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.

Bottom-Up or Top-Down Knowledge

(Some thoughts while reading James K.A. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Relativism?)

Modern frameworks regarding knowledge often begin with attempting to drill down to core, fundamental concepts about reality. The thinking goes like this: if humans can prove that there is an objective reality, then individuals can be convinced of that objective reality via logical means. Further, this will produce an objective, universal set of knowledge which is not only logical, but the only appropriate understanding of reality. From this point, it is assumed, humans ought to be able to build a community, a society, a civilization that has shared values — all because of these core, fundamental concepts of reality that are shared across the entire human race.

This is a bottom-up understanding of reality, one which requires that all humans share the same understanding of reality as-it-is in order for a society to logically share and build a fair and just world.

What if knowledge can be thought of in a “know-how,” and not a “know-that” sense? In other words, perhaps, we ought to think of our conception of how knowledge is built upside-down from the modern framework. Language describes our understanding of reality, but language is inherently a social, shifting phenomenon. Therefore our perception of reality itself is inherently social and shifting. This doesn’t mean that reality itself is contingent, simply that our knowledge of reality is contingent upon the communities in which we participate. As long as the language we use to describe reality (and the systems we build upon that language-reality conception) functions, then it is theoretically an appropriate view of reality.

One might argue that there are better and worse conceptions of reality as-it-is, and that’s fair. But the more meaningful work might not be attempting to drill down into the fundamental, core concepts of reality to build a universal understanding of particulars to ensure that everyone believes the same thing about reality as it is. Perhaps the better work is building communities which not only share a vision of the common good, but one that shares a common project among its participants that does not require uniformity in belief about reality. This common participation and vision may in fact end up producing an unexpected unified vision of reality among the participants that a bottom-up framework cannot produce.

Knowing in Ways That We Cannot Articulate

We tend to think that we can only know things if we are able to express them in language. E.g., if I can articulate that the word “square” refers to the shape with four equal sides and each corner of those sides meets at a 90º angle, then I have “knowledge” of that fact. But aren’t there ways of knowing that are inexpressible by or through language? By that I mean, aren’t there things that I know to be true that (even if I cannot empirically verify this fact) I am incapable of saying with words: the feeling I know I’ll feel when I see my hometown again, or the particular melody of a song, or the difference between the way the air feels in summer and winter.

So, then, if language does not comprise our ability to “know” something, what does? Perhaps in some cases it functions that way, but in other ways, language is not only inadequate, but incapable of capturing the various ways in which we know things. And this is probably because language, despite what we have been taught, does not function solely as a representative or referential system — it can do that (poorly, in many cases), but that is not how we use language. Language, instead, is functional, contingent on the context in which we are using it.

Thus, our attempts at objective philosophizing about reality, metaphysics, ethics, and so on, are doomed to failure. We can only do so with language, and language doesn’t do that really well. It cannot name concepts in with pure, one-to-one accuracy. And if that’s the case, then knowledge that we have articulated via language is necessarily contingent — in other words, our knowledge is relative to something (a community, a tradition, a social context).

Working Thesis

The thesis that I’ll be working on in the spring, I hope, will consider and argue for a singular idea (and this may not be its final form, but this is what I keep kicking around in my head):

When humans evaluate empirical data and rational arguments to make a religious commitment, they are only capable of doing so from a foundation of pre-formed desire (for what they believe is “good” or “true”), which is in turn shaped by experience and habit.

In other words, we are incapable of evaluating reason or evidence objectively, especially as it relates to reason or evidence about religious claims. The evaluation of such information is determined by what we believe is good or beautiful or true about the world. Theologically, I think this might mean that, in order for us to make a decision to become a Christian, something internal must be changed before we are capable of evaluating any information presented about Christian claims and affirm those claims on the basis of the arguments with which we are presented.

That internal change that is required to evaluate the information and make that faith decision is formed by a complex web of factors, including social and political contexts, individual experience, and the habits (or cultural/religious liturgies) in which we participate.

I’m going to attempt to prove this idea with a range of philosophical/theological ideas, and I’m hoping to also discuss the implications of the idea as well (i.e., How do we deal with this? How do our current cultural habits and practices [materialism, constant political news consumption, the ubiquity of porn, etc.] shape our lived reality?)

This idea is really intriguing to me. I had already been thinking about it internally for a while, when I was discussing with a friend of mine what my thesis would be about. Initially, I thought I would be doing working on the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, but I couldn’t nail down exactly what I wanted to write about. During the conversation, we began talking about life and why Kierkegaard is interesting to me, and he suggested that, instead of doing some extended survey on Kierkegaard’s work, I should use the thesis to attempt to prove an idea, specifically this idea.

When I returned to faith, I found that it was not solely arguments for the rationality of faith, nor could any amount of evidence have purely convinced me that Christianity was true. For me, I needed an internal shift, a new way of seeing the world. I was convinced by authors that wrote about the crucifixion as the true standard of beauty in the world, and the notion that there is an underlying goodness at the heart of reality. Those things are not provable, but when I began to internalize those ideas, making a new religious commitment to Christianity again seemed not only plausible, but right.

Other Minds and Generous Commentary

I’m sure there are a lot of reasons I’m starting blogging again. One particular reason I can point back to is this post by Alan Jacobs, whose blog I follow semi-regularly. I think all the time about Twitter and attention and how the internet and social media have affected our lives. Re: all of this, Jacobs writes:

If you’re trying to address complex issues on Twitter, you are serving as your own Handicapper General. Please stop. Get a blog. You’re damaging your brain and the quality of public discourse. We all deserve better.

Anyway, that was actually an aside to my point here. My real point is the following. I was perusing Jacobs’s blog this morning, just because I like the simplicity of his site and way in which he seems to be apathetic to how others may think of him. He allows no comments, for example, and the whole site seems to be geared more toward his keeping track of his own thought life. I’d like to do the same. Sorry – that was another rabbit trail.

I came across another blog of his, called Text Patterns through his normal blog, and one of his more recent posts about Ephraim Radner’s A Time to Keep. Two things struck me:

  1. The comment section in this post was incredibly charitable. Radner himself jumped into the comments and he and Jacobs had a back and forth about Jacobs’s inability to understand some of Radner’s writing. Not something you see often. I have generally trained myself not to read comments because they either do not add to the discourse or cause me to lose my faith in humanity. This was a delight to see.
  2. Within the comment section, Jacobs wrote the following in a reply to Radner:

It is also possible, and I have been thinking about this a good deal lately, that the ways some minds work are simply incompatible with the ways that other minds work, such that genuine mutual understanding is just not achievable — at least in this vale of tears. That is a sobering thought for me, given that I have devoted my career to the interpretation of texts and to the charitable reading of them. But it may be the conclusion that I am forced to here.

This touches a bit on something I’m planning to write about in the very near future: essentially that we are (at least sometimes) incapable of “genuine mutual understanding” between minds. My work is leading me to the realm of knowledge and faith and how those two things interact with one another. My suspicion is that our desires and emotions and cultural/social contexts form a complex web that we can neither see nor transcend. Further, it is this foundation of desire/emotion/social context that forms our (pre-reflexive) response to propositional claims to truth. In other words, we are incapable of evaluating fact claims – empirical or purely rational –  via objective reason. Our responses to and evaluations of those things are always pre-formed by a more foundational part of our being – desire/emotion/social context. Perhaps it is the same when we try to gain “genuine mutual understanding,” in Jacobs’s words, between two minds.