Why Kierkegaard Still Matters
I love this essay by Julian Baggini, explaining why Kierkegaard attracted his attention as an undergraduate losing his religious faith, and still holds his attention, even though he’s a confirmed atheist. Excerpt:
Kierkegaard’s views on religion are not the only way in which his critique of ‘the present age’ is strangely timely for us, and likely to be the same for future readers. ‘Our age is essentially one of understanding and reflection, without passion, momentarily bursting into enthusiasm,’ he wrote in 1846, ‘and shrewdly lapsing into repose.’ Passion in this sense is about bringing one’s whole self to what one does, including reasoning. What is much more common today is either a sentimental subjectivity, in which everything becomes about your own feelings or personal story; or a detached objectivity in which the motivations and interests of the researchers are deemed irrelevant. Kierkegaard insisted on going beyond this objective/subjective choice, recognising that honest intellectual work requires a sincere attempt to see things as they are and an authentic recognition of how one’s own nature, beliefs and biases inevitably shape one’s perceptions.
This central insight is nowhere more developed than in his pseudonymous works. Many of Kierkegaard’s most important books do not bear his name. On the Concept of Irony (1841) is written by Johannes Climacus; Fear and Trembling (1843) by Johannes de Silentio; Repetition (1843) by Constantin Constantius; while Either/Or(1843) is edited by Victor Eremita. This is not just some ludic, post-modern jape. What Kierkegaard understood clearly was that there is no neutral ‘objective’ point of view from which alternative ways of living and understanding the world can be judged. Rather, you need to get inside a philosophy to really see its attractions and limitations. So, for example, to see why the everyday ‘aesthetic’ life is not enough to satisfy us, you need to see how unsatisfying it is for those who live it. That’s why Kierkegaard writes from the point of view of people who live for the moment to show how empty that leaves them. Likewise, if you want to understand the impossibility of living on the eternal plane in finite human life, see the world from the point of view of someone trying to live the ethical life.
This approach makes many of Kierkegaard’s books genuine pleasures to read, as literary as they are philosophical. More importantly, the pseudonymous method enables Kierkegaard to achieve a remarkable synthesis of objectivity and subjectivity. We see how things are from a subjective point of view, and because they really are that way, a form of objectivity is achieved. This is a lesson that our present age needs to learn again. The most complete, objective point of view is not one that is abstracted from the subjective: it is one that incorporates as many subjective points of view as are relevant and needed.
This also provides the link between imagination and rationality. A detached reason that cannot enter into the viewpoints of others cannot be fully objective because it cannot access whole areas of the real world of human experience. Kierkegaard taught me the importance of attending to the internal logic of positions, not just how they stand up to outside scrutiny.
This is arguably even more vital today than it was in Kierkegaard’s time. In a pluralist world, there is no hope of understanding people who live according to different values if we only judge them from the outside, from what we imagine to be an objective point of view but is really one infused with our own subjectivity. Atheists need to know what it really means to be religious, not simply to run through arguments against the existence of God that are not the bedrock of belief anyway. No one can hope to understand emerging nations such as China, India or Brazil unless they try to see how the world looks from inside those countries.
But perhaps Kierkegaard’s most provocative message is that both work on the self and on understanding the world requires your whole being and cannot be just a compartmentalised, academic pursuit.
In terms of religion, I am not the radical Protestant Kierkegaard was. Is anybody? The great value SK’s work was to me was to point out to me the psychological evasions I used to avoid the anxiety of being human. I was deeply into the aesthetic mode when I first encountered SK’s work, and thought that the ethical mode (which I saw as a dead end) was the only alternative open to me. SK showed me how and why the aesthetic mode was also a dead end — something I knew deep down, but didn’t want to see, because it was so much fun, as long as I kept moving — but he also showed me why living the “respectable” life of bourgeois duty was no escape either. And he opened up the world to an entirely new way of understanding what it meant to be religious.
Baggini is an atheist; I am an Orthodox Christian. Kierkegaard was neither. But we can both appreciate Kierkegaard’s analytical position, because it helps us understand better how to relate to Truth. More broadly, the entire focus of SK’s life and work was to find an idea for which he could live and die. That is the supreme focus of philosophy, or ought to be, it seems to me. It was SK who made philosophy real to me, and not just an object of intellectual curiosity.