Søren Kierkegaard has been called the Danish Socrates, and Concluding Unscientific Postscript demonstrates his claim to that title. In this work, Socrates is acknowledged as the illustrious Greek who never lost sight of the fact that a thinker remains an existing individual. The Socratic maieutic method, with its use of ignorance, irony, and dialectics, pervades the work.
The Socratic method is used by Johannes Climacus (Kierkegaard’s pseudonym) to elicit from the reader an awareness that truth is subjectivity. The doctrine of “the subjective thinker” stands at the center of this classic, and it provides the pivot point around which all the themes revolve. Subjective thinkers are engaged or involved thinkers, whose thought, directed toward a penetration of their inner consciousness, moves in passion and earnestness. They find in the theoretical detachment of objective reflection a comic neglect of the existing individuals who do the reflecting. Objective reflection tends to make subjects accidental and transforms their existence into something indifferent and abstract. The accent for subjective thinkers falls on the how; the accent for objective reflection falls on the what. Objective truth designates a “what” or an objective content that can be observed in theoretical detachment. Subjective truth is a “how” that must be inwardly appropriated. Truth as subjectivity thus becomes inward appropriation. Truth, subjectively appropriated, is a truth that is true for me. It is a truth which I live, not merely observe. It is a truth which I am, not merely possess. Truth is a mode of action or a manner of existence. Subjective thinkers live the truth; they exist it.
Hegel and Descartes
One need not proceed far into the pages of Concluding Unscientific Postscript to become aware that Kierkegaard’s archenemy, against whom his Socratic, ironical barbs are directed, is German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Johannes Climacus finds in the systematized, objective, and theoretical reflection of Hegel’s philosophy a fantastic distortion of truth and an ingenious system of irrelevancy. Climacus never tires of lampooning the system. Hegelians, in neglecting the crucial distinction between thought and reality, erect a system of thought that comically excludes their own existence. They seek to comprehend themselves as expressions of abstract, universal, and timeless categories; thus they lose themselves as concrete, particular, and temporal existents.One must therefore be very careful in dealing with a philosopher of the Hegelian school, and, above all, to make certain of the identity of the being with whom one has the honor to discourse. Is he a human being, an existing human being? Is he himself sub specie aeterni, even when he sleeps, eats, blows his nose, or whatever else a human being does? Is he himself the pure I am I?’ . . . Does he in fact exist?
Hegelians afford an instance of philosophical comedy in which there is thought without a thinker. They erect a marvelous intellectual palace in which they themselves do not live. The subject, in Hegel’s objective reflection, becomes accidental, and truth as subjectivity is lost.
French philosopher René Descartes shares Hegel’s fate of falling under the Kierkegaardian irony and devastating intellectual lampooning. It was Descartes who provided modern philosophy with Cogito, ergo sum (“I think, therefore, I am”) for its foundation. Now either the “I” that is the subject of the cogito refers to a particular existing human being, in which case nothing is proved (If I am thinking, what wonder that I am!), or else the “I” refers to a universal pure ego. However, such an entity has only a conceptual existence, and the ergo loses its meaning, the proposition being reduced to a tautology. The attempt by Descartes to prove his existence by the fact that he thinks leads to no real conclusion, for insofar as he thinks, he has already abstracted from his own existence. Descartes had already prepared the stage...
(The entire section is 4,058 words.)