“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.

A Better Individualism

Much has been said recently lamenting the rise of individualism — in fact it’s quite popular in Christian circles to make a specter out of individualism as the bane of both true Christianity and as the leading cause of our current condition (anxious, separated, afraid, lonely, etc., etc.).

What if this isn’t really the case? That is to say, what if individualism itself is not the problem — it’s the false individualism that we’re sold that is a problem.

The reality is that we cannot escape our individualist stance. We are bound to it, no matter what we do (thanks Descartes!). We are, before anything else (in the order of being, anyway), individuals — individuals before the world, individuals before our social contexts, individuals before the infinite.

So, perhaps, rather than deriding individualism, we ought to reclaim it as a viable understanding of our human condition. We should reclaim it from the secularists who use it to uphold individualistic autonomy (necessarily leading to consumerism, and a free-for-all libertine stance towards economics and the political realm. We should also reclaim it from those who think it has brought about the downfall of civilization and the end of true Christianity. We need a better individualism.

What do I mean by that? I’m not exactly sure — I only really know that I’m convinced the either/or that we currently experience is a false binary. It’s not individualism or communalism. We are already and always individuals. What we need is a robust understanding of what individuals are made to be.

Perhaps, then, we should work with defining individualism by running through my two-question test in helping define the telos of a thing:

  1. What is an individual?
  2. What is an individual for?

Inherently, this allows us to approach the question without judgement. No longer is it a debate about whether individualism is a bad thing or not. It’s about recognizing that we are already, necessarily individuals, and determining the best way to understanding our stance as individuals in the world.

Successful Internalization

I don’t often get to verbalize concepts from my thesis. I mean, I do in writing, but I don’t often get to have verbal conversations where I’m explaining the concepts I’m exploring from start to finish. Last night, however, I got the chance to do so while talking to my mom. We discussed my plans for the philosophy class I’m teaching this semester (starting Monday!), and as I explained my hopes and plans for the class, I realized that my primary goal is the following:

I want to simply prepare the seniors taking this class to be courageous when tackling the most difficult questions about the world and humanity — the questions that philosophers and theologians and everyone else have been asking since at least a few thousand years ago. These are questions that are going to be dealt with in college philosophy courses, in their dorm rooms, internally, and on social media. It does no good for us to stick our head in the sand and give the high schoolers pat answers to these questions that no serious philosopher finds convincing or rational.

This purpose is largely driven by my own experience in college philosophy courses. None of my philosophy professors were seeking to destroy or unravel my faith — it just slowly happened over time because I had never been prepared to answer these questions well. Descartes’s problem of knowledge and certainty that he brings up in Meditations on First Philosophy is an important problem to explore, except when you don’t have someone that can walk you through that problem that you trust.

The same can be said for the problem of religious knowledge (the one that I’m addressing in my thesis). This is where the title of this post is coming from. I got the privilege last night of talking through why I think the way I do about religious knowledge now; especially regarding the separation of knowledge categories between objectivity and subjectivity, and why that split is important. The ease with which I explained the problem (and my/Kierkegaard’s proposed solution to the problem) indicated that I have at least successfully internalized that answer to the point of being able to explain it.

That’s a good feeling.

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.

All Descartes Can Give Us is Despair

In his history of philosophy, Frederick Copleston seeks to defend Descartes’s legacy against those who would argue that his methodical doubt is just an abstract attempt to arrive at certain knowledge. He writes:

The Cogito, ergo sum is therefore the indubitable truth on which Descartes proposes to found his philosophy… It is the first and most certain existential judgmenet. Descartes does not propose to build his philosophy on an abstract logical principle. In spite of anything which some critics may have said, his concern is not simply with essences or with possibilities: he is concerned with the existing reality, and his primary principle is an existential proposition.

A History of Philosophy IV, 93

Copleston’s (and by extension, Descartes’s) problem, however, is twofold. First, Descartes objectified existence, so that even if he built his philosophy and his understanding of the nature of reality and God and knowledge on an “existential principle,” he abstracted himself away from the reality of that existential principle. This very fact, the foundation of his thought (methodical, relentless doubt) led him away from subjectivity, which, for Kierkegaard is truth. For Descartes, his own existential reality may have served as the foundation for the rest of his philosophical enterprise, but (like God himself) existence was no more than a pragmatic detail, an afterthought to objectified, rationalized knowledge. (In fact, Descartes himself meant to write a moral philosophy, but never felt he was able to do so. Not surprising, given his obsession with method and abstracted knowledge.)

Second, I find it unlikely that anyone can proceed upon Descartes’s project without feeling some level of despair about the amount of certainty that one can obtain about the nature of reality, knowledge, and how we ought to act. Further, embarking upon such a project necessarily forces humans (if they are honest about where the project has led them) to infinitely regress into skepticism and either hedonism or despair. Lack of certainty about anything but our very existence (which is the only “accomplishment” the modern epistemological project provides) is the only outcome. Thus, Kierkegaard says we are met with the paradox of God (the infinite) in time and faith, the vehicle of a good human existence.

God, the Cog in Our Systems

In my post on Tuesday (“Why We Need Kierkegaard”), I mentioned that Kierkegaard’s work is still important because he addresses how we currently interact with and frame our religious beliefs. Modern Christians tend to think that we need to be objectively certain about our religious beliefs, and that this is the most important aspect of the life of faith. The problem is, as I wrote in the previous post,

The more time we spend abstractly reflecting upon the historical truth of [a] 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.

Being overly concerned with proving the veracity of the historical and logical veracity of our religious beliefs necessarily leads to an objectification of those beliefs. This “objectification” separates our existence from those beliefs, and what they might require of us.

This is not just a modern, American phenomenon. Kierkegaard was writing in 19th century Denmark, mostly in response to a group of philosopher-theologians that were heavily influenced by the philosophical work of Hegel. Hegel, in turn, was influenced by the modernist epistemological conversations preceding him — especially from Immanuel Kant, whose important work on knowledge and reason (Critique of Pure Reason) was meant to not only define the limits and nature of knowledge, but also to determine how we can best understand the relationship between human reason and the use of physical evidence to determine truth.

The line of philosophers in this conversation stretches back to the Greeks, but modern historians of philosophy often mark the beginning of the modern philosophical period with the work of RenĂ© Descartes, whose work was a watershed in several ways. Descartes, like Kant, wanted to define the limits and nature of human knowledge. Through his work (especially in Discourse on the Method and Meditations), he sought to find a firm “foundation” for human knowledge, and after much internal struggle, found that the surest piece of knowledge he could have was of his own existence (hence, cogito, ergo sum, or I think, therefore I am). His goal was never really about chipping away at every piece of knowledge humans assume is certain though — rather, it was to find something firm on which he could build a system of knowledge. An important note to remember about Descartes’s project is that (according to Anthony Gottlieb, a historian of philosophy):

Descartes infers nothing from his own existence. Instead, he asks how he comes to possess this one certainty, so that he can then find others in the same way. The secret of that certainty is just that it involved a ‘clear and distinct perception of what I am asserting.’ Crucially, Descartes then introduces God… Descartes’s system of knowledge depends not on his own existence but on God’s.

The Dream of Enlightenment, 14

It’s here, I think, where Descartes makes his fatal error. God, for Descartes, becomes pragmatic. In all of his work up to this point, Descartes relates to God “objectively”: God is no more than a guarantor of human knowledge. In such a view of the world, and especially of human knowledge, how can one relate to God subjectively, then? Kierkegaard would question whether that’s possible, and I’m inclined to agree with him. The first modern philosopher that started the epistemological conversation (that we are still having!) inverted our relationship to God. The God who once required something of us, to whom we are subject, now becomes a cog (the biggest, most important cog, at least!) in our own human systems.

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.