Remarks on Knowledge from Kierkegaard in the Upbuilding Discourses

Kierkegaard’s infamous claim, that “Subjectivity is truth” is, in my opinion, commonly misunderstood. As we all know, my thesis was on this very concept — that Kierkegaard basically argues that there are more ways of knowing things (specifically, ethical and religious truths) than simply having head-knowledge of them (roughly defined, via Kierkegaard, as either strict or loose objectivity).

In my thesis, I focused on Kierkegaard’s books written by the Johannes Climacus pseudonym. This pseudonym seemed to be meant to address the philosophical problems (especially as it relates to knowledge and faith) that surround religious faith. What I didn’t realize is that he addresses these concerns elsewhere — under his own name! Throughout the course of the first half of his writing career, he published like crazy, both under pseudonyms and his own name. The writings under his own name mostly included what he called “upbuilding discourses”: short religiously-themed tracts that were reflections on scriptural passages. Theoretically — although there is some debate about this — the writings under his own name were meant to be understood as Kierkegaard’s own. The pseudonyms did not necessarily function this way. To facilitate dialogue and play the Devil’s advocate in philosophical and artistic circles, Kierkegaard often wrote in favor of mutually exclusive philosophical positions.

But, that’s neither here nor there for this particular post. I’m writing now because, as I was reading through one of the discourses (“Strengthening in the Inner Being”), I found a couple of short paragraphs on knowledge that struck me. Bear with me for a moment, as Kierkegaard’s notoriously clunky writing comes out in full force here:

Through every deeper reflection that makes him older than the moment and lets him grasp the eternal, a person assures himself that he has an actual relation to a world, and that consequently this relation cannot be mere knowledge about this world and about himself as a part of it, since such knowledge is no relation, simply because in this knowledge he himself is indifferent toward this world and this world is indifferent through his knowledge of it. Not until the moment when there awakens in his soul a concern about what meaning the world has for him and he for the world… only then does the inner being announce its presence in this concern.

This concern is not calmed by a more detailed or a more comprehensive knowledge;  it craves another kind of knowledge, a knowledge that does not remain as knowledge for a single moment but is transformed into an action the moment it is possessed

Clunky, right? I don’t blame you if your eyes glazed over. What I see going on here is Kierkegaard riffing (in the middle of what could be thought of as a pseudo-sermon) on what “counts” as knowledge. When a person deeply reflects on the world, and attempts to “grasp the eternal,” this creates a strange situation where a person is “indifferent” to the world, and the world is “indifferent” to the person. In other words, head-knowledge of something in some ways separates us from the thing we are trying to know. We objectivize the thing we are trying to know, and therefore cannot truly know it. And pursuit of a more comprehensive knowledge of that thing that we are trying to know doesn’t mitigate this problem. My knowledge, for it to really be knowledge, must translate into action.

Basically, I can be reflective on the world all I want. I can try to know it, objectify it, understand it. But until I subjectively know that thing that I want to know — by experience or by action — I don’t truly know it at all. How many of us walk around all day “knowing” that God exists (or doesn’t exist), knowing that the Bible is true, that Jesus is Lord, etc., etc., but do not consciously live in that reality? And if we don’t live in that reality, we do not ultimately know those things as true.

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