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Soren Kierkegaard: Subjective truth and the origins of existentialism

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Soren Kierkegaard (15th May, 1813-1855) was a Danish religious thinker cum philosopher who is ascribed as the father of modern existentialism from his basic approach of explaining the indubitable truth as the subjective truth. He was a very influential 19th century theologian and he has had profound influence on modern philosophy and theology. His approach was concerned at searching truth through total submission and sacrifice of everything by an individual in personal/individual relationship with God in order to arrive at this subjective truth.

He ardently used the Biblical Abraham example of willingly adhering to God’s call to slaughter his only son as a fulfillment of God’s will which supersedes everything else. It is often told that his philosophy (fundamentally based on religiosity) is somehow no cosmic, mystic, and very indifferent ethically to the human world. This is because it was only concerned with inward reality or subjectivity which cannot impinge on reality or inwardness of anything else apart from that found in the isolated individual.

He believed that truth is identical with subjectivity and inwardness, and this ethic has been criticized by many as arbitrary and lacking in reason and as such one that cannot claim any connection to the central philosophical concern. Kierkegaard was strongly influenced by the Lutheran guilt-ridden piety religion as well as the Hegelian philosophy during his studies at the University of Copenhagen. This was mainly because the Hegelian philosophy claimed to able to provide absolute knowledge by the virtue of some scientific logic (Peter, 2003, 16).

He got so much aversion to this kind of thought, an issue that made him to cease his Lutheran practice, leading him to a social extravagant lifestyle but he reverted back to his theological studies after his father died in 1838. Furthermore, he had made a solid decision not to become a Lutheran preacher. His father’s inheritance was quite substantial and he therefore spent the rest of his life writing and more than twenty books on a variety of issues. There were quite a number of other earlier philosophies that influenced Kierkegaard and which he felt needed a challenge.

Hegel was one principle philosopher who attempted to understand the realms of religion and basically everything else through the use of reason. Kierkegaard on his part sought to give an overall assertion that faith was primary to reason. He thus wanted to dispose all Hegelian notions about the Absolute Spirit, which Hegel had expounded as rational human consciousness’s manifestation. On the same note, Kierkegaard wanted to do away with Christianity, since he did not want it to act as an expression of his philosophy about history.

However, he had a life-long desire to restore Christianity from a being’s position, whether it would take theological, philosophical or political means. Hegel’s opinion was that Christianity had to be understood as an integral part of the necessary thought evolution, which he termed spirit. This constituted use of philosophical rationality to explain it. It further meant that the ultimate purpose of a human being was to fulfill ethical demands, which Kierkegaard strongly refuted. On his part, he saw a higher duty of man than Hegel’s ethical obligation.

To him, the Abraham’s example proved that there is something beyond Hegel’s notion and this he called faith which Hegelian ethics could not explain. Hegel’s dialectical historical analysis which suggested that Christianity doctrines such as that of incarnation (a God and man at the same time) could be explained in terms of development and rational unfolding of man’s natural world and his place in it, was an understanding the Kierkegaard considered as a Christian message distortion as well as a human reason limits misunderstanding and which could always remain a paradox logically (Elaine, 1994, 24).

Furthermore, prior philosophers were perceived by Kierkegaard as having unnecessary dilemmas especially as they attempted to distinguish religion from other persisting apparent aberrations. Their claim was that it was religion that made people achieve the religious feelings. In addition to this, they argued that religion connected people with the infinite, an “oceanic feeling” according to Freud. This was taking the whole definition of religion (as experience) back to the Kantian perspective where science had its course separate from that of religion.

Religion is rendered impervious to the empirical scrutiny by this experiential definition since there is no way we can prove a person’s feelings of being religious and from this it therefore follows that there is no prove of something as a region. Kierkegaard advanced this by saying that the truth of religion could never be understood by the nonreligious. His argument here was that only subjectively can religious experience be understood and never objectively. In part, Kierkegaard was following in the footsteps of Hume where truth was not to be regarded as mere sophistry.

Kant (one of the greatest empiricist gurus, the others being Berkeley, Hume, and Locke), made a complete overhaul to reason by making profound division of the world into two categories-practical reason and pure reason in response to Hume before him who seemingly had distorted reason beyond any reasonable doubts. This resulted into some schools of thought who were also divided in their approach to reason. Some were phenomenological (like Sartre, Derrida, among others) while others still adopted the reductive generalization method.

Hume’s logical conclusion after much reasoning and arguing was that the “self” was just but an illusion since he couldn’t observe one, which was in turn supposed to observe the world which was being communicated to the “self” by the senses. Hume also refuted the theory of causation through his rigorous methodical process of determining what could, beyond any reasonable doubt, be known. This he did through his method which expressly distinguished between two categories of ideas: synthetic and analytical.

Synthetic ideas are those that can be known through experience (posteriori knowledge) and do not reveal any truth, while analytical ideas are those which are true but their truths are not relevant (a priori knowledge). As a matter of fact, all these philosophers were aimed at concluding that reason is undoubtedly superior to belief. In his approach however, Kierkegaard begged to differ with all of them on this (Ted, 1995, 31). Of all his works, Kierkegaard’s major deliberation was the subjective truth of existence.

He had a central problem of becoming a real Christian in Christendom, a fact that posed much difficulty to make an appropriate answer. This was so more because the nineteenth century philosophy and culture seemed very inhibitive of his opinions, putting into consideration the various preceding philosophers’ opinions on the same issues. According to him, earlier, and other present philosophers at his time only attempted to make stereotype crowd members, but his desire was to allow for self discovery and individual uniqueness in identity with one’s God, just like Abraham did.

On the one hand, Abraham was aware that killing was against God’s law, and at the same time he had express orders from the same God to kill his only son (Soren, 1968, 12). Abraham therefore had to make a commitment to either of the two based on faith (and of course he had been promised to be the father of all nations), and this included a posing risk that it could all be wrong. Like Kierkegaard, I also sometimes wonder if there was any abstract or rational “knowledge” of the world that Abraham knew and which he could depend on to make the most precise decision.

There so many changes that had and were happening at the time. There was the industrial revolution, massive rural-urban migration with over bloated social mobility, and introduction of the universal elementary education. All of these among others meant societal structural change from rigid hierarchical order to a horizontal one. They also had significant effects on the individual’s Christian way of life. Kierkegaard was therefore disturbed and challenged by how one could become “who he was” in such unpredictable circumstances.

His profound and rather diversified writings with a central theme of “truth is subjective” thus raised this intensive individual inner examination of society and self (Peter, 2003, 51). Through his reasoning, he arrived at his conclusion that the most important thing was not to consider truth as an objective fact but that the most fundamental approach was to consider the importance of the individual’s relationship with such truth.

His argument was that it wasn’t a matter of just being satisfied by believing in truth, but also by living it. Hence this led to existentialism. With such kind of an environment, a realization shone on him that he had to have a rhetoric that would ensure people utilized their individual resources of taking responsibility for their individual existential choices. This meant that in the stereotyped cultural society, after people took the responsibility, they would then be who they are beyond the socially imposed or stereotyped identities.

His endeavors were inspired by Socrates, the Greek philosopher who had an incessant irony undermining every knowledge claim that either had been taken unreflectively or for granted as inherited from the traditional cultures (Arnold, 1959, 45). Kierkegaard therefore applied parody, irony, humor, satire, and other techniques which were deconstructive and through which he created conventional knowledge forms and value that was indefensible.

Kierkegaard was of the opinion that systematic philosophy asserted false perspectives towards human existence since it used the notion of logical necessity terms to give an explanation to life. He believed that all individuals established their own natures out of their own choices, and this had to be without necessity of objective, universal standards. He postulated that it was only subjectivity that could determine such choices’ validity. He was, however, strongly opposed by Hegel, the German philosopher who claimed that he had achieved a rational, complete human life history and understanding.

On the same note, Hegel argued that the mind of God could be accessed through logic. On the other hand, Kierkegaard emphasized about the human situation’s paradoxical and ambiguity nature. He was contentious that objective, rational explanation was defied by life’s fundamental problems and he therefore categorically concluded that truth must be subjective. His strategy against Hegel was designed to make everything more ambiguous and difficult so that it wouldn’t be possible to apply objective logic as the main tool to access understanding.

He never sought scientific knowledge as the path to human redemption but rather he found it to be the greatest obstacle/hindrance to human redemption. For example, he stressed absolute God’s transcendence away from human comprehension rather than making any attempts to make the Christian faith and God as perfectly intelligible (Ted, 1995, 36). He created a form of reasoning that really revolutionized Christian theology particularly by his assertions that existential beliefs were completely separate from any objective reasons.

This significantly impacted on the protestant theology since they also taught that faith was independent of all forms of rational beliefs and neither does it make a contradiction of objective evidence since not only is it independent but is also a separate entity. He postulated a proposition grounded on reasoning that faith is a component of the subjectivity or inwardness sphere, and who’s validity is based on how the individual responds and interacts to his faith in life rather than how logical, probable or intelligible the faith is.

It is therefore an individual person’s decision to believe, as is established and founded as a sole, individual person’s subjective existence. The Christian theology was thus revolutionized because prior to Kierkegaard’s reasoning, it was intellectuals (throughout the Christian history mostly) who had the right to make a justification of the Christian faith content while all the others were submissively only to believe. People came to realize that the intellectuals’ assent wasn’t sufficient enough for salvation, although they were aware that it was a crucial and important part of such faith.

Precisely, realizing the dangers that were involved in this process of Christian theological revolution, Kierkegaard resolved to refer to the individual’s inner life instead of attacking the impersonal universal reason of the time. It was after making profound radical distinctions between the two concepts that he was able to differentiate between subjective truth and objective truth. Kierkegaard’ argument basically rested on three fundamental stages through which human beings could understand themselves in relation to the world they were passing through.

The first he referred to as the aesthetic stage in which a person attempts to experiment all possible beliefs without fully committing himself to any (Joshua, 2004, 27). He called the second one the ethical stage in which the person commits himself and act decisively although under the presumptuous rational grounds. He called his third stage the religious stage in which the person sole commits to God under faith and not any rational or objective standards.

For him, it is not objective truths or the factual knowledge about the world that characterize religion but rather it is the subjective truths or the commitment and passion. It is only the later that make religion relevant and meaningful through our passionate commitment to what we desire out of our lives as well as what we believe. This must however be done seldom of any mathematical or rational applicability. Therefore, whatever an individual calls “true” is so because it is “true to him” as he lives the truth in an existential and immediate manner and not just an observation from a distance.

This to Kierkegaard is the humanity’s existential situation or the human condition, which holds that we are limited by all abstract philosophical systems to know what the right things to do are. Our only rescue is to make choices which may involve making risks of choosing wrong ones, and beyond this realm there can never be human “existence”. Kierkegaard, however, acknowledged that truth has bipolar existence. That is, it can emerge as a kind of split personality- both subjective and objective truth.

This implies that as human beings, we all find ourselves caught up in this fabric of existence, since we all existing. Due to this fact, each one of us faces the necessity and challenge of making choices, arriving at decisions, and finally making individual commitment to certain requirements. This existential situation will inevitably produce certain levels of dread, anxiety, and also some form of uncertainty in different people. Most of us ultimately would give preference to certainty and easy, quick answers though the possibility of finding them is pathetically minimal (Josiah, 1967, 81).

It is these insecurity cases that eventually alienate us from our own individualistic lives as we embark on our missions to obtain some means and methods of overcoming these insecurities. We become more than willing to do relatively anything to release ourselves from the bondage and in most instances we find ourselves making things even worse than they were initially. None of us though, wish to get lost somewhere in between pursuing collective goals and the ultimate outcome of this is that we always find ourselves on our own facing our individual choices be it for good or for evil.

As thus we end in what Kierkegaard called “our still places of isolation”- the place we discern for our personal relationship with God. It is in this isolation that we must seek greater and closer communication with absolute, infinite nature of divinity instead of allowing ourselves to be distracted form God by our incessant efforts to alleviate the finite anxieties. Here, faith comes in strongly in contrast to strict, robotic moral laws adherence, where experiencing immediate and subjective God’s presence takes precedence over concerted efforts to understand Him through objective and abstract reason.

We therefore must allow Him to take lead of our lives wherever we may be needed. Kierkegaard explains his method is one that reasons from an existence point of view and not towards existence. An example he gave is that he doesn’t attempt to prove the existence of a stone but rather that there is something that exists which is a stone. He adamantly postulates that there is a relationship between knowledge and the existing individual who is the knower (Arnold, 1959, 53).

This reasoning categorically implies that there is essential relationship between all essential knowledge and existence. By this, Kierkegaard meant that it is only the ethical and ethico-religious knowledge that possess essential relationship to the essential knower’s existence. In this kind of approach, Kierkegaard is saying that subjective truth concerns itself with individuals and subjects while the objective truth is determined to deal solely with universals and objects and this solidifies the independence of subjective truth to objective truth.

At the same time, Kierkegaard insists of subjective truth superiority in importance by the virtue of the fact that it is the most relevant to an individual’s actual existence. The central idea of Kierkegaard’s paradox addresses this disparity between objective truth uncertainty and subjective truth certitude. Concisely, he argued that everything which one believes in cannot be God if it does not possess infinite individual concern. It seems quite challenging for a person to shift his faith to his own belief in God and to subjective truth from the objective acknowledgement of truths of reason.

Kierkegaard postulated that this can only be done through what he called a ‘leap’, the whole person’s decision and which must be centered in the will (Elaine, 1994, 29). To Christian theology, the above idea was extremely important based on the Christ-God becoming man paradox, especially because Kierkegaard saw the Christ’s deity doctrine to be absolutely irrational and absurd to man. This is more so because through it, man is confronted by an irrevocable either/or situation where, man must either believe/accept Jesus as God or else he must reject this position.

One could remain intellectually indecisive between these two ideas objectively, but in real subjective existence, this must be answered since it is infinitely of a personal concern. One’s decision absolutely determines Eternal destiny, and this must be made independent of any objective reason by the sole individual concerned. There have been some critics of subjective truth. In their efforts to disapprove the theory, they have deliberated on a number of issues of substantial importance such as law and justice, the concept of a person and that of a human, as well as that of morality and that of ethics.

For example on the concept of morality and that of ethics, one can do right things which can be unethical at the same time or otherwise ethical things can also be immoral such as defense lawyers who argue for non guilt acquittal of clients they very well know are guilty. Furthermore, Kierkegaard’s theory has been attacked on the grounds of possible combination of unethical, lawful, and moral grounds. This has taken several forms.

One is to give concrete separation between justice and law, ethics and morality, as well as humanity and personhood, as they are concerned with the concept of subjectivity and consequently subjective truth (Joshua, 2004, 76). Kierkegaard is seen as an advocate of unnecessary truth which is perceived folly particularly when it can illogically violate fundamental law of identity which claims that a statement will remain true if it is true. The strength of this matter is that to those who believe in subjective truth, only what they perceive can they know for sure, and this really cannot be fully guaranteed.

It sometimes worries how these people know that others exist and that there is real Reality since subjectivity abandons all forms of logical reasoning on the most critical levels possible. They don’t mind proof since there isn’t any since no logic is present to them. To them, an earth may not even be there and considering the limited number of things that can be proved in a “world” without logic, these people may live whichever way they may deem since there wouldn’t be anyone to judge them.

Personally, I assume this can be jeopardy to normal humanity, assuming that we were in a world where everyone had liberty to do as they wished, not forgetting that we all have different orientations to different situations in life. Another difficulty that is raised by subjective truth is that some people tend to take it as a Domain or a “world” that is crested only by perception. The greatest worry here is that we cannot for certain assume perception if in the first place nothing exists, and it follows therefore that this is impossible since nothing will hold to Be True to these individuals unless they perceive it.

Take for granted the case of a person on drugs, he could be sensing that which really doesn’t exist and this cannot merely be perception. My argument here is not that there is anything wrong with perception only that it poses as the greatest humanity weakness although it isn’t evil inherently. The argument is that there is a contradiction here since there is an actual belief among people of a universe having either One Resident or an infinite number of paradoxes (Josiah, 1967, 95).

To those who believe in reality, subjective truth is seen as a dangerous item in the sense that it will inherently be meaningless if it is “True”. On the other hand if it is “False”, then it will be implicitly dangerous. Some people therefore argue that the best way to prove to others that they are is to force their reality on them like hitting them with something in the most philosophical way possible. We may consider for a while a fascinating case where a person who believes in subjective truth wholly douses some clothing with water lest they catch fire in another person’s reality.

This probably could be as a result of the fact that the same water he could be or could not be dousing the clothing with could or could not even be existing in another person’s reality. It leaves much speculation if it happened that they did not perceive it or if one never existed in their reality. On this, I personally would recommend to all of us to be sure that we exist, and if in any case we were to douse our clothing, it is advisable to let everyone watch what we were doing (Soern, 1968, 18). To Kierkegaard however, subjective truth is what clearly matters in life.

This implies that the only way to cope with our anxieties is through some kind of passionate inwardness under subjective adherence. It reverberates in the minds of subjective subjects that the fundamental notion is how matters are believed and not really what is believed that matters. In layman’s language, this can be taken to mean something like it doesn’t matter what one believes as long as one remained sincere, but in any case Kierkegaard gave very high standards this sincerity. In all issues of subjective truth, the theory of Kierkegaard’s distinction between subjective truth and objective truth always remain at stake.

If we make objective considerations, truth will merely mean seeking an independent reality correspondence and adhesiveness to the right object. On the other hand, if the evaluation is subjectively, truth is taken to imply the most appropriate relationship between the knower and the object as well as the right attitude’s achievement. Figuratively, Christianity has subjective demands for our total devotion although it is objectively a mere example of the many religions available in the world.

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