Soren Kierkegaard was one of the founding figures of what is now called existential philosophy. Another one was Fredric Nietzsche. Despite their differences, they have a lot in common. While Nietzsche claimed that God is dead, Kierkegaard maintained that the Church is dead, in its institutional form anyway. From the beginning of his writings, Kierkegaard views were always somewhat countercultural, but the Practice in Christianity in 1850 offered direct condemnations of Christendom, as exemplified by the Danish Lutheran Church, which he believed had perverted the Christian message.
Both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard are in some ways anti-philosopher. They passionately opposed the foundations of classical philosophy. In doing so, they offered a different kind of philosophy — one not based on intellectual abstraction, or something that is produced in an academic conservatory. Rather, for them, the truth of philosophy emerges out in the dangers of the world. Truth is what Kierkegaard had in mind when he wrote, “The thing is to find a truth which truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.” Truth is also the central concern for Kierkegaard in Philosophical Fragments.
How do we learn the truth? Do we learn it on our own? Can we learn it on our own? Is truth within us or is it external to us? In Philosophical Fragments Kierkegaard kindles a revolution in a philosophical discussion of truth. It is what Kierkegaard calls the existential truth.
Kierkegaard was all too willing to take on the intellectual giants of the classical and modern philosophies. The power of rational thinking dominated his intellectual climate. He was part of an epoch where new dawn of reason was breaking through the cracks of the pre-modern edifice. Radiance of it had already enlightened the inhabitants of entire Western Europe. This new age of reason consumed every segment of social life.
Much of this is owed to Emmanuel Kant and G. W. Hegel, who left their mark on the intellectual landscape of Western Europe, the impact of which is felt to this day. Both these thinkers chiefly relied on the power of rational thinking which sets the criterion to access the truth. For Kant, the essence of life is accessible only by the application of human reason. In a similar vein, Hegel claimed that ‘the rational was the real’; therefore, reason alone has the power to explain all that is On the other hand, a wave of romanticism greatly emphasised the power of feeling, imagination and aesthetic sensibility.
Under such intellectual climate, Kierkegaard begins his inquiry with a Socratic question: “Can the truth be learned?”. What seems to be a straightforward question comes with its own complexity. If learning is seeking than one cannot seek what one already knows, similarly, one cannot seek what one does not know. But what if one does not know what one already knows, what if the learner is not aware that she is already too close to the truth, yet unable to grasp its presence deep within. In that case, the truth-quest begins not outside but within the learner. All learner need is a simple reminder to bring about the kernel of truth from within.
For Socrates, this is indeed the case. Socrates associates the process of learning truth with recollecting. In Socratic thought, the learner appears to be in a state of not knowing what is already in her. The learner is neither outside the truth nor in the truth. Rather the truth is in the learner and cannot be introduced to her from the outside.
In light of this, the role of a teacher is one of a midwife. Not too dissimilar to midwives, the primary task of an educator is to assist the learner in the process of self-realization, as they give birth to their own truth. The learner who learns the truth realizes that she owes nothing to the educator because the truth was already in her.
For this reason, the educator is only an occasion and holds no importance at all in the process of learning. The educator gives nothing new to the learner, and if “he does gives of himself and his erudition”, “he does not gives but takes away” from the learner. For the same reason the moment of learning also loses its decisive value, for the truth is always and already in the learner.
Viewed Socratically, each person becomes the source of truth, and the world is centred upon the person and her self-knowledge. In this process, the course of learning is internalized. The search for truth becomes a purely intellectual and reflective exercise between me, myself, and I. If the truth lies within human nature than all we need is to set our intellect in motion to draw it out from within. But if such is not the case then we shall ask the Socratic question once again “Can the truth be learned?” and seek an alternative to the Socratic view.
This is precisely what Kierkegaard does. Contrary to the Socratic view, where the educator has no decisive significance, Kierkegaard imagines the alternative where both the educator and the moment in which the truth is learned holds decisive value for the learner.
Kierkegaard begins his proposal by suggesting that for the educator or the moment to hold any decisive significance, the learner up to the point of encountering the truth must not have possessed it, not even in the most trivial sense. Otherwise we are back to Socrates and the moment loses its worth.
Secondly, the moment holds decisive significance when the learner receives the condition for understanding the truth from the teacher. The learner, on her own, cannot create the condition for the emergence of truth. For this reason, the learner, up until the point of contact is completely outside of the truth.
This view is in sharp contrast with the one of Socrates where the learner is in possession of the truth and can solely produce the condition needed for the learning. As an alternative to the Socrates learner who does not know what she already knows, Kierkegaard’s’ learner appears to not know what she does not know because she is completely and entirely outside of the truth, always departing from it.
Also, any attempt from learner to produce the condition of truth-learning results in the displacement of understanding, for the truth cannot be grasped by the criteria set out by one’s own presupposition. Otherwise one is simply chasing one’s own premise. Before encountering the truth, the learner is in the state of untruth. In this case, a midwife teacher is made powerless because the learner is devoid of truth and cannot produce, on its own, the condition for understanding it.
Philosophically speaking, Kierkegaard could be one of the first figures to pave the way for postmodernism. What struck me in Kierkegaard’s writing is his emphasis that truth is not propositional. Instead, for Kierkegaard, truth is existential. In other words, the truth of any proposition is external to it. For example, one might say the truth of love is outside of love. The truth of God is outside of God. The truth of a belief system or a worldview is external to it. Similarly, the truth of science and the truth of beauty is outside of it. Philosophically speaking, Kierkegaard de-essentialized the notion of truth. Postmodernism, isn’t ?
Secondly, it seems that the arrival of truth is accidental. One cannot plan for it. It emerges out of nowhere. It cannot be manufactured. Any attempt to manufacture the truth falls on its face. Truth cannot be preconditioned either. It comes with its own terms and conditions that are out of control. No one has a monopoly on truth. We don’t happen to truth, but the truth happens to us. In sum, truth is accidental.