Kierkegaard’s reaction seems to correspond not only to what is happening in the Danish church, but in the overall attitude symptomatic of Modern Philosophy and the Enlightenment. This period of history might be characterized as the era of the ‘fact’–the era where human reason stands over and at a distance from the objects it studies. The radical power attributed to human reason in this era resulted in a flattening both of the intellectual landscape, but also of man’s self understanding.
If to know is primarily to know facts, than philosophy, learning, and inquiry offer very little regarding my subjective development. But the self cries out for development, for experience for engagement with reality that transcends the amassing of facts. “For the truly existing person, passion, not thought, is existence at its very highest: true knowing pertains essentially to existence.” 1
Indeed, Kierkegaard captures the paradox much better: unless the self as subject is personally engaged in the pursuit, one fails to attain true or complete knowledge. “The difficulty is not to understand what Christianity is but to become and to be a Christian.” 2
If we keep in mind the abstraction of intellect from reality which presents itself from the get go in Meditations on First Philosophy, we can trace an increasing detachment from experience and individual engagement. This is perhaps brought to a special crisis in Hume’s Skepticism and Kant’s Copernican revolution. Kierkegaard objects to this because “seeking the truth means that the seeker himself is changed, so that he may become the place where the object of his search can be.” 3
This helps clarify why this is not a form of subjectivity or relativism. It is not that we seek a knowledge or existence which is merely nebulous, but that part of being, part of existence is the subject and so too it must be engaged in the search. “The individual is an existing self, and existing is a process of becoming.” 4
In some sense, I am surprised to think of Hegel as coming under Kierkegaard’s criticism for this very reason, because he is concerned with the Spirit manifesting itself in history, even using the passions of individuals. But this makes sense when one considers that the Spirit is indifferent to the individual as an individual. A person in Hegel’s philosophy is either a means for the Spirit or is achieving knowledge, but in a universal sense . The work of the Spirit for Hegel concerns what Kierkegaard refers to as the crowd, or the philosopher but one who knows only the universal.
The point for Kierkegaard is that “all understanding fundamentally depends upon how one is disposed toward something.”5
1 Kierkegaard, Provocations, Bruderhof Foundation, PA, 2002, 59
2 Kierkegaard, Provocations, 2002, 267
3 Kierkegaard, Provocations, 2002, 267
4 Kierkegaard, Provocations, 2002, 58
5 Kierkegaard, Provocations, 2002, 340