Hügel, Baron Friedrich von (1852–1925)

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Baron Friedrich von Hügel, the Roman Catholic philosopher of religion and writer on mysticism, was born in Florence, Italy, and succeeded to his father's (Austrian) title in 1870. Most of his life was spent in England. His most important writings were The Mystical Element of Religion as Studied in St. Catherine of Genoa and Her Friends (London, 1908), Essays and Addresses on the Philosophy of Religion (London, 1921 and 1926), and The Reality of God (published posthumously; London, 1931).

Von Hügel's philosophical position was opposed both to idealism and to what he called positivism. By positivism he meant the doctrine that knowledge is exclusively confined to sense perceptions and to the laws that connect them. He rejected this position on the grounds that sense experience is accompanied by a strong "pressure on our minds" to credit it with "trans-subjective validity" (that is, to accept that it tells us something about an external world existing independently of our experience of it) and that refusal to assent to this pressure would mean that positivism collapses into skepticism, which is self-defeating. Moreover, since it is our own minds that we are immediately aware of, our apprehension of reality will be more certain if there is no phenomenal content. This idea paves the way for von Hügel's justification of the epistemological importance of mystical experience. He criticized idealism for a subjectivism similar to that implicit in positivism.

Von Hügel distinguished between knowledge of abstract ideas and of numerical and spatial relations, on the one hand, and knowledge of real existences on the other. The former is clear and readily intelligible; the latter is never totally clear, since any statement or set of statements about a real object will fail to exhaust what is to be discovered in it. The "higher," or more complex, the entity, the less clear is one's apprehension of it. Von Hügel was therefore concerned with opposing philosophical theories that claimed to give a clear and exhaustive analysis of types of existence (for example, he criticized David Hume's account of the individual). Reality, according to von Hügel, is indefinitely apprehensible, a fact that serves to explain both the revisionism of science and the gropings of religion. The obscurity involved in religion is an index of the richness of its subject matter. "Religion," he said, "can't be clear if it is worth anything."

The concept of the Infinite occupies a central position in von Hügel's philosophy. He held that there was no good reason for neglecting or doubting the validity of man's sense of the Infinite, which should be taken quite as seriously as sense experience; in this, he in effect conjoined a critique of religious experience and traditional Catholic natural theology. The critique of religious experience involved the examination of the claims of great religious figures of all ages. He was opposed to simply accepting the testimony of the individual; rather, he pointed to the errors and excesses of many individual interpretations of religion, some of which involved the denial of plain facts. At the same time, he was sympathetic to the insights claimed by non-Christian religions. His doctrine of religious knowledge was not exclusive to any one tradition, although he was opposed to relativism. Von Hügel also argued against various theories arising from religious experience, such as the extreme dualism of Søren Kierkegaard and the monism of some mystics (for instance, the doctrine of the identification of the soul with God). He maintained that Kierkegaard differentiated to such an extent between God and man that intercourse between the two became incomprehensible. A crucial argument of von Hügel's was that the impinging of the Infinite on man's experience, emotions, and will implies the spiritual nature of the Infinite; for otherwise it would be hard to account for its inspiring power.

According to von Hügel's theory of knowledge, it is artificial to divorce the cognitive aspects of experience from the affective and volitional aspects; and therefore the religious apprehension of the Infinite is not limited to grasping a theoretical concept but includes a vital response. For this and other reasons, von Hügel defended a sacramental and institutional faithnamely, that of Catholicism. But in his openness to and sympathy with the critical evaluation of the biblical tradition by the methods of scientific history, von Hügel belonged to the Catholic Modernist movement.

See also Hume, David; Idealism; Infinite, The; Kierkegaard, Søren Aabye; Modernism; Positivism.


Additional works by von Hügel are Eternal Life (Edinburgh: Clark, 1912); The German Soul (London: Dent, 1916); Readings from von Hügel, edited by Algar Thorold (London: Dent, 1928); and Letters to a Niece (New York: Dutton, 1950).

A work on von Hügel is L. V. Lester-Garland, The Religious Philosophy of Baron Friedrich von Hügel (London, 1938).

Ninian Smart (1967)