154. Kierkegaard: You want certainty? Listen to your father!
About 20 years ago I read this entry from Soren Kierkegaard, Papers and Journals (Penguin) and thought it was, well, quite silly:
“The best proof of the soul’s immortality, God’s existence, etc. is really the impression one has from childhood, namely, the one which in distinction from all those scholarly and bombastic proofs could be put by saying that it is absolutely certain because my father told me.” (314)
Now, however, I have more respect for it since I am a father. Over the years my son has asked me many profound existential questions. When confronted with these questions – say, about the soul or God – I have given my most considered, sincere, and straightforward response. My responses could, of course, be wrong. But I believe they were as authentic as possible. They were also given in a loving spirit to one whom I love. Once I saw this, I realized Kierkegaard’s point which helps us understand his unique genius in proposing a different type of truth, namely, truth as subjectivity.
‘Subjectivity’ is a word that Kierkegaard uses to denote something, as he says in his book The Concept of Anxiety (see Princeton version), “very plain and simple, namely, that truth is for the particular individual only as he himself produces it in action” (138). There are many truths about ourselves and the world that we can examine objectively, that is, examine without our feelings, commitments, and concerns. Kierkegaard doesn’t deny that objective truth exists or that we can examine it with a high degree of objectivity with science. But he thinks we also need to focus on how we hold the beliefs we do. Holding beliefs, ideas, and truths without acting on them is inauthentic. Therefore ‘subjectivity’ is a word that denotes not what we believe but rather how sincerely we act on what we believe.
This emphasis on subjectivity becomes crucial when it comes to many moral and religious questions that are difficult to objectively investigate with, as he says above, “bombastic proofs.” In such cases what we do have to go on is our authentic and passionate commitment to the things we believe. Kierkegaard explains in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript (Princeton):
“Let us consider Socrates. These days everyone is dabbling in a few proofs or demonstrations. – one has many, another fewer. But Socrates! He poses the question objectively, problematically: if there is immortality. So, compared with one of the modern thinkers with the three demonstrations, was he a doubter? Not at all. He stakes his whole life on this “if”; he dares to die, and with the passion of the infinite he has so ordered his whole life that it might be acceptable – if there is an immortality. Is there any better demonstration for the immortality of the soul? But those who have the three demonstrations do not order their lives accordingly….is there any better counterdemonstration to the three demonstrations?” (201).
He also addresses the issue of proofs being general and thus ultimately irrelevant to the existing individual:
“In all simplicity, then, the existing subject asks not about immortality in general, because a phantom such as that does not exist at all, but about his immortality” (174).
So, when Kierkegaard thinks about how to justify his belief in the soul and God’s existence – two things he thinks outrun our reason and objective analysis – he harkens back to his father who, like me transferring my very deepest commitments to my son in an authentic manner, gave him his truths as subjectivity. For Kierkegaard, this is the best we can do in the face of profound mysteries and therefore an argument from authority, in this case a loving authority, is not only non-fallacious and warranted; it is also existentially certain.
I have to admit I still don’t find this line of reasoning convincing after all these years. But as a father I understand Kierkegaard’s journal entry, I respect it, and I may yet come to accept it.
Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard