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What does Kierkegaard mean when he says " Truth is subjectivity " in his book - Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments.

Since "Subjectivity refers to how someone's judgment is shaped by personal opinions and feelings instead of outside influences" how can truth be regarded as being subjective in nature ?

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The definition you're getting from your dictionary reflects one contemporary usage of the word subjectivity. But the word has had many meanings. The most basic meaning is "that which inheres in a subject".

A long time ago (scholastic medieval period), this would mean following Aristotle, that which is true of a substance in itself -- without being accreted to the thing. During that period, objective means what subjective means to us and vice versa. Kierkegaard is not referring to that usage, however, so let's set it aside.

To understand what Kierkegaard is doing, we need some knowledge of Danish Hegelianism (which may or may not be that good of an interpretation of Hegel). Danish Hegelianism was in vogue in Kierkegaard's time. The basic claim was that everything can be comprehended, i.e. that objective reason and understanding is the pinnacle of thought.

One of the other answers rightly refers to Socrates' influence on Kierkegaard's philosophy here. Kierkegaard here is echoing the Socratic notion found in the "Crito" of know yourself. For Kierkegaard, the point of the claim truth is subjectivity is that anything that is true is true for a subject. In other words and in particular, if the Christian story is true, then it changes everything for the subject in a way that cannot be overlooked or erased.

Contrary to that answer, I wouldn't go so far as to say "Kierkegaard does not believe in 'objective truths.'" Instead, I would say Kierkegaard thinks it matters only secondarily whether something is objectively true, because what matters is that the subject accepts that it is true by living accordingly.

To give an example, if I believe that I can fly, then this should impact my behavior. If it doesn't, but I say "objectively speaking I can fly", then who cares.

  • "Instead, I would say Kierkegaard thinks it matters only secondarily whether something is objectively true, because what matters is that the subject accepts that it is true by living accordingly." That's why he is an existentialist? – Mockingbird Jul 12 '17 at 8:57
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    He's an existentialist because Sartre who uses the term about himself decided to call him one (= accident of history). Or if you prefer, he calls something he's doing an existential psychology in one place, but this predates the contemporary meaning of the term. – virmaior Jul 12 '17 at 12:13
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Kierkegaard was reacting to the dominance of Hegelian thought in Christian Philosophy; and which to him was far removed from direct human experience; hence his espousal of Subjectivity and Inwardness as a category of truth; but not in the mode of Descartes - who objectified it ie the cogito; in the sense of an objective epistemological project - how can we be certain of what we know.

Hence his project of theorising through the gospels and not in an abstract mode ie the Hegelian Concept; thus in Fear and Trembling he turned to Abraham as father of the faith; it's not a piece of writing that one could see Hegel doing.

Hegel falls on the explicitly Greek side of Greco-Christian philosophy; whereas Kierkegaard on the Christian side.


As the rising sea rises; rise with the rising tide - or go deeper.

  • I don't think Hegel would accept the characterization you're giving of him here. Nor is it necessarily wise to use Fear and Trembling -- by the pseudonym Johannes De Silentio to suggest what Johannes Climacus, the author of Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments and (Fragments and De omnibus dubitandum est). They have different standpoints (per Kierkegaard's essay "The Point of View of My Work as an Author") – virmaior Apr 25 '15 at 13:39
  • @virmaior: ok; agreed it's a broad characterisation; but it is K's grouse against Hegel; which I read in his journals - and it's along that axis that I placed Hegel; unfair though it is; to highlight K's own project. – Mozibur Ullah Apr 25 '15 at 14:27
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I had always misinterpreted Kierkegaard in saying there is no objective truth. It's not quite that - but actually he's saying that you miss the point of life by focusing on the objective instead of the subjective. (side note: there are definitely some things, such as Christ, who K thinks cannot be rationalized/objectified at all, not even approximately).

The idea is, like the Hegelianism of the day, you could become so preoccupied with getting the specifics about the "what" of objective facts that you miss the "how" of living - that is, a subjective life. "Truth is not a deposit of acquired knowledge, the yield" (Practice in Christianity).

Particularly in regards to Christianity, Kierkegaard was upset about things like the Biblical exegesis - people distracting themselves on trying to understand specific interpretations of words in texts (the objective) instead of living out the teaching (subjectively), which should be the focus, but is far harder. There is nothing hard about objectively understanding the words "Sell all your posessions and give it to the poor", but it is far harder to live that teaching (subjectively). K thought that folks treating the Bible objectively or scientifically was a cop-out, a cowardly way of hiding from how they should be living:

"Believing in Christ and wanting to "understand" his way by articulating it and elaborating on it is actually a cowardly evasion that wants to shirk the task." (Concluding Unscientific Postscript)

And elsewhere:

"Being alone with God's Word is a dangerous matter. Of course, you can always find ways to defend yourself against it: Take the Bible, lock your door – but then get out ten dictionaries and twenty-five commentaries. Then you can read it just as calmly and coolly as you read newspaper advertising. With this arsenal you can really begin to wonder, "Are there not several valid interpretations? And what about the prospect of new interpretations? Perhaps there are five interpreters with one opinion and seven with another and two with a strange opinion and three who are wavering or who have no opinion at all. So you calmly conclude, "I myself am not absolutely sure about the meaning of this passage. I need more time to form an opinion." Good Lord! What a tragic misuse of scholarship that it makes it so easy for people to deceive themselves!" (For Self-Examination)

Another great passage about what it means for Christianity to be subjective, and how the search for the objective is a cop-out, a distraction:

"Christianity is subjective; the inwardness of faith in the believer is the truth's eternal decision. Objectively there is no truth "out there" for existing beings, but only approximations, whereas subjectively truth lies in inwardness, because the decision of truth is in subjectivity. For how can decision be an approximation or only to a certain degree? What could it possibly mean to assert or to assume that decision is like approximation, is only to a certain degree? I will tell you what it means. It means to deny decision. The decision of faith, unlike speculation, is designed specifically to put an end to that perpetual prattle of "to a certain degree."" (Concluding Unscientific Postscript)

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Kierkegaard is strongly influenced by Socrates in the sense that he observes that Socrates is not proud of 'knowing the truth' about something, nor looking for it, but is curious about the people who say they know such truth. Socrates proceeds to ask these people questions about this truth they know just to make them realize that they actually don't know this truth (see the Concept of Irony). But the sense of this questioning to these people (according to Kierkegaard) is not intended to expose them as ignorants, but to help them find their own truth about that object of knowledge. In this way, Kierkegaard does not believe in 'objective truths' or truths that other people say to us regarding how things are (actually he considers this as harmful) but in our own way of arriving to the truth by our own path. That is what he means by saying 'truth is subjectivity'.

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