This article was last modified on November 20, 2003.


On Kierkegaard’s Methodology: An Experiment in Schizophrenia

Throughout Kierkegaard’s writings, he maintains a style that leads us to one of two conclusions regarding his method: it is either one of the most unique approaches in philosophy up to that point, or he truly has no method at all. While it is entirely plausible that his method has risen incidentally (accidentally) out of random thoughts and ideas he had jotted down over the years, we shall make the assumption the method still exists regardless. I believe the method to be both like that of Plato and Socrates, fully subjective and personal, and ultimately anti-systematic in its personal (existential?) approach. I shall conclude by touching on the content and how he creatively sells the content by not really delivering it at all.

Kierkegaard writes much as Plato had written thousands of years before in Greece in that he relies on different characters to speak their minds rather than doing it directly from the author. Plato did not claim to say anything (although we attribute much to him) just as Kierkegaard has opted to use pseudonyms to convey his message (if it is, in fact, his). A distinction lies in that Plato used the same characters over the course of several books, and many of these characters can be proven to be historical figures — implying the words they supply may in fact be their views in some paraphrased form. Kierkegaard uses different pseudonyms for each book, allowing them to be entirely independent of each other and perhaps even contradictory without it being much of a problem (because they are not him, after all). We assume that in Plato’s writings he takes Socrates to be his mouthpiece (although there is no reason to assume this); in Kierkegaard’s writings, there is really no one “author” who stands out more than any other with which to identify him with so that we are forced to draw our own conclusions.

The method is very Socratic in that Kierkegaard has characters conversing in dialogue amongst themselves on a particular topic, leading up towards a conclusion (presumably). What is really fascinating is how Kierkegaard was able to do this on two levels. First, he had characters within one book carrying out dialogue (such as the Judge and the Aesthete). But also, he eventually had his pseudonymous authors in contention with each other. We are first forced to step back from the characters to perceive the author’s view, and then ultimately to step back from the authors to perceive Kierkegaard’s view. And even at that point, it is not conclusive what his view might have been. Within the characters, we might see some favor towards one or another (for example, it seems that Kierkegaard favors the judge) but this does not mean that the “lesser” character does not occasionally make a valid point that must be addressed by the reader in their own mind. We might imagine these dialogues were written by Kierkegaard as a way for him to sort out his own thoughts — perhaps even he didn’t have an answer until he dialectically “duked it out” on paper. This makes the Socratic method all the more lifelike and real.

What separates Kierkegaard from prior philosophers is his subjective perspective rather than the more “scientific” objective writings of the past few centuries. He aims to move away from “the absolute” and abstract “big ideas” and bring philosophy to a more personal level. What others in the past would have seen as a flaw (relativity) is now embraced as a virtue. Kierkegaard knows full well that any abstract thought — any rational thought — disregards what it means to have a human element involved. With his Christian emphasis — namely the personal connection between man and God — he cannot afford to address God in the same manner as Hegel, who connects God and man through the idea of “all is one”: and leaves out the importance of personal experience and human emotion.

Furthermore, Kierkegaard was openly anti-systematic, denouncing Hegel’s work on numerous occasions. Hegel had set up a system that was all-encompassing, even to the point where things that were quite contrary to it could be explained as a necessary part of it. Kierkegaard had nothing like this in his work, presenting it as more of a narrative and a loose collection of thoughts. It could be embraced or not depending on the individual — there was no need for the writings to sprout tentacles, so to speak, and root themselves in every fiber of Kierkegaard’s belief structure. Kierkegaard embraced the irrational — the absurd — and it was therefore impossible for him to accept any sort of logical system or base his thoughts on pure reason (which he quite freely admitted was an anti-Christian concept).

The real content of Kierkegaard’s work is Christianity, or how to find Christ. He speaks of our need to find our own faith without judging others, establishing a personal experience with Jesus, and making the leap into the unknown. But what I find fascinating about his content is that he sells it to us by not really selling it at all. While his works have helped some people find Christ, it is interesting to note that the readings themselves do not claim to be written by a Christian. They question the possibility of Christianity at every turn, point out some glaring issues in the stories of Abraham and Job, and (as was already stated) tell us to accept Christ is completely against logic and reason. While we know Kierkegaard to be a Christian (despite his note-worthy scuffles with the Church), it appears that he is actually more of an agnostic (with a Christian leaning) than anything else. With his style of not positing himself firmly one way or another (the Socratic approach) this would almost seem the most appropriate conclusion.

This style and method has led to a rise in less organized philosophic thought, which has either greatly advanced or greatly hindered our search for the truth depending on one’s point of view. While we see a loss in an objective and absolute thought (which traditional philosophy seems to prefer), we have entered an age of more individualized philosophy and have begun to reach a wider audience — ultimately, perhaps this is the right direction for philosophy? Or the start of its own demise?

Also try another article under Philosophical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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