“Be Still a Man”

So writes the philosopher David Hume, that (in)famous empiricist, after tearing apart our notions that we can “know” anything outside of our sense experience.

I find his stance fascinating. At the beginning of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, he makes clear that his goal is to establish what we can know, and how we know it. In doing so, he defines mankind:

Man is a reasonable being; and as such, receives from science his proper food and nourishment: but so narrow are the bounds of human understanding, that little satisfaction can be hoped for in this particular, either from the extent of security or his acquisitions.

Section 1.3, emphasis added

Hume sees his goal as relatively modest one. He is not interested in building up a system of knowledge and truth like Descartes. Rather, he is looking for the bare bones of human knowledge, giving us a springboard for exactly how and what we can know. For Hume, we know “impressions,” which are the content of our immediate experience, and “ideas,” the mental pictures that come from impressions. This means — generally speaking — that knowledge of the physical world (i.e., our direct observations) are relatively reliable. Relations between ideas are not necessarily knowable — especially, for Hume, cause and effect, but that’s irrelevant to this discussion. The rest is simply not knowable with certainty.

That limits us significantly, and that’s exactly Hume’s point: we’re extremely finite, and it’s our inescapable position in the world.

All well and good, but that’s not what intrigues me about his point. What intrigues me is his personal attitude towards all of this. Where Descartes displays a heavy amount of obsession about building up a complex system which will give us certain knowledge about the world, Hume essentially says, “Nah, we really can’t know much at all. But don’t worry too much about it.” Later, in section 1.4, he writes:

Man is a sociable, no less than a reasonable being: bt neither can he always enjoy company agreeable and amusing, or preserve the proper relish for them… Nature has pointed out a mixed kind of life as most suitable to the human race, and secretly admonished them to allow none of these biases to draw too much, so as to incapacitate them for other occupations and entertainments. Indulge your passion for science, says she, but let our science be human…

Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.

Section 1.4

I disagree with Hume on some significant points. But of the philosophers that I admire most at the moment, I find that I am interested in those that force us to look back on ourselves, and point out the silliness of our abstract thinking. We ought to philosophize, we ought to discover, we ought to think critically and rationally. But in the midst of all that, and even more so, we ought to be human beings, living in the world.

Neither Rationalism Nor Empiricism

If Descartes’s rationalism leaves us with despair, Hume’s empiricism doesn’t provide us with anything more compelling.

A purely rationalist model like Descartes’s that finds its basis in radical doubt first leaves us with despair because we cannot have certain knowledge if we affirm that as a basis for our understanding of the world. Hume’s empirical system (we gain “ideas” via “impressions,” or, to put it a little more simply, any knowledge we gain about reality is gained via sense experience) leaves us with an inability to reasonably believe in the transcendent or the existence of ethical norms. How we ought to act is simply a matter or custom and the social nature of human beings.

That’s why Kierkegaard’s claim, a little less than a hundred years later, that “subjectivity is truth” is necessary. Ethico-religious truth isn’t actually knowable rationally or empirically. That realm of human life is off-limits to objectivity, because objectivity necessarily is disembodied. It’s also important to note that Kierkegaard was approving of both a form of rationalism and empiricism (I think this was likely due to a Kantian influence). He understood that the form of rationalism that affirms abstract truth (mathematics and necessary, logical assertions) and an empiricism that seems to bestow approximate knowledge of how the world functions and historical fact are good, necessary things.

We just can’t submit ethical and religious truth to the same level of inquiry, because they are categorically different spheres. “Knowing” these kinds of truth necessarily implies embodiment of those truths. If we don’t embody selflessness, for example, we reveal that we don’t know that selflessness is a worthwhile virtue. If we don’t embody Jesus, the same can be said. Kierkegaard attacked philosophical abstraction, but only at the service of honesty about our current ethical and religious states. This is a different kind of epistemology — a religious one, and one that doesn’t allow the modernist assumptions about the superiority of human rationality to set the standards for truth in all spheres.

Why We Need Kierkegaard

I obviously have some sense that Kierkegaard’s whole project, especially as it relates to ethico-religious epistemology, is something that needs to be explored. But the real question I think most people have when I tell them about what I’m writing on is why? Why does some relatively obscure (to people outside of academia) philosopher from Denmark in the 19th century have anything to say to us? What hath Christian existentialism to do with modern American Christianity?

I think the short answer boils down to this: we are obsessed with finding the right answer to our ethical and religious questions, and with objectively knowing that the we know with certainty that how we are acting and what we believe is “right.” We are so obsessed, in fact, that many of us spend more time building up mental frameworks to maintain our certainty that we are right and others are wrong than we do in living out our ethical and religious ideals we claim to believe.

Many of us American Christians grew up in faith traditions that placed heavy emphasis on believing the right things (that Jesus died for our sins). Those faith traditions told us that doing so was the guarantee of our salvation. The paradigmatic Bible passage here was Romans 10:9: “That if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” This, most of us were told, meant that mental assent to this historical claim was sufficient for our salvation. So those of us who believed this particular claim (Jesus died for our sins and was resurrected by God) were saved. And our time needed to be spent doing two things:

  1. Convincing other people that the claim was true, in order that they may also be saved.
  2. Building up apologetic frameworks that helped us to remain convinced that what we believed was true. (In the age of science and information, that particular claim is a difficult one to defend, both rationally and with historical or natural evidence.)

Kierkegaard never argued that there was no objectively right way to live or objectively correct religious framework — that was not his concern at all (he didn’t have that concern, partially because he didn’t face globalism and religious pluralism the way we face it today). His concern was that the objectification of faith claims like Jesus’ death for the sins of humanity and his subsequent resurrection robs the claim of its existential force. In other words, the more time we spend abstractly reflecting upon the historical truth of that claim, the easier it is for us to not live in relation to that claim, to not line up our lives with what that claim entails for our lives.

This was the problem with modernity that Kierkegaard was trying to combat. He saw in the epistemological frameworks of those modern philosophers that came before him, and his contemporaries (Descartes, Hume, Kant, and especially Hegel), the human tendency for objectifying faith claims in order that we could ignore the ramifications in our own singular, individual lives.