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Gregory N. Derry
The Role of Self and Subject in H. Høffding’s Approach to Knowledge and Being


The Danish philosopher Harald Høffding (1843-1931) made a number of highly interesting and important contributions to psychology, epistemology, and metaphysics. He considered the central problems of these disciplines, namely consciousness, knowledge, and Being, to be fundamentally interrelated to each other and attempted to provide a unified treatment of them to demonstrate this. The overarching concept that he believed to be at the root of all three problems is the concept of continuity and discontinuity, and he uses this idea as the basis for his coherent and integrated analysis of them. Because consciousness and knowledge are central to his discourse, the idea of the self plays a key major role in this analysis. Not only is the concept of the self a part of Høffding’s starting point in his treatment of psychology, the self as knowing subject (as opposed to the self as object of study) is a crucial aspect of his theory of knowledge, which both presupposes and yet also draws upon his study of consciousness and likewise again his study of Being. Part of Høffding’s analysis is a study of the question whether the mind/self can be reduced to objective physiological brain states. In his approach to problems such as this, he examines the respective roles of continuity (by which disparate elements are welded into a unity) and discontinuity (which then represents a limit to the possible success of this program). He finds that the fundamental discontinuities involved ultimately prevent any complete reduction of this sort. Høffding’s reasoning, it is argued here, is still compelling when compared to modern contemporary arguments in favor of eliminative reductionism, even given the impressive recent successes in neurobiology. Making the transition from epistemology to ontology, Høffding further argues that our knowledge of Being is ultimately limited by the nature of our consciousness, but that the influence goes both ways in the sense that our forms of perception are molded by the contents of Being presented to us. The continuities we forge result in our apprehension of reality, but this reality can never be complete or absolute due to the inevitable discontinuities that are unavoidably present. Here again, the self plays a central role in this process. The self envisioned by Høffding, however, is a somewhat abstract entity, formed more by logical relations than by an existential encounter with the world. Subsequent developments in continental phenomenology treat this encounter somewhat differently, and although Høffding’s treatment is still seen to be relevant in this encounter, these later writings put more emphasis on an embodied self and its consequences than does Høffding’s analysis.


Gregory N. Derry is a professor of physics and former chair of the Physics Department at Loyola College in Maryland.  He teaches at all levels, maintains an ongoing research program in experimental surface physics (studying the structure and composition of alloy surfaces by using electron diffraction techniques), and does work on the epistemological issues involved in the science/religion relationship.  He has written an introductory book on the nature of scientific inquiry, What Science Is and How It Works (published by Princeton University Press), and has completed a manuscript of a book on the use of complementarity as a logical framework in which to view nature as both sacred and mundane.  Dr. Derry is Chair of the Metanexus Local Society in Baltimore and his work has been funded by the National Science Foundation, Research Corp., and the John Templeton Foundation.  He holds a B.S. degree from Union College and a Ph.D. from the Pennsylvania State University, both in physics.  Previous appointments include Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


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