Was Kierkegaard an Irrationalist?

One of the most fascinating thinkers of recent times is Soren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813-1855), the Danish philosopher and theologian often called “the father of existentialism.” I first discovered Kierkegaard while studying abroad in Britain in the fall of 2005, and was immediately drawn to him and began devouring his books. Once I was back in the states, I took two classes on him as I was finishing up my philosophy degree in college. Of extra-biblical writers, only C.S. Lewis has done more to shape my thinking, and no other personality in history except Christ has gripped me so poignantly. Reading his biographies and books during that time in my life was like walking into a new universe: it opened up entirely new ways of thinking and challenged all my previously held assumptions.

Kierkegaard, however, is one of the most misunderstood intellectuals of all time. Even competent philosophers misunderstand the dual nature of his authorship (for example, the contemporary popularizer of philosophy, Walter Kaufman, fails to even distinguish between his pseudonymous works and his signed works, leading to disastrous results), and the vast majority of evangelical Christians either completely ignore him or absorb Francis Schaeffer’s caricature (I have tremendous respect for Schaeffer, but it seems to me that The God Who Is There sometimes simplifies and caricatures the positions it is attacking). The most common criticism of Kierkegaard is that he is an irrationalist, i.e., that he denies that reality (truth) is objectively true and operates according to rational principles.

This is certainly an understandable view, given the complexity of Kierkegaardian hermeneutics, and since it seems to accord with some of Kierkegaard’s most famous statements:

“Subjectivity is the truth.” (Concluding Unscientific Postscript [CUP])
“The only truth which edifies is truth for you.” (Either/Or)
“It is subjectivity that Christianity is concerned with, and it is only in subjectivity that its truth exists, if it exists at all; objectively, Christianity has no existence.” (CUP)
“Christianity is spirit; spirit is inwardness; inwardness is subjectivity.” (CUP)

However, a more careful reading of Kierkegaard demonstrates that he does not question the rationality of truth per se, only of truth as it is perceived by “the individual” (i.e., a finite and temporal person living in a fallen world). In Kierkegaard’s thought, truth is rational, but it must be subjectively appropriated by the individual, not because the truth itself is subjective, but by virtue of the individual’s subjectivity. For all his talk of the truth as paradoxical, once the individual is taken away, so is the truth’s paradox. Hence Kierkegaard’s famous dictum, “truth is subjectivity,” ultimately expresses an epistemological rather than an ontological claim. By analogy, the fact that dogs cannot see colors does not mean the world is black and white: the defect is in the subject, not the object.

The following Kierkegaardian statements support this view:

“An existential system is impossible. An existential system cannot be formulated. Does this mean that no such system exists? By no means, nor is this implied in our assertion. Reality itself is a system – for God – but it cannot be a system for any existing spirit.” (CUP)

“Christianity exists before any Christian exists . . . it maintains it objective subsistence apart from all believers.” (The Book on Adler, a signed work published posthumously and also called On Authority and Revelation)

“The eternal essential truth is by no means in itself a paradox, but it becomes paradoxical by virtue of its relationship to an existing individual.”

For Kierkegaard, then, truth is indeed rational and systematic, despite its contrary appearance to individuals, and he is thus not in irrationalist in the sense defined above, as often accused. But why is the truth paradoxical for individuals? This view hinges upon Kierkegaard’s anthropology of human beings as finite and temporal creatures, and thus incapable of perceiving truth sub specie aeteri, from the point of view of eternity. The problem of sin and thus bias toward untruth in humans compounds this problem. (This is, in my opinion, one of Kierkegaard’s great legacies: the wedding of human epistemology and human ontology, in line with the Socratic dictum, “whatever is known is known not only according to its own nature, but also according to the nature of the one who knows it.”)

In addition, it is worth pointing out that although Kierkegaard (through Climacus, pseudonymous author of CUP) fiercely denies that faith issues forth from scholarship and speculative thought, he nowhere denigrates scholarship and speculative thought per se, as is evident from the following selections from CUP:

“Philosophical scholarship is wholly legitimate, and the present author certainly has respect, second to none, for that which scholarship consecrates.”

“But I should add a word here, in case anyone misunderstands a number of my remarks, in order to make it clear that he is the one who wants to misunderstand me, whereas I am not at fault. Honor be to speculative thought, praised be everyone who is truly occupied with it. To deny the value of speculative thought . . . would, in my eyes, be to prostitute oneself.”

Finally, it is worth noting that Kierkegaard does not hold that truth is always perceived as paradoxical or absurd to individuals. Rather, to the extent that reality is perceived correctly, i.e., by faith, it ceases to be absurd. From Kierkegaard’s published journals:

“When the believer has faith, the absurd is not the absurd – faith transforms it, but in every weak moment it is again more or less absurd to him. The passion of faith is the only thing which masters the absurd.”

In future posts I hope to discuss Kierkegaard’s faith and life at more length.

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  1. I have to disagree with you on one point. Kierkegaard is read carefully by many evangelicals. Perhaps, not as much in the US as in Canada and Britain (and also in Germany and the Netherlans). In the US, Kierkegaard seems more read by what might be termed the Post-Liberals and also some “emerging” thinkers.