Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Kierkegaard: Existence is Motion

Most undergraduate philosophy textbooks do away with S. Kierkegaard by a singularly modern curse, the 'f-' word; namely, the word 'fideism.' What grave injustice. Such epistemic pretensions elicit my disdain. They also do great violence to a great thinker, whom I believe still has much to teach us - that is, those who care to listen.

In Works of Love, reflecting on 1 Cor. 13.7 ('love...believes all things'), SK writes:
'...knowledge per se is impersonal and must be communicated impersonally. Knowledge places everything in the category of possibility, and to the extent that it is in possibility it is outside the reality of existence. The individual first of all begins his life with ergo, with faith....[W]hen a man's knowledge has placed contrasting possibilities in equilibrium and he wants or has to judge, then what he believes in becomes apparent, who he is, whether he is mistrustful or loving' (218)*
We begin our life with ergo, with faith. SK provides a wonderful illustration of what this means. He writes,
'Truly, it is not knowledge which defiles a man, far from it. Knowledge is like the sheerest transparency, precisely the most perfect and purest, like the purest water, which has no taste at all. The magistrate is not defiled because he knows more about the plots than the criminal. No, knowledge does not defile a man; it is mistrust which defiles a man's knowledge just as love purifies it' (220)
That is, knowledge in itself is objective; man is not. Man is subject, not object. He takes into himself knowledge as he drains into his body liquid. In so doing he is not passive. He thirsts. He sees. He fills. He grasps. He swallows. All verbs, motions, actions, participations. A world is out there and he is in it. Man is implicated. He is creatura.

Yet so long as knowledge remains outside us, it remains 'outside the reality of existence.' That is, it remains outside the reality of our existence. For example, God is, apart from us. He exists, apart from us. But the knowledge that He exists is not knowledge that is in the reality of existence apart from us. He is the ground of our existence and our knowledge. But ground is not ground of anything lest on that ground stands something. To bring knowledge into reality therefore requires motion. That motion is faith, which is the ergo after knowledge.

Thus to exist is to move; and to move is to exercise faith. Existence entails faith, says SK. That is why he may say the following,
'To believe nothing is right on the border where believing evil begins; the good is the object of faith, and therefore one who believes nothing begins to believe evil. To believe nothing is the beginning of being evil, for it shows that one has no good in him, since faith is precisely the good in a man, which does not come through great knowledge, nor need it be lacking because knowledge is meagre' (220)
To believe in nothing is (as I interpret it) to cease motion. It is to stop moving, therefore it is to tend toward non-existence. For existence is motion. It is subjectivity in objectivity. To believe in nothing is to cease as a subject, and to join knowledge in suspension, in non-reality. Thus in true Augustinian colours SK holds that evil is privation of good. It is nothingness, non-existence. It is motionlessness. It is faithlessness.

But not all faith is good faith. Faith may purchase the wrong thing. It may purchase the lesser good instead of the supreme good [summum bonum]. Cut off from the supreme good, this faith cannot and will not survive. It is misplaced faith. But it is not motionless; no, it is not dead yet.

We leave out discussions of 'love' for another time. But let us round the corner back to the f-word, fideism. So much presumption lies in this word. It presumes, firstly, intellectualism; that is, it presumes certain truths about human nature, all of which SK denies, viz. that man may know apart from volition, apart from movement. To SK this objectifies man, and pitches him out of existence. It dissolves his subjectivity and obscures his creatureliness. It removes him from the actions that make his life a life. We may not follow SK through to all of the conclusions he has hitherto surmised. But we surely do not want to overlook, thanks to our philosophy books, what important questions he raises concerning what it is to be human.

*SK, (1962), Works of Love. Trans. Howard and Edna Long. NY: Harper Torchbooks.

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