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.”

Why Philosophy Should Abandon the Metaphor of Light

One of the most commonplace images in philosophy and religion: a light in the darkness.

In the beginning, there was Plato’s cave. There, only shadows without recognizable form existed, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. A prisoner freed himself, and escaped into the light. And he saw the light, and that it was good, and he recognized the origin of the shadows. He returned to the cave of his imprisonment, and said: “Let there be light.”

Entrenched in the core of the Western tradition is the metaphorical narrative of light from the darkness. It is central both in religion, as in Genesis 1, and philosophy, as in Plato’s allegory of the cave. I merged these two narratives together to show their fundamental similarity. They describe a myth in which everything is covered in shadow until an enlightened being – God in Genesis and the escaped prisoner in Plato – brings light to the darkness. But where did this metaphor come from? What does it really mean? Is it a valuable metaphor for society, metaphysics, and epistemology? Should we keep it, modify it, or scrap it entirely?

A History of Light

The first metaphors of light occur in religious texts. The origin myth in the Rig Veda, a founding collection of Hindu verses written around 1500 B.C., sounds almost eerily similar to Genesis:

At first there was only darkness wrapped in darkness.
All this was only unillumined water. 
That One which came to be, enclosed in nothing,
arose at last, born of the power of heat.
However, this narrative has one crucial difference from the Bible. In the Rig Veda, one of the most ancient texts ever discovered, heat is the first to come into being, not light. This reveals that until the last century, light and heat were virtually synonymous, because almost all light was generated by fire or the sun. Light and heat are the essence of basic physical comfort. The warmth of the fire provided early humans a refuge from the terrors of the cold, menacing night. Most importantly, it protected us from the fear of blindness. 
 In our ancient history, we feared the night not because of the darkness itself, but due to what darkness was associated with: savage beasts, murder, losing one’s way. Over time, this dread became so fundamental that we became afraid of the night in itself. The absence of light, became a primary cause of fear, not a secondary terror associated with more dangerous prospects. It is no surprise, then, that the metaphor of light has become ingrained in the human psyche, a permanent relic of more dangerous times. 
From the golden age of the Indus valley to the founding of Rome, the world’s major religions were hard at work solidifying the metaphorical position of light as good, truth, and piety. The Quran is dotted with the phrase “He bringeth them out of darkness into light.” In the Hebrew Bible, John 8:12 directly connects light to God and righteousness:

When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.
In religious iconography from nearly every sect, priests, prophets, and saints are distinguished by a halo of light of some kind. 
The Buddha is represented with a halo of light in this ancient Chinese painting.
Muhammad leads the saints in prayer, surrounded by a mantle of light or fire.
Ra, the sun god of ancient Egypt, was almost always depicted with a solar disc on his head.
In Simon Ushakov’s icon of the The Last Supper (1685), Christ and all of the apostles except Judas Iscariot have a halo.

The Lighted Clearing: The Epistemology of the Enlightenment

The metaphor of light is not merely a decorative literary cliché. “Already in Plato,” writes Hans Blumenburg, “the metaphorics of light already has a metaphysics of light implicit in it.” The metaphor is at the core of the idea that the world submits itself to the light of reason. Without the language of light-dark duality, it would be challenging to formulate or understand enlightenment philosophy. 

Light-dark dualism is connected with nearly every major European philosophical movement. In Greece, the birthplace of Western philosophy, the Sun was a god – Helios, “the Father of the piercing beams of light” (Pindar). Plato built upon the established iconography of light to represent his epistemology. In The Republic, light is knowledge, while darkness is ignorance. Daylight exposes the night’s filth, untruth, and vice, and therefore light is enlightenment and truth. 

Centuries later, Descartes constructed the philosophical meaning of “the natural light of reason,” a phrase coined by Cicero. This light alone, said Descartes, can intuit truth beyond doubt, as it is disconnected from the senses and the corporeal world. In Meditations on First Philosophy, page 14, he writes: 

…for I cannot doubt that which the natural light causes me to believe to be true, as, for example, it has shown me that I am from the fact that I doubt, or other facts of the same kind. And I possess no other faculty whereby to distinguish truth. from falsehood, which can teach me that what this light shows me to be true is not really true, and no other faculty that is equally trustworthy. 

This light, the lumen naturale, is the intuition of truth. Descartes recognizes that reason is not always a meticulous logical process. Often, he writes, it is simply a powerful intuition, a “spontaneous inclination.” We feel the logical coherence of certain truths, and we feel dissonance if we reject these truths. He recognizes the flaws of this intuition, but ultimately accepts it as the only method for discovering reality. In the preface to the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant writes that truth cannot escape the light of reason: 

Nothing here can escape us, because what reason brings forth entirely out of itself cannot be hidden, but is brought to light by reason itself as soon as reason’s common principle has been discovered. 

In short, the radiance of reason exposes all knowable things.

Later in the history of light, Heidegger uses the lichtung, or lighted clearing, as the location where being is disclosed. Lichtung, writes Heidegger, 
”designates
 a bringing 
to 
light
 which
 is
 also a
 clearing
 of
 space” (Garbutt). In the lichtung, truths are revealed. It is a site of revelation and exposure, where our inner selves can no longer be hidden.

Therefore, most philosophical figures of the Western tradition, including Kant, Plato, Heidegger and Descartes, use a conception of truth best described by the ancient Greek word for truth, alethia, which means “unconcealment.” This perspective assumes that everything can be illuminated by light or grasped by reason. This epistemology’s foundations are attacked as the postmodernist movement comes into its own. 

The Collapse of the Metaphor of Light

In the 20th century, postmodern philosophers like Levinas and Derrida recognized that the world is not completely intelligible. By contesting the most fundamental imagery of the Platonic legacy, they are counter-philosophical (Sparrow). These deconstructionists are Simba in the Lion King. They are told that philosophy can understand all that the light touches, but this does not satisfy them. Exploring the borders of the epistemology they inherited, the postmodernists reach the edge of the kingdom and realize that there is existence in shadow and darkness. 

The totalizing vision of the Western tradition restricts truth and reality to objects that fit the understandable mold of reason:

“what does not enter into form is banished from this world”

(Levinas 1). This vision fails to see that the light of reason can only reveal objective knowledge. The Enlightenment framework assumes that because reason can only understand objective knowledge, objectivity is the only kind of knowledge. In this way, the Platonic legacy ignores subjectivity.  Ironically, the disciples of Enlightenment epistemology are like the prisoners of Plato’s cave – they assume that what they can see is all that exists. 

On the other hand, Levinas understood that the most basic fact of our relation with other people is that we cannot understand other people. This is alterity: the infinite otherness of everyone we know. To live is to come into contact with other beings that are fundamentally alien to us, to encounter another consciousness that “wells up inside of us to disrupt and menace the smooth operation of the intellect and the cultivation of a solipsistic identity” (Sparrow). Here, Pythagoras is relevant – in his writings, light represents limits, while darkness is infinity – shadow is associated “with the unexplored, indefinite interior” (Notopulos). Our world, then, is better represented by a dark forest than a lighted clearing. I am subjectivity and I live in the midst of subjectivity – all around me are unexplored selves, and I am an unexplored self. 

Derrida made a more political  criticism of light-dark dualism. In George Orwell’s novel 1984, the protagonist, Winston, is told he will meet his fellow resistor in “a place where there is no darkness.” He did not know what this meant, “only that in some way or another it would come true.” In the end,  oppressive and all-powerful Party imprisons Winston in a cell where inescapable artificial light tortures him for all hours of the day. This demonstrates the political meaning of light as what allows beings to be revealed, manipulated, controlled, and used as tools toward an end. As Derrida wrote on page 91 of Violence and Metaphysics:

…the entire philosophical tradition, in its meaning and at bottom, would make common cause with oppression and with the totalitarianism of the same. The ancient clandestine friendship between light and power, the ancient complicity between theoretical objectivity and techno-political possession. 

Derrida argues that the state cannot possess humans if they do not have the philosophy to justify their act of ownership. This justifying philosophy is the Enlightenment, which views subjectivity as penetrable to reason, and thus open to ownership. Light exposes objects so they can be used, while “A philosophy of the night recognizes that form disintegrates in the darkness, objects lose their graspability” (Sparrow).

In absolute visibility, humans become objects. As Foucalt might say, an anatomy textbook exposes the human body completely, which makes the body seem like an object that can be understood if we simply comprehend all the cells that compose it. If we view others in this way, what is the moral significance of owning a human? The state seems to say, a citizen is merely a beast of labor with a different conformation of cells. In reality, we do not encounter the Other as an object, but as an infinite force outside ourselves, with a subjectivity we cannot fully comprehend. 

The traditional metaphor of light has failed philosophy. It collapses the moment we step away from our solitary philosophizing and into the world of others. The ancient need to expose, objectify, disclose, and grasp subjectivity causes us to ignore any realities which escape our attempt to understand. We should replace this all-exposing worldview with a philosophy of night that recognizes uncertainty and alterity. 

Works Cited

Descartes, René. "Meditations on First Philosophy." Indianapolis: Hacket Press. 2000. Print. 

Garbutt, Robert. "The Clearing: Heidegger's Lichtung and the Big Scrub." Southern Cross University. 2010. Print. 

Levinas, Immanuel. "Phenomenon and Enigma." Collected Philosophical Papers. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1987. Page 70. 

Notopoulos, James. "The Symbolism of the Sun and Light in the Republic of         Plato." Classical Philology, Vol. 39, No. 3. Pp. 163-172. University of Chicago Press. 1994. Print. 

Pindar. "The Odes of Pindar." The University of Chicago Press. 1947. Print. 

Sparrow, Tom. "Levinas Unhinged." John Hunt Publishing. 28 Jun 2013. Print.