There are many fascinating parallels between the thought of Søren Kierkegaard, a 19th century Danish philosopher, and Jordan Peterson, a contemporary Canadian clinical psychologist who has recently gained worldwide acclaim. Both are existentialists. Kierkegaard is regarded by many as the “father of existentialism,” Peterson has undoubtedly been greatly influenced by him, directly or indirectly. Both are provocative. Peterson has become infamous for critiquing what he sees as a “postmodern Neo-Marxist” infiltration of universities, government and media. In his own day, Kierkegaard railed against the dead orthodoxy of the Lutheran Church. Peterson styles himself as a fearless truth teller, Kierkegaard as a Socratic gadfly. Both want their readers/listeners to become better people. Peterson wants you to “sort yourself out,” Kierkegaard hopes to seduce you into becoming an “existing individual.” Both are strong individualists. Both have done work on Christianity. Peterson, though an agnostic, has done a series of lectures on the psychological significance of the book of Genesis. Kierkegaard, a Christian, wrote of the existential problem of becoming a Christian. These are just the superficial comparisons. In this piece, I will compare the Kierkegaard of Concluding Unscientific Postscripts with Peterson and show the fascinating ways their respective intellectual projects overlap and complement each other.
A divided world
Both Kierkegaard and Peterson see the world in two ways. On one hand, there is the world as described by science: a world devoid of purpose, meaning or morality. On the other hand, there is the subjective world, a world teaming with purpose, meaning and moral duties. As we will see later, both Peterson and Kierkegaard are interested in stitching these two worlds together. Peterson notes that there is a gulf between the world described by science and the world described in mythology and religion. Peterson writes:
The world can validly be construed as a forum for action, or as a place of things. This former manner of interpretation—more primordial, and less clearly understood—finds its expression in the arts or humanities, in ritual, drama, literature and mythology. The world as a forum for action is a place of value, a place where all things have meaning… The latter manner of interpretation—the world as a place of things—finds its formal expression in the methods and theories of science.
Craig Evens, a prominent Kierkegaard scholar, conceptualizes this difference as the stance of the spectator and the stance of the agent. The spectator sees the world of objects, the agent, sees the world as a forum for action. This is essentially what Kierkegaard is getting at with his distinction between the “subjective” and the “objective:
For an objective reflection the truth becomes an object, something objective and thought must be pointed away from the subject. For a subjective reflection the truth becomes a matter of appropriation, of inwardness, of subjectivity, and thought must probe more and more deeply into the subject and his subjectivity.
Kierkegaard notes that the dispassionate pursuit of truth excludes or disregards the individual and existence:
“The way of objective inquiry makes the subject accidental, and thereby transforms existence into something indifferent, something vanishing… and while the subject and his subjectivity become indifferent, the truth also becomes indifferent…”
To Kierkegaard, this is madness, this way of seeking the truth neglects everything that is essential to the exiting individual. Peterson’s distinction between the world as a “place of objects” and the world as a “forum for action” could be roughly collapsed into Kierkegaard’s subjective/objective dichotomy. The subjective world is a place of purpose, passion, meaning, becoming, and striving. The objective world is dispassionate, purposeless, meaningless and static. Peterson is clear that both ways of modes of construal are required to adequately understand the world:
No complete world-picture can be generated without use of both modes of construal. The fact that one mode is generally set at odds with the other means only that the nature of their respective domains remains insufficiently discriminated. Adherents of the mythological worldview tend to regard the statements of their creeds as indistinguishable from empirical “fact,” even though such statement were generally formulated long before the notion of objective reality emerged. Those who, by contrast, accept the scientific perspective—who assume that it is, or might become complete—forget that an impassible gulf currently divides what is, from what should be.
Kierkegaard too, does not think that the subjective can be encapsulated, or dismissed by the objective. He critiques the “one-sided intellectual” for imagining that he has it all, when in fact, the purely objective, rational approach cannot encapsulate all spheres of human existence:
…the misfortune of our present age is not that it is one-sided, but that it is abstractly all-sided. A one-sided individual rejects, clearly and defiantly, what he does not wish to include: but the abstractly all-sided individual imagines that he has everything through the one-sidedness of the intellectual. A one-sided believer refuses to have anything to do with thought, and a one-sided man of action will have nothing to do with science; but the one-sidedness of the intellectual creates the illusion of having everything. A one-sided individual of this type has faith and passion as transcended phases of his life, or so he says- and nothing is easier to say.
Both Kierkegaard, and Peterson recognize that there is a “broad ugly ditch” separating rational inquiry and religious truths (specifically Christianity truths) many can no longer believe. Both believe that we must somehow gain access to those religious truths; Peterson by “rescuing the father from the belly of the whale” and Kierkegaard by “absolute venture” or “the leap.” Kierkegaard and Peterson conceptualize the problem differently and it’s well worth exploring those differences.
To Peterson, the “objective world” and the “world of meaning,” the world of “natural philosophy” and “religion,” were once intimately connected. The medieval world was a world of meaning. Religion was “not so much a matter of faith, as a matter of fact.” Natural philosophy and religion existed in harmony. However, with the emergence of modern science, God and man have been torn apart:
The capacity to maintain explicit belief in religious “fact,” however, has been severely undermined in the last few centuries – first in the West, and then everywhere else. A succession of great scientists and iconoclasts has demonstrated that the universe does not revolve around man, that our notion of separate status from and “superiority” to the animal has no empirical basis, and that there is no God in heaven (nor even a heaven, as far as the eye can see). In consequence, we no longer believe our own stories – no longer even believe that those stories served us well in the past.
Even though the worlds of “fact” and “value” have been torn apart, Peterson notes that both worlds still exist in “paradoxical union.” Although many people in the West are no longer Christian or no longer believe in God, all of us still act like we do:
The fundamental tenets of the Judeo-Christian moral tradition continue to govern every aspect of the actual individual behavior and basic values of the typical Westerner – even if he is atheistic and well-educated; even if his abstract notions and utterances appear iconoclastic. He neither kills, nor steals (or, if he does, he hides his actions, even from his own awareness), and he tends, in theory, to treat his neighbour as himself. The principles that govern his society (and, increasingly, all others) remain predicated on mythic notions of individual value – intrinsic right and responsibility – despite scientific evidence of causality and determinism in human motivation. Finally, in his mind – even when sporadically criminal – the victim of a crime still cries out to heaven for “justice,” and the conscious lawbreaker still deserves punishment for his or her actions.
Peterson sees it as his task to bridge or reconcile these two worlds. He argues that our mistake is that we assume the myths of the past are “primitive proto-science” or descriptions of the objective world which can now be dismissed. To Peterson, myths are phenomenological (how we experience the world) descriptions of the world that are best regarded as “description of the world as it signifies (for action).” These stories give our lives purpose, direction and meaning, a narrative structure and goal which a purely objective description of the world cannot provide. It is impossible to exist and act in the world without some kind of narrative that answers three fundamental questions: what is reality/being like now? How should reality/being be? What is the proper way of transforming being/reality to reach that end? Peterson argues that the great myths are a stage in the development of our moral systems. First we act. Then we abstract patterns of how life unfolds over long periods of time and represent those patterns in story, myth, and drama. Finally, we articulate those patterns in codified laws and articulated moral rules. Our moral intuitions and beliefs rest on a great edifice of mythological representation, and cannot be rationally grounded. The myths are in a very real sense, built into us, from the ground up. Our moral intuitions don’t come from a rational calculus; they come from a vast historical past of myth and tradition. Peterson believes that the study of myth can:
…allow us to provisionally determine the nature of essential human motivation and morality … and help us overcome the age-old problem of deriving the ought from the is; help us see how what we must do might be inextricably associated with what it is that we are.
Kierkegaard too, sees a ditch or a chasm between us and Christianity. His conception of the nature of the disconnect, his conception of what is on the other side and his conception of how we are to overcome the divide, is radically different to Peterson.
First, Kierkegaard agrees with Gotthold Lessing that there is a “broad ugly ditch” between the “contingent truths of history” and “the necessary truths of reason.” In the case of Christianity, the proposition that “God became man” or “was raised from the dead” is lost in the mists of history; it cannot be conclusively proven by rational argument. Kierkegaard asks: “How can something of a historical nature be decisive for an eternal happiness?” Kierkegaard’s “sober man” questions even the eternal happiness:
But can I be sure that there is really such a good; is the expectation of an eternal happiness a matter of definite certainty? For in that case I shall assuredly strive to attain it, but otherwise I would be mad to risk everything for its sake.
To Kierkegaard, this demand for certainty is deeply misguided. Christianity cannot be approached rationally, or reasoned to. To make this point, Kierkegaard tells of a man who “wishes to acquire faith, but also wants to “safeguard himself by means of an objective inquiry and its approximation process.” However, after “long deliberation,” the man finds that Christianity has “become precisely impossible to believe.” What went wrong? Kierkegaard writes:
Anything that is almost probable or probable or extremely and emphatically probable, is something he can almost know, or as good as know, or extremely and emphatically almost know- but it is impossible to believe. For the absurd is the object of faith, and the only object that can be believed.
This cuts to the heart of Kierkegaard’s project. Christianity is not a doctrine to be known, it is an existence to be lived. Kierkegaard writes: “… an objective knowledge of the truth of Christianity, or of its truths, is precisely untruth. To know a confession of faith by route is paganism, because Christianity is inwardness.“ Christian belief is connected with existence, it is not a dispassionate grasping of doctrines, but rather, is a relationship with Jesus Christ involving “infinite passion,” trust and hope.
To Kierkegaard, the gap between reason and Christianity is not a consequence of modern science making Christianity impossible to believe; the gap has always been there. Kierkegaard writes: “Precisely because Christianity is not a doctrine… there is a tremendous difference between knowing what Christianity is and being a Christian.” The existential task of becoming a Christian requires that “the individual venture all.” The individual must, within himself, become aware of his innate sinfulness, his need for redemption and in a moment of despair, venture, leap beyond his doubts and understanding to embrace a reality beyond understanding. To demand proof and certainty is to miss the point, is to avoid the decision, is to arrogantly believe that one’s rational abilities dictate the limits of the real. God cannot be approached objectively, because God is a subject to be related to, not an object to be found objectively:
The existing individual who chooses to peruse the objective way enters upon the entire approximation-process by which it is proposed to bring God to light objectively. But this is in all eternity impossible because God is a subject, and therefore exists only for subjectivity and inwardness.
Both Kierkegaard and Peterson are skeptical about our ability to know objective truth. Peterson has argued that because we are evolving creatures in evolving environments, our ability to know the objective truth “out there,” is severely limited. The best we can do is “generate random variance” and see what works:
Pragmatists claimed that the truth of a statement or process can only be adjudicated with regards to insufficiency in attaining its aim. So their idea was that truths are always bounded because we’re ignorant. And every action you undertake that is goal-directed has an internal ethic embedded in it, and the ethic is the claim that if what you do works, then it’s true enough. And that’s all you can ever do, and so what Darwin did, as far as the Pragmatists were concerned, was to put forth the following proposition, which was that it was impossible for a finite organism to keep up with a multi-dimensionally transforming landscape, environmental landscape let’s say, and so the best that can be done was to generate random variance, kill most of them because they were wrong, and let the others that were correct enough live long enough to propagate, whereby it’s not like the organism is a solution to the problem of the environment, the organism is a very bad partial solution to an impossible problem.
Interestingly, Kierkegaard makes a similar argument:
Not for a single moment is it forgotten that the subject is an existing individual, and that existence is a process of becoming, and that therefore the notion of truth as identity of thought with being is a chimera of abstraction, in its truth only an expectation of the creature; not because the truth is not such an identity, but because the knower is an existing individual for whom the truth cannot be such an identity as long as he lives. Unless we hold fast to this, speculative philosophy will immediately transport us into the fantastic realism of the I am I, which modern speculative thought has not hesitated to use without explaining how a particular individual is related to it… If an existing individual were really able to transcend himself, the truth would be for him something final and complete; but where is the point at which he is outside of himself?
What both Kierkegaard and Peterson have realized is that objective truth, the truth “out there,” runs into problems when confronted by existence. For Peterson, because we are conscious beings confronting an environment in flux, who do not have an objective, God’s eye view of the world, there are many different ways of interpreting the world. Peterson’s solution to this problem is to adopt a pragmatic theory of truth. There may be multiple ways of interpreting the world; however there are only a few interpretations that work in the real world. What works is good and true. Truth is: “when the proposition or interpretation is acted out in the world [and] the desired outcome within the specific timeframe ensues.”
While Kierkegaard does not deny the reality of objective truth, he does, as we have already noted, deny that we have a reliable means of attaining it. Furthermore, Kierkegaard rejects the Enlightenment vision of the objective, dispassionate pursuit of objective truth:
Modern philosophy has tried anything and everything in the effort to help the individual transcend himself objectively, which is a wholly impossible feat; existence exercises its restraining influence, and if philosophers nowadays not become mere scribblers in the service of a fantastic thinking and its preoccupations, they would long ago have perceived suicide was the most tolerable practical interpretation of its striving.
The purely objective, dispassionate inquiry neglects existence- meaning, purpose, passion, ethics- and leads straight to nihilism. To Kierkegaard, this is not just intolerable, but untruth. Existence is “something essential” and to neglect existence is to become a “fantastic entity instead of a human being.” Kierkegaard notes that there are two ways of speaking about truth. When one speaks of the truth in “an objective manner,” one is concerned with whether a statement or proposition corresponds to reality. However, when the “question of truth is raised subjectively,” what matters is the “nature of individual’s relationship:” “only if the mode of this relationship is in the truth, the individual is in the truth, even if what he should happen to be thus related to what is not true.” Kierkegaard gives the example of one who prays falsely to the true God and one who prays truly to a false God:
If one who lives in the midst of Christendom goes up to the house of God, the house of the true God, with the true conception of God in his knowledge, and prays, but prays in a false spirit; and one who lives in an idolatrous community prays with the entire passion of the infinite, although his eyes rest upon the image of an idol: where is the most truth? The one who prays in truth to God though he worships and idol; the other prays falsely to the true God, and hence worships in fact an idol.
The objective world is the world that excludes the subjective individual; it is Peterson’s “world of objects,” is cold, dispassionate, unconcerned with the existing individual. The individual cannot gain knowledge of how to live his life by studying the objective world; instead he must look within himself. This leads to Kierkegaard’s claim that “truth is subjectivity,” the essential truth, the truth that concerns the existing individual, cannot be found “out there” in the objective world. Rather, it is found in inwardness, in subjectivity. Kierkegaard defines this subjective truth as:
…an objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness.”
The objective uncertainty is what cannot be objectively proven, but can only be related to inwardly: the God-man. That a particular individual in history, Jesus, was fully God and fully man. This is the paradox of the incarnation at the heart of Christianity. The incarnation is the “objective uncertainty,” it is paradoxical (Kierkegaard uses this word to denote something which cannot be rationally understood, not a logical contradiction) and lost in the mists of history. The truth, for Kierkegaard, “is precisely the venture which chooses an objective uncertainty with infinite passion.” Only by true, passionate, paradoxical faith, can the individual find the “essential truth,” the highest form of existence and the consummation of his potential in the “God-relationship.
Both Peterson and Kierkegaard have unorthodox ways of communicating their ideas. Paul Vanderklay, a prominent Peterson commentator, has argued that Peterson is acting as a “translator” of what Northrop Fry calls first phase language into our modern day third phase language. This third phase language is what Kierkegaard would call “objective:” it’s precise, direct or scientific. The poetic or mythical language of the first phase is not easily understood in a society from which the mythical has been expunged and replaced by the scientific worldview. In this way, language is reinforcing the Petersonian divide between the “world of objects” and the “world as a forum for action.” Peterson’s mission to bring these worlds back together finds expression in his manner of speaking. Peterson’s lectures and conversations are doused with mythical language. He speaks of “rescuing his father from the belly of the whale,” “going out into chaos to confront the dragon,” or “the devouring mother.” He has been criticized for being cryptic or for emboldening fundamentalists with his Christian language. Peterson has responded that the truths he is trying to communicate are so deep and profound that he simply has to resort to using mythical or religious language.
Kierkegaard too, is aware of the language or form of communication he uses. Because he believes that “on account of our increased knowledge men [have] forgotten what it means to exist, and what inwardness signifies,” he sees it as his mission to address this problem. Many of Kierkegaard’s works are “indirect communications,” in which he avoids communicating “results,” or what could be called delivered truths. Kierkegaard wants his writings to act as a mirror for readers, leading them into inwardness and self-reflection. Because Christianity is for Kierkegaard an existential relationship with God which cannot be approached rationally, he seeks to seduce his readers into taking the leap. He tries to stimulate the entire being of the reader, not just dispassionate reason, but also emotion and imagination. By exciting the imaginations, desires, passions and hopes of his readers, Kierkegaard acts as a sort of anti-apologist. He argues against any rational approach to Christianity, while simultaneously using his rhetoric to make Christianity deeply seductive. The individual is thrust into a passionate paradox, Christianity cannot be rationally approached and yet the reader’s entire being pulses with desire. Propelled by passion, and “gripped in the anguish and pain of sin,” the individual will make the “absolute venture:
Before he has made the venture he cannot understand it as anything else than madness…And after the individual has made the venture he is no longer the same individual. Thus there is made room for the transition and its decisiveness, an intervening yawning chasm, a suitable scene for the infinite passion of the individual, a gulf which the understanding cannot bridge either forward or backward.
Kierkgaard goes beyond Peterson
Kierkegaard subsumes Peterson, or as Paul Vanderklay would say, Kierkegaard scales. This is best illustrated by Kierkegaard’s three stages of existence. To Kierkegaard, we are not fully human, and not fully free, until we have passed through all three stages. The first stage is what Kierkegaard calls the aesthetic stage. Here, the individual lives in total possibility, dragged this way and that by various impulses and desires. He dabbles in a wide range of experiences, but never really moves beyond base pleasure and instant gratification. At some point, the individual may or may not recognize the insufficiency of this mode of being and will instead adopt responsibility. This is the ethical stage. Here, the individual moves beyond mere choice and possibility and instead is concerned with perusing the good, responsibility and duty. At some point, the individual recognizes his inability to adequately peruse the good and his constant falling short of the moral law. He will be confronted by Kierkegaard’s final stage, the religious stage. His only hope, he realizes, is to take a leap of faith, an absolute venture, an infinite resignation, into the absolute paradox: that God became man and gives forgiveness of sins. Here, living in the paradox, clinging to it “over 70,000 fathoms of water,” the individual finds the essential truth. He will declare with Kierkegaard’s “simple man:” “I cannot understand the divine mercy which is able to forgive sins; the more vividly I believe it, the less I am able to understand it.”
And so, Kierkegaard stands where Peterson cannot follow. Peterson follows Kierkegaard up, past the aesthetic, into the ethical, carrying his cross up the damn hill and shouts at those below to “clean up their bloody rooms.” But while Kierkegaard has made the leap into the absolute Paradox, Peterson is left striving towards a phantom. He tries to build a bridge of understanding, but where Kierkegaard has gone, no reason can follow. Kierkegaard has made the leap, but Peterson is left, standing with jittering knees on the other side of the abyss.