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On Kierkegaard’s notion of subjectivity

Truth is subjectivity.

When Gotthold Lessing said that he would choose the left hand, he was right.

Truth cannot be expressed objectively, as though there is a logical system to make it clear (in a timely lecture after which we can all go home, contented).

Truth is subjectivity; it is found in turning inward, in reflecting upon one’s own individuality. It is found in leaving the Sunday service and waking up depressed on Monday, but still striving to exist in a good and perfect way. Truth is becoming. It is not in a book which finds the proper place for every event in history—that’s objectivity.

Objectivity concerns itself with truth, but not reality. Objectivity looks to history, speculation, science, testimony—all sorts of pre-fabricated places to find “truth.” Instead of embracing their individuality, their cataclysmic/cosmic inwardness, objective people seek to base their truth on some thing—and inevitably, by definition—on something tremulous.

History—is that grounds for faith? Can I base assurance of my eternal happiness on the fact that, say, Christianity (Christianity is spirit; spirit is inwardness; inwardness is subjectivity . . .) is the truth because the church has been around for 2000 years? What then of Buddhism, which is older? Are we thus convinced to rely more on its tenets? Also, how reliable has the church been throughout its own history?

Still discussing Christianity, then, what about using the Holy Scriptures as a basis for faith? The same problems arise. Not only are there continual issues criticizing and interpreting the Bible, but it is more to the point that faith does not come from an objective examination of the evidence which is what textual/Biblical criticism is. Faith only comes from passion, and passion and certainty never work closely together.

Therefore, the closest we can get to our eternal happiness through this historical opening is an approximation, and what kind of guarantee is that? If it were a matter of $10,000, this kind of objectivity would not suffice. Why should I base my eternal being on “practically sure”?

Another objective distractor of the subjective individual is the speculative point of view. Briefly, this mode of searching for truth “does everything. It doubts everything.” In order to do this sufficiently, the speculator “steps back” and in that way removes himself from the topic (ie. the subject)—which is, of course and essentially, himself—so that he can remain objective. So he can see everything in consideration. In so doing, the speculator loses himself. Becoming pure thought means becoming non-existent. Which means: dead. Objective investigation of phenomena leads no where.

When, along life’s way, the subject arrives here, despair is immanent. The subject says, “I have searched for answers in every logical place I can imagine or devise, and I found nothing there. My concept of reason is offended.” This anxiety (is there truth at all? is life just a joke? what will become of me?) and despair is a ledge at an abyss. “I will face nothingness. I will rest here at this precipice.

“My thoughts until now have been trivial and I haven’t known it. My life is aesthetic. I have chased my fancies and whims recklessly, even though I have been terribly pious and serious.

“But I keep referring to myself as ‘I’—this is wrong. There hasn’t been an ounce of self-centeredness in me. If only there had been. I mean, if only I had observed life as myself. That’s what I’m doing now, finally, I suppose.

“And I’m having quite a time of it.

“Yes, here I sit at this ledge, and I’m not resting after all. Turning inward, how can there be occasion for a rest? Rather, I feel passion. I feel strength enough to leap.”

Having faced despair, powered now by passion (which is etymologically rooted in suffering), the subject makes a leap into an ethical stage of life. Indeed, without passion, the subject would have remained standing in the same spot. The dialectic from the aesthetic to the ethical (and later) to the religious spheres is not one of increasingly transparent justification or self-assertion. Rather, it is a giving up of those modes, as it is the giving up of objectivity. It does this for no reason and only with (and by) love.

Just as a ballet dancer’s goal is to leap into the air and appear to never have been in a state of non-leap, and never seems to be in the position which she has leapt into, instead only appearing to have made that movement eternally, always gracefully suspended, the subjective individual gives up herself out of love and passion and aspires to float in that condition. But when the subjective individual lands, there is a slight stumble as she thinks, “Whoa, here’s the land again. Here am I, back in temporality.” The subject is surprised to receive back after giving up. This person might be called “The Knight of Infinite Resignation,” suggests Johannes de Silentio, the author of Fear and Trembling.

Abraham is a “Knight of Faith,” meanwhile, one who has transitioned into the religious sphere of existence. He leaps and when he lands he does not stumble. His story revolves around a task assigned by God. God said, “Abraham, kill me a son” and Abraham went. He did not put it off or go early. When he held the knife in his hand, when it glistened and caught his eye as his arm grew tense, ready to plunge into Isaac, Abraham did not pause to look for a ram or any substitute offering to make. He knew God demanded Isaac, but he had faith that Isaac wouldn’t be taken. And when he had that long-awaited son tied to the rock altar, an angel appeared and the boy was spared.

“Wait,” says the ethicist. “First, why should Isaac need to be killed? What is the point of such a duty, and anyway murder is a transgression. Oh, God demanded it? Then I would do it because God is a greater good than any of my whims. But, secondly, whoa, woe, I would not be able to receive back Isaac. How could I look him in the face? I would have convinced myself to despise him, and I could not reconcile myself otherwise. Abraham is truly a wonder.”

Abraham made the double movement of faith — the giving up and receiving back — and he did not stumble. His move is balletic. People say someone may have a little of the positive and a lot of the negative, but Abraham had just as much positive, just as much negative.

For many it seems that the positive and negative distinction is impossible to move around. They are contradictory. How could a moment be infinitely important and infinitely insignificant? How can the comic reality — that 10,000 years is a moment — be as true as the pathos, that a moment is insurmountably important? Hegel synthesized a response to this by illustrating that at some depth of thought, the difference between the negative and the positive are superficial. At some height of thought, mountainous discrepancies are flat.

But there is no idea here at all. If the negative does not exist, then finitude, temporality, particularity (the radical other of the universal) and so on do not exist. Therefore, the subjective individual (and the objective speculator) does not have a place to exist. Trying to make these abstractions thinkable means trying to make them possible, and that neglects to consider that not only are finitude, temporality etc. possible, they actually are. A better form of dialectics needs to be rendered than Hegel’s in order to reconcile the positive and the negative.

Once again, faced with the abyss, it is passion which makes it possible to go on. And when a profoundly interested seeker cannot resolve contradictions objectively (and he can’t, which is what makes her infinitely interested), it’s passion that reconciles the difference, through faith. There is an even more notable point at which this passion becomes infinitely and eternally necessary: when confronting the absolute paradox.

Johannes Climacus points out in Philosophical Fragments that the absolute paradox is an offense to the senses. It is the most offensive thing possible, and no matter what, all thought turns away from it. Here is the absolute paradox: God became man and lived for a few decades and then left. The ancients laugh. It’s stupid. It defies reason.

Gotthold Lessing said this. He said that contingent historical truths cannot be a valid representation for faith, but faith is brought about only through a leap. Lessing said that only Jesus’ contemporaries could know historically if Jesus was this absolute paradox and others must rely on their testimony. Climacus rejects this, saying instead that modern Christians need to become contemporaneous with Jesus.

If truth is subjectivity, and cannot be grasped or known but only found along the path, in glimpses, through existing, how can a person express this? Wouldn’t arguing the point make it a result, an end, and in so doing render the path supercilious?

If a person wanted to say that truth is not the truth but the way, and therefore results are not the truth, he would have to find a form of communication which did not betray the double reflection with which he perceives and apprehends his point of view, and doesn’t betray the point of view of others (by making them followers of Lessing and not of the truth) and doesn’t betray the existence of God. This communication would have to be indirect, or else what is being communicated would be changed. In his journals, Kierkegaard said that “the fact of the matter is there ought to not be teaching; what I have to say cannot be taught; by being taught it gets turned into something else.”

This statement is bound to disquiet anyone who attempts to underwrite Kierkegaard’s philosophy. This is especially true when I try to encapsulate it in a brief essay, since Kierkegaard cannot be grasped and reconstituted and wedged into pages. This is precisely what he is rebelling against. In one poignant section of the Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments, he shows how if a movement rises up against the systematizing of history and truth, then the movement will receive a paragraph in a book systematizing history. That’s the main reason that this essay is insignificant. Even if I understood Kierkegaard best of all, and was the best writer of all, I still could not capture one iota of that one, that subjective individual—as the Dane’s say, “hiin enkelte“—or his life.

How much more daunting is it, then, to attempt to get at truth with thinking and writing? To issue a thesis is to suggest a result. And how can there be results if the speaker is speaking? How is there being when there is becoming? The inward person captures both being and becoming in the passion of her positive/negative relationship. To express results would eradicate the becoming. Luckily, it’s only the objective person who will make that step, and he lacks the passion to do what expression being actually entails.

The result of existing is death.

That is what Lessing means when he says that if God offered him his left hand, filled with constant striving, and his right hand, filled with all truth, Lessing would choose the left. To choose otherwise would stop the process of becoming and take on pure being. To do that and continue to exist is only for God. Humankind has a different choice to make: whether or not to know the results of their life. When some do, like Hegel, they are either fools who amount to nothing or briefly passionate and then dead.

Ultimately, Kierkegaard’s indirect dialectic wasn’t the pseudonyms he used, it was the fact that he wasn’t communicating anything. Arguing is nothing, knowing something objectively is less than nothing. Because even when I know that truth is subjectivity, for that to matter even a little, I need to live that truth—

Adam Robinson

Adam Robinson lives in Atlanta and runs Publishing Genius Press. He is the author of two poetry collections, Adam Robison and Other Poems and Say Poem.

About The Author

Adam Robinson

Adam Robinson lives in Atlanta and runs Publishing Genius Press. He is the author of two poetry collections, Adam Robison and Other Poems and Say Poem.

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