In the Concluding Unscientific Postscript of Søren Kierkegaard, which he wrote under the pseudonym Johannes Climacus, we find the famous declaration that "subjectivity is truth." Climacus' hero of this section of the Postscript is the subjective thinker, who turns inward to find and upbuild his faith while existing passionately. In Section VII.304 of the Postscript, Climacus writes immediately under the heading
The Subjective Thinker; His Task; His Form, That Is, His Style,
"The subjective thinker is a dialectician
oriented to the existential
; he has the intellectual passion
to hold firm the qualitative disjunction
So. Here we get a little bit of what the subjective thinker's task/form/style might be, that is a commitment to the qualitative disjunction in its existential dimension. But what is meant by "qualitative disjunction?" This an unfamiliar and extremely complex phrase, but it's obviously a crucial one for Kierkegaard. This idea of "qualitative disjunction" is thus a term both problematic and vital to Kierkegaard's account of the subjective thinker as explained by Climacus. By breaking the term down into its components, which are individually a bit more manageable, we may upbuild a basic, and then a more specifically Kierkegaardian sense of the qualitative disjunction. We will then see how Kierkegaard is adhering to and diverging from the traditional meaning of these components in order to establish his own uniquely meaningful concept. Finally, all this might serve to deepen our understanding of Climacus' dark statement that "subjectivity is truth."
A warning: I am not a scholar of Kierkegaard, and I don?t feel I have a good understanding of the convolutions in thought and expression that accompany his shifting in and out of the pseudonyms. More to the point, I am not sure what, if any, distinctions exist between what Johannes Climacus writes and what Kierkegaard "really thinks." The only help I can offer is to remind whoever reads this that the Postscript is indeed written pseudonymously, for whatever that fact is worth. To that end, I'll be using the names Climacus and Kierkegaard interchangeably, but I am not drawing any meaningful distinctions between them or their ideas.
Qualitative means, simply, "of qualities." A qualitative description of something is a description of its qualities. It's important here to remember that Climacus is appropriating the Enlightenment conception of quality, passed down from Spinoza through Kant and finally Hegel, whom Kierkegaard is most interested in refuting. This conception is really fairly simple: things that differ in their qualities are fundamentally different kinds of things. We may think here of Spinozian "attributes." A qualitative difference, then, is a difference of kind, as opposed to a mere difference of degree, which might be denoted by a quantitative difference.
Now that we have at least a decent handle on what is meant by qualitative, let's move toward a definition of
In logic, a disjunction denotes a logical or between two or more propositions. This or can be weak (inclusive), meaning that at least one of the disjuncts can be true, and possibly all of them. This is the idea we usually convey by ?and/or.? It can also be a strong (exclusive) or, meaning that only one of the disjuncts can be true.
So disjunction is an or. Fair enough. What does this mean outside the realm of formal logic? If we think of disjunction in the strong sense, as I believe Kierkegaard is doing, a disjunct implies or compels some kind of choice. Only one of the N propositions made available in the disjunction can be true. Because Climacus is talking about the existential dialectic, the sense of disjunction as the presentation of a choice becomes more strong.
So, now we have an unspecific basic, but hopefully firm, idea of the qualitative disjunction. It refers to some kind of either/or choice between qualitatively different things. Armed with this general definition, we may now attempt to give a couple
Ways of interpreting the Kierkegaardian qualitative disjunction:
- Sense 1 of the qualitative disjunction is the uncrossable rift or "ditch" between God and human. The difference between humans and God is not one of degree, but one of kind. God is infinitely and qualitatively disjunctive from us humans. Our language fails in describing this disjunction, because our language falls necessarily on one side of the ditch, which we cannot cross. As somewhat of an aside, the concept of Christ as both human and divine would seem to contradict the disjunction by affirming both disjuncts. This is the essential paradox of Christianity according to Kierkegaard. In any case, sense 1 is not the sense in which Climacus is using the qualitative disjunction in this particular passage. However, it does inform what he is saying here and is vital to understanding it. Keep in mind, Climacus always has an eye to the existential; as a subjective thinker, one must have that "intellectual passion" for the existential. The idea of "intellectual passion" is problematic in itself, but we may briefly define it as the internal dialectic of the mind applied with passionate commitment to the conditions of existence. So sense 1 of the qualitative disjuction is initially a statement about God, but its existential import makes it infinitely more animating. Knowing that God is qualitatively disjunctive from humans is not a sterile fact about the world, and Climacus warns against applying this knowledge too abstractly, or "flatly." Rather, this knowledge goes beyond facticity to the realm of existence--the realm of subjectivity. If subjectivity is truth, the knowledge that God is qualitatively different from us must shape and structure our subjective existence if it is to mean anything.
- In sense 2, the qualitative disjunction refers to the choice we are given as human beings, that is the choice of our existence. In this sense, the qualitative disjunction refer sto the choice between thinking and existing, of which Climacus requires that we choose the latter. This disjunction is a frequently recurrent idea in existential philosophy: the idea that rationality, or what Kierkegaard calls "speculation," is in some ways a suspension or a removal from existence, and that existing fully often requires at least a limited suspension of this kind of "speculation." This does not mean that Kierkegaard is a complete irrationalist or a noncognitivist. He is instead rejecting a certain way of thinking as a method for attaining salvation, by discarding outward-looking speculation in favor of subjective, existence-oriented thinking. In the Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard's pagan archetype for this type of thinking is Socrates. However, in the Postscript, he must leave behind the Socratic as he enters the realm of Christian subjectivity. For Kierkegaard, the Christian subjective thinker is that person whose existence is shaped by sense 1 of the qualitative disjunction, and who lives in constant awareness of the sense 2 disjuncts, always choosing the disjunct of existence over that of speculation. He is fully and authentically existing, but as a thinker, he is constantly trying to understand himself in existence.
Now we have developed a better understanding of the Kierkegaardian sense of the qualitative disjunction. In essence, the qualitative disjunction is the logical form of the choices faced by the subjective thinker--it is his constant labor to hold it firm. By constantly choosing to exist and simultaneously trying to understand himself as an existing thing, the subjective thinker fulfills his task. The injection of the idea of God into that understanding is what allows a Christian subjective thinker to attain truth--which, again, is subjectivity.
A final note: If all this argumentation sounds counterintuitive or even irrational, that should come as no surprise. Remember, subjectivity is truth. Kierkegaard doesn't believe that one can attain true beliefs through irrefutable rationalistic proofs. Indeed, the truth cannot be proved at all--that is its nature. Instead, one must be coaxed toward it, enticed. That is why Kierkegaard and in his various pseudonymous incarnations refer to themselves as "the poet" or "the humorist." Logic and ratiocination are discarded, because they can never attain real truth (contrary to the claims of Kant and Hegel). Instead, Kierkegaard picks up the tools of artistic persuasion: beauty and emotion and conviction--true "intellectual passion." So if you truly want to be convinced by Climacus, don't worry about his circular argumentation or fuzzy causal inferences. Let yourself be swept away by the artistic power and impassioned beauty of his writings toward the truth of your own subjectivity.
- The Essential Kierkegaard. Ed. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1980.
- Thulstrup, Niels. Commentary on Kierkegaard's Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Trans. Robert J. Widenmann. Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1984.