2012. Vol.2, No.4, 347-354
Published Online October 2012 in SciRes (http://www.SciRP.org/journal/sm) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/sm.2012.24046
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 347
Axel Hägerström, Max Weber and Michel Foucault
University of Freiburg, Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany
Received July 5th, 2012; revised Aug ust 21st, 2 012; accepted August 28th, 2012
In order to shed new light upon Swedish philosopher Axel Hägerström (1868-1939), Michel Foucault’s
key distinction concerning the “ontology of the present” appears very promising. Hägerström published a
number of books and articles in both general philosophy and social criticism, the former focussing upon
ontology and epistemology, whereas the latter contained a painstaking cultural critique, aiming at demys-
tifying the established moral conceptions, the heralded religion and authoritative law.
Keywords: Axel Hägerström; Michel Foucault; Max Weber; Karl Marx; Friedrich Nietzsche; Karl R.
Popper; Social Philosophy; Cultural Critique; Deconstruction; Bourgeois Ideology; Morals;
Religion; Law; Meta-Ethics; Post-Modernism
When reconsidering Axel Hägerström’s scholarship one
hundred years after he launched his critique of the idea of ob-
jective moral values, one may wish to start from the notion of
philosophy as the “ontology of the present” with French radical
Michel Foucault. Philosophy may be orientated towards eternal
questions or it may analyse the foundations of society today.
Foucault argued in favour of the latter approach as being more
relevant than the former. Major philosophers have either con-
centrated upon the first or the second tasks, with the exception
of those few who mastered both (Foucault, 1977; Merquior,
1991; Gutting, 2005).
Hägerström was a contested figure both during his life time
and after. The criticism of his philosophy has almost exclu-
sively targeted his general ontology-his concept of reality, but
neglected his cultural critique and social philosophy, where he
displayed a strong interest in social reform in accordance with
several of the ideas of the emerging Arbeiterbewegung. He
lectured on Marxism and socialism as well as published in
well-known left-wing journals.
The purpose of this paper is to argue that Hägerström’s cul-
tural criticism and concrete social thought was more original
and perhaps also better founded than his general and abstract
ontology and ep i s t emology.
Turning Hägerström Upside Down
In Swedish philosophy, there has been a protracted debate
concerning the way Hägerström presented his how philosophy
in an article, called “Selbstdarstellung”, in a German publica-
tion 1929. This publication contained a number of own presen-
tations by major philosophers at that time. In this overview of
his own philosophical contributions, Hägerström chose the
surprising strategy of underlining the continuity in the various
positions launched by him since 20 years, arguing that he had
basically had the same ontology and epistemology since the
early 20th century when he abandoned German idealism and
Kantianism. His colleagues within the well-known Uppsala
School of philosophy questioned whether this self-presentation
was correct, which resulted in a long and not very fertile debate
between the pro Hägerström group and the anti Hägerstöm
group among these Uppsala School philosophers (Fries, 1944;
Wedberg, 1945). Stunningly, Hägerström mentioned little about
his cultural and social philosophy in this “Selbtsdarstellung”,
which created the image that his philosophy should be judged
on the basis of his general epistemology and ontology.
Now, in Swedish philosophy work is organised according to
the Kantian separation between theoretical philosophy on the
one hand and practical philosophy on the other hand. Häger-
ström held the chair in practical philosophy and taught corre-
spondingly mostly on morals, jurisprudence and religion (Min-
dus, 2009). However, he also published a few things in theo-
retical philosophy at the same as the chair in theoretical phi-
losophy at Uppsala University was held by Adolf Phalén. The
group around Phalen claimed against the group around Häger-
ström that Hägerström’s contributions to theoretical philosophy
were neither consistent over time nor as original as Hägerström
claimed in his “Selbstdarstellung” 1929 (Oxenstierna, 1938;
Strang, 2011). Thus, for instance they argued that Hägerström’s
epistemology—mainly the so-called rejection of subjectivism-
owed much to Phalen (Marc-Wogau, 1968).
Now, there is in general no logical link between arguments
or theories in theoretical and practical philosophy. Häger-
ström’s radical and highly original cultural and social philoso-
phy is one thing and his abstract and perhaps abstruse theoreti-
cal philosophy is another thing. The former should not be
judged in terms of a critique of for instance his abstract concept
of reality. But this was the outcome of his “Selbtsdarstellung”:
either one accepts all of Hägerström’s philosophy or one rejects
it on the basis of his general ontology.
Here I will focus upon Hägerström’s practical philosophy
and argue that it was not only highly original but also very en-
compassing as a cultural critique—“ontology of the present”
with Foucault. It has not been rendered the position it deserves
in European social thought. And it should be divorced from his
general epistemology and abstract ontology, which is not nec-
essary for formulating his revolutionary practical philosophy.
Similar ideas in social philosophy were simultaneously or later
launched by other major European thinkers from an entirely
different basis, like Nietzsche, Weber and Foucault. At the end
of this paper I will shortly outline Hägerström’s theory of real-
ity and suggest a few of its weaknesses.
Hägerström’s Research Paradigm and
Speaking with Lakatos, Hägerström pursued from 1910 to
the very end of his life in 1939 a comprehensive research pro-
ject stemming from one basic model or conceptual paradigm.
Holding the chair in practical philosophy, Hägerström concen-
trated upon meta-ethics, suggesting a most encompassing
model, covering all forms of practical reasoning, according to
the Kantian separation between “pure reason” (understanding)
and “practical reason” (action).
Basically, Hägerström suggested in his famous inaugural talk
in 1911 on “The Truth of Moral Ideas” that:
(HM) Objective values = Subjective valuations.
This model HM could be applied to all fields of practical
reason: morals, aesthetics, religion and law, which is exactly
what he did for some thirty years in numerous publications as
well as in his teachings.
The model HM has been designated as “axiological nihilism”
and Hägerström is considered as the first philosopher to formu-
late an explicit non-cognitivist approach to ethics (Cassirer,
1939; Petersson, 1973), which became one of the main frame-
works for meta-ethics in the 20th century.
One may debate at great length whether Hägerström’s ver-
sion of non-cognitivism is correct. Most philosophers in the
Uppsala School endorsed it, calling it “value nihilism” to sepa-
rate this position from value objectivism and value subjectivism.
However, with so many aspects of meta-ethics unsettled, it
would be misleading to concentrate upon whether non-cogni-
tivism or emotivism is an adequate theory or not. It was the
application of his model HM that was revolutionary in Euro-
pean social thought, Hägerström engaging in deconstruction of
established beliefs on a large scale.
It should be emphasized that Hägerström in the 1911 pro-
nunciation of his model HM only denied the possibility of a
science of objective moral values. It was not until around 1917
that he launched a non-cognitivist theory about moral language
in order to buttress his 1911 position. He suggested two forms
of non-cognitivism, namely emotivism and prescriptivism,
accounting for the use of words like “good”, “bad”, “right” and
“wrong” as well as “just” (Hägerström, 1952).
Yet, it should be pointed out that non-cognitivism is basi-
cally a theory in semantics, theorizing the use of words in vari-
ous contexts. As such, it may be criticized as focussing on some
contexts to the exclusion of other (Urmson, 1969; Hare, 1991).
An alternative to non-cognitivism is the simple error theory,
suggesting that people mistakenly belief that moral attributes
are properties inherent in the external world. As underlined by
Moritz (1967), a theory about the possibility or impossibility of
objective moral values is not logically tied to a semantic theory
of the usage of moral terms. If the language of morals is more
persuasive than descriptive in ordinare usage, then other terms
could be introduced for objective values.
Hägerström, Nietzsche and Weber
Once the scholars in the Uppsala School started to employ
the term “value nihilism” denoting 1) denial of existence of
objective values, and 2) some form of non-cognitivism about
the semantics of moral language, they were accused of propa-
gating the annihilation of morals in favour of pure egoism. All
of them, whether protagonists or antagonists of Hägerström,
defended “value nihilism”, stating that it was merely a scientific
theory. It did not entail any commitment to whatever position in
ethics—it was merely a meta-ethical theory.
Yet, the word “value nihilism” as a descriptor of Häger-
ström’s model HM has, as a matter of fact, proved to be more
confusing than clarifying. Time and again it had to be empha-
sized that whatever nihilism was incorporated into this concept,
it was merely theoretical and definitely not practical. The Upp-
sala School philosophers distanced themselves from any form
of Nietzschean nihilism (Hedenius, 1965, Marc-Wogau, 1968).
Yet, the use of this expression resulted in focussing Häger-
ström’s work upon irrelevant questions about whether he advo-
cated authoritarianism, state socialism and the irrelevance of
law and order. In reality, Hägerström strongly embraced hu-
manitarian values with a leaning towards the Arbeiterbewe-
Hägerström was in no way a precursor of post-modernist
thoughts, like Nietzsche happened to be. Hägerström was a
modernist philosopher, who set out to demystify the established
morals of his time in a search for the reality behind appearances.
He may best be compared with Max Weber.
It should be pointed out that in his analysis of religion
Hägerström was as negative as Nietzsche, regarding all forms
of religion—primitive, Christian, Asian—as basically nothing
but superstition. He wrote a lot about religious phenomena,
almost using post-modernist images of how men and women
can go to great length in constructing intricate concepts and
beliefs that have strong social impact. But he never advocated
any realist morals in the Nietzschean sense of physical strength
and power. Hägerström, it was said, was a “good nihilist.”
Now, his first statement of his research project in the 1911
inaugural lecture should be compared with Webers famous
article from 1904: “Die ‘Objektivität’ sozialwissenschaftlicher
und sozialpolitischer Erkenntnis”, where he launched his mod-
ernist program. Weber took the same position as Hägerström a
few years later, namely that science and ethics must be sepa-
rated, both using the well-known Humean separation between
IS and OUGHT. Neither of them presented a non-cognitivist
theory backing up the distinction between science and morals.
Only in 1917 did Hägerström launch emotivism is his lectures
on value and valuations” (Hägerström, 1952). Weber, to my
knowledge, never published anything remotly similar to a
Like Nietzsche and Weber, Hägerström wanted to disclose
beliefs that camouflaged social realities, i.e. inequalities in
terms of power and wealth. Thus, he regarded any attempt to
establish and maintain objective values as merely mystification.
And his research program involved a painstaking critique of
each and every attempt to do so, whether in morals, religion or
The Research Project and Its Paradigm for
In 1909 Hägerström published a small book on Marxism,
focussing upon what he called “social teleology”. The style of
writing is completely different from his work from 1908 in the
philosophy of science: accessible, clear, simple and highly in-
telligible. It starts a long row of publications in cultural analysis
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
and social thought, all written in the same reader friendly style.
In this booklet—“Social Teleology in Marxism”—Häger-
ström anticipates the critique of Popper in his Poverty of His-
toricism (1957) focussing upon historical inevitability, although
Hägerström displayed strong sympathy for the objectives that
had been transformed into the impersonal goals of historical
development, or determinism. What Hägerström took from
Marxism was the emphasis upon Unterbau-Überbau in human
civilisations, combining this distinction with his basic research
(HM) Objective values = Subjective valuations.
The combination of Marxian ideology critique with his own
meta-ethical model (HM) allowed him to undertake encom-
passing studies into how in various domains of culture valua-
tions had been constructed into an objective reality of values.
Hägerström was the great “deconstructor” of heralded beliefs in
religion, law and morals, always underling the concrete inter-
ests that beliefs in objective values served, namely legitimating
the power positions of the subordinating classes against those
Hägerström in 1911 argued that:
“Just as the science of religion cannot be founded upon reli-
gious consciousness, the science of morals cannot be based
upon moral consciousness. In both cases it is a question about
subjective thinking, emotional thinking, which in itself can be
researched but which does not constitute any knowledge
(Hägerström, 1939: p. 63).
This is his basic starting point for his research program.
Turning first to ethics, he employed HM in two ways:
1) Social critique: The established moral orders in society
must crumble when it is realised that there are no objective
values or OUGHT: “All open or hidden beliefs about our
highest values having a cosmic and thus objective meaning
crumble” (Hägerström, 1939: p. 60).
This is the foundation for modernist social critique. The
given moral beliefs in society “having social and cultural im-
pact” have no objective validation. Thus, they can be rejected.
“The morals of ordinary people linked with religion as well as
philosophical systems of morals connected with it are like huge
domes where objective values have found their protection”
(Hägerström, 1939: p. 61).
2) Human liberation: Abandoning the erroneous belief in ob-
jective moral values does not entail moral nihilism. On the
contrary: “When we have taken the last step and abandon
all open or secret belief in our cosmos and thus objective
values, morals will not die away, considering everything.”
(Hägerström, 1939: p. 62). Realising that values are nothing
but valuations would be conducive to a more “softer
judgement upon human conduct” free from all forms of fa-
As Hägerström continued his research program dispelling
“social superstitious beliefs” (Hägerström, 1939: pp. 95-120), it
became obvious that he looked upon future social change as
linked with the emergence of new values with no objective
foundation but linked with the true interests of the majority of
In an article published in left-wing journal Tiden 1913,
Hägerström expressed a strong attachment to socialist values:
“Only where social activities are carried out within the
framework of class differences, where a large part of the popu-
lation feel as being more or less as the tools for the rest, is
there really a need for… superstitious legal ideas… in order to
prevent that all goes to pieces. … But if we contemplate a soci-
ety where the overwhelming masses feel an interest of solidarity
in the maintenance of the social order, then such protection
mechanisms must be superfluous” (Hägerström, 1939: p. 119).
Hägerström looked upon morals, including religion and law
from a basically Marxist perspective. Morals had been objecti-
fied, placed in cosmos out there, to protect the interests of
classes, their power and wealth. This had to be critiqued. How-
ever, realising that morals consist of valuations would liberate
mankind from superstition, especially when class distinctions
were removed. At the same time, he rejected any claim of
Marxism to deliver a scientific plan of action.
In another article in another left-wing journal—Spektrum
1931—did Hägerström acknowledge his deep commitment to
the idea of “social justice”, resulting from “the rise of a hitherto
subjected class to becoming a power factor in society” (Häger-
ström, 1939: p. 140).
Hägerström devoted considerable effort at analysing reli-
gious beliefs. He was fascinated by the complexity of religious
thought, which he though rejected as superstition. Basically,
religion stemmed from emotions, the force of which led to the
creation of religious beliefs that had no foundation in reality.
Hägerström often entered into lengthy descriptions of theologi-
cal notions, which he regarded as basically camouflage for
material interests, i.e. power and wealth.
Employing his model HM, Hägerström argued that religious
values have no objective existence. He was an atheist to the
same extent as Nietzsche, although he refrained from ridiculing
Christianity. Yet, his rejection of religious beliefs as supersti-
tion cannot be doubted. Thus, he begins an article on “social
superstitions” from 1913 with the following declaration:
“In the belief in the magical force of baptizing there is pure
superstition. The same is true of Immaculate Conception as
well as the belief in the power of prayer to elicit holy powers,
as also in the dogma about the God nature of Jesus” (Häger-
ström, 1939: p. 95).
This amounts to a very strong rejection of religion, which he
followed up in studies of Roman religion, medieval mysticism
and Protestantism (Hägerström, 1964). The perspective is basi-
cally a modernist one, as the philosopher must attempt to de-
mystify religious myths. However, it is also Marxist, as reli-
gious superstition “form part of religious world views having
obvious social consequences.” (Hägerström, 1939: p. 95), na-
mely legitimating structures of domination, whether politician
Hägerström became internationally renowned for his studies
on Roman culture, where he wanted to shows that Roman my-
thology was employed for the legitimation of Roman law, es-
pecially its basic concept of duty, for instance in contractual
matter or with regard to the state.
The notion of objective values is to be found not only in eth-
ics or aesthetics, but also in law. The theory of legal order in-
volves a number of moral concepts, such as justice, duty and
obligation. And they have been regarded as objective values,
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 349
but only by the state but also in jurisprudence. It was not long
after his rejection of morals and religious beliefs that Häger-
ström turned to an examination of basic concepts in legal theory,
using again his basic paradigm HM. He pursued the inquiry
into law and juri s prudence in two dire c tions:
1) Developing his own theory of law, Hägerström founded the
school of Scandinavian realism, as an alternative to natural
law and legal positivism.
2) Examining a large number of approaches in legal theory,
Hägerström came to the conclusion that jurisprudence as an
academic discipline was seriously contaminated by assump-
tions about objective values.
As basic legal concepts comprise values with a claim of be-
ing objectively valid, they have to be demystified, or decon-
structed. From where comes this validity claim of legal con-
cepts: obligation, just and right? Hägerström of course em-
ployed his basic paradigm HM and suggested that the origin of
legal rights and duties are to be found with valuations, i.e. emo-
tions. He focussed in particular upon the concept of duty, which
is nothing but the attachment of a subjective OUGHT attitude
to a particular action.
As a modernist theoretician, Hägerström searched for the re-
ality behind the manifestations of law in formal concepts or
written rules or statute and he found it in the decisions of the
judges and officials-this is the gist of legal realism. The impli-
cation is that legal validity is only legal efficiency, meaning
that what is lawful, contrary to law, just and duty is what the
judges happen to decide. His position is close to legal pragma-
tism, as expounded today by for instance R. Posner (1993,
1999), with its typical scepticism towards a high-powered
moral approach to law (Dworkin, 1986).
Starting from this approach to law, Hägerström could engage
in a painstaking critique of jurisprudence as it was taught at that
time, focussing upon its efforts to find a solid foundation for
normativity, or the binding nature of legal concepts and rules.
Any such attempt, he claimed, was or would be abortive.
Legal validity as for instance with obligation in private law
or public law can be derived from reason as with natural law
theory or Katian ethics. It can also be derived from a command,
as with legal positivism. Hägerström wrote much rejecting both
legal theories. Interestingly, he took a stand early in 1926 on
Kelsen’s version of legal positivism, pointing out that Kelsen
had the metaphor of law as a closed system of norms (Häger-
ström, 1953). Hägerström never look upon law as logically
coherent, instead emphasizing change, inconsistency and con-
The practical implications of Hägerström’s critique of con-
temporary legal theories amounted to a radical cultural criticism,
1) Rights and duties are endogenous to the legal system;
2) No one is guilty unless convicted, i.e. a court e s t a b lishes so;
3) Abandoning the idea of objective legal values opens up for
a more humanitarian approach to punishment and crime;
4) Any validity of legal norms derives exclusively from the
actual enforcement of norms.
In fact, Hägerström developed early an interest in legal phi-
losophy and political science, especially the combination of the
two that was characteristic of German “Staatswissenschaft”. In
a publication from 1904 “Stat och Rätt” (State and Law), he
questioned the concept of validity of legal norms, analysing two
widely used legitimation theories, namely the contractarian
approach and the historical school. He returned to legal phi-
losophy time and again, analysing contemporary theories of law,
such as for instance Jellinek and Kelsen. It has been suggested
that the 1904 book was strongly influenced by German idealism
(Marc-Wogau, 1968), but this is a questionable criticism. It is
true though that the gist of his legal thoeries is to be found in
the lectures from around 1917 (Hägerström, 1963).
Endogenity of Rights
This principle is a key implication from Hägerström’s ap-
proach. Outside of the legal order, rights are duties are moral
valuations. They do not exist in independently of a legal order.
Hägerström’s argument about rights has been much debated
among protagonists and antagonists. He claimed that rights like
for instance property rights do not exist (Sempe, 2006). This
position became a hallmark of legal realism, reiterated by ad-
herents like Olivecrona (1966) and Ross (1934, 1966), but re-
jected by adversar i es l i ke Hedenius.
One may employ the philosophical distinction between con-
notation and denotation to clarify this issue. Hägerström
claimed that the definition of “rights” in natural law and legal
positivism was defect, comprising conceptual elements like
valuations. Yet, he never denied that “rights” had a denotation,
standing for positions in what he called the “legal machinery”.
By “rights”, legal scholars mean either a legally protected
interest or a legally established capacity or will (Kramer, Sim-
mons, & Steiner, 2000; Simmons, 2008). The gist of Häger-
ström’s argument was not to deny the existence of legal rights,
but to claim that legal scholars often argued that rights can be
delineated without reference to the legal order in questions.
Thus, rights as interests were modelled as some form of natural
properties of human beings or it was argued that rights as ca-
pacities stemmed from some form of command by a legislator,
recognizing such exogenous properties, from the point of the
legal order. Once the exogenous connotation of “rights” is
abandoned following Hägerström’s critique, it makes no sense
to deny the existence of the denotation of the concept, which is
also the position with reasonable adherents of the so-called
“Scandinavian legal realism” (Eckhoff, 1974, 1976).
Guilt Can Only Be Established by Court Decision
Basic concepts like obligation and guilt, or the failure to re-
spect a duty, are based upon valuations. Different valuations
deliver various obligations. No one is naturally guilty of crimes
unless a court decides so.
Towards a Humanitarian Approach to Punishment
When legal norms are looked upon as valuations, then they
lose some of their aura of veneration, aloofness and sanctity,
which open up for a democratic decision-making process about
the pros and costs of alternative framing of laws, like for in-
stance criminal law.
Legal Validity = Enforcement
Typical of legal realism as well as legal pragmatism is that it
tends to deny normativity. Legal norms are not inherently valid
due to either reason or on account of any form of command or
basic norm. Since legal norms are basically valuations, they are
either enforced or not. Whatever validity they may enjoy de-
pends upon the valuations of the people involved in the social
system where these norms apply.
Hägerström’s legal philosophy is a critique of both the natu-
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
ral law approaches and various forms of legal positivism. The
practical implication is that legal concepts such as obligation,
guilt and rights are demystified, opening up for the possibility
of legal reforms, suitable for a democratic society.
The Critique of Hägerström
It is no surprise that Hägerström became a controversial pro-
fessor already during his life time, given the social radicalism
of his popular writings, often in left-wing journals. One may
distinguish between three different kinds of critique:
1) Nihilism: Denying the objectivity of values, Hägerström
would be a forerunner to the totalitarian ideology;
2) Academic—his theoretical philosophy: Expounding his
epistemology and ontology on two different occasions in-
volving a long time span—1908 and 1929—Hägerström did
not arrive at a consistent philosophy of science;
3) Academic—his practical philosophy: Attacking contempo-
rary jurisprudence somewhat violently, Hägerström would
have actually made a simple conceptual mistake, not sepa-
rating between a norm sentence and a proposition about this
The basic message in relation to points 2) and 3) above in
this article is that there is no logical relationships between the
key ideas that Hägerström expounded, like axiological nihilism
and legal realism on the one hand and general epistemol-
ogy/ontology on the other hand. Thus, his cultural critique and
social philosophy is not founded upon his concept of reality, as
it is always maintained. As a matter of fact, this theory of real-
ity that Hägerström has become well-known for, inviting valid
objections it seems, was not launched until 1929, i.e. long after
he engaged upon his cultural critique in 1911.
Concerning the point 1) above, it is completely unfounded,
as Hägerström early expressed on reservations concerning what
was going on in Germany in the 1930s.
Hägerström published in theoretical philosophy on a few oc-
casions, although the total size of these publications does not
even nearly match his voluminous set of books and articles in
practical philosophy. Yet, his theory of reality caused a major
debate in Swedish philosophy. Two arguments were launched
against Hägerström’s theoretical philo sophy:
1) His epistemology—the rejection of subjectivism—was not
original, as his colleagues at Uppsala contributed a lot
2) His ontology—reality as logical coherence (1908) or space-
time continuity (1929)—was attacked as flawed, on the one
hand because the 1908 position is not the same as the 1929
position, and on the hand because it involves contradictory
notions (Marc-Wogau, 1968; Wedberg, 1966).
As Hägerström’s cultural philosophy cannot be derived from
his theoretical philosophy, any deficiency in his epistemology
or ontology does not reduce the intellectual and practical force
of his social and political philosophy. However, one should
point out a few things concerning his ontology.
1) Hägerström’s own attempts to argue that his concept of
reality formulated in 1929 (“Selbstdarstellung”) had already
been contained in his 1908 publication in the philosophy of
science (“Das Prinzip des Wissenschaft”) were not well
thought through. On this point, the antagonists of Häger-
ström were more correct than the protagonists of him (Fries,
1945; Wedberg, 1944). Yet, as emphasized, this criticism
however justified does not reduce the value of Häger-
ström’s practical philosophy.
2) One may certainly discuss whether Hägerström’s formula-
tion in 1929 of his concept of reality is either coherent or
plausible. This is interesting even if one accepts that argu-
ment that his position 1908 (“Das Prinzip des Wissen-
schaft”) is different from that of 1929. In general, it holds
that Hägerström’s publications in the philosophy of sci-
ence—the German 1908 book as well as the 1910 book in
Swedish “Botanisten och filosofen” (Hägerström, 1957)
have a style of writing that is completely different from the
publications in social and legal philosophy, namely being
Hägerström in 1929 rendered the following formulations of
his theory of reality (Hägerström, 1964: pp. 42-60):
(T1) “The law of contradiction as the law of reality”
T1 is also to be found in the publications from 1908 and
1909. It states the rationalist approach to reality, typical of for
instance Descartes and Spinoza. Something is real if it is not
contradictory, i.e. self-evident meaning logical necessity or
(T2) “Self-identity and determinateness”
T2 may be linked with T1, as also the law of identity belongs
to the rationalist framework besides the law of contradiction.
However, T2 is also related to T3 below, because something
determinate may be some object or property or event found in
experience and not reason.
(T3) “Space-and-time as the only conceivable continuum for
T3 is based upon a realist or empiricist approach to reality, as
with e.g. Hume. Real objects or properties exist in space-time
just as events occur in space-time, but they are not necessary,
It is not difficult to show that these theories of reality—T1,
T2 and T3—cannot be harmonized into a super theory. Instead
one must underline that these theories harbour mutually exclu-
sive concepts. It makes no sense to try to amalgamate them or
attempt to find a common core. The term “reality” is an essen-
tially contested notion, where the procedure of explication can
only produce alternative conceptions: rationalist or empiricist.
One should separate between logical necessity (a priori) and
empirical necessity or mere contingency, probabilities and ran-
domness (a posteriori) (Kripke, 1972).
Hägerström’s concept(s) of reality have been much debated
among protagonists and antagonists (Fries, 1944; Marc Wogau,
1968), but the important point to insist upon here is that his
theory(ies) has no relationship to his social philosophy. It could
have been launched on the basis of other ontological commit-
ments like Cambridge (e xcept a few like for instance Moore) or
Oxford philosophy, logical positivism or American pragmatism.
Actually, Hägerström’s approach to the concept(s) of reality is
He had a basically static framework for analysing issues in
the philosophy of science. Thus, he searched for criteria of
“absolute knowledge” and “true reality”. Theorizing knowledge
and reality, it was never clear whether Hägerström spoke about
truth of propositions or sentences on the one hand or the exis-
tence of objects and properties as well as the occurrence of
events on the other hand. His so-called “Copernican revolution
in epistemology”, meaning that consciousness can directly
grasp reality, removing the antimony of Kant between con-
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 351
sciousness and “das Ding an sich”, excluded any phenomenol-
ogical approach, as with his contemporary Husserl (Bengtsson,
1991). Yet, philosophy of science is fundamentally a set of
arguments about the dynamic growth of human knowledge,
how to find evidence for and against hypotheses as well as
integrate various hypotheses into a coherent structure for a
provisional theory (Quine & Ullian, 1978).
One may point out that Hägerström was NOT well read on
contemporary European theoretical philosophy, especially de-
velopments after the First World War. Thus, he does not ana-
lyse at any length the emerging phenomenological school
(Bengtsson, 1991) or the Vienna School (Nordin, 1984). It has
been claimed that Uppsala School philosophy was “logical
analysis” (Wedberg) or close to “logical positivism” (Marc-
Wogau). This is not correct, as the School did not engage in
philosophical logic at all, as in the Frege-Russell tradition, or
structured its ideas in terms of a separation between theoretical
and observational language on the one hand or between object
language and meta-language on the other (Strang, 2011).
His Legal Philosophy
The attack upon Hägerström’s legal theory by Uppsala col-
league I. Hedenius in 1941 is far more serious, as it challenges
his originality in an important part of his social thought. When
Hedenius suggested the so-called “Hägerström-Lundstedt mis-
take”, he did not intend to reject legal realism. On the contrary,
he aimed at improving the legal argument of the Uppsala
School by removing excesses, committed especially by
Lundstedt as professor of law at Uppsala (Hedenius, 1965).
Hedenius himself defended axiological nihilism in principle
and his criticism of Hägerström’s legal theory has nothing in
common with objections against it coming from natural law or
legal positivist scholars (Geiger, 1946).
Legal philosophy is a discipline with on-lingering unresolved
issues, which makes Hägerström’s many publications interest-
ing and relevant. Legal theory faces several difficult problems,
1) What is law: statutes, rulings, reasonable principles, norms
as directives or imperatives, values or valuations?
2) What makes law binding: reason, command, a basic norm,
rules of recognition, courts and the police?
3) Is jurisprudence a science or a technique, art or craft?
4) Hägerström wanted to make a strong contribution to legal
philosophy, which led him to follow the European scientific
debate on legal theory closely for many years, starting
around 1900. He rejected the main theories, with the argu-
ment that they were based upon natural law thinking or
sprung out of positivist notions of a fundamental command
or will. Did he go too far in criticizing contemporary juris-
Hedenius argues that Hägerström and Lundstedt confused
two different norm sentences:
1) “‘Proper’ norm sentences”: A sentence that states what
should be done, or must be done, unconditionally or condi-
2) “‘Improper’ norm sentences”: A proposition that states
which real norms above 1) exist where and when, meaning
belong to the established legal order of a country.
3) This distinction between norm sentences on the one hand
and norm propositions about norm sentences would explain
how Hägerström and Lundstedt could maintain that most if
not all of jurisprudence has a problem with scientific objec-
tivity or harbours unwarranted normative presuppositions.
They had simply failed to understand that jurisprudence
does not advocate the norms that it scrutinizes when ana-
lysing law as an empirically given order.
This critique seems almost too plausible to be adequate. How
could such a mistake be done? Legal norms however they are
expressed have an inherent claim to normativity, obligating
people or binding them. Yet, propositions about legal norms are
not themselves exercises in normativity.
What Hägerström focussed upon was not the occurrence of
legal norms, whether in statute law or case law. He examined
the theoretical arguments in jurisprudence, explaining what law
is and how come that it is obeyed with a certain probability. He
claimed that he found what he always called “metaphysical
assumptions” in these legal theories, with natural law scholars
or legal positivists. This focus upon theories explaining law is
hardy the same what the Hedenius’ distinction targets, as
Hägerström did not much analyse his so-called “proper norms”,
at least not in his publications on legal theory.
I do not wish to argue that Hägerström was basically correct
in his painstaking criticism of various legal theories, especially
from German scholars. Even less would I wish to commit my-
self to defending the virulent critique of many legal scholars by
Lundstedt (1932, 1936), ending up in his pronunciation of the
“Unwissenschaftlichkeit” of jurisprudence. Yet, neither Häger-
ström nor Lundstedt can be rebutted simply by means of the
confusion of the two legs in the He d enius’ distinc t ion.
Interestingly, Kelsen, who definitely did not endorse any
form of legal realism, rejected the relevance of Hedenius’ dis-
tinction. It is worth quoting him at some length:
A) Wedberg insiste… sur ce qu’il appelle le “fondament
factuel de la science du droit…, entendant pas “fondament fac-
tuel”: “Certain oral or written utterances to which a specific
legal authority is accorded. Such utterances are codifed in law
or statutes, court decisions, formal contracts… customs or
practice, which likewise are recognized as possessing a specific
legal authority” (p. 247).
Kelsen refers to an article by Wedberg from 1951 that paral-
lells Hedenius’distinction above. Kelsen (1979) comments
upon the distinction between 1) proper norm sentence and 2)
propositions about the norm sentence:
Wedberg qualifie ces actes, par lesquels sont posées des
normes juridiques générales ou individuelles, de “fondament
factuel” (factual basis) de la science du droit. Au sujet des
propositions de la science du droit énoncant que certain normes
sont valides (these rules are in force), il écrit qu’elles sont “une
réference au fondament factuel de la science du droit” (p. 260).
And he rejects the Hedenius’distinction with the following
argument: “Mais l’énocé selon lequel une norme est valide ne
se réfère pas à l’acte qui la pose. Celui-ci est une condition de
la validité, mais il n’est pas la validité. (Kelsen, 1979: pp. 463-
Hedenius argued that jurisprudence is an empirical science
investigating whether a norm of behaviour is in force which
The validity of one single rule of law is the same as the exis-
tence of a matter of fact regularity in a certain human behaviour.
Thus, it is always a question of activity conducted by the
so-called authorities. (Hedenius, 1965: pp. 78-79).
Jurisprudence is not a social science, as it does not make
surveys of people’s behaviour, establishing statistical means
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
and standard deviations. It establishes what is considered valid
law on the basis of legislation and court decisions. The Heden-
ius' distinction is itself questionable as explication of what ju-
risprudence is all about.
Hägerström and European Philosophy and
By distinguishing clearly between Hägerström’s theoretical
and practical philosophy, one arrives at a better appreciation of
his originality as philosopher. Lecturing and publishing in prac-
tical philosophy, Hägerström’s work can be designated as “on-
tology of the present”, in accordance with Foucault.
The present in Hägerström’s cultural ontology was nothing
less than the bourgeois society at its Weberian peak: Protestan-
tic capitalism around 1900. The key message is that its struc-
tures of domination-economic and political-cannot be given
legitimation by means of objective values-a direct implication
of his base model HM.
Swedish society around 1900 was in rapid social change
from an agrarian hierarchical structure, dominated by wealthy
peasants together with the Church, the nobility and the King, to
an urban industrial structure with a growing working class,
inspired by German Marxism and demanding social reforms as
well as parliamentary democracy. The new industrialist class of
entrepreneurs and bankers, like the Wallenberg family, the
Kempes and the Nobel brothers created huge fortunes as the
Swedish economy became part of global capitalism in certain
industries. In reality, Hägerström’s Sweden adhered to the logic
of development in both Unterbau and Überbau portrayed in
Weber’s model of capitalist ethics from 1904 (Weber, 2010).
Capitalist domination rests upon a moral and legal order that
legitimates the virtues of the “Geist des Kapitalismus”. The
values of the capitalist economy—property, thrift, risk, wealth
accumulation, investment, rational calculation, duty—are re-
garded as objective, to be respected ultimately by natural reason
and obligation in conscience, if not by religion. Hägerström
crushed entirely this Weberian legitimation basis for the virtues
of modern capitalism in religion, morals and law.
At the time when Hägerström started his radical cultural cri-
tique Sweden did not harbour a democratic regime, its Riksdag
being dominated by the nobility and the wealthy peasants-what
writer August Strindberg called “Det Nya Riket” (The New
Regime). There was little of labour legislation and virtually no
regulation of industrial life and employment conditions. Educa-
tion was in the hand of the Church, teaching duty endlessly in
order to inculcate the Protestantic virtues into conscience. Fam-
ily matters were handled on the basis of Lutheran precepts.
Established morals were guaranteed by the King and the
Church, supported by the large class of independent peasants,
dominating Swedish politics together with noblemen and
wealthy capitalists until the arrival of the Arbeiterbewegung.
Hägerström’s attack on the established order started a cultural
evolution ending with the world famous movies of Ingemar
Bergman, crushing the notion of obligation in a bourgeois soci-
ety as the inner voice of conscience-the voice of God in man
and woman. Hägerström’s modernism opened up for the com-
ing of a most post-modernist society in Sweden after the Sec-
ond World War where the ethics of the bourgeosie no longer
The attack on the bourgeois legitimation of state and society
spread out in numerous publications of Hägerström was, when
taken together, as virulent as the Foucault critique of bourgeois
values after the Second Great War (Foucault, 1977). Häger-
ström targeted the essential elements in the established norma-
tivity and rebutted its core beliefs:
1) “Religion is supersti t io n”
2) “Morals is nothing but valuations”
3) “The duty in conscience is merely a feeling of obligation”
4) “Crime only exists in court decisions”
5) “Property rights do not exist”
6) “Religion and official duties always serve as myths for the
legitimation of domination—political or economic.”
Concerning Hägerström’s social and political philosophy, it
may be argued that it was almost exclusively negative—a de-
construction long before Derrida. He seems to have held the
perhaps somewhat naïve belief that moral issues could be re-
solved on the basis of humanitarian valuations, once the mys-
tique of the established order had been unravelled. Once his
research project-HM-had been applied to various domains, it
came to an end, as no new ideas were added.
Foucault made a lasting contribution to European continental
philosophy by making cultural critique a central field in phi-
losophy. Arguing convincingly that the “ontology of the pre-
sent” must be rendered the same status within philosophy as
general ontology and epistemology, he showed that several
philosophers had made lasting contribution to the de-mystifi-
cation of legitimation beliefs and values of the society in which
they were active, like especially Max Weber.
Hägerström’s many publications and constant lecturing at
Uppsala University for more than 30 years should be seen in
the light of the “ontology of the present.” His social and politi-
cal writings all add up to a most forceful, intellectually speak-
ing, rejection of the ethos of the Bourgeosie in capitalist society.
They have a strong post-modernist appeal in deconstructing the
legitimating ideology of the ruling classes.
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