Comments on Boström

In my introduction to Lawrence Heap Åberg’s Den Boströmska världsåskådningen (The Boströmian Worldview) from 1882, which I published as a long series here, I mentioned that I would come back with a few comments of my own, and I think that in a discussion with a reader who commented on one of the early parts in the series this was developed into a promise. I will now therefore start a new series of posts with some comments on Heap Åberg’s introduction, in which selected passages will be translated into English.

Readers of my book The Worldview of Personalism (2006) will be familiar with some of the positions of Christopher Jacob Boström, the leading Swedish 19th-century philosopher. A general introduction is found in Robert N. Beck’s long essay published together with the translation of Boström’s Philosophy of Religion by Yale UP in 1962. The character of Boström’s own writings, however, is such that it is almost inevitable, if something of the substance of his worldview is to be successfully communicated to the philosophically interested reader of today, to take as the point of departure one of the many available introductions to his work. Moreover, my purpose is merely to present in broad outline and to make comprehensible some of Boströms basic and essential idealistic positions.

Much attention has been given by Swedish historians of philosophy to the special, detailed positions of Boström’s theory of the state (his statslära) as related to his idealist metaphysics, positions which are of no significance and have often obscured the meaning of his more general idealist positions. They can, however, easily be ignored in the study of his philosophy, and that is also what Heap Åberg does: all such things are simply left out – the author clearly saw the need for this already at the time of writing his introduction, i.e. in the early 1880s.

It is only with reference to the general, central positions of Boström that I claim that his philosophy, or rather, perhaps, that of his school, in which many of his positions were improved upon, remains not just important and relevant, but in some respects superior to all later philosophy that has not, by different means, reached the same insights. And very few professional philosophers have reached such insights. Those who have done so have done it through the traditions by means of which I too seek to supplement and modify Swedish idealism, and also, for that matter, to supplement the elements of other 19th- and early 20th-century forms of idealism that I also try to assimilate. I.e., primarily through aspects of the broad and deep current of Platonism, or, more precisely, Neoplatonism, and also through Vedanta and some Buddhist schools.

Such supplementation and modification is necessary: the Boströmian school, and the broader Swedish idealist tradition to which it belongs, is of course imperfect and displays weaknesses, as do all modern systems. But its basic orientation is correct, it is on the right path, its essential intuition is a true one. The philosophical way ahead – and this is one of my modest main theses – is not via any break with its idealist assumptions, in any of the forms that came to dominate in the second half of the 19th century and the first half of th 20th (neokantian, pragmatic, Hägerströmian, positivist, phenomenological, historicist, materialist, analytical, Marxist, hermeneutic, vitalist, psychological), but only through partial correction, general deepening, and further development.

As many scholars are now realizing, the rupture with idealism involved gross misunderstandings of idealism on all levels, as well as of philosophy in general and not least its relation to the sciences. It meant an obvious step back in the understanding of reality and hence in the general level of culture; indeed, not seldom deep illusion, confusion and decadence.

In comparison with the main positions of idealism as we find them in the main Swedish current, later modern philosophy has merely, at its best, provided minor, relatively marginal truths and formal instruments of thought. And for their value to be properly assessed and rightly understood, they must be connected to and seen in the light of the lost idealist perspective – i.e., the later must be reconstructed or rediscovered.

Now, it is of course possible to reach the basic truths of the worldview to which I seek to draw the reader’s attention through the other schools and traditions I mentioned, and, again, I draw on them myself. But there is no reason, in Sweden, to keep exclusively to them and not to connect to the history of our own philosophy and to our own leading thinkers. German idealism never died; British idealism has been revived. Now Swedish idealism needs to be rediscovered and renewed.

Not least German idealism is of course more richly developed in many respects than Swedish idealism. But it is also quite different, as not least the Boströmians kept insisting. While Swedish idealism is certainly not as fully elaborated in all of the special branches of philosophy, it at least has a certain strict continuity in its development and a considerable sharpness of profile in most of them. And, not least, it is more completely and consistently idealistic, in a way that brings it closer to the great, earlier traditions than most other forms of “modern” idealism in the west.

It is, I submit, not least in this that we find its strength, and that which makes it quite as relevant and important as anything else that is currently being rediscovered by philosophers and historians of philosophy in the rich but forgotten currents of idealism. At least those with a sufficiently broad overview of the history of human thought will, I hope, quickly see that there is in fact nothing strange about this claim. The exclusive dominance of the characteristic 20th-century schools was spatio-temporal provincialism.

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