“The subjective thinker is not a man of science, but an artist. Existing is an art. The subjective thinker is aesthetic enough to give his life aesthetic content, ethical enough to regulate it, and dialectical enough to penetrate it with thought.”(1974, 314)
“What is truth?” asked Pontius Pilate. “Subjectivity is truth,”(1987, 203) answered Søren Kierkegaard. For so long I misunderstood Kierkegaard. My love-hate-relationship with this brilliant Danish thinker underwent an existentialistic crisis. Re-reading Kierkegaard’s works in their proper historical background made me realise how I misunderstood him. My “hate” in my love-hate-relationship with him was based on misunderstanding. This article attempts to explore one of the Kierkegaardian ideas, namely subjectivity, which I once misunderstood.
Kierkegaard’s works can easily be misunderstood if not read within their proper context. Two clear examples are: “Objectively, there is no truth”(1941, 201) and “It is subjectivity that Christianity is concerned with, and it is only in subjectivity that its truth exists, if it exists at all; Objectively, Christianity has absolutely no existence”(ibid. 116). Prima facie it seems that Kierkegaard is denying the objectiveness of truth and Christianity. This article aim to show that this is not the case. It argues that a relativistic understanding of subjectivity in Kierkegaard’s writings, which streamed existentialistic restoration of primitive Christianity from Danish State Church’s Christendom, would be misunderstanding his whole project all together.
Kierkegaard basic rejection of objectivity could be summed up in one of his sentences; “objective thought has no relation to the existing subject”(1941, 112). Holding on of objective truths of Christianity does not make an existing individual a genuine Christian. Majority of Danes, in Kierkegaard’s time, did that. The problem was what they believed did not affect them as existing individuals. Their daily lives were undistinguished from pagans. The Hegelian systematic and objective Christianity did not affect existing individuals daily life. It did not generate passion for Danes to fully commit themselves to. Kierkegaard’s project was purely to address this issue. For him, “Christianity is spirit, spirit is inwardness, inwardness is subjectivity, subjectivity is essentially passion, and in its maximum an infinite personal, passionate interest in one’s eternal happiness.” (1974, 33)
There is no objective truth in genuine Christianity, according to Kierkegaard, because truth resides in God. God is a subject, not an object. In order for an existing individual to know the truth, God incarnate must graciously self-reveal it to her. For Kierkegaard, “every human being is taught essentially only by God”(1841, 92). There is no subject-to-object encounter. She cannot objectively discover such truth. She must encounter and experience God. A subject-to-subject encounter (1987, 16-22) He also wrote,
“The existing individual who chooses to pursue the objective way enters upon the entire approximation-process by which it is proposed to bring God to light objectively. But this is in all eternity impossible, because God is a subject, and therefore exists only for subjectivity in inwardness.” (1974, 179)
Moreover, “[a]n objective acceptance of Christianity (sit venia verbo) is paganism or thoughtlessness”(1941, 116) according to Kierkegaard. He further explained,
“Christianity protests against every form of objectivity; it desires that the subject should be infinitely concerned about himself. It is with subjectivity that Christianity is concerned, and it is only in subjectivity that its truth exists, if it exists at all. Objectively, Christianity has absolutely no existence. If the truth happens to be only in a single subject it exists in him alone; and there is greater Christian joy in heaven over this one individual than over universal history or the system.”(ibid.)
God cannot be known objectively by reason but by existential passionate leap to faith. Natural theology, thus, is folly and shameful, according to Kierkegaard. He explained that “if God does not exist it would of course be impossible to prove it; and if he does exist it would be folly to attempt it. For at the very outset, in beginning my proof, I will have presupposed it, not as doubtful but as certain”(1987, 49) God existence is “acknowledged by an appropriate expression of subjection and submission”(1974, 485).
Kierkegaard explained the difference between objectivity and subjectivity of Christian truth, thus, as follows,
“When the question about truth is asked objectively, truth is reflected upon objectively as an object to which the knower relates himself. What is reflected upon is not the relation but that what he relates himself to is the truth, the true. If only that to which he relates himself is the truth, the true, then the subject is in the truth. When the question about truth is asked subjectively, the individual’s relation is reflected upon subjectively. If only the how of this relation is in truth, the individual is in truth, even if he in this way were to relate himself to untruth”(1987, 198)
In Kierkegaard’s attempt to undress and restore the areas to which speculative philosophy had taken genuine Christianity captive, he dethroned objectivity introduced by Hegelian speculative rationalism that neglected the subjective element, and enthroned, in its place, subjectivity. Kierkegaard did not throw objectivity outside the king’s court. It did have a place. A place where it was a servant, and not a master. Reason is a servant. Will is the master. For Kierkegaard, “it[reason] leads, as it were, the individual up to it, and says: ‘here it must be, that I guarantee; when you worship here, you worship God” (1974, 438-9).
Genuine Christianity is that which generates passion. Passion that generates joy. Passion, following Kierkegaard, is subjectivity (1941, 117). It is the passion of inwardness, namely, “the passion of the infinite is the truth”. For Kierkegaard, that passion is “the passion of the infinite is precisely subjective, and thus subjectivity becomes the truth”(1974, 181). Subjective truths are truths worth an individual’s total self-commitment. As an existentialist, Kierkegaard main focus was with an individual and not with the universal abstracts. He was concerned with subjects and not abstract objects. He was concerned with will and not reason.
In this project, thus, it is what God desires the subjects to do and not rational speculations of the existence or the nature of God that predominantly matters. Discovery of objectivity, following Kierkegaard, has no aesthetic benefit for existing individuals. In July 29, 1835, Kierkegaard noted this in his journal, which I believe, sums up his entire subjectivity mission,
“What I really lack is to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I am to know, except in so far as a certain understanding must precede every action. The thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wishes me to do; the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die. What would be the use of discovering so-called objective truth, of working through all the systems of philosophy and of being able, if required, to review them all and show up the inconsistencies within each system; what good would it do me to be able to develop a theory of the state and combine all the details into a single whole, and so construct a world in which I did not live, but only held up to the view of others; – what good would it do me to be able to explain the meaning of Christianity if it had no deeper significance for me and for my life; what good would it do me if truth stood before me, cold and naked, not caring whether I recognised her or not, and producing in me a shudder of fear rather than a trusting devotion? I certainly do not deny that I still recognise an imperative of understanding and that through it one can work upon men, but it must be taken up into my life, and that is what I now recognise as the most important thing. That is what my soul longs after, as the African desert thirsts for water.”(1959, 44)
Subjective truth is truth for me that generates a passion of inwardness that is worth my total self-commitment. Kierkegaardian subjectivity ought, thus, to be understood as a reaction against rationalist’s worship of objectivity and reason at the cost of the subjective and will elements. Objectivity that neglects the subjective element belongs to the realm of Hegelian pure being. It has nothing to do with existing individuals who are “born of the infinite and the finite, the eternal and the temporal, and therefore a constant striving”(1974, 85). Kierkegaard wanted us to transcend objectivity to a higher level of being namely subjectivity.
I have begun to understand Kierkegaard. My “hate” in my love-hate-relationship with him is gone. What is left is a subjective passion of a love relationship. Christian faith that does not transform who we are, as existing individuals, is meaningless to us. God is a gracious subject, according to Kierkegaard, who has revealed Himself in Christ. We cannot know Him through an objective cognitive process but only through a pure and passionate subjective relationship that brings joy to its maximum. In that relation, we are not men of science. We are artists.
1941 – Concluding Unscientific Postscript- Edited and translated by David F. Swenson & Walter Lowrie. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
1959 – The Journals of Kierkegaard. Edited and translated by Alexander Dru. New York.: Haper Torchbooks.
1974 – Concluding Unscientific Postscript Princeton: Princeton University Press.
1987 – Philosophical Fragments. Edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
1992 – Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. 2 vols. Edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.