Hegel, Schelling, and Kierkegaard: Background (Part I)

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:

HegelcritiqueFichteSchelling

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.


Works Cited

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.

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3 thoughts on “Hegel, Schelling, and Kierkegaard: Background (Part I)”

  1. As I read your essays, I cannot get over the overwhelming amount of reading you must have done, as well as of the work of thought and organization you are capable. I am truely awed. (this is the last I’ll say of it; I’m am amazed.)

    In my poverty, as I read, I cannot but help but have two impressions: 1. I am missing many subtleties of the authors thoughts and ideas that you draw upon (though I grasp what you are saying, I think); 2. That your synthesis Is not helping you for what you seek.

    For (1) I have already realized my limitations in reading and so have to go on what I am able to read. But given this, so far, there has not been an author I have read, or have read about, that has alleviated, disrupted or changed my thought. All authors play for my position in some manner.

    For (2) I am only going on what you introduced of yourself, a certain vacillation or perhaps repetition. I do not know if you have solved it, or if you participate in a sort of Socratic dialogue, having solved it but present thoughts for consideration to help others ‘along the path’, or if you see there is no solution.

    I have decided to begin at the beginning of you table of contents, and read in order your essays. This may take some time, but it is nice to have plenty of reading to do, and yours is nice as a sort of filler between the other books I’m reading.

    1. Thank you for your kind words – I am humbled by you.

      The way I will now tell this story is – briefly – as follows. In person, I will usually do it with varying degrees of excitement and hand-waving to keep others interested. I am only recently beginning to relate it such that I can tell this story to any layperson without them losing a sense of wonder. Storytelling is important. I can go off many tangents, with fun facts scattered along the way, but for me it is truly a fascinating, almost mystical story that speaks to something important about why I find Novalis to be such a visionary. In lieu of a spectacle, I will instead give it to you in rather dry, boring, philosophical language:

      Hume woke Kant from his “dogmatic slumber”, or so it goes, only to awaken the transcendental ego or “I” in its full force. This project begun by Kant was drawn to its completion with Fichte. Then, we have early Schelling’s response, the “not-I”, which called for Hegel’s sublation of the two into his dialectic, his philosophy of identity. Jena grew into a blossoming intellectual city. The early Schelling was a superstar in Berlin for a while, then Hegel took his turn as superstar, while pauvre Schopenhauer scoffed at him, teaching his class next door with empty desks in his room. They scheduled their classes at the same time. Then, suddenly the unthinkable happened: Hegel the Great died in the night like a thief.

      Years pass, and Schelling goes on criticizing the philosophy of the now-dead Hegel, and he eventually gives his Berlin lectures in 1842, at which we have a young Marx and Engles, we have Kierkegaard, Bakunin, a few others who do eventually make a name for themselves. They’re all here, together – …can you imagine what it must have been like in Berlin? what about in Jena? – responding (usually negatively) in their own ways to the late Schelling’s positive philosophy. Each of these thinkers, seeing Schelling’s attacks on the now-dead Hegel, and their own dislike of positivity, revert to Hegel in their own creative ways: Kierkegaard repeats Hegel upon himself, Marx imports the dialectic from the spiritual into the material, etc. We have Nietzsche and Freud somewhere in there, that unholy Trinity forms… and eventually Marxism haunts Europe and the rest is history, or the end of history as the case may be.

      The late Schelling is almost entirely forgotten. He is left behind in all of this noise – and let’s call it what it is: noise. Negativity reigns, it takes over the minds, brought to its limit in post-modernism where the Hegelian legacy lives on in various diluted forms. There should be a sign somewhere in the history of philosophical ideas that reads: “WHEN YOU READ NIETZSCHE, YOU’VE ALWAYS ALREADY GONE TOO FAR. SLOW DOWN. TURN AROUND. I MEAN IT.” And it is, for me, a lot about pausing. It’s a lot about silence, about a certain patience. It takes a certain effort, or labor of the mind, in order to draw out positive insights appropriately.

      I took this as my cue to return to Novalis, in an attempt to dialogue with the late Schelling and the doctrine of divine potentialities (three potentia) in a way perhaps nobody else ever has. There is likewise a very pertinent formal reason why the Trinity is such a powerful intellectual structure — we see this emerge again even as late as in Lacan’s RSI knot, etc. In any case, Novalis seems to encapture, within his work, his mathematico-musicological prose-poetics, his poesis, the three major German thinkers who engage with Schelling’s work post-Schelling: Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Rosenzweig. Three necessary manifestations, given by the field of divine potentials of German philosophy itself. I see that Novalis braids, with his “syn-criticism”, the three together in an appropriate balance. In realizing this, I saw that the slow and steady work he was doing in the mines… well, let’s just say I think it pays off. He was a visionary — I have absolutely no doubts about it.

      So here is “the synthesis”, if there is one. It is more of a well-spun braid of potentialities into something that can be wielded like the dagger… the question then, I suppose, is what we do with this realization. But can we really do anything? I always myself feel so entangled in the progress of history, overwhelmed – I have Free Will, sure, and I can choose but simple pleasures in life … but I cannot choose my Destiny which is so much greater than me – in the competition of these potentialities as they race towards the Absolute. I feel always so caught up by the Ocean of the Future bubbling up out of the consequences of the choices of who have come before us. Spiraling out of control; or in control, that is, in the control of the Divine Plan.

      (I wonder if a critical-traditional study of Calvinism and theologies of predetermination would help me at this point… You see, the point is to learn enough to grasp the “inner logic” of these various traditions to glean some truths, regardless of how repulsive the traditions themselves may seem at the surface. Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring!)

      If Schelling is right, and we are so spiraling towards the Divine, incrementally closer to the Absolute from which we first came, which is all well and good, I am inclined to believe him, King Schelling’s orders … but again we come up against this issue of faith.

    2. You’ll notice also that my writing gets progressively more “wild” as it goes along. I look back on these first posts now and I see how “tame” they are by comparison. Perhaps you will notice this better than I have, provided I have not ever re-read all of these posts from start to finish.

      They took place over a series of highly creative and productive months, with lots of intense study and reading and emotion along the way… and suddenly they came to an abrupt end in late August of this year. If you would ask why that is, I would probably blame my schoolwork, of course, but that is no real excuse. After all, I wrote many of these while I was still taking classes, I easily found the time for them, and my classes this semester aren’t too much more difficult. I realized a few weeks ago, when I came across your blog, that what I really fear is that I have ran out of words to say.

      —> Does that mean I am fully individuated, at least intellectually? Enlightened, perhaps? God forbid I ever catch myself thinking such horrible things !

      Reading your blog was exciting because I immediately was filled with ideas and started writing my blog again, but then school got actually in the way. I do know that I still have more to write, and I know also that you are helping in some way I do not yet understand. Thank you kindly for your time, patience, thought … I have, for once, somebody who is engaging with my work…

      This is a reason for much joy and celebration!

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