Objective Knowledge, Reversed

Kierkegaard’s only valid form of certain, objective knowledge is in the realm of logic (or its extension of mathematics). Theoretically, approximate objective knowledge can be gained in the realm of history and science, but it’s only ever approximate, so it can’t be said to be “certain,” and is always subject to revision. M.G. Piety details SK’s distinct categories of knowledge in her book Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralistic Epistemology, and those are the only two realms of objective knowledge she can distinctly identify.

Interestingly, McCombs addresses how this situation has reversed in contemporary culture in The Paradoxical Rationality of Søren Kierkegaard:

Although the Hegelian System is now dead and gone [what Kierkegaard spent much of his time lambasting], systematizing is still alive and well. For example, scientific naturalists claim to know that all reality is material reality, or that all reality is to be known, to the extent that it can be known, not in diverse ways but exclusively by the public methods of mathematical and empirical sciences. (70)

This is an inversion of SK’s notion of what counts as truly objective knowledge — math and logic provide objective knowledge according to Kierkegaard, but they are not the limit of what is knowable. This, in my opinion, is a large reason why we experience a large amount of doubt about any religious or ethical truth claims. We have accepted the cultural claim re: immanence — that we can only know what is provable empirically or logically because we cannot empirically or logically prove anything exists outside of the material world.

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.

Convenience and Modern Christianity

From Tim Wu’s “The Tyranny of Convenience,” at the New York Times:

The dream of convenience is premised on the nightmare of physical work. But is physical work always a nightmare? Do we really want to be emancipated from all of it? Perhaps our humanity is sometimes expressed in inconvenient actions and time-consuming pursuits.

I find it interesting that so much thinking today (especially the thinking and writing the revolves around the modern condition and our relationship with technology) is concerned with what it means to be human. We are all asking ourselves what true humanity consists of, and whether the infinitely speedy progress of the technological and informational revolutions are conducive to us realizing our potential as human beings.

So alluring is this vision that it has come to dominate our existence. Most of the powerful and important technologies created over the past few decades deliver convenience in the service of personalization and individuality. Think of the VCR, the playlist, the Facebook page, the Instagram account. This kind of convenience is no longer about saving physical labor — many of us don’t do much of that anyway. It is about minimizing the mental resources, the mental exertion, required to choose among the options that express ourselves. Convenience is one-click, one-stop shopping, the seamless experience of “plug and play.” The ideal is personal preference with no effort…

As task after task becomes easier, the growing expectation of convenience exerts a pressure on everything else to be easy or get left behind. We are spoiled by immediacy and become annoyed by tasks that remain at the old level of effort and time.

I also wonder at the ramifications of the capitalistic, technological system that undergirds Western society on expressions of Christian faith (both communal and individual). The race for convenience that lies at the heart of modern notions of “progress” also affects how we view what life ought to be like, and that includes not only what we place our faith in but how we express that faith. Why go to a church that demands something from me — my time, my energy, my resources — not to mention is a severe inconvenience on my day-to-day life, when the other church down the street conveniently doesn’t require that? Why buy into a version of the Christian faith that demands that I lose myself, die to myself, give up my desires for the sake of the good of my neighbor when there are plenty of other versions of Christianity that build up my self-esteem and tell me God wants what’s best for me (and what’s best for me is obviously money and privilege and satisfaction!)?

The infinite demand of Christianity is inconvenient, and I’m not sure we’re ready to admit that. I know I prefer to watch Netflix every evening, go to church on the Sundays when it works better for my schedule, and to have every spare minute outside of work to myself. I know it’s highly Kierkegaardian of me, but if you ask me what I want right now, I’d say, “Quite simply, I want honesty.” Honesty that, in the modern world, we (especially Christians!) are more interested in comfort and convenience, and not really all that interested in taking up the task of actually becoming Christians.

Forgetting How to Read

Books were once my refuge. To be in bed with a Highsmith novel was a salve. To read was to disappear, become enrobed in something beyond my own jittery ego. To read was to shutter myself and, in so doing, discover a larger experience. I do think old, book-oriented styles of reading opened the world to me – by closing it. And new, screen-oriented styles of reading seem to have the opposite effect: They close the world to me, by opening it.

I Have Forgotten How to Read” – Michael Harris

Harris’s words cut deep. My research and writing on Kierkegaard, while satisfying in some ways, has been a constant, subtle rebuke of my intellect. Every time I sit down to read (especially when I was reading Either/Or… my God!), I’m reminded, not only of my lack of focus, but of my relative inability to follow a long train of thought that circles around a conclusion in order to make a point. In internet-modernity, we have been trained to scan the words of a document or a journalistic piece for its facts, its tweetable thoughts, its “main idea.” Harris again:

The resonance of printed books – their lineal structure, the demands they make on our attention – touches every corner of the world we’ve inherited. But online life makes me into a different kind of reader – a cynical one. I scrounge, now, for the useful fact; I zero in on the shareable link. My attention – and thus my experience – fractures. Online reading is about clicks, and comments, and points. When I take that mindset and try to apply it to a beaten-up paperback, my mind bucks.

Harris indicates later that it’s actually surprising that we were ever readers of print books at all. Our “natural” state, he says is one of distraction and a shifting gaze because of the environment in which humans evolved (needing to survey the landscape for danger, etc.). This, I think, is a short-sell on what humans are meant to be. It may be our “natural” tendency to be distracted. It may be that our animal instincts pull us toward the inability to form coherent and significant thoughts, and understand the thoughts of other humans. But an understanding of humanity that believes that humans are more than their natural instincts should instead interpret the current state of affairs as though humans are missing something.

Coincidentally, that’s exactly what Harris indicates by writing this piece. Despite the fact that he believes humans are perhaps reverting to their “natural” states, his bemoaning of the current state of affairs indicates that he knows a deeper truths about what humans ought to be.

The Paradox at the Core of Being

The great mystery in which we have all been invited to take part is the same mystery that existed from the very beginning. It, in itself, is not transcendent (i.e., out of reach) or lofty. No – rather, it is right here, in our midst. We spend our time theorizing, abstracting, and objectifying that reality in order to gain an understanding of it, to attempt gaining a purer knowledge of reality “as it is.” But the mystery of existence – the reality of which we desire to catch a glimpse – is right here, and cannot be objectified!

Kierkegaard says of a mystery like this, “The news of the day is the beginning of eternity!” (Philosophical Crumbs, 128). What he means to say is that that the reality of the incarnation, or God-in-time, is the reality we find in the particulars of our day, the moments that seem so ordinary as to be insignificant. But it is in those very moments of insignificance that we catch a glimpse of the significance of reality. Thus, at the heart of reality, in the very core of the miracle of being itself, we find a paradox.

Defending Fideism

As far as I can remember, I’ve never done research for a project, only to be surprised at the position I came to hold and defend. That seems to be happening with my thesis. I’ve always been a fan of Kierkegaard, but I am finally getting the chance to dive into some of his work through my research. The more I read his work and the scholarly work addressing Søren Kierkegaard, the more I find that my position on the tension between faith and knowledge, between religious belief and rationality, are very similar to (what we think are) his. The problem is, his view is essentially a version of fideism.

Fideism, as such, is not necessarily a problem. The real problem is the term’s use as a pejorative over the last century and a half or so. It’s often hurled as an epithet towards people who unthinkingly or irrationally accept religious faith despite — or sometimes even because of! — the apparent absurdity of the belief itself.

Kierkegaard, however, in his earlier philosophical work address some of the issues inherent in human conceptions of “knowing” and the different ways in which humans can “know” anything at all. For him, absolute knowledge of something can only happen in the abstract realms of mathematics and logic — e.g., the law of non-contradiction, or mathematical tautologies. Otherwise (especially in the realm of ‘objective’ knowledge about the world), knowledge is always an approximation to reality. We know that sense experience is flawed can often give us contradictory information about how reality “really is”; therefore, we know that we can never hold pure, certain knowledge about reality (or actuality) as it really is. And here, we’re only talking about the phenomenal (natural) realm.

The category of objective knowledge, for Kierkegaard, necessarily excludes the noumenal realm — the sphere of life that includes religious belief, ethics, etc. The limits of our rationality not only includes doubt about how certain we can be about knowledge of the natural world, but it can’t even touch this other realm. Kierkegaard therefore posits that we have a different kind of knowledge about this realm, and it is the inner realm of subjectivity. Further, due to the nature of the realms we’re discussing (religious belief and ethics as primary examples), subjective knowledge, by nature, cannot only include cognitive awareness or affirmation of such norms. True ethical/religious, subjective knowledge requires a confluence of action along with cognitive affirmation.

Basically, for religious “knowledge” to be “true,” you are required to change your actual life accordingly. Actions must line up with beliefs.

The problem here is that many people treat ethical/religious knowledge as if it is essentially the same as the kind of knowledge we can obtain about the natural world. They might function similarly (we gain “approximate” knowledge about the world and call it knowledge, though we may not be purely certain about that knowledge; we also “approximate” ourselves toward ethical/religious truths), but objectivity requires us, in some sense, to abstract ourselves away from the object which we are attempting to “know” about. Subjectivity, on the other hand, by its very nature, does not allow us to abstract ourselves away from the object we are attempting to know. Subjective knowledge means, on some level, a sense of an immediate relation to the object in question.  This further means that we have no way of rationally objectifying religious beliefs to determine their objective truth. Ergo, objective knowledge of religious beliefs is impossible. Further, this requires us to take a “leap of faith” regarding our religious beliefs. Human rationality (especially objectivity) only takes us so far, and the jump to subjective knowledge means that any such move is outside of the realm of rational inquiry or investigation.

Ergo: I’m defending fideism. Rational fideism, but fideism nonetheless.