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Postmodernism vs. Kierkegaardian Subjectivism: Imagination as Epistemology

In high-school, I had many of my science lab-reports returned to me with the comment “Re-write this in a more professional tone.” In an effort to render my homework slightly more entertaining, I had a habit of documenting my science experiments in a variety of “unprofessional” mediums: fiction, poems, and comic strips, to name a few. But one requirement in particular left a cramp in my literary fingers: the prohibition of the singular personal pronoun: “I.” Lab reports, I was told, were meant to be objective. Relating the experiment from my own point of view was antithetical to proper scientific procedure.

Apart from being an impediment to the natural way of speaking, I had philosophical objections. Was it not disingenuous to pretend that my own role as observer was not itself an unaccountable experimental variable which would inevitably affect my conclusions? Recent forays into quantum mechanics, such as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, have rendered it increasingly difficult for modern scientific inquiry to ignore man’s subjective participation in cosmological phenomena. The idea that science is a practice in “objectivity” is, I would argue, a stubborn illusion born out of the 16th century Enlightenment, which dangerously overestimated man’s ability to apprehend reality as it really is. The result of this overconfidence resulted in many of the horrors in the 20th century, both in the political sphere and in unethical scientific experimentation.

The problem with objective language is that it is rarely useful for describing most of human experience. Take, for example, an ordinary conversation about the weather. The sentence “It’s raining outside” is an objective statement of fact, assuming, of course, that it really is raining. But the statement itself has little utility until the audience who hears it attaches some subjective value to it. For example, “I already have a cold, so I should not go out now.” Or “My tire treads are thin, I will need to drive slower.”  The objective statement gains value insofar as it is measured in relation to the self. The sentence “It’s raining outside” can indeed stand alone as an objective, grammatically correct, statement of fact. However, no sooner has the statement of fact been uttered than we have already decided how we should think about it, what we should do about it, and how it affects future events and choices in our experience.

Of course, there are situations where the objective voice is useful. But if it is the only voice we use, we may come to a false perception of ourselves. If we only understand the world objectively (or actually believe that we can) we are setting both ourselves and others up for misunderstandings and failure. Too many pastors have lost the trust of an honest inquirer because they attempted an “objective” theological answer instead of simply saying “I don’t know.” A famous story of Socrates concerns an oracle who declared him the wisest man alive. Socrates responded that this could not be possible, as the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing. The oracle responded that it was for this precise reason that he was the wisest, for every other man in Athens lived under the illusion that they actually understood their own reality.

The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard took much wisdom from the Socratic posture. Like Socrates, Kierkegaard elevated himself above his contemporaries in 19th century Denmark by declaring that he knew nothing. Kierkegaard is now famously dubbed “the father of existentialism,” although a comprehensive overview of existentialist philosophy can unearth a number of philosophers who share little in common with him. Granted, his famous statement that “truth is subjectivity” have led many to mistakenly credit him as the father of numerous nihilistic philosophies of the ensuing 20th century: viz., absurdism, relativism, and postmodernism. It is doubtful whether writers like Sartre, Beckett, and Foucault themselves claimed to be students of Kierkegaard, but it is obvious that the telos of their thought bears no resemblance to the original. When an apple hits a hill, it can roll pretty far from the tree.

What can be said of the common language of the existentialists is their insistence on the subjective stance. Postmodern philosophy may share superficial features with Kierkegaardian subjectivism, but Kierkegaard himself would not have endorsed it. Kierkegaard wanted his readers to embrace the reality of his or her own diminutive subjective position in the cosmos, but not in the radically skeptical way of the postmodernists. In Kierkegaard’s language, postmodernism’s radical skepticism would be a form of despair. He did not wish the soul to either “go gently into that good night” or “rage against the dying of the light” but rather “rest transparently in the power of Another.”[1] Kierkegaard’s injunction to his reader, “that solitary individual,” was to take a “leap of faith” and “will the good” in full knowledge of his ignorance and in spite of it. Only by this act does an individual have a true index of his courage.

It is important to differentiate between these two threads of what is often broadly labeled “existentialism.” Postmodernism and Kierkegaardian subjectivism may be twins, but one of them is a changeling child.[2] Postmodernism dictates that the validity of an idea depends not on the idea itself but whether the speaker falls into a certain set of desirable categories such as race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Kierkegaard would also cast doubt on the authority of the speaker, but on an entirely different set of presuppositions. The difference lies in the direction of the doubt. Postmodernism is lateral doubt: Kierkegaard was concerned with vertical doubt. Postmodernism is subjective because man is the subject of Being, Kierkegaard was subjective because he was a subject to Being—to Ultimate Being. One could say that postmodernism rejects the authority of man because he is male. Kierkegaard rejected the authority of man (and woman) because they are human: he was more concerned with man’s relation to the cosmic rather than the social landscape.

On the other hand, Kierkegaard would not have thrown in his lot with the popular currents of mainstream American conservativism either, which tends to erect an ethos of “objective” linguistic jingoism as a bulwark against subjective postmodern solipsism.  A popular conservative political commentator often repeats the mantra “Facts don’t care about your feelings” as rhetorical repartee against the current leftist naïve conceptualization of reality. Many conservatives use quips like these as ammo against their perceived political enemies. But thinkers such as University of Toronto Psychologist Jordan Peterson have done much to try to shift the public discussion into a more nuanced space by challenging the notion that human experience exists fundamentally in a landscape of facts but instead in a landscape of stories, emotions, and perceptions. While facts may not care about your feelings, the opposite is equally true: feelings do not care about your facts.

Granting that objective reality does in fact exist (in Kant’s language, as the noumena) we can never detach ourselves from the immediate reality that our individual sense-perception is the reality in which we must live, and the only reality in which we can live. To pretend to know anything with objective certainty beyond the realm of our own subjective experience of the phenomena is to elevate ourselves above the role of a human and attempt to look down on the world as if we were angels. Pretending to be angelic can actually be extremely helpful as a technique for gaining a bird’s-eye view of our existence, but we must never forget that we are pretending, lest our language becomes inauthentic.

What, then, is the true extent of our epistemological reach?  Probably much shorter than we imagine. Descartes reduced all claims of certainty down to his single famous statement: “I think, therefore, I am.” For Descartes, the fundamental building block of reality was not the atom, but the words “I am.” Beyond the individual’s knowledge that he himself exists, he must be always ready to temper his conjectures about the external world with a degree of intellectual humility. For G.K. Chesterton’s “honest agnostic,” the external world must be engaged by doubt; for the apostle Paul, it must be engaged by faith.

Understanding the stringent limitations of man’s epistemological domain gives us no reason to trivialize our existence or turn to nihilism. The subjective stance of “I am” is no small cognitive leap, when compared to what the rest of the animal kingdom is capable of. Man’s ability to say “I am” is our divine privilege as beings made in the Imago Dei. To say “I am” is a lower case mimetic recapitulation of the divine upper case Tetragrammaton “I AM,” from the Old Testament. But therein also lies our great spiritual danger. Does man’s right to say “I am” as a subjective creature consequently endow him with the right to say “I AM” through the eye of God, to know reality as it really is (Das ding an sich, the thing in itself)? Ay, there’s the rub. To conceive a bird’s-eye view of existence is a practice of the imagination. If we, for one moment, forget that we are imagining, or imagine that we are not imagining, we have stepped out of our rank as created beings. We may actually be blessed with perceiving objective reality, but if we are, we do not know it objectively. It is still for us a subjective experience: what an older epistemology would call revelation.  Or again to quote Kierkegaard, “the objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation process of the most passionate inwardness is the truth, the highest truth available for an existing person.”[3]

If any conjecture about “reality-as-it-is” belongs to the faculty of the imagination, it follows that all narratives about objective reality must by nature be mythological. The word “mythological” may carry misleading connotations, as we may be tempted to confine mythological stories to either folk-legend or modern fantasy. I have no wish to discount this definition—however, I believe the domain of “mythological” can be defined on more pragmatic grounds—that is, as any imagistic theory of reality that extends beyond that circle of knowledge described in Descartes’ line “I think, therefore, I am.”

This is the point of departure between the Christian (as well as the Stoic and Platonist) and the postmodernist views of life. Upon discovering that our sense-perceptions beyond the self are mythological, the postmodernist concludes that the self is the final authority on reality. Because we cannot fully know the noumena, it follows that there is no noumena, only phenomena. But this is a fallacious appeal to ignorance. The Christian narrative infers that there are a limited number of accurate mythologies which render life livable. You trust that your car will drive you to work, because you have unconsciously accepted a narrative (mythology) about the nature of physics, the rules of the road, and the functionality of your car. You trust the airline pilot will fly you to Detroit because the text on your plane ticket tells you a story about where the plane is going, and because the pilot told a story about going to Detroit over the intercom. If the car or plane trip unfolds in accordance with the mythologies that have been constructed about them, then it is most likely a true mythology.

It may be leveled as a criticism that I am playing too fast and loose with the term “mythology.” I only do so to accentuate the picture of the human being whose primary state is one of ignorance, and whose secondary state (that of knowing) is conducted primarily through the imagination. Perhaps we should make a distinction between the pragmatic, everyday mythologies concerning the rules of the road and the grand mythologies of Tolkien’s fairy stories which attempt to uncover the great secrets of the universe. However, for the purposes of this argument, the distinction need not be made: from our human perspective, both are accessed through the imagination alone. On this view no one said it better than G.K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy:

“When we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales—because they find them romantic…And, indeed, on this point I am all for the higher agnosticism; its better name is Ignorance…We are all under the same mental calamity; we have all forgotten our names. We have forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that, for certain dead levels of our life, we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant, we remember that we forget.”[4]

This “higher agnosticism” which Chesterton calls for is not an appeal to the skeptical hermeneutic of postmodernism. It is not ignorance per se which Chesterton praises, but being ignorant in the right direction. It is not so important that the individual of imagination has answers but that his questions are necessary ones. Socrates believed the beginning of wisdom was knowing what you do not know.  Biblical wisdom, as outlined in the Hebrew Proverbs, takes this a step further when it defines the beginning of wisdom not as ignorance, but fear: namely, fear of the Lord. To adopt a “heavenward agnosticism” is not, ultimately, agnosticism at all, but Faith. St. Paul is in agreement with Socrates when he says, “if anyone supposes he knows anything, he is a fool” but goes beyond Socrates when he adds “but if he loves God, he is known by Him.” Only in Paradise can we “know even as we are fully known.”

Our own political discussions, on both left and right, will never make any progress if we continue to demand of those we disagree with to “just look at the facts.” In combatting the establishment media, conservatives have been “barking up the wrong tree” to borrow the Southern phrase, when they attempt to wield “facts and logic” as their weapons of choice. It’s easy to empathize with the temptation to do so. After all, the arguments for issues such as pro-choice and gender fluidity seem to be so easily debunked by basic scientific knowledge. How could conservatives fail to win the debate? The appropriate rejoinder to that question is: why then are conservatives losing?

We do not live in a world of things but of stories. But our concern is not just with any stories but with true stories. True stories are not, as modern language would have it, necessarily factual stories, but stories properly aligned to Being – more specifically, our relationship to Ultimate Being. To reject our human subjectivity is to step outside the only medium through which we can experience objective truth. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle laid the foundations of proper inquiry when they asked, “what is Truth?” This is no doubt an important question, but it is not the question which lays at the very center of our hearts. When Pilate asked Christ “what is Truth?” he walked away without waiting for the answer. Perhaps the real question is not what, but who. The spiritual confusion and malaise in the modern world is not due to a poverty of facts. We have more facts than we know how or care to deal with, for facts are not the food of the soul. It is our poverty in relation to who we know, not what we know, that is crippling us.

The question “Who am I?” is the most important question of our age. It may not be the most important question objectively, but it is the most important question subjectively. And it is no small question. The war of identity politics is being fought over it and the battleground is the university and the media. Amidst the science and pseudoscience which has roared in our ears over the past century, it is no wonder our culture is caught up ideological chaos. The human soul is rebelling from being so painfully abused. To identify as a horse or a toaster may be the best recourse for an individual who has rejected the virtue of vertical doubt. If humans do not ask the question “Who am I in relation to God?” then the question of “Who am I?” can only be answered with, “anything (or nothing) at all.”

 

Notes

[1] Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death, 1849

[2] Changeling, in European folklore, a deformed or imbecilic offspring of fairies or elves substituted by them surreptitiously for a human infant. Encyclopedia Britannica

[3] Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 1846

[4] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 1908

Raymond DokupilRaymond Dokupil

Raymond Dokupil

Raymond Dokupil holds a B.A. in English Literature from Whitworth University. He teaches drama and Lincoln-Douglas debate in Tacoma, Washington. Formerly, has taught for Classical Conversations and worked as a TEFL instructor in Suzhou, China.

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