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Idealism in Kierkegaard and Hegel

This paper examines the way in which Kierkegaard and Hegel’s writings express their idealism. (10+ pages; 4 sources; MLA citation style.

Introduction

The dictionary defines “idealism” as “behaviour or thought based on a conception of things as they should be or as one would wish them to be.” A moment’s reflection on this definition will reveal something interesting: idealism does not necessarily imply goodness. That is, for someone who enjoys pain, for example, the ideal state of being might well mean perpetual suffering. I mention this because when we use the word “ideal” it usually calls to mind a perfect state, almost paradisiacal—and almost always associated with good, kindness, joy, and other qualities that we call positive.

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Søren Kierkegaard is often described as having written his work “in response to” or “opposing” the views expressed by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Thus, realizing that it is possible for an ideal state to be negative allows us to understand how two opposing philosophies might find a common ground.

This paper will attempt to understand what Kierkegaard meant when he called Hegel an “idealist”; what kind of “idealist” Kierkegaard believed Hegel to be; and how Hegel’s “idealism” compares with that of Kierkegaard himself. The texts I’m using are on-line: Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments and Hegel’s “Preface” to the Phenomenology of Spirit.

Discussion

I think the best place to start is probably with Hegel, since Kierkegaard is seen as reacting against his work. Hegel is widely regarded as one of the most difficult philosophers; some of the comments I’ve found in various places range from “don’t waste your time” to “the only person who really understands Hegel is Hegel.” Be that as it may, we’ll tackle his “Preface” to see if gives us a clue to his form of idealism.
As background, another source tells us that Hegel is part of the movement referred to as “German Idealism”, and that this school of thought “tries to achieve a coherent philosophical system, the possibility of which was raised in Kant’s philosophy.” (“Philosophy 450”, PG). (Kant attempted to reconcile two diametrically opposed philosophies: empiricism and rationalism, or the idea that things can be known only via experience (empiricism) as opposed to the idea that things can be known through reason (rationalism)). Let’s see what we find in the “Preface.”

Hegel begins by discussing the nature of writing about philosophy. He says that it is “inappropriate and misleading” for authors to begin a philosophical work by explaining the end they have in mind, why they’re writing the work, and how their new effort compares to ones that preceded it. He says this sort of explanation is not the way to arrive at philosophical truth.

Additionally, he remarks that in philosophy more than in other disciplines, the most important thing is the result, not the process. He contrasts this with anatomy, a science in which “we are quite sure we do not possess the objective concrete fact, the actual content of the science”, and so must be concerned with “particulars.” (Hegel, PG). Although today we might dispute his definition of anatomical science as being inexact, his point is clear: philosophy concerns itself with results. If we think about this for a moment, it makes sense. When we think of Plato, for instance, and his descriptions of Socrates’ thinking, we are interested in Socrates’ teachings, not in following his thinking until he arrives at his conclusions.

Hegel then says “… by determining the relation which a philosophical work professes to have to other treatises on the same subject, an extraneous interest is introduced, and obscurity is thrown over the point at issue in the knowledge of the truth.” (Hegel, PG). The problem as Hegel sees it is that an ordinary person trying to follow a philosophical argument will assume that one side is true and the other false, and therefore will expect “either agreement or contradiction with a given philosophical system, and only to see the reason for the one or the other in any explanatory statement concerning such a system.” (Hegel, PG).

In other words, an ordinary person will not be able to grasp the diversity of many different philosophical schools of thought that can lead progressively to the truth; he will instead see the only contradiction in the variety of theories offered. He concludes these observations by saying that these various theories tend to supplant one another in the way that flowers appear from buds, and that they are incompatible with one another. But at the same time they are both necessary, or as Hegel says:

“… the ceaseless activity of their own inherent nature makes them at the same time moments of an organic unity, where they not merely do not contradict one another, but where one is as necessary as the other, and this equal necessity of all moments constitutes alone and thereby the life of the whole.” (Hegel, PG).

However, Hegel says that philosophy is not usually viewed in this way, because the person considering the various philosophical positions doesn’t know how to resolve the conflict or remain free from “onesidedness, and to recognize in what seems conflict and inherently antagonistic the presence of mutually necessary moments.” (Hegel, PG).

Hegel goes on to say that it might seem that explaining the conflict is what philosophy is all about, but in reality, such explanations are nothing more than devices for avoiding the real goal of philosophy, which he sees as “an attempt to combine the appearance of being in earnest and taking trouble about the subject with an actual neglect of the subject altogether.” (PG). This is a strange concept, but echoes what we learned earlier, that philosophy is more interested in the result than the process; I think it’s fair to say that Hegel’s “neglect of the subject” can be seen as this neglect of the way in which we arrive at the final conclusion.

However, he seems to contradict himself a bit when he says that the subject matter is not exhausted in “working the matter out, nor is the mere result attained the concrete whole itself, but the result along with the process of arriving at it.” (PG). Thus, it appears that he considers both the process and the result important, though the result remains far more vital.

He also has an interesting point when he says that one way to differentiate between the philosophical theories is to be aware of the boundaries—or where the subject matter stops. Keeping track of things in this way enables the student to keep track of the various positions more easily:

“For instead of laying hold of the matter in hand, a procedure of that kind is all the while away from the subject altogether. Instead of dwelling within it and becoming absorbed by it, knowledge of that sort is always grasping at something else; such knowledge, instead of keeping to the subject matter and giving itself up to it, never gets away from itself. The easiest thing of all is to pass judgments on what has a solid substantial content; it is more difficult to grasp it, and most of all difficult to do both together and produce the systematic exposition of it.” (Hegel, PG).

Hegel finishes the introduction by saying that “the beginning of culture” occurs when people acquire knowledge of universal principles and viewpoints, and when they learn to support or refute subject matter and use adequate reasons for doing so. The end result of all this is that people will move out of the mental process of understanding into the process of actually living life, and living the subject- matter they have studied. At this point, the subject matter becomes part of everyday life.

Nowhere in this discussion has Hegel mentioned the word “idealism”, so how can we proceed to evaluate the relationship between his observations and Kierkegaard’s comments? Perhaps the best way to start is to decide just what Hegel’s writings represent. In this case, I believe his idealism is apparent in the description he has so carefully constructed to describe the way he believes philosophical arguments should be developed. Or to put it another way, when it comes to developing supporting arguments and employing them to defend a philosophical position, he is an idealist.

Like Hegel, Kierkegaard doesn’t address “idealism” directly in Philosophical Fragments, at least in the translation I’m using. As we’ve done with Hegel, then, we’ll have to extrapolate from Kierkegaard’s writings to see what he says that we might consider idealistic. Our starting point here might be what he says about the process of reconciling various philosophical viewpoints. Hegel says it’s necessary; perhaps Kierkegaard has a different opinion.

In his “Preface” to Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard does indeed say something very different from what Hegel wrote in his preface. In fact, it seems that he opens his writing with a “broadside” against the very system Hegel has been advocating. Kierkegaard writes:
“The present offering is merely a piece, Proprio Marte, propriis auspiciis, Proprio stipendio. It does not make the slightest pretension to share in the philosophical movement of the day, or to fill any of the various roles customarily assigned in this connection: transitional, intermediary, final, preparatory, participating, collaborating, volunteer follower, hero, or at any rate relative hero, or at the very least absolute trumpeter.” (Kierkegaard, PG).

If I am interpreting this correctly, it’s a forthright and slightly bombastic attack on other philosophers; whom he apparently sees as pretentious. He also apparently sees their works as unfinished, or else he wouldn’t enumerate the various “roles” that must be filled before they can be considered complete.

From there he goes on to say that another reason for his refusal to try to define philosophical positions is because he might fail to make himself clear, and in the process simply create more confusion. “It is not given to everyone to have his private tasks of meditation and reflection so happily coincident with the public interest…” he says, which immediately begs the question, does Hegel enjoy this status? That is, does Hegel’s private philosophical position reflect the public one? Since he is considered to be one of the most important philosophers in the school of German Idealism, it would seem that he does in fact enjoy that position. This brings up yet another question: what is Kierkegaard’s status with regard to the public interest? If Hegel falls into line with the thinking of his day, does Kierkegaard oppose or embrace the philosophical positions of his time?

The answer seems to be that Kierkegaard is “out of step” with the thinking of his era, which is one reason why his works were neglected until fairly recently. In the Dictionary of Philosophy for example (1959), the entry for Kierkegaard is very brief, and says in part, that he was a “Danish religious thinker whose influence was largely limited to Scandinavian and German circles until recently.” (Runes, p. 160). He is described as having been raised in a “stern Christian environment” which resulted in him reacting strongly against both religion and “official philosophies (especially Hegelianism)”. (Runes, p. 160).

He is also described as “sensitive, melancholic” and frustrated. (Runes, p. 160). This may help us understand why his writing seems to have such a sarcastic tone; sensitive people often hide behind such techniques.

Going back to Kierkegaard’s words, we find that unlike Hegel, he is reluctant to give an opinion about philosophical matters, believing that no one would be interested in knowing what his opinion might be. It seems to me that he is calling attention to himself by the mechanism of declaring that his opinion is unworthy of notice:

“To have an opinion is both too much and too little for my uses. To have an opinion presupposes a sense of ease and security in life, such as is implied in having a wife and children; it is a privilege not to be enjoyed by one who must keep himself in readiness night and day or is without assured means of support. Such is my situation in the realm of the spirit. I have disciplined myself and keep myself under discipline, in order that I may be able to execute a sort of nimble dancing in the service of Thought, so far as possible also to the honour of the God, and for my own satisfaction.” (Kierkegaard, PG).

I think there are several things going on here that give us a glimpse into what Kierkegaard considers his ideal; he also works an attack on Hegel in his writing. Kierkegaard never married; Hegel had a wife and children—the “privilege” Kierkegaard never allowed himself to experience, since he felt such a relationship would interfere with his self-imposed “discipline”. The question arises “why is this discipline needed?” and Kierkegaard answers it immediately: he wants to be able to “execute a sort of nimble dancing in the service of Thought.” If we put all these clues together, then I believe we can assume that Kierkegaard’s idealism is allied to asceticism and self-denial; he remains closely focused on his work; he takes no part in trying to reach a point of understanding that takes into account opposing viewpoints; and he denigrates the life-style of those who, like Hegel, he views as living in too much “comfort”.

Conclusion

Because neither author addresses the issue of idealism directly, I’ve had to extrapolate the meaning from their writings. I believe they are completely opposed to one another in their approach to philosophy: Hegel sought a way to reconcile extremes while Kierkegaard felt such an attempt was pointless; Hegel’s ideal encompasses a wife, children and comfort while Kierkegaard embraces self-denial. In the end, I would say that the ideals of each are completely opposite of his counterpart, and indeed Kierkegaard is rightly regarded as having begun the move away from the Hegelian school of thought.

References

Hegel, G.W.F. “Preface.” The Phenomenology of Mind. [On-line]. Undated. Accessed: 8 Dec 2003. http://www.class.uidaho.edu/mickelsen/texts/Hegel%20Phen/hegel_phen_preface.htm

Kierkegaard, Søren. Philosophical Fragments. [On-line]. Undated. Accessed: 8 Dec 2003. http://www.religion-online.org/cgi-bin/relsearchd.dll/showbook?item_id=2512

Philosophy 450: 19th Century Continental Philosophy. [Web page]. Undated. Accessed: 9 Dec 2003. http://www.earlham.edu/~guvenfe/nineteenth2003.html

Runes, Dagobert D. Dictionary of Philosophy. Ames, IA: Littlefield, Adams & Co., 1959.

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