Kierkegaard on the Subjective Nature of Truth


When we ask a question, the one thing we hope the answer will result in is the truth. Though somethings can be known, the reality of experience is that truth is often a slippery thing. Many philosophers have concerned themselves with this evasiveness, attempting to clarify in objective terms what can be known; this is the work of rational epistemology. There is another branch, however, that acknowledges truth can be something rather difficult to come by. One of its most ardent defenders was 19th century Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard.

What is Truth?

Though he would not have known the title, Kierkegaard was an early Existentialist, placing a great emphasis on the individual, responsibility, authenticity, and experience. Critical of his contemporary Copenhagen, Kierkegaard considered bourgeois society sycophantic in their adherence to societal norms, especially the state-run Lutheran Church of which he was a member.

“…when I was older, I opened my eyes and beheld reality, at which I began to laugh, and since then, I have not stopped laughing. I saw that the meaning of life was to secure a livelihood, and that its goal was to attain a high position; that love’s rich dream was marriage with an heiress; that friendship’s blessing was help in financial difficulties; that wisdom was what the majority assumed it to be; that enthusiasm consisted in making a speech; that it was courage to risk the loss of ten dollars; that kindness consisted in saying, “You are welcome,” at the dinner table; that piety consisted in going to communion once a year. This I saw, and I laughed.”

Like most philosophers, some of what occupied Kierkegaard’s attention was the prevailing thought of the previous age in application to his current day, and no one in his orbit had greater influence than Friedrich Hegel. It was this goad against which Kierkegaard kicked that helped shape his existentialist outlook. Part of this was Hegel’s view of objective truths, which Kierkegaard rejected on the basis that objective truths were meaningless in the pursuit of the authentic individual.

For Kierkegaard, objective truths, the type that are sometimes referred to as truth with a capital T, are not worth seeking or even able to be known, but rather is far more important to find the truths that are meaningful to an individual’s life; that the really important truths are personal. This is what he called Subjective Truth, similar to William James’s Pragmatic Theory of Truth.

What Kind of Questions Are Important?

Let us say you did something really horrible to me, said something false that ruined my reputation and caused me to lose my job because you were angry with me. A few years later, you ask to meet for coffee so that you can absolve your guilt ridden conscience. You tell me what happened and that you feel absolutely terrible. After listening and some conversation, I respond by saying, “I forgive you. Water under the bridge.”

Can you know that this forgiveness is true? Not likely. It cannot be rationally proved, only hinted at through my future actions, but even with that, you could never truly know. Yet it is existentially important to you to know whether or not it is true. It is a question you are intensely concerned with.

How about two high school students who are in love. Between classes, we stand away from them, perhaps across the hall, and watch them perform actions we identify as affectionate, blushing and smiling and laughing with each other, and then the bell for the passing period is about to ring. They give each other a kiss and, because they are going opposite directions, hold hands until the last second and then finally let go. This is not rational. We cannot know their experience. We roll our eyes and say, “Teenagers are so gross.” The event only makes sense if you are in it, a part of it. The love they feel is a subjective truth.

Neither can these teenagers know if the other truly loves them. Just like the forgiveness in the previous example, it is something in which you have to place a type of faith; it cannot be rationally proved. This type of truth a different type than the fact that the sum of the angles of a triangle is 180 degrees. You do not think about the laws of cause and effect or modes of perception when you are in the middle of a kiss. These are not existentially important for you to know. What is important is that the person you are locking lips with feels as strongly as you do.

Taking Hold

As mentioned earlier, Kierkegaard was no fan of his contemporaries in Copenhagen. He felt they sacrificed their authenticity by mindlessly adhering to societal norms, condemning them for their herd-like mentality. It is for this reason why his works feature such an emphasis on the individual and responsibility. To be responsible for your choices is to take hold of your life and key to subjectivity. A person achieves this by committing passionately, or throwing yourself, into what you choose.

Does God exist? The question is not a very good one, but it is one many people ask. It is not something that can be answered academically or objectively though, reduced to its smallest parts. It cannot be proven rationally.

Like much of life, Christianity is filled with paradox. Kierkegaard did not shy away from this. He freely admitted that it was beyond reason; that to be Christianity was one of the most difficult things a person could do. This viewpoint was largely the cause for his frustration with the members of the state-run Lutheran church. They just were not taking it seriously enough, falling back on a membership they took for granted, being a particular type of Christian because that is what society prescribed for them. This is evident in the quote used earlier where, near the end, he says,

…that piety consisted in going to communion once a year. This I saw, and I laughed.

Wrestling with these paradoxes require a great deal of passion, the ingredient Kierkegaard believed emboldened his faith rather than diminished it. To achieve this required inwardness, a type of personal reflection and attentiveness to the self was required, not too unlike who many consider an early existentialist, Saint Augustine of Hippo in his Confessions. Christianity can only be known to the individual by the individual throwing themselves passionately and with sincerity into Christianity.

“If I am capable of grasping God objectively, I do not believe, but precisely because I cannot do this I must believe. If I wish to preserve myself in faith I must constantly be intent upon holding fast the objective uncertainty so as to remain out upon the deep, over seventy thousand fathoms of water, still preserving my faith.”

Things we can know through reason are, according to Kierkegaard, totally unimportant. For instance, 8 + 4 is 12. We can be absolutely certain of this because it is a reasoned truth, but do we include it in our prayers? Is it something that we will lie and ponder over when we are in the throes of great turmoil, the dark night of the soul? These types of truths are totally unimportant to the question of existence.

It could be that Kierkegaard is entirely wrong; that many of the great truths about life and death, the universe, God, existence, and morality can be unquestionably known through reason, but likely not.

There is a danger here that Kierkegaard’s theory suggests though, relativism. Is not subjective truth just whatever I want to believe?

Perhaps, but Kierkegaard would expect, probably demand, a person to approach subjective truth with an intense amount of introspection and questioning of not only the societal norms in which said person grows up and lives, but the personally held beliefs to the individual as well. Subjective truths is not a lazy man’s game, but one that a person commits to with all their energy.

Compliment this essay with another from the Knowledge and Knowing category.

For more on Kierkegaard, see the following posts. Existentialism and Disney: Alienation, Authenticity, and Freedom, and To Live is to Live Passionately

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