Doubt in Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard approached doubt in the opposite way of Descartes. Descartes’ methodical doubt is an abstract product of reason, therefore conquerable by a systematic application of reason. But Kierkegaard recognized that doubt is a subjective product of consciousness, not of reasoning. Kierkegaard saw that the Greek skeptics had rightly defined doubt as the product of perception or interest, that “they could cancel doubt by transforming interest into apathy.” This apathy is not indifference but disengagement (apatheia). And “interest” is based on its etymology: inter esse,” meaning “being between.” We literally step into something, take an interest in something, and by recognizing the contradictions of consciousness, propose doubt.

But by this stepping away from interest or wanting not to be in the middle or in between, we find disinterest or disengagement, which dissolves doubt because it dissolves mediacy. Doubt arises from the demands of our consciousness. We do not silence doubts by bludgeoning them with reason and logic, but by stepping away from the contradiction represented by doubt, perceived by consciousness. This method has familiar counterparts in Eastern traditions.

The sequence of Kierkegaard’s argument is found in his essay “Johannes Climacus” — no relation to the historical writer and mystic.

Kierkegaard asks “What is it to doubt? What must the nature of existence be in order for doubt to be possible?” Knowledge stands in direct and immanent relation to its object and is known not in an inverse and transcendent relation to a third. Hence doubt exists — like knowledge — within consciousness, not outside it like a counter-logic or a counter-reason. Immediacy excludes doubt because it is fully conscious, to the point of absorbing consciousness. In a state of immediacy, wherein the mind is fully engaged, everything is “true.” In fact, there is no “relation” to anything because everything is fully immediate.

As soon as this immediacy wavers or breaks, we create indeterminateness, and things — now “other” things — become “untrue.” As Kierkegaard puts it: “If consciousness can remain in immediacy, then the question of truth is canceled.” Of course, it cannot so remain.

Consciousness cannot remain in immediacy, for then it would not, could not, be consciousness. Immediacy is reality. But mediacy and immediacy presuppose one another. They become concepts, ideas. Mediacy simply reflects on things. The moment this reflection begins, contradiction begins. And this contradiction, says Kierkegaard, is the very nature of consciousness. We are forever experiencing what he calls “duplexity.”

The duplexity Kierkegaard sees is reality and ideality on the one hand and consciousness as relation on the other hand. Because immediacy is something our consciousness can grasp only fleetingly — that we can grasp this seamlessness of reality only in a flash, in a moment of insight — we must acknowledge that the whole universe is nothing but reality, nothing but unbrokenness — unbroken immediacy — because no consciousness extrapolates relations with objects. Rather, all objects in reality simply are. It is we who introduce duplexity, we who because of consciousness create in our minds an interruption of seamlessness. This interruption is what Kierkegaard calls doubt.

Even if we consider these issues to be mere expressions of language, our very transformation of this consciousness yields mediacy, yields time, space, dimension, engagement. We bring ourselves into relationship with things that are not the real or true relation (which would exist only in immediacy), but are rather our own idea of it, our own perception of it, our engagement.

This is the source of Kierkegaard’s radical subjectivity — or, rather, subjectivism. It is based not on feelings but a logic of its own.

Kierkegaard shows that we create or perceive two contradictory levels, one in immediacy, another in mediacy — one when we (in this ideal state) do not engage consciousness because it is already one with reality. The other is the contradictory level of mediacy, fully engaged, fully related to, between, and conscious, unable to draw back. Consciousness is reflection, our reflection on things. Says Kierkegaard (and emphasis his):

Reflection is the possibility of the relations; consciousness is the relation, the first form of which is contradiction. … Reflection’s categories are always dichotomous.

Why contradiction? It is because “consciousness emerges precisely through the “collision” of ideality and reality. Contradiction between ourselves and the objects around us comes about through reflection on difference, separateness — though of course perception is an intrinsic mental function. Perception is executed in mediacy. The collision of real and ideal exists in the realization of perceived differences. Kierkegaard calls this the perception of repetition, the emergence of recollection. Yet recollection is neither of the ideal nor the real — conjuring the ideal from thought, conjuring the real from memory. These are contradictions insofar as they involve irresolvable tensions.


Recollection is not ideality; it is ideality that has been. It is not reality; it is reality that has been — which again is a double contradiction for ideality, which, according to its concept, has been, and the same holds true of reality according to its concept.

Doubt is intrinsic to reflection because doubt is consciousness applied and engaged — and unable to epistemologically “break through” since consciousness can only truly discern reality through disinterest, by being so engaged as to lose focus on foreground. Doubt is not a product of logic or reason but a byproduct of simply having consciousness. And when we reflect on this, our consciousness is one that knows and realizes this as a supreme irony.