Ultimate Philosophy Championship 1: Kierkegaard vs. Descartes

A matchup not unlike UFC 229: McGregor-Khabib

If philosophy were a cage fight, there are few matchups I would rather watch than René Descartes squared up against Søren Kierkegaard.

The bout, I think, would be similar to the upcoming super fight between Connor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov — one is a standup specialist, the other a world-class wrestler. In this analogy, Soren “Knight of Faith” Kierkegaard is McGregor, his “leap of faith” tantamount to a knockout left-hook. On the other hand, René “The Cogito” Descartes is Khabib, his “method of radical doubt” similar to a relentless ground and pound. The leap of faith is a sudden strike, whereas radical doubt is a persistent maul.

The Leap of Faith versus The Method of Radical Doubt

Now that I’ve set up the clickbait comparison, allow me to offer some very brief and incomplete thoughts on the apparent dichotomy of doubt and faith.

Descartes’ method is hard to emulate. Practically speaking, not everyone can be like him in his early Meditations. People cannot go through life battling evil demons or contemplating the possibility that their brain is sitting in a vat. However, to be clear, Descartes did not remain in a perpetual state of doubt; his method was merely an exercise that allowed him to determine that he could trust his rational faculties and come to a relative certainty of his existence as well as an understanding of the world. Descartes did not remain mired in doubt, but many people seem to employ only the early stages of his method and get stuck there, failing to venture to the point where they can be certain about things. Descartes wasn’t at all a capital “S” skeptic. He merely used the method of doubt to show the things which you can be strongly certain about. It’s not an accurate characterization to say the only thing you can know for certain is that I think therefor I exist, instead that is the first thing you can know and once that’s established there is in fact a whole lot you can be pretty certain about.

Now over to Kierkegaard. At some point — and let’s put aside the God question for now — I feel like it’s necessary for individuals to move beyond the method of doubt and leap to a practice of faith. This is essentially what Kierkegaard wants to argue in Fear and Trembling. I agree with his suggestion that there is too much doubt and not enough faith in modern society. Although I am not wholly convinced that we should conclude that Abraham was a “hero of faith” or a “knight of faith” for his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, I agree that it is impossible for anyone to achieve anything unless they have some degree of faith in themselves. Having said that, I feel like Kierkegaard’s argument is not radical enough. A leap is supposed to be difficult, but I believe having faith in an almighty God is easy. If you can convince yourself that some all-knowing and almighty creator is watching over everything you do then you can go through life feeling a degree of comfort. Trying to believe in yourself despite confronting myriad legitimate doubts — this is the true challenge.

Doubt and Faith are seemingly dichotomous, but they also enjoy a kind of symbiotic relationship. Descartes and Kierkegaard, after all, both reach the same conclusion that God exists. But can you simultaneously exercise doubt and faith, or is that an irreconcilable contradiction? This might be nonsense, but I feel like having a degree of faith in my reason allows me to doubt without totally losing grip of reality, and once I arrive at the limits of doubt I’m brought back to a practice of faith — it’s hard to say which is more essential; they’re both necessary.

So, to return to my original analogy, I’ll conclude by saying that I think a good philosopher is not unlike a good fighter: it’s helpful to have a good ground game and a good standup game, but the stakes are higher when you have a specialist in one field pitted up against a specialist in another. This is why Kierkegaard-Descartes, like McGregor-Khabib, is such an epic matchup.

Writer-at-Large. Canadian, but I contain multitudes. Twitter : @christwebs

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