My weekend reading has been An Introduction to Kierkegaard by Peter Vardy. (By the way, May 5th would have been Kierkegaard’s 198th birthday.) Kierkegaard is often considered the father of Existentialism. Vardy says this is “misleading” (xii) though it may have some relevance since he was “concerned with the individual and with philosophy that related to life.” Kierkegaard would, however, reject the idea that “truth depends on the individual.” (xii) (See also Diogenes Allen’s similar assessment of Kierkegaard in his Philosophy for Understanding Theology. He writes, “Kierkegaard is a major source of twentieth century existentialism, but it would be inaccurate to call Kierkegaard an existentialist. He himself was concerned to understand how to become and be a Christian, whereas existentialism is concerned with what it is to be a human being.” (247, My page reference is to the first edition.))
It is this idea of the subjectivity of truth which interests me. Did Kierkegaard believe in objective truth or was truth simply what someone subjectively believed? The latter is suggested by Gordon Clark in his history of philosophy Thales to Dewey. He says,
“This type of thought provokes an obvious question. If there is no objective truth, if the How supersedes the What, then can truth be distinguished from fancy? Would not a suffering Satan be just as true as a suffering Savior? . . . Suppose now that there are serious flaws in Hegel’s ‘System’; suppose too that the communistic mass-man violates the prerogatives of the moral individual; suppose in the third place that the Danish Lutheran church was formal, hypocritical, and dead; suppose therefore that S.K. has made some telling criticisms of his contemporaries. Does this then imply that the cure can be effected by a suffering or passion, a subjective feeling, to which objective truth and untruth are equally indifferent? If this were true, not only would an idol be as satisfactory as God, but Hegel or Marx would be as satisfactory as Kierkegaard.” (489-91)
Vardy thinks this reaction to Kierkegaard is wrong.
“Kierkegaard recognized that the objective approach to truth has advantages, as it seems to have a security that is lacking in the subjective approach. If truth is merely what someone thinks is true, then the danger is that one may be convinced something is true when it is totally false. This is a recipe for madness, and Kierkegaard cites Don Quixote as an example.”
Kierkegaard’s point is that if truth is simply determined by what someone is personally passionate about (i.e., a ‘merely subjective determination of the truth’) then there is no way of distinguishing someone who is effectively mad or deluded (like Don Quixote) from someone what has faith. Many commentators on Kierkegaard have taken the phrase ‘truth is subjectivity’ to mean that if an individual wholly and passionately embraces and lives a particular idea, then the idea will be true for him or her. They assume that Kierkegaard is dismissing the whole idea of objective truth and making the final determinant of truth a particular individual’s subjective state. This type of approach was to give birth to a whole movement in philosophy called existentialism which, essentially, demanded that individuals should be ‘authentic to themselves’ and avoid bad faith or inauthenticity. It was this authenticity, some philosophers claimed, that determined the truth. This, however, is a travesty of Kierkegaard’s position.” (28-29)
An Introduction to Kierkegaard is from Baker Academic. It is a paperback with 128 pages and sells for $16.00.
A statue of Kierkegaard in Copenhagen.