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Two Ways of Reflection

Two Ways of Reflection

By Soren Kierkegaard

See Also:
Truth is the Way

There are some people who approach spiritual truth as a subject matter to be mastered, like a schoolboy might study for world history examinations. But as Soren Kierkegaard points out, "truth" does not comprise a set of static facts that may be assimilated, nor does it promote a logical structure to the crisis of present experience. No, "subjective truth," meaning the truth for which one lives and dies, is never approached on such a basis, despite the bluster of those pretenders of knowledge who hail their own conceits on the question....

Nor does understanding truth-for-the-existing-individual ("subjective truth") entail any form of postmodern nonsense about the illusion of "metanarratives" or the cynical view that "objective truth" is essentially incommunicable.  By no means.  Each person must choose to live or die according to the real passion of their own heart, and (if we are conscious) that is the life we all face, regardless of whatever we might profess otherwise.

Living the truth is essentially relational, and our spiritual condition is inevitably revealed by our decisions, not by what we might merely profess to believe. Everyone by virtue of being human must be engaged in this project, and the stakes are indeed infinite.     - John Parsons

There are two ways of reflection. For objective reflection, truth becomes an object, and the point is to disregard the knowing subject (the individual). By contrast, in subjective reflection truth becomes personal appropriation, a life, inwardness, and the point is to immerse oneself in this subjectivity.

Now, then, which of the ways is the way of truth that matters for an existing person?

The way of objective reflection turns the individual into something accidental, and thus turns existence into an indifferent, vanishing something. The way of objective truth turns away from the knowing subject. The subject and subjectivity become unimportant, and correspondingly, the truth is a matter of indifference. Objective validity is paramount. Any personal interest is subjectivity. For this reason the objective way is convinced that it possesses a security that the subjective way does not have. It is of the opinion that it avoids the danger that lies in wait for the subjective way, and at its extreme this danger is madness. In its view, a solely subjective definition of truth make lunacy and truth indistinguishable. But by staying objective one avoids becoming a lunatic.

However, is not the absence of inwardness also lunacy? It is true that subjective reflection turns inward, but in this inward deepening there is truth. Lest we forget, the subject, the individual, is an existing self, and existing is a process of becoming. Therefore truth as the identity of thought and being is an illusion of the abstract. The knower is first and foremost an existing person. In other words, thinking and being are not automatically one and the same. If the existing person could actually be outside himself, the truth would then be something concluded for him. However, for the truly existing person, passion, not thought, is existence at its very highest: true knowing pertains essentially to existence, to a life of decision and responsibility. Only ethical and ethical-religious knowing is essential knowing. Only truth that matters to me, to you, is of significance.

Let me clarify the difference between objective and subjective reflection. True inwardness in an existing subject involves passion, and truth as a paradox corresponds to passion. In forgetting that one is an existing subject, one loses passion, and in turn, truth ceases to be a paradox. If truth is the comprehensible, the knowing subject shifts from being human to being an abstract thinker, and truth becomes an abstract, comprehensible object for his knowing. When the question about truth is asked objectively, what is reflected upon is not the relation but the what of the relation. As long as what one relates oneself to is the truth, the subject is supposedly in the truth. But when the question about truth is asked subjectively, the individual's relation to the truth is what matters. If only the how (not the what) of this relation is in truth, then the individual is in truth, even if he in this way were to relate himself to untruth.

When approached objectively, the question of truth is only about categories of thought. Approached subjectively, however, truth is about inwardness. At its maximum, the how of inwardness is the passion of the infinite, and the passion of the infinite is the essential truth. Decision exists only in subjectivity. Thus the passion of the infinite, not its content, is the deciding factor, for its content is precisely itself. In this way the subjective how and subjectivity, not the objective what and objectivity, are the truth.

Let us take the knowledge of God as an example. The way of objectivity concerns itself with what is reflected upon, of whether this is the true God. In the way of subjectivity, however, the individual relates to God in such a way that this relation is in truth a God-relation. Now, on which side is the truth? Is it on neither side? Or, better yet, does it lie somewhere in between? But how can this be? An existing person cannot be in two places at once. He cannot exist as a subject-object. God is a subject to be related to, not an object to be studied or mediated on. He exists only for subjective inwardness.

The person who chooses the subjective way immediately grasps the difficulty of trying to find God objectively. He understands that to know God means to resort to God, not by virtue of objective deliberation, but by virtue of the infinite passion of inwardness.

Whereas objective knowledge goes along leisurely on the long road of deliberation, subjective knowledge considers every delay of decision a deadly peril. Knowing subjectively considers decision so important that it is immediately urgent, as if the delayed opportunity had already passed by unused.

Now, if the problem is to determine where there is more truth, whether on the side of the person who only objectively seeks the true God and the approximating truth of the God idea or on the side of the person who is infinitely concerned that he in truth relate himself to God with the passion of his need, then there can be no doubt about the answer. If someone lives in the midst of Christianity and enters, with knowledge of the true idea of God, the house of God, the house of the true God, and prays, but prays in untruth, and if someone lives in an idolatrous land but prays with all the passion of infinity, although his eyes are resting upon the image of an idol – where, then, is there more truth? The one prays in truth to God although he is worshipping an idol; the other prays in untruth to the true God and is therefore in truth worshipping an idol.

The distance between objective reflection and subjectivity is indeed an infinite one.

Source Credit: The Kierkegaard quote is taken from Provocations, Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard, compiled and edited by Charles E. Moore, Plough Publishing, Copyright 2002.


Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard by Soren Kierkegaard (Author), Charles E. Moore (Editor). Perhaps the most accessible presentation of the wonderful thinking of Soren Kierkegaard available in English. Highly recommended!


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