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.

Kierkegaard on Disengagement

Kierkegaard, despite many claims to the contrary, was not an irrationalist. He did not think that one can believe whatever one wants to believe, and his famous claim that ‘subjectivity is truth’ was never meant to convey that truth is simply relative. In fact, Kierkegaard clearly indicates in both Philosophical Crumbs and Concluding Unscientific Postscript that objective knowledge (in certain areas) is entirely attainable. In particular, he references the spheres of mathematics and logic, where absolute (ideal) knowledge can be attained. He also affirms at least approximate knowledge in the case of empirical observation and, to some extent, historical knowledge where evidence is available.

When Kierkegaard claims that subjectivity is truth, his main goal seems to be to claim that objective knowledge in the ethico-religious sphere is impossible. But this is not necessarily because ethical or religious truths are not objectively (in themselves, without reference to anything else) true. Rather, those kinds of truth can only be known subjectively. Human beings cannot know those truths objectively because knowing those truths objectively requires a disengagedabstracted stance. The problem with that stance is that it is impossible for humans to hold such a stance while also living in the truth of the ethico-religious claim. Let’s take an example from SK (through his pseudonym Johannes Climacus) directly:

If one who lives in the midst of Christendom goes up to the house of God, the house of the true God, with the true conception of God in his knowledge and prays, but prays in a false spirit; and one who lives in an idolatrous community prays with the entire passion of the infinite, although his eyes rest on the image of an idol; where is there most truth? The one prays in truth to God, though he worships an idol; the other prays falsely to the true God, and hence worships in fact an idol. (Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 179-180)

This understandably makes contemporary Christians squeamish, because most of us have been taught that our faith is built around having a right, true, objective conception of God. We must objectively know that the God we worship is the true God, otherwise our worship is meaningless. This stance fundamentally misses at least a few points. First, can our conception of God ever be accurate? We may find some way of approximating something about God, but in the long history of human attempts at understanding God, the best we can come up with is that God is infinite (a relatively meaningless concept in everyday life), God is love, etc. If we were required to objectively know the God we are attempting to worship for our worship to be valid, wouldn’t all of our worship necessarily be invalid?

Second, Kierkegaard is not denying the objective existence of God (or anything else for that matter). He specifically mentions in the passage above that the one living in Christendom has a “true conception of God.” His project, at least through the Climacus writings, were an attempt at making hard distinctions within the spheres of human knowledge. There are things that are knowable by humans objectively, but there is also a hard limit on what can be knowable that way. When we attempt to know ethical or religious truth objectively (i.e., cross the knowledge boundary), we make a category error. Further, humans do not have the ability of holding on to knowledge objectively without being dispassionate and disengaged, and this is exactly the wrong stance within ethical and religious truth. Therefore, Kierkegaard doesn’t deny objective truth directly, but the function of holding on to knowledge objectively. Function and existential application were his primary concern.

Morality within the Narratives of Our Lives

MacIntyre’s respect for such philosophers as Kant and Mill reflects this understanding of the philosophical task. Their attempt to develop accounts of morality in the name of some impersonal standard was an understandable response to the loss of shared practices necessary for the discovery of goods in common. Such a project was doomed to failure, however, exactly because no such standards can be sustained when they are abstracted from the practices and descriptions that render our lives intelligible. Modern moral philosophy becomes part of the problem, for its stress on autonomy, like its corresponding attempt to free ethics from history, produces people incapable of living lives that have narrative coherence.

— Stanley Hauerwas, “The Virtues of Alasdair Macintyre”