As a human being, you have no choice about the fact that you need a philosophy.


Kierkegaard and the Metaphysical Project (Part II) - Michael Weston

This sceptical question can only occur from within the pursuit of truth itself: even if it appears as necessarily unanswerable, it must first be formulated, and so brought within what is sayable. If it is to raise the possibility that all our saying of beings may be illusory, it not only presupposes that at least something can be said, but that that something has a particular form, namely, that it is a possibility that we have no contact with truth at all.

The very formulation of this possibility involves our understanding a notion of truth in terms of which we can see that, in relation to it, the proposal is indeed a possibility. For Plato, the truth of the whole is understood as already and always existing to which our intellect may, if it comes to understand the truth, correspond. Understood in this abstract way, it appears possible to raise the question whether we could know there was such truth at all, and if there were whether we could come adequately into relation to it. There always remain the possibilities that there isn’t or that we couldn’t. But since the formulation of such sceptical questions must use the notion of truth, they can be defused if we can show that that notion precludes these possibilities. The abstract notion of truth precisely abstracts it from our saying and thinking, whilst it is only there that it has any sense: it is what we say and think that is true or not. Truth has to be understood in terms of our thought: what it means, we might say, has to be determined by its role there. The sceptic depends on that meaning in formulating his question, whilst attempting at the same time to question the viability of thinking in its entirety. Replaced within the context which gives it its sense, ‘truth’, Hegel says, is seen as the end of thought. It is revealed where thought attains its telos, which is something to be determined by thinking itself. The truth is not something external to thought to which it may correspond and which would allow the possibility of the sceptical question, but is rather the immanent goal thought is itself directed towards and in terms of which it overcomes inadequate formulations in a progressive realization of what that goal is. Thought here really does recollect the truth, since it is its own, whilst Platonic recollection presupposes an adequacy of the intellect to the truth which must simply be accepted. For Plato, the possibility of the truth we non-philosophically assume lies in the intelligibility of the world, in its being ‘thought-like’, which is constituted by its ‘participation’ in the ideas, so that things are within the world only as instantiations of ideas. Truth concerning the ideas lies in an adequation between our thinking and these fully knowable objects, just as truth about the world lies in the correspondence between our thought and the things in the world which the ideas make possible. But as recollection, the apprehension of the former assumes that the truth we non-philosophically suppose is actual, something we cannot assume if our inquiry is into the possibility of truth itself. For what could show that our philosophical thought is true, rather than merely drawing out the presuppositions of a thinking about the world we nonphilosophically take to be so? We need to demonstrate the impossibility of such a doubt, which we can only do if the notion of truth itself precludes it. And that is possible only if the question of the possibility of the truth we assume nonphilosophically is at the same time that of the notion of truth itself. The truth we assume must, that is, be shown to be inadequate in its own terms, so that reflection compels us towards the revelation of the notion of truth itself.

The intelligibility of reality as we non-philosophically take it to be is not a matter of the harmony between thought and reality for Hegel but a moment in a unitary dynamic which reveals what is ‘true’ only in the progressive emergence of the notion of truth itself.
Kierkegaard and modern continental philosophy In its immediate form, thought is consciousness, within which truth is understood as a correspondence between itself and an independent and indifferent reality. But truth is what is known, and in attempting to articulate what it is that it knows, consciousness in the successive forms of sense-certainty, perception of stable things, and the understanding of forces and laws, comes to understand that its object is not an ‘in itself but a ‘for us’. It comes to the realization that in order to relate to the given as given, it must use itself, its own forms of objectivity. Were reality absolutely indifferent, consciousness could have no contact with it. Nature is the Concept externalized, that is, it is for thought, it is ‘something posited’. Thus, sense-certainty claims to know the tree immediately. But what it claims to know, the tree here, is only qua tree, and so in its difference from other things, and only here as opposed to there, and now as opposed to other times. And what it claims to know only is such for a perceiving subject, which is itself a universal. Comparison of sense-certainty’s own criterion of knowledge, immediacy, with what it claims to know results in a new understanding both of the object known and of what ‘knowledge’ and so ‘truth’ is. What is known is thus revealed as an object for a perceiving subject. But, again, what the perceiving subject claims to know is, qua object, unavailable to perception, since this can only know properties and not the object of which they are properties. What is known thus appears now as the object of understanding, an inner reality which underlies the appearances senseperception can apprehend. Initially this is understood as force which produces the appearances, but this fails to explain the effects, being simply whatever accounts for them. The object of knowledge appears, therefore, as law, a necessary relation between appearances which constitutes them as the appearances of an object, and which as the organizing principle of appearances requires a consonant conception of subjectivity as transcendental. Thus in pursuing the truth, consciousness becomes self-consciousness, coming to have itself as its object. Self-consciousness initially emerges in the momentary mutual realization of freedom from finitude, the given, in the risking of life in the struggle to the death of the heroes of Greek epic. Such freedom, in its essential opposition to the given, obtains a universality in the form of life of the master and slave, within  which the slave, in constant fear of death, encounters the limit of human finitude, and, in knowing it, goes beyond: ‘Man as spirit knows its limit, and in this passes beyond the limit.’

And in moulding materials to his master’s demands, he comes to know himself as essentially other than external nature. This individual knowing of one’s freedom over against nature, both external and human, becomes concrete in the Stoic way of life, and expresses its essential negativity in being actualized merely in freeing oneself from care about worldly things, in a conquest of one’s own nature. But self-consciousness as thought is directed towards truth, and truth is of a unity. The desire for truth aspires to a unity transcending the division of Stoic consciousness. This desire for a state in which we should be both free and whole emerges in the unhappy consciousness of the post-Roman world. Since freedom is still freedom from nature, such a unity is not to be attained in our natural existence, but only in a state beyond this life, in relation to which our earthly existence is as nothing. The desire for truth now takes the form of Reason, in which the individual selfhood defines itself, not in opposition to a given human nature, but as its positive appropriation. As theoretical reason, it expresses itself in natural science, ‘observing’ a given world, but overcoming its givenness with the ambition to conquer it completely in a total knowledge, an ideal frustrated by the irreducible irrationality of contingency. As practical reason, it attempts, not to master in thought a given world, but to transform the given human world in its own image. That image, in so far as it is an ideal, something to be held before thought in its transforming activity, is of a universal individuality. But such universality, in the light of the particularity of the given individual’s desires, remains abstract, leading to no concrete and binding laws on all. The self must understand itself, not in terms of individual selfhood, but rather in terms of a concrete unity of individuals, a concrete self-conscious universality. Man’s desire for truth initially reveals himself to himself as Spirit in the unreflective unity of a people, defining itself over against others. But as an explicit unity of all, it is manifested in its abstract form in the legal community of the Roman Empire. As no content derives from such an abstract unity, the emperor has total power to determine the rights of individuals.

The content of the unity is Kierkegaard and modern continental philosophy arbitrary, deriving from the given particularity of the emperor. The ethical unity of the constituent peoples is destroyed, but this reveals, in the Stoic consciousness, the freedom of individuals from any given social form. Such free individuals must now create a community in their own image, the Christian community which despises the world and looks towards fulfilment of its true nature in the Kingdom of God beyond this life, whilst the actual community of this world is created by individuals in the image of their given individual desires for power and wealth. Such determination by one’s given nature is overcome in the negative freedom of the early Enlightenment, in which the self understands itself as free of any given social form and, in its aspiration for unity, conceives of everything given as material, to do with as it will. The French Revolution shows that this absolute freedom, which as a form of Spirit, is universal and must express itself in collective activity, can, being divorced from any concrete content, only manifest itself in the community of destruction, of the past order and then of itself. Man as Spirit must develop a social order which unites its freedom from the given with the given: to produce a community of free individuals. In Kant’s philosophy, the self understands its unity with humanity as a whole through the conception of duty, the submission of a given human nature to the demands of universality. Yet here the universal of humanity is opposed to the particularity of the individual: being defined in opposition to nature, man is divided from himself, and the ultimate goal of an ethical commonwealth in which nature and duty would be one remains always and only as an ideal. The conflict between ideality and reality is overcome in the unity of the post-Kantian conscience, in which the abstract Kantian unity of mankind becomes a concrete community of individuals, acting in particular circumstances in the light of their consciences. Yet such a community is inevitably characterized by conflict, the consciences of different individuals determining different courses of action. And since anything can be considered good, there can be no certainty, either for others or for the individual himself, that he follows the dictates of conscience rather than his individual desires. The ‘we’ of humanity can only obtain a concrete form which satisfies the desire for truth, and so unity, in a community of free individuals. The apprehension of this Hegel finds manifest in the rationality of the bureaucratic state.

But although this apprehension is present, it is so as moral certainty, a certainty of contemporary action. It does not understand its own necessity: that it is the truth. It could do so only by rising above the given, present as the material for universalizing action, to see the essential unity of the given and humanity’s nature as universalizing reason, in an absolutely free activity of self-knowing. Such an activity knows nature as for humanity’s self-knowing, and knows the various forms of human life as stages in man’s coming to know himself: it sees the unity of the finite natural and human world as constituted in the universalizing activity of humanity which attains its own appropriate form, as thought, in knowing itself. This absolute knowing is God: ‘God is spirit, the activity of pure knowing.’ The individual, in raising himself to knowing the essential unity of what is, can become, although only in such knowing, divine: ‘humanity is immortal only through cognitive knowledge’. Yet what God is is known only in the absolute knowing which is philosophy. Religion and philosophy both have the same object, ‘reason in principle’, but it is known as what it is only by the highest form of cognitive activity, where the rationality of the world finds its appropriate form of articulation, in rational thought. Religion apprehends the unity of the world, but it does so only in an incompletely rational form of thinking, representation, in which it is conceived as something external: ‘faith expresses the absolute objectivity that the content has for me’; The content…has and retains the form of an externality over against me. I make it mine, [but] I am not [contained] in it, nor identical with it.’

Christianity is the ‘absolute religion’ for there ‘God has made known what he is; there he is manifest’: God reveals himself in a man. The ‘unity of divine and human nature comes to consciousness for humanity in such a way that a human being appears to consciousness as God, and God appears to it as a human being.’ Since religion is the manifesting of God, it finds its fulfilment, its truth, in the rational articulation of that manifestation, in knowing what God is. Christianity itself reveals this as its end, for its doctrines proclaim that ‘we should know God cognitively, God’s nature and essence and should esteem his cognition above all else’. But that rational knowledge can only take place in philosophy: ‘philosophy is theology, and [one’s] occupation…in philosophy…is of itself the service of God’. Kierkegaard and modern continental philosophy The Platonic idea of the Good, the relation of purposiveness which binds the temporal and the intelligible into a whole, is identified by Hegel with the activity of human thought itself. The timelessly true is the principle of rationality of the world which comes to its own self-consciousness in human philosophical knowing. It is, therefore, both ousia in the Platonic sense, existing ‘solely through itself and for its own sake. It is something absolutely self-sufficient, unconditioned, independent, free as well as being the supreme end unto itself, and, at the same time, Spirit. Spirit is in the most complete sense. The absolute or highest being belongs to it. But Spirit is…only in so far as it is for itself, that is, in so far as it posits itself or brings itself forth; for it is only as activity…in this activity it is knowing. The rationality of the world is both substance, an intellectually apprehensible order which ‘is’ in a more than merely temporal sense, and subject, for it is essentially a thinking which must come to know itself. Reality becomes self-transparent in man’s absolute knowing.

And there man attains true selfconsciousness, finding within himself the ground which can justify his cognitive, practical and political activities, for these represent the concrete manifestations of Spirit’s universalizing activity which are for its own self-knowledge. And man can, in absolute knowing, become self-conscious Spirit. For Plato and Hegel, man, characterized by thought, must act and think in accordance with truth. Truths about what is in the world depend on the latter’s intelligibility, and the truth of this intelligibility is first to be formulated either in terms of the ideas of what is in the world, or in the characterization of the nature of the objects of sense experience and understanding. But the truth about the intelligibility of the world requires further that of the harmony between the things of the world and the ideas, or of the principle of reality which makes the objects of sense experience and understanding aspects of reality. The truth is ultimately of the whole, and the truth of any part lies in its place there. Man, however, is not merely a being apprehended by thought because its nature is intelligible, but rather the thinking being through whom all other beings become known in their intelligibility, and this is possible only through knowing the whole.

Man’s truth, his determination in terms of the whole, is, thus, to apprehend the truth of reality, or to be its principle through which reality knows itself. Hence, the activity of philosophy constitutes the fulfilment of human life. For both Plato and Hegel, man’s highest form of activity is philosophical knowing in which the ground, in terms of which all other forms of knowledge and truth can be understood, is discovered as at one with man himself. For Plato, this ground is the idea of the Good, of the purposiveness which binds together all that can be said to be and which provides us with the notions of a final truth and unchanging being. The philosophical life appears as the highest because it fulfils man’s nature, his distinction from all else in the whole of being. The divinity within man lies in his intelligence, his capacity to participate in the timeless in its appropriate form, as intelligible, and so reveal the purposiveness which binds the temporal and timeless together. For Hegel, this purposiveness becomes the activity of unifying thought itself, which reveals external nature as for the universalizing activity of man’s scientific knowing, and man’s own as to be imprinted with the image of man as such a universalizing being, and so as self-determining. Man, as the being who is capable of knowing his end and acting accordingly, knows his nature as such only in the activity which brings this capacity to fulfilment. And that can take place only in absolute knowing, when external and human nature have been revealed as they are through the coming to self consciousness of the organizing activity of reason. Man does not just possess a divine element, but can in such knowing become God as the ultimate ground of all being, self-conscious Spirit. 

Referring to Hegel, Kierkegaard remarks in his Journals that ‘Philosophy is the purely human view of the world, the human standpoint’ which tends ‘toward a recognition of Christianity’s harmony with the universally human consciousness’. It leads, that is, towards an identification of the human with the divine, a process which has its roots in the Platonic conception of a divine element in man’s nature. Hegel’s thought, for Kierkegaard, is the culmination of this tradition of philosophy, within which the nature of that human project becomes Kierkegaard and modern continental philosophy transparent, for there the human being thinking ‘the system of the universe’ becomes divine. In such thinking he becomes one with self-conscious Spirit. And that is God. Kierkegaard, notoriously, found Hegel comic, ‘someone who is really tested in life, who in his need resorts to thought, will find Hegel comical despite all his greatness’. This comedy results from the incompatibility between the sort of question which our existence is for us and how that question is conceived by metaphysics. Metaphysics seeks to answer the question, by providing a ground, a determination of the nature of man, as embodied intelligence, or as Spirit, universalizing unifying activity, through which a concrete form of human life can be justified as life’s end, its meaning and purpose. The argument to this ground takes the form of locating the human in relation to the whole, the truth of truth. Thought of the whole, as Hegel emphasizes, precludes appeal to presuppositions, and so must have the form of recollection of what is implicit in thought. The problem of existence as part of this general project appears as an intellectual one, to be resolved by thought revealing what is implicit in existence. This is why metaphysics assumes ‘that if only the truth is brought to light, its appropriation is a relatively unimportant matter, something which follows as a matter of course’.

I shall be concerned throughout this work with the ramifications of Kierkegaard’s critique of this understanding of the problem of human existence. However, that critique begins with his insistence that it is just this matter of appropriation which poses for us the question of the truth of existence: ‘The inquiring, speculating and knowing subject…raises a question of truth, but he does not raise the question of a subjective truth, the truth of appropriation and assimilation.’ The truth which metaphysics seeks is to be revealed through reflection, and having been apprehended is then to be lived. But to say this is immediately to mark a difference between the categories appropriate within reflective thought and those concerning our relation to it through which it becomes part of our life. Whereas the metaphysical project attempts to determine life’s measure through situating the human in relation to the whole of being, Kierkegaard emphasizes that such thought as a human activity itself is part of life. Life’s measure would be what can give meaning to life as a whole. The question then arises as to whether what must for its own significance be situated by the individual in relation to this whole can itself reveal the truth of life. ‘If a man occupies himself all his life through with logic, he would nevertheless not become logic: he must therefore himself exist in different categories.’ These categories are those of ‘subjectivity’, the relation of the individual to her own activities and relationships and so forth which issues from the relation she has to her life as a whole. If an individual occupies herself with logic, we may ask not merely what results ensue but how she involves herself with it. This question initially prompts an account of the sort of commitment she has to the activity. But this in turn raises a question about that relation itself: is it of the right kind? The individual must relate herself to this activity as she must to any activity or relationship or to anything which occurs to her. Is her form of relationship, then, appropriate for a being subject to such a necessity throughout her life? The individual has a conception of her life as a whole, that she has a life to lead, and the question as to the truth of existence relates to this, through which an appropriate relation to activities and relationships within life can be determined.

But for the individual, her life as a whole cannot be present: ‘life constitutes the task. To be finished with life before life has finished with one, is precisely not to have finished the task.’ One cannot, therefore, relate to one’s life as a whole in terms of a result or fulfilment, for this is to treat life as a task which can be completed, even if this is conceived as an ideal. But this is precisely what metaphysics does, understanding life’s task as the achievement of knowledge of the whole or as the end of the process whereby the whole achieves explicit rationality: ‘objective thought translates everything into results, subjective thought puts everything into process and omits results—for as an existing individual he is constantly in process of coming to be’. Metaphysics in construing life as having an immanent goal fails to recognize that the wholeness of life from the point of view of the living, the existing individual cannot be so conceived. Its view is a result of seeing the question of human life ‘objectively’, a relation which we as living beings may take up in relation to past human existence, as when we concern ourselves with the objective truth about historical events, but which we cannot take up in relation to our own. ‘Hegel…does Kierkegaard and modern continental philosophy not understand history from the point of view of becoming, but with the illusion attached to pastness understands it from the point of view of a finality that excludes all becoming.’ The metaphysical project treats human life in the mode of pastness and only so can it think of it in terms of a final result. But whereas it makes sense to relate to the past in terms of disinterested inquiry and so in terms of the objective truth, such a relation is only possible for a being who has a quite different relation to her or his own life. Whenever a particular existence has been relegated to the past, it is complete, has acquired finality, and is in so far subject to a systematic apprehension…but for whom is it so subject? Anyone who is himself an existing individual cannot gain this finality outside existence which corresponds to the eternity into which the past has entered. His historical inquiry is an activity he engages with and to which he relates: but this latter relation cannot be one of the ‘disinterested’ inquiry through which he addresses the objects of his research, but one we can only understand in ‘subjective’ categories. That is, we must understand such a relation in terms of life as it is related to by the one who is living it and not in terms of the relation of a living being to a life which is not her or his own.

The comedy of the System, Kierkegaard says, is that it forgets that philosophy has to be written by human beings who have necessarily a different kind of relation to their own lives than they can have to anything else: ‘The only reality to which an existing individual may have a relation that is more than cognitive is his own reality.’ How, then, are we to understand existence when it is seen ‘subjectively’, that is, when it is a matter of an individual regarding her or his own life? Kierkegaard’s answer to this is: as ‘becoming’. Whereas objectively life is regarded as if it were in the past, completed and so surveyable by the contemplative gaze of the philosopher, subjectively life is not completable, since one is not done with it until it is done with one. From the existing individual’s viewpoint, her own life appears as ‘constantly in process of becoming’, without an achievable or ideal end. To live, therefore, consistently in terms of this subjective view, ‘it is essential that every trace of an objective issue should be  eliminated’ and so all trace of living as if such goals could give significance to one’s existence as a whole.

To do otherwise is not simply an error of the metaphysical interpretation of life, but characterizes human beings’ relations to their lives generally, in ways I shall note in the next chapter: ‘It is enough to bring a sensuous man to despair, for one always feels a need to have something finished and complete.’ But to live clearsightedly in terms of the subjective view, to live as an existing individual, is to live one’s life as constantly in process of becoming, and so not towards a goal. Whereas objectively, one’s future is seen in the ‘illusion attached to pastness’ as if it were directed towards an end surveyable from the present and so closed, subjectively the future is open. For the living individual, her future is not already mapped out, tending towards an end: ‘The incessant becoming generates the uncertainty of earthly life, where everything is uncertain.’ To live related to the essential openness of the future alters too the character of the past. To be so related is to ‘strive infinitely’ so that one’s concrete activities are not dependent upon the realization of some finite goal for their significance. As no finite goal can have such ultimate significance, the past, whether of achievement or its lack, can have no such significance either, but is merely the base from which one’s present striving into the openness of the future takes place. The present, then, is where the past is taken over as one’s own and so in relation to the absolute openness of one’s future. We shall see what this means more concretely for Kierkegaard later. His critique of metaphysics rests, then, on the contrast between the objective conception of life, where it is seen as if it were already in the past and so complete and surveyable at least in principle, and the subjective, that way one’s life is seen from within it, from the point of view of the one who has to live it. And it might appear that Kierkegaard analyses the difference in purely temporal terms. Life as ‘becoming’ involves, as ‘constant striving’, the non-ending taking over of one’s past into an open future, whereas life objectively conceived is at best progress towards a predetermined future.

But it has to be emphasized that Kierkegaard’s understanding of these temporal notions is religious or ethico-religious: ‘all essential knowledge is essentially related to existence. Only ethical and ethico-religious knowledge has an essential relationship to the existence of the knower.’ That is, for Kierkegaard, the individual who truly lives as ‘becoming’ relates Kierkegaard and modern continental philosophy to the future as open only in so far as this relation is one to the Infinite or God, and his ‘constant striving’ constitutes therefore a relation to God, an offering up of his life to the Deity. So that he remarks in the Journals: ‘To be contemporary with oneself (therefore neither in the future of fear, or of expectation nor in the past)…is…the God relationship.’ A present within which one takes over one’s past in relation to the open future is only possible as such a God relation since ‘the Deity…is present as soon as the uncertainty of all things is thought infinitely’: that is, the future is only truly open through one’s relation to God. And Kierkegaard is far from believing, therefore, that life does not have a telos. One who lives his life as always becoming is, because this requires a relation to God, directed towards the end bestowed by God, an ‘eternal happiness’, although this is, unlike the end understood by the objective views of life, unattainable through our own efforts and so does not close off the horizon of the future. I shall discuss these notions in greater detail later. But mustn’t the suspicion immediately arise here that Kierkegaard is involved in reinstating precisely those ‘objective’ concepts he has shown to be incompatible with the subjective standpoint? Life does not have an end within it, but is now said to have one beyond it. And in that case, life is surely part of an order which is determinate and fixed, even if, unlike the order of metaphysics, it is one we cannot apprehend: ‘Reality itself is a system for God; but it cannot be a system for an existing spirit. System and finality correspond to one another, but existence is precisely the opposite of finality.’ But given Kierkegaard’s critique of the objectivity of metaphysical conceptions, why should the existing individual who understands his existence as constant becoming without a finite end believe in an infinite one, guaranteed by the author of an order beyond our comprehension? Isn’t this religious construction a last vestige of the hold of objective thinking? Mightn’t we hope to move to a properly existential understanding of existence freed of the metaphysical notions of a determined end within a given order? Certainly Heidegger did. 

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