Kierkegaard’s relationship to Hegel is, well, complicated. Like any lover’s triangle, it’s complicated because of a third party, namely: Schelling.
I should like to recount the story as appropriately as I know how, as this will lead us to best understand how to situate Schelling and Hegel with respect to Kierkegaard’s critique of “Hegel” found in texts such as Ether/Or or Concluding Unscientific Postscript. For a long story short, it’s not immediately clear whether or not Kierkegaard understood Hegel as written, or whether Kierkegaard’s response was to more Danish Hegelians (e.g. Heiberg, Martensen, and Adolph Peter Adler) who arguably themselves deviated from Hegel.
I am inclined at this stage of my thought to believe the latter, in accordance with the work of Jon Stewart as found in Kierkegaard’s Relation to Hegel Reconsidered (review here). Without getting too far ahead of ourselves, this raises many questions of a “meta-level” between Kierkegaard and Hegel which needs to be explored on its own merit. Eventually, I believe Novalis’ work will help us in understanding and articulating this “meta-level”.
But alas let us continue, bearing in mind at all times that Hegel’s philosophy consists of three parts: logic, philosophy of spirit, and philosophy of nature. For an initial pass over, according to Hegel’s Philosophy of Freedom by Paul Franco, Hegel had classified Fichte’s philosophy as “subjective subject-object”, and Schelling’s as “objective subject-object”, and hoped to bring the two together for a “scientific” and “rational” account of historical thought and progress.
Here is the salient bit from page 54:
The rise of Schelling:
The story goes that by the mid 1790s, when Schelling was only in his early twenties, he had become somewhat of an intellectual rock star so to speak in German-speaking territories, especially in Jena – the university town which gave birth to German idealism. At that point, Schelling was more or less a follower of Fichte, who was himself fairly well-established. Schelling made it his goal to extend Fichte’s thought in new ways that Fichte had not been able to envision. In the end, Schelling became best known for his writing on the philosophy of nature, called Naturphilosophie.
At first, you see, the young Schelling had argued that his philosophy of nature was more or less a faithful extension of Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre (i.e. epistemology). But, the tension between Schelling’s and Fichte’s positions became clearer as the decade wore on. The discrepancies were perhaps initially more lucid to Schelling, who had a very sharp mind, more so than to Fichte. Nonetheless, Schelling had completely broken intellectual ties with Fichte by the end of the decade and began to develop his own thought. Here, you can see Hegel’s classifications come most strongly into play.
From there, at the turn of the 19th century, Fichte became tangled up in what is now called the Atheismusstreit, or the “atheism controversy” (review here). As a result, he was forced to resign from his university post in Jena, with his reputation a bit hurt, but with his pride still mostly in tact. With Fichte’s decline, Schelling quickly rose to be the leading figure in all of German philosophy – while he was still in his mid-twenties no less! During all this time, Hegel was unsuccessfully trying to get himself affiliated with a university. To get by in the mean time, he was working as a private tutor to wealthy families and as a high school teacher.
Schelling, with his new authority, tried to help out his old friend and room mate. To get him on his feet again, he introduced Hegel to a journal that was called The Critical Journal of Philosophy. Hegel then served for the most part as head editor of the journal, and several of his major early essays appeared in it. Unfortunately, due to Schelling’s popularity, The Critical Journal of Philosophy was largely seen as a vehicle for popularizing Schellingian thought. Hegel’s essays published in the journal were largely being understood as supporting a Schellingian position, and Hegel was (at least at this stage) seen as a student of Schelling’s, much like Schelling was once to Fichte.
Hegel, whose nickname was “the old man” given his temperament, was not terribly happy about this as you might imagine…
The rise of Hegel:
So, Hegel spent the 1790s and early 1800s more or less struggling as a nobody who couldn’t get a break to get a position in the academic world. His relationship with Schelling was also now a bit strained. And in the early 1800s, Hölderlin, their third room mate, started to struggle with a mental illness that would increasingly become worse (and from which he would eventually pass away). What this meant was that he was no longer around to diffuse the tensions between Schelling and Hegel. In 1806, Hegel wrote the Phenomenology of Spirit.
Most famously, in ¶16 of the “Preface”, Hegel makes a disparaging reference to contemporary German philosophers whose idea of the Absolute amounts to nothing more than “a night in which all cows are black” (review here). This today is sometimes taken to be a direct hit on Schelling’s thought, as Napoleon’s men stormed Jena in October of that year. In letters to Schelling, however, Hegel claimed that this was not a remark aimed at Schelling – who seems not to have believed him.
As the 1800s progressed, Hegel’s popularity was on the rise, eclipsing that of Schelling. By about 1820, Hegel became the leading figure in German philosophy, much to Schelling’s dismay. The tables had turned. If the early tension between Hegel and Schelling in the 1790s had come down to Hegel’s jealousy over Schelling’s success, there is no doubt the bitterness between them was exacerbated in the 1820s by Schelling’s envy of Hegel’s wild success, and personal frustration at his own demise. By about 1830, Schelling and Hegel were what you might want to call “full-blown enemies”.
The death of Hegel:
In 1831, Hegel unfortunately died unexpectedly, leaving wide open his much-desired position as Chair of Philosophy at the University of Berlin. It was Schelling, strangely enough, who given Hegel’s former chair. Schelling, now in the position of Hegel’s seat, launched a series of attacks on Hegelian philosophy, claiming that Hegel’s philosophy was the highest expression of a kind of “philosophical hubris”, which is a charge which might have also resonated with Kierkegaard against Hegel.
In this late period, Schelling became more interested in religion and mysticism so as to better attack Hegel’s emphasis on science and rationality. Why is all this background necessary? Because Søren Kierkegaard was attending Schelling’s lectures on Hegel in Berlin in the 1841, alongside revolutionaries Mikhail Bakunin and Friedrich Engels.
The questions to be asked at this moment are:
1. Does Schelling’s account of Hegel adequately portray Hegel’s thought as Hegel himself believed?
2. Following 1, if not, then is Kierkegaard ultimately attacking a caricature of Hegel?
3. Following 2, if so, and Kierkegaard is mostly attacking Danish Hegelians, then are there any substantive criticisms left in Kierkegaard’s or Schelling’s arsenal against Hegel’s systematic thought?
The answers to each of these, it appears, need to be discussed on a less narrative and more philosophical level. Part II will thus deal with an introduction to Schelling’s positive philosophy.
Beiser, Frederick C.. German idealism the struggle against subjectivism, 1781-1801. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002. Print.
Forster, Michael N.. Hegel’s idea of a Phenomenology of spirit. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. Print.
Franco, Paul. Hegel’s philosophy of freedom. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999. Print.
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, Arnold V. Miller, and J. N. Findlay. Phenomenology of Spirit. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977. Print.
Kierkegaard, Søren, David F. Swenson, and Walter Lowrie. Kierkegaard’s Concluding unscientific postscript;. Princeton: Princeton University Press, for American Scandinavian Foundation, 1941. Print.
Kierkegaard, Søren. Either/or. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1959. Print.
Stewart, Jon. Kierkegaard’s Relation to Hegel Reconsidered, Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print.