We’re All Kantians

The closer we get to Kierkegaard’s time, the closer we get to epistemologies that more closely reflect Kierkegaard’s understanding of religious¬† and ethical knowledge. Kant, for example, provides a sort of middle way — or perhaps a better way to say this is that he provides a method that transcends the boundaries set out by the rational and empirical models of knowledge from Descartes to Hume. If we’ll remember, Descartes tended towards a heavy rationalism — doubting what he could not know with certainty until he could ascertain knowledge a priori that couldn’t be doubted. From this point, he attempted to build a system (internally) that couldn’t be doubted, and that gave him clear, reliable knowledge of the exterior world.

Hume (and his philosophical forebears) essentially thought this was rubbish. Knowledge is only accessible via sense experience. There are many reasons he thought this, but suffice it to say that the only knowledge he thought was even valid was knowledge that we gain “sensibly.” Through experience with the external world, we gain impressions (the immediate experience of the object with which we are interacting), and our minds create “ideas” from those impressions. Those ideas are our mind’s re-creation of those impressions, allowing us to observe them, post-experience. One of the main problems that Hume faced here is that he couldn’t prove causation via purely empirical evidence. But since he refused to acknowledge the existence of a priori knowledge, and we can’t prove that an effect was caused by something prior to a specific event occurring via sense experience, we’re stuck saying we can’t prove causation. The best we can do is say that, based on observation, we can reasonably expect that event B will follow event A because, historically, that’s what has happened before.

Kant sought a middle way here, and was, I think relatively successful. In fact, I think he was so successful that most of us still operate under Kantian or neo-Kantian epistemological assumptions. His solution? We do bring prior (a priori) forms to our experience of the world, but those forms are void of content. What are these a priori forms? Primarily space and time, but also things like causation. When we experience the world, we never experience it outside of these forms. Therefore, while those forms are not empirically extant, we bring along those forms with us. Copleston, in his History of Philosophy, Vol. VI, likens it to a man wearing rose-tinted glasses that he cannot remove. This man can still experience the world, but he can experience it in no other way than as rose-tinted. Space, time, and causation, according to Kant, are our rose-tinted glasses. Why is this useful knowledge? Because, if we know that we experience it as such, we can make other claims about reality that we couldn’t have made before, and it can perhaps explain our experience of phenomena (things that exist and/or occur) that do not otherwise make sense under empirical or rational models of epistemology.

Now, this is a serious distillation of Kant’s system, and his arguments that get us here are dense. But it seems as if we can at least recognize that this form of understanding how and why we know things informs how we understand epistemology today. Later, I’ll talk about his discussion of the limits of human reason, and how his epistemological system determines what we can know in the ethico-religious sphere.

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.