Subjective Knowledge is the Only Knowledge That Matters

The main point of my thesis work this year is to address the realm of “religious knowledge” — whether such a realm of knowledge is legitimately understood as knowledge, and if it is, what is required of us if we say we “know” something religiously.

This is where Kierkegaard’s understanding of types of knowledge is helpful. He doesn’t explicate any kind of explicit system for “kinds of knowledge,” but M.G. Piety, in her book Ways of Knowing, teases out some of the implications of Kierkegaard’s writings (especially Concluding Unscientific PostcriptPhilosophical Crumbs, and his Journals and Papers). To paraphrase Piety, there are two distinct fields of knowledge in Kierkegaard’s thought: objective and subjective.

Those fields break down even further. Objective knowledge has two distinct categories. The first of which (and most people agree on this) is “strict” — that is, anything absolutely provable mathematically or logically. The second form of objective knowledge is “loose” — that is, knowledge about the natural world or history. This second category is inherently a little fuzzier, even though it is still considered objective. We can know things about history and nature with relative confidence, even if we hold that knowledge loosely (and we should, considering that new, objective evidence could show that our previous conclusion was false).

I find the field of subjective knowledge extremely helpful for talking about religion and moral action. For Kierkegaard (via Piety) subjective knowledge also has two distinct categories: “proper” and “pseudo.” Proper subjective knowledge requires the combination of action and understanding. This means whatever ethical or religious norms that have been revealed to us must be enacted in our lives in order for us to consider those religious or ethical norms properly subjective. (And it’s important to note here that this is an entirely different use of subjectivity than we often use today. Kiekegaard [through his pseudonym Johannes Climacus], when he writes a phrase like “Subjectivity is truth,” doesn’t mean that truth is whatever you want it to mean. It’s closer to say that he thinks religious or ethical truth must be embodied and internalized if it can properly be said to be “truth.”) Psuedo subjective knowledge, then, is abstracted knowledge of ethical or religious truths. In other words, it’s kind of like armchair theologizing — taking great pleasure in knowing about and discussing theology, but not appropriating that theology within one’s existence.

And this is the reason I love Kierkegaard — he’s not really a philosopher or someone that’s interested in abstract system-building. What he’s interested in is making us more honest with ourselves.

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