“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” – Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript
In our investigation of certainty, we have arrived at the exploration of the subjective manifestations of truth. In the last two blogs we looked at four of them: pragmatic instances, individual perceptions, the observer’s role in knowledge, and internal reality. Today we delve into Kierkegaard’s existential subjectivity.
In his masterpiece, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard challenges the 19th century view of truth as objective reflection, arguing that this process makes the subject (the knower) indifferent or accidental, and hence the most objective knowledge possible entails the vanishing of the subject, the knower herself. But Kierkegaard sees this as illogical; knowledge and truth must be possessed by an existent being, who alone can have interest in truth. The objectivity which comes from denial of the subject can be at most “an hypothesis or an approximation.”1 “All essential knowledge relates to existence, or only such knowledge as has an essential relationship to existence is essential knowledge.” 2
Compared to objectivity, “subjective reflection turns its attention inwardly, and desires in this intensification an inwardness to realize the truth…an identity of thought and being.”3 Reality consists only of existing individual things, thus existence and truth are indelibly individual in character. Thought is fine as long as it is existentially rooted because the subjective thinker is at the same time a thinker and an existing human being. Since existence is a continual process of becoming, logic and pure thought can never quite capture it. 4
Kierkegaard stumbles onto one of the most sublime thoughts in all of philosophy: “Truth is subjectivity.” By this I believe he is referring to personal truth, not scientific facts. This inner truth is the only truth that matters to the individual as individual, that which is “true for me… a truth I live not merely observe… which I am , not merely posses. Truth is a mode of action or a manner of existence. The subjective thinker lives the truth; he exists it.”5 Examples of such truths concern love, life decisions, the future, death, immortality, and God. They always involve uncertainty; that is, subjectivity and uncertainty are coextensive. When objective knowledge and certainty is placed in abeyance, inward passion intensifies toward the infinite and at least in the case of God, faith is the result. Compare this with the objectivity of a mathematical proposition with its indifferent certainty. 6
Kierkegaard’s thought process is admittedly difficult to follow and abbreviate. However I think most of us understand the difference in the significance of certain truth like the formula for the area of a circle, whatever its practical use, versus the truth of our limited lifespans, the love of our spouse, the nature of our inner self, or our concept of ultimate reality. Subjective truth, it seems to me, trumps objective certainty when considering the meaning of life and the pursuit of happiness.
1Cahn, Steven M. (editor), Classics of Western Philosophy. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., Indianapolis, IN, 1999. ISBN0-87220-436-7, page 882.
2Ibid., page 884.
3Ibid., page 883.
4Magill, Frank, Masterpieces of World Philosophy in Summary Form. Harper&Row Publishers, 1961, page 628.
5Ibid., page 627
6Cahn, Steven M. (editor), Classics of Western Philosophy. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., Indianapolis, IN, 1999. ISBN0-87220-436-7, page 887.