Krug’s pen

Fountain pen and letterWilhelm Traugott Krug (1770-1842) was the philosopher who succeeded Kant in the chair for logic and metaphysics at the University of Königsberg. Just before taking on that role, he had thrown down a challenge for Schelling’s idealist philosophy: could Schelling, or any idealist, pretend to offer any sort of explanation why, from the Absolute, any particular thing – such as the pen Krug was using – should exist? How do we get from a stock of pure concepts to individual things we hold in our individual hands? In the end, Schelling admitted that it can’t be done. The mind can discover all the logical possibilities, but none of the actualities. For this there must be actual intuition, Vorstellung, or the representation of factual beings from outside the intellect. The mind yields negative philosophy, or the philosophy of possibilities; for positive philosophy, we must bump up against the world.

Schelling used this insight to point out the critical shortcoming of Hegel’s philosophy. Hegel’s logic, he claimed, yields only negative philosophy; but since Hegel knew that he somehow had to account for the reality of finite particulars, he fudged a bit. With one eye on the changeless Parmenidean world of logical Being, and the other eye on the pen in his hand, he came up with the concept of Becoming, which arises magically out of the dialectic between Being and its evil twin, Non-being. “Bad faith!” charged Schelling: Hegel was twisting logic to meet his own philosophical demands.

Stephen Houlgate has argued that Schelling himself was not being fair in this accusation. For Hegel, unlike both Krug and Schelling, did not sharply separate the land of pure logic from the land of pens and writing desks. When we experience particular things, we are already deep in the world of logic and concepts. We identify them, distinguish them, and make sense of them through a logic that permeates all being and thought. In Houlgate’s words, “Things are not given to us as existing by sensation (or by Vorstellung) as such, but have to be understood to exist by the very same thought and understanding that determines what they are” (1999: 119). Hegel never finds himself trapped in a prison of abstractions, looking for an escape. The world, as it were, is trapped there in the prison with him.

Hegel’s logic, then, is not meant as a rationalist philosopher’s replacement for Genesis. His claim is not that in the beginning there was the Idea, which thought Being, etc., and in the end out popped Krug’s pen. We might even reverse the order: in the beginning was Krug’s pen, and we came to think about what it was, and what it wasn’t, and before long we found in our world Being and Non-being, and Becoming, and for further details please consult the Logic. Hegel infuses the world with logic, in just the way our physicists imbue the world with invisible forces and conservation laws. Our task is to see the logical structure of our experience, and fathom its depths, until we see for ourselves that Anaxagoras was right, and all is indeed mind.

Napoleon_Chasseur_from_Guard_by_BellangeBut one might further wonder whether there was more going on in this debate than accounting for the existence of pens. After Krug taught in Königsberg for a few years, he moved on to the University of Leipzig. In 1813, he took time off from teaching and served as a cavalry captain in the “War of Liberation” against Napoleon’s army as they retreated from Russia. The overwhelming allied forces chased Napoleon out of Leipzig to western lands and finally back to France.

There aren’t many philosophy professors ready to ride out into real battle, but this event is less surprising in the case of Krug. In a long list of works, he championed freedom of religion and speech and advocated many liberal causes, including the emancipation of the Jews. The mere thought of freedom was not enough for him; he sought action, change, and active resistance. Scholars are divided as to just how liberal Hegel was in his thinking, but it is undeniable that he saw advantages in constitutional monarchy and liked to see the World Spirit taking possession of singular, powerful individuals. While he could rationally accommodate any of the changes Krug fought for, his temperament was to smooth changes into continuous, inevitable transformations rather than to see them as sudden and contingent ruptures. Hegel saw the pen as part of a world that was meant to be; Krug saw it as a tool he could use to make a mere possibility actual.



Stephen Houlgate, “Schelling’s Critique of Hegel’s “Science of Logic””, Review of Metaphysics (1999), 53:99-128.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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