Nassim BRAVO JORDÁN: "The Hegelian Socrates and the Kierkegaardian Socrates in <The Concept of Irony>"

(Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México)

I. Introduction

             When Kierkegaard wrote his dissertation it was self-evident that he had Hegel´s philosophy constantly in mind. The Concept of irony is certainly the first and probably only work in the authorship where Kierkegaard analyzes in depth some of Hegel´s writings. Furthermore, it is remarkable that in most points he seems to agree with Hegel and in some cases he even limits himself to quote the German philosopher´s words without further comment. This is no different regarding the figure of Socrates, which plays of course a central role in the dissertation; in this respect, Kierkegaard claims quite openly that the Hegelian approach stands above all others and thus, from his point of view, it would be unnecessary to consider other author´s insights on the subject: “Hegel represents a turning point in the view of Socrates. Therefore I shall begin with Hegel and end with Hegel.”[1]

            I think it is only fair to consider Hegel as the point of departure for Kierkegaard in his analysis of Socrates in The Concept of Irony. We might even assume that in general they share the same point of view, and a careful reading of the text reveals that this is indeed the case. Kierkegaard quotes extensively from the Lectures on the History of Philosophy (and, to a lesser extent, from The Philosophy of Right) and uses Hegel´s depiction of Socrates to support his own theses, a fact that Kierkegaard himself acknowledges in several occasions.

However, I wish to argue that within the many similarities there are a number of subtle differences to be found between what we may call the Hegelian Socrates and the Kierkegaardian Socrates. Kierkegaard and Hegel had different aims when they approached the topic of the Socratic figure. While the latter wanted, as is well known, to highlight the world historical role of Socrates in the realm of philosophy, the former tried to demonstrate that irony was the essential characteristic of the Athenian philosopher. This is something that we should always take into account; the purpose of Kierkegaard in The Concept of Irony is to portray Socrates as an ironical subject, and thus he obviously tends to focus on the particular feature of irony.

            We can find an example of this in the first part of the dissertation (Chapter 1, “The View made Possible”). Kierkegaard attempts here to sketch the figure of Socrates using the primary sources of Xenophon, Plato and Aristophanes. From the beginning he is trying to outline the ironical as the essential element in Socrates´ personality, so the analysis turns out to be a little unorthodox and, in some cases, question-begging. Kierkegaard concludes that Aristophanes renders the most faithful picture of Socrates.[2] This is presumably due to the fact that the comic description of Aristophanes is the one that comes closest to the ironical paradigm that Kierkegaard had in mind. On the other hand, while this kind of philological investigation is of little interest to Hegel, in the few pages where he comments the three contemporary sources, his position is definitely more balanced: Plato depicted best Socrates´ personality and method, Xenophon the content of his teaching, whereas Aristophanes exposed the “negative side” of Socratic philosophy.[3] It is difficult not to see that Kierkegaard ends up being a little one-sided.

It should be noted, however, that this does not mean that Kierkegaard disregards the historical approach or that Hegel ignores the issue of Socrates as an ironist; it is undeniable that Kierkegaard too had a historical interest in the topic, but this was more specifically oriented to the importance of Socrates as the historical founder of irony as a position. And then, as it turned out, Kierkegaard´s account of irony was not always in harmony with Hegel´s general depiction of Socrates, particularly on the question of the ironist´s “absolute negativity.” It is indeed when Hegel seems to make light of Socrates´ negativity that Kierkegaard parts with the Hegelian exposition and starts his own.

As I see it, there are two kinds of differences in both thinkers´ interpretation of Socrates. The first one is concerning the method or perspective in which the Socratic figure is approached; Hegel allegedly takes only into account the world-historical importance of Socrates, while Kierkegaard, in addition to this, tries to take also into consideration the individual element of the personage. The second difference is about the content of Socrates´ teaching, both in relation to its historical predecessors and successors, the Sophists and the so-called Socratic schools, and also considered in itself. Hegel claims that the content of the Socratic doctrine was the abstract idea of Good, whereas Kierkegaard insists that Socrates was purely negative and thus his doctrine, if we may speak of one, had no content at all. 

Finally, it is important to underscore that the “Kierkegaardian Socrates” I am referring to, is only the one presented in The Concept of Irony, because I am well aware that later, especially in the pseudonymous works by Johannes Climacus, Kierkegaard changed his mind about the philosophical role of Socrates and came to regret his earlier Hegelian interpretation.[4] 

II. The Method

      I shall begin with the difference regarding the method of approach. Kierkegaard starts the second chapter of the first part of his dissertation (“The Actualization of the View”) with a long consideration of the importance of the Socratic daimon. Up to this point, Kierkegaard has already accepted the universal necessity of Socrates´ ironical activity within the frame of world-history, i.e. he has acknowledged the validity of Hegel´s account. But then he remarks that irony as an idea in the system is not exactly the same as irony as it presents itself in real life. Kierkegaard is also interested in the individual and personal element of irony, a part that Hegel supposedly omits –although rightfully so, as Kierkegaard himself admits- in his systematic exposition of Socrates. He says on this regard:

 This is the purely personal life with which science and scholarship admittedly are not involved… Whatever the case may be, grant that science and scholarship are right in ignoring such things; nevertheless, one who wants to understand the individual life cannot do so. And since Hegel himself says somewhere that with Socrates it is not so much a matter of speculation as of individual life, I dare to take this as sanction for my procedural method in my whole venture, however imperfect it may turn out because of my own deficiencies.[5]

As a matter of fact, there is no real mistake in what Hegel says about Socrates, Kierkegaard admits. It is simply that in the systematic exposition there is no room for the personal and contingent element of the historical figure in question. In any case, it is clear that Kierkegaard does not want to refute Hegel. His intention is to take the analysis of Socrates one step further into the individual realm. If any, Hegel´s error would be to take for granted important historical information that would have otherwise enriched his picture of Socrates.[6]

Kierkegaard is critical of the fact that Hegel tends to overlook the historical and contemporary sources about Socrates, and the few times he uses them he does so in an uncritical fashion.[7] As aforementioned, it is not true that Hegel disregarded the sources, but he was indeed very brief in his account of them (barely a few lines, as compared with Kierkegaard´s lengthy first chapter of the dissertation). Be that as it may, Kierkegaard recognizes that Hegel proceeds in this way for the sake of his wider systematic view, and even in that case the Hegelian abstraction does not go as far as to tear Socrates out of his historical context, an incongruity that both Kierkegaard and Hegel understood very well.[8]

            At this point, it is important to remember that we find this discussion in the second chapter of the dissertation, “The Actualization of the View.” Here he is trying to situate Socrates in his proper historical context, or, in Kierkegaard´s own words, he is “actualizing” his heretofore merely philological investigation (as found in chapter 1, “The View made Possible”). Thus, Kierkegaard´s observations about the lacks of the Hegelian approach on this respect are quite understandable. But we should not forget that the culmination of Kierkegaard´s depiction of Socrates is to be found in the final chapter of the first part, “The View Made Necessary.” Here, as the title suggests, Kierkegaard focuses on the universal and world-historical necessity of Socratic irony. Needless to say, he fully agrees with Hegel on this point. Someone might contend that Kierkegaard´s analysis in his dissertation concludes with an account of the individual and personal consequences of irony (“Irony after Fichte”),[9] and that as such his real focus would be on the individual rather than on the universal, but we must realize that this only comes after the philosophical validation of Socrates as the historical founder of irony.

            In short, we may conclude that this slight methodological difference is more an addition by Kierkegaard than a criticism on Hegel´s speculative and universal approach. It is, so to speak, the world-historical reading of the necessity of Socratic irony, plus some extra insights on Socrates as an ironical individual.  

 III. The Content

 Socrates as Purely Negative

In the third chapter of the first part (“The View Made Necessary”), Kierkegaard deals with the universal role of Socrates as a turning point in world-history. As was noted before, both Kierkegaard and Hegel agree on the world-historical importance of Socrates, and in this particular section Kierkegaard relies heavily on Hegel´s lessons once again. But when the turn comes to analyze the relation of Socrates with the philosophical schools that preceded and came after him, namely, the Sophists and the Socratic schools, the differences start to emerge. As I see it, this is the result of Kierkegaard´s insistence on Socrates´ “absolute negativity,” the hallmark of his description of irony.

 The Sophists

The Sophists, as Socrates, are at odds with the established order. But the difference is that, according to Kierkegaard, they restore the order through reasoning and argumentation: “In its first form, this education [of the Sophists] shakes the foundations of everything, but in its second form it enables every pupil of integrity to make everything firm and fast again… In Sophistry, reflection is awakened; it shakes the foundations of everything, and it is then that Sophistry lulls it to sleep again with reasons.”[10]

Hegel also states that the Sophists shook the foundations of Classical tradition. Nevertheless, he thinks that Sophistry substituted the undermined established order with the arbitrary will of the subject; this means that the Sophists called into question the validity of the given actuality, but they did not proposed anything positive instead other than subjective arbitrariness. This gets in the way of Kierkegaard´s own explanation, as it were, for he is trying to argue that it is Socrates (as an ironist) that is purely negative, not the Sophists. He comments on Hegel´s position:

It seems, however, that Hegel makes the Sophistic movement too grandiose, and therefore the distrust one may have about the correctness of his view is strengthened even more by the presence, in his subsequent discussion of Sophistry, of various points that cannot be harmonized with it; likewise, if this were the correct interpretation of Sophistry, there is much in his conception of Socrates that would make it necessary to identify Socrates with them.[11] 

Kierkegaard´s argument is that Hegel fails to be consistent, because if the Sophists were absolutely negative, as he says, then they would be identical to the figure of Socrates as exposed by no other than Hegel himself. Naturally, the assumption here is that both Kierkegaard and Hegel depict Socrates as absolutely negative. But this is not entirely correct. On the one hand, Hegel does not claim that the Sophists were absolutely negative, for, as we have seen, Sophistry has posed subjective will as the new criterion, and this, as undetermined as it may be, is still something positive. On the other hand, it is not accurate to say that Hegel has depicted Socrates as purely negative either; indeed, for Hegel there is content (although indeterminate) in the Socratic doctrine: the abstract idea of Good.[12]

            In any case, Kierkegaard has certainly good reasons to underscore the positivity of Sophistry. Even if with their skeptical attitude towards reality they indeed represented the negative, the Sophists offered ultimately an alternative solution grounded on subjective reflection. The Sophist, as a matter of fact, had always a teaching in hand for the disciple that could afford his services. Thus, although subjective, Sophistry had an element of positivity. Their historical revolution, if by revolution we understand the destruction of a previous historical order, was only a limited one. The Sophist demolished reality with the rebuilding process already in mind.

            Socrates, on the contrary, shakes the established order through irony, but he does not offer anything else to cover for the loss. Therefore, he is absolutely negative. Kierkegaard insists that his account is the same as Hegel´s, a claim that is interesting in itself, for Kierkegaard was perfectly aware that in the Hegelian reading Socrates has an abstract idea of the Good, and the evidence is that this point of disagreement is discussed in the appendix entitled “Hegel´s View of Socrates.”[13] This could lead us to think that Kierkegaard, rather than trying to contest Hegel´s theory, was struggling to make the Hegelian interpretation of Socrates fit his own.

The Socratic Schools 

With regard to the philosophy that came after Socrates, Kierkegaard tries to make a case for his own cause by alluding to the multifarious nature of the several Socratic schools. This, from Kierkegaard´s point of view, was the consequence of the absolute negativity of Socratic irony. Socrates taught his disciples to put the established order into doubt; he told them that the given traditions had no validity in themselves. But he only negated. He never gave them a positive alternative, so the disciples were left empty-handed and with a world of possibilities in front of themselves; hence their varied philosophical answers.[14]

            Hegel´s explanation about the origin of the multifaceted Socratic schools is similar, but not identical. He suggests that the cause of this phenomenon was the indefinite and abstract nature of the Socratic doctrine.[15] The subtle difference resides once again in the question of Socrates´ absolute negativity. As said, Hegel´s contention is that Socrates had a doctrine, even if it was indefinite and abstract. This was certainly not a positive doctrine, but it was a doctrine nevertheless, and as such it would have been a positive element within the absolute negativity that Kierkegaard was trying to claim for Socrates: “It does not suffice to say that from the heterogeneity of the Socratic schools the conclusion may be drawn that Socrates had no positive system; but it must be added that by its pressure the infinite negativity made all positivity possible, has been an infinite incitement and stimulation for positivity.”[16]

Kierkegaard insists that Socrates´ negativity must be absolute, a point that obviously he is not willing to compromise. Hegel acknowledges that there was a slight positivity in the Socratic position, which nevertheless gave the Socratic schools enough room to flourish on their own. But if this is the case, it is difficult to understand why Kierkegaard argued before that Hegel identified the Sophists and Socrates on the ground of their absolute negativity. The difference, in short, is that the Kierkegaardian Socrates is absolutely negative, whereas the Hegelian Socrates remains ultimately positive, at least in an indeterminate and abstract way. Now we can raise the question of what was this positivity that Hegel presumably attributed to Socrates. And if this positivity is significant enough to claim that the Hegelian Socrates is radically different from Kierkegaard´s negative version.

Socrates as the Founder of Morality

Before the awakening of subjective consciousness, morality had an outer nature; it was thought to be an objective and natural entity deposited in tradition. The transformation started with Sophistry, but it was Socrates that brought this to its ultimate consequences: 
In the old Greek culture, the individual was by no means free in this sense but was confined in the substantial ethic; he had not as yet taken himself out of, separated himself from, this immediate relationship, still did not know himself. Socrates brought this about… he brought the individual to this by universalizing subjectivity, and to that extent he is the founder of morality.[17] 

It was in fact Hegel that claimed that Socrates was the founder of morality. With the Socratic revolution, says Hegel, the source of morality shifted from the objective realm to the subjective conscience of the individual. After Socrates, the jurisdiction of morality fell upon the individual subject.[18] And with this it was assumed that the individual became the source of an abstract moral content, i.e. the universal Good. Of course, this universal Good is completely indeterminate and as such it should be qualified as negative, for it does not provide any concrete, positive content.

Anyhow, Kierkegaard does not fail to discover in this a hint of positivity, even though Hegel underscores that this universal good is too abstract to have anything to do with actuality;[19] as such, the universal is in fact the negative, because there is no concrete or positive principle the individual can act upon. He is left to his arbitrary will, the possibility of good and evil, as Hegel says in his Philosophy of Right.[20] In this particular sense, however, Kierkegaard thinks that his depiction of Socrates as an ironist is essentially the same as Hegel´s account of Socrates as the founder of morality. In both cases, the important element is the negative freedom of irony and morality.[21]

If we take all this into account, it seems that there is an essential agreement between Kierkegaard and Hegel. The idea of the absolute negativity of Socrates as an ironist is apparently supported by the notion of subjective morality as posed by Hegel. But if we are to come to terms with the idea of absolute negativity, then what is the point of talking about an universal good, as Hegel does? If the hallmark of Socrates is his ironical negativity, i.e. his power to undermine the established order, then it does not make any sense to try to discover what his idea of good was.

The real difficulty with Hegel´s view of Socrates is centered in the continual attempt to show how Socrates interpreted the good, and what is even more wrong in the view, as I see it, is that it does not accurately adhere to the direction of the trend in Socrates´ life. The movement is toward arriving at the good. His significance in the world development is to arrive there (not to have arrived there at some time).[22]

Kierkegaard´s argument is that it is contradictory to affirm that Socrates was negatively free and that at the same he had a conception of the Good, because such an idea –if we are to follow Kierkegaard´s reasoning- would work as a positive limit to the absolute ironical freedom. What is more, if he had an actual idea of the universal Good, then the ironical negativity would be merely a disguise, for in that case Socrates would be pursuing a positive content –the idea of Good- that admittedly is not within the established order (which had to be negated through irony), but that is somewhere nevertheless. This would mean that irony is neither a way of living nor the so-called absolute negativity, but a tool that helps Socrates to pursue his idea, a conception of irony that would better fit Platonic thought; this would mean, as a matter of fact, that Socrates is an ethicist that is going incognito behind an ironical appearance, a notion that, interestingly enough, Kierkegaard would adopt later in his authorship.[23] 
IV. Conclusion

To summarize, the only seeming difference between the Kierkegaardian and the Hegelian Socrates is a very subtle degree of “positivity.” While Kierkegaard insists repeatedly that Socrates is absolutely negative, Hegel attributes him a slight and indeterminate positivity, namely, the universal and abstract conception of Good. As aforementioned, there is also a difference in their methodologies and in their readings of the historical phenomena of Sophistry and the Socratic schools. It is quite clear, however, that Kierkegaard is relying heavily on Hegel´s description of Socrates. He is only polishing, as it were, what he considers to be some of the minor flaws in the German philosopher´s account. Furthermore, Kierkegaard thinks that there is no major disagreement between his exposition of irony and Hegel´s account: “I believe, therefore, that everyone will agree with me that there is nothing in these Hegelian observations to preclude the assumption that Socrates´ position was irony.”[24] So it might be argued that, in spite of these differences, the Kierkegaardian conception of Socrates was built upon the Hegelian conception of Socrates, and that, at least within the frame of The Concept of Irony, Hegel was to Kierkegaard more an ally than a foe.


G.W.F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, translated by H. B. Nisbet, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press 1991.G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, vols. 1-3, translated by E.S. Haldane, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press

[1] SKS 1, 264 / CI, 220.

[2] Cf. SKS 1, 203-205 / CI, 153-154.

[3] Cf. G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, vols. 1-3, translated by E.S. Haldane, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press 1995 (abbreviated History of Philosophy); vol. I, pp. 414, 426.

[4] Cf. SKS 24, 32, NB21:35 / JP 4, 4281: “Influenced as I was by Hegel and whatever was modern, without the maturity really to comprehend greatness, I could not resist pointing out somewhere in my dissertation that it was a defect on the part of Socrates to disregard the whole and only consider individuals numerically. What a Hegelian fool I was! It is precisely this that powerfully demonstrates what a great ethicist Socrates was.”

[5] SKS 1, 215 / CI, 166-167.

[6] SKS 1, 265 / CI, 221.

[7] Cf. SKS 1, 265-266 / CI, 221-222; Hegel, History of Philosophy, I, p. 414.

[8] Cf. SKS 1, 244-245 / CI, 199; Hegel, History of Philosophy, I, p. 384, “Consciousness had reached this point in Greece, when in Athens the great form of Socrates, in whom the subjectivity of thought was brought to consciousness in a more definite and a more thorough manner, now appeared. But Socrates did not grow as a mushroom out of the earth, for he stands in continuity with his time, and thus is not only a mist important figure in the history of philosophy –perhaps the most interesting in the philosophy of antiquity- but is also a world-famed personage.”

[9] Cf. SKS 1, 308-352 / CI, 272-323.

[10] SKS 1, 250 / CI, 205.

[11] SKS 1, 251 / CI, 207.

[12] Cf. Hegel, History of Philosophy, I, p. 387; for the difference between the Sophists and Socrates, Cf. Hegel, History of Philosophy, I, p. 366, “As regards content, the standpoint of the Sophists differed from that of Socrates and Plato, in that the mission of Socrates was to express the beautiful, good, true, and right, as the end and aim of the individual, while with the Sophists the content was not present as an ultimate end, so that all this was left to the individual will.”

[13] Cf. SKS 1, 276 / CI, 235.

[14] Cf. SKS 1, 260 / CI, 215.

[15] Cf. Hegel, History of Philosophy, I, p. 449. “The most varied schools and principles proceeded from this doctrine of Socrates, and this was made a reproach against him, but it was really due to the indefiniteness and abstraction of his principle. And in this way it is only particular forms of this principle which can at first be recognized in philosophical systems which we call Socratic.”

[16] SKS 1, 261 / CI, 216.

[17] SKS 1, 270-271 / CI, 228.

[18] Cf. G.W.F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, translated by H. B. Nisbet, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press 1991, § 138, Addition, “Only in ages when the actual world is hollow, spiritless, and unsettled existence may the individual be permitted to flee from actuality and retreat into his inner life. Socrates made his appearance at the time when Athenian democracy had fallen into ruin. He evaporated the existing world and retreated into himself in search of the right and the good.”

[19] Cf. Hegel, History of Philosophy, pp. 417-418; SKS 1, 275 / CI, 234.

[20] Cf. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, § 139, “Where all previously valid determinations have vanished and the will is in a state of pure inwardness, the self-consciousness is capable of making into its principle either the universal in and for itself, or the arbitrariness of its own particularity, giving the latter precedence over the universal and realizing it through its actions, i.e. it is capable of being evil.”

[21] Cf. SKS 1, 276 / CI, 235.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Cf. SKS 7, 457 / CUP, 1, 504, ”But why does the ethicist use irony as his incognito? Because he comprehends the contradiction between the mode in which he exists in his inner being and his not expressing it in his outer appearance.”

[24] SKS 1, 307 / CI, 270.



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