Kierkegaard’s Epistemology

I’m including some Kierkegaard in an Introduction to Philosophy course, where I concentrate on questions of knowledge. Kierkegaard is not obviously a reference for Epistemology for most people, but I believe he made an important contribution. My teaching is drawing on Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments and on Johannes Climacus or De omnibus dubitandum est, and that’s what I will mostly refer to here.

Kierkegaard against Descartes and Epistemic Scepticism
Kierkegaard questions the method of doubt in philosophy. He contrasts Cartesian doubt with the ‘wonder’ with which the Ancient Greeks regarded the world. Descartes claims that philosophy begins with doubt. Kierkegaard’s reply is that doubt in Descartes is only possible after philosophy has begun. Descartes’ method of doubt casts doubt on previous philosophical positions. Wonder better describes a pre-philosophical attitude of curiosity and questioning with regard to the world. Descartes’ claim, or implicit claim, that modern philosophy begins with doubt, leaves two unanswered problems: what was philosophy before doubt? From where did the method of doubt originate? In general the idea of philosophy as the appearance of pure doubt in the mind, leaves finite consciousness in a confrontation with the absoluteness of pure doubt. Consciousness cannot grasp such an abrupt intrusion of an external absolute. That is another reason why we need to begin with ‘wonder’. With regard to general positions in Epistemology, Kierkegaard is against scepticism. It should follow that he rejects Foundationalist attempts to find pure foundations, beyond doubt, for Epistemology.

Kierkegaard against Hegel and Epistemic Coherentism or Internalism: Definitions
A lot of what Kierkegaard writes in many texts is directed against Hegel. Where Kierkegaard talks about Hegel, he is also referring to earlier Rationalism, particularly Spinoza. We can also take him to be referring to Kant and to the more recent phenomena of Coherentist and Internalist Epistemology; and Analytic Hegelianism. Coherentist Epistemology argues that the criterion for there being a state of knowledge, is that a set of beliefs cohere with each other. Internalism develops from this position, because it argues that there is knowledge where is agreement amongst inner beliefs. Donald Davidson’s paper ‘A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge’ is probably the best known argument for Coherentism in recent philosophy. Hegel could be taken as a forerunner of Coherentism, certainly the Preface and Introduction to the Phenomenology of Spirit are open to that interpretation. Hegel is not so clearly an Internalist, because he takes consciousness is general as what knows. The earlier Fichte (first and second editions of the Grundlage der Gesamten Wissenschaftslehere, mistranslated into English as Science of Knowledge) might be a better example of an Internalist in German ıdealist philosophy, a he takes the ‘I’ as a starting point for philosophy. We might also think of recent ‘Analytic Hegelianism’ as a kind of Coherentism (thinking particularly of John McDowell and Robert Brandom).

Kierkegaard against Hegel and Epistemic Coherentism or Internalism: The Critique
Kierkegaard asserts that objective knowledge must be a contradiction. What he is referring to here is knowledge as something outside subjectivity. Since it must be the subject that knows, what is know cannot completely stand outside subjectivity according to Kierkegaard. An object of knowledge is known by subjectivity and therefore cannot be absolutely objective. It mus tbe an object for a subject, though that should not be taken to mean that Kierkegaard is a Solipsist. He is an anti-Solipsist since he shows how the subject can have knowledge, if not absolutely objective knowledge. Coherentism is contradictory because we cannot enter the Coherentist circle of mutually supporting beliefs from outside. The beginning of Coherentist Epistemology cannot be epistemic since it does not already have a set of mutually supporting and connecting beliefs. There cannot be a entry into the Coherentist circles accept by weakening the criterion of Coherentism that there should be a complete set of strong mutually justşfying beliefs. Hegel was aware of this problem, as can be seen in his Prefaces and Introductions, where he announces the Preface of Introduction cannot be part of the system. He leaves open the question of why there is a Preface or Introduction. This will not do for Kierkegaard, it is the subject that knows. Hegel gets into the same problem as Descartes: knowledge is such an absolute it is not possible to understand how to enter it, and it is not possible to understand how one contingent consciousness can come into contact and union with it.

Kierkegaard’s Epistemic Alternative: Realist and Subjectivist
As was pointed out above, the early Fichte could be taken as a proto-Internalist. Indeed Fichtean has been critically examined by a major Analytic philosopher, RobertNozick as contributing to the internal understanding of the ‘I’. I hope to return to Nozick and Fichte at a later date. Fichte was certainly very important for Kierkegaard, and Kierkegaard paid exhaustive attention to the internal reflections of consciousness. He also pays great attnetion to similar aspects in the work of other German ıdealists, as in theConcept of Anxiety, where he develops Kant’s account of the inner traumas free will in Religion within the Bounds of Reason and Schelling’s development of that account in the Essence of Human Freedom. Should we see Kierkegaard as an extension of Fichtean Internalism? Kierkegaard strongly criticises Fichte in his first book, his dissertation on The Concept of Irony. The context is irony in literary aesthetics. The starting point here, and in Kierkegaard’s later work is an Ironic Subjectivism, in epistemic terms Internalism. However, this is not enough for Kierkegaard.
The Paradox. Like the method of doubt (and foundationalism), and Coherentism, Fictean Subjectivism runs into paradox. The paradox is good for Kierkegaard, it is the passion of paradox. The point though is to make a ‘leap’ beyond the paradox. It must be emphasised that the phrase ‘leap of faith’ is never used and that the leap is a twist in dialectical reasoning rather than an irrational unmotivated jump in to the beyond. There must be a dialectical move to surpass paradox, because the concepts must change. The paradox is never left behind, the existence of the paradox and the surpassing of the paradox belong together. Kierkegaard’s Epistemology is Subjectivist. It is strongly Subjectivist, because it is based on a double reflection, in which reflective knowledge reflects on its belief that something is the case.
Time. However, Subjective consciousness escapes from the isolated moment of Subjectivity because that double reflection can only be grasped over time, in a moment known as the leap, as the reflection on the paradox that subjective knowledge is not knowledge of the objective. That movement in time establishes the self as existing over time as well as in moment to moment. The self is aware of something permanent in relation to itself, indepedent in relation to itself, but which is within it What is known is Real though Subjective. It does not disappear in a moment because it can be the object of double reflection, and subsequent indirect communication. It is only grasped through those movements. If what is known endures over time, it is Real and can be known to others, and we can communicate this even if only indirectly.

Kierkegaard Against the Ethics of Aristotle

We are concentrating on Fear and Trembling here, which I am teaching in an Ethics course.

For Kierkegaard, Aristotle defines something accurately, that is the Ethics of the Ancient world. In Fear and Trembling, he does this more with reference to Arisotle’s Poetics rather than the Nichomachean Ethics, or any other of Aristotle’s texts on Ethics.

What Kierkegaard concentrates on in Fear and Trembling is the recognition of the sin of the tragic hero. There is disclosure and recognition through necessity beyond the control of the hero. Oedipus’ tragic error is revealed not by his confession but by the plagues which assault Thebes, where he is King.

For Kierkegaard, Aristotle defines a view in which the individual is not responsible for sin. It is the nation, the family or fate. Greek tragedy in Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides, shows that a sin is inherited from the family , or fate makes the sin inevitable, as when Oedipus actions to avoid the prophecy of his sin, leads to that sin.

In the modern world, it is clear that the individual is responsible for guilt, bears sin. The idea that ethics may contain conflict between the individual and the universal, for the social good, is replaced by an extreme of individual responsibility. The şissue of sin becomes harder to bear than the ethics derived from social habit in Aristotle.

Ethics must refer to subjectivity, Aristotle detracts from that in his view of humans governed by fate. The difficult situation that must be faced now is the melancholic within. The real anxiety we have to face now, on or own, is the need to have faith which will enable us to endanger another person with our melancholia. We can overcome melancholia as an expression of subjectivity that can only see itself as contingent. That may require silence and an inner suffering, which cannot be explained to another person. The universality of Aristotle’s ethics is replace by the bond that exists between the melancholic person and the person who might be a sacrifice to that melancholia. The melancholia that mişght lead us to think, Like Abraham that God has commanded him to kill Isaac . Ethics at its highest rests on a subordination of universal rules to the inner struggle to find the absolute within the contingency of the self.

Ethics at its highest is not obeying rules, it is developing the self that rises above itself in the dialectic of the absurd, in the passion for paradox, with regard to the actions in which the subject becomes ethical in the strongest sense. The self that can be ethical must emerge from the paradoxes of subjectivity. The self that is ethical because it has the capacity to be unethical. Ethics emerges fully when we take the risk that the unethical will destroy in our relations with others.

Philosophical Myths: Kierkegaard never talked about the ‘leap of faith’

The Myth
A student presentation today in ‘Introduction to Philosophy’ brought up that persistent myth again. The myth that Kierkegaard used the phrase ‘leap of faith’. The phrase is often attributed to Kierkegaard but was never used by him.

Irrationality and Subjectivism
This is not just some purely accidental slip in the history of philosophy. There are reasons people can believe that Kierkegaard used this phrase. They are based on a misunderstanding of Kierkegaard’s philosophy. The misunderstanding is the belief that Kierkegaard was a subjectivist of an irrational kind who thought that beliefs can and should be adopted without reason, particularly the belief that a Christian God exists.

Fear and Trembling
Kierkegaard never held the view that reason should or could be subordinated to irrationality or that faith is a matter of an arbitrary decision. Part of the problem comes from the way that Kierkegaard’s most widely read book, Fear and Trembling, is understood.

Abraham’s Paradox
In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard refers to the story of Abraham and Isaac. That is the story that Abraham is commanded to kill his son Isaac, by God. Abraham is ready to obey God’s command, but at the moment Abraham raises his knife, a sheep appears as a substitute sacrifice. This has been understood as if Kierkegaard justifies anyone committing murder who claims to have heard a command from God. The point is that Abraham does not kill Isaac. The story is contrasted, by Kierkegaard, with the story of Agamemnon and Iphigenia in Euripides’ play Iphigenia in Tauris. Agamemnon does sacrifice his daughter so that he can sail to Anatolia and attack Troy. Abraham has a ‘teleological suspension of the ethical’. The ‘teleological suspension of the ethical’ is not permission to ignore ethics. It refers to the ‘dialectic of the absurd, ‘dialectic of paradox’, according to which Abraham must recognise both the following theses:
1. God is absolute, and is therefore above ethics.
2. God will always follow ethics.

From Subjective to Absolute via Anxiety
The context for this dialectical dilemma is not a motiveless subjectivist view of decisions. Kierkegaard does favour subjectivism over objectivism. It is important to follow the argument.

The argument is that objectivism is contradictory because it requires subjectivity to know what is outside itself, which objectivity must be.

The problem of relating subjectivity to something outside itself is dealt with inside subjectivity. Subjectivity can relate to something outside itself because subjectivity can only exist as what goes outside itself.

The argument starts by looking at subjectivity in a rather Humean way, that is subjectivity as a series of distinct moments in time which have different contents and are unconnected. Subjectivity seeing itself as a series of discrete moments and aware of the freedom which comes from its indeterminacy arrives at melancholy and anxiety. These come from awareness of the nothingness in subjectivity and fear of making a decision when free will exists on a premise of non-determinism which means that decisions lack motivation.

Melancholia exists over time, it is in melancholia that we can grasp ourself as existing over time. We grasp the absolute in subjectivity. That is the basis of God in Kierkegaard, not a motiveless leap of faith. Even in his more pious religious texts, Kierkegaard is coıncerned with how a relaiton with God the absolute rests on a relation of subjectivity with the absolute within itself, Love of the neighbour depends on love of the self.

Why do Young People Think Morality is Private?

As far as I know this is a phenomenon going back to the the 1960s when student demonstrations might feature slogans about the privacy of morality. This week when teaching Hume in an ethics class, I was inevitably faced with a student who believed that morality is just a matter of individual choice. I can give a political example from British Liberal Democrat politics. That leaves the question of how far the same thing turns up in other political traditions, I can only guess that it does in some form. The Liberal Democrat Youth and Students wing in Britain did mention this privacy of morality in a motion to the party conference once. I’ve occasionally had frustrating conversations in the past with people who think that morality is just asserting an opinion and that there is nothing to discuss. If that were true there would be no moral philosophy. That attitude did appear in academic philosophy for a period in the 20th Century when it was though that Moral Philosophy could only refer to subjective opinion in substance and language or logic in form. That partly rested on a one sided reading of Hume. There is something else there. One aspect of this is a clearly a confusion between issues of right to privacy and issues of morality. This confusion may arise from conservatives who want to interfere in privacy with regard to consenting adult sexual relations and consuming drugs. But there also seems to be a solipsism of adolescence in which things that affect our inner choices and intimate relations are seen as purely subjective. What I said in class was that people may have different moral opinions but they can agree that certain areas have moral significance, and discuss issues in those areas. The discussion is a form of communication and agreement in itself, because something has to be agreed in order to have any discussion. Adolescent solipsism may be putting it harshly. In adolescence it is important to form morally charged views in an autonomous manner, which may lead to a somewhat solipsistic attitude. This emphasis on subjectivity does have some dangers. This is subjectivity in the most gestural sense, not in the sense of a rich description of subjective consciousness. These attitudes can persist, undermining public civic discussion of important issues. There ought to be ways in which teenagers can learn something about discussing moral issues and the importance of discussion, even where opinions differ.

Self-Love as the Foundation of Kierkegaard’s Ethics

I’ve just got through grading last semester’s courses and submitting grades at the two universities in Istanbul I was giving courses last semester, one full time and one part time. The process of grading overlapped with getting next courses ready, and it’s been an intense time. It’s left with me with a few ideas which I hope to keep developing. Some of this comes from what I feel I did not convince students of last semester. I usually get that when I’m teaching Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and I spent 8 weeks on them in an Ethics course last semester, after working through Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Bentham and Hegel. The other figure I might have that problem with is Machiavelli. I’m teaching him in a Politics course next semester, but I’m teaching the overtly Republican Discourses (pdf download) instead of the merely covertly Republican Prince (pdf download), in the hope that cuts out all the Machiavelli was a life style coach for power junkies kind of stuff. Machiavelli may well feature in future blogs.

My immediate concern is the tendency to see Kierkegaard as a Christian Moralist. This is a misleading way of looking at Kierkegaard, with respect to both words. That is an absurd thing to say in some sense, as Kierkegaard devoted himself to Christianity and to Christ as the supreme moralist. There are strong reasons for rejecting this label for Kierkegaard though. In his philosophical arguments (as opposed to his declarations of faith, and even those are still conditioned by the philosophy), the problem is what it is to be a self.

I chose to illustrate this in my Ethics class with a thorough look at Part I of Works of Love. That seems like a high risk place to start a non-theological and non- Fideist reading of Kierkegaard. The non-Theological reading emphasises Kierkegaard’s Enlightenment attitude to the metaphysical reality of Christianity, which is that there is no objective reality established for Christianity. The non-Fideist reading emphasises that Kierkegaard does not put pure unmotivated faith at the beginning of his thought. The Fideist interpretation of Kierkegaard partly relies on the widespread myth that Kierkegaard advocated a ‘a leap of faith’, a phrase he never used. In general it ignores the structure of argument in which a relation within the self in Kierkegaard is a relation between the empirical self and the absolute self. In genral it ignores Kierkegaard’s use of dialectic. It is ‘dialectic of the absurd’ but it is still a dialectic. Kierkegaard advocated a passion for paradox, which is sill a rational philosophical exercise in finding paradoxes of reason. Philip Quinn’s argument for a Divine Command Ethics does not rest on an irrationalist form of Fideism in its reading of Kierkegaard, but its emphasis on the acceptance of divine command as absolute is still failing to engage with the question of subjectivity in Kierkegaard.

The Christian readings of Kierkegaard cannot deal with Kierkegaard because they cannot deal with his approach to subjectivity, which is at work in all his texts, including both the ‘aesthetic’ texts of literary philosophy and the ‘Christian’ texts of Biblically based faith. We will see how this works in the highly Christian looking Works of Love. This is centrally concerned with a philosophical problem of moral motivation taken from Kant, as interpreted by Hegel. Kierkegaard deals with the question of why we should obey law if it exists in the univeral rational form suggested by Kant. What motivates the individual to follow law? It is Hegel who suggested that an absolute gap opens between subjective inclination in Kant and the abstract universality of law. Kierkegaard has a solution in love.

Christ commands us to love. Kierkegaard looks at that injunction itself, before looking at hiw it applies to ‘God’, ‘the neighbour’ and so on. In the Bible (pdf download), Christ says you shall love, or you ought to love as Kierkegaard says in an echo of Kant’s formulation of moral law as a universal ought. The command to love, however, is not a command to follow abstract duty, it is a command to be what you already are, to become what you are, since love is part of human inclinations and needs.

The command to love your neighbour comes out of the command to love (again echoing Kant on respect for humanity) through self-love. I can only love my neighbour if I can already love myself. The command to love the neighbour is the command to love yourself and then love what you see of yourself in the neighbour. The command to love God continues on this basis since it is the command to love the absolute in myself.

Kierkegaard is not a ‘moralist’ since he puts our capacity for ethical judgement on the grounds of out subjectivity, not of the duty to obey external commands. The subjectivity itself is not Christian in the sense of giving ethical commands from God which are external to us.

Therefore, we do not read Kierkegaard in all his philosophical riches if we assume that his philosophy leads us to an extra-rational faith, or willingness to follow external commands. Truth is already in us and becomes apparent in the subjectivity of life, without reference to the historical truth of the Bible or the external existence of God.

Kierkegaard’s A-Theist Philosophy

Kierkegaard appears to be as Chrisitian and religious as any philosopher? Nevertheless, there are at least two senses in which he was an a-theist.

1. He was no mere Theist. A Theist refers to a God who intervenes in the universe with omnipotent power. For Kierkegaard, that belief in itself was mere paganism. Religion must be Faith, in which the individual is transformed.

2. In light of 1, the claim that Kierkegaard was a-theistic may seem like a mere play with words, which is just a superficially paradoxical way of saying that Kierkegaard was a Fideist, that is he had a theology of faith. But, the rigour with which Kierkegaard pursued 1. leads towards atheism in the normal sense.

What theological commentators like to call Kierkegaard’s ‘fideism’, or possibly his ‘divine commandment ethics’, is Kierkegaard’s definition of faith as subjective experience and as experience of subjectivity. Some would like to relegate such views to Kierkegaard’s ‘aesthetic’ or ‘pseudonymous’ works such as Fear and Trembling and Either/Or, which are considered as merely the way to Kierkegaard’s religious point of view. One response to this, is that there is only the way and there is never more than the way in Kierkegaard, but today I will concentrate on something else.

I spent a lot of time last semester considering Works of Love in an ethics class. I structured an ethics class to contain consideration of virtue and reason in Plato, friendship in Aristotle, sympathy in Hume, universality in Kant, the Utilitarian Maxim in Hegel, the superiority of ethical life to subjective morality in Hegel, all the ethical issues in Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality including the relation between master and slave.

In this context, it is particularly clear that Works of Love is a text concerned with defining ethics. The answer seems to be straightforward: Ethics is based on Christian love, inparticular the commands ‘You shall love’ and ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’.

But what comes out of Kierkegaard’s exhaustive analysis of these commands? He is finding a response to Kant’s suggestion that ethics derives from the possibility of a universal command. For Kierkegaard, Kant’s kind of command lacks a place for the individual who commands and is commanded. What does a universal command mean to me, or to you, or anyone?

The command to love makes it clear where the individual fits in. The individual must love the self in loving the neighbour. I can only love my neighbour if I love myself. Self-love is already a relational love. I become the subject and object of love. The command to love myself is not an abstract irrelevance since only in the self-relation of self-love can there be an individual. Individuality which is more than the moment to moment of some pure flow of perceptions in experience must be the relation of empirical self with something in itself more than the moment, but which can be contained in the moment.

What is there in Kierkegaard’s discussion of love which takes us beyond subjectivity? All love with the individual outside myself is intertwined with my own self-relation. There can only be love where there is love of self. That applies to God as well. Love of God is a relation with the absolute, and my relation with the absolute must be the relation with the self which exists as more than the moment.

The theological reader of Kierkegaard may assert that Kierkegaard refers to love of, and obedience to a God outside subjectivity, but can the theologian show this in the detail of Kierkegaard’s philosophy, other than those moments when Kierkegaard uses the formulae of Christian theology. His thought is never in the formulae, it is always in the conditions of subjectivity, of an individual who experiences individuality.