Kierkegaard: Context, Context, Context

I recently finished a short research project on Søren Kierkegaard, and it was difficult for several reasons:

  1. Kierkegaard did not strive for clarity.
  2. He used several different pseudonyms with differing perspectives.
  3. Many scholars mistakenly interpret him as a relativist.

This last point was not only shared by many scholars, but also by my professor, who summarized Kierkegaard as “a bad theologian.” Nonetheless, I pushed forward on the good word of other clear-minded scholars who strongly asserted that Kierkegaard was not a relativist, and I found this assertion to be confirmed by viewing Kierkegaard in context.

Christianity had been treated so flippantly in Danish Christendom; and Kierkegaard loathed such silliness: “Everything can be had at such a bargain price that it becomes a question whether there is finally anyone who will make a bid.”[1] Hegel’s idealism had brought about a philosophy filled with mere guesswork and fanciful conjecture, occupying men with objective knowledge rather than subjective faith. Amidst all of the philosophical speculation, the speculator is still left with a life devoid of meaning, which is why Kierkegaard calls the philosophers “worse than the Pharisees.”[2] For Kierkegaard, this life of speculation was destructive to man’s existence, and so he set out to write in opposition to this lifeless ideological mania. The goal for Philosophical Fragments was to “strike a blow at [modern speculative] philosophy” by means of “melancholy irony” and “profound earnestness.”[3] Kierkegaard was not seeking to supply another treatise for men to adjoin to their knowledge; rather he was seeking to take away, addressing not the ‘non-knowers,’ but the ‘knowers.’ The problem was that man knew too much, and that it had gained him nothing.

When a man has filled his mouth so full of food that for this reason he cannot eat and it must end with his dying of hunger, does giving food to him consist in stuffing his mouth even more or, instead, in taking a little away so that he can eat?[4]

To his supposed reader, “If he were to carry his gallantry to the extreme of embracing my opinion because it is mine, I regret his courtesy.”[5] Kierkegaard is not attempting to bring his reader into another system of thought, certainly not one composed of his own opinion. He is striving to take away the reader’s dependence on other opinions of man so that the reader may make an opinion his own – that he can look at truth and claim it, motioning towards it by faith. In regards to the Christian faith, Kierkegaard seeks to do this by bringing the reader into the possibility of offense, which occurs through the broadcasted absurdity of the paradox. It is by seeing Christianity as the paradox where one is made to startle, and come to a decision for himself.

There are startling statements made by Kierkegaard concerning subjectivity and truth, but by viewing him in his context and goal, these startling statements are resolved with an important emphasis. He is attempting a sort of pendulum swing, moving stagnant objective ‘knowers’ to passion and inwardness.

Truth is subjective; but most Christians frightfully read this phrase to mean ‘all truth is subjective.’ That is not the assertion. In regards to decision-making, truth must be subjective. There is no such thing as an objective decision because a decision requires an agent, a subject in existence. Kierkegaard is not interested in a mere objective treatise in theology for Christianity; he is after the Christian and his behavior. It because of this interest in action through decisions that he emphasizes the subjective, and makes the dastardly claim, ‘truth is subjectivity.’ Decisions cannot be made objectively, only subjectively. One must contextualize Kierkegaard as to not assume the worse – i.e. the man runs mad with no objective foundation. No, Kierkegaard presupposes the objective because his reader, Danish Christendom, has already supposed objective truth; and his pendulum swing is for that very reason. Christendom had handed over their Christianity, turning it into an object of study rather than a personal ‘struggle’ with Christ. Kierkegaard desired for the believer to realize that Christianity is only as good for the believer inasmuch as the believer subjectively decides the truth through inwardness, not merely outward creedal statements.

“As soon as truth, the essential truth, can be assumed to be known by everyone, appropriation and inwardness must be worked for, and here can be worked for only in an indirect form.”[6] This is an important discovery. Kierkegaard notes two key concepts: (1) that the prerequisite for appropriation and inwardness is knowledge of the truth; and (2) this appropriation and inwardness can only be communicated in an indirect form. The most profitable clarification comes next: “The position of the apostle is something else, because he must proclaim an unknown truth, and therefore direct communication can always have its validity temporarily.”[7] This reinforces concept (1) and provides a clarification to concept (2), where one can conclude that Kierkegaard is doing ‘something else,’ not apostolic evangelism.[8] Moreover, direct communication of truth is valid, but only temporarily valid. It would be wrong to assume that Kierkegaard altogether discounts the essential knowledge of truth; rather he assumes that his readers already know the essential truth and calls for them to move forward in appropriating it with inwardness. There must be a leaving from direct communication to indirect communication, because indirect communication is the only means of working for appropriation and inwardness.

The question then becomes, what does indirect communication consist in?

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Kierkegaard’s Writings, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, vol. 6, Fear and Trembling: Repetition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983), 5.

[2] Søren Kierkegaard, Kierkegaard’s Writings, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, vol. 7, Philosophical Fragments, Johannes Climacus (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985), 235.

[3] Ibid., 234-235. Most of this writer’s analysis is derived from Philosophical Fragments, though it is not excluded to that work. It is very important to clarify, however, Fragments was written by Kierkegaard under the pseudonym of Johannes Climacus, a proclaimed unbeliever. Although this is a very important variable to the analysis, the problem of the pseudonyms will not be addressed in this paper. Therefore, Kierkegaard will be credited with all quotations and references from his pseudonym work.

[4] Ibid., xxi.

[5] Ibid., 7

[6] Søren Kierkegaard, Kierkegaard’s Writings, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, vol. 12, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), 1.243.

[7] Ibid., 1.243.

[8] “The Difference between a Genius and an Apostle,” under the pseudonym of H. H., in Without Authority, KW XVIII (SV XI 93-109).


2 thoughts on “Kierkegaard: Context, Context, Context

  1. Kierkegaard asserted that truth is subjectivity, not subjective – the whole point of Concluding Unscientific Postscript and Philosophical Fragments is the relation of absolute truth to contingent history and time, hence their profound christology.

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