlocutor:
K is ironic, to be sure. And maybe he is not an irrationalist. Neither, however, does he engage in the objectivization of aletheia [Greek: "truth"]. K himself pens the following:

"In the principle that subjectivity, inwardness, is the truth, there is comprehended the Socratic wisdom, whose everlasting merit it was to have become aware of the essential significance of existence, of the fact that the knower is an existing individual. For this reason Socrates was in the truth by virtue of his ignorance, in the highest sense in which this was possible within paganism."
Reply: I suggest that the qualifier he appends to the last sentence (" . . . in the highest sense in which this was possible within paganism") prevents the possibility of characterizing him as a subjectivist simpliciter.