Kierkegaard calls it a “pugnacious proposition”: ‘a person cannot possibly seek what he knows, and, just as impossibly, he cannot seek what he does not know, for what he knows he cannot seek, since he knows it, and what he does not know he cannot seek, because, after all, he does not even know what he is supposed to seek.’
It's the problem of the Meno, as I’m sure you know, and Socrates introduces there the idea of recollection, which leads to the positing of the immortal soul.
For Kierkegaard, it is precisely this position of, let’s says, neither/nor that is critically Socratic and thus ironic: – neither the Platonic poetic supernatural Socrates nor the useful, practical idiot of Xenophon and thus neither the Socrates of the ideal of the true, nor of the empirical vulgarity of adequation.
‘On the one hand,’ Kierkegaard says, ‘the manifold variety of actuality is the very element of the ironist [so Socrates walking around in the market place etc.]. On the other hand, his passage across actuality is floating and ethereal [he treats with what is more than just this actuality with everyone]; he is continually just touching the ground, [which is magnificently staged in the Phaedo] but since the real kingdom of ideality is still foreign to him, he has not as yet emigrated to it but seems always to be on the point of departure [a departure, as I’ve said, which Plato takes up].
Irony oscillates between the ideal I and the empirical I; the one would make Socrates a philosopher [– thus concerned with the thought of all – ] the other a Sophist [– thus with what is of individual interest]; but, Kierkegaard goes on ‘what makes him more than a Sophist is that his empirical I has universal validity.’ This last point concerning the universality of subjective choice or decision – that it be a decision for others matters to Sartre.
Anyway, the point of running through this is that you see that the ironic here is the truth of the subject as neither/nor: not as one or the other and also not as the sum or reconciliation of both, either – which would make it subject to this higher form of its reconciliation. No, the subject is both at once – which is what irony is: it alerts us to what is known from the other side of this knowledge which it is not, but which nevertheless draws us on to know it because we don't.
It’s not a matter of knowledge or ignorance as such or at least it’s not a matter of the supposed progressive relation between them. Irony is their act of re-articulation, Kierkegaard is saying, and this is what Socrates is as exemplary – a new unknown articulation which establishes itself as Subject. Indeed, in Socrates, ‘subjectivity asserts its rights in world history for the first time.’ Something Lacan will also affirm. Socrates is the radical freedom to re-know the world and the self – the self in the world – and he does it as what anyone at all can do, and can do, precisely, with others.
As a Platonicalist, I wholeheartedly endorse this reading – in fact I read it myself this way before I even read Kierkegaard on this. It’s just that I don't think that for Socrates to be thought this way requires a sort of subtraction from a more Platonic effort to absolutise Socrates away from his practice or his ethics, as Kierkegaard insists: that's to say, to make Socrates only the passage to the Ideal. But then again, I also insist on the subject, which Plato is supposed by everyone not to think through; so maybe my Platonism is already existentialist but not absolutely?
Anyway, for Kierkegaard, this event gives rise to a new thought of the subject and it insists in one way or another – it can’t go away. But it can dialectically necessitate another subjective intervention into this extant subjective form. A ‘subjectivity raised to the second power, a subjectivity’s subjectivity, which corresponds to reflection’s reflection.’ An ironisation of the event of irony we might say – which has now become, as the form of the subject, systematically formulated; thus for Kierkegaard, Kant, Fichte, Hegel etc. all take this ironic subject as Ideal – which is (supposedly) the original sin of Plato under Socratic sway. They re-inscribe this non-place of the subject as at the heart of knowledge itself – they make it known, if you like, and in doing so they negate or veil over the evental or active kernel of it, once again. Hence the ironisation of the irony, Kierkegaard calls on.
One more effort to free the freedom of the subject, which is to ultimately free the subject from knowledge as such – which in the cases he is speaking about refers to its systematisation as transcendental or absolute. This is the last (or latest’s anyway) form of the metaphysics of the subject, the trapping of it in some beyond itself, which it is then always tested against – as if this knowledge of adequation somehow exists despite it.
For Kierkegaard, irony has a strange history or, more correctly, ‘no history’, which is to say, it has an unknown history and it’s upon this irony that the new subject depends. My lament he says, ‘is that it is just the reverse with Hegel. At the point in all his systems where we could expect to find a development of irony, we find it referred to.’
Thus for Kierkegaard, the general description of irony is as infinite absolute negativity. ‘It is adequately suggested therein that irony is no longer directed against this or that particular phenomenon, against a particular existing thing, but that the whole of existence has become alien to the ironic subject and the ironic subject in turn alien to existence, that as actuality has lost its validity for the ironic subject, he himself has to a certain degree become un-actual.’
This, I think, without worrying about things like affect and passion – things Sartre, for example, also sidelines – captures well how or why notions like anxiety and despair come to be central aspects of the investigation of the so called ‘authenticity’ of the subject. The subject is not simply the left out matter, the in between one or the other; nor is it the adequate and thus authoritative guarantee of this ideal construction of it; the subject is that which accomplishes the destitution of this double schema itself as the mode of being in truth.
He says a very beautiful thing here: ‘Herein lies the profoundly tragic aspect of world history. At one and the same time, an individual may be world-historically justified and yet unauthorized.’ Thus again we have the universal subject and its subjective manifestation – both are actual. Moreover and this returns us to this idea of the new irony as it were, the consistency of such a history is constituted in the fact that the manifest subject is always an intervention into what exists as actual subjectivity in any epoch. The real subject – or the ideal subject if you prefer – is subjectively manifest as what ironises the existing state of affairs, which by definition precludes it from actuality as such.
The ironist ‘has stepped out of line with his age, has turned around and faced it. That which is coming is hidden from him, lies behind his back, (cf. Benjamin) but the actuality he so antagonistically confronts is what he must destroy; upon this he focuses his burning gaze.’ Thus the subject(ive) is ever out of place, anxious, despairing, questioning, suicidal, audacious, courageous, egotistical and so on, for the knowledge of the day.
The subject is singular precisely in its universality, which is also to say, in its unknowing of the knowledge of the day, and it is only as this combination that it is ironic or free. ‘To a certain degree, every world-historical turning point must have this formation also, and it certainly would not be without historical interest to track this formation through world history.’
But let me just note something ironic. Kierkegaard makes it critical to the figure of irony, Socrates, that Socrates makes an occasion of himself – this he does as midwife to knowledge. I assume you know this tale Socrates tells of himself as not being able to give birth to truths as such but as he who enables others to do so. Kierkegaard sees himself the same way – this is what all the pseudonyms and so on are about – he makes of himself an occasion or a cypher for the dialectic of one to another – the subject and God, finally, which is to say he makes nothing of himself. This is how he puts himself into the picture, as nothing; which is to say, as subject for other subjects – which is to say, then, that the subject is nothing in essence but only in act. Now this is interesting. It’s platonically un-platonic.
So, in the entirety of the dialogues Plato names himself only twice and both times he is named as being missing. He is named as absent at the trial and at the death. Curious, isn’t it – he announces his absence. Also, of course, Plato writes Socrates as this midwife figure, as an occasion for the delivery of the truths of the subject – which is what Kierkegaard treats as the ethical force of any subjectivity. But for Kierkegaard, Socrates remains this side of Plato, which is of course the example for the re-ironisation of the knowledge of irony qua subject tied up now in the great systems of thought.
Ok. I just want to note a few things about the relation of the subject to truth based on what we have just said about the possibility of its transmission. That is, if it is sought it can’t be and if it can’t be it’s not known precisely insofar as it is sought; but if sought it must somehow be. So truth, as he says, is uncertain or even maybe the uncertain, objectively speaking. He says: ‘Here is such a definition of truth: An objective uncertainty, held fast through appropriation with the most passionate inwardness, is the truth, the highest truth there is for an existing person.’
So this is truth as subjectivity – the truth of the subject and in a way, the subject’s truth. But let’s not assume this is to say everyone has their own truth or something silly like that. The subject has before him objective uncertainty but this is precisely what registers in the individual as an intensity for it and so for Kierkegaard, then, this is what subjectivity in truth means – ‘truth is precisely the daring venture of choosing the objective uncertainty with the passion of the infinite . . .’
So you see here, truth is subjectivity or maybe the subject is what it is in truth, which is the risk of going after this thing called objective uncertainty with all you can muster. It's a wager, clearly, that through this subjective action, this decision for it, that the truth will out of this uncertainty, which is only another way of saying what is unknown with regard to all existing knowledge.
It’s interesting, this objective uncertainty, with regard to what we have heard from the ancients – that truth exists but is beyond us or that there is no truth at all or that it exceeds us but it draws us up nevertheless. All these, in their own way, are de-subjectivising. If it is beyond us then our subjectivity is suspended in this lack; if there is none then we are reduced to the set of relations which defines us at any time; if we are drawn up in knowledge then there is a law or logic that is proper to us. In all cases a certain freedom is eschewed which is precisely what Kierkegaard zeros in on.
It's the act of deciding, even if it’s deciding on the uncertain or the undecideable as such. To take that risk, that leap. Which is why the definition of truth I stated above is, he says, a paraphrasing of faith. ‘Without risk, no faith. Faith is the contradiction between the infinite passion of inwardness and the objective uncertainty. If I am able to comprehend God objectively I do not have faith; but because I cannot do this I must have faith. If I want to keep myself in faith [or truth] I must continually see to it that I hold fast the objective uncertainty, see to it that in the objective uncertainty I am ‘out on 70,000 fathoms of water' and still have faith.’
So you can see that truth as subjectivity is to be lived, this is what Christianity is to him – it’s not a game of theory or bourgeois contemplation. But the critical thing for us to note here is that what this subjective leap of faith breaks with, finally, is the assumption of philosophy since Plato, or in the Platonic fashion anyway – so Kant and Hegel. Kierkegaard argues: that the truth is always presented as somehow in the philosopher – or the philosopher is in truth always and it just needs to be brought out in some way: ‘so that the task of philosophy is to wring it out, to make explicit the eternal truth that is already implanted in the philosopher's soul.’
Kierkegaard, with his decisive subject, marks instead a historical beginning for any truth, which of course is to say that the subject is begun in untruth instead – which would be sin. Thus any truth must, if you like, become so – it’s not an eternality which the subject accesses within himself but something that must be constructed in time each and every time – something like this is the freedom of the subject. Of course for Kierkegaard, this is the Christian as such – not the bourgeois one of European modernity who is corrupt insofar as this Platonic version of knowing has installed itself there – but the one who chooses to live in the uncertainty of faiths truth – it has begun with the coming of God in time itself – rather than the knowledge of God.
He is saying that if Christianity is the truth that is true for me, the truth for which I can live and die, then I will not live long enough for the results of any sort of objective thinking to come in. There is no final proof of my decision that justifies the position in this objective sense. Christianity, if it is true at all, is a 'subjective' truth. Finally, then, it looks like this: ‘even if what is said is objectively true – that God is love – if you are not subjectively transformed by that, if you do not personally have love in your heart, then you do not have the truth.’ It’s very like Pascal. And as such this is no happy reconciliation – this is a process that clearly puts you at odds with the world of the absolute or the Ideal – the world of knowledge.
I think this is as good a place as any to stop – it sets up Sartre who we can say effectively begins right here where the act of thought is paramount.
I mentioned above that there can be seen a certain nihilism in existentialism – a fairly common critique. Sartre doesn't shy away from this, rejecting all senses of the Idea that would in some way reign over us and be the true value of a world which man must in some way approximate or accommodate himself to and so be judged in relation with.
As Charles Guignon argues, ‘the ontological reason for his nihilism is that Sartre believes that every human being’s fundamental urge is for the impossible, namely, to be God. We desire to be a being that would be necessary, that is, exist by right rather than by contingency, but one that would preserve its freedom and consciousness by being itself the cause or foundation of its own necessity.’ Putting it in terms of freedom and choice, Sartre writes, ‘my freedom is a choice of being God and all my acts and all my projects translate this choice and reflect it in a thousand and one ways.’
This way, then, is a dead end. We can never be this God, never achieve the status of necessity in and through this orientation to the world – the one which holds such a God over us as the impossible to be whose desire alone we can manifest. But note in this nihilism, so called, is the very key notion of choice. Sartre absolutely considers this orientation to the world, which thereby structures what it is to be in the world for us, a choice.
Albeit of course, one we mostly don't even know we have made. So that's the first thing; we humans constructed this framework of our understanding. If there is no God, it can only be we who made him to rule over us. This projective structure is pretty straightforward and Sartre explains it like this, substituting the term Good for God and this in relation to what he takes as Plato’s idea of it: ‘man chooses to hypostasize the essential characteristics of his Good in order to give this Good an ontological priority over himself. Then, existing as the servant of this a priori Good, man exists by right. He is in some way raised up by the Good to serve it. We see this clearly in religion for God has raised up man to reflect his glory.’ [note the metaphysical transfer!]
So we take what is good for us and make it the Good as such and all existences are counted as such in relation to it. For Sartre, then, we need to realise this construction as our own and in doing so we realise that choice is at the very heart of what man is capable. Thus for Sartre, to choose this construction is not the problem as such, the problem is the disavowal of this as a choice.
By extension, to know this as a choice is to affirm choice and thus this affirmation undoes the power of this God or Good as ultimate value, and this in turn is the freedom of choice itself – the radical human freedom that is the being of beings like us. Hence the nihilism – expressed in Being and Nothingness like this: ‘all human activities are equivalent . . . all are on principle doomed to failure. Thus it amounts to the same thing whether one gets drunk alone or is a leader of nations’ – is actually for Sartre the active result of failing to choose for choice, as it were. We are doomed to failure if we accede to the set of relations that inscribe us always within an evaluative framework which denudes us of choice while at the same time compels us toward it in this Idealised and thus impossible fashion.
In Note Books for an Ethics this is how he frames this same question:
The Good has to be done. This signifies that it is the end of an act, without a doubt. But also that it does not exist apart from the act that does it. A Platonic Good that would exist in and by itself makes no sense. One would like to say that it is beyond Being, in fact it would be a Being and, as such, in the first place it would leave us completely indifferent, we would slide by it without knowing what to make of it; for another thing it would be contradictory as an aberrant synthesis of being and ought-to-be. And in parallel to the Christian Good, which has over the former the superiority of emanating from a subjectivity, if it does perhaps escape contradiction, it would still not be able to move us, for God does not do the Good: he is it. Otherwise would we have to refuse to attribute perfection to the divine essence?
You can note what is perhaps a nod to Kierkegaard – the Christian God institutes subjectivity. But this is also then at the very heart of existentialisms anti-Platonism which clearly does not allow for the subject – it is in fact its impossibility given that the Good in this Platonic sense is at the level of Being itself, a being which can have no relation to any act or contingency which would of course open it to change and thus generation and corruption and so on.
The Good can only be Good – so goes the Platonic axiomatic. This means then that any possible agent of the Good any ‘do gooder’ we might say, is not Good, clearly, even if this agent, always doing good, might be called good at some point it is not by possession but by action. This is the key, then: whatever is for Sartre is what is done. There is no Ideal Good – no beyond Being as it is said. There is what is done and what is done is always a mater of choice – good and bad.
But that it is a choice means that an other choice can always be made. Which is to say then that we have arrived again at the definition of existentialism, pretty much as Sartre gave it in Existentialism and Humanism: that existence precedes essence; or, if you prefer, that subjectivity must be our point of departure. Let’s follow this a very short way – to clarify a couple of things.
In that book or that lecture, which is given really to address his critics – communist and catholic – and, as his daughter says in her introduction to one of the editions, to dumb it down for everyone, he adds: ‘Atheistic existentialism, which I represent … states that if God does not exist, there is at least one being in whom existence precedes essence – a being whose existence comes before its essence, a being who exists before he can be defined by any concept of it. That being is man.’
And this means then that what it is to exist is what it is to be for man, and to be a man is precisely what man makes of his being itself or what he makes for himself of his own existence. As existent, man is what encounters himself as such and comes to be. He will be what he makes of himself precisely because there is no essence that compels him one way or another; man qua subject in essence is nothing, but on the basis of this absolute nothing, man is everything which he does or makes and so on. As subject, man is man’s project – his future. This, note, is not a matter of the will – the will comes after, we ascribe to what we have done the will to do it, Sartre claims – primary is the choice in act, inherent in the acts as its force, thus to exist as such which precedes will and precipitates true responsibility.
Every subject being that of choice is thereby responsible in the world for itself. And Sartre continues, ‘when we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not mean that he is responsible only for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men.’ As noted above, this ontological-ethic is the crux of the singular universal tension: Sartre sort of operates with the Kantian Categorical Imperative: Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.
But it’s not a transcendental effect of an essence – it’s an imperative we make our own, rather than a formal law we obey as such. It might be more more accurate to say the imperative works for Sartre at a different level: that it is impossible not to choose – even to choose not to choose is a choice, thus for all there is only the contingency of choice and your choice is then the choice of all.
What counts for Sartre is whether or not the invention necessitated by choice is made in the name of freedom – which is what a true choice is – one that enacts not-being. Hence ‘the basic ambiguity of human reality that ‘is what it is not’ (that is, its future as possibility) and ‘is not what it is’ (its past as facticity, including its ego or self, to which it is related via an internal negation).’
In creating the image each of us wills ourselves to be, there is not a single one of our actions that does not at the same time create an image of man as we think he ought to be. Choosing to be this or that is to affirm at the same time the value of what we choose, because we can never choose evil. We always choose the good, and nothing can be good for any of us unless it is good for all. If, moreover, existence precedes essence and we will to exist at the same time as we fashion our image, that image is valid for all and for our whole era. Our responsibility is thus much greater than we might have supposed, because it concerns all mankind.
Again note that this is Sartre somewhat watering it down from the more stark and austere version in Being and Nothingness but it is against both the Niezstchean claim that we can will evil as well as the good and the concomitant claim that existentialism is thereby a relativism. But we can see the axiomatic or declarative approach is Sartre avoiding this trap, thus providing the orientation to choice, as what is not in every case subject to choice itself.
If to choose is always to choose the Good then the good is not only what comes to exist by that choice. This ‘not only’ is the idea of it that the act of choosing makes ideal. The Good is to choose – thus the being-Good inheres in what man is as free. And it is this idea, then, that the chooser is responsible for – the one that applies to all. It’s ontological – to choose is to not be being which is what the subject is – true freedom.
Which is not to say everyone will follow along with choices made, of course, but as the idea of the act it has a universal address, lets say and this making manifest the idea, to use my terms, is the cause of the affective anxiety or despair of the subject – that it is for all that his act includes. Anxiety is in this sense what accompanies the truly subjective act – the one that is responsible for all. Bad faith is for those who claim that what they do is a matter for them alone, that no one else would do it. Sartre says, ‘Someone who lies to himself and excuses himself by saying ‘Everyone does not act that way’ is struggling with a bad conscience, for the act of lying implies attributing a universal value to lies.’
In other words, ‘we define man's situation as one of free choice, in which he has no recourse to excuses or outside aid, then any man who takes refuge behind his passions, any man who fabricates some deterministic theory, is operating in bad faith.’ These are errors, note, not moral failings – we have no morality in whose image we are made, after all. The error is the check bad faith puts on freedom, which time and again is the demonstrated truth of man, so to speak. Thus bad faith is a universal error, which any individual is free to commit.
Everyone, Sartre, says, without God or the Ideal and so without any hope, ought to be asking himself, ‘Am I really someone who is entitled to act in such a way that the entire human race should be measuring itself by my actions? And if he does not ask himself that he is masking his anguish. Or in other words he is in retreat to the comfort of self-interest – whether that be Gods or nature, whether that be in exaltation of ones social position or in lament at its poverty and so on. There is nothing. As Paul Celan said, situated as you are, it all depends on you.
On this very direct, challenging and Platonic reflection – which is, I’d say, the universalisation of what makes up the Socratic subject vis a vis the world of Athens and thus what such a universalisation of this singular, strange and ironic figure can make out of it – we’ll stop – being out of time, gladly in despair and stern in our abject optimism.
But do let me add this final articulation to the being existent of the subject, for it's a recapitulation of that link to truth that so concerns us and is supposedly so un-platonic in its conception. Sartre declares forcefully that this is our point of departure:
I think therefore I am. This is the absolute truth of consciousness confronting itself. Any theory that considers man outside of this moment of self-awareness is, at the outset, a theory that suppresses the truth, for outside of this Cartesian cogito, all objects are merely probable, and a doctrine of probabilities not rooted in any truth crumbles into nothing. In order to define the probable, one must possess what is true.
This truth, he says, exists absolutely as what any subject must seize as itself and produce with others. In seizing what is absolute in the ‘I am’ of man – that he thinks – the subject is such on condition that all men can so be or become so – it's the same thing. ‘There is universality in any project insofar as any man is capable of understating any human project.’
Every such project struggles to exist in the same way. Hence there is no difference between free being and its essence and absolute being. Nor is there any difference between being as an absolute temporarily localised – that is, localised in history – and universally intelligible being.
Singular universalism, then: or as Sartre puts it vis a vis the Cogito: ‘relativism of the particulars or appearances, absolutism of the commitment.’ And so again, despite the protestations to the contrary, this is the Platonic project par excellence – if that is, and this is crucial, we admit, which is to say, discover, in Plato, the place of the subject. And then of course that there is no philosophy that does not suppose such a thing.
Works used and or cited:
R. Solomon, Existentialism.
John D. Caputo, How to Read Kierkegaard.
Charles Guignon (Ed.), The Existentialists
Hubert L. Dreyfus and Mark A. Wrathall (Ed.) A Companion to Phenomenology and Existentialism.
Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism.
Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness.
Jean-Paul Sartre, Notebooks for an Ethics.
Walter Kaufmann (Ed.), Existentialism: From Dostoevsky to Sartre.
Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Ed.), The Essential Kierkegaard.