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Hägerström, Axel (1868–1939)


Axel Hägerström, the Swedish philosopher, was the son of an orthodox minister of the Swedish Lutheran church and grew up in an intensely religious atmosphere. With the intention of following his father's profession, in 1886 he began theological studies at Uppsala University, which was to remain his academic home throughout his life. His interests, however, were soon diverted from theology to philosophy. From 1893 to 1911 he was docent (roughly, assistant professor), and from 1911 to 1933 professor, of "practical philosophy" (philosophy of morals, law, and religion). During his student days the idealistic metaphysics of C. J. Boström was still influential in Uppsala, although this mode of thought was soon to be swept away by a kind of Neo-Kantianism. Hägerström's publications around the turn of the twentieth century mirror this situation. Under the influence of Immanuel Kant, he came to regard metaphysics as impossible and, going further than Kant, rejected the hypothesis of the Ding an sich (especially in Kants Ethik, Uppsala, 1902). Like Kant, he considered the pure Ego, the same in all individual minds, as somehow the principle of the reality given to us, as the source of the laws of logic, and also as the source of certain synthetic propositions a priori, such as the principle of causality. Gradually the role played by this pure Ego was taken over, in his thought, by "the concept of reality," which he treated in Das Prinzip der Wissenschaft (The principle of science; Uppsala, 1908) and Botanisten och filosofen (The botanist and the philosopher; Uppsala, 1910).

Speculation about the concept of reality was to remain a fundamental ingredient in his mature philosophy, but it gradually lost most of its original Kantian flavor. In 1909 Hägerström wrote his Social teleologi i marxismen (Social teleology in Marxism; Uppsala). Although this study is a sharp criticism of the Marxist philosophy of history, it seems evident that he was influenced by, or at least in strong sympathy with, certain other aspects of Marxismits materialism and its views on the functions of ideologies. In his lectures Hägerström soon characterized his own outlook as "enlightened materialism." To give an adequate characterization of his philosophy in a few key words is difficult, for he himself never presented his views in a systematic fashion. His many philosophical writings are mostly devoted to rather special questions, and much of their space is taken by polemics against authors with whom he disagrees. The influences that molded his thought were diverse and seemingly somewhat incompatible. His final philosophical positions were, on the whole, as far to the left as possible of religion and of any philosophical system, such as that of Boström, that was akin to or gave support to religion. As his motto Hägerström once chose the Catonian paraphrase: "Besides, I think that metaphysics ought to be destroyed."

Critique of "Metaphysics"

Like so many antimetaphysicians, Hägerström was prone to label any view opposed to his own as metaphysical. The word metaphysics as he used it remains somewhat vague as to connotation as well as to denotation. He held, however, that all metaphysical doctrines suffer from a common fundamental fault, that of (implicitly or explicitly) assuming that "reality itself is something real" (or "being is something that there is"). This assumption is as "absurd" as, for example, the assumption that triangularity is something triangular. Hägerström thought it possible to prove positively (1) that the spatiotemporal world of experience exists and (2) that nothing may exist outside this world. In his proof of (1) he made use of an "analysis of the concept of reality" and also of ideas reminiscent of René Descartes's Cogito. To deduce (2) from (1) he invoked the principle that two entities cannot exist "outside each other" except as parts of a spatiotemporal context. His materialistic conception of the world of experience does not exclude the existence of consciousness, but consciousness, in his opinion, is a quality of certain material bodies (the psychophysical organisms).

Critique of "Subjectivism"

In an act of consciousness (awareness) we are always conscious of something. If C is a consciousness of O, then C and O are, according to Hägerström, always two distinct entities; and further, the fact that a consciousness of O exists does not imply that O is endowed with any special intrinsic quality (such as being "mental," being a "perception," or being an "idea"). To overlook this is, in his opinion, the fundamental "subjectivist" mistake, which he thinks he can trace in the majority of philosophical epistemologies. This mistake gives rise to a secondary "subjectivist" mistake, the assumption that our knowledge about our own acts of consciousness is the immediate knowledge from which our knowledge of the external world must be derived.

Theory of Value

Hägerström's first work in value theory was "Kritiska punkter i värdepsykologien" (Critical points in value psychology; in Festskrift för E. O. Burman, Uppsala, 1910), in which he raised objections to certain views of the Austrian school of value theory (Alexius Meinong, Christian von Ehrenfels, and others). He rejected especially their distinction between valuating emotive experiences and value judgments as theoretical judgments about the occurrence of such experiences. The value judgment, he claimed, is itself essentially emotive. By the time of his inaugural lecture, published as Om Moraliska Föreställningars Sanning (On the truth of moral ideas; Uppsala, 1911), Hägerström had arrived at the "value-nihilistic" doctrine that was to remain one of the most characteristic traits of his philosophic position. Statements of value, such as "To lie is bad," are neither true nor false: They lack truth value. Of the many arguments by which he tried to corroborate this view, the following is typical: A statement is true (or false) if, and only if, the judgment (as a mental phenomenon) expressed by the statement is true (or false); a statement of value, however, does not express any genuine judgment, but an "association" between an "idea" (for instance, the idea of lying) and an emotion. In his work Till frågan om den objektiva rättens begrepp (On the question of the notion of law; Uppsala, 1917), he elaborated this view also with respect to deontic statements. A statement such as "I ought not to lie," or "It is my duty not to lie," corresponds, not to a judgment with a truth value, but to an association between an "idea" and a "conative impulse." In this respect deontic statements are closely akin to imperatives. The persistent illusion that value statements and deontic statements have a truth value is caused by the relative stability of the underlying associations, which are built up and supported by the suggestive influence of a number of factors in the social system (such as early education by parents and teachers and the pressure of public opinion).

Hägerström nourished the hope that the spreading of his value-nihilism would contribute to the creation of a more tolerant, more humane, and less vindictive morality. Since he believed that the task of the moral philosopher is to analyze the mental phenomena expressed by, for example, statements of value, and since he took emotions to be an essential constituent in such phenomena, he became deeply interested in the nature of emotion. In order to substantiate his value-nihilism, he thought it important to demonstrate the subjective character of emotions; being "subjective," emotion can not be a source of knowledgefor instance, knowledge of values. Like all mental phenomena, an emotive experience is either an act of being conscious (aware) of something or some combination of such acts. What might commonly be called an emotive experience, such as enjoying the prospect of going to the cinema, is a combination of intellectual and purely emotive ingredients. The purely emotive experiences, such as a mere feeling of pleasure, consist in being conscious of a certain emotive quality (here a pleasure quality). In his earlier publications, Hägerström seems inclined to regard emotion as "subjective" because emotive qualities are qualities of the Ego. Later he experimented with a variety of explanations. According to one, emotion is "subjective" because the emotive qualities are experienced without "localization." Here, Hägerström invokes his principle that localization in the spatiotemporal context is essential to reality and objectivity, but the form of his argument remains somewhat vague. According to another of his somewhat puzzling explanations, emotion is "subjective" because the emotive qualities inhere in the psychophysical organism that has the emotion, and not in "external" objects.

In some of his works he assumed a "projection of emotive qualities onto external objects." When I look at a painting that pleases me, in his opinion, I project the quality of pleasure experienced by myself onto the painting: I perceive the painting as pleasant, just as I perceive it as square or as dark. On this view, the epistemological distinction that he wished to maintain between emotive qualities and, say, colors, becomes rather problematical. Some Swedish critics of his value theory have taken this view as starting point for their criticismEinar Tegen, "The Basic Problem in the Theory of Value," in Theoria 10 (1944): 2852; and Søren Halldén, Emotive Propositions (Stockholm, 1952).

Legal Philosophy

Hägerström began his mature work in legal philosophy with a criticism of a doctrine, common in nineteenth-century "legal positivism" (Rechtspositivismus ), according to which "positive law" (as opposed to "natural law," Naturrecht ) is somehow the expression of a will actually existing in society. His essay "Är gällande rätt uttryck av vilja?" (Is positive law an expression of will?) in Festkrift tillägnad Vitalis Norström (Göteborg, 1916) and his previously mentioned book Till frågan om den objektiva rättens begrepp are largely devoted to a painstaking criticism of this doctrine in its many varieties. Hägerström devoted much energy to the attempt to clarify the nature of positive law and those factors in "the social machinery" that uphold the law. He maintained that our common view of legal phenomena is blurred by "magical ideas" that can be traced far back in history. In Der römische Obligations-begriff im Lichte der allgemeinen römischen Rechtsanschauung (The Roman notion of obligation in the light of the general Roman view of law; Vol. I, Uppsala, 1927; Vol. II, Uppsala, 1941), he tried to demonstrate the magical element in ancient Roman law. He believed that such Roman concepts as ius, dominium, and possessio are magical ideas and that the old Roman legal acts, such as mancipatio and stipulatio are acts through which magical powers over things or persons are established.

Critical History of Ideas

In his lectures (some of which have been posthumously published) Hägerström discussed, with a wealth of learning, the history of religious, philosophical, political, and legal ideas. The history of ideas appeared to him largely as the history of confusions and errors flowing from certain inborn mechanisms of the human mind. To explain them he used to point especially to certain thought processes that, in his opinion, almost inevitably take place when the emotions and the projection of emotive qualities interfere with intellectual operations.


In Sweden, and also in the neighboring Scandinavian countries, Hägerström has exercised great influence. With his pupil and colleague Adolf Phalén he became the founder of the so-called Uppsala school of philosophy, which flourished in the 1920s and 1930s and has had a lasting effect on the whole academic philosophical atmosphere in Sweden. Common to the members of this schoolmost of whom disagreed with much of Hägerström's own philosophywere a distrust of metaphysical speculation and of epistemological subjectivism, a realistic (sometimes almost naively realistic) conception of the external world, an interest in the phenomenological analysis of mental acts and their contents, an emotive theory of value (of some kind or another), and an insistence on conceptual analysis as a central task of philosophy. Some of the original members of the Uppsala school became strongly influenced by the Cambridge school of analysis in England and by logical empiricism. Outside philosophy proper, Hägerström gave rise to a school of jurisprudence (Vilhelm Lundstedt, Karl Olivecrona, Alf Ross).

See also Appearance and Reality; Boström, Christopher Jacob; Ehrenfels, Christian Freiherr von; Kant, Immanuel; Marxism; Meinong, Alexius; Value and Valuation.


additional primary sources

"Axel Hägerström." In Die Philosophie der Gegenwart in Selbstdarstellungen. Vol. 7. Leipzig: F. Meiner, 1929.

Socialfilosofiska uppsatser (Essays in social philosophy). Stockholm: Bonnier, 1939.

Religionsfilosofi (Philosophy of religion). Stockholm, 1946.

Moralpsykologi (Psychology of morals). Stockholm, 1952.

Inquiries into the Nature of Law and Morals. Translated by C. D. Broad. Uppsala: Almqvist and Wiksells, 1953. Translation of some of Hägerström's works.

Filosofi och vetenskap (Philosophy and science). Stockholm: Ehlins, 1957.

Rätten och staten (The law and the state). Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksells, 1963.

Recht, Pflicht und bindende Kraft des Vertrages nach römischer und naturrechtlicher Anschauung. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1965.

Moralfilosofins grundläggning. Edited by Thomas Mautner. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1987.

Philosophy and Religion. London: Routledge, 2002.

secondary sources in german and english

Broad, C. D. "Hägerström's Account of Sense of Duty and Certain Allied Experiences." Philosophy 26 (1951): 99113.

Cassirer, Ernst. Axel Hägerström. Göteborg, Sweden: Göteborgs Högskolas Arsskrift XLV, 1939.

Ofstad, H. "Objectivity of Norms and Value-Judgments According to Recent Scandinavian Philosophy." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 12 (1951): 4268.

Passmore, J. "Hägerström's Philosophy of Law." Philosophy 36 (1961): 143160.

Sandin, R. T. "The Founding of the Uppsala School." Journal of the History of Ideas 23 (1962).

secondary sources in swedish

Hedenius, I. Om rätt och moral (On law and morals). Stockholm, 1941.

Lang, Dieter, and Axel Hägerström. Wertung und Erkenntnis: Untersuchungen zu Axel Hägerströms Moraltheorie. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1981.

Marc-Wogau, Konrad. "Axel Hägerström och kritiken av subjektivismen" (Axel Hägerström and the critique of subjectivism). In Harald Nordensson 60 år. Stockholm, 1946.

Marc-Wogau, Konrad. "Axel Hägerströms verklighetstheori" (Axel Hägerström's theory of reality). Tiden (1940): 286299, 360366.

Marc-Wogau, Konrad. "Känsla och värde enligt Axel Hägerström och Hans Larsson" (Emotion and value according to Axel Hägerström and Hans Larsson). Ord och bild 55 (1946): 245260.

Marc-Wogau, Konrad. Studier till Axel Hägerströms filosofi. Stockholm, Prisma, 1968.

Marc-Wogau, Konrad. "Uppsalafilosofien och den logiska empirismen" (The Uppsala philosophy and logical empiricism). Ord och bild 53 (1944): 3038.

Mautner, Thomas. Vägledning till Hägerströmstudiet. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1994.

Oxenstierna, G. Vad är Uppsala-filosofien (What is the Uppsala philosophy?). Stockholm, 1938.

Petersson, Bo. Axel Hägerströms värdeteori. Uppsala, Filosofiska föreningen och Filosofiska institutionen vid Uppsala universitet, 1973.

Waller, Margit. Axel Hägerström, Mannisker som fa Kände (Axel Hägerström, the man whom few knew). Stockholm: Natur and Kultur, 1961.

A. Wedberg (1967)

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