Objectivity is Disinterested

In what will be a key passage for my thesis, Kierkegaard writes on the nature of doubt:

Reflection is disinterested. Consciousness, however, is the relation and thereby is interest, a duality that is perfectly and with pregnant double meaning expressed in the word ‘interest’ (interesse [being in between]). Therefore, all disinterested knowledge (mathematics, esthetics, metaphysics) is only the presupposition of doubt. As soon as the interest is canceled, doubt is not conquered but is neutralized, and all such knowledge is simply a retrogression. Thus it would be a misunderstanding for someone to think that doubt can be overcome by so-called objective thinking. Doubt is a higher form than any objective thinking, for it presupposes the latter but has something more, a third, which is interest or consciousness.

This is from Johannes Climacus, or De Omnibus Dubitandum Est (which means Everything Is to Be Doubted). This unfinished work of Kierkegaard’s is written in narrative form, and would have been a precursor to his later works written under the Johannes Climacus pseudonym. Both of those other works of Kierkegaard’s will function as the backbone of the primary sources I use in my thesis (along with that book on his epistemology by M.G. Piety).

As far as I have found, there is no clearer passage that Kierkegaard wrote which touches on, not only what it means to doubt, but also the actual function of objective and subjective knowledge (he builds his understanding of subjectivity later, in Concluding Unscientific Postscript). This is sort of his first step in that direction, and he makes the case here that we need a subtle shift in how we understand “objective knowledge.”

Doubt, he says, cannot be “conquered” by objective knowledge — rather, doubt is “neutralized.” Why does he parse this out? Because is necessarily an interested stance toward the subject that is being doubted. Objectivity, on the other hand, is disinterested in its subject. In other words, knowing a subject objectively necessarily removes the knower sufficiently far away from the subject so that the knower can reflect on the subject abstractly. Objective thinking, in fact, requires this to be the case, because being interested (existentially speaking, “interest” is better understood as being emotionally or spiritually or otherwise vested in the outcome of something) in the subject leads to bias, and humans, by definition, know a something objectively while also being biased in the outcome of whether a claim is true or not.

That’s why only mathematics and tautologies fall within the realm of true objective knowledge — the knower can effectively and easily remove oneself from the equation, so to speak. Ethico-religious knowledge, on the other hand, cannot be known objectively because those kinds of truths are existentially meaningful. We are interested in those truths, vested in those outcomes.

All of that to say: I’ll need to argue for a subtle shift in the meaning of both objectivity and subjectivity if I am to make my case effectively.

Subjective Knowledge is the Only Knowledge That Matters

The main point of my thesis work this year is to address the realm of “religious knowledge” — whether such a realm of knowledge is legitimately understood as knowledge, and if it is, what is required of us if we say we “know” something religiously.

This is where Kierkegaard’s understanding of types of knowledge is helpful. He doesn’t explicate any kind of explicit system for “kinds of knowledge,” but M.G. Piety, in her book Ways of Knowing, teases out some of the implications of Kierkegaard’s writings (especially Concluding Unscientific PostcriptPhilosophical Crumbs, and his Journals and Papers). To paraphrase Piety, there are two distinct fields of knowledge in Kierkegaard’s thought: objective and subjective.

Those fields break down even further. Objective knowledge has two distinct categories. The first of which (and most people agree on this) is “strict” — that is, anything absolutely provable mathematically or logically. The second form of objective knowledge is “loose” — that is, knowledge about the natural world or history. This second category is inherently a little fuzzier, even though it is still considered objective. We can know things about history and nature with relative confidence, even if we hold that knowledge loosely (and we should, considering that new, objective evidence could show that our previous conclusion was false).

I find the field of subjective knowledge extremely helpful for talking about religion and moral action. For Kierkegaard (via Piety) subjective knowledge also has two distinct categories: “proper” and “pseudo.” Proper subjective knowledge requires the combination of action and understanding. This means whatever ethical or religious norms that have been revealed to us must be enacted in our lives in order for us to consider those religious or ethical norms properly subjective. (And it’s important to note here that this is an entirely different use of subjectivity than we often use today. Kiekegaard [through his pseudonym Johannes Climacus], when he writes a phrase like “Subjectivity is truth,” doesn’t mean that truth is whatever you want it to mean. It’s closer to say that he thinks religious or ethical truth must be embodied and internalized if it can properly be said to be “truth.”) Psuedo subjective knowledge, then, is abstracted knowledge of ethical or religious truths. In other words, it’s kind of like armchair theologizing — taking great pleasure in knowing about and discussing theology, but not appropriating that theology within one’s existence.

And this is the reason I love Kierkegaard — he’s not really a philosopher or someone that’s interested in abstract system-building. What he’s interested in is making us more honest with ourselves.

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.