SHADOWS

KIERKEGAARD: TRUTH IS SUBJECTIVITY AND BEWARE OF THE CROWD

by Gordon L. Ziniewicz

1. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 - 1831) did not accept Kant's "boundaries." Like Descartes, Hegel was a "rationalist"; he believed that reason could reach truth on its own and apart from sensible experience. There is nothing that cannot ultimately be known. According to Hegel, reason progresses gradually toward absolute truth (including absolute self-knowledge). Thinking, according to Hegel, is not a futile effort; reason does not merely "flap its wings" in an endless dialectic of judgments pro and con. For Hegel, that reason contradicts itself -- can think opposite views -- is a good thing; for thinking advances by positing a view (thesis), then contradicting itself by positing an opposite view (antithesis), and finally reconciling both views in a higher view (synthesis). This process repeats itself until, in the end, human reason reaches the height of absolute truth. Hegel goes even further. According to Hegel, the progress of thinking is parallel to and has the same "pattern" as the progress of human civilization. Hegelian logic describes both thought and reality. Contradiction and the overcoming of contradiction are basic to the movement of mind as well as historical events. As the thinker moves from pro to con to reconciliation of pro and con in a higher view, so human history moves through positive and negative phases in an irreversible spiral toward perfection. Each age outgrows the previous age. Even war and other types of conflict are ways that human history works toward its fulfillment. Hegel believes that human history is the embodiment of absolute reason or absolute "spirit" (God), that human history is an inevitable "evolution" from potentiality to actuality (one thinks of Aristotle).
Question: Would Hegel agree that Greek civilization is superior to modern European civilization? Explain.
Question: Do you agree that "later" means "better"? Discuss.
2. The speculative philosopher, through the use of dialectic, is capable of seeing the whole process, of knowing the meaning of the whole. Absolute spirit is fully manifested in the mind of the philosopher who comprehends the whole. Recall that for Aristotle human reason could "comprehend" the universe by understanding its general laws or structures. For Hegel, this dream is fulfilled. By backing away from particulars and viewing the whole picture of human history (in space and time), by understanding the whole, the philosopher transcends and overcomes the limitations and biases of existence. The speculative philosopher soars far above this or that event, this or that point of view, and makes his home in "truth." He sees the falsity of partial views and particular interests when taken out of the context of the whole. In the mind of the speculative philosopher all views are contained and reconciled; all pros and cons are understood in the context of an all-embracing system. No view is true or false by itself; all views have a place in the system. Truth is the whole. The speculative philosopher does not "attach" himself to a single idea, but to the whole picture. In the mind of the speculative philosopher, the Aristotelian ideal of contemplation is finally fulfilled. Thus, whereas Kant would bring human reason back to Socrates, Hegel would advance human reason beyond Descartes. Hegel leaps over the fences put up by Kant.
Question: Can or should human existence be absolutely "objective" or free from bias or interest? Discuss.
3. Soren Kierkegaard (1813 - 1855) was one of many thinkers who opposed Hegel's rationalism. In Kierkegaard's view, to be a human being means more than being a detached spectator of "universal history." According to Kierkegaard, the core of human existence is interest or passion, the attempt to live as one thinks. The speculative or objective thinker embraces all views and lives none of them. The existing or subjective thinker strives to realize or live out one view or a single idea. Thinking, according to Kierkegaard, is a parenthesis, a pause to reflect, within and for the sake of existence. The speculative thinker begins the parenthesis and forgets to end it. He becomes so involved in the parenthesis that he even forgets what the parenthesis was for. If the parenthesis goes on long enough, the detached thinker even forgets that it is a parenthesis. He might even begin to think that the parenthesis or the standing back of intellectual contemplation is the same as existence or life itself. The thinker soars intellectually and forgets he is a man. Intoxicated by "dialectic," the ability to think all things, he begins to think of himself as absolute consciousness or some other fiction. This, according to Kierkegaard, is a pathetic distraction from the real task of human existence, to "concentrate" on one's own existence rather than to forget it, to act decisively rather than to engage in endless deliberation and dialectic.
Question: What does it mean to live as one thinks?
Question: If it is dangerous to think without reference to existence, is it equally dangerous to exist without thinking? Why?
4. Like Kant, Kierkegaard considers human existence to be "two-sided." One side is "in time"; the other side is "outside of time." "Spirit" (as Kierkegaard calls it) is the tension and "passion" of holding together these two contradictory sides simultaneously, without forsaking either. According to Kierkegaard, abstract thought ignores the difficulty inherent in existence -- the difficulty of putting together time and timelessness (or eternity), the two sides of human existence. In one's everyday existence, time passes and one is obligated to use each moment well, to refrain from "wasting time." In one's mind, however, one can forget time; one can engage in reflection or put together universal or general concepts that transcend time. Ideas are timeless or "eternal." They go beyond particulars to the whole. They are not about this or that merely, but include each and every. They do not refer merely to now or then, but soar beyond to the always or eternal. One's thinking can run far ahead and soar above one's particular existence. This is the difficulty of existence -- that one can think the infinite and the eternal (one runs ahead to the ideal and universal in the mind) but one has to live the finite and the temporal (one's existence lags far behind the projections of the mind). The precise achievement of existence is to hold together the concrete particular lived moment and the vision of the universal ideal. The tension between the two diametrically opposed and irreconcilable polarities of the right now and the forever ideal produces subjective passion, a longing for the eternity that the mind anticipates but cannot have. The ethical thinker stretches his existence between earth and heaven, between real and ideal. He feels and lives this simultaneity, this contradiction, bringing together in one life the detachment of thought and the attachment to (and interest in) his concrete existence.
Question: What is Kierkegaard really saying here? Explain it in your own words.
Question: Do human beings alternate between thinking of things that have nothing to do with existence and living without thinking? What does it mean to bring together thought and existence, to let the two interpenetrate? In this case, what would one think about? What kinds of things would one stop thinking about? Discuss.
5. The abstract or objective thinker has no such problem. He simply makes his home in the ideal or eternal -- or thinks he does. He forgets his time-bound existence and lives in his mind, -sub specie aeterni- (from the eternal point of view). Like the subjective thinker, his mind runs freely ahead of existence and soars objectively above existence; but he makes no attempt to "remember" his existence. There is for him no problem of putting together thought and existence because he has abandoned one side of the problem. If, like many philosophers from Aristotle to Hegel, we confuse the activity of thought with the reality of existence, if we identify thinking with existence, we become absent-minded. Interest means concern with existence, thinking that bends backward toward existence, thinking that thinks about existence. Abstract thinking is disinterested. It takes existence for granted; it occupies itself, not with "ethical questions" (how one should live, etc.) but with "global" or "world-historical" issues. From its standpoint, it can explain everything. Everything is easily sorted and accomplished in the mind. But the abstract thinker cannot possibly live what he thinks. For the abstract thinker, life and thought occupy separate compartments. Kierkegaard contrasts the objective thinker with the subjective thinker -- like Socrates -- who lives what he thinks, who puts together thought and existence.
Question: How did Socrates put together thought and existence? What did he mean by "The unexamined life is not worth living"? How does this apply to the objective or abstract thinker?
6. The subjective thinker finds great difficulty in living a single idea. The objective thinker roams indifferently from idea to idea. The subjective thinker attempts to put together the particular (his own reality) and the universal (the ideal norm). The objective thinker, on the other hand, considers universals in their relation to one another, but not in relation to himself. For the subjective thinker, contradiction is real; the either/or of ethical choice is ever-present. For the objective thinker, contradiction is overcome in "pure being"; the either/or gives way to the both/and. Subjective existence implies interest, passion, partiality, striving, and decision. Objective existence indicates disinterest, dispassion, impartiality, and suspension of striving and decision. The objective thinker lives a postponement and a parenthesis. The subjective thinker lives each moment in the light of universal principle. For the objective thinker, eternity is already here. For the subjective thinker, eternity is hereafter, in the future.
Question: Explain how every choice or commitment reduces "objectivity" or impartiality.
Question: Explain the difference between collecting ideas and making one or a few of them into a way of life.
7. Kierkegaard's reverence for Socrates is understandable. Socrates doggedly maintained the absolute difference between divine and human wisdom. For a human being to claim a divine point of view was simply arrogance and nonsense. It was Socrates' ambition to deflate such self-inflations and to expose the "superhuman" experts for what they were -- unexamined lives. But modern rationalists have indulged in views of history and philosophy from an absolute point of view, as if such a view were possible for man. They mistake a self-forgetful sortie into the philosophical imagination for real "transcendence." They confound thoughts of flying with flying itself. Existence requires attention to the smallest details, the "how" of each lived moment.
Question: Is it possible to back away so far from one's own life in order to gain information about many things, that one is no longer able to steer one's life correctly?
8. The key difference between the objective thinker (who abstracts from existence) and the subjective thinker (who is infinitely interested in existence) is their respective attitude toward possibility and reality. Thoughts about reality are possibilities (concepts, forms, essences). A concept or essence applies in general to many objects -- whether actually existing or not. Both the abstract thinker and the subjective thinker abstract momentarily from existence (conceiving possibilities), but the abstract thinker does not relate these possibilities to actual existence, but enjoys them and entertains them for their own sake. Reflection temporarily turns its back on existence in order to reveal new possibilities for existence, to determine what can and ought to be done. Reflection is not meant to be an indefinite postponement of existence, an ignoring of existence, a life-long parenthesis that avoids the day to day exigencies of existence. The abstract thinker melts all realities into possibilities, into thoughts (into system as well). Even his own existence becomes fuel for the fire (from the standpoint of existence, a funeral pyre). After converting existence into essence, the abstract thinker is content, in a fantastic way (for it happens only in the mind and not in reality), to dwell permanently in the medium of abstraction, i.e. to make his whole life into thought. He may even deceive himself into believing that he has become absolute consciousness or pure thinking. As Kierkegaard notes, the contradiction between what such a one thinks himself to be and what he really is is truly comical. The abstract thinker forgets that abstraction is for the sake of existence, not a permanent and pleasant vacation away from existence.
Question: Is our contemporary problem one of too much knowledge and too little life, or do we suffer from the opposite malady? Is the problem of knowledge a problem of "quantity" or of "quality"? Discuss.
9. The subjective thinker also "thinks," but without forgetting existence. His thinking is not a pleasant diversion from existence; it is a temporary backing away from existence. He knows full well that even as one reflects, life goes on (the passage of time). One continues to exist even as one backs away from existence in order to reflect. For the subjective thinker, who is passionately interested in the "how" of every moment of existence, how each moment stands in relation to the ideal, how one spends one's time, moments spent reflecting are digressions (albeit necessary) from the main task of existing. Thus, whereas the abstract thinker moves from actuality to possibility -- and stays there (in pure being, the system, etc.), the subjective thinker moves from reality to possibility, then back to reality again. He attempts to live his ideas, to convert the "can be" of thought possibility into the "shall be" of decision. The distance between the anticipated ideal and the present real only heightens his passion. He knows that in the mind the future is already, but in reality the future remains future and inspires movement (becoming) toward that future. Whereas the abstract speculator need not excite himself about the hereafter (because it is already here, in the mind) and whereas there is only arbitrary sporadic movement in his existence and no real becoming or "improvement" (the ethical means "getting better"), the subjective thinker suffers the contradiction between the is and the ought. He attempts, in his own existence, with small steps and without "world-historical" results, to draw together in his own existence the eternal future ideal and the temporal present real. This putting together which, in reality as opposed to thought, can never be totally accomplished is the "creative tension" that stirs the individual in the ethical use of time. If how one uses one's time is the crux of the ethical, then wasting one's time in fantastic speculations is the height of irresponsibility (from the standpoint of existence).
Question: Compare this analysis to the view of the ethical or practical as attachment/detachment/re-attachment.
10. The subjective thinker, like the objective thinker, abstracts and distills possibilities from realities. He pursues knowledge, not "for its own sake," but to accentuate existence. Realities suggest possibilities that ought to be realized. Thus, the subjective thinker is doubly reflective. His thought moves away from existence and then back to existence. He reflects once out of existence (thinks the possible) and a second time back into existence (sees together anticipated future and present reality). He seeks ideas for the sake of existence; he does not abandon existence for the sake of ideas. The abstract thinker is like the sleeper who is enjoying his dreams so much that he doesn't want to wake up, even forgets that he is asleep. The ethical thinker daydreams with a purpose, a purpose that regards even daydreaming as an expensive loss of time. The subjective thinker is concerned with reality, with his own existence. The objective thinker is, with respect to his own existence, indifferent and disinterested. He is "interested in" and attached to phantoms.
Question: Is there such a thing as too much thinking? If so, how much thinking is too much thinking? Or is it a matter of quality rather than quantity of thinking?
11. The subjective thinker is infinitely interested in existence (his own) as opposed to "pure thought." He places reality above possibility. This is Kierkegaard's profound yet simple answer to Hegel. But what of the possibility (not just in thought but for existence) of having infinite interest in the existence (reality) of another? The really significant other for Kierkegaard is not a human other, but a divine other -- God. Relationship in the truest sense of an inwardness that expresses infinite interest in the "inwardness" of another is simply and solely, for Kierkegaard, one's God-relationship. Ethics is infinite interest in one's own existence; religion is infinite interest in God's existence. One cannot have infinite interest in the existence of other human beings. All human relationships are external (and therefore superficial). All knowledge about reality (even knowledge about oneself) moves away from reality (to possibility). Thus knowledge, even knowledge of other persons (which is not really different from any other kind of knowledge), constitutes a danger and a distraction from interest in one's own existence. The existence, as inwardness, of others is hidden and inaccessible to us. We see only externality, not internality; and even this externality becomes, as knowledge, mere possibility (objectivity). Consequently, the only reality we have access to is our own reality. We don't "know" this reality; we are it. Thus, the absolute basis of ethics is ourselves -- our dialectical inward stretching between time and eternity. If we are to become infinitely interested or concerned with the reality of another, we must move toward the religious. We find here the traces of a Kantian phenomenalism, where the self is the "thing-in-itself" and where what is outside of the self constitutes appearance or representation (reflection). But, whereas we have in Kant a moral faith that respects the other as an end-in-himself (equally a thing-in-itself), there is no such relational component, at least not one developed with any enthusiasm, in Kierkegaard's ethical view. For Kierkegaard, infinite passion or faith is, in the ethical sphere, reserved for oneself and, in the religious sphere, reserved jealously for God. For Kierkegaard, all social relation is "external"; and it is the internal, the private, the inward that counts.
Question: Is ethics purely a matter of self-responsibility?
Question: Compare and contrast Kant's and Kierkegaard's ethical views.
Question: Does Kierkegaard overcome the modern tendency toward self-preoccupation?
Question: How does Kierkegaard's view echo certain medieval views?

12. Thus, we find in Kierkegaard a dualism between the authentic world of the "in-here" (becoming an individual) and the inauthentic world of the "out-there" (becoming lost in the crowd or absorbed in the world-historical process). Kierkegaard's condemnation of a public that is self-forgetful and moves lemming-fashion to its own oblivion in the sweep of universal history is a point well made and appropriately made; but Kierkegaard does not stress the possibility of authentic human relation. The existence of others is, for Kierkegaard, primarily threatening. The public means for Kierkegaard the critical and unthinking public, whose company is more obstacle than advantage. People are always in Kierkegaard's way. Kierkegaard criticizes Descartes, not for making the self the basis and foundation, but for confounding thinking and existence.

13. Despite his devotion to Socrates, Kierkegaard's view is quite un-Socratic. For Socrates, the project of self-understanding was indissolubly linked to the establishment and liberation of the other person by means of shared communication (dialogue). The common ground of such communication is friendship. Speech between friends is more fruitful than speech between non-friends. Such speech facilitates the growth of each individual and, at the same time, intensifies the bond between them that leads to further communication and mutual growth. Social interaction was the ethos, the moral climate, of Socrates' Athens. Socrates was at the same time both profoundly inward (self-reflecting) and courageously outward and political. Socrates was not a grumbling loner, alone before his God. He was a devoted friend. This fact was not incidental nor accidental to Socrates' ethical existence, but essential.

Question: Compare Socrates and Kierkegaard. What does the command, "Know thyself," mean for each of them?

14. Nineteenth century Denmark is not fifth century B.C. Athens, to be sure. Kierkegaard was attempting to coax individuals (or would-be individuals) away from thrall with the system, the state, or the march of history. For Kierkegaard, there is a radical distinction between the internal (that can be seen only by God) and the external (that can be observed by others). The inner and private (individual) is better than the outer and public (crowd). This view is consistent with Christian views going back to Augustine, for whom the soul is an inner sanctum seen only by God and the body is an outer husk that appears before men. This view led Augustine, as it leads Kierkegaard, to assert the primacy of the God-relationship over social and political relations.

15. Kierkegaard's thought, like the Christian tradition, locates ethical action in intention. It also repeats the traditional body/soul duality that in disguised metaphysical dress has hampered modern philosophy from Descartes to Hegel and beyond and precluded interhuman and interactive views of ethics.

Question: Is ethics more than having the right attitude or making the right decision? What is this "more"? Does ethics take place solely inside of people (inwardness) or does it also take place between people (interhuman)? Does it make a difference? Explain.
Question: In Kierkegaard's thought, what is accented is one's relation with oneself and one's relation with God. One's relation with other persons is subordinated to one's self-relation and one's God-relation, and one's relation with the non-human natural environment is ignored. How does this echo medieval and modern thought? What are the consequences of such thinking?

16. One might reasonably question whether the superficiality of the crowd and the loss of individuality in the public sphere might be due not so much to the lack of inwardness that Kierkegaard decries, but rather to a modern split or dualism between mind and body, inner and outer, private and public, individual and society -- a dualism that Kierkegaard himself resuscitates. By advocating that individuals back away from society and into themselves (or towards God), he is prescribing more of the disease in order to cure a symptom. What is needed is perhaps neither withdrawal into the self nor losing oneself in the crowd, but genuine human relation. Self-alienation as well as self- preoccupation may be branches of the same tree -- dualism. One need only turn to the Greeks, to John Dewey, or to the Chinese for that matter, to see how individuality and sociableness can nourish one another. One thinks of the Confucian notion of jen. Jen means at the same time "humanity" and "human beings together." It means establishing one's own character while establishing the character of others.

Questions for Discussion:

1. How would Kant criticize Hegel?

2. Explain how Hegel's thought exemplifies the intellectual/scientific preoccupation with knowledge for its own sake.

3. Describe the difference between the objective thinker and the subjective thinker.

4. In what sense is thinking a "parenthesis"?

5. Compare Kierkegaard's view with that of Kant.

6. Explain the relation between existence and thought in the subjective thinker.

7. How is Kierkegaard's view like and unlike that of Socrates?

8. What is Kierkegaard's view of one's relation with other persons?

9. Compare Kant's and Kierkegaard's views of ethics.

10. Compare Descartes', Kant's, and Kierkegaard's views of self-knowledge. 


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Copyright © 1996 Gordon L. Ziniewicz
This page last updated 10/14/12

Please note: These philosophical commentaries, though still in process, are the intellectual property of Gordon L. Ziniewicz. They may be downloaded and freely distributed in electronic form only, provided no alterations are made to the original text. One print copy may be made for personal use, but further reproduction and distribution of printed copies are prohibited without the permission of the author.