Category: Thesis

The One Rule

After spending a significant amount of time editing my thesis (with more to come, though I am almost finished) — it seems like there is but one major rule in academic, philosophical writing:

Don’t make a claim you can’t defend.

Perhaps we’d all do well to follow that rule in public and private discourse, as well.

Epigraph

If given the chance, this quote will be attached as an epigraph to my thesis:

One makes God’s Word into something impersonal, objective, a doctrine — instead of its being the voice of God that you shall hear… And one relates impersonally (objectively to this impersonal thing); and at the peak of a culture of the world, at the head of the cultured public, scholarly research, one asserts defiantly that this is earnestness and culture. If possible, we pityingly put those personal subjective wretches into the corner!

Kierkegaard – For Self-Examination

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.

We’re All Kantians

The closer we get to Kierkegaard’s time, the closer we get to epistemologies that more closely reflect Kierkegaard’s understanding of religious  and ethical knowledge. Kant, for example, provides a sort of middle way — or perhaps a better way to say this is that he provides a method that transcends the boundaries set out by the rational and empirical models of knowledge from Descartes to Hume. If we’ll remember, Descartes tended towards a heavy rationalism — doubting what he could not know with certainty until he could ascertain knowledge a priori that couldn’t be doubted. From this point, he attempted to build a system (internally) that couldn’t be doubted, and that gave him clear, reliable knowledge of the exterior world.

Hume (and his philosophical forebears) essentially thought this was rubbish. Knowledge is only accessible via sense experience. There are many reasons he thought this, but suffice it to say that the only knowledge he thought was even valid was knowledge that we gain “sensibly.” Through experience with the external world, we gain impressions (the immediate experience of the object with which we are interacting), and our minds create “ideas” from those impressions. Those ideas are our mind’s re-creation of those impressions, allowing us to observe them, post-experience. One of the main problems that Hume faced here is that he couldn’t prove causation via purely empirical evidence. But since he refused to acknowledge the existence of a priori knowledge, and we can’t prove that an effect was caused by something prior to a specific event occurring via sense experience, we’re stuck saying we can’t prove causation. The best we can do is say that, based on observation, we can reasonably expect that event B will follow event A because, historically, that’s what has happened before.

Kant sought a middle way here, and was, I think relatively successful. In fact, I think he was so successful that most of us still operate under Kantian or neo-Kantian epistemological assumptions. His solution? We do bring prior (a priori) forms to our experience of the world, but those forms are void of content. What are these a priori forms? Primarily space and time, but also things like causation. When we experience the world, we never experience it outside of these forms. Therefore, while those forms are not empirically extant, we bring along those forms with us. Copleston, in his History of Philosophy, Vol. VI, likens it to a man wearing rose-tinted glasses that he cannot remove. This man can still experience the world, but he can experience it in no other way than as rose-tinted. Space, time, and causation, according to Kant, are our rose-tinted glasses. Why is this useful knowledge? Because, if we know that we experience it as such, we can make other claims about reality that we couldn’t have made before, and it can perhaps explain our experience of phenomena (things that exist and/or occur) that do not otherwise make sense under empirical or rational models of epistemology.

Now, this is a serious distillation of Kant’s system, and his arguments that get us here are dense. But it seems as if we can at least recognize that this form of understanding how and why we know things informs how we understand epistemology today. Later, I’ll talk about his discussion of the limits of human reason, and how his epistemological system determines what we can know in the ethico-religious sphere.

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.

A Teleological Thesis

On its face, my thesis consists of exploring Kierkegaard’s models of epistemology and determining whether it would be a helpful model to appropriate in the present. I think it’s worth it for many reasons, especially because, as I’ve said previously, “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.”

The deeper reason I’m focusing on Kierkegaard is because he’s helping me do what I mentioned in my recent post on teleological blogging. In other words, for something to be worth our time and energy and focus, we need to be able effectively answer two questions about that thing:

  1. What is this thing?
  2. What is this thing for?

My thesis is going to be a long-winded, academic treatment of the issue of religious epistemology, or what we can know about what we believe ethico-religiously. The questions I’ll end up asking (and attempting to answer) are (1) What is religious knowledge? and (2) What is religious knowledge for? I find the model of applying these two questions to a problem helpful, because it forces me to parse down the categories further, and helps me to think analytically and historically. For example, I cannot answer question 1 without first answering the question “What is knowledge?” in general. And then further, how do we justify the claim that we “know” something? What can we know with absolute certainty, and we can we only know approximately? And are those things that we “know” even knowable in those ways? Are there other types of knowledge (knowing “that” something is true vs. knowing “how” to do something)? How do we determine which things we say we “know” belong in which categories?

This is how my thesis gets built. Keep asking the questions until I get to a point of clarity. I cannot honestly say whether I’m even in complete agreement with Kierkegaard. He offers what I think is an extremely useful model through his Johannes Climacus literature, and I hope that it helps me to clarify my own thinking. But even more than that, I hope that it helps me to live my life in a truer way than I did before, and that he serves as a guide for living a more faithful, Christian life.

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 René 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.

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.