Among things for which Hegel is famous is the (perhaps widely misinterpreted) mediation or sublation1 of concepts to a higher unity. Among things for which Kierkegaard is famous is his criticism of the role of sublation in philosophy. For both philosophers, the phrase “either/or” designates a situation such that out of multiple options, exactly one obtains. The either/or is generally seen as an opposite concept to that of sublation. The common view is that Hegel denies the existence of an either/or and Kierkegaard accepts it. Jon Stewart has reconsidered Kierkegaard’s relation to Hegel on this and other topics2. In particular he interprets a passage from Either/Or3 as an example of Kierkegaard’s reception of Hegel’s doctrine of sublation. The book is an exchange in the form of a treatise by a character known only as A, and a response by another character, Judge Wilhelm. Concerning this passage, Stewart writes: “I wish to argue … that despite what at first seems to be a polemical stance against Hegel’s principle of mediation, Judge Wilhelm ultimately sketches a position that is in harmony with Hegel” (Stewart, 195). I will briefly explain Hegel’s view of the phases of logic as explained in the first volume of the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences4. Then I will consider the section that Stewart cites in which Judge Wilhelm compares A to the Hegelians of his time. Finally, I will look at Stewart’s comparison of these two points of view and show it to be incorrect. I hope to show that both Hegel and Kierkegaard would agree that Judge Wilhelm’s view is not compatible with Hegel’s. If all this succeeds, I will have shown that the general interpretation of these philosophers’ positions on the either/or is correct.
For Hegel, the either/or is an arbitrary construction of what he calls “the understanding.” Hegel’s logic consists in three phases: the Abstract, the Dialectical, and the Speculative. The understanding “invests its subject-matter with the form of universality” (EL, 113) and generally clarifies and disambiguates thoughts in the Abstract phase. The understanding proceeds by rules akin to those studied today under the field of Formal Logic. Although Hegel says “Philosophy can never get on without the understanding,” he goes on to say “understanding must not go too far” (EL, 115). He thinks that understanding goes too far when it “draws a hard and fast line between certain items and others opposite to them. We may see this clearly in the strict ‘either/or’” (EL, 52). Hegel thinks that formal logic begins with at least two contrary maxims, which ultimately give rise to the either/or. The maxim of excluded middle conflicts with the maxim of identity—e.g. ∀x(x=x)—because everything is defined equally by what it is and what it is not. The understanding similarly gets itself into trouble when it posits not-entities, which are defined as exactly the opposite of something. For example an object is said to be blue or not-blue, and exactly one of those properties applies to every object. The error here is that not-blue is merely a posited property. To be sure, blue is a posited property as well, but it is posited to describe the blue things we find in the world. There are no not-blue things in the world, only yellow things, green things, yellow and green things, etc. (EL, 172-173). By constructing these rules, the understanding prevents reason from proceeding to the other phases of logical development.
Unrestrained by such logical principles, reason continues on to higher truths. The Dialectic phase brings a view into opposition with itself and the Speculative phase “apprehends the unity of terms (propositions) in their opposition” (EL, 119). Hegel denies the existence of contradictions as the understanding would define them. He instead reserves the word “contradiction” for times when a view is unable to express its own beliefs due to misunderstood terms. (For example, when the view called Sense Certainty tries to say that we are certain of the ‘here’ and ‘now’ without the use of universals. This is contradictory because sense certainty uses the here and now as universals.) Hegel seems to have found what he thinks is the perfect word for the movement of the speculative stage: “aufheben.” He explains that this word has a double meaning. It can mean either “to clear away or annul” or “to keep or preserve.” He then says “This double usage of language … is not an accident.” It exemplifies “the speculative spirit of our language rising above the mere ‘either/or’ of understanding” (EL, 142). For Hegel, sublation is a necessary movement from two contradictory views to another, which retains some aspects from each view while rejecting problematic aspects. For Hegel any apparent contradiction either involves a mistaken not-entity or can be sublated to a “completer notion” (EL, 174).
In Either/Or, Judge Wilhelm acknowledges Hegel’s usage of sublation in “the spheres proper to thought” (EO, 174), but simultaneously maintains that in the world of freedom or choice, “there rules an absolute either/or” (EO, 175). Judge Wilhelm distinguishes two worlds: one for Hegelian philosophy and one for ethical choice. For the Judge, the either/or is present in any choice. To choose is always to exclude some other possibility that one could have chosen. By definition, a choice implies options. The Judge believes that by choosing, exactly one of these options obtains. It is impossible for us to ever choose all the options available to us at a particular time. Even if one decides to pursue each available option in turn, he or she has chosen to exclude the option of choosing any one option alone. Thus the Judge believes that although sublation has a proper place, there exists a situation such that sublation is invalid namely, in free choice.
Stewart believes that Judge Wilhelm has combined the concepts of sublation and the either/or in such a way that Hegel’s original view is not violated. “With the distinction between the sphere of thought and the sphere of freedom, both doctrines get their due without contradicting each other. Thus, there is no incompatibility between the doctrine that Judge Wilhelm expounds and Hegel’s philosophy on this point” (Stewart, 202). Although the Judge grants validity to Hegel’s doctrine of sublation, he does so by limiting its application. Hegel would have expressly rejected this compromise. To admit any instance of the either/or is to give precedence to it. If there were these two distinct spheres, we could say that for any situation either sublation is possible, or it is not. Each situation would fall under exactly one of these descriptions. Before we can use sublation, we must exclude the possibility that sublation is impossible for the given situation. We must exclude the possibility that the either/or could apply. This is why Hegel writes “Neither in heaven nor in earth, neither in the world of mind nor of nature, is there anywhere such an abstract ‘either/or’ as the understanding maintains” (EL, 174). He must deny the either/or outright in order for sublation to have the role he wants it to. Thus, any view which seeks to combine sublation and the either/or is incompatible with Hegelian philosophy.
Kierkegaard also believed the either/or is utterly incompatible with sublation. This idea is expressed in many of his pseudonymous works, thus, it would seem,we may conclude he held this belief himself. Judge Wilhelm writes “The Either/Or I have advanced is, therefore, in a certain sense absolute, for it is between choosing and not choosing. But since the choice is absolute choice, the Either/Or is absolute” (EO, 178). The Hegelian system, built on the necessary movements of sublation and mediation, has nothing to say about individual choice. Similarly, in Concluding Unscientific Postscript5, Johannes Climacus, the pseudonymous author of that work, writes “Everyone is familiar with the fact that the Hegelian philosophy has rejected the principle of contradiction. Hegel himself has more than once sat in solemn judgement upon those thinkers who remain in the sphere of reflection and understanding, and therefore insist that there is an either/or” (CUP, 270). Climacus also offers a view similar to that of the Judge. He writes that the either/or is nullified when brought into abstract thought. He then says “On the other hand, Hegel is equally wrong when, forgetting the abstraction of his thought, he plunges down into the realm of existence to annul the double aut6 with might and main” (CUP, 271). Kierkegaard sees that it is important forHegel to deny any existence of the either/or anywhere. Even if Kierkegaard himself did not believe this, at the least, we can conclude that Judge Wilhelm meant his remarks as a criticism of Hegelian philosophy. The Judge did not intend to “sketch a position that is in harmony with Hegel” as Stewart claims.
Judge Wilhelm compared A, the actual target of his writing, with Hegelians and accused them of being “guilty of the same error” (EO, 170). A and the Hegelians are both unable to make choices. A refuses to choose because he thinks the choices don’t make a difference one way or the other. The Hegelians, on the other hand, are unable to make a choice. Hegel thought ethics was a mistaken field. For this reason, he considered the either/or only the abstract, logical sense. He also never claimed his system, with all its necessary movements, is able to predict or prescribe anything for the future. Kierkegaard offers ethical decision as a counter-example. It is an instance in which options arereally contradictory. Hegel can only deny this counter-example by overlooking ethics altogether. And this is Kierkegaard’s real objection to Hegel’s system. Even if a philosopher gains objective knowledge by means of sublation and mediation, “he wins the whole world and he loses himself” (EO, 176). Kierkegaard objects that the system is incomplete because it has not told us what we, as individuals, are to do. Hegel promises absolute knowledge as if from the viewpoint of eternity, but this is of no use to us as we are stuck in our subjective conditions in which we must choose how to live our lives. “What [we need] instead is precisely an explanation of how the eternal truth is to be understood in determinations of time, which even the worshipful Herr Professor concedes, if not always, at least once a quarter when he draws his salary” (CUP, 172). Hegel must think he has benefited mankind in some way by teaching his philosophy, but what benefit could it offer since it tells us nothing more to do than to sit and contemplate the past?
1 In both primary and secondary literature the distinction between sublation and mediation is not clear. The terms seem to be used interchangeably for what I call, in this paper, sublation. My definition of sublation is given in paragraph 3.