Being “Ethical” & Ethical Knowledge

There is a short passage in Kierkegaard’s Judge For Yourself! that has recently garnered my attention. While my interest in Kierkegaard is many, the focus of my research is on Kierkegaard’s epistemology. Often, however, the epistemology of Kierkegaard’s authorship surrounds the ethical-religious spheres, thereby placing interest in the subjective.

In every human being there is a capacity, the capacity for knowledge. And every person – the most knowing and the most limited – is in his knowing far beyond what he is in his life or what his life expresses. Yet this misrelation is of little concern to us. On the contrary, we set a high price on knowledge, and everyone strives to develop his knowledge more and more. (JFY, Hong translation, p.118)

While there is much to unpack here, it can be summarized in the threefold. First, every person has the capacity to know, whether that person be a distinguished professor or the clerk at the local gas station. No person is exempt from knowledge, or, at the very least, the pursuit of knowledge. Indirectly, it is also affirmed, without objection, that each person is fallible and thus capable of making both epistemic and ethical mistakes. Second, in “knowing far beyond what he is in his life or what his life expresses” I believe Kierkegaard is asserting that our knowledge can exceed what we are capable of enacting. That is to say, we might have knowledge on how to be a good and trustworthy person only to fail at becoming that good and trustworthy person in practice. Third, and this is the consequence Kierkegaard wants our attention to be drawn to, is that when our practical outpouring fails to live up the the knowledge that we possess, we strive to know more. (1)

The third implication above is what I think Johannes Climacus, the pseudonymous author of Philosophical Fragments and its sequel, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, takes into consideration on why subjective knowledge must be valued over objective knowledge in matters of the ethical-religious. Often, emphasis is placed on knowing; one must know more, gain further understanding on some thing through which one can better life. While possessing more knowledge is not prima facie wrong or misguided, of course, such enlightenment might only replicate failure in the practical. In order to become “more ethical” one must continually examine oneself subjectively, ask why failure was met, and what can be done to make the next trial be overcome with more success. Perhaps the failure is, in fact, due to a faulty epistemological/ethical framework. In such cases, the theory ought to be remedied in favor of another method. Yet, I think this will be the case in the minority of situations. Generally speaking, it is more difficult to put into action what we have learned than to simply learn. That is to say that is easier to know how to not covet more than actually not coveting in a situation where I find myself wanting.

Emphasis, then, in practical ethical failures should focus on cultivating self-knowledge over “objective” knowledge in the sense that objective knowledge is gathering more and more tidbits on how to live better. The recipe might include Kant’s deontology or Aristotle/Thomas’ virtue theory, but it must necessarily include a thorough self-examination. For Kant, Kierkegaard, and countless other philosophers are not responsible for your ethical hiccups. That responsibility fall on you and you alone.  For this actually might be the task. As Climacus writes in Postscript,

to become subjective should be the highest task assigned to every human being, just as the highest reward, an eternal happiness, exists only for the subjective person or, more correctly, comes into existence for the one who becomes subjective. (CUP, Hong translation, p. 163).

What I have written here are merely my musings. This short post by no means is a substitute for thorough investigation, a process I am currently undertaking elsewhere. However, this is, I believe, a needed discussion to be had. The correctional approach to personal conduct is not merely found in the examination of the great thinkers of history, but in ourselves and through inward reflection.




(1) For an extended examination of this, see R. McCombs, The Paradoxical Rationality of Soren Kierkegaard.


2 thoughts on “Being “Ethical” & Ethical Knowledge

  1. syrbal says:

    So, you would then perhaps be in agreement with the assessment of F.W.J. Schelling in his “System of Transcendental Idealism” that only the truly subjective state is fully honest?

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