Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye (1813–55)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC044-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved December 02, 2023, from

2. The limits of objectivity

In an early entry in his journals, written when he was still a student, Kierkegaard gave vent to the dissatisfaction he felt at the prospect of a life purely devoted to the dispassionate pursuit of knowledge and understanding. ‘What good would it do me’, he then asked himself, ‘if truth stood before me, cold and naked, not caring whether I recognized her or not?’ Implicit in this question was an outlook which was to receive mature articulation in much of his subsequent work, being particularly prominent in his criticisms of detached speculation of the kind attributable to those he called ‘systematists and objective philosophers’. To be sure, and notwithstanding what has sometimes been supposed, he had no wish to be understood as casting aspersions on the role played by impersonal or disinterested thinking in studies comprising scholarly research or the scientific investigation of nature: such an approach was quite in order when adopted within the limits set by determinate fields of enquiry. But matters were different when philosophical attempts were made to extend it in a manner that purported to transcend all particular viewpoints and interests, this conception of the philosopher’s task leading to the construction of metaphysical theories which sought to comprehend every aspect of human thought and experience within the disengaged perspective of objective contemplation. Kierkegaard considered Hegel to be the foremost contemporary representative of the latter ambition, the famous system to which it had given rise being in his opinion fundamentally misconceived.

Kierkegaard’s general reaction to what he found unacceptable in the Hegelian theory is in fact crucial to an understanding of his own philosophical position. On his interpretation Hegel’s philosophy ultimately rested upon a central error, one that involved the illicit identification of essence and existence, thought and reality. The German writer had endeavoured to exhibit the world, and the place of humanity within the world, in terms of an evolving sequence of logical categories that rendered its overall structure fully intelligible from the impersonal standpoint of pure reason (see Hegel, G.W.F. §§4–8). Kierkegaard disclaimed any desire to dispute the considerable ingenuity of the Hegelian metaphysic when this was regarded simply as an ‘experiment in thought’. He insisted, however, that thought was not the same as reality, nor could anything real be validly deduced from it; in particular, it was altogether mistaken to suggest that changes and developments in the sphere of actual existence were assimilable to dialectical transitions between timeless concepts – it was one thing to construct a self-contained logical or formal system, quite another to entertain the project of producing an existential one. In raising such objections, moreover, he was especially concerned to stress their relevance to Hegel’s treatment of specifically human existence. The Hegelian world-picture presupposed the possibility of adopting an absolute, God-like point of view from which everything was seen as contributing to an interlocking and rationally determined totality; as a result, human nature tended to be reduced to a philosophical abstraction, the individual to a representative of the species, and the significance of a particular person’s life and actions to their role in forwarding an all-encompassing historical process that overshadowed and transcended them. At the same time, Kierkegaard suggested that the notion of an impersonal ‘knowing subject’ of the type postulated by thinkers of the Hegelian school was symptomatic of a corresponding inclination to forget that the speculative philosopher was himself an ‘existing human being’ whose status and situation imposed necessary limits upon his outlook and cognitive credentials. Far from his viewpoint on the world being from nowhere within it, such a philosopher inescapably belongs to it in his capacity as a finite empirical individual who ‘sleeps, eats, blows his nose’ and who has ‘to face the future’.

Although Kierkegaard’s attitude to Hegel is most extensively displayed in the polemical references that enliven the pages of his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, scattered allusions to the faults and weaknesses of ‘the System’ also appear in many of his other writings. The number and variety of the contexts in which they occur indicate that he regarded the current vogue of Hegelianism as having more than a purely academic significance, the popularity it enjoyed at once reflecting and helping to promote a contemporary ethos in which what he termed the ‘illusions of objectivity’ exercised a pervasive and corrupting influence. Thus he conceived the age to be one wherein people had lost a clear sense of their identity as individuals ultimately responsible for their own characters, outlooks and modes of living. Instead it was customary for them to take refuge in the anonymity provided by membership of collective movements or trends and to envisage themselves as being inevitably circumscribed by the social roles they occupied in a manner that absolved them from personal accountability for their pronouncements or actions. In Kierkegaard’s view, they had largely forgotten what ‘it means for you and me and him, each for himself, to be human beings’, succumbing to a ‘quantitative dialectic’ in which a bemused preoccupation with large-scale historical events and a passive submission to the levelling influence of ‘the crowd’ took precedence over the vital constituents of human life and experience – ‘the inner spirit, the ethical, freedom’.

Confronted by such tendencies, Kierkegaard considered it to be a primary part of his task as a writer to challenge habits of thought that smothered spontaneous feeling and obstructed active commitment. He held that these had had a particularly deleterious effect in the religious sphere; the widespread belief that the fundamental tenets of Christianity could be rationally interpreted and objectively justified within the framework of the Hegelian system was symptomatic of a more general disposition to treat both religion and morality alike in a blandly contemplative spirit that detached them from the contexts of inward conviction and practical engagement to which they essentially belonged. With this in mind it was necessary in the first instance to ‘make people aware’, bringing home to them the limitations of their present condition and awakening them to the possibility of subjective self-determination and change.

Citing this article:
Gardiner, Patrick. The limits of objectivity. Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye (1813–55), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC044-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2023 Routledge.

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