On Truth As Subjectivity In Kierkegaard's Concluding Unscientific Postscript

Intoduction and preliminary background information on Kierkegaard

This paper will deal with the explication of the concept of “Truth as Subjectivity”, which is found in Soren Kierkegaard’s magnum opus Concluding Unscientific Postscript To The Philosophical Fragments, written in 1846 from Copenhagen, Denmark and published in English by David Swenson in 1941.  So captivating a piece of philosophical literature that its first English translator, David Swenson, while a graduate student in philosophy, happened upon a copy of the text in Danish at a public library and took it home and read it in its entirety in the next twenty-four hours.  Kierkegaard’s thought is truly unique, challenging, and rewarding at the same time.  For the purposes of this paper, I will focus primarily on those portions of the Postscript that deal with the meaning of “Truth as Subjectivity”.

Some background on Kierkegaard’s life is on order before proceeding to expound his thought on the subjectivity as truth section of the Postscript.  Kierkegaard stands squarely in the Christian tradition of faith in Jesus Christ as the only means of personal salvation.  Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was an Existentialist, although that description was applied to his thought posthumously.  Existentialism can best be described as a mood within philosophy that emphasizes the concrete and particular existence of man in the world.  Later Existentialists described man as having no essence but only existence.  As it pertains to Christianity, Kierkegaard’s thought was instrumental in defining a way of being in the world that is characterized by an insistence on an individual and deeply personal experience leading to religious truth.  This religious experience is characterized by a highly subjective awareness of truth within one’s own individual existence.  His early writings addressed these topics indirectly, ironically, and pseudonymously.  These pseudonymous writings often took positions that were later explained by Kierkegaard himself as being contrary to his personal belief.  He did this in order to expose the fallacy of these viewpoints.  Kierkegaard’s philosophical goals could be described as twofold: trying to find a way of realizing an authentic religious experience that was not subject to the rigorous rationalism prevalent during his time, and doing away with systematic philosophizing altogether.  The latter was in direct opposition to Hegel’s rational idealism.[1]

Some preliminary information concerning the concepts of knowledge, called epistemology in philosophy, must be supplied before we get into the more difficult ideas expounded by Kierkegaard.  The nature of truth has been debated throughout the history of philosophy and theology.  Since at least the time of the Greeks, primarily in the West, truth has generally been defined as falling into either of two categories: the objective and the subjective.  Whether or not these two terms were actually used in philosophical discussion is debatable, but for our purposes in this paper it will suffice to make this broad generalization.  The basic argument put forth in this paper, which I believe will be shown to also be that of Kierkegaard’s, is that truth in general can be conceived of as having a dual existence.  In other words, truth can be seen as both objective AND subjective—a sort of split personality.  These two terms need to be defined before we can proceed with the explanation of the concept of subjective truth in Kierkegaard. 

The term “objective” signifies the dispassionate and theoretical knowledge one can attain about the world, or in this case, knowledge of God and/or Christianity.[2]  To be objective is to employ empirical, rational, and scientific methods of inquiry to the topic of discussion, or if you will, any given subject under consideration.  On the other hand, the term subjective signifies the personal, passionate, and practical approach to knowledge. 

In addition, something needs to be said about what one might call Kierkegaard’s “existential” approach to knowledge.  Existentialism is more like a mood than a philosophical system.  In fact, against the Hegelians, which prompted the Postscript in the first place, Kierkegaard declared adamantly that an existential system was impossible.[3]  Rather, the existential approach within Kierkegaard’s writings serves more like a method than a description of strictly held beliefs.  This is important because it really is Kierkegaard’s unique perspective and emphasis on man as an existing individual that leads to his subjective basis for truth. 

Thus I always reason from existence, not toward existence, whether I move in the sphere of palpable fact or in the realm of thought.  I do not, for example prove that a stone exists, but that some existing thing is a stone.[4]

But Kierkegaard gives us a working definition, or rather description, of what has come to be understood when we use the term “existential”:

That essential knowledge is essentially related to existence does not mean the above mentioned identity which abstract thought postulates between thought and being; nor does it signify, objectively, that knowledge corresponds to something existent as its object.  But it means that knowledge has a relationship to the knower, who is essentially an existing individual, and that for this reason all essential knowledge is essentially related to existence.  Only ethical and ethico-religious knowledge has an essential relationship to the existence of the knower. [5] (italics added)

Furthermore, to be subjective implies the initiation of a “decisive and free agent of choice” into the inquiry of the topic under consideration.[6]  One must be engaged or “choose sides” in order to be subjective.  One would employ the faculties of their emotions, will, and feelings as an existing subject in the quest for truth.  In other words, in order to become subjective one must first recognize and come to terms with one's own existence and what constitutes it. 

Also, Kierkegaard’s concept of subjectivity and thinking in general must be understood.  For Kierkegaard, there are two alternatives to reflection.  In other words, one can think about anything in two ways, an objective way or a subjective way.  He calls these an objective reflection and a subjective reflection.[7]  And existence itself is the divider of these two opposing modes of reflection.  In other words, to be an existing individual, which Kierkegaard said he was only a poor one and indeed we all are, is to “be” and “not be” at the same time.  Or to say it another way, existence itself is a process of “becoming.”  Existence itself automatically raises the question of exactly what one may become.  According to Kierkegaard, uncertainty is a hallmark of human existence.  He writes,

An Existing individual is constantly in process of becoming; the actual existing subjective thinker constantly reproduces this existential situation in his thoughts, and translates all his thinking into terms of process.[8]

Concept of Truth in Kierkegaard's Postscript

Furthermore, Kierkegaard implies in the Postscript, whether purposely or not, the “mode” or “method” of becoming subjective can be communicated, but not the content.  What Kierkegaard is interested in doing is explaining what becoming subjective looks like, or perhaps what it is like for the subjective thinker.  This he can tell us because he himself is a subjective thinker.  He is a particular existing individual.  So, he can tell us only how this particular existing individual, himself, is thinking and feeling, not what he is thinking and understanding, but how he is subjectively thinking and understanding.  He explains this by saying, “The objective accent falls on WHAT is said, the subjective accent on HOW it is said.”[9]  Furthermore, in this section of the Postscript Kierkegaard gives his own now famous, or should we say infamous, definition of truth:

Here is such a definition of truth: An objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness is the truth, the highest truth attainable for an existing individual.[10] (italics original)

One of the most controversial proclamations made by Kierkegaard in the Postscript is that in order to truly become a Christian, one must first become subjective.  This claim is controversial because it seems to go against the generally accepted meaning of scriptures that state simply what one must do in order to be saved, or become a Christian.  For example,

He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”  They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” [11]

That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.[12]

…for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” [13]

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— [14]

Even though we are not concerned with Kierkegaard’s soteriology in this paper, nevertheless these verses indicate the nature of salvation is initially an ascent of the rational mind, or at least the human will, to believe.  This constitutes salvation.  However, Kierkegaard seems to indicate that what is required is not salvation as such, but subjectivity in becoming “contemporary with Christ”, which leads to an “eternal happiness”.[15]

Furthermore, a problematic point of what Kierkegaard seems to be saying is that what one must do is to arrive at a certain preliminary stage in order to become a Christian.  He states that one must become subjective in order to arrive at the truth, or to be “in” the truth.[16]  While there are strong points in his approach to the analysis of the benefits, or even necessity, of becoming subjective, and his emphasis on the relational aspects of truth are very enlightening, there are ramifications that are troublesome.  Mainly, these problems could be summed up by saying that Kierkegaard introduces an extra biblical criteria for becoming a Christian into his philosophy of subjective truth.  Perhaps, it would have been better for Kierkegaard to acknowledge that there seems to be a preliminary, and one might even say necessary, stage or mindset to be attained before one can make the leap to becoming a Christian.[17]  Nonetheless, Kierkegaard’s great contribution to the understanding of religious faith lies in his explanation of the necessity of each particular, existing individual to become aware of the subjective nature of truth—as opposed to the objective—in order to become a Christian.  But it should be noted, Kierkegaard does not advocate a non-reflective faith.  One can and should be reflective and rational concerning one’s faith.  But one must always recognize the process of reflection is directed in faith toward the subject’s relationship with the truth.  After all, faith is only possible by an existing subject, of which each human being is, and not an object.  As he explains,

When the question of truth is raised in an objective manner, reflection is directed objectively to the truth, as an object to which the knower is related. Reflection is not focused upon the relationship, however, but upon the question of whether it is the truth to which the knower is related.  If only the object to which he is related is the truth, the subject is accounted to be in the truth.  When the question of the truth is raised subjectively, reflection is directed subjectively to the nature of the individual’s relationship; if only the mode of this relationship is in the truth, the individual is in the truth even if he should happen to be thus related to what is not true.[18]

Contrary to being a negative and pejorative use of the term “subjective”, and somehow taking away the concept of truth as belief corresponding to something that is actually the case, for example the existence of God, Kierkegaard is actually very brave in his assertion that God is somehow not bound by our simple categories of true and not true.  But in fact, Kierkegaard’s faith in God can be seen as very secure in that he seems to believe God can overcome the petty distinctions, errors, and untruths that a poor, pitiful, and existing individual human being can entertain.  I propose that what can be heard in this passage from Kierkegaard is a firm belief in a God represented by the scripture, “The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” [19]

For Kierkegaard then, truth as subjectivity seems to imply a relational state of existence and not a set of propositions to be believed, which would be objective truth.  The propositions about Christianity, i.e., doctrine, beliefs, historical facts, etc…, if held at all, are meaningful and valid only for the person who is in a relationship of passionate inwardness, or subjectivity.  The relationship is with the “objective uncertainty”, which is the historical and propositional—or objective—“facts” about Christianity, i.e., Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection.  These facts are, at best, an approximation of the truth of Christianity.  For Kierkegaard, religious truth does not spring from theoretical reasoning.[20]  What is more certain is to hold these truths in passionate awareness that one is holding on to the paradoxical nature of these historical facts about Christianity.  These facts are not Christianity itself, but an approximation of certain truths about Christ.  Kierkegaard explains, “…because an approximation is the only certainty attainable for historical knowledge—but also an inadequate basis for an eternal happiness.”[21]

Kierkegaard also has much to say about how one holds on to subjective truth.  Passion, it could be said from reading the Postscript, is synonymous with subjectivity.  Therefore, a loose rendering of what Kierkegaard means by subjective truth could be “conviction”.  Being passionately convinced of the relationship one has with God, who is all truth, even though God is infinite and man is merely finite.  It could be said that a prime characteristic of subjective truth is its holding on to this awareness which seems absurd, because of its paradoxical nature, yet it cannot be grasped any other way.  Kierkegaard explains this passionate inwardness as the necessary stage to becoming a Christian:

Christianity is spirit, spirit is inwardness, inwardness is subjectivity, subjectivity is essentially passion, and in its maximum an infinite, personal, passionate interest in one’s eternal happiness.[22]

As mentioned above, another characteristic of subjectivity is the notion of paradox.  In the Postscript, subjective truth involves belief in the face of the absurd.  Belief in the absurd comes about if what one holds to be true is a paradox.  Because paradox involves a seeming contradiction, the absurdity of such a thing is a primary example of holding to a truth subjectively.  In fact, there is no other way one can hold to a truth of this kind.  Being that there are two kinds of truth, one must acknowledge that to hold to the truth of a seemingly logical contradiction would obviously have to be held subjectively—it could not be held objectively.  For Kierkegaard, the incarnation of Christ is the ultimate paradox and can only be held to be true in a subjective, or passionate, manner, i.e., through passionate inwardness.  Kierkegaard explains,

The absurd is—that the eternal truth has come into being in time, that God has come into being, has been born, has grown up, and so forth, precisely like any other individual human being, quite indistinguishable from other individuals.[23]

For Kierkegaard, the paradoxical marks the boundary and limits of objective and theoretical thought.  With Kant, he endeavors to point out the limits of what reason can know.[24]  And like Kant, he does this in order to make room for faith.  The incarnation is just such a truth that can only be true subjectively.  In other words, there is nothing to point to or observe that would give us a verifying principle to prove the God-Man, Jesus Christ, was really who He said He was.  This truth must be arrived at by faith.  And faith cannot come about except through passionate, inward awareness of the absurd paradox one is asked to believe.  Therefore, quite simply, a subjective truth is one held personally, with no recourse to scientific or empirically verifiable data.  If one would be honest, one would see the multitude of beliefs regarding the world and human life that are held quite regularly in this way.

An attempt to justify subjectivity in religious faith

It has been said that Kierkegaard believed that in order to become fully human one must become a Christian.  It has also been argued that subjectivity in general does not necessarily imply irrationality.[25]  Again, on the contrary, there seems to be two ways of approaching religious truth.  These were discussed above.  Kierkegaard is simply asking for an authentic and honest appraisal of the human condition.  After all, where else would one start?  Once the existential human condition is explored, we come to see that in order to become fully human (subjective) one must become a Christian, and vice versa.

Kierkegaard goes on to explain that to lead an objective life is really to make one’s existence accidental, or of no real significance or consequence.  Kierkegaard gives us his either/or of life: either an objective existence or a subjective one.  By this he doesn’t mean that each one does not have its place.  But one must choose by which way he will live, especially in regard to one’s eternal happiness or religious devotion.  If one chooses the subjective way, then one will echo the burning question of Kierkegaard from his journals,

“What I really need is to become clear in my own mind what I must do, not what I must know--except in so far as a knowing must precede every action.  The important thing is to understand what I am destined for, to perceive what the Deity wants me to do; the point is to find the truth which is truth for me, to find that idea for which I am ready to live and die”.[26]

To live subjectively is to live decisively.  To be subjectively in the truth includes being engaged in one’s own existence, and therefore one’s eternal happiness and state.  Kierkegaard explains it this way in the “Truth is Subjectivity” section in the Postscript:

The way of objective reflection makes the subject accidental, and thereby transforms existence into something indifferent, something vanishing.  Away from the subject the objective way of reflection leads to the objective truth, and while the subject and his subjectivity become indifferent, the truth also becomes indifferent, and this indifference is precisely its objective validity; for all interest, like all decisiveness, is rooted in subjectivity.  The way of objective reflection leads to abstract thought, to mathematics, to historical knowledge of different kinds; and always it leads away from the subject, whose existence or non-existence, and from the objective point of view quite rightly, becomes infinitely indifferent.[27]

Notice the language of movement in the above quoted passage.  Kierkegaard believed that to engage in objective reflection was to move further away from one’s own humanity.  And consequently, further from the truth and God.  Above all, religious truth—truth about one’s own existence, eternal state, and faith in God—must be held personally, passionately, and subjectively, which are synonymous terms in regard to Kierkegaard’s view of truth as subjectivity.

Examples of the subjective nature of Truth in the Scriptures

There is much to be said about “Truth” in scripture.  I will focus on three passages that show the subjective nature of truth, as Kierkegaard defines subjectivity.  All of these instances involve Jesus and His claims about Himself and the claims of others about Him.  The first instance involves Pilate’s question at Jesus’ interrogation —“what is truth?”

“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.

Jesus answered, “You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”  “What is truth?” Pilate asked.[28]

Jesus’ response to Pilate’s observation, perhaps mockingly, that Jesus was a king can be seen as pointing directly at Jesus as the truth.  In order to be right, or truthful, one had to be related to Jesus, since He alone was sent into the world to testify about the truth, which resides in God the Father alone.

Again, Jesus replies to His disciples that He alone is the way to the Father. 

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. [29]

The question was “show us the way to where you are going”.  The answer Jesus gave was that there is no objectively verifiable criterion for discerning the way to the Father.  Once again Jesus pointed the disciples to Himself.  Jesus Himself is the way.  Also, Jesus added that He was the truth.  Volumes could be written on things that Jesus did not say, but yet are sometimes attributed to Him.  Jesus did not say He had the truth or knew the truth, but that He was in fact the truth.  To know Jesus is to know the truth of God.  And since objectively verifiable and empirical data about Jesus as the Son of God does not exist for us as modern man, or at least at best is an historical approximation, then any truth at all about Jesus as the way the truth and the life must come through subjective means.  This is Kierkegaard’s main point about truth as subjectivity.

Again Jesus told His disciples,  

“If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” [30]

Kierkegaard was adamant, echoing the Greeks, that to know the truth was to do the truth.  I believe that Kierkegaard would agree with the statement that in the obedience to Christ lies the disciple’s relation with the truth, which is Christ Himself.

Summary

While there are some problematic points that Kierkegaard seems to assert in the Postscript concerning the nature of subjective truth, he also raises many strong points that are helpful in understanding what it means to be a Christian within an existential framework.  His emphasis on decision, passion, faith, and personal responsibility are challenges to the Christian of this age, as it was to his own.  His clarion call to hold passionately the individual’s relationship to God is a much needed corrective to the sometimes shallow and indifferent mood of North American Christianity.

A sympathetic reading of Kierkegaard raises the awareness of being passionate, inward, personally concerned, and decisive when it comes to one’s eternal happiness.  It seems to me that if one is to take seriously the question of one’s own existence in the current world-context, one must grapple with Kierkegaard’s approach to religious truth as a state of subjectivity.  If an object is a finished entity, and to “objectify” is to remove the object under consideration from affecting one as a subject, and thereby having power over the object in question, then it seems to me that one could never objectively believe in God at all.  The kind of God that would allow Himself to be known objectively would be no God at all.  On the contrary, He would be a god that is nothing more than a projection of man’s own egomaniacal need to overcome and an expression of pride, instead of submission to what, or Whom, man can never fully comprehend.  Objective truth rationalizes, systematizes, completes, and arrives at certain knowledge, therefore; God cannot not be known entirely through objective means.  To be subjective implies the process of discovering God continues infinitely.  Perhaps it is to this eternal discovery we are called.  Could it be that we were created to enjoy an eternal “leaping” into the discovery of God Himself?  Perhaps our existence here on earth is only meant to represent the unending discovery of the infinite God through the search and process of becoming.  Maybe the best anyone can claim at the end of one’s life is to echo the words of Kierkegaard, “I was always only becoming a Christian.”[31]

Bibliography

Evans, C. Stephen. Subjectivity & Religious Belief. Grand Rapids, MI: Christian University Press, 1978.

Duncan, Elmer H. Bob E. Patterson, ed. Soren Kierkegaard: Makers of the Modern Theological Mind. Waco, TX: Word Books, 1976.

Dunning, Stephen N. Kierkegaard’s Dialectic Of Inwardness: A Structural Analysis Of The Theory Of Stages. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985.

Grenz, Stanley J., Olson, Roger E. 20th Century Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age. Downers Grove, Il: Intervarsity, 1992.

Kierkegaard, Soren. Hong, Howard V. & Hong, Edna H., trans. Philosophical Fragments. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985.

Kierkegaard, Soren. Swenson, David F. & Lowrie, Walter, trans. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1974.

Kierkegaard, Soren. Walter Lowrie, trans. The Point Of View For My Work As An Author. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1962.

Lowrie, Walter. A Short Life Of Kierkegaard. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1942.

Thompson, Josiah, ed. Kierkegaard: A Collection of Critical Essays. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1972.


End Notes

[1] Dunning, Stephen N., Kierkegaard’s Dialectic Of Inwardness: A Structural Analysis Of The Theory Of Stages, 1985, 39.

[2] Stanley Grenz & Roger Olson, 20th Century Theology, 1992, 175.

[3] Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, David Swenson, Walter Lowrie trans., 1974 Third Edition, 107.

[4] Soren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, Howard V. & Edna H. Hong, trans., 1985, 75.

[5] Postscript, 177.

[6] Postscript, 172.

[7] Elmer H. Duncan, Bob E. Patterson, ed. Soren Kierkegaard: Makers of the Modern Theological Mind, 1976, 68.

[8] Postscript, 79.

[9] Ibid., 181.

[10] Ibid., 182.

[11]The Holy Bible : New International Version. 1996, c1984 (electronic ed.) (Ac 16:30-31). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

[12]The Holy Bible : New International Version. 1996, c1984 (electronic ed.) (Ro 10:9-10). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

[13]The Holy Bible : New International Version. 1996, c1984 (electronic ed.) (Ro 10:13). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

[14]The Holy Bible : New International Version. 1996, c1984 (electronic ed.) (Eph 2:8-9). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

[15] Postscript, 26-47.

[16] Duncan, Soren Kierkegaard, 34.

[17] Josiah Thompson, ed., Kierkegaard: A Collection of Critical Essays, 1972, 59.

[18] Postscript, 178.

[19]The Holy Bible : New International Version. 1996, c1984 (electronic ed.) (1 Sa 16:7). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

[20] C. Stephen Evans, Subjectivity & Religious Belief, 1978, 75.

[21] Postscript, 31.

[22] Postscript, 33.

[23] Postscript, 188.

[24] Evans, Subjectivity, 89.

[25] Ibid., 90.

[26] Walter Lowrie, A Short Life of Kierkegaard, 1942, 82.

[27] Postscript, 173.

[28]The Holy Bible : New International Version. 1996, c1984 (electronic ed.) (Jn 18:37-38).

Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

[29]The Holy Bible : New International Version. 1996, c1984 (electronic ed.) (Jn 14:6). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

[30]The Holy Bible : New International Version. 1996, c1984 (electronic ed.) (Jn 8:31-32). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

[31] Soren Kierkegaard, Walter Lowrie, trans., The Point Of View For My Work As An Author, 1962.

Rev. Daniel B. Johnson Jr. is an ordained Assemblies of God Pastor and Church Planter, with an emphasis on engaging postmoderns/seekers/pre-Christians with the claims of Christ and the possibility of Truth. He holds a BA in Philosophy, with a Specialization in Religious Studies from Central Washington University and MA from Assemblies of God Theological Seminary.

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