Søren Kierkegaard is generally acknowledged as the founder of existentialism, primarily because he focused on the individual, the existential subject. While the Idealists, namely Hegel, sought for objectivity, Kierkegaard sought to bring out the subjective. Presented here, in condensed form, are his ideas on objectivity, the individual and truth as well as personal criticism of his ideas.
Kierkegaard rejected philosophers’ tendency to take a stance of objectivity, speaking as if they were outside of the universe, looking in from a region outside of time and space, seemingly like gods and not participants in the world. Kierkegaard saw them as ridiculous. He thought those who thought, no matter who they were, had to exist. As such, they could not be outside of life.
In the Idealist view which he was criticizing, the observer was detached, cool, rational, and did not let his emotions or personal passions affect his reasoning. Rationalists took a disinterested stance, since having no interest would make it so they are not biased. Since Plato, the Western world thought the rational as the only thing trustworthy, the senses and emotions were unreliable.
Kierkegaard felt that Descartes was right with his “I think therefore I am.” But he thought it was only good as a starting point. Kierkegaard though Descartes was wrong in equating the self with thought alone, that existence could not be contained in thought, only lived. “I am” is greater than the “I think.” He thought the problem with thought was that it was too much from the standpoint of a watcher, it was too preoccupied with the fleeting. “Two ways, in general, are open for an existing individual,” Kierkegaard once wrote, “Either he can do his utmost to forget he is an existing individual, by which he becomes a comic figure, since existence has the remarkable trait of compelling an existing individual to exist whether he wills it or not . . . or he can concentrate his entire energy upon the fact that he is an existing individual (Concluding Unscientific Postscript).” Since philosophy, in his day, was based on a philosopher whose stance was that of an individual that had forgotten he was in existence, philosophy was then “comic.” He took it even farther though, saying they had forgotten how to be humans, not only that they were humans, but that the reader of their works was human as well.
Hegel’s system said that an individual was a passing phase in the dialectic evolution in the World Spirit. Kierkegaard rebelled against this submersion of the individual in the mass. He refused to be reduced to anything below what he was. Whoever teaches, in his opinion, in the manner has forgotten how to exist. A person who exists will always and forever be concerned with his own existence and his fate. Freedom, human’s passion for it, makes a person choose for themselves, and that involves risk. Individuals are always becoming. Life is insecure and that insecurity is expressed in how life strives to gain truth. Human existence is constant striving. For Kierkegaard, the Hegelian forgets his insecurity and how to strive, and his explanation of life omits his own existence. He believed the only part of history one could be sure of was that of the fact they existed. When society removes the individual, the results can be monstrous. Kierkegaard urged a return to thinking subjectively, as a living being with the passion of one who is mortal, not a god, whose life and what he thinks about is tied together.
To correct the errors he saw, Kierkegaard looked back to Socrates, who placed emphasis on philosophical existence, on self-knowledge and self-realization. Kierkegaard praised Socrates as one whose existence exemplified his ideas. Only when philosophers gained self-knowledge and self-realization, when they became philosophers in how they existed, not in terms of it being a job, when they lived their philosophies, when they loved wisdom like Socrates, then their insights would be of any value.
As such, truth, for Kierkegaard, existential truth, is what is lived, not merely thought, the abstract turned concrete, the ethical and religious appropriation of the ideal, active practice and realization rather than doctrinal knowledge. But how would something that is in the process of becoming know what its end form will be? Nothing can know this, its place, or have its duty proven to it, but it must still make choices.
Kierkegaard used an example in the problem of death. Understood in an objective, historical sense, it really has a vague meaning, even though it is quite a big problem that cannot be ignored. Hegelian and universal history, knowing it, would not bring one any closer to coming to grips with death, and life for that matter. If one reflects on their own death and mortality in general, then a person can come to think existentially, to think with the conscious fact that one is existing and mortal, not some sort of disembodied brain. This differs from the speculative philosopher who writes about what he has never, will never, and never planned on doing. In existential thought, the soul itself is on trial.
Truth is subjective. Everything one does, including search for the objective truths, gets value through the individual, the way it is willed and decided on by the self. Objective truth, such as mathematics and sciences, is easy to understand (so long as those sciences are not quantum mechanics). An individual’s truth is a bit harder to grasp, is more elusive. St. Thomas Aquinas said that truth was in the intellect. Kierkegaard argued that religious truth was and is not how one reasons it, but how it is lived. One who loves did not read a lot about love or thought about it, but just loves. Truth is of the whole person, not just of the intellect.
Objective truths can be verified by outside sources, facts. They are neutral, in the existential sense, since their actuality or falsehood does not change how you are. Subjective truths, are only of you, cannot be verified from anything outside the self. However, they can change you. Spiritual realities cannot be proven any more so than a subjective one.
Kierkegaard maintained that God is not discovered by abstract demonstration, that religion is a matter of inward choice and requires a leap of faith. Religion is not a conventional system of habits centered on going to church, practicing rituals and reciting dogma, but is a spiritual quest, the search for spiritual reality, the striving for the attainment of spiritual fulfillment, whatever that may be.
Truth is an individual matter, not a collective one. Kierkegaard wrote, “A crowd in its very concept is untruth, by reason of the fact that it renders the individual completely impenitent and irresponsible, or at least weakens his sense of responsibility by reducing it to a fraction…For ‘crowd’ is an abstraction and has no hands; but each individual has ordinarily two hands (“That Individual”: Two “Notes” Concerning My Work as an Author)…”
Moving into critique is rather daunting since this is one of the, or considered as such, greats of Western thought, if not one of the most important. Nevertheless, it needs to be done. It would be best to state to what degree we are in agreement.
First off, I find his distrust of those who take an objective approach to philosophy as refreshing, even though he is not, anymore, the only one to do this. It grants nothing more to the philosopher than if it was a personal philosophy, and to be detached is impossible. There is no way for a purely objective approach, personal bias always shines through. He also gives great insight with the idea that that sort of philosopher had forgotten how to be human and that their readers are also human. I have never thought of it that way, I always just felt as if I was being talked down to by the likes of Hegel and Kant.
His refusal to be reduced to just another part of the masses and his importance of the individual is what places him as one of the early Existentialist thinkers and I find I agree with all of it, as well as his concepts of truth from the subjective viewpoint. What I want to bring up here is his idea of the loss of the individual as monstrous. When we lose our individuality, we lose our humanity, when we go with the crowd, we lose truth, when we bow to an overarching will, and we become nothing more than a single paragraph in a book at the hands of the writer of that book. The monstrosity of the past that was the Nazis was from the fact that the individual no longer mattered; it was all under the will of one individual and the rest of the individuals were suppressed or killed.
While the importance of the individual should never be understated, it should not be overstated. There can be too individual of an individual, an individual who has no care for the other individuals around it. This can result in something equally as monstrous as the loss of the individual. When an individual is wrapped up in itself, it can become a danger to itself. If it were to live a self absorbed life, then it wants nothing from others, it may feel something for them, yet it will spurn them. In return others will spurn it, and openly, and it will possibly ignored in the end, leading to desperation to be seen as an individual. It can even cause insanity.
To be such an individual that one is individualistic can be self destructive. If only the individual is seen as good for the individual, it will have no use of those around him and he will shun them. Those others are not seen as individuals by the individualistic one. Then we have one that has forced the rest of the world into the shape of the monstrous entity that comes with the loss of individuality. This is equally as wrong as forgetting that there is humanity in yourself and others.
There are those that would destroy others for their own individuality. Serial killers live only for themselves, usually for no other. They are sociopaths. They feel nothing for others. Theirs is a world dominated by their own wants and desires and they will fulfill all of those wants and desires. That includes killing others, ending their bid for individuality. This forgetting the other results in the same event of forcing others into the monstrous entity, and the sociopath sees this, and thinks of everyone as something for it to kill for himself, like an animal.
Another individual that is dangerous for other individuals since it is too much of an individual is the one which chooses to exert its will over all others. One who would bend others to its will is dangerous because others lose their own will to its. This was the case, again going back to Nazis (not to be too cliché but they are a fantastic representation for what I am getting at), and Hitler. He bent an entire nation to his will and made a monster out of the individuals therein, when he should have been the only actual monstrous one.
While Kierkegaard’s concept of truth is in line with my thought, I find that there are some truths that are objective that will hold sway over the subject, no matter if there is a conscious allowance of that power. This is found in that which is subconscious. The subconscious affects us on a level we cannot rightly perceive. Yet any objective truth we are faced with will remain there and will influence us in little ways. We will remember these objective truths we know about, and even our rejection of them existentially will affect us. By seeing a truth, by experiencing it, we have accepted it subjectively. It is working on us, we cannot stop it.
Objective outlooks, thought I do not necessarily agree with them, are necessary in certain fields. Psychology hinges on the fact that the person that one is going to be paying to talk to is objective and can thus give objective insights, no matter how well that psychologist comes to know the patient. Subjective experience, in the case of the psychologist, becomes part of the objective look on the patient and how to deal with them, how to talk to them. What can never happen is that objectivity and subjectivity be divided from each other. It is a symbiotic relationship.
Kierkegaard, though brilliant had some flaws. His intertwining ideas of objectivity, subjectivity, and truth were revolutionary for his day as he was railing against the Idealists. He became known as the father of Existentialism for his ideas, and quite rightly. However, the ideas I presented in response to his are from the standpoint of one who has read on the ultimately dangerous end or can see it in a way he did not consider.