There are a two chief ways to respond to this turmoil—to accept it and simply do ones best to help clarify the new state of affairs, or to reject it and bury one's head in the sand, mistaking the continuing darkness for a static picture of reality. Did you know that In many languages, the word doubt is etymologically related to the word two? Think of Spanish: uno, dos; French: un, deux; Italian: uno, due; Russian: odin, dva. This definitional link makes sense as the feeling of doubt creeps in precisely where there is a difficult choice to be made between one of two ways. And in the case of the choice between two world views, the modern and the medieval, Soren Kierkegaard condemned himself to feelings of deep perpetual doubt by accepting that things had changed in the world, but taking the leap back to bury his head in the sand anyway. Let's look at the elements of his philosophy and see how they have fared in the light of today to see what I mean.
Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855 CE) was a Danish philosopher, theologian, and psychologist. His theological work focuses on Christian ethics, the institution of the Church, and on the differences between purely objective proofs of Christianity. Much of his philosophical work deals with the issues of how one lives, focusing on the priority of concrete human reality over abstract thinking and highlighting the importance of personal choice and commitment. Kierkegaard has been called the Father of Existentialism, both atheistic and theistic variations.
Needs to Adapt
According to Kierkegaard, the idea of congregations keeps individuals as children since Christians are disinclined from taking the initiative to take responsibility for their own relation to God. Communities can be supportive, but when they support a mob mentality, they are harmful. Members of congregations would find the church’s god wanting if they examined it on their own.
One of Kierkegaard’s well-known ideas is the notion popularly referred to as “leap of faith.” The leap of faith is his conception of how an individual would believe in God or how a person would act in love. Faith is not a decision based on evidence that, say, certain beliefs about God are true or a certain person is worthy of love. No such evidence could ever be enough to pragmatically justify the kind of total commitment involved in true religious faith or romantic love. Faith involves making that commitment anyway. As Kierkegaard writes, "doubt is conquered by faith, just as it is faith which has brought doubt into the world.” Utter nonsense. We can get lots of actual evidence that a person is worthy of love. We talk to them and learn their actions. Nothing of the sort has ever been seen from a god. Doubt is a practical emotion in a world of probabilistic knowledge. Faith is an impractical, irrational response to that probability.
Kierkegaard also stressed the importance of the self and its relation to the world as being grounded in self-reflection and introspection. He argued that "subjectivity is truth" and "truth is subjectivity.” This has to do with a distinction between what is objectively true and an individual's subjective relation (such as indifference or commitment) to that truth. People who in some sense believe the same things may relate to those beliefs quite differently. Two individuals may both believe that many of those around them are poor and deserve help, but this knowledge may lead only one of them to decide to actually help the poor. Kierkegaard primarily discusses subjectivity with regard to religious matters, however. He argues that doubt is an element of faith and that it is impossible to gain any objective certainty about religious doctrines such as the existence of God or the life of Christ. The most one could hope for would be the conclusion that it is probable that the Christian doctrines are true, but if a person were to believe such doctrines only to the degree they seemed likely to be true, he or she would not be genuinely religious at all. Faith consists in a subjective relation of absolute commitment to these doctrines. Exactly as I already described. Faith is an irrational response to a world filled with probabilities. The certainty that Kierkegaard calls for is reckless, dangerous, and promotes an unbridgeable chasm between rational and irrational humans.
Perhaps the most oft-quoted aphorism from Kierkegaard's journals, and a key quote for existentialist studies, is: "The thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die.” The motto of the suicide bomber.
I mentioned briefly in his introduction that Kierkegaard is widely regarded as the "father of existentialism". Plenty of philosophers from as far back as the pre-Socratics have maintained that the existence of a thing precedes its essence (the opposite of Plato's essential forms spawning individual examples of existence), so why does Kierkegaard get this title? Because he was the first to maintain that "the individual is solely responsible for giving his or her own life meaning and for living that life passionately and sincerely, in spite of many existential obstacles and distractions including despair, angst, absurdity, alienation, and boredom." This view of the world as absurd and meaningless, that one's existence is all there is in life, is a chief addition to the school of thought now called existentialism, and it rightfully earned Kierkegaard his moniker. The problem with Kierkegaard is what he chose to do with his life once he came to this conclusion. Rather than learn to lean on others and find meaning in the shared struggle for life, Kierkegaard fell back on his individual view of lonely existence and suffered deeply while he tried to commune with the god of his imagination.
In one of the chief encounters of his life, Kierkegaard ruined the one true love he shared with Regine Olsen by seducing her into an engagement only to subsequently run to his studies and ignore her to the point where he finally had to break things off, even though "Regine was crushed by the whole affair, as was Kierkegaard, who described spending his nights crying in his bed without her." The reasons for his actions are uncertain, but presumably, this quote from his journals sheds some light:
Once in his early youth a man allowed himself to be so far carried away in an overwrought irresponsible state as to visit a prostitute. It is all forgotten. Now he wants to get married. Then anxiety stirs. He is tortured day and night with the thought that he might possibly be a father, that somewhere in the world there could be a created being who owed his life to him. He cannot share his secret with anyone. His misgivings do not really start until he actually falls in love.
So the young man made some mistakes and faced doubts about them. Big deal! Kierkegaarde's inability to effectively deal with his doubts though was to be a lifelong theme in his existence. His first major publication, which turned out to be his magnum opus, was actually titled Either/Or (1843), and it was released under the pseudonym Victor Eremita, Latin for "the victorious hermit," who supposedly discovered papers from unknown authors "A" and "B" (more pseudonyms) in a secret drawer. The book is basically an argument about faith and marriage with a short discourse at the end telling them they should stop arguing. So Kierkegaard's doubt literally split him into multiple personalities that spilled onto his publicly published pages. Meanwhile, in his private journals, he also struggled with this theme, writing things such as:
Freedom’s possibility is not the ability to choose the good or the evil. Freedom succumbs to dizziness. Further than this, psychology cannot and will not go. Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom. He who becomes guilty in anxiety becomes as ambiguously guilty as it is possible to become.
This is so sad! For there is no reason that our psychology cannot get past the dizziness of freedom. Billions of us do it all the time, because, well, because there is no other choice than to get on with things. It was only Kierkegaard's psychology that was unable to deal with this. In fact, it seems that Kierkegaard, a Danish surname that literally means a church farm, but has the colloquial meaning of a graveyard, might as well have consigned himself to one with his doubt, practically dying from it at the age of 42. As we saw, he was a deeply religious individual, but once two father figures in his life had died (his actual father (at age 82!), and his father's close friend Bishop Mynster), Kierkegaard launched an attack on the Church of Denmark through newspaper articles and a series of self-published pamphlets called The Moment. Before the tenth issue of his periodical The Moment could be published, Kierkegaard collapsed on the street. He stayed in the hospital for over a month, refusing communion, and dying soon after, possibly from complications from a fall he had taken from a tree in his youth, but I have little doubt that his personal isolation and torment contributed heavily to the exacerbation of his condition. We know today from many studies of longevity that communal bonds are one of the most important things that keep us alive, and Kierkegaard's existential individualism, fuelled by doubts that kept him separate from everyone in his life, had long since threw off those bonds. To wit, some other quotations from his journals:
Job endured everything — until his friends came to comfort him, then he grew impatient.
Deep within every human being there still lives the anxiety over the possibility of being alone in the world.
Had he had the option, Kierkegaard would perhaps have benefited greatly from some philosophical counselling. Irvin Yalom, an existential psychotherapist, wrote in Love's Executioner & Other Tales of Psychotherapy: "I have found that four existential givens are particularly relevant to psychotherapy: the inevitability of death for each of us and for those we love; the freedom to make our lives as we will; our ultimate aloneness; and the absence of any obvious meaning or sense to life." He, and others like him, have spent entire careers dealing with patients afflicted with the troubles that Kierkegaard expressed. In Plato Not Prozac!, Lou Marinoff described the steps he uses to guide a client through philosophical counselling. The steps are abbreviated by the acronym PEACE—the client identifies the Problem he or she is facing, determines what Emotions are being stirred up by this problem, takes some time to Analyze the options for dealing with the issue, and then Contemplates the whole situation from beginning to end in the hopes of eventually coming to a sustainable Equilibrium after the best answer to the original problem is reached. So when Kierkegaard expressed worries like this...
So it happens at times that a person believes that he has a world-view, but that there is yet one particular phenomenon that is of such a nature that it baffles the understanding, and that he explains differently and attempts to ignore in order not to harbor the thought that this phenomenon might overthrow the whole view, or that his reflection does not possess enough courage and resolution to penetrate the phenomenon with his world-view.
...we see that he was not at PEACE, even though he struggled for years to philosophise his way to get there. Though he is hailed today as one of the brightest minds of the early 19th century, his short and lonely life dedicated to an ultimately dead-end point of view clearly could have benefited from some wise interventions. And even if that wisdom would have had to come from someone with a lesser intellect, Kierkegaard should have been prepared to accept that. After all, he also said:
A man's personality is matured only when he appropriates the truth, whether it is spoken by Balaam's ass or a sniggering wag or an apostle or an angel.
I'm not sure which of those four categories I fall into or you fall into, but if you are struggling with doubt in your life and it is affecting the way you enjoy it, find someone to talk to, and see if you can't achieve some PEACE. Beware the example of Soren Kierkegaard.