Saturday, May 25, 2013

Et tu, Soren Kierkegaard?

Informed Christians know that the New Atheism sect is defined by blind faith in the silly notion that Christianity recommends blind faith.  The evidence against this notion is overwhelming, as Christians like Alister McGrath and the co-authors of True Reason, including myself, have pointed out again and again.  (I also targetted the idea in The Truth Behind the New Atheism.)  The evidence for the "Blind Faith Meme," by contrast, runs the gamet of sketchiness from anecdotal to outright mistaken.  As for the latter, I have personally rebutted popular misconstruals of Jesus' words to "Doubting Thomas," Justin Martyr, Origen, and of Pascal's Wager, among other targets.  Pascal is even misrepresented by those who should know better, like A. C. Grayling.  (One hardly even wants Richard Dawkins to read Pensees.  "A man has to know his limits," as Clint Eastwood put it.)

One almost finds oneself feeling a little sorry for the New Atheists as the dominoes continue to fall.  Even so theologically marginal a thinker as Tertullian, and so rhetorical a writer as Martin Luther, are shown by people who know their thought more fully to not really promote fideism much at all. 

But surely Soren Kierkegaard is an impregnable fortress of fideism!  Surely Kierkegaard, if anyone, recommended that we believe without reasons! 

Or maybe not. 

I asked this question on Ed Feser's blog a day or two ago:

Edward assumes that Kierkegaard is properly read as a fideist, which was also my assumption. But recently I have seen this challenged . . . Anyone here know Kierkegaard well enough to adjudicate? (I have read a little, but not enough to know.)

G Rodrigues replied:

There are undoubtedly fideistic tendencies in Kierkegaard, but he is not a fideist, or at least not in the traditional sense of the word. See for example: Kierkegaard, Fideism and Subjective Reasoning.

Not an expert (or even knowledgeable), but for what is worth, I am in agreement with everything in the article and will just add a couple of incidental points by way of context.

(1) Kierkegaard is not a systematic philosopher; he had a life-long, this one systematic and relentless, feud with systematic philosophers, Hegel in particular. Not only that, his primary mode of communication ("indirect communication") is steeped in irony; he also uses several pseudonyms that engage in dialectical discourse but do not disclose any final answers for his reader. His phd thesis was on the concept of irony "with constant reference to Socrates" -- Kierkegaard as a modern-day Socrates is not that much off the mark.

(2) Bear in mind also the intended audience of Kierkegaard; he hardly addresses atheists, for example -- although he viewed many of his contemporaries as functional atheists. I am pretty confident that for the bovine contented Gnu sort, he would have only scorn and contempt (as would Nietzche by the way).

The link Rodrigues provides is "just" a blog post, not an academic article, impressionistic, and does not offer profuse textual proof.  But the author seems to know (and rightly appreciate) his great Dane, so I wouldn't bet against him.  This also fits my own fitful impressions from dipping my toe in that sea.  Here's the money quote:

SK was far from advocating "blind faith" or the "enslavement" of reason to revealed truth. What he passionately wished to communicate was a recovery of subjective reasoning; and the truth that faith, if it is to be fairly considered or even understood for what it is, must be considered in a mode of subjective rather than objective thought. SK's corpus may be thought of as therapy for those suffering the modern rupture between the objective and the subjective, so that they may recover the authentic mode of subjective thinking (which is really human thought in its true form), and so truly face the question of faith. The question of faith, presented in its objective form, is never really presented at all.

Still not satisfied, I wrote Marilyn Foley, a Kierkegaard scholar at Drexter University.  She kindly responded:

Kierkegaard certainly did not advocate blind faith. In fact, I don't even think he believed there was such a thing. One always has a reason for his beliefs, according to Kierkegaard, no matter what those beliefs are. I address this issue in my book Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard's Pluralist Epistemology.  I also treat it in the attached article "Kierkegaard on Rationality" from the journal Faith and Philosophy.

If so (I haven't had the chance to read the article yet), it may be that the last, forlorn buttress of the Temple to the Blind Faith Meme, is also crumbling.

Oh, well.  Our Gnu friends can still believe it on sheer will-power. 



Crude said...

I'd love to know this too. If it turns out that Kierkegaard wasn't actually guilty of the sort of fideism assigned to him, then I admit I was fooled.

Billy Squibs said...

I should first plead my near total ignorance of Kierkegaard so everything I write below should be read with this in mind.

With this in mind, I was under the impression that rather than promoting the idea of "a leap of faith" he proposed the idea of "a leap into faith". In other words, one can use various evidences to get to the edge of the divide between non-belief and belief but eventually there is some non-rational process involved to bridge that divide. I guess we might call this the work of the Holy Spirit.

I can have very good evidence based on repeat observations that the plane I'm about to board will get me to my destination safely but I can't know this to be true. Hence the leap into faith.

If I am understanding/ representing him correctly then this seems like a plausible hypothesis and perhaps lessens the idea that he was a hardcore fideist.

grodrigues said...

Since no one has taken up the gauntlet and I was the one who replied D. Marshall over at Prof. Feser's blog, I will give some textual proof. Since it will consist mostly of quotes, these will be some long posts, so anticipated apologies for taking up so much space.

Kierkegaard is a difficult writer, master of indirect communication and not one to so easily furnish his readers with any final answers, irony being his main weapon. If one understands what Kierkegaard's aims are, then the means are adjusted fittingly to the ends. All this to say that it is probably quite easy to find passages in which Kierkegaard seems to be saying the exact contrary of what I will interpret him as saying, a point made by C. S. Evans, in his article in the "Cambridge companion to Kierkegaard", where he reads him -- and note this -- as a metaphysical realist of sorts.

As the linked article puts it, the "question of faith, presented in its objective form, is never really presented at all"; Kierkegaard is simply not interested in it. In part because of his intended audience -- contemporary, Danish society, which was Christian through and through, but "comfortably" and "cozily" and "socially" Christian in a way that Kierkegaard viewed as essentially falsifying the true nature of Christ's salvific work. It is them that he addresses, it is against them that he inveighs, as a modern-day Socrates. He goes on and on about the delusion that "speculators" engage in if they think that by neatly proving the truth of Christianity they are one inch closer to becoming a disciple of Christ. To see this, let me quote a few passages of the "Concluding Unscientific Postscript" (CUP for short) in A. Hannay's edition, which is the one I have, specifically part one, titled "The objective problem of Christianity's truth". The larger part of the book itself is penned by a pseudonym, Johannes Climacus, and is a continuation and a conclusion, in more than one way, of "Philosophical Fragments"..

I will take Climacus' words as Kierkegaard's. This procedure is notoriously prone to error, but for my very limited purposes here it works, in part because of the very nature of CUP (e.g. he adds his own name as editor of the work and in an appendix he "comes out" and owns as his the previous pseudonymous works), and can be justified by taking a bird's eye view of Kierkegaard's life work and seeing the consistency.

grodrigues said...


Part one of CUP opens with an ironical barb against those "modest subjects" that are far too objective to proclaim their faith, setting the tone for the whole work (pg. 19; replaced some Danish expressions with their footnote translations):

"Viewed objectively Christianity is a res in facto posita the truth of which, however, is inquired into in a purely objective way, since the modest subject is far too objective not to leave himself out or without further ado include himself as the one who unreservedly has faith. Thus objectively understood truth can mean: (1) the historical truth, (2) the philosophical truth. Looked at historically, the truth must be made out through a critical consideration of the various reports etc., in short, in the way that historical truth is ordinarily brought to light. In the case of philosophical truth, the inquiry turns on the relation of a historically given and ratified doctrine to the eternal truth. Thus the investigating, speculating, knowing subject does indeed ask about the truth, but not about the subjective truth, the truth of appropriation. Thus the investigating subject is of course interested but not infinitely, personally, passionately interested in his relation to this truth in respect of his eternal happiness. Far be it from the objective subject to be so immodest, so vain.

The investigating subject must be in one of two situations; he must either be in faith and convinced of the truth of Christianity and of his own relation to it, in which case the rest cannot possibly be of infinite interest, since faith is after all precisely the infinite interest in Christianity, any other interest apt to be a temptation; or the subject is not in faith but objective in his observation, and as such here too has no infinite interest in deciding the question.

So much at the outset just to call attention to the fact, as will be followed up in Part Two, that along this path the problem simply fails to come decisively into view, i.e. emerge, since the problem lies precisely in the decision. Let the scholarly investigator labour with tireless zeal, let him even shorten his life in the enthusiastic service of science; let the speculative thinker spare neither time nor diligence; they are still not infinitely, personally, impassionedly interested. On the contrary, they would even rather not be so. Their observations are to be objective, disinterested. As for the subject’s relation to the truth, the assumption is that once the objective truth has been grasped, appropriation is a minor matter, thrown in automatically as an extra, and so in the end it doesn’t matter about the individual. In exactly this lie the lofty equanimity of the scholar and the comic mindlessness of the parroter."

"The problem lies precisely in the decision" so says Climacus. This is Kierkegaard's main interest and around it he frames the whole discussion. He goes on in part one to dissect both the "historical" and "philosophical" or "speculative" objective views and again and again, he returns to this point: for all the loftiness of such investigations, it does not get the historian or the speculator one inch closer to "appropriating Christianity". Incidentally, what he means by subjective knowledge is knowledge as it relates to the subject and his life, not knowledge that is true for me but possibly false for you. Note also how in the first paragraph, he does not call into question reason, or the ordinary historical methods, etc. Kierkegaard somewhere else (roughly following Kant) does provide arguments for why the existence of God cannot be proved; the point to stress being that it is an argument. He does make an argument of sorts from Love to God (spread out over several works, so sorry, no definite quotation), but it is not a formal argument destined to convince a third, unsympathetic party of the existence of God. To repeat myself, even if one achieved that, Kierkegaard would still ask "Now what?"

grodrigues said...


A little after this passage, we find (pg. 22):

"Here the important thing, for the investigator, is to ensure the greatest possible reliability. For myself, however, it is not a matter of exhibiting knowledge or of showing that I have none. For my deliberating it is more important that it be understood and kept in mind that, even with the most stupendous learning and perseverance, and with the heads of all critics placed on a single neck, one never gets further than an approximation, and that there is an essential disproportion between that and a personal, infinite interest in one’s own eternal happiness."

And then on page 26:

"So we assume everything is in order regarding the Holy Scriptures. What then? Has that person who was not a believer come a single step closer to faith? No, not one. Faith does not result from straightforward scholarly deliberation, nor does it come straightforwardly. On the contrary, in this objectivity one loses the infinite, personal, impassioned interestedness that is the condition of faith, the ubique et nusquam in which faith can come into being.

Has that person who did believe gained anything with regard to the power and strength of faith? No, not in the least; rather, in this profuse knowledge and in this certainty lying at the door of faith and coveting it, he is in such a precarious position that much effort, much fear and trembling, will be required if he is not to fall into temptation and confuse knowledge with faith. Whereas up to now faith has had in uncertainty a beneficial taskmaster, now in this certainty it would have its worst enemy. That is, if the passion is taken away, faith no longer exists and certainty and passion are not harnessed together. Let a parallel demonstrate this. For someone who believes that there is a God and a providence, things are made easier (in preserving the faith) in an imperfect world, where passion is kept alive, easier too in definitely gaining faith (as against an illusion) than in an absolutely perfect world. Indeed in such a world faith is unthinkable. Hence the teaching that faith is abolished in eternity."

Kierkegaard points out the limits of the historical objective enquiry, but again he points them out to *underline* the disproportionate "personal, infinite interest in one’s own eternal happiness", which is the movement of faith. Note also how he speaks of "gaining faith" and *contrasts* it in a parenthetical remark with "illusion".

grodrigues said...


Next, page 27, he assumes the "opposite", namely that the historical case is decided against Christianity:

"So I assume now the opposite, that the enemies have succeeded in demonstrating what they wish regarding the Scriptures, with a certainty surpassing the most ardent desire of the rankest foe – what then? Has the enemy abolished Christianity? Not at all. Has he harmed the believer? Not at all, not in the least. Has he won the right to disown responsibility for not being a believer? Not at all. That is to say, just because these books are not by those authors, are not authentic, are not integri, are not inspired (though, being an object of faith, this cannot be disproved), it does not follow that these authors have not existed and, above all, that Christ has not existed. To that extent, the believer is still just as free to accept it, just as free. Let us heed this well. For if he accepted it on the strength of a demonstration he would already be on the point of abandoning faith. If it gets that far, the believer will always have some guilt, to the extent that he has himself made the first move, and has begun by playing into the hands of unbelief by himself wanting to prove. Here is the rub, and I am led back to the case of theological learning. For whose sake is the proof furnished? Faith has no need of it, indeed must even consider it its enemy. On the other hand, when faith begins to feel ashamed of itself, when like a sweetheart not content with love but slyly ashamed of the beloved, and so needs it to be recognized that there is something exceptional about him, that is to say, when faith begins to lose passion, that is to say, when faith begins to cease being faith, it is then that the proof becomes a necessity, in order to enjoy general esteem on the side of unbelief."

Why does Kierkegaard feel entitled to make the bold statement that even if the historical case was all on the side of the enemies of Christianity, not only the believer is unarmed, but the unbeliever is not freed of his responsibility? Because "it does not follow" that such and such, which is a logical point. He then compares faith in God to the *relation* of being in love, and of how we do not "prove" the love of the beloved, but take it on Faith. Sounds familiar? It should. That this is the correct reading is further substantiated on page 29, which should bring to mind the Biblical warning in the epistle of James 1:6-8:

"The observer (whether investigating scholar or dabbling member of the congregation) now understands himself objectively in the following leave-taking speech at the borderline of life: When I was
young, such and such books were in doubt, now their authenticity has been proved, but then sure enough doubt has once again recently been raised about some books never previously questioned. But there is bound to come a scholar, etc."

I could go on substantiating the point with quotes upon quotes, but to finish this already very long series of posts, one can coherently say that Kierkegaard's stance about apologetics, while providing important insights, is not the whole story -- I certainly do. But however one judges Kierkegaard's stance, his insights and arguments, prattling about him as if he advocated blind, irrational "faith", in spite of the evidence, or even in the teeth of evidence, is just to misunderstand him and his aims badly.

David B Marshall said...

I have just received a response from Dr. Marilyn Pious, a Kierkegaard scholar who teaches at Drexel University. In part:

"Kierkegaard certainly did not advocate blind faith. In fact, I don't even think he believed there was such a thing. One always has a reason for his beliefs, according to Kierkegaard, no matter what those beliefs are. I address this issue in my book Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard's Pluralist Epistemology. I also treat it in the attached article "Kierkegaard on Rationality" from the journal Faith and Philosophy . . . "

So there, apparently, are the places to go for fuller academic treatments of Kierkegaard's position.

Thanks Rodrigues for your comments, too -- I'll take a look shortly.

David Marshall said...

I appreciate the work and insight, Rodrigues. Though I have to confess, some of those comments do sound in the region of fideism. I guess I won't come down too hard on skeptics who read him that way.

grodrigues said...

@David Marshall:

"I guess I won't come down too hard on skeptics who read him that way."

That is understandable; Not only there are some undeniable fideistic tendencies in Kierkegaard but his rhetorical strategies invite such misunderstanding. If nothing else, it gave him the opportunity to sulk in a corner and complain that "I'm so misunderstood that people misunderstand me even when I tell them I'm misunderstood." (the poet Auden once remarked that Kierkegaard carried on like a spiritual prima donna).