The Objective Absorbed Back Into the Subjective

A…Socratic aspect of Kierkegaard’s thought is found in its instrumentalism, its consistently pragmatic character with reference to theory, expression, and practice.  In this connection is it instructive to remember the difference between Socrates and Plato.  The dialectic which in the hands of Socrates was an instrument to sweep away the cobwebs of illusion to make room for the human ideals, therefore a means of self-discipline and incidentally also a discipline of others, this dialectic was transformed by Plato, more or less clearly and consciously, into an end in itself, and the abstractions developed by this dialectic therefore naturally became the supreme realities.  In short, Socrates was an existential thinker, to use Kierkegaard’s terminology, while Plato was a speculative metaphysician.  What Kierkegaard especially admires in Socrates is that he had no objective result, but only a way, that that it is only by following the Socratic way that one can reach the Socratic result…

In this Socratic sense, Kierkegaard’s own thought was instrumental and pragmatic also.  His objective thinking is everywhere absorbed–absorbed back into the subjective, the personality…   –Swenson, “A Danish Socrates”

I’m not entirely sure the actual Plato (as opposed to the textbook Plato) is quite as far from Socrates as Swenson puts him, but I think the contrast a good one–even if the actual men contrasted do not stand in such contrast to one another.

6 responses

  1. How does one make sense of a notion of “sweeping away illusions” in the absence of a conception of objective fact as that at which one aims (and can therefore miss/have illusions about)? Do you think that an absence of such a conception is being attributed to Socrates by this passage? Do you think that Kierkegaard rejects such a conception outright in his philosophy, or that he just deemphasizes its role in what he’s up to?

  2. Justin, you ask a challenging question and I am not up to answering it here, and maybe not at all. But I can respond a little–and I hope this little is helpful.

    Setting aside Socrates for a second, let me concentrate on Kierkegaard. As I understand him, ‘illusion’ is what we might call a ‘category confusion term’. When K diagnoses someone as suffering from an illusion, the point is not first to draw a contrast between illusion and reality, but rather first to draw attention to the person’s dithering between categories. For example, take someone who is under an illusion about being a Christian. On the one hand, that person wants to regard her being a Christian as something settled, say, by a baptismal certificate. But on the other hand that person recognizes that her being a Christian is a matter of her affective dispositions, of, say, her growing into and again being grown into by the mind of Christ. Her illusion is her confusedly trying to have it both ways, her confusedly wanting Christianity to be both objective and subjective. Because illusions have this amphibolous ‘structure’, K believes that they can be made to fall apart under crafty dialectical pressure, that it is possible to destroy them ‘from the inside’. Crucial here is the K’s idea that getting the person to recognize her illusion is not a matter of leading her outside, as it were, of her illusion, so that from that coign of vantage she can see its contrast with reality (and so abandon the illusion), but rather that it is a matter of getting her to see the incoherence or the instability of her illusory ‘understanding’ of Christianity (and so abandon it) .

    Now I take K to believe that someone’s being under an illusion is itself an objective matter–the person is or is not in fact dithering between categories. But for K, if the person is under an illusion, exposing the illusion always involves an ex concessis moment, a moment in which the material of the illusion and so all the material necessary for the destruction of the illusion, is provided by the illuded person. A contrast with reality is not necessary for the destruction of the illusion. (In fact, that contrast is among the very things rendered inaccessible by the illusion, so it cannot play a role in the illusion’s destruction.)

    Bringing Socrates back in, I hope I have said enough for a broad analogy between his work and K’s to emerge. Very briefly: S takes his interlocutor to believe that she knows when she fails to know. To make that clear to the interlocutor, S exposes the incoherence or instability of her illusory ‘knowledge’. The illusory ‘knowledge’ of course prevents the interlocutor from recognizing any contrast between her ‘knowledge’ and reality, so that contrast cannot play a role in the elenctic destruction of the ‘knowledge’. This destruction too involves an ex concessis moment: the interlocutor provides all the material necessary for the illusion and for its destruction.

    So: as I said, I can respond a little: and there my little is. I realize that it is clouded with obscurity and ringed with difficulties. But sufficient unto the day…

  3. Thanks for this reply, Kelly! It sounds like the answer to my last question is that he neither rejects a conception of objective fact outright, nor does he necessarily deemphasizes its role in what he’s up to. Being “illuded” (if you will), for K, sounds like a condition wherein one is partly confused about whether a given state is to be understood objectively or subjectively, when in fact it is to be understood subjectively. This of course isn’t to reject the notion that there are objective facts.

  4. Yikes!

    “nor does he necessarily deemphasizes” –> “nor does he deemphasize”
    “partly confused” –> “confused”

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