“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.


Last time we saw how the pragmatism of William James incorporates subjectivity within truth, and how empiricism’s reliance on perception imposes a quality of the subjective on much knowledge. Today we investigate two additional subjective features of truth. We start with John Dewey, a pragmatist and follower of James, who attributes a vital role of the knower in knowledge. Dewey argues that knowledge is ‘eventual,’ that is the outcome of directed experimental operations rather than something existing before the act of knowing. He is particularly struck by the significance of the observer with respect to Heisenberg’s principle of indeterminacy. “Knowing is seen to be a participant in what is finally known. Moreover, the metaphysics of existence as something fixed and therefore capable of literally exact mathematical description and prediction is undermined.”5

Our fourth subjective feature of certainty and truth concerns the first of the five tiers of reality identified in an earlier blog, internal reality or that of the individual’s mind.6 Here I must challenge Professor Adler on his thesis that all knowledge must be public, never private, and that nothing knowable by only one person can have the status of knowledge.7 Perhaps this is fair with respect to evidence in science, where accessibility to others is integral to the scientific method. But with respect to our personal knowledge, it seems arbitrary to assume inner truth is logically impossible simply because it cannot be directly observed by others. The individual alone can identify his innermost primal self, existential truths such as his continuity with his past self that instantiates his identity, and transcendental truth such as the unity of self and cosmos. Rene Descartes argues rather convincingly that our own consciousness is the most certain thing of which we are aware while Martin Heidegger finds the direct knowledge of our own being is the platform for understanding all being.

In conclusion we see that much of what we consider truth and reality is not purely objective, but at least partially subjective, but we are not through. Next time we will look at the most passionate arguments ever given for truth as subjectivity in the writing of Soren Kierkegaard.


1  James, William, Pragmatism and The Meaning of Truth. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1978. ISBN 0-674-69737-5, pages vii-xxx. The introduction is written by A.J Ayer.

2 James, William, The Varieties of Religious Experience. Penguin Books, New York, NY, 1985. ISBN 978-0-14-039034-6, pages 423-424.

3James, William, The Will to Believe. Dover Publications, Inc., New York, NY, 1956. Pages 1-31.

4James, William, Pragmatism and The Meaning of Truth. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1978. ISBN 0-674-69737-5, page 121.

5Dewey, John, The Quest for Certainty. Minton, Balch, and Co. New York, NY, 1929. Page 204.

6See Internal Reality on this site – November 12 and 14, 2018.

7Adler, Mortimer J., Ten Philosophical Mistakes. Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, NY, 1985. ISBN 0-02-064120-6, page 89.


“In our cognitive as well as our active life  we are creative. We add, both to the subject and predicate part of reality. The world stands really malleable, waiting to receive its final touches at our hands…Man engenders truth upon it.” – William James, Pragmatism.

Now we come to a major obstacle in assessing certainty, do we actually understand the nature of truth and knowledge?  Can we box all truth up in a package of objectivity, of absolute pre-existing reality with our knowing as simply incidental? The answer is surprising, even unsettling, and is the focus of the next three posts. On reflection there are at least five facets of truth that are not objective, but subjective (in approximate order of increasing depth):

1.    Pragmatic truth

2.   Sensation

3.   Observer impact on reality

4.   Inner reality

5.   Relational truths

First let’s take up pragmatism, where truth is seen as the utility or instrumental function of an idea. Its best known advocate is William James who divides philosophical temperaments as tender-minded (truth as rationalistic, idealist, religious, or principle-based) or tough-minded (truth as empiricist, materialistic, irreligious, fact-based). Clearly the tender-minded outlook is more subjective while the tough-minded is more objective. Materialists like Bertrand Russell and A.J Ayer are brutal to James, a physician turned philosopher, and see his pragmatism as implying that truth is relative.1

But James offers a simple example that seems to me to be inconvertible evidence of at least some subjective truth. Assume you come across a chasm and must decide whether you can jump across it. Here the subject alone determines the truth, for if you believe you cannot, you will not and the truth of your belief is confirmed. If you believe you can, and then jump it, your subjective truth is verified when you do (we will not consider the decision to jump and fail).2 Of course James believe the subjective truth of pragmatism is more extensive, applying to other circumstances.

James considers another example: the subjective truth of mystical experience. It seems arbitrary for one to say to another that his mystical experience is not real  because it can neither be shared nor proven.3 But this opens up the door to contesting empiricism itself. If our experience of reality is the measure of truth, then the subjective sensations of each individual define truth at least for that person. As we discussed in an earlier blog, it seems irrational to deny a person has pain when he sincerely claims to be in pain. Likewise if a color-blind person says red and green traffic lights appear identical, we might say his sensation is inconsistent with our own and offer scientific arguments against him, but we cannot say that his experience of them is untrue. Human sensation is always subjective; we only assume (and hope) our sensory functions are consistent as a species.

Human concepts also involve subjectivity: the Big Dipper is a recognizable constellation to most men in the northern hemisphere, but not presumably to the cosmos. Is it real? True? Certain? A final example is the six-pointed star; is it two triangles or a hexagon with legs on each side? Are both descriptions true? Or is neither true? Dependent on the observer?4

(continued next post)


We ended last time on Kant’s two categories of knowledge, the a priori and the a posteriori.  The concept of a posteriori knowledge requires further refining, especially distinguishing ‘authentic’ knowledge from mere opinion. Science and investigative history count as the former even though they are corrigible and mutable, whereas individual beliefs and personal taste do not. Since reality usually refers to the ‘knowable’ independent of the ‘knower,’ it follows that knowledge must be public, not private, that is, nothing knowable by one person alone can have the status of knowledge.7 Moreover, authentic knowledge is the result of directed experimental operations and investigation processed through disciplined reason.

But what is the criterion of truth? In the course of human history, philosophers have identified three theories of truth:

1.    Correspondence – truth is what corresponds to reality or fact (the common idea of truth).

2.   Coherence – truth is that which coheres with other truths or beliefs (includes convergence).

3.   Pragmatism – truth is that which can be used to guide behavior; that is ‘what works.’

Since empirical knowledge is never certain and always amendable, the most prudent course is to use all three when possible, rather than choose one, in order to achieve the greatest confidence possible of any statement.8

Finally there is the question of how to circumscribe a corpus of truth and authentic knowledge in a world of assumptions, misconceptions, error, prejudice, and unjustified opinion. It begins with the recognition that the validity of a belief is not correlated to the passion of its adherents. The philosophical tool of doubt – the greatest legacy of the ancient skeptics – is the prelude to whatever truth and certainty is possible for humans. From there investigation may uncover relevant evidence and reason may offer cogent arguments, that an open dialectic or debate filter into knowledge of the highest confidence. While still potentially flawed, such information meets an acceptable standard for guiding ethical behavior.

These last two posts contain an implicit assumption, that knowledge, truth, and certainty are purely objective. Next time we will blur the picture by considering subjective features of truth.


1Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Barnes & Noble, Inc. 2003. ISBN 0-7607-4975-2, page 339, definitions 1 and 4.

2Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972.   Volume 2, page 67.

3Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Barnes & Noble, Inc. 2003. ISBN 0-7607-4975-2, pages 2029 and 2031

4Ibid. Page 1064, definitions 1 and 7.

5Adler, Mortimer J., Adler’s Philosophical Dictionary. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1996. ISBN 0-684-80360-7, page 53.

6Adler, Mortimer J., Ten Philosophical Mistakes, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1985. ISBN 0-02-064120-6, page 83.

7Ibid. Pages 89-90.

8See my post Current Reading – Truth this site dated 11/16/2018.


“Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.” – Voltaire.

Understanding certainty depends on thinking through its subtle meanings, the definitions of knowledge and truth as distinguished from opinion and belief, and the philosophical tools of doubt and reason. Let’s start with the word “certain.” Webster’s had several definitions, but the two most useful here are: (1) free from doubt or reservation, confident, sure, and (2) established as true or sure, unquestionable, indisputable.1 By these definitions, we can say it is certain that 2+2=4, but not that God exists. Philosophically, certainty refers to the relational property of statements or propositions rather than a simple state of mind. Its opposite is “doubtful”, while the intermediate status is “probable.” All of these qualify our judgments rather than designate the truth value of the statement; for example, statements can be certainly true or certainly false.2

Webster’s defines truth as “conformity with fact or reality,” true as “being in accordance with the actual state,” and fact as “something known to exist or to have happened.”3 Knowledge is defined as (1) acquaintance with facts, truth, or principles as from study or investigation or (2) the body of truths or facts accumulated in the course of time.4 Therefore, what is certain is known or knowledge, but not vice versa. In addition anything known must be true; while of course opinion and belief may be true or false.

Mortimer Adler takes a juridical approach to knowledge; dividing it into three baskets of falling certainty – (1) beyond a shadow of a doubt, (2) beyond a reasonable doubt, and (3) by virtue of a preponderance of the evidence – where only the first may be considered “certain.”5 He also considers truth and certitude as immutable and incorrigible, whereas empirical knowledge and opinion are both mutable and corrigible.6

Socrates was the first to recognize that the philosophical quest for wisdom distills into the pursuit of virtue, and the most fundamental requirement for virtue is knowledge. Thereafter the history of philosophy became identifying reliable knowledge or certain truth. Over time two forms of knowledge were identified, perhaps most clearly explained by Kant: analytic or a priori statements and synthetic or a posteriori statements.  There are now more commonly referred to as self-evident and empirical statements.

A priori statements do not depend on any sensory experience and are thought to be true or certain because their opposites are self-contradictory. Examples include (1) “A part is less than the whole,” (2) statements of identity such as “2 = 2,” and (3) “All human experience occurs within space and time.” The breadth and value of such knowledge is limited as it is most often truth by definition even if not always immediately evident. This form of knowledge is manifested in logic and mathematics.

A posteriori or empirical statements are based on experience; for example “grass is green.” There is nothing contradictory about grass being any other color, it is only our consistent experience of its color that makes this statement true. Science, history, politics, law, and individual opinion are all manifestations of this form of knowledge.

It should be added that there remains debate on whether any knowledge is a priori ; some philosophers including David Hume argue that all man’s knowledge requires experience even for the reasoning that is assumed to be innate.

(continued next post)


“I tore myself away from the safe comfort of certainties through my love for truth; and truth rewarded me.” – Simone de Beauvoir

When I first decided to write a book titled Philosophical Guidance, the use of the practical or speculative philosophy of the great thinkers to pattern a meaningful life, I planned as preparatory work a description of reality and ethics followed by an exploration of some limited, mostly unambiguous special topics: good and evil, God, death and immortality, free will, teleology, and suffering. I specifically hoped to avoid the more formal and tangential disciplines of epistemology and logic. However earlier investigations came back again and again to the issue of certainty, and I have come to see that effective guidance is utterly dependent on having a means to distinguish knowledge which can be relied upon from that which is suspect. The fulcrum of all understanding and decision making comes down to the skill in appraisal of levels of certainty and doubt, and on one’s level of confidence in knowledge for action. Thus I propose now to take on this subject despite its theoretical difficulties.

As in the past I plan to break up this complex topic into its constituent parts:

1.   Introduction.

2.   Definitions and distinctions

3.   Truth and subjectivity

4.   Foundationalism

5.   Skepticism

6.   Coherentism

7.   Science and certainty 

8.   Perils of certainty

9.   Synthesis

10. Synopsis

We will begin with a clarification of terms and subtleties of definition. Next will be the distinction of truth from certainty and a brief look at Kierkegaard’s famous epigram: “Truth is subjectivity.” From there we look at the opposite ends of the poles of certainty: (1) Foundationalism, the search for absolute certainty; and (2) Skepticism, the doctrine that nothing can be known; followed by a brief look at a reasonable middle ground – Coherentism. Then we assess science as potential certainty with particular attention to the opposing concepts of falsifiability and verifiability. Next we examine the dangers of certainty: the inevitability of error and the potential harm of strong but unfounded opinions. At the end I will reconfigure the various components into a practical approach to  qualified certainty needed to guide living, and present my attempt at a chart of certainty, before a final synopsis.

Join me next time as we start with definitions and distinctions.


Next in The Good Old Liberal Consensus, Daniel A. Kaufman examines wisdom in the political realm as described in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Briefly they inform the ‘liberal consensus’ which is based on the theory that the clashing of people’s interests and aims is inevitable, that the state is a neutral referee, and that an individual’s pursuit of good should be unmolested except when obstructive to another individual’s pursuit of good. From this foundation, four key principles arise: (1) the purpose of the state is to allow the individual to pursue his idea of the good, (2) thought and speech should be free, (3) the state should err on the side of free speech, and (4) engagement with those with whom one disagrees should take the form of discourse not personal attack. These principles are supposed to be sustained by the collective recognition that unanimous agreement on policy is implausible and that one’s political allies cannot be in power forever. However, in his opinion, this wisdom is being undermined by both the Right and the Left.

Last Valerie Tiberius entertains a more psychological sense of wisdom through the contemplation of a single adage, also her essay’s title: Live Each Day as If It Were Your Last. The power of this advice is its tendency to alleviate worry and excuse perfectionism. More generally it encourages the development of perspective that aligns emotions with what really matters. She places it within Aristotle’s practical wisdom or phronesis, the use of reason to apply knowledge to decision-making. But Tiberius suspects this proverb may not do justice to what really matters. She references Doing Valuable Time: The Present, The Future, and Meaningful Living by Cheshire Calhoun who divides one’s time into four parts: (1) “primary spending” – things done for their own sake (e.g. time with friends), (2) “entailed spending” – instrumental activities (e.g grocery shopping, studying), (3) “norm required” – compliance with societal norms (e.g. legal duties), and (4) “filler spending” – such as actions when waiting, unmotivated, or tired. Meaning comes mainly from primary spending while things we value require significant entailed spending.  Her conclusion is that one can take the ‘last day’ perspective sometimes, but not at all times – wisdom then is the ability to shift one’s perspective as circumstances require.

Interestingly the essays look at four distinct levels of wisdom – personal, psychological, societal, and political – quite a breadth for the limited size of this forum. Wisdom is revealed to be virtue first, but also preparedness, freedom, and perspective. Aristotle suggests a still higher category, ‘speculative wisdom’, the philosophical knowledge of metaphysics and theology, as opposed to the others he calls ‘prudence’. I love these many facets of wisdom, but distill from it the blending of a coherent understanding of reality with ethical conduct.

1Garvey, James (editor), The Philosopher’s Magazine. Issue 87, 4th Quarter 2019, pages 82-105.


“To know how to grow old is the master-work of wisdom, and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living.” – Henri Frederic Amiel, 19th century Swiss philosopher.




The Forum in the fourth quarter 2019 issue of The Philosopher’s Magazine is titled Finding Wisdom, and consists of four essays – a total of only 18 pages of reading. In the introduction, we learn this project arose in response to letters requesting more practical philosophy. The authors are two men and two women professors of philosophy who were asked to take up a single philosopher or school.

Massimo Pigliucci’s piece, Wisdom: What Is It? examines the Stoic tradition. Following Socrates’ thought that wisdom equates to virtue as it is the only intrinsic good that cannot be used to do evil, Seneca offers the corollary: “Virtue is nothing else but right reason.” Such reason can be defined as “fitting expertise” in the “art of living.” Pigliucci suggests three tools for mastery of this art: (1) reading biographies of persons to emulate (e.g. Cato), (2) review of theoretical treatises (such as Seneca’s On Anger), and (3) study of practical books (e.g. Epictetus’ Enchiridion). From these we learn the cardinal virtues of courage, justice, temperance, and practical wisdom which allow us to center our lives with a moral compass to achieve arête, the best way of living.

Catherine Wilson follows with Epicurean Wisdom wherein subjective pleasure and the avoidance of psychological and physical pain and deprivation are seen as the highest human goods when paired with the avoidance of selfishness and harm to others. This doctrine historically urges one to avoid unnecessary political and social involvement preferably by living in a communal setting with like-minded individuals. Wilson sees this as a problem for modernity as most of us do not wish to withdraw from society; instead she extrapolates the following lessons for contemporary living: (1) oppose oligarchy legislatively, (2)  seek not eternal youth and longevity nor fear death and inevitable deterioration, rather prepare for them, (3) support justice defined as the prevention of harm,  and (4)  deploy utilitarian governance as the societal expression of Epicureanism.

(continued next post)


Last time we started our conclusions on the topic of suffering by noting its place in the human condition, pointing out its ironies, and reminding us of the value science offers us for its diminution. Today we will review philosophical mechanisms to co-opt suffering into a tool for the twin summum bonum: meaning and happiness. First our ethical duty is to eliminate unnecessary suffering especially with the machinery of science. Next we divide suffering into spontaneous (itself divisible into ordinary and extraordinary forms), and voluntary (asceticism).

Ordinary unavoidable suffering is overcome and re-purposed using: (1) Hinduism – i.e. the principle of Karma with the response of acceptance as consequence of vice and prevention through virtue, (2) Buddhism – the understanding of ignorance as its cause, and detachment, positivity, mindfulness, and meditation as remedies, (3) Stoicism – the acquiescence to fate and Providence with the antidote of apathiea. (4) Epicureanism – the recognition that human needs are very limited with contentment through ataraxia,  (5) Christian – for people of faith, that God’s purposes may be obscure, but are nevertheless divine, and offer the opportunity of the sacred path, and (6) Existentialism – the endurance of suffering is one we freely choose and a peak experience of human existence. For the unfortunate who must endure extraordinary suffering, Viktor Frankl urges they avert nihilism and recognize that standing up to and being worthy of suffering is one of the three primary tracks to human meaning. Alternatively, for those of us spared, the suffering of others is the call to provide supererogatory assistance and sacrifice.

This leaves for discussion only the philosopher’s instrument of asceticism. Countless men and women have demonstrated that controlled or limited, self-initiated suffering – for example, Buddha’s Middle Way or Tillich’s inner-worldly asceticism – can facilitate meaning, tranquility, and mystical union. All of us can find in its practice greater self-discipline, virtue, and harmony with nature. It turns out suffering is both existential and essential: it offers the tincture of transformation, awakens us to ignorance, facilitates our grasp on reality, thrusts us into presence, and may lead to wisdom and enlightenment.

Next time we begin on our final special topic, certainty. Please join me then.


“Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.” – Helen Keller.

At last we conclude our survey of the philosophy of suffering. As with other subjects, a superficial consideration of suffering is faulty. Suffering is not evil itself, rather at times a consequence of evil. It is not identical to pain although many pains involve suffering and some suffering involves physical pain. It is not always to be avoided and at times should be welcomed, even sought. As such, human suffering (excluding perhaps in the case of young children and the mentally challenged) is not indisputable disproof of deity and, on the contrary, can be seen as a path to the divine. It does not preclude happiness nor undermine a meaningful life, instead at times is an instrument of both. Suffering  is not unusual, rather universal and to be expected by simply existing.

We find suffering is a domain of ironies. It may be the opposite of happiness, but is likely necessary to achieve happiness. It is universal but need not be inevitable. The pleasures we seek to increase happiness unexpectedly lead to suffering. A strong ego and selfishness intended to protect oneself from unhappiness often lead not to fulfillment, but to suffering. And perhaps most paradoxical of all – even extreme suffering can be the catalyst for finding meaning in endurance and making oneself worthy of it.

What else do we learn? Suffering is integral to human existence itself; it is part of the human condition. While we imagine that if we were perfect beings in a perfect environment, we would be free from suffering; logic tells us that the inevitable boredom or complete lack of anything to accomplish make this belief self-contradictory. In fact, dealing with suffering and a courageous willingness to take it on may be the greatest power of humanity. No other creature known to us, perhaps not even God himself, should He exist, has this power (although Christians might argue the story of Jesus disproves this).

We also learn that man’s approach to suffering is the key to a full understanding of life. Of course science, man’s greatest discovery, offers us the means to relieve many pains and misfortunes, and wisdom and ethics oblige us to utilize its arts whenever suffering can be avoided. Where science fails or does not apply, philosophy offers the best means to alleviate or endure it, and to find meaning and flourishing in spite of it.

(continued next post)