Show, through poems in our literature, to what extent poetry may venture to set itself the task of presenting the Idea in a form coinciding with the philosophical understanding of it?

by John Holbo on August 13, 2016

Another Kierkegaard post, then! The masses are clamoring for them, demanding this sweet release from ongoing Olympic coverage! Also, Trump!

19th Century European philosophy. Does it crack along the 1848 faultline, after which Hegel is dead? Not sure but maybe. In addition, many of the main figures are odd men out – Kierkegaard, Nietzsche (and I like Schopenhauer, too.) Hegel was huge but his stock collapsed. He went from hero to zero and later figures like Frege, whom analytic philosophers sometimes suppose must have been opposed to Hegel, just didn’t give him much thought. (Frege was worried about Lotze, i.e. neo-Kantianism, not Hegel. The notion that analytic philosophy opposes Hegel is a kind of anachronistic back-formation of Russell and Moore’s opposition to the likes of McTaggart, i.e. the Scottish Hegelians, who were their own thing. But I digress.) Philosophy in general had a fallen rep in the second half of the 19th century, at least in German-speaking regions. Also in France? An age of positivism? Natural science was what you wanted to be doing, not speculative nonsense. There is a strong regionalism. German stuff in the 19th Century is very German. The Romantics. (Whereas, in the 17th Century, the Frenchness of Descartes, the Germanness of Leibniz, the Englishness of Locke, even the Jewishness of Spinoza seem less formidable obstacles to mutual comprehension. I am broad-brushing, not dismissing historical digs into this stuff. Tell me I’m wrong! It won’t hurt my feelings.)

Kierkegaard is not the lone wolf Nietzsche will be later, but he’s a regional figure. Part of the Copenhagen scene, the Danish Golden Age. Nordic literary culture, tied into German culture and French culture, too, but distinctive and somewhat self-contained. So I’m asking myself: what are good historical handles? And I think: maybe read some Georg Brandes? He was very influenced by Kierkegaard, at the end of a passionate Hegelian fling in youth. He gave the first public lectures on Nietzsche, at a time when he – Brandes – was personally famous, a towering figure in criticism. He was responsible for Nietzsche’s fame, in effect. (Is that too strong?) He also traveled to England, met J.S. Mill, after translating The Subjection of Women into Danish.

I was very much surprised when Mill informed me that he had not read a line of Hegel, either in the original or in translation, and regarded the entire Hegelian philosophy as sterile and empty sophistry. I mentally confronted this with the opinion of the man at the Copenhagen University who knew the history of philosophy best, my teacher, Hans Bröchner, who knew, so to speak, nothing of contemporary English and French philosophy, and did not think them worth studying. I came to the conclusion that here was a task for one who understood the thinkers of the two directions, who did not mutually understand one another.

I thought that in philosophy, too, I knew what I wanted, and saw a road open in front of me. However, I never travelled it. (276-7, Reminiscences of My Childhood and Youth)

Yet there’s a lot of philosophical interest in his books. (You can get a number for free from the Internet Archive, as they were all translated into English in the early 20th Century, when Brandes was at the height of his fame.)

First, let me round off the Mill anecdote. Brandes was writing for The Daily Paper and was on excellent terms with the editor. However the translation of Mill caused problems:

This book roused Bille’s exasperation and displeasure. He forbade it to be reviewed in his paper, refused me permission to defend it in the paper, and would not even allow the book in his house, so that his family had to read it clandestinely, as a dangerous and pernicious work.

I recommend the chapters of Reminiscences about Brandes’ Hegelian youth. He studied under Johan Heiberg. I’ll just quote one line from his Wikipedia article: “He promoted Hegelian philosophy and introduced vaudeville to Denmark.” (But not at the same time. He was mostly a poet. Kierkegaard’s Two Ages is a book length review of Heiberg’s mom’s novel, Two Ages. Small town. Kierkegaard says it’s a great novel and shows the limits of Hegelianism, among other things.) As I was saying:

But in the nature of things, Heiberg’s philosophical lifework could not to a student be other than an admission into Hegel’s train of thought, and an introduction to the master’s own works. I was not aware that by 1860 Europe had long passed his works by in favour of more modern thinking. With a passionate desire to reach a comprehension of the truth, I grappled with the System, began with the Encyclopedia, read the three volumes of Aesthetics, The Philosophy of Law, the Philosophy of History, the Phenomenology of the Mind, then the Philosophy of Law again, and finally the Logic, the Natural Philosophy and the Philosophy of the Mind in a veritable intoxication of comprehension and delight. One day, when a young girl towards whom I felt attracted had asked me to go and say good-bye to her before her departure, I forgot the time, her journey, and my promise to her, over my Hegel. As I walked up and down my room I chanced to pull my watch out of my pocket, and realised that I had missed my appointment and that the girl must have started long ago. (98-9)

Hegel’s System was the Pokémon Go! of the early 19th Century. Addictive. Gotta grasp them ALL! (And it’s so satisfying when one of your stages evolves into a more mature stage!)

Again and again while reading Hegel’s works I felt carried away with delight at the new world of thought opening out before me. And when anything that for a long time had been incomprehensible to me, at last after tenacious reflection became clear, I felt what I myself called “an unspeakable bliss.” Hegel’s system of thought, anticipatory of experience, his German style, overburdened with arbitrarily constructed technical words from the year 1810 or so, which one might think would daunt a young student of another country and another age, only meant to me difficulties which it was a pleasure to overcome. Sometimes it was not Hegelianism itself that seemed the main thing. The main thing was that I was learning to know a world-embracing mind; I was being initiated into an attempt to comprehend the universe which was half wisdom and half poetry; I was obtaining an insight into a method which, if scientifically unsatisfying, and on that ground already abandoned by investigators, was fruitful and based upon a clever, ingenuous, highly intellectual conception of the essence of truth; I felt myself put to school to a great intellectual leader, and in this school I learnt to think.

He struggles with Spinoza and pantheism and the question of faith and eventually finds Kierkegaard.

It was not the attitude of my friends that impressed me. All my more intimate friends were orthodox Christians, but the attempts which various ones … had made to convert me had glanced off from my much more advanced thought without making any impression. I was made of much harder metal than they, and their attempts to alter my way of thinking did not penetrate beyond my hide. To set my mind in vibration, there was needed a brain that I felt superior to my own; and I did not find it in them. I found it in the philosophical and religious writings of Soren Kierkegaard, in such works, for instance, as Sickness unto Death.

The struggle within me began, faintly, as I approached my nineteenth year. My point of departure was this: one thing seemed to me requisite, to live in and for The Idea,
as the expression for the highest at that time was. (105-6)

Oh, snap! He was only 19! (But, to be fair, all his professors are constantly telling him ‘what! you are that young?’ It’s a thing with Brandes.)

His Kierkegaardianism actually feeds into his eventual impulse to translate Mill.

In the year 1869 my thoughts on the subordinate position of women in society began to assume shape, and I attempted a connected record of them. I adopted as my starting point Soren Kierkegaard’s altogether antiquated conception of woman and contested it at every point. But all that I had planned and drawn up was cast aside when in 1869 John Stuart Mill’s book on the subject fell into my hands. I felt Mill’s superiority to be so immense and regarded his book as so epoch-making that I necessarily had to reject my own draft and restrict myself to the translation and introduction of what he had said. In November, 1869 I published Mill’s book in Danish and in this manner introduced the modem woman’s movement into Denmark. (206)

OK, just a bit more. The book’s opening is rather charming:

He was little and looked at the world from below. All that happened, went on over his head. Everyone looked down to him.

But the big people possessed the enviable power of lifting him to their own height or above it. It might so happen that suddenly, without preamble, as he lay on the floor, rummaging and playing about and thinking of nothing at all, his father or a visitor would exclaim: ” Would you like to see the fowls of Kjöge?” And with the same he would feel two large hands placed over his ears and the arms belonging to them would shoot straight up into the air. That was delightful. Still, there was some disappointment mingled with it. ” Can you see Kjöge now? ” was a question he could make nothing of. What could Kjöge be? But at the other question: ” Do you see the fowls? ” he vainly tried to see something or other. By degrees he understood that it was only a phrase, and that there was nothing to look for.

It was his first experience of empty phrases, and it made an impression.

Fowls of Kjöge? Is that some sort of children’s peek-a-boo game? A Hans Christian Andersen reference? What? Anyway, speaking of ’empty phrases’ his description of the exam he had to write and sit, for his Masters of Arts is fantastic:

I handed in, then, my request to be allowed to sit for my Master of Arts examination; the indefatigable Bröchner had already mentioned the matter to the Dean of the University, who understood the examinee’s reasons for haste. But the University moved so slowly that it was some weeks before I received the special paper set me, which, to my horror, ran as follows: “Determine the correlation between the pathetic and the symbolic in general, in order by that means to elucidate the contrast between Shakespeare’s tragedies and Dante’s Divina Commedia, together with the possible errors into which one might fall through a one-sided preponderance of either of these two elements.”

This paper, which had been set by R. Nielsen, is characteristic of the purely speculative manner, indifferent to all study of history, in which Aesthetics were at that time pursued in Copenhagen. It was, moreover, worded with unpardonable carelessness; it was impossible to tell from it what was to be understood by the correlation on which it was based, and which was assumed to he a given conclusion. Even so speculative a thinker as Frederik Paludan-Miiller called the question absolutely meaningless. It looked as though its author had imagined Shakespeare’s dramas and Dante’s epic were produced by a kind of artistic commingling of pathetic with symbolic elements, and as though he wished to call attention to the danger of reversing the correct proportions, for instance, by the symbolic obtaining the preponderance in tragedy, or pathos in the epopee, or to the danger of exaggerating these proportions, until there was too much tragic pathos, or too much epic symbolism. But a scientific definition of the expressions used was altogether lacking, and I had to devote a whole chapter to the examination of the meaning of the problem proposed to me.

The essay, for the writing of which I was allowed six weeks, was handed in, 188 folio pages long, at the right time. By reason of the sheer foolishness of the question, it was never published. (143)

A bit more context, to give some notion of what a ‘normal’ exam question would have been:

Meanwhile, the examination was taking its course. As real curiosities, I here reproduce the questions set me. The three to be replied to in writing were:

1. To what extent can poetry be called the ideal History?

2. In what manner may the philosophical ideas of Spinoza and Fichte lead to a want of appreciation of the idea of beauty?

3. In what relation does the comic stand to its limitations and its various contrasts?

The three questions which were to be replied to in lectures before the University ran as follows:

1. Show, through poems in our literature, to what extent poetry may venture to set itself the task of presenting the Idea in a form coinciding with the philosophical understanding of it?

2. Point out the special contributions to a philosophical definition of the Idea made by Aesthetics in particular.

3. What are the merits and defects of Schiller’s tragedies?

These questions, in conjunction with the main question, may well be designated a piece of contemporary history; they depict exactly both the Science of the time and the peculiar philosophical language it adopted. Hardly more than one, or at most two, of them could one imagine set to-day. (145-6)

While Brandes was doing all this, he was training as a soldier, as the Second Schleswig War had broken out and his friends were dying. He found it hard to think about the respective proportions of pathos and symbols in Dante and Shakespeare, among other things.

I think some of this is somewhat historically helpful, for framing Kierkegaard against the idiosyncracies of his time and place, and within larger European thought currents. It’s fun, at least. When we get to Unscientific Postscript, subtitled ‘a mimic-pathetic-dialectic composition’ I’ll spring the Dante-Shakespeare question on the kids, as a pop quiz.

Also, in that book review of Heiberg’s mom’s novel Kierkegaard remarks: “Persuasion presupposes that there is a difficulty, an obstacle, an opposition; it starts with this, and then persuasion clears it away.” I could have used that quote in Reason and Persuasion. It’s a good, basic thought. Oh well.



Adam Roberts 08.13.16 at 8:07 am

Hegel’s stock: are you writing out Marx because you take an sort-of Althusserian position that mature Marx isn’t really Hegelian, or because you don’t consider him a philosopher, or you don’t think him considerable in other ways? Which would all be fair enough. Mill owes more to Coleridge’s sort-of neo-Kantianism than people realise, I think.


John Holbo 08.13.16 at 8:17 am

“Hegel’s stock: are you writing out Marx because you take an sort-of Althusserian position that mature Marx isn’t really Hegelian, or because you don’t consider him a philosopher, or you don’t think him considerable in other ways?”

No, I guess I was sort of half-remembering that Marx himself called Hegel a ‘dead dog’ – reputation-wise – after a certain point? (No, that doesn’t sound right, now I think about it.) More: Marx is part of the ‘we need to get scientific about it’ shift. Yes, he is a Hegelian. But he is very much part of the reaction against speculation. The action is more ‘social scientific’ in the second half of the century. That isn’t just due to 1848, but I think events of that year may mark a tonal shift?


John Holbo 08.13.16 at 8:18 am

“Mill owes more to Coleridge’s sort-of neo-Kantianism than people realise, I think.”

Yes, that’s true. The Colerige vs. Bentham thing.


John Holbo 08.13.16 at 8:18 am

I will always strive not to take an even remotely Althusserian position about anything. That just wouldn’t be a good sign.


kent 08.13.16 at 2:55 pm

I gotta admit, I did not expect to start my Saturday reading anything quite like this! Thanks, John, very interesting stuff.

So anyway, I’m trying to come up with a modern equivalent for your title.

“Show, using A, to what extent B may venture to set itself the task of presenting C in a form coinciding with D’s understanding of it.”

The problem is not so much the form of the question, it’s the presumption that C and D are universal and unquestionable.

So far I’ve got: Charts, blogging, economics, Paul Krugman.

Or maybe: Snark, twitter, the likely outcome of the election, 538.

(Sorry … I know this was supposed to be a Trump-free zone.)


John Holbo 08.13.16 at 11:36 pm

Yeah, the recipe for a lousy exam question is: presuppose some large, vague something that really you shouldn’t be presupposing. The largeness and vagueness of it prevent the student from even repairing the problem, because you can’t even challenge the presupposition.


John Holbo 08.13.16 at 11:36 pm

Glad you liked it, kent!


John Holbo 08.14.16 at 12:45 am

Following up on the Marx point. From the 1873 Afterword to Kapital:

“The mystifying side of Hegelian dialectic I criticised nearly thirty years ago, at a time when it was still the fashion. But just as I was working at the first volume of “Das Kapital,” it was the good pleasure of the peevish, arrogant, mediocre Epigonoi who now talk large in cultured Germany, to treat Hegel in same way as the brave Moses Mendelssohn in Lessing’s time treated Spinoza, i.e., as a “dead dog.” I therefore openly avowed myself the pupil of that mighty thinker, and even here and there, in the chapter on the theory of value, coquetted with the modes of expression peculiar to him. The mystification which dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands, by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general form of working in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.

In its mystified form, dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and to glorify the existing state of things. In its rational form it is a scandal and abomination to bourgeoisdom and its doctrinaire professors, because it includes in its comprehension and affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up; because it regards every historically developed social form as in fluid movement, and therefore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence; because it lets nothing impose upon it, and is in its essence critical and revolutionary.”

This is what I was thinking of: this widespread notion that Hegel was obsolete. Marx doesn’t really agree, but – then again – he does. Hegel is an upside-down mystic (which is the last thing Hegel himself wanted to be) and any attempt to keep his peculiar terms in currency is rhetorical ‘coquetting’. Marx damns him with faint praise, even while appreciating him.


MisterMr 08.14.16 at 9:32 am

For a counterexample, suppose that we are speaking of the idea of selflessness.
It is plausible that a novel or a poem explain the concept of selflessness better than a dry logical definition.
Why does poetry work for selflessness but not for, say, gravity?
Because selflessness is a moral idea, so it is strongly based in emotions, whereas gravity isn’t, and poetry and art are largely based in emotion.
I know very few of German idealism, but at best of my understanding it is based on the idea of struggle between a subject and reality, and this struggle creates everything, included knowledge and self awareness of the subject. In this conception, first the subject has some will and desire, then in order to exert his will clashes with reality, and in order to control reality he has to understand it so he creates a model of it (knowledge and science) and of himself (self awareness) .
In this conception, will comes first, and intelligence comes second as a tool of will, so that there is no such thing as pure knowledge. Therefore, moral philosophy comes before natural philosophy, and this is the main difference between German idealism and Anglo philosophy.
Thus in an idealistic framework the question makes some sense, in other philosophycal contexts it doesn’t.
In addition, there is a tradition in aesthetics where art is the perception of perfection, but this perfection in German idealism is a moral perfection that somehow subsumes subject, reality and the struggle, so the role of real art is to depict these ideas (that always are moral ideas and always imply struggle, so are somehow different from platonic ideas) in a way that is true to their nature (the so called philosophycal meaning).

I want at least a B for this comment.


MisterMr 08.14.16 at 9:59 am

Re Marx and Hegel
I think that Marx is really Hegel turned on his head. If we think of the primacy of will vs intelligence it is very obvious:
First, we have mankind that struggles with nature for survival through labor.
Then in this struggle mankind creates science and knowledge.
But the struggle vs nature creates the division of labor, thus the self awareness of mankind comes in the form of ideology that reflects the social classes that are created by the division of labor. The base (structured social labor) is the struggle vs nature, and creates the self knowledge (ideology).
In this context, we can just change “ideas” with social knowledge and ideology, and we have:

Show, with examples taken from our literature, how poetry can explain the true essence of the conflict inherent in a social structure/ ideology

That as a question makes sense.


Teachable Moe 08.16.16 at 2:27 am

The Comedian as the Letter ‘C’

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