A Kierkegaardian Approach to Philosophy: Replacing an Objective Career with a Subjective Relationship

Philosophy has been firmly and comfortably institutionalized. It exists primarily to teach useful, marketable, career-building skills, buzzwords like critical thought and complex reasoning and clear writing. Philosophers are another cog of capitalism, mass-produced in university departments to either join the economy or perpetuate the academic study of philosophy. Like physicists and biologists, they are judged by their ability to produce original, peer-reviewed work. Philosophy is a specialized field along with the sciences, practiced in research institutions.

Any ‘serious’ philosopher is found solely in the university; no longer can philosophy be practiced by any audacious questioner. Measured by gross product, philosophy is more successful and productive than at any other time in history. Thousands of philosophers throughout the world produce well-researched, logical papers that engage with the traditional problems. Many of these papers are ingenious marvels of philosophical reasoning. Who can deny the brilliance of Slavoj Zizek’s cultural criticism, John Searle’s philosophy of mind, the late Hilary Putnam’s rigorous analysis?

And yet perhaps we are missing something in this Cambrian explosion of philosophical activity. Philosophy has gained a permanent place in the academy. To paraphrase an introduction to “Socrates Tenured” by Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle, philosophy has its own arcane language, its hyper-specialized concerns, a network of undergraduate programs, and an ecosystem of journals. Like Bertrand Russell, I wonder whether institutional philosophy is “anything better than innocent but useless trifling, hair-splitting distinctions, and controversies on matters concerning which knowledge is impossible.”

The goal of philosophy is no longer to guide individuals on their attempt to become paragons of wisdom and virtue. Its purpose is not to assist the philosopher in reconciling the absurdity of the world, nor can it instigate the creation of meaning out of this nihilism. It is not meant to be related subjectively to the individual who is actually living the philosophy and experiencing its effects. It is meant to produce knowledge. An honest, valuable task – yes. But it is not enough.

After all, this knowledge is produced in the typical academic fashion. It is based on rigorous, ‘impartial’ research by graduates trained in cleverly analyzing arguments. This research is then applied to produce objective knowledge that has no moral impact. I mean: the knowledge is not meant to make one a better person, but to be used as a “de-moralized tool” for civilizational progress (source). Throughout the process, the producers of knowledge remain separate from the knowledge they produce. It is sterilized, abstracted – without impact.

The philosopher argues passionately for his/her thesis, employing every art of logic available. But what if the thesis is true? No matter. It will not change the philosopher’s life nor anyone else’s. It is merely another postulate verified until refutation, another step on the track to tenure. As Kierkegaard wrote, “not until he lives in it, does it cease to be a postulate for him.” It is ridiculous to imagine the philosophers living by their theses.

All this production and institutionalization is merely disguising a catastrophe. We are facing the same problem in philosophy that Kierkegaard faced in religion: the demise of the subjective relationship. We have lost the duty to philosophy that Socrates felt and in some ways died for, the intimately personal, individual relationship to the content of our study. At his final Apology, Socrates said “as long as I draw breath and am able, I shall not cease to practice philosophy.” He had so fully embraced philosophy that any other form of life was “not worth living.”

Philosophy is not merely a set of practices and shared academic norms. It is a way of living. And if it fails to be a way of living, all its academia will be unmasked as hollow. Then could Nietzsche’s madman declare with certainty that along with God, the Philosopher must be buried as well – “We have killed him — you and I. We are all his murderers” (The Gay Science). Divorced from the lived experience of the philosopher, how can philosophy be meaningful? If philosophy is to have any value, it must be “through its effects upon the lives of those who study it” (Bertrand Russell).

Perhaps no one but Kierkegaard has articulated this problem in all its scope. In his Truth is Subjectivity, he wrote:

Our discussion is not about the scholar’s systematic zeal to arrange the truths of Christianity in nice tidy categories but about the individual’s personal relationship to this doctrine, a relationship which is properly one of infinite interest to him. (source)

To be a philosopher, one must take a radical leap. It is like Kierkegaard’s leap of faith, the jump into the abyss. Namely: one must be willing to live by one’s conclusions. After all, philosophy claims to both describe and prescribe reality, the ethical life, the social sphere. If this is the case, then how should we live differently because of it? If Plato is indeed correct about the immortality of the soul, what then should we do? Every philosophical premise, when carried the full length, has an ethical conclusion. They dictate what should be done.

But even here we encounter a problem. We are supposed to live by our conclusions, yes, but we are also supposed to live by the method of philosophy. And yet this method questions every conclusion. How can we live by a conclusion that can be called into question and invalidated the day after? Philosophy is built upon the dialectic, the constant shift in thought and relentless doubt of each and every premise. An objector might claim that the dialectical is fundamentally antithetical to the meaningful, as a life cannot be built upon an ever-shifting foundation.

Perhaps, then, Kierkegaard’s approach is only sensical in religion. After all, religion is not dialectical. It remains solid, and thus a subjective relationship can be built. A subjective relationship to religion builds a bridge between rock-solid cliffs; a subjective relationship to philosophy builds a bridge between wind and tossing waves. One must be able to stop somewhere if a meaning of life is to be built, and religion provides the stopping-point.

Philosophy, however, is not incapable of providing meaning. It has merely been so often misapplied that it seems impossible to truly live by. The solution is this: one must be willing to set a direction for the dialectic. Kierkegaard himself did not set a rock of Christianity and declare “now, build a relationship with this!” His project was to advance, not end the dialectic. His intention was to “create difficulties everywhere” (Concluding Unscientific Postscript). He sought to push individuals to recognize the flaws of dogma, and through this to create their own relationship with Christianity independent of the traditional Nicene doctrine. But this dialectic was not unguided: its goal was to become a Christian.

This aim, in a somewhat paradoxical sense, could only be achieved by first negating it: recognizing that I am not a Christian now. Thus, the dialectic became essential to the process. The creation of a true relationship with Christianity was made possible only through destruction – through eliminating the bromides and dependence on institutions.

This same process of guided dialectic applies to philosophy. By focusing on a specific end goal, our dialectic gains a foundation. New information does not destroy the foundation. Rather, it clarifies and polishes the foundation and assists in its construction. For example, I may decide my end goal is to become a virtuous person. When I discover that one of my practices was not after all virtuous, this does not destroy my ability to live by my philosophy. After all, my end goal is not called into question. I still aim to be virtuous. But my process has been refined, as I now know one more thing that I should not aim for.

Therefore, we now have a basis for developing a personal relationship with philosophy. Before anything, an aim must be set as the goal of all dialectic. Then, we must live by this aim, constantly seeking to refine and expand it. The aim cannot be called into question. This aim is the fundamental, subjective truth, one that is lived by the individual so intensely that it cannot be invalidated. It must be of infinite significance to the individual. It should not be taught in universities, but pursued by the individual.

We must assume the end goal in order to justify the process itself. After all, if we open up our end goal to justification – and therefore criticism – how can we truly be devoted to it? It becomes merely another premise among many, one that may be quickly invalidated by a new paper in an academic journal. Only through the powerful, subjective force of faith can we believe in the end goal. (To clarify, I do not at all mean faith in the religious sense. You’ll catch my meaning as I develop the idea.)

Faith, after all, is inevitable in life. Over the centuries, the most powerful trend in philosophy has been skepticism. We have certainly not completed Aristotle’s task of classifying and demonstrating everything, but we have made tremendous progress in Socrates’ task of calling everything into question. In a philosophy where there is no convincing demonstration of the possibility of knowledge itself, how can we claim to have a comprehensive system that eliminates the need for faith? Rather, we have merely shown the overwhelming need for faith.

Faith is a teleological suspension in the face of uncertainty. The need for this suspension derives from three fundamental and undeniable aspects of existence. First, we are uncertain at the most basic level, and unable to make a decision based on the process of systematic reasoning. Second, despite our uncertainty, we must make a decision. Third, and too often ignored, we have ends, desires, dreams – things that we feel we must accomplish or at least strive for. We may know objectively that these dreams are irrational, unjustified – and yet every individual feels a need to search after some aim. In the face of this telos, it is unacceptable to merely deny agency and revoke our ability to make a choice, and it is unacceptable to choose arbitrarily.

How can we reconcile these three facts of our existence – uncertainty, agency, and the telos? Only through faith. We ignore our uncertainty, and make the decision based on the telos, the goal. We decide our ends and believe them by faith. Every decision must be directed by this touchstone. It is constantly refined through the dialectical process, but the telos itself is never subject to the dialectic.

In his Existenzphilosophie, Karl Jaspers wrote, “Philosophic meditation is an accomplishment by which I attain Being and my own self, not impartial thinking which studies a subject with indifference.” The philosopher should be intimately engaged with the philosophy; it should not be an object of study, but a way of living that has infinite impact. The goal of philosophy must be reexpressed in Kierkegaard’s terms, as the search to “find a truth that is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live or die.”

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