Becoming Subjective: Kierkegaard's Existential Revolution

By Matthis, Michael J. | Philosophy Today, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Becoming Subjective: Kierkegaard's Existential Revolution


Matthis, Michael J., Philosophy Today


Kierkegaard, we are often told, gives us a philosophy, if we care to call it that, that is mystical, acosmic, ethically indifferent to the world of persons, one concerned only with a subjective or inward reality that does not impinge on the reality and inwardness of any one but that of the isolated individual. An ethics that is based on a religiosity wherein inwardness and subjectivity are identical with truth is an ethics then that is arbitrary, deprived of any basis within reason, robbed therefore of any claim to being connected to philosophy and the central concern of philosophy, that of rationality. Martin Buber famously leads the attack against Kierkegaard on the basis of this understanding of him, arguing that Kierkegaard's individual is preoccupied with the God-relation, in its very obscurity, to the exclusion of all other relations, so that the God-relation becomes "an exclusive one . . . excluding all other relations into the realm of the unessential,'" a concern that finds an equivalent expression in H. R. Niebuhr, for whom Kierkegaard's Christianity is "the exclusive Christianity of the hermit . . . (wherein) the theme of isolated individuality is dominant."2 The criticism leveled early on by Louis Mackey expands on this theme, contending that "Kierkegaardian subjectivity-the tension of inwardness within itself-far from being concrete and existential, is but an abstraction vibrating in a vacuum."3 So too Richard Popkin regards Kierkegaard as an anti-rationalist, one whose primary concern is to leap into this ontological vacuum with an irrational faith that disdains the world of common sense and the rules of logic and order, the common ground wherein philosophy must be rooted and in which any meaningful relation to God must originate.4 Additionally, Alasdair Maclntyre points to what he sees as the arbitrariness of an ethics based on "radical choice,"5 instead of on reason, an arbitrariness that leads ethics to the dead-end, regarding loss of rational argumentation, of relativism.

Indeed Kierkegaard gives such interpretations ample ammunition and a wide target toward which such critics can direct their concerns. Thus, in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard, through his philosophically disposed pseudonym, Johannes Climacus, claims that "ethically . . . each individual will be isolated and compelled to exist for himself,"6 that "the only reality that exists for an existing individual is his own ethical reality."7 And indeed Kierkegaard's non-pseudonymous writings echo this theme: "all this chittering and chattering about community.... The first thing the religious man does is to lock his door and talk in secret,"8 and, in his Attack Upon Christendom Kierkegaard's rancorous side is on display without inhibition: "Christianity . . . consists in loving God, in hatred to man, in hatred of oneself, and thereby of other men, . . . the strongest expression for the most agonizing isolation."9 Notoriously, Climacus appears to establish the philosophical underpinnings for such an exaggerated expression of individuality, arguing that "religiosity consists in the secret inwardness,"10 and that "subjectivity, inwardness, is the truth."11 To all of this Kierkegaard himself adds a note of finality on the issue, expressing the wish: "I would like 'that single individual' to be placed on my grave."12

Maddeningly for scholars, however, Kierkegaard offers with equal, or almost equal, passion the opposite view. In Either/Or II, Kierkegaard (through the so-called letters of a "Judge William") presents with sympathy, at least apparently, the defense of a traditional, ethical view of "a social , a civic self,"13 one that is part of a "natural order"14 or "a rational order of things"15 in which the self must develop in ways that will allow it to fulfill its potential, to become a self, and not just be the immediate self of aesthetic life that Kierkegaard represents in the notorious "seducer" of the first part of the work. …

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