Kierkegaard, the father of existentialism, is often seen as a philosophical iconoclast, who rejects excessive formalism and instead believes in the subjectivity of the autonomous individual; autonomy for him is the best guide to what people should do ethically and ethics could in its turn enable the individual to approach knowledge through faith. This philosopher was thus often concerned with the nature of truth and knowledge especially in regard to articles of faith. It is commonly known that biblical Christianity is founded on the truths of God’s word. Kierkegaard’s claim that knowledge or truth can be achieved through subjectivity is therefore at first glance incomprehensibly elusive. However, it should be taken into account that Kierkegaard is basing his ideas on a criticism of Hegel’s approach to the nature of absolute knowledge. Hegel claimed namely that human beings could possess absolute knowledge and certainty through a careful and rational analysis of human existence. John Climacus, a 7th century monk, argued in his turn against this idea by noting that an acceptance of this approach would imply that knowing is more important for Christians than believing; two acts that are very different at the core because of the qualitative difference between knowledge and faith. (Garrett) Kierkegaard’s major emphasis in this regard is that Christian life is founded on more than a simple belief in an orthodox doctrine. For this reason, when Kierkegaard underlines the need for subjectivity to reach knowledge he is merely claiming that all human beings “must appropriate the truth of whatever they believe if it is truly to take hold of their lives.” (Garrett). In short, Kierkegaard argues thus that a rational life is indeed a moral life, and a moral life is a religious life. Morality and ethics consequently inevitably lead to religion. Under such a supposition, the ethical individual would surmise his task as “becoming less the individual or particular and more the universal” (JSTOR 161). The goal becomes the unification of the particular and the universal. Under such a unity, truth is revealed as truth is in what is ethical, and what is ethical is determined by reason.
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Contrasting Kierkegaard’s views with the Kantian approach to faith and knowledge enables also for a closer understanding of the philosophers’ ideas. To Kierkegaard is it not Kantian reason which leads to God but faith. One cannot make a rational decision towards that which has no facts, no proof, and no certainty. The ethical thrives on the certainty of truth through reason. The religious cannot have such a luxury. It is not rational decision-making, rather, it is faith. Kierkegaard refers to the transition from the ethical to the third stage as the ‘Leap of Faith’. The Leap of Faith is the third stage in Kierkegaard’s theory of overcoming the paradox which is an apparently true statement that however leads to a contradiction or a situation that goes against one’s intuition. It can only be resolved when the contradiction is shown as apparent. Kierkegaard’s story of Abraham exhibits such a paradox. Abraham could not prove he heard a voice yet he believed and was willing to risk his son based on this belief. Through Abraham’s story Kierkegaard shows that the paradox of faith rests on the idea that the believer acts on less than complete knowledge. Kierkegaard believed however that humans ought to have faith by the virtue of the absurd, which is because something is contradictory at nature. (Kierkegaard)
The leap of faith, that is often associated with the emergence of existentialism, is therefore Kierkegaard’s response to a problem which is essentially Kantian in origin and structure. Kierkegaard wants to accommodate both the Kantian interpretation of morality as a rational command and Kant’s insistence on morality as the sole point of access to religion, while rejecting the Kantian moralization of religion and rationalization of faith. The leap of faith is not, as existentialism would have it, an absolute beginning in philosophy or in individual reflection but a transition from morality to religion within an essentially Kantian context. This point is not only of historical but also of systematic value. From the standpoint of Kantian philosophy its value lies in the attempt to establish a connection between morality and religion which preserves morality as a rational command but which also avoids the Kantian reduction of religion to morality and faith to reason. From the standpoint of Kierkegaard’s existentialist’s successors it advances the argument that morality understood as a rational command is that condition without which the subject can make no progress toward objective and universal truth, which leads to its avoidance of the separation of reason and choice and ends consequently in subjectivism.
Kierkegaard sees faith as the abandonment of all else before it in order to wholly accept it. One cannot coldly and rationally choose to accept faith because it has the greatest utility or merit. This would still be the ethical stage in religious clothing. The third stage, according to Kierkegaard, needs passion to survive; it needs the unknown, and the Leap of Faith. If the particular is not faithfully accepted but is rather critically scrutinized, then the religious stage will inevitably suffer the same fate of a moral dilemma that deprives the ethical stage from eternal happiness. According to Kierkegaard, the religious stage is spared only by the ethical paradox through faith. . It is interesting to note that while philosophers as Kant believe that morality and religion are one so the jump is seamless, Kierkegaard believes the step requires an evolution of thought because “one cannot move from a set of moral premises to a religious conclusion if morality, which is expressed conceptually, is understood as commands based on reason while religion, which is expressed paradoxically, is understood as promise based on faith” (JSTOR 164).
Kierkegaard’s views regarding the nature of rational knowledge attainment through faith rests thus on several principles as has been illustrated. The Leap of faith has been discussed. Another aspect to his ideas is the ethical individual as part of this complicated process. The ethical individual must be like a judge, closely and impartially evaluating all information and evidence presented before making an educated decision. The imagery of the judge represents the epitome of rationalist ideology. He is a character which tries to equate ethics with rational decisions. The judge seeks to distance his self from social relations and personal desires so that he is like a force of nature. With such impartiality, he hopes that he can logically deduce the correct decision to any situation like an artificial intelligence. The judge attempts to “watch the scales of relative merit and announce one’s choice only after observing a clear tip in one direction. It is, the Judge might say, a foolproof method for determining which choice will produce the most appropriate action” (Friedman 160). Through such certainty, an ethicist could be said to demystify the world. One who can act without doubt and knows exactly what decision to make. If a person was truly capable of such power, they could be said to be making their self into that of the divine, with omniscient knowledge
In conclusion, whereas as other theorists who argue against secular enlightenment, such as Immanuel Kant, would say that the individual has a logical inescapable path to religion based on factual reasoning, Kierkegaard disagrees. Kierkegaard soundly rejects such assumptions when he declares:
“I do not believe that Kant himself, or any of his successors, have managed to show that any serious moral constraint can be derived from simply considering the conditions of rational agency. Nor do I think that this can be done. What follows rests on the premise that the Kantian project is a failure” (Rudd 13).
According to Kierkegaard, is it not rational thought or morality which leads to God, but rather faith alone. The ethical depends on certainty of truth through reason, but the religious cannot have such a luxury. They depend on the very suspension of reason and certainty of knowledge; they depend on faith. This transition from the ethical to the religious is what Kierkegaard refers to as the ‘Leap of Faith’. The Leap requires one to accept that their capabilities alone are insufficient, and that only by placing their faith in God can they hope to achieve true knowledge.
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