Gregory Schufreider
     The Logic of the Absurd
     Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Sep., 1983), 61-83.
     Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge
     Since the work of Kierkegaard, philosophers have been called upon to face a topic some may too readily assume has no business in philosophy in the first place: the category of the absurd. Of course, insofar as Kierkegaard can be dismissed as a religious thinker, it is possible simply to suppose that the subject of the absurd has slipped into philosophy, as one might say, while reason's back was turned, and thus holds no legitimate claim on philosophy in particular or rational thought in general. But in Kierkegaard's major philosophical work, the Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments, which he planned to be the consummation and climax of his philosophical activity, I believe an argument can be discerned showing that there is a certain logic to the introduction of the category of the absurd; that the absurd is not introduced for the sake of absurdity alone, but on the basis of some serious reasoning. I would like to be able to construct my own version of that argument, which leads through the Postscript's discussion of truth as subjectivity and serves to demonstrate that its appeal to the absurd is a rigorous and logical move. [1] In the end, I aim to clarify both the category of the absurd and the meaning of the claim that truth is subjectivity sufficiently to have shown how it is that rather than logic barring the door to the absurd, it was reason itself who first let it in.
     The section of the Postscript which concerns us, the one claiming that truth is subjectivity, begins with a consideration of the conventional notion of objective truth; as if, in so giving objectivity the first word, it should not deserve to have the last. As early as 1835, in a well-known journal entry, Kierkegaard had already suggested an important contrast between objective truth and the sort of truth he was seeking:
     The thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wishes me to do; the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die. What would be the use of discovering so-called objective truth, of working through all the systems of philosophy and being able, if required, to review them all and show up the inconsistencies within each system; what good would it do me to be able to develop a theory of the state and combine all the details into a single whole, and so construct a world in which I did not live, but only held up to the view of others; what good would it do me to be able to explain the meaning of Christianity if it had no deeper significance for me and for my life. . . [2]
     Passages such as these, so often cited, can actually serve to obscure those deeper points the more strenuous argument of the Postscript alone can take us to since their impassioned appeal trades on an apparent self-evidence that tends to inspire cheering rather than thinking. And yet even if this journal entry Kierkegaard made while in his early twenties does not adequately reflect either the depth of thought or the meaning of the mature claim of the Postscript that "truth is subjectivity," it does rather dramatically introduce what will remain for him an important contrast. Here we find objective truth opposed to the truth Kierkegaard claims to be seeking: a truth which is true for me. After all, if we think about it for a moment, it remains to be seen what possible significance should be attached to the assertion that an objective truth is true for me. For while we might be inclined to make the trivial point that insofar as an objective truth is true for all it is eo ipso true for me, what this turns out to mean is that the extent to which an objective truth is true (for me) is the extent to which it has nothing essentially to do with me as an individual subject. Its "being true for me" is never relevant to an objective truth in its objectivity. Consequently, it is unclear what significance could be attached to an assertion which attempted to emphasize that an objective truth is true for me unless, of couse, it is meant to signify nothing more than that it is objectively true (true for anybody), in which case the additional "for me" scarcely seems to have any significance at all.
     It comes as no surprise that objective truth may, in this sense, be said to be anonymous, since among the essential features of its objectivity is an independence from the individual subject who thinks it. The claim of such truth, what we sometimes refer to as its universal validity, entails that it remain so, and this is as it should be. It is just that the young Kierkegaard is after a truth that concerns me, involves me; a truth that not only makes a difference to me, but which I make a difference to. When he speaks of a "truth which is true for me, " it is meant to signify a truth which is true for the subject in its subjectivity. Just what that designates is precisely what we aim to clarify. And while the means by which the subject is to become involved in truth is not at all evident, it is already being suggested that those ideas which enjoy objective validity are unlikely candidates for doing the job. In fact, we might go so far as to say that to the extent to which an idea is objectively certain it loses its efficacy for serving as the sort of idea which can have subjective import. Following out this line of thinking, the characteristic of objective uncertainty could become a useful criterion for separating out those ideas which can serve to enhance subjectivity from those that have nothing essentially to do with the subject. But we may need to dig a bit to see what this is all about.
     In the same paragraph in which the Postscript discusses the indifference of objective truth to the individual subject, it is twice mentioned that "decisiveness is rooted in subjectivity." [3] In the first instance, this seems clear: that an individual be decisive, that I make a decision, requires that / commit myself. If an idea is objectively uncertain, then my commitment must be grounded in something other than its objective validity, and to this extent it is the objectively uncertain idea which would have priority for involving subjectivity insofar as it demands my commitment; thus we can see how it is that this criterion is introduced. What we may not be able to see is whether it is correct to say that the ground for committing myself to an idea is something other than its objective validity. Apparently, in the sort of committing which we ordinarily take "believing" to be, we seem to do so on the basis of the degree of objective certainty involved. For we are told that rational beliefs are those that adhere to ideas which have achieved the highest degree of objective validity. We might go so far as to say that the more objective plausibility an idea enjoys, the greater the degree of rationality involved in holding it as a belief. And this would seem very well to describe even if not the way people ordinarily make decisions, at least the manner in which they ordinarily ought to.
     Although the above may be a factual description of the most rational manner of committing oneself to beliefs, it does not in any way touch the sort of conceptual point Kierkegaard makes concerning the essential nature of belief. For while objective certainty may, as a matter of fact, be a constituent in the acquisition of some beliefs, he wants to contend that objective uncertainty is more fundamentally related to the concept of belief; related in such an essential way that, without uncertainty, it makes no sense to speak of believing at all. Accordingly, the Postscript presents a quite specific view concerning the relation of knowing and believing. I think we might fairly put its position in the following manner: if I know (am objectively certain about) X, then this precludes the possibility that I believe X, in the relevant sense, that is, where 'believe' signifies my decisively committing myself. Rather, it only becomes appropriate to introduce categories of believing, committing, deciding, when the idea about which we are speaking is objectively uncertain. Imagine someone claiming excitedly that he believes that z + 2 = 4; that he has committed himself decisively to this belief and will stand by it. Here, it seems to me, we cannot be at all sure what it is the person means to be urging upon us. It is like someone saying with pride: "I can draw a square with four sides. " Of course we must agree that a square has four sides and that if anyone draws one then he draws it with four sides, but we may not be able to see what force there is to saying that one can do such a thing. Likewise in the z + z = 4 case. If a person says he believes (has decisively committed himself to the claim) that 2 + z = 4, we would have to inquire whether instead he did not know it; and if he agreed that he certainly did also know it, it would seem quite proper for us to remind him that insofar as this latter is the case he is to that extent not in a position to have to decide in connection with the matter. In fact, to be in a situation in which it becomes relevant to say that I have decided for my part and for myself in a matter, what is at issue cannot be objectively certain. For if it is certain, there is simply no room left for me to make any decision in relationship to it. It is as if the objective uncertainty of an idea constitutes a gap which I must fill with my commitment when I assert my belief in the claim.
     It is important to realize that Kierkegaard's contention concerning the concept of belief, that if an assertion of belief is to be in order what is at issue cannot be objectively certain, is in no way in conflict with the factual matter that once given an idea is objectively uncertain and thus shown to qualify as an object for belief we ordinarily justify our beliefs in terms of the degree of objective certainty the idea in question enjoys. The point remains that objective uncertainty is more essentially (because conceptually) related to believing than is certainty; so much so that if the character of objective uncertainty disappears entirely from an idea (if the idea becomes objectively certain), then the appropriateness of believing also disappears, while if the objective certainty of an idea entirely disappears (if an idea is wholly without objective justification), it is still appropriate to speak of belief. As we shall see, this latter case points toward belief of a unique sort, and one in which the Postscript is specifically interested. For now we need only understand why, in its "definition" of truth, objective uncertainty plays the prominent role; a role which marks more than just an ironic reversal:
     Truth is precisely the venture which chooses an objective uncertainty with the passion of the infinite. [4]
     Nothing could be more misleading than to fail to stress that this is offered as a formula for subjective truth, for the truth of the subject: a formula for subjectivity. It does not signal a rival epistemology aimed at supplanting the labors of objective method with the immediacy of passion. Instead, it provides "a memento of the fork in the road, where the way swings off," [5] for those on the way to their own subjectivity. And this sign at the fork in the road does not direct us by another route to the same place objectivity arrives at in its way. The road to truth, which apparently forks at the concept of belief, has two entirely different destinations.
     Having said this, however, it may still look rather perverse to find one claiming that subjective truth involves holding fast to an idea which is objectively uncertain with unconditional passion, even though the interrelated concepts which accrue to such a notion of truth should now be intelligible to us. I mean, it is now clear that subjective truth necessarily involves some risk, that it is a "venture" in the sense that one has to stake oneself upon an idea which is objectively uncertain; for we know that it is this very uncertainty which makes it possible for one to "choose," to be decisive in the matter. What makes things look perverse nonetheless is the contention that such decisiveness must be unconditional, that one is to be committed with "the passion of the infinite." This suggests a decisiveness in which the individual subject, in committing himself unconditionally to an objective uncertainty, has not only brought his subjectivity into action but intensified it unconditionally into an "infinite" passion, a passionate commitment without bounds or limits, conditions or restrictions. Suddenly "truth" appears to be a kind of infinite stubbornness, just confirming the already popular suspicion that Kierkegaard encourages the subjective obstinacy of the individual, while "subjectivity" appears to signify little more than the obsessive self-assertion of personal opinions (beliefs) in an unwillingness to condition them with regard to the objective evidence available. If we are to move beyond these appearances, we must begin by making a critical distinction that serves further to qualify the sort of idea which is the proper object for unconditional commitment in an attempt to demonstrate that it cannot be one of our ordinary beliefs, and in so doing take a first step toward showing that subjective truth consists in anything but the obstinate assertion of personal opinion.
     To be decisive with respect to an idea which is contingently uncertain is an altogether different matter than to be decisive with respect to an idea which is necessarily and essentially uncertain. There are a number of ways to display this important difference of which I will try just one. Let us return to an issue already alluded to in our discussion of the relation of knowing and believing. Although the qualification for the appropriateness of belief categories lies in objective uncertainty, ordinarily, we said, we justify what is termed a rational belief on the basis of the degree of objective certainty an idea enjoys. In ordinary cases of belief, cases in which an idea is in fact uncertain but in principle certifiable, my decision is based upon an approximation process in which I commit myself to the plausibility that the belief-claim can be confirmed as objectively true. Actually, then, I am basing my decision upon the degree of objective certainty the idea commands, and that means upon the supposition that it could be shown to be objectively certain were it verified. But let us imagine an extraordinary case in which this sort of appeal to approximate objectivity is not appropriate; the case of an idea which is not only objectively uncertain, but in principle not subject to confirmation: an idea which remains necessarily uncertain objectively. In the former, more ordinary case, it makes sense to assert the approximating claim to objective plausibility, that if X were verified it would be confirmed as objectively true. But in the latter extraordinary case, it is clearly senseless to assert that if X were vendable, it would be verified as objectively true, since here we have no idea what it would be like for it to be confirmed, if it is the sort of idea which is not subject to confirmation. All reference to objective plausibility has been strictly excluded, for in this unique case we simply have no recourse to objective grounds in fashioning our belief. Thus, in the one case in which it makes sense to introduce objective considerations into the determination of my belief, it would be irrational were I unwilling to condition belief upon such deliberations, and so perverse to make any such belief the object of unconditional commitment, while in the other case it makes no sense to introduce such deliberations. Here if the subject is to hold fast to the matter in commitment, his decisiveness must begin wholly without the benefit of objective considerations and can never be conditioned by objective evidence, either confirmed or refuted by it, either now or in the future. The category of belief is surely eminently applicable, for objective uncertainty is present in full force; in fact, while it is an extraordinary sort of decisiveness which is involved, if we consider the conditions already delimited for the appropriateness of belief, it would seem that what we are actually faced with is believing in its purest form as a decisive commitment on the part of an individual subject to a belief-claim which is necessarily unconditioned by objective grounds. In the Postscript, this unique variety of belief is called "faith." [6]
     The introduction of a class of ideas which are in principle unconfirmable should naturally incite the question of whether any plausible sense can be made of the suggestion that some ideas are necessarily uncertain objectively. In response, we must attempt to substantiate our position by fixing attention upon a certain sort of idea that plays the central role in Kierkegaard's thinking: the category of paradox. Now when Kierkegaard speaks of a paradox, he seems to mean a self-contradictory idea, that is, an idea whose elements confute one another, which reason cannot reject even though this disparity of elements cannot be resolved. To begin with, then, it is essential to show that paradoxical ideas belong in the class of ideas we are calling necessarily uncertain, for it may appear at first sight that they belong in the class of ideas which are in principle confirmable, and have already been certified as false. If components of an idea confute one another, if an idea is admittedly self-contradictory, we might straightforwardly enough conclude that such ideas are simply nonsensical. And yet at the very heart of the Postscript lies the contention that a distinction is to be made within the class of contradictory ideas between nonsense and paradox. Apparently our language acknowledges something of a distinction when it provides us with the term "paradox." A paradox, in concept, is an idea which while having all the marks of an ordinary contradiction insists upon being treated as a distinctive category since included within it is the claim that its contradictory character is not sufficient for dismissing the idea in question. Given there is, at least, a prima fade distinction between nonsense and the paradoxical ideas which are formally akin to those more ordinary contradictions, the refusal to pursue the difference at this point would seem simply to signal our failure to recognize a difficult and subtle concept. We must, in other words, heed Kierkegaard's own warning and not "succumb to such haste as to fail in making the necessary distinctions." []
     What we would no doubt like to know is whether reason recognizes the difference between paradoxical ideas and ordinary contradiction; whether, even amid contradiction, reason retains the ability to draw a distinction between paradox and nonsense. And this is not a simple question to answer; although Kierkegaard does provide us with some assistance, for his position in the matter is clear. In a note written in 1850, he speaks explicitly of his aim in the Postscript:
     This is what I have developed (for example, in Concluding Postscript) that not every absurdity is the absurd or the paradox. The activity of reason is to distinguish the paradox negatively but no more. The absurd, the paradox, is composed in such a way that reason has no power at all to dissolve it in nonsense; no, it is a symbol, a riddle, a compound riddle about which reason must say: I cannot solve it, it cannot be understood, but it does not follow thereby that it is nonsense. [8]
     When Kierkegaard says that "not every absurdity is the absurd," I take it he means what we would put by saying that not every contradiction is a paradox. We should be clear, however, that when he declares the paradox is not nonsense, he does not mean it is not contradictory. Its contradictory character has been admitted in the claim that "it cannot be understood." Rather, precisely what he is getting at is that, despite this contradictory character, it cannot be dismissed as if it were nonsense. Reason, he is maintaining, has no "power" over the paradox, is somehow not in a position to judge it to be nonsense, simply to dismiss it as necessarily false. Once the paradoxical character of a paradox is discerned, reason in admitting the distinction between paradox and nonsense accepts that it can neither understand the matter since it is formally contradictory, nor solve it (resolve the contradiction), but nonetheless admits that "it does not follow thereby that it is nonsense." For it is not; it is paradox. Although this does not yet tell us how it is that reason, on what basis we might say, is able to make this distinction. It is clear Kierkegaard holds that reason can, indeed must, distinguish paradox from nonsense, that "the activity of reason is to distinguish the paradox negatively," to distinguish it from nonsense. If we can come to understand how it is he thinks reason may do this, we will be able to see in just what sense reason has no power over paradox, and finally be able more convincingly to make our point that paradoxes are to be grouped in the class of necessarily uncertain ideas rather than necessarily false ones. Everything hinges, I think, upon understanding exactly what it means for reason to distinguish the paradox negatively, and why this procedure is itself a necessity for reason. Again, we may be able to get some help from a note of Kierkegaard's, this one written in 1847:
     ... if human science refuses to understand that there is something it cannot understand, or better still, that there is something about which it clearly understands that it cannot understand it then all is confusion. For it is the duty of the human understanding to understand that there are things which it cannot understand and what those things are. Human understanding has vulgarly occupied itself with nothing but understanding, but if it would only take the trouble to understand itself at the same time it would simply have to posit the paradox. [9]
     It is the final line which is so suggestive of a deep point Kierkegaard seems to be making, a point which claims an essential relation between reason and paradox by implying that insofar as reason reflects upon its own nature, it must posit the paradox; that, in effect, paradox is necessarily involved in reason's self-definition. Of course, the passage begins claiming that if reason is to understand itself, it must understand that there are matters it cannot understand, understand its own limitations, and that seems trite enough. It would be, were it not for the fact that the passage actually proceeds to explain how it is that reason is to go about finding its limits: reason encounters its limit when it faces paradox; and only in so delimiting its nature does human reason come to be aware of its own finitude. A naive reason which has not come face to face with paradox cannot know itself, is a reason confounded by its finitude, for it generates the illusion of infinity as it endlessly circles within its own domain, but never tests the limits. Self-conscious reason, on the other hand, knows its boundaries by having come up against them, and this is exactly the way in which it serves "to distinguish the paradox negatively." The realm of paradox begins just where reason arrives at its end and knows itself to have come to a limit in confronting its own demise, for reason distinguishes the paradox as that in the face of which it is halted. Kierkegaard is arguing that this breakdown belongs to the nature of reason itself, is, as he calls it, "the supreme passion of reason." [10] We have put the same point in a different way by saying that a finite reason seeking self-definition is bound to posit the paradox. Reason cannot define itself without the paradox, while paradox in turn is only delimited through reason's ruin. This indispensable relationship does not arise as a result of the dialectical, that is, empty conceptual requirement for otherness, but out of the concrete understanding of what it is for human reason to become conscious of its finitude. The moment reason posits the paradox and the moment of reason's self-definition are one and the same.
     For paradox to be delimited negatively, then, depends upon the breakdown of reason while this coming up against its own limits is for reason a demand of its self-definition. This means that the positing of paradox does not occur through the dismissal of reason, but instead presupposes its rigorous application:
     It is easy enough to leap away from the toilsome task of developing and sharpening the understanding, and so get a louder hurrah, and to defend oneself against every accusation by remarking that it is a higher understanding. So the believing Christian not only possesses but uses his understanding, respects the universal-human, . . . but in relation to Christianity he believes against the understanding and in this case also uses understanding ... to make sure that he believes against the understanding. Nonsense therefore he cannot believe against the understanding, for precisely the understanding will discern that it is nonsense and will prevent him from believing it; but he makes so much use of the understanding that he becomes aware of the incomprehensible, and then holds to this, believing against the understanding."
     Only the relentless employment of reason can guarantee that its breakdown is genuine, that it occurs in the face of the incomprehensible, of that which cannot be understood, not in the face of that which we have simply not bothered to understand. In so doing, far from reason being abandoned, it supplies a criterion on the basis of which paradox can be distinguished from nonsense, guaranteeing that what faith believes does not fall below the conditions of reason, but is actually beyond them. How this nonetheless demands believing "against the understanding," and what that has to do with Christianity, we shall consider shortly. For now we need only take it to mean that all decisive commitment which is related to paradox, although delimited as paradox with the aid of reason, must be decided wholly without the benefit of rational deliberations. That is, ideas which are paradoxical in Kierkegaard's sense, as necessarily uncertain objectively, are not subject to the procedures of objective confirmation and so not only remain uncertain necessarily, but allow for the relevance of no rational evidence. They are ideas which reason relates to in a strictly negative way in admitting that it can neither understand nor dismiss them, and thus they call forth a form of belief which is in no sense conditional upon reason.
     It should be plain by now that our aim has been to define a class of ideas not subject to reason's jurisdiction (except with regard to delimiting the realm), and that this is precisely the domain of ideas a finite reason is forced to concede upon reflection on its own nature. Originally we spoke of ideas which remain necessarily uncertain objectively, and have now seen that reason is always stopped from the start by paradox's formal constitution. As a self-contradictory idea, a paradox succeeds nonetheless in its evasion of objectivity because it is so constituted that reason lacks the power to pass judgment upon it, and any attempt to do so would simply result in the confounding of categories as the fecundity of paradox would be dissolved into the vacuity of ordinary contradictions. A self-conscious reason exercises no judgment over paradoxical ideas since in facing paradox reason knows itself to have come to its own limit, halted before a sphere over which it enjoys no influence. We may conclude, then, that insofar as paradox makes its home in a domain of ideas outside reason's dominion, not only is the set of ideas which are necessarily uncertain objectively not empty, but that ideas from out of this sphere suggest themselves as candidates for the sort of unconditional decisiveness involved in faith, suggest themselves as possible objects for a belief which may, without perversity, be unconditionally held to.
     Having just argued that reason is in a position to discern the difference amid contradiction between paradox and nonsense, and that such paradoxical ideas are the appropriate candidates for the kind of unconditional commitment we earlier discussed in conjunction with the concept of faith, we still need to understand the relationship between faith and its object more clearly, although before doing that it will be necessary to show that even within the realm of paradox there is a further distinction to be made. By pursuing the question of the relation between reason and what Kierkegaard has called "the incomprehensible," we may be able to take a final step which will allow us to distinguish among paradoxes those which are absolute, or intrinsically paradoxical, from those which are relative, or extrinsically paradoxical. Only having finally defined with conceptual precision the absolute paradox which is paradoxical in and through itself will we have come to the Kierkegaardian category of the absurd. And only then will we have arrived at that deepest point in his thought on the basis of which alone the rest can be properly seen.
     Right from the start, however, I would like to be able to offer some sign of the depth of that point by reasserting in another way the specific character of the finitude of reason as we are to think it. For to the extent to which we have discussed it thus far one may have been somewhat misled, even if intentionally, into conceding the not unfashionable claim that human reason is finite. To make out the further distinction between paradoxes, we will need to look more carefully at the radical position the Postscript assumes on the finitude of reason; rather unlike, I would contend, the position much of modern philosophy since Kant is accustomed to. The difference might be briefly put this way: while for modern thought the incomprehensible is incomprehensible because human reason is finite, for Kierkegaard reason is finite because the incomprehensible is incomprehensible. It is quite easy unintentionally to abolish the most basic point about the paradox designated as the absurd by dissolving its absolutely paradoxical character into the relativity of a finite reason; by understanding paradox to be paradoxical because human reason is finite when the argument of the Postscript must be claiming just the reverse. To show this, and to flesh out some of the conceptual discussion so far, we can offer in illustration two concrete examples and try to draw from them the relevant conclusions.
     The Postscript's discussion of Socrates, a philosopher who is more things to more thinkers than perhaps any other, centers around what it calls the Socratic paradox, a belief at the very basis of the entire Socratic position, and which may be framed in the following claim:
     The eternal truth can come to be related to an individual existing in time.
     Now one needs to think long and hard about the structure of this belief-claim to appreciate fully the way in which it exploits the formal constitution of paradox. Here we can only suggest how the Postscript hopes to display a manner of relating to this claim as paradox quite different from our manner of relating to ordinary contradictions; a mode of relation that determines the originality of the Socratic stance. If, as we shall simply assume, one admits a contradiction in the claim, they may nonetheless not be required to dismiss it as nonsense. Instead, and in accord with our earlier analysis, insofar as the contradiction accedes to the level of paradox, reason is held in abeyance and remains unable to settle the matter by a simple rejection. According to Kierkegaard, the Socratic move, and Socrates' distinctive greatness, consists in the attempt to establish and preserve an appropriate relationship to this paradox as paradox: that truth is eternal and human beings exist in time, in which case any manifestation of truth for them must itself be contradictory (paradoxical), actually provides the foundation for Socratic ignorance. Such "ignorance," of course, is not the stupidity of thoughtlessness, but as interpreted by Kierkegaard constitutes the most thoughtful relationship Socrates deemed possible for existing individuals to an eternal truth that cannot be known in time. Socratic ignorance counts as a paradoxical relationship to truth (itself invoking the paradox that we relate to truth through ignorance) and as such serves to maintain a relationship to eternal truth for an individual existing in time, just as the self-dissolving character of his "dialectic" reflects the method by means of which this quite subtle and ironic condition of human existence may be cultivated and secured.
     But we must forgo further discussion of the sense in which Socratic ignorance is a relationship to eternal truth and instead fix our attention on the paradoxical character of the Socratic paradox; if, that is, we are to appreciate the "advance" Kierkegaard promises to make over it. As may not be obvious, the possibility for the accession of the above contradiction to the status of paradox in large measure consists in the fact that it is designed to implicate reason in the paradox from the start. For the contradiction about eternal truth is framed in such a way that it arises as a result of our situation as existors in time, indicting human being as the source of the paradox and in effect accusing human reason of finitude. Obviously that very human reason responsible for the paradox, guilty of finitude, is in no position to pass judgment upon it, and thus the contradiction is allowed to accede to the level of paradox. In fact, not only is reason accused of finitude in the paradox, but the belief-claim is so constructed that it attempts to make reason testify against itself: questioned about paradox, if reason rejects the claim as nonsense, it admits there is no access to truth and negates the truth of its own rejection. If it admits the possibility of access to eternal truth in time, it must logically conclude that there is a contradiction involved. Thus, the Socratic belief-claim seems maintainable only by admitting it to the realm of paradox.
     Unfortunately, this is merely semblance, since the strategy of the paradox, in setting up its appeal by indicting reason as its source such that any rejection as nonsense would appear as a lack of sophistication on reason's part, actually turns out to be self-defeating. For such an approach relativizes the paradox from the start; it insures that truth remain paradoxical for a finite, temporal reason, that truth is incomprehensible for us, but not on that account incomprehensible in itself. In so doing, the way is left open for the dissolution of the paradox, in fact by Plato, in a theory of recollection which simply supposes access to truth insofar as we may ourselves be eternal. Such a solution, and this is all that is important for our purposes, is plainly dependent upon the truth itself being intelligible; dependent upon the supposition actually created by the Socratic strategy that while truth may be paradoxical for those in time, it is not paradoxical in itself, and consequently while access to truth would be denied to those wholly in time, it should be available to that aspect of us which is eternal. The result, then, is that the Socratic paradox can be mediated just because, of course, it is only a relative paradox.
     To guard against the possibility of mediation, so as to "advance" beyond the Socratic position, the Postscript must propose the absolute paradox it designates as the absurd to be a paradox that is paradoxical in and through itself; a paradox not accidentally paradoxical, that is, relative to us, but essentially paradoxical. In contrast to the Socratic example, the absurd would arise only were the eternal truth itself inherently contradictory, and so capable of generating a paradox not subject to dissolution. Needless to say, Kierkegaard has a quite specific case in mind here. On his view, Christianity posits such a paradox in the person of Christ, for in the event of God-man it is the eternal truth itself which enters into time, is born and dies. Thus the contradiction between time and eternity does not arise as the result of our situation, but is inherent to the truth itself when the eternal, infinite, necessary God becomes a temporal, finite, free man. This, in the strictest sense for Kierkegaard, is the absurd, and it represents a crucial step beyond Socrates:
     When Socrates believed that there was a God, he held fast to the objective uncertainty with the whole passion of his inwardness, and it is precisely in this contradiction and in this risk, that faith is rooted. Now it is otherwise. Instead of the objective uncertainty, there is here a certainty, namely, that objectively it is absurd; and this absurdity held fast in the passion of inwardness is faith. The Socratic ignorance is as a witty jest in comparison with the earnestness of facing the absurd; and the Socratic existential inwardness is as Greek light-mindedness in comparison with the grave strenuosity of faith. [11]
     When Socrates believed there was a God (eternal truth), he believed what was impossible for him to know, since that there is an eternal truth remains for an individual existing in time necessarily uncertain objectively. So Socrates believed; he committed himself and through that subjective decisiveness instituted the only sort of relationship to truth he thought available to him: one of ignorance. On the Socratic view, however, there is nothing objectively impossible about there being an eternal truth; it is just that an individual existing in time could not know it, or maintain a relationship to it, except paradoxically. For the Christian, on the other hand, there is not this uncertainty, but an uncanny sort of certainty that the proffered matter for belief in the case of the God-man claim is, strictly speaking, absurd. It does not simply remain uncertain for a finite reason that God exists since it is now objectively impossible. According to a view of God which entails the God-man claim, the highest truth itself is contradictory, is not just paradoxical relative to a finite reason, but absolutely paradoxical. And of that, reason may be certain. [13]
     Now if anyone would like to see these two specific cases developed in greater detail they need only consult the Postscript. Our immediate concern is not with the examples themselves, but with what they exemplify. For they are designed to display two very different sorts of paradoxes, both relevant to the issues we have been discussing, and yet whose difference determines the necessity of the introduction of the category of the absurd. The Socratic position, exemplifying a paradox founded upon a self-conscious reason coming to be aware of its own finitude, nonetheless remains that of a relative paradox and in the subtlest of ways allows for the possibility of objective consolation. It is altogether reasonable that the ultimate, eternal truth should remain uncertain for those of us existing in time without in any way undermining the objective possibility that there is such truth. Finite human reason is obliged to withhold judgment, but only because it has determined that it is ultimately reasonable for it to be incapable of judging such matters, humanly speaking. Thus when truth is paradoxical only relative to a finite reason, the commitment involved (in Socratic ignorance) has in the most subtle of ways been mediated and thus moderated by rational considerations, in which case it yields a subjective decisiveness that is something less than absolute; in fact, it is characterized as "child's play" in comparison with the subjectivity faith demands.
     The position the Postscript proposes, therefore, must be far more radical, since it is designed, if we may press the image, to bring subjectivity to full maturity. When truth is not paradoxical because reason is finite but reason finite because the highest truth is absurd, the last hope for objective consolation is crushed, and the possibility for a commitment utterly unadulterated by objectivity presents itself. In this case, human reason is no longer in the Socratic position of graciously admitting its finitude and withholding judgment while covertly holding out the possibility that the highest truth may nonetheless be objectively true, even if it happens as a matter of fact to be beyond the scope of, human reason to know it. Here we must appreciate that such nominal admissions of the limitation of human reason are actually a plea to retain its integrity. For reason confesses its limits with the hope of securing a self-imposed finitude which allows it to remain committed to itself as the ultimate standard, concealing the sovereignty this "finite" reason has usurped in setting itself up as the sole and final judge of all, including its own finitude. From where a finite reason receives the warrant of self-determination in matters of its finitude remains a problem of its own. We need only contrast that situation with one in which the polite uncertainty of Socratic ignorance is replaced by a rude collision with the absurd, when reason is compelled to sacrifice its autonomy and face the genuine meaning of finitude as determination by another. When reason encounters the absurd, it is forced into its finitude by this other, by the very prospect that there is a highest reality which is in no way rational, and as such human understanding faces up to the truth of finitude, to the radical limits of a reason being demolished against the incomprehensible. Now reason can no longer dominate the paradox, explaining away its paradoxical character by determining it to be paradoxical only relative to finite human reason; it can no longer relativize the paradox at all. For reason's finitude no longer determines the absurd; the absurd now determines the finitude of reason and forces the confession of limitation in such a way that it deposes the sovereignty of reason, overthrows it, expels and repels it by excluding it from relevance to the establishment of a relationship to that which is ultimate. Accordingly, reason is not only stunned by its halting collision with the absurd, it is repulsed. And only in the dynamics between such objective revulsion and the subjective devotion required to remain related to the absurd can the extremity of faith be generated.
     To understand this last claim is to have followed the direction of the entire argument as we have developed it; an argument without which the cry of "irrationalism" could already be forming on the lips of the more philosophically-minded. If we recall, however, the discussion which has led us to this point began simply in posing the question of how an individual might come to be involved in the matter of truth. The traditional notion of objective truth seemed strangely irrelevant to finding our way to a truth which is true for me in the sense of truth for the subject in its subjectivity. In fact, objective uncertainty provided a more promising criterion for distinguishing those ideas which might have subjective import, and this led us to a consideration of the category of belief. Without rehearsing the steps of the argument, it confirmed that objective uncertainty is conceptually related to belief, and that the decisiveness of belief entails the subjectivity of the subject. Based on this conceptual clarification, we proposed as the purest form of belief the commitment to a necessarily uncertain idea which most completely involves the subject in that its decisiveness is unconditionally subjective, that is, cannot be conditioned by objective deliberation. To unpack the meaning of "faith" in this sense, it was necessary to determine the appropriate object of unconditional commitment. As a result of that rather involved determination, we have not only found that no ordinary belief is a possible candidate for such commitment, but that even among paradoxes there is properly one and only one object of faith given the exacting requirements it imposes. The absurd alone presents the occasion for a commitment which is absolutely subjective. If an individual is to establish a relationship to the absurd, it must be in the absolute purity of subjectivity, a decisive commitment wholly unmediated by objectivity, and in fact made over and against reason without the slightest hope of objective consolation.
     The absurd, as the most extreme form of paradox, not only renders categories of belief and decision eminently appropriate, but the conceptual force it exerts moves these matters to a sphere utterly unlike the one in which our ordinary belief-claims are at home, and actually is so unique as to demand what no other object of belief can. Through the introduction of the absurd, objective repulsion gets heightened to its highest pitch, while all forms of objective mediation, even the most subtle (of the Socratic position), come to be absolutely excluded and consequently the subjective devotion required to establish such a relationship is itself intensified absolutely. Here we must see that rather than simply increasing the demand for the involvement of the subject as the uncertainty of the belief-claim increases, the removal of the last trace of objectivity forces matters to the extreme. Facing the absurd, an occasion is provided for inciting the most extreme form of subjectivity which must be thought as a distinctive condition of the subject. In that case, "subjectivity" no longer signifies what it ordinarily does; it does not refer to some vague variety of inner states and feelings, personal opinions or inclinations, but strictly and exclusively to an absolute aspect of the subject which is penetrated in the face of the absurd; a distinctive form of subjectivity which can only be invoked in the establishment of a relationship, beyond and against reason, to the absurd. In the unique situation in which objectivity is absolutely excluded, subjectivity becomes absolutely included; that is, an absolutely unconditional commitment calls for an absolutely unconditional subjectivity, and it is this alone to which the claim that "truth is subjectivity" refers. Pure subjectivity is possible in virtue of the absurd, since only it can satisfy the requirements for the object of unconditional commitment subjective truth demands.
     To follow the necessity of the introduction of the category of the absurd, then, is to be led along a road that forks at the concept of belief because at this junction a split occurs between the cognitive and the noncognitive. Only by taking the latter fork in the crossroad do we proceed in that direction, leading away from objectivity, in which faith has the opportunity to become its own positive category, its own distinctive and irreducible relation to the ultimate. When it does, when faith ceases to be treated as a form of cognition and instead comes to be acknowledged as a unique variety of noncognitive belief (unconditional decisiveness), it becomes subjectivity. Finding our way to this aspect of our selves, to subjectivity, demands that we be drawn in the direction we have; for the absurd is the proper object of faith. [14] This means that the absurd alone and in its own way can exercise the influence required to incite the subject into the purity of faith, into pure subjectivity. The absurd alone has the power to render irrelevant all cognitive evidence, removing matters from the relativizing sphere of reason, and yet still appeal to us to establish an absolute relationship to it, unmediated by objectivity and thus capable of generating unconditional subjectivity. But if such subjectivity is possible in virtue of the absurd, which alone can satisfy the unique conditions the truth of the subject imposes, then the introduction of the category of the absurd into the discussion of truth as subjectivity in the Postscript is certainly neither capricious nor irrational. It follows necessarily from the logic of an argument whose presentation we have finally completed.
     I am afraid, however, that the philosophically-minded may still be a bit skeptical if not a little irritated. Although our position can appear reasonable enough, some may nonetheless contend that such appearances simply mask an even deeper irrationality. For while one might go so far as to concede that the argument shows the absurd must be introduced if subjectivity in the relevant sense is to be possible, they may still find it strange and scarcely rational to base an objective argument upon the requirements for subjective truth. After all, only now at a more fundamental level, they may charge that the very seeking of subjective truth upon which the entire argument is based amounts to an incipient act of irrationalism, and cannot legitimately found a rational argument. I think, on the contrary, that such a charge simply misses the full point, and that to appreciate the conclusion of our argument it is necessary to understand that the meaning of "subjective truth" hardly signifies what those who would accuse it of irrationalism fear. We need, in the end, to show that subjective truth is not "subjective" in any ordinary sense of the term, nor even is "truth" being employed in a particularly exotic way, but in fact that the seeking of subjectivity is demanded by the very nature of truth when clearly thought, not based upon the vague whims of individuals who are simply asserting their personal preference for the irrational.
     Truth is subjectivity, the Postscript claims, and we keep adding: when it is the truth of the subject at issue. This addition is made to indicate that "subjective truth" does not refer to a truth which is subjective so much as to a subjectivity which is true. Seen in this way, the claim that truth is subjectivity is not designed to assert the subjectivity of truth, but to direct us to the truth of subjectivity: what it is, in truth, to be a subject. It is completely clear that the Postscript does not count inner states or feelings, emotions, opinions, personal preferences, or whatever else we ordinarily associate with the term "subjective" as what is ultimately pertinent to being a subject. Rather, it seeks to define a pure or absolute subjectivity which is what should count as truth for a subject; a certain and specific form of subjectivity, arrived at only by performing the sort of act the argument we have presented delimits, in which the subject comes into its own as a subject. Until one is capable of performing such an act, subjectivity has not come into play; one simply does not yet exist as a subject, has not yet become (sufficiently) subjective. Thus the argument seeks to determine a precise meaning for "subjective" in order to defend a specific condition of the subject as that alone in which one is certified as a subject, in which alone one achieves subjective truth (the truth of the subject). While all genuine decisiveness may to a greater or lesser extent bring subjectivity into play, what it is truly to be a subject is not realized except in that absolute commitment which in reaching the depth of the pure subject certifies one as a subject. And since this absolute subjectivity, this specific condition of the subject, provides us with the truth of the subject (what it is in truth to be a subject), it makes perfect sense to contend that truth is subjectivity (of the sort here defined) when it is the truth of the subject at issue. The lines of the argument we have followed are drawn from that point at which the way swings off, and are determined not by a desire to reduce truth to subjectivity, but to induce subjectivity into its own truth: to deduce how one is to go about becoming a certified subject.
     On this account, we must finally come to see that the Postscript's infamous claim that "truth is subjectivity" is anything but a subjectivizing of truth and in no way whatsoever asserts its relativity to the individual. On the one hand, the understanding of the Postscript I have recommended emphasizes that subjective truth, insofar as it exclusively involves the truth of the subject, is not in any way aimed at reducing or replacing objectivity. In fact, we have made it clear from the start that any belief-claim which can in principle be objectively confirmed as true or false is eo ipso excluded as a possible candidate relevant to subjective truth. Such a position, quite clearly, in no way aims to replace objectivity with subjectivity, although it does fairly assume that it is no less a violation of subjectivity to apply criteria and procedures of objective truth to it than it would be a violation of objectivity to substitute for its methods the immediacy of passion. The aim is not to provide an alternative to objectivity in the sense of a procedure to supplant it, but to protect against its violation of subjectivity by providing an appropriate formula for subjective truth. There can be no doubt that the argument we have developed begins admitting the appropriateness of objective truth to the truth of objects and on that very basis insists that the truth of subjects cannot be arrived at by the same route. The formula for subjectivity lays out the procedures for finding the way to truth when it is the truth of the subject at issue, procedures which lead us to the subject in its truth just as objective method claims to take us to the truth of objects. For subjectivity, in the way the Postscript uses that term, is not simply given as a property of subjects, but is arrived at only after following a road equally as long as, though leading away from, the one to objectivity; a route with an entirely different destination and which, in pursuit of the subjectivity of the subject, has been shown necessarily to lead in the direction of the absurd.
     But if the Postscript argues from an essential ambiguity in the nature of truth between objective and subjective, and if we hope to show that the claim that truth is subjectivity in no way relativizes or subjectivizes truth, then even if objectivity is shown not to be compromised, it must be maintained on the other hand that neither is subjective truth relativized to individuals. This also follows from the argument, and is not so difficult to make out if we appreciate the meaning of "truth" as certification, as well as the specific sense of "subjectivity" the entire argument develops. Far from subjective truth being relative to individuals, it actually demands on the contrary the cultivation of a condition of the subject in which and on the basis of which any individual may be certified as an individual subject. The nature of this condition, the nature of the subject in its truth, in other words, the nature of subjective truth is obviously not determined by personal whim or inclination since the argument of the Postscript we have presented is itself designed to provide a standard criterion for certification as a subject. So long as we think that "subjectivity" refers to some properties of the subject, like its inner states or feelings, its opinions or inclinations, even its "passion" if that is taken to mean personal enthusiasm or excitement, we have missed the point. For the Postscript treats subjectivity not as some vague property all subjects are characterized by, but instead as a specific condition which must be instituted by those individuals who are to become subjects; it contends that subjectivity exists only as a relationship to the absurd. The task of becoming subjective, of becoming a subject, which is the topic of the relevant parts of the Postscript requires in its matured form the performance of an act of absolute subjectivity, and we should not need to repeat that the absurd is introduced into the argument just because it alone sets up the conditions in which such an act is possible; because it is required for the sake of the generation of an absolute subject. The result is that the criterion for subjective truth is strictly set, is in no sense relative to each individual, since it involves a specific condition of the subject which is determined by the argument, and whose requirements can be objectively stated, as we have been doing, even if it must at the same time be clear that the condition itself is not established through such objectivity, that is, cannot be realized in thought, but only in act. [15]
     The Postscript, then, in arguing from an essential ambiguity in the nature of truth, founded upon the subject/object split, is not being irrational by suggesting that the way to truth also splits in reflecting this distinction. That there should be a fork in the road to truth is quite reasonable assuming the modern claim that subjects and objects are beings of radically different kinds, in which case it becomes evident that the truth of the subject cannot be arrived at via that route leading to objectivity, to the truth of objects. Thus the seeking of subjectivity is called for by this duality at the heart of truth, and is not, as some may conveniently assume, the result of a narcissistic obsession on Kierkegaard's part with his own individuality. If one, nonetheless, detects a degree of the latter motive in the tone of that passage from the journal with which we began our discussion, they have sensed the reason we should be suspicious of such early entries, which must now appear vague and almost misleading in comparison with the mature position of the Postscript. The precision of the argument we have presented should be sufficient evidence of the precision intended in its claim that "truth is subjectivity," a claim suggesting nothing so nebulous as that often cited journal entry which while showing the direction of young Kierkegaard's passion at the same time shows it to be as yet untempered by the clarity of thought later to be introduced and insisted upon. For the Postscript ultimately represents a passion refined by argument into a new form of thought that can neither ignore reason for some mindless relation to the absurd nor avoid the absurd in an exclusive commitment to reason, but hones subjectivity through the interplay of both.
     Consequently, it is no coincidence that in Kierkegaard's major philosophical work the category of the absurd plays its most prominent and promising role. In fact, we mean finally to be suggesting that it is precisely through the introduction of the absurd that the Postscript attains to its philosophical stature, for it is by this means that it finds a way to address itself, in an original manner, to the topic of such fundamental work: the question of the nature of thinking. Its philosophical significance lies in its attempt to contribute to philosophy a new form of thought that meets the ambiguity in the nature of truth and treats the rift between reason and the absurd. To that end, the Postscript, through both form and content, tries to establish the domain of a new "subjective thinker" by exhibiting reason and the absurd as extremities necessarily complementing one another: reason can only find its limit in the absurd while the absurd can only be delimited by and for reason.16 What makes the Postscript a monumental philosophical work, then, is not just its aim to lay out the logic of the absurd, but the way in which, in so doing, it attempts to establish a new intimacy between reason and the absurd; to bring them so intimately and inseparably together that through their interplay a broader field of thought might come to be defined. We have ourselves barely contributed to the clarification of that relationship, and only touched upon the new way of thinking it is intended to open up, in the argument sketched here. We have shown how the common assumption that logic must bar the door to the absurd not only underestimates the radical contentiousness which is the nobility of reason, but blocks us from even taking a first step toward that new way of thinking; a step which may begin simply enough in the understanding of an argument which depends upon our being convinced that, if the absurd is reason's consummate playmate, we as philosophers should neither be surprised nor disappointed to find our own favorite inviting it into the game.17
     For further discussion of this issue, as well as the one mentioned in note 15, see my paper "Kierkegaard on Belief Without Justification," in International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, vol. XII, no. 3, pp. 149-64. We need only note in passing that on this basis the topic of the absurd must be limited to the philosophical works, to the works of reason.
     A much earlier version of this paper appeared in The Philosophy Research Archives, vol. V, no. i, pp. 161-81. It has benefited in its revision from a set of very careful comments by readers for the PRA, from discussion at a faculty colloquium at the University of Kansas, and from interrogation by participants in discussions following its presentation at the University of California, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz campuses. To those who contributed, it should be evident. Finally, I would like to acknowledge a Research Grant from the Graduate School of LSU at Baton Rouge which allowed me the time to complete the present version.
     
     [1] I am, of course, here referring to Book II, Part II, Chapter II, and more specifically to pages 173-89 of the Swenson and Lowrie translation of Kierkegaard's Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1941), and must stipulate from the start that our conclusions are restricted to the argument of this section. For our purposes, all references to Kierkegaard refer strictly to the philosophical position expressed in the Postscript, and should not be taken to extend to his religious view, which is an entirely different matter. In fact, recent philological research has indicated that the topic of the absurd is itself limited to the philosophical work (see especially A. McKinnon's "Kierkegaard's Irrationalism Revisited" in International Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 9, pp. 165-76), and so too then will be our comments on it.
     [2] Sören Kierkegaard, The Journals of Seren Kierkegaard, translated by Alexander Dru, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), p. 44.
     [3] Postscript, p. 173.
     [4] Postscript, p. 182.
     [5] Postscript, p. 18 .
     [6] Wittge
nstein seems to suggest a similar sense of "believe" in his lectures on religious belief: "There are instances where you have faith where you say Ί believe' and on the other hand this belief does not rest on the fact on which our ordinary everyday beliefs normally rest ... the point is that if there were evidence, this would in fact destroy the whole business. Anything I normally call evidence wouldn't in the slightest influence me." Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology, and Religious Belief (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), pp. 54-56.
     [7] Postscript, p. 185.
     [8] Sren Kierkegaard's Journals and Papers, vol. i, edited and translated by H. V. and E. H. Hong (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967), p. 5.
     [9] The Journals of Soren Kierkegaard, pp. 117-18.
     [10] Sören Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1962), p. 46. See, actually, the whole of Chapter III of these fragments to which the work we are mainly considering is the postscript. Postscript, p. 504.
     [11] Postscript, p. 188.
     [13] Of course, the "certainty" of the Christian position does not put the category of belief out of play, since what is certain is not the object of belief, nor could it be if our earlier analysis is correct. What is certain is the complex claim "'Christ is God-man' is absurd," while the object for belief is expressed by the simple sentence contained within the complex statement, namely, "Christ is God-man." That this latter claim is necessarily uncertain objectively is now guaranteed by the certainty that it is absurd, that it is a paradox which is paradoxical in and through itself. There is more to it, but that will be discussed in what follows.
     [14] Postscript, p. 189.
     [15] Thus Kierkegaard can say in the Papers, in reference to a section near the end of the Postscript (p. 540): "In all the usual talk that Johannes Climacus is mere subjectivity etc., it has been completely overlooked that in addition to all his other concretions, he points out in one of the last sections that the remarkable thing is that there is a How with the characteristic that when the How is scrupulously rendered the What is also given, that this is the How of 'faith.' Right here, at its very maximum, inwardness is shown to be objectivity. And this, then, is a turning of the subjectivity-principle, which, so far as I know, has never before been carried through or accomplished in this way." (Journals and Papers, vol. 4, pp. 351-52., my emphasis).
     
     
     

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