“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

Truth is Subjectivity

“Truth is said [by logicians] to consist in the agreement of knowledge with the object,” says Kant (45). At first glance, we may be sympathetic to such an empirical definition of truth. It appears to make the comprehension of truth possible for any and all who are willing to collect proper measurements and requires no special disposition on the part of the knower. For no matter the mood of the observer, the object, as measured, remains the same. However, if we proceed to deduce from this premise its logical consequences, we find that because “the object is external to me, and the knowledge is in me, I can only judge whether my knowledge of the object agrees with my knowledge of the object” (45). This is a tautology and so Kant qualifies this notion of truth as a “mere verbal definition” (45).

We agree with Kant that this nominal definition of truth as correspondence between an idea and the world as such is incomplete, but we also go one step further, passionately rejecting it as “a chimera of abstraction” (TET, 315). The philosopher-logician has forgotten that he is an existing being. We must therefore attempt to remind him that “existence is the very separation that prevents the purely logical flow” from ideality to reality (CUP, 55).

“Modern philosophy,” says Kierkegaard “has tried anything and everything in the effort to help the individual to transcend himself objectively” (TET, 315). As a result, every existing individual, every subjective consciousness, has been made to seem “accidental” (TET, 313). Existence itself has similarly been transformed into “something indifferent, something vanishing” (TET, 313). Philosophy takes as its duty the objectification of truth precisely in order to escape the danger of madness, as if truth were found by way of a subjective passion, it becomes, at least empirically, impossible to tell the difference between insanity and genius. Such a lack of verifiability makes the philosopher uneasy, and so he attempts to satisfy his doubting nature by turning his own subjectivity into an abstraction. Thus indifferent to himself, he has presupposed that the truth need have no relation to his existence. All that matters is the object, which in his formulation is also what is most concrete. He can therefore record the variety he finds in nature and transcribe it into language so that anyone could read it and thereby be privy to the truth. Kierkegaard rejects this characterization of truth as too easy because “all eternal decisiveness is rooted in subjectivity” (TET, 313). To be an existing being, in his view, is to be first and foremost a subjective being. We must therefore reverse the philosopher’s understanding of what is concrete with what is abstract. “The objectivity which has thus come into being [for the philosopher] is, from the subjective point of view at the most, either a hypothesis or an approximation” (TET, 313). So much for the philosopher’s supposed adherence to the doctrine of doubt. By attempting to find truth through reflection rather than relation, the philosopher “is overcome in pure thinking” because “he has taken the whole matter imaginatively into a sphere where there is no relation to actuality at all” (CUP, 75). His doubt has become “about one thing and another, about this or that, about something and something else” rather than the much more difficult “speculative doubt about everything” (JC, 165).

In contrast to the philosopher’s transcendent idealism, Kierkegaard demands that in our search for the truth we remember our existence as individuals, and that “existence is a process of becoming” (TET, 315). Truth as correspondence is “only an expectation of the creature; not because the truth is not such an identity, but because the knower is an existing individual for whom the truth cannot be such an identity so long as he lives in time” (TET, 315). Truth understood as the reflection of an objective world indifferent to our inward subjectivity is simply not a viable option for us once we have come to accept our finite and uncertain relationship with the eternal. For as soon as we objectify existence, we negate ourselves and turn reality into a theoretical abstraction. We forget that we are irrevocably involved in our lives and that death is growing always nearer. We ignore the stench of decay and the vague intimations of sudden catastrophe that taint our future. Any honest reflection on our own condition reveals that we have not a moment to spare in deciding upon our attitude toward life, for as soon as we begin to stall and delay, as soon as we conjure excuses to withhold commitment, we have already decided on indecision and become a chain of procrastination that fickles about between options as though existence were trying to sell us a new watch on a street corner. Our date with death will soon arrive and it will be too late to chose. But it is said, “The day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth, …because that is the end of every man and the living takes it to heart” (Ecclesiastes 7: 1-2). The hearts of the living, indeed, must take life seriously, for when its interests are repressed life becomes just another worthless transaction amidst the mundane chores of our secular day. The philosopher’s doubt is a fraud, and he does not deserve the name, for he hides the nearness of his inward passion behind the objects he fashions with his matter-obsessed mind. Let us return, then, to a state of genuine doubt, the starting point of all philosophy, and attempt to discover why truth appears so elusive.

Before we can doubt genuinely, we must establish what is essential for a doubting mind. Let us first ask, then, what it would mean for doubt to be an impossibility, for it to be outside our consciousness. To be incapable of doubt is to be trapped in immediacy, in the now moment that lasts indefinitely without division or qualification. In such a state, everything is indeterminate, which means “everything is true, but this truth is untruth the very next moment, for in immediacy everything is untrue” (JC, 167). In immediacy, then, everything is both true and untrue and so “the question of truth is canceled” (JC, 167). In such a state of child-like innocence, doubt has not yet become necessary. It only becomes so when the question of truth is raised, as “the moment I ask about truth, I have already asked about untruth” (JC, 167). Doubt arises because of this seeking after truth, which in immediacy had not yet left us. We ask the question and immediacy is canceled and brought into relation with a new state of consciousness: mediacy. If immediacy is reality itself in its undifferentiated, unnamed, uncreated state, mediacy is the word. Language cancels immediacy by “giving expression to it, for that which is given expression is always presupposed” (JC, 168). In order to describe what I experience immediately without words in words, I must accept immediacy even while taking a step beyond it into mediacy (i.e., I must already understand reality even though I question it in ideality). This, of course, is a contradiction—but it is this contradiction that allows doubt to take hold in consciousness. We must remember, though, “so long as this exchange [between immediacy and mediacy] takes place without mutual contact, consciousness exists only according to its possibility” (JC, 168). In other words, when only a reflection is present, no consciousness exists, as reflection is merely a disinterested possible relation between reality and ideality, while consciousness constitutes the relation and is interested. In consciousness, reality and ideality collide and give rise to a contradiction that, for the individual, is experienced inwardly as a paradox. As subjective beings, we can never know for sure about the world in itself because our finite historical perspectives always limit us. Instead, the highest form of truth available to us is best described as “an objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness” (CUP, 319). Such a passionate inwardness has given up the possibility of objective certainty, but nonetheless believes that certainty is possible through other means. By way of a leap of faith, one can appropriate truth so that its validity is vital and significant, in contrast to the petty indifferences of factual knowledge and theoretical understanding. Life must be lived in such a way that we are never quite sure where we will end up tomorrow, no matter how well we may plan out our schedule. We must “have the power to concentrate the whole result of the operations of thought in one act of consciousness” (FT, 53). If we lack this intensity, our soul is “from the beginning dispersed in the multifarious, [we] will never get time to make the movements [the leap], [we] will be constantly running errands in life, never enter into eternity, for even at the instant when [we are] closest to it [we] will suddenly discover that [we have] forgotten something for which [we] must go back” (FT, 54). To live genuinely, then, we must first have doubted completely. We must have come to understand that “In the beginning was the Word, …and all things [including untruth] come into existence by Him” (John 1:1-3). We ask for truth because we speak a language, and as soon as we seek after it, it has already been frayed by the distractedness of mediacy. After doubt has emptied our ideality of its ideas, it is made ready for the blind plunge into the unknown abyss of existence, forgetting everything of worldly attachment, in hopes that what seemed beforehand to be falling is in actuality flying. Taking this leap is, of course, easier said than done, as the act itself

“comes only through desperation…when you know that it is beyond you—beyond your powers of action as beyond your powers of relaxation. When you give up every last trick and device for getting it, including this ‘giving up’ as something that one might do, say at ten o’ clock tonight. That you cannot by any means do it—that IS it! That is the mighty self-abandonment which gives birth to the stars” (BT, 229).
The individual who comes to be conscious of the contradiction present in his own consciousness can at first react only with despair, as “to be in untruth and to be that through one’s own fault” is to live in sin (PF, 15). One cannot escape sin through any act of the will, as St. Paul says: “I discover in my willing to do the good, the evil is with me” (Romans 7:21). To take the leap of faith we must let go even of the desire to let go. We must give ourselves up to the glories of eternity with assurance that immortality is not an impossible wish, but an already present reality. Only then can we face objective uncertainty in the eye with the most sincere doubt and allow the paradox of truth to culminate in a moment of passionate inwardness that releases us into the bosom of divine love and redeems us from sin.

Works Cited

1.Cahn, Steven M. Ten Essential Texts in the Philosophy of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005.
2.Kant, Immanuel. Trans. By Abbott, Thomas K. Introduction to Logic. New York: Barnes and Noble. 2005.
3.Kierkegaard, Soren. Trans. By Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 1992.
4.Kierkegaard, Soren. Trans. By Walter Lowrie. Fear and Trembling. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 1954.
5.Kierkegaard, Soren. Trans. By Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Philosophical Fragments and Johannes Climacus. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 1985.
6.Watts, Alan. Beyond Theology: The Art of Godmanship. New York: The World Publishing Co. 1967.







One response to “Truth is Subjectivity”

  1. Andras Magagna Avatar
    Andras Magagna

    I think this paradox of truth arises with identification of ideal (representation) with real (presentation). I think mind observes real and subserves ideal. I think to understand real as that measured and ideal as instrument of measure allows us to convert from one ideal to another or contrast one ideal with another.

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