Theater of Cruelty

The legacy of Skjervheim

The legacy of Skjervheim – new readings for our time
PHILOSOPHY / How could Hans Skjervheim know that choices, which he himself believes to be free, are not already programmed by the unconscious, by fate, or precisely by heredity or environment?


Only one book about the philosopher Hans Skervheim (1926-1999)? Isn't the subject exhausted now, after various reports from the Skjervheim seminar and other anthologies? The answer is no. Although philosophers and Skjervheim students such as Atle Måseide, Gunnar Skirbekk, Jon Hellesnes and Nils Gilje are well represented, Skjervheim has inspired discussion within a wide range of disciplines. It is therefore no coincidence that the editors are not professional philosophers: Lars Petter Storm Torjussen is an educator and Andreas H. Hvidsten a political scientist.

The rest of the 15 contributions are written by Øyvind Østerud (political scientist), Ole Jacob Madsen (psychologist), Catrine Holst and Aksel Tjora (sociologists), Arne Johan Vetlesen (philosopher), Frode Helmich Pedersen and Jan Inge Sørbø (literary scholars), Martin Eide (media studies) and Lill Kristin Mork Bjørgen (child protection pedagogue).

The hermeneutics of suspicion

Several of the contributions update Skjervheim's criticism of the "hermeneutics of suspicion". Hvidsten uses the debate about foreign researchers in academia from 2021 as an example. He criticizes the social psychologist Nicolay Gausels input: "According to social identity theory", argues Gausel, "Cecilie Hellestveit's concern for foreigners is solely that she is incorporated into a social identity called Norwegian." Hvidsten has highlighted the words "one and alone". The statement is affected by Skjervheim's criticism and becomes "self-referentially inconsistent". Does Gausel mean this "solely" because he is a social psychologist? Or because he has studied in Sussex and mostly publishes in English? Gausel writes that the conflict about Norwegian versus foreign researchers is "fully" explainable from a social psychological perspective, and that the debate took place "under the guise of" academic exchange of opinions. The real reason was something completely different, a conflict over resources between in-group and out-group (Khrono 22.02.22). Suspicion of hidden, underlying motives weakens the debaters' credibility. Sociological theory replaces real dialogue. Hvidsten therefore shows that Skjervheim's criticism of objectivism is still relevant.

"The foreign researchers do not know Norwegian society and are not here to invest in it." (Cecilie Hellestveit)

But Cecilie Hellestveit actually told Khrono (24.09.21): "The foreign researchers do not know Norwegian society and are not here to invest in it. They are here because they are not getting jobs at the most prestigious universities, yet.” This generalization is obviously crazy: Many foreign researchers have 'invested' significantly in Norway, if this means professional, personal and societal commitment. This move also totaled the suspicion hermeneutics. Hellestveit triggered an important debate about the internationalization of higher education utdanning and was named name of the year in academia in 2021. But when Rune Slagstad named her an academic role model, it was not the statement above that he praised.

Participants and contributors

Skjervheim was not seriously discussed in the Norwegian public until the essays "Deltakar og tilskodar" and "Faktum og fridom" were published in the anthology Breaks in the thought life of the time in 1960. The main point can be summarized as follows: Man is not only a fact, he can also do new things (cf. Latin facere). It therefore has freedom. The objectivists, positivists and naturalists observe man only as an object. Thereby man is deprived of his freedom. But the subject is the condition for objectification and cannot itself be objectified. Therefore, we must stop treating man as an object and instead, with the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, realize our existential freedom!

Hans Skjervheim

At the end of "Deltakar og tilskodar", Skjervheim reproduces Kierkegaard's claim that man is a synthesis of the eternal and the temporal. He does not ask where this alleged 'eternity' comes from. Here he is uncritical. Skjervheim, on the other hand, is suspicious of naturalism: To explain man based on heredity and environment is to deny freedom!

But we still don't have an overview of how heredity and environment shape people. Therefore, we also do not know how determined we may be. Skjervheim writes enthusiastically on behalf of freedom. He has discovered that he can choose his direction in life. But how does he know that these choices, which he himself believes to be free, are not already programmed by the unconscious, by fate, or precisely by heredity or environment? Skjervheim is excited and not suspicious of his own motives. He who swims with the current may think he is free. But if the individual swims against the current and the conditions to which he is subject, he will drown.


Both Spinoza and Hegel therefore argued that frihet consists in insight into one's own necessity. Especially when the insight into one's own necessity is small, the declaration of freedom can be all the greater. It is perfectly legitimate to consider oneself and others both as natural phenomena and as free.

It is entirely possible, and also very important, to be both a participant and a spectator at the same time.

Here there is little to be gained from Skjervheim, who was instead happy to discover "self-referential inconsistency" in such projects and pointed out that it was in principle impossible to objectify oneself: If one makes oneself a fact, the awareness of this objectification will not even could be included in this fact! No, but without objectifying self-observation, we will have little opportunity to know ourselves. It is entirely possible, and also very important, to be both participant and spectator at the same time. Otherwise, we lose the ability to improvise and the art of living.

Educator and co-editor Torjussen shows well how Skjervheim misunderstands pedagogy because he undermines an equal relationship between two subjects who should not objectify each other. But the child cannot be treated as a free person where the teacher argues with an equal subject. For the child "only has a partial understanding of the situation and a partial self-awareness; after all, this is what constitutes the need for upbringing", writes Torjussen. Pedagogy takes place between subject and object and is interested in the "genesis of the subject".

Torjussen's observation can be made into a general point. We find ourselves in a situation of lifelong learning where we constantly gain more knowledge about ourselves and others. We don't really know ourselves. Arthur Schopenhauer was once stopped by a watchman when he was walking at night. "Who are you?" asked the guard suspiciously. The philosopher replied: "Had I known that, I wouldn't be walking around here in the middle of the night!" The problem is not the hermeneutics of suspicion, but hasty 'objective' answers.

Contribute with an essayistic piece of writing

The 15 posts in The legacy of Skjervheim gives everyone inspiration for further discussion of important fundamental problems i humanities, social sciences and life in general. Skjervheim has provided many good debate inputs or what Cathrine Holst aptly calls "reminders" in the anthology. Despite the notation and academic packaging, many of the contributions have an essayistic tone, obviously inspired by Skjervheim himself, who thought , say#et was a "necessary genre" when writing about philosophy "not just for professionals". Skjervheim has all the credit for having made people philosophize even outside the narrow circle of professional philosophers.

Eivind Tjønneland
Eivind Tjønneland
Historian of ideas and author.

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