Saturday, November 5, 2011

Doubt and Faith for Sale! Going Cheap!

Kierkegaard versus "The System"

Writing under the pseudonym of Johannes de silentio, Kierkegaard begins his preface to Fear and Trembling by observing that in the current ‘marketplace’ of modern philosophy, ideas are to be “had so dirt cheap that it is doubtful whether in the end anyone will bid” (Fear and Trembling, 3). He then addresses the following questions:
  1. Why are doubt and faith considered “cheap” and unworthy of serious contemplation?
  2. How has everyone inexplicably arrived at positions of doubt and faith (positions that took their respected predecessors a lifetime of dedicated hard work to achieve)?
  3. Why do they desire to go further?
Primarily, this preface can be understood as a critique of Hegel’s “system,” which Johannes blames for removing meaning from life and turning philosophy into pure scholarship without room for doubt or faith. Hegelian philosophy claims to use reason to quickly work through doubt and faith while professing the ability to take reasoning to a height where it can “understand the whole of nature and human history in terms of “Absolute Spirit” (xi). Johannes is critical of this “system,” believing that it takes the easy path since it allows one to start at a position of possessing doubt and faith without actually taking the time to examine and work through either on their own. Referencing Descartes and the Greeks, he states, “Where those venerable figures arrived, there everyone in our age begins in order to go further “ (5). Why is there a need to go further? Are doubt and faith really so unworthy of a lifetime’s examination? Don’t both require use of the heart, and not just of the mind (as in Hegel’s system of reason)? In talking of doubt, Johannes appears to think that the “system” has turned philosophy into a mere mental action and emptied it of heart and passion. Correspondingly, his talk of faith indicates that he thinks the same for religion. Johannes worries that the dogmatic “system” has removed the passion he sees as essential to both philosophy and religion. He fears the day soon arriving “when passion has been abandoned in order to serve scholarship” (5).
Throughout the preface, Johannes places such importance on the ideas of doubt and faith; two things that, to some, may seem like polar opposites. Interestingly, he uses two quotes from Descartes to hint at their relation. He first offers that Descartes did not doubt his own faith since he knew that no matter what our reason may clearly prove otherwise, “we must still put our entire faith in divine authority rather than in our own judgment” (4). Clearly, in order to offer this advice, Descartes had to come up against reasonable doubt in the face of religious dogma. It seems to me, Johannes is saying that in order to have true, meaningful faith you must possess doubt. Faith is empty and meaningless unless tested by doubt.
Johannes then proceeds to tell how Descartes, when developing his methods of philosophy, arrived through his education at a place of acknowledged ignorance, i.e., doubt (4). Descartes worked through the dogmatic teachings of philosophy and discovered doubt all along the way. He did not start with doubt and immediately move beyond it -- doubt was his constant companion on the journey and made possible his “recognition of [his] ignorance” (4). Johannes emphasizes that a “proficiency in doubting [or believing] is not achieved in either days or weeks” (4-5). It is a lifelong task.
Doubt and faith may have lost value in the wake of Hegel, but are both not important to the humanity of a society -- to keeping the passion alive in humanity’s heart? Should one not live with and continually examine them both? In doing so, will one develop a doubt that gives birth to faith and a faith that is resilient enough to doubt?

1 comment:

  1. In addition to Descartes Kierkegaard is also heavily influenced by the Ancients. The value Kierkegaard places on doubt must have been inspired by Plato. In Plato's dialogues, Socrates' always leaves his interlocutors and readers in a state of perplexity. Socrates pursues his quest to find the nature of a concept (virtue, justice, etc.) by following a method when conversing with an interlocutor known as the elenchus, where he reverses his role from a teacher to a student. Socrates first elicits the interlocutors' views on a morally or politically contentious topic. Then, he listens and clarifies the view through a series of questions. Lastly, he refutes the interlocutors' views by revealing contradictions in their arguments. The elenchus typically leads the interlocutor to a state of aporia, or confusion. According to Socrates, accepting ignorance - the awareness that we know nothing important - is necessary to find true knowledge (Apology 21a). Similarly for Kierkegaard, faith must be tested with doubt.