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A Criticism to Materialistic Naturalism of the 19th Century


Diary, 1847

In our time it is the natural sciences which are especially dangerous. Physiology will ultimately extend itself to the point of embracing ethics. There are already sufficient clues of a new endeavor—to treat ethics as physics, whereby all of ethics becomes illusory and ethics in the race is treated statistically by averages or is calculated as one calculates vibrations in laws of nature.

A physiologist takes it upon himself to explain all mankind. The question here is, first and foremost, principiis obsta: What do I have to do with this. Why should I need to know about afferent and efferent nerve-impulses, about the circulation of blood, about the human being's microscopic conditions in the womb. The ethical has tasks enough for me. Do I need to know the digestive process in order to eat? Do I need to know the processes of the nervous system—in order to believe in God and to love men? And if someone now says: Well, true enough, for this one does not need such knowledge, then I shall ask again: I wonder if I am not weakening my whole ethical passion by becoming a natural scientist? And I wonder if, with all this diverse knowledge of analogies, of abnormalities, of this and that, I do not lose more and more the impress of the ethical: the you shall, it is you yourself, you do not have to do with a single other person; even if heaven and earth collapse, YOU SHALL . I wonder if it is not a way of providing myself with a lot of sly evasions and excuses. I wonder if my gaze is not turned away from the most important thing by letting myself begin with physiology, instead of assuming the whole of physiology and saying: Begin.

Think of a brilliant physiologist (those mere butcher-apprentices who think they can explain everything with a knife and with a microscope are an abomination to me)—what does he do? First and foremost he grants that every transition is a leap, that he cannot explain how a consciousness comes into existence [ bliver til ] or how a consciousness of the environment becomes self-consciousness or God-consciousness; in short, he admits the qualitative dialectic. Consequently he admits categorically that he really cannot explain anything. But what does he do then? He skeletonizes, he dissects, he pierces with knives as far in as he can, in order to show—that he cannot! If someone knew that even though he picked every leaf from the flower, separated the fibers of the stem, and observed every part microscopically, and still could not explain what is constitutive in plants—why does he do it then? Or is he not keeping the student in a completely wrong kind of self-contradiction? Instead of saying summarily, “I cannot understand this,” he encumbers the student with a mass of detail and very fascinating, engaging knowledge, which nevertheless always ends with the fact that he cannot, after all, explain the ultimate. But it is precisely this kind of preoccupation with much knowledge which results in one's losing the impress of the purely ethical. Instead of hungrily beginning to eat, instead of enthusiastically beginning with the ethical, lightly armed and unencumbered with any knowledge about the nervous system, ganglia, and blood-circulation etc., one becomes preoccupied with knowledge about digestion and the quasi-knowledge that in spite of all this one is still unable to explain the ultimate.

Let us consider the problem of freedom and necessity. Let the physiologist begin to explain fully how the circulation of the blood influences so and so in a specific way and how pressure upon the nerves has such and such effects, etc., etc.—ultimately he is still unable to explain that freedom is an illusion. When he had completed his four volumes full of statistics and oddities, he is forced to declare: But ultimately we must stop in wonder. Why then all this knowledge? Actually, isn't this playing a hoax on man? Isn't this tricking him little by little out of enthusiasm and maintaining him in the delusion that some day, with the aid of bigger and better microscopes, he will succeed in discovering that freedom was an illusion and that it is all a mechanism of nature?


Most of what flourishes nowadays under the name of science and scholarship (especially the natural sciences) is not science at all but curiosity.— Ultimately all corruption will come from the natural sciences.— Many admirers ( Un sot trouve toujours un autre sot qui l'admire ) believe that carrying out investigations microscopically is synonymous with scientific earnestness. Foolish superstitious belief in the microscope—no, with the aid of microscopic observation curiosity simply becomes more comical. That a man simply and profoundly says: “I cannot see with the naked eye how consciousness comes into existence” is entirely in order. But for a man to peer through a microscope and look and look and look—and still not see it—this is comical, and that this is supposed to be earnestness is especially ridiculous. To regard the invention of the microscope as a bit of fun, a minor diversion, may be all right, but to regard it as earnestness is exceedingly obtuse. The art of printing books is already an almost satirical invention, and, good Lord, has it really proved that there are very many who actually have anything to communicate? Consequently, this tremendous invention has aided the broadcast of all that rubbish which otherwise would have perished at birth.—If God were to walk around with a cane in his hand, it would fall particularly upon all those earnest observers employing the microscope. With his cane God would pound all the hypocrisy out of them and out of the natural scientists. The hypocrisy is namely this—that natural science is supposed to lead to God. Yes, it certainly does lead to God—in this imposing way, but this is exactly the impertinence. It is not hard to convince oneself that the natural scientist is hypocritical in this way. Tell him that any man has all he needs in his conscience and in Luther's Small Catechism, and the natural scientist will look down his nose. In an imposing way he wants to make God into a coy beauty, a devil of a fellow, whom not everyone can understand—stop, the divine and simple truth is that no one, absolutely no one, can understand him, that the wisest of men must humbly take his stand on THE SAME as does the simple man.—Herein lies the profundity in Socratic ignorance—truly to forsake with TOTAL PASSION all curious knowledge, in order in all simplicity to be ignorant before God, to forsake this show (which, after all, is something between man and man) of making observations by way of the microscope.—On the other hand, Goethe, who was no religious mind, cowardly held fast to that differentiating knowledge.

But all such scientificalness becomes especially dangerous and corruptive when it wants to enter into the realm of the spirit. Let them treat plants, animals, and stars in that way, but to treat the human spirit in this way is blasphemy, which only weakens the passion of the ethical and of the religious. The act of eating is itself far more reasonable than microscopic observation of digestion. And to pray to God is not, like eating, something inferior to observations but is absolutely the highest of all.

Thus we learn from the physiologist how the unconscious comes first and then the conscious, but how then is the relation finally reversed and the conscious exercises a partially shaping influence upon the unconscious? Now the physiologist becomes esthetic and sentimental and talks about the noble expression of a cultivated personality, character, attitude, etc.—good Lord, what is all this? A little triviality and at most a little paganism (the inner is the outer; the outer is the inner). Paul does not speak of becoming beautiful through praying and preaching etc. Simply let the external man decay; the inner man grows in magnificence.

Materialistic physiology is comic (to believe that by putting to death one finds the spirit which gives life); the modern, more mental-spiritual physiology is sophistic. It admits itself that it cannot explain the miracle, and yet it wants to continue; it becomes more and more voluminous and all these volumes treat of this and of that, numerous and very remarkable things—and still it is unable to explain the miracle.

Then sophistic physiology declares it to be a miracle that consciousness comes into existence, a miracle that the idea becomes mind, that mind becomes spirit (in short, the qualitative transitions). If this is supposed to be taken downright seriously, then this entire science is at an end, this science which accordingly exists only as a jest. Its essential task is the miracle, but this it cannot explain. What good is it then to explain everything else? And now to get a chance to be sophistical or, more correctly, in order to exist as a voluminous science, physiology carries on in this fashion. It declares that the transition (from unconsciousness to consciousness etc.) is indeed a miracle, but it takes place very almählig , i.e., little by little. Dialectically it is very easy to detect the sophistry. The question is not whether or not, when it occurs, it occurs as a miracle. Here is the sophism; the entire science is a parenthesis. It is not a greater or lesser miracle because a long or a short time has passed before it occurred. It was obviously consistent with this science for a physician, writing on the history of trepanning, to divide the history into two parts, the first treating of that time when there was no knowledge of the subject. The whole of physiology treats what is qualitatively irrelevant. But to call this a science is a sophism. This “ Almählige ” can have different meanings in different contexts. It can signify the plant world, the animal world. It can signify the world's 6,000 years, statistics on procreation, and God knows what else. But as a whole, qualitatively, it signifies nothing, absolutely nothing, if the fact remains clear that the miracle nevertheless cannot be explained. The whole thing is an approximation process: almost, almost and as good as; it is almost, as it were, almost etc.—And this is what is treated in many volumes, this is what the microscope is used for.

S. Kierkegaard's, Journals & Papers, vol. 3, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, (Bloomington - London: Indiana University Press, 1975), pp. 242-245 (§ 2807, 2809).