Høffding, Harald (1843–1931)

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Harald Høffding, the Danish philosopher and historian of philosophy, was born in Copenhagen and lived there throughout his life. From 1883 to 1915 he was professor of philosophy at the University of Copenhagen. Høffding received a degree in divinity in 1865, but he had already decided not to take orders. A study of Søren Kierkegaard's works, and especially of his views on Christianity, had led to an intense religious crisis ending in a radical break with Christianity. Høffding sought in philosophy a new personal orientation and gradually developed into an extraordinarily many-sided liberal humanist. His philosophical development was influenced during a stay in Paris (18681869) by the study of French and English positivism, especially that of Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer. Høffding always worked hard, and his activity as a scholar ranged over every branch of philosophy, including psychology. His works display a vast knowledge, a keen eye for essentials, and a critically balanced judgment. They were translated into many languages and widely used as textbooks. By the turn of the twentieth century Høffding's reputation was worldwide and he knew personally many leading thinkers. He was the outstanding Danish philosopher of his day, and in 1914 the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters assigned him the honorary residence of Gammel Carlsberg, where he lived to the end of his life. The residence later passed to the physicist Niels Bohr, a younger friend of Høffding.

Of Høffding's many works only five can be discussed here. Psykologi i Omrids på Grundlag af Erfaring (Copenhagen, 1881; translated by M. E. Loundes as Outlines of Psychology, London) is based on the traditional tripartite division of the mind into knowledge, feeling, and will but puts primary stress on the will in the widest sense of the term. In this sense the will includes conation, urge, endeavor, need, demand, and desire. The will is seen as primary, knowledge as guiding the will, and feeling as a symptom of need or desire, which are themselves elements of the will. Høffding's view anticipated modern need and dynamic psychology.

In Etik, en Frernstilling af de etiske Principper og deres Anvendelse på de vigtigste Livsforhold (Ethics: an account of ethical principles and their application to the chief conditions of life; Copenhagen, 1887) Høffding associated himself with British utilitarianism, which he called welfare ethics. The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the fundamental value. In the conflict between individual and social ethics, Høffding took the liberal view. The psychological basis of ethical valuation is a sympathetic feeling that at its highest development takes on the character of a universal and disinterested sympathy.

Den nyere Filosofis Historie, en Fremstilling af Filosofiens Historie fra Renaissancens Slutning til vore Dage (2 vols., Copenhagen, 18941895; translated by B. E. Meyer as History of Modern Philosophy, 2 vols., London, 1900; reprinted, 2 vols., New York, 1955) is a concentrated account of the various modern philosophers and philosophical schools marked by a fine balance between exposition and criticism. It is of special interest as the first study of modern philosophy to put the primary stress on the mathematico-mechanical science and methods of Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton in presenting the development of epistemology. Among the philosophers treated, Høffding found Benedict Spinoza, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant especially congenial.

Religionsfilosofi (Copenhagen, 1901; translated by B. E. Meyer as Philosophy of Religion, New York, 1906), in three parts, treats religious experience from the standpoints of epistemology, psychology, and ethics. Høffding claimed that the basis of all religion is a desire for belief in the existence of values, and that the various religions may be characterized by the kinds of values that they claim exist. The presentation is distinguished by its reasoned objectivity and its respect for religion. Høffding himself was an agnostic.

In Den menneskelige Tanke, dens Former og dens Opgave (Human thought: its forms and its problems; Copenhagen, 1910) Høffding set forth his theory of knowledge, including an outline for a doctrine of categories whose usefulness has been reduced by the development of modern logic. Høffding's interest in epistemology was psychological rather than strictly logical, and his interest in the psychological basis of knowledge was constructive rather than phenomenological. In general, Høffding followed Hume and Kant in regarding the forms and principles of human knowledge as being peculiar to human beings and their absolute ontological validity as being incapable of proof. The result is a compromise between empiricism and the Kantian critical philosophy.

See also Bohr, Niels; Comte, Auguste; Epistemology; Galileo Galilei; Hume, David; Kant, Immanuel; Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye; Neo-Kantianism; Newton, Isaac; Psychology; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; Utilitarianism.


There is a brief autobiography containing an account of Høffding's fundamental views in Die Philosophie der Gegenwart in Selbstdarstellungen, Vol. IV, edited by Raymund Schmidt (Leipzig: F. Meiner, 1923). Kalle Sandelin, ed., Harald Høffding in Memoriam (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1932), contains an excellent bibliography that lists 393 publications by Høffding as well as 425 papers and reviews concerning his works.

Frithiof Brandt (1967)