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Kierkegaard's Relation to Hegel
By Niels Thulstrup, George L. Stengren
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1980 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
Hegelianism in Denmark until the Summer of 1835 and Kierkegaard's Relation Thereto
1. Point of Departure
In a draft of a letter sent to his distant relative P. W. Lund, dated June 1, 1835, and in an entry in the Papirer (I A 75) of August 1 the same year, we find Kierkegaard's first detailed reckoning of intellectual and spiritual accounts.
It is natural, then, to let these documents serve as a focal point for an interpretation of Kierkegaard's perspective, interests, and problems as a young theological student. Obviously in this investigation such an interpretation must concentrate especially on Kierkegaard's possible knowledge of Hegelianism such as he could have encountered it in the intellectual environment of Copenhagen. But before interpreting Kierkegaard's notes it is necessary to discuss the background so as to exhibit the main lines of the history of Hegelianism in Denmark up to the summer of 1835.
2. Heiberg's Hegelianism
In his Autobiografiske Fragmenter, written in November-December 1839, J. L. Heiberg recounted his philosophical conversion to Hegel's system. Previously he knew about Hegel partly by having heard about him at the University of Kiel and partly by having read one of the Master's chief works, and finally he had become personally acquainted with Hegel and his leading disciple in Berlin. As Heiberg tells it:
I heard Hegel mentioned by the teachers at the University of Kiel, but in a way which would discourage me from getting acquainted with his writings. Only Etatsraad Berger, the Professor of Philosophy, mentioned him as an extraordinary man, who had brought philosophy to a higher plateau, but whose writings required a great effort and a very serious resolve to understand. He enjoined me especially (in a letter, which I still have), on this point when he, at my request, loaned me Hegel's Encyclopedia. When I began to read the book I had to affirm his remark, and I would likely have given up the endeavor, had I not believed that in some spots I glimpsed a guiding star, so as to suspect a connection between the thoughts which struck a responsive chord with my own views, and led me to give them a more conscious expression than I had previously formed. At the same time (the summer of 1824) I had to travel to Berlin on private business; and since together with other introductions I had obtained, I also had got from Berger an oral greeting to Hegel, and since I should soon meet him face to face, it was doubly urgent for me to make myself somewhat familiar with his system. Before my departure I had to return the book Berger loaned me; but as soon as I arrived in Hamburg, I bought a copy, which I took with me in the stage-coach, where I, sitting next to the driver, alternately chatted with him and studied the Encyclopedia, which I just finished reading the moment we rolled within the gates of Berlin. During the two months I stayed in the city I became ever more and more engrossed in the new system, not only through cursory reading of many [endeel] of Hegel's writings, but also and chiefly through conversations with the most distinguished local Hegelians, especially Gans, and not least with Hegel himself, who answered my immature observations with the greatest good nature, and in whose home I also enjoyed many pleasant hours. Yet on my departure from Berlin I was still somewhat confused about the new material I had acquired: I could not find the right pivotal point from which the whole manifested itself in its inner structure. When now on the journey home I stopped off to rest in Hamburg, where I stayed for six weeks before returning to Kiel, during this time I constantly brooded over what was still obscure to me, it happened that one day while I was sitting in my room in the "König von England," with Hegel on my table and Hegel in my thoughts, and at the same time listening to some beautiful hymns which almost constantly sounded from the choir of St. Peter's Church, suddenly, in a way which I have never before or since experienced, I was gripped by a moment of inner vision, like a flash of lightning, which suddenly illuminated the whole region for me and awakened in me the previously concealed central thought. From that moment on, the system in its large outlines was clear to me, and I was completely convinced that I had grasped it in its innermost nucleus, however much more there could be in the details, which I still had not grasped, and would perhaps never acquire. I can truly say that this wonderful moment was the most important event in my life, for it gave me a peace, a security, which I had never before known. Immediately upon my arrival in Kiel, when I became aware of the deterministic controversies taking place in Copenhagen at the time, and realized that the point of contention would appear in an absolutely new light if considered from a Hegelian perspective, I wrote my treatise on human freedom, the first Danish work which gave a glimpse of the Hegelian philosophy. When one considers that this work came out in December 1824, and that in the month of May in the same year I scarcely knew that there was a philosopher named Hegel, then the fact that in such a short time I could achieve so much as that otherwise imperfect work contains, can best show with what voraciousness I had devoured the new wisdom, and from this again one could imagine the desire I must have felt for it before I knew it, and — when indeed on such an important point I could not be entirely different from my contemporaries — how much the world was filled with the same desire. It is certain that the new light which arose for me, has had a decided influence on all my subsequent undertakings, even those in which one would not suspect a connection. Thus, for example, I would never have come to write my comedies, and would never have become a writer for the theater at all if I had not through Hegelian philosophy learned to perceive the relation between the finite and the infinite, and thereby acquired a respect for finite things which I did not previously have, but which the dramatist cannot possibly do without, and if, again, I had not learned to understand the meaning of limitation through the same philosophy, for without that I would neither have limited myself nor chosen small and limited things, having previously disdained limits to my expression.
There can hardly be any doubt that Heiberg has sketched here his philosophical conversion and its psychological significance for his attitude toward life and activity in the main credibly. With the help of Hegel's philosophy he got a grip on himself. That this is the case can be gathered from his writings and correspondence from subsequent years and requires — in this connection — no further substantiation. Unfortunately we must point out an important omission — or mistake perhaps — in Heiberg's otherwise so valuable, learned, faithful, and loyal biographer and editor, Morten Borup. In his great work, which is certainly detailed and careful but does not display enough psychological and philosophical understanding, Borup describes both Heiberg's encounter with Hegel's philosophy and Heiberg's understanding, interpretation, and use of it; at the same time he frequently allows himself to express regret precisely over Hegel's influence and meaning for Heiberg.
If it is correct that Hegel's importance for Heiberg may be described as chiefly positive in the sense that, with the help of Hegel, Heiberg found enlightenment and security, then it is still appropriate to correct along with Borup a demonstrable mistake in Heiberg's Autobiografiske Fragmenter, which has been accepted uncritically in many places, and thereby pose the question of how Heiberg interpreted Hegel in 1824.
Heiberg says that he borrowed Hegel's Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences from Johann Erick von Berger, who in his later years had turned away from Schelling's and Steffens's thought to Hegel's system.
It was, as it appears from the cited letter from Berger — printed in Borup — not Hegel's Encyclopedia, but his Science of Logic that Heiberg borrowed from him and read first. That makes a difference; but how great the significance of this difference is for understanding Heiberg's first Hegelian treatise can be established only approximately, when there is no reason to doubt the correctness of Heiberg's assertions that before, during, and after his sojourn in Berlin he had perused other works of Hegel.
In the summer of 1824 the following major philosophical works of Hegel were available — the treatises published by Hegel himself prior to Phenomenology of the Spirit are not particularly important in this context — Phenomenology of the Spirit, Science of Logic, Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, and Elements [Grundlinien] of the Philosophy of Right. Rubow correctly asserts that this last work especially made a profound impression on Heiberg.
It is not necessary to go into the Howitz controversy itself here. Only Heiberg's position in its relation to Hegel must be clarified.
Only twice in the treatise on free will does Heiberg refer explicitly to Hegel, viz. on page 7, where he recommends that Howitz read Hegel's account of the concept of the will in Philosophy of Right, and on page 22, where he quotes in translation the famous passage from Phenomenology of the Spirit (SW II, 12) about the blossom that yields to the bud, which in turn yields to the fruit, illustrating the unfolding of a concept both in the microcosm and in the macrocosm.
Both references are full of significance. The theme of the treatise is precisely the problem of human freedom, the freedom of the will, and Heiberg wishes to show there that the positions of Howitz and his opponents are stages — with a relative legitimacy — on the way of dialectical unfolding toward the summit of speculation, represented by Hegel and presented by Heiberg, who closes his treatise with the claim (page 70) that all speculation consists of a leap out of time into the world of ideas. With this assertion Heiberg ignores, in the first place, that there can be no talk about a leap in Hegelian philosophy and, in the second place, that the world of ideas, identical with the Hegelian philosophy of spirit, the third and highest part of the system, consisting of art, religion, and philosophy, is precisely declared to be in and not above time, namely within the fixed limits of the objective spirit.
In the detailed footnotes of the treatise, Heiberg refers to Hegel more frequently. Also from the Preface of Phenomenology of the Spirit is the remark about the absolute (of Schelling) understood as the night where all cats are gray (SW II, 22), and in one place in the treatise (page 26) where Heiberg tries to explain that there is a gradual transition in Nature from the lowest matter to the highest rational being, the human, he refers — in connection with his claim that "even the animal behaves as a subject, as it consumes the plants, which it sets as its object"— to Hegel's statement in the section "Sensory Certainty" (SW II, 90-91) [Eng. pp. 158-159] with its curious juxtaposition of the Eleusinian mysteries and the behavior of animals. Heiberg could be right in calling that passage in Hegel remarkable. Further on Heiberg suggests that mental illness [Sindssygdomme] really ought to be called dislocation [Forrykthed] (p. 84), "because all mental illness consists in this, that the objective ego becomes dislocated or torn away from its normal position in relation to the subjective," and in this connection he refers to Hegel's Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences §321 (2nd ed., §408); but there is no need to delve further into this point here. Heiberg also gives a significant reference to Philosophy of Right (§99-103) where Hegel discusses the concept of punishment and holds that Hegel's theory is "the only reasonable [one]."
These are the explicit quotations and references to Hegel's three chief works, or, more correctly, three of his chief works. Science of Logic is not expressly named.
If we proceed from these secure points of contact between Heiberg and Hegel to the total philosophical view that Heiberg presents, then we can derive some observations that will not be without meaning for the broader investigation not only of Heiberg's Hegelianism but of the chief theme, namely Kierkegaard's relation to Hegel.
Thus we can take Heiberg's definition of man as a point of departure:
Man is a substance, or that which has an existence in itself, not in something external and alien. Or, with respect to the external, man is essentially subject, just as the external is essentially object. Man's striving for detachment from restraint is therefore — when the restraint is the external — the subject's striving for detachment from the object ... man is the subjective, restraint is the objective; this I, that not I; this intelligence, that nature; this spirit, that matter (pp. 19-20).
The spirit strives with an eternal urgency to obtain what it already possesses, and it must do that because it is immersed in the stream of time. "The eternal idea must, in this changeable realm, go out of itself, squander its indivisible power in discrete successions, and be pleased that in the extended it can disclose something of its intensity" (p. 21). As essentially spirit, man is free, although under the apparent restraint of space, he must constantly strive to become so in time (p. 22). A little further on it is said that man is the good, and therefore he cannot will what is opposed to himself. Insofar as man wills something, he must will the good (p. 24). Evil, considered in its innermost nature, is "pure matter, stripped of all intelligence ... that which man cannot imagine, and which therefore cannot be for man either" (p. 25). In spite of such a statement, Heiberg identifies several types of manifestations of evil.
In the material world, evil expresses itself as sickness, in which the inferior, organic matter battles against the superior, the more intelligent. In the moral world, evil shows itself in the life of the individual as vice, in civil society as injustice. The basis for both is egoism, and it expresses itself in the first instance as rebellion against the law which governs all things, in the second case as despotism. In art evil manifests itself as the ugly, in science [Videnskaben] as the false or error in opposition to the truth; but all error contains a portion of truth, without which it would never find room in our consciousness, and if it cannot do that, then it recedes back to nothing (pp. 37-41).
Man wills the good and, as essentially spirit, possesses freedom for that; but freedom — which must not be understood as a single individual's libertas indifferentiaee — is at one and the same time positive and negative (p. 44); positive in its reality as Idea, negative in man's effort to actualize the Idea as Ideal, in time.
Man is free (in the Idea), but he must necessarily work for his liberation (in time). Or, in other words: man is free in the Idea, but on the other hand, in time he is subjected to necessity, but this necessity itself impels him toward freedom, which is the principle of both necessity and liberty. Only the principle remains on this highest standpoint; its disclosure in time, under the forms of necessity and liberty, disappears, and, so too, with them evil. Here man is absolutely free (p. 44).
Absolute freedom is identical with the good. Man's striving for freedom is virtue, in which he is at once free and constrained, for in part duty implies freedom to be able both to fulfill and to infringe, partly the word itself suggests something that may, ought, and should be, i.e., a necessity (p. 47). But sin consists in simultaneously relinquishing freedom and eluding necessity. Freedom and necessity condition each other reciprocally as the principle and its consequences, so that we can say both that necessity is free and freedom is necessary. Life is the contradiction between the Idea and the phenomenon, and to cancel this contradiction requires something more than the absolute, which is nothing other than its empty abstraction. It can be canceled only by annihilating the world of phenomena (p. 55), and the will's empirical freedom rests on the difference between the world of Ideas and the incorrectly so-called reality. The will balances on this line of demarcation (p. 57)·
In a letter to H. C. Orsted on March 25, 1825, Heiberg tries on the one hand to point out his independence in relation to Hegel; on the other hand, he does not conceal his admiration and his actual approval of Hegel's philosophy. The independence in the treatise on human freedom should in any case manifest itself in the method. It is quite evident that, to as great a degree as was possible for him, he wished to adopt not only the content of Hegelian philosophy but also in some way its form. The works of Hegel that he explicitly cited and quoted were his chief sources and guides. Not the least of them was Philosophy of Right, which played a decisive role for Heiberg, as Rubow correctly asserts.
If the facts are as stated here, then there is good reason to point out something about the special character of Heiberg's Hegelianism, as it was expressed in the treatise on human freedom.
Excerpted from Kierkegaard's Relation to Hegel by Niels Thulstrup, George L. Stengren. Copyright © 1980 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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