Kierkegaard’s Skepticism of Hegelian Philosophy

hegel statue


In one of the first sections of “Fear and Trembling”, Kierkegaard (as his pseudonymous self, Johannes de Silentio) notes,

“ I for my part have devoted a good deal of time to the understanding of the Hegelian philosophy, I believe also that I understand it tolerably well, but when in spite of the trouble I have taken there are certain passages I cannot understand, I am foolhardy enough to think that he himself has not been quite clear.”

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel                                                                                                            (1770 – 1831)

Observe that he sets the tone for opposing Hegelian philosophy over the course of his discussion very early in this work. So it is imperative for one to understand the main themes in Hegelian philosophy in order to fully appreciate Kierkegaard’s discussion about “the second inwardness” in the later sections of “Fear and Trembling”.

One of the most fundamental ideas in Hegel’s philosophy is that absolute knowledge is possible for human beings. Note that Kant asserts that man’s perception of knowledge completely depends on man and his cognitive capacities in his work “The Critique of Pure Reason” [i].  Hegel completely opposes Kant’s assertions that there is an ultimate distinction between our knowledge and the absolute truth. He argues that such a distinction between absolute truth and our knowledge does not exist as our knowledge and thought processes themselves are components of the absolute truth. For Hegel, the ultimate goal of human existence is absolute knowledge (or truth) which is achieved through the awareness of ourselves as expressions of the absolute mind.  Such an awareness happens as spirit recognizes itself as spirit through a process of mutual recognition. What this essentially means is that each individual finite mind (or spirit) should recognize the God within others in order to recognize the God within oneself. Hegel’s system can thereby be viewed as a form of pantheism as we are all collectively “God”.  In essence, metaphysical knowledge of the absolute should be possible for us, because we can come to know ourselves through an evolution of our consciousness. Simply put, we are in the process of discovering who we really are (the absolute). More importantly in the Hegelian outlook, God exists as a consequence of the collective evolution of the spirits of finite minds.  Therefore God does not exist independently, as our existence is necessary for the existence of the divine (because we ourselves collectively represent the divine).

To understand the core principles of Hegel’s philosophy a little more comprehensively one can analyze the master-slave dialectic in his work the “Phenomenology of Spirit.”  This dialectical parable initially describes a person encountering and defeating another person in combat. The person who wins the combat becomes the master by enslaving the loser who thereby becomes his bondsman.  However over the course of time, the master becomes dependent on the slave. So metaphorically speaking, the slave becomes the master and the master becomes the slave due to the development of this dependency. The master upon realizing this, lets the “slave” go free. Observe that one can draw a direct correlation to man’s relation with God from this parable. One can interpret that God’s existence depends on man (as the master depends on the slave) and that man eventually becomes God (as the master releases the slave). Robert C Solomon, a professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin who was a prolific writer on existentialist subjects, said,

“Hegel really did have a secret, and . . . it has been well kept. The secret, abruptly stated, is that Hegel was an atheist. His ‘Christianity’ is nothing but nominal, an elaborate subterfuge to protect his professional ambitions in the most religiously conservative country in northern Europe.”

Though one should remember that this statement is based on Professor Solomon’s individual perceptions and not historical records, it should be clear that Hegelian philosophy downplayed the importance and relevance of God as an independent entity to a very significant degree.

So as a fundamentally theistic existential thinker one can naturally expect Kierkegaard to oppose such an outlook. For Kierkegaard, God is wholly other from the finite minds. This means that he believed that God exists irrespective of the presence and exploits of the finite minds. In the discussion about the absolute duty to God (problem 2), in “Fear and Trembling”, Kierkegaard observes that, “in the Hegelian philosophy das Aussere (the outer) is higher than das Innere.” This could be a reference to Hegel’s discussion on private particularity in his work “The Philosophy of Right.” Hegel roughly says that private particularity will look to undermine the universality of the ethical. Hegel thereby believes that any tendency to look only to oneself as opposed to the universal when making a decision is wrong. He even calls it a “moral form of evil” as it places a higher importance to the individual good over the collective good. It should be evident that the importance Hegel attaches to mutual recognition means that “outer” entities such as public institutions play a very large role in understanding Hegelian sittlichkeit (the ideal ethical life for an individual).  Kierkegaard summarizes such an outlook by noting that, “in the ethical way of regarding life it is therefore the task of the individual to divest himself of the inward determinants and express them in an outward way.” Kierkegaard isn’t fascinated by such an outlook as he believes that Hegelian philosophy has an excessive reliance on collective opinions of other finite minds to define what is right or wrong for an individual. For example would a Nazi foot soldier who aided Hitler’s manic genocidal agenda by forcing hundreds of Jews into a gas chamber, be considered ethical if everyone in his immediate social framework lauded him for his barbaric work? Should arbitrarily killing all the poor in a country be considered good if hypothetically the collective consensus of “the ethical” were to change to justify such an act of tyranny in some nation?  I think that it is troubling lines of queries such as these that led Kierkegaard to explicitly take a stance against such an exclusively “ethical” life defined by the universal by going on to note that, “Faith on the contrary is the paradox that inwardness is higher than outwardness.”

So the first inwardness would be an individual going out into the world and achieving mutual recognition of spirit to recognize and understand the collective spirit of the finite minds. This inwardness thereby has a very intimate and direct connection to the outward.The more important and crucial second inwardness for Kierkegaard is that even after an individual has gone out into the world and achieved mutual recognition, the individual must isolate themselves and individually seek a relationship with the completely independent God.  As God cannot be encountered through the finite for Kierkegaard, such a second inwardness must supersede the first inwardness to achieve his notion of an ideal state for an individual. So to return back to the examples of the Nazi foot soldier and a society with a fluctuating collective ideology, it must be understood that Kierkegaard’s problem in each scenario would be that each individual featuring in each of the scenarios isn’t defining their own relation to the absolute (and then allowing that relation to the absolute to define their relation to the universal) but is rather allowing their relation to the universal to exclusively influence their actions.

Kierkegaard thereby notes that, “The paradox of faith is this, that the individual is higher than the universal, that the individual determines his relation to the universal by his relation to the absolute, not his relation to the absolute, by his relation to the universal.” The second inwardness is thereby a much more important individual quest to shape a relation to the absolute which in turn should determine the relation to the universal. This is why it should supersede the first inwardness.

Kierkegaard analyzes the story of Abraham in this context and notes that Abraham must either be classified as a murderer (insinuating that Hegel’s philosophy would certainly classify Abraham as a murderer) or as a true believer in God. In Kierkegaard’s words, “…either Abraham was every minute a murderer, or we are confronted by a paradox which is higher than all mediation.” Remember that for Kierkegaard to stand in relation to God is not to stand in relation to the world. He believes that this relation to God cannot be expressed in the universal due to it’s inherent nature (as if it could be expressed in the universal it cannot be a true individual relation to the absolute as knights of faith cannot be understood). Note that for Kierkegaard, Abraham is the Knight of faith par excellence. Kierkegaard draws a great distinction between tragic heroes who represent the Hegelian philosophical outlook and the knights of faith who represent his own philosophical outlook. Tragic heroes are rooted in the ethical (or the universal) so they can be understood and sympathized with. Their actions are a consequences of ethical duties to some form of a social institution. They “let(s) one expression of the ethical find its telos in a higher expression of the ethical.” He invokes a series of examples to help the reader understand tragic heroes. He talks about how Jephtha sacrifices his daughter due to a vow he makes before Israel’s battle against the Ammonites, how King Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to appease the Goddess Artemis during the Trojan War and how Junius Brutus sentences his children to death for violating Roman law.

Abraham on the other hand is willing to sacrifice his son Isaac upon God’s request. There is no ethical justification for what he is willing to do. He is willing to unquestioningly sacrifice his son as he has made the movement of infinity and then embraced the finite by virtue of the absurd (that with God all things are possible). Remember that Abraham defines his own relation to the absolute and this relationship cannot expressed in the universal. As Kierkegaard says, “Faith itself cannot be mediated into the universal, for it would thereby be destroyed. Faith is this paradox, and the individual absolutely cannot make himself intelligible to anybody.” This is how Kierkegaard starkly contrasts his philosophical outlook to that of Hegel’s.  It is this second inwardness where one establishes a relation with the absolute that cannot be communicated in the universal that is crucially important for Kierkegaard. By this point it should be evident why Kierkegaard is considered the father of existential philosophy which is characterized by an individual giving meaning to his own life (as opposed to social institutions giving meaning to someone’s life) and then living his life with authenticity. More explicitly his emphasis on developing an individual relation to the absolute and then the ethical, as well as embracing the finite (“express(ing) the sublime even in the pedestrian”) after making the movement of infinite resignation seem to showcase the seeds of existential thought.


Note                                                                                                                                                     [i] Kant very evocatively discusses the notion of truth through a metaphorical analogy in the very first paragraph of Chapter III in the Critique of Pure Reason. He says,

“It is the land of truth (an attractive word), surrounded by a wide and stormy ocean, the region of illusion, where many a fog-bank, many an iceberg, seems to the mariner, on his voyage of discovery, a new country, and, while constantly deluding him with vain hopes, engages him in dangerous adventures, from which he never can desist, and which yet he never can bring to a termination.”

He says we must ask ourselves two questions about the land of truth before setting sail on the stormy ocean of illusion. He wonders if we can ever be satisfied with what the map could disclose as we would have to be satisfied with what we now and if we even have a singular claim on the metaphorical land of truth. This is an evocative and interesting excerpt from the “Critique of Pure Reason” whose primary theme was discussed in the essay.

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