Hegel: The Revenant
Why Idealism | Terry Pinkard
Introduction by Terry Pinkard
AmirAli Maleki, the editorial Director of Praxis Publication, and I have had a conversation about Hegel’s philosophy and what it means for our times. The ideas brought up in the conversation are especially auspicious right now as the great movement for a genuinely free public and private sphere builds momentum in Iran. This movement for freedom was close to the heart of Hegel’s philosophical project. For example, Hegel spoke of the victorious Dutch revolt in the 17th century against Spanish domination as carried out not by nobles or extraordinary heroes but by ordinary people becoming their own heroes, who “courageously shed their blood and by this righteous boldness and endurance triumphantly won for themselves both civil and religious independence.” They were in his eyes among the first to manifest the modern recognition that all people have a right to have whatever rule exists over them to be subject to justification, the “right of insight” as he called it, and with that, the idea of an inviolable human dignity came to play a central role in modern life. Even the lowest shepherd, Hegel noted, now had to be regarded as possessing an infinite worth and dignity untouched by the winds of history. This great insight, which people did not fully comprehend before the early modern revolts but which they now both theoretically and practically grasped was this: Nobody should be forced to submit to any form of rule that cannot be justified to them. This is ingredient in freedom, which is an idea so bold that once people have gotten it into their heads, it is almost impossible to drive it out. This does not necessarily make the powers that be any the less adamant about their wish to repress the inherent drive for respect for equal dignity, but it does mean that however good they are at repressing it, they cannot fully suppress it. These issues lie behind the conversation between AmirAli Maleki and myself about why we should be looking to a German philosopher who wrote in the first one-third of the nineteenth century about what we should be thinking now about what we should do.
What is Hegel’s view on freedom? What lessons can be learned from this view about the modern world?
Hegel’s views on freedom have to do with four different considerations. First, what is freedom? Second, what is the role of freedom in history? Third, how important is freedom? Fourth, what does it take actually to be free?
To take up the first issue: Freedom has three components to itself. To be free is to be at one with oneself, what Hegel calls in German Beisichsein. One is at one with oneself when one is self-consciously acting out of a law of one’s own nature, acting according to ideas and principles of one’s own and not in terms of principles arbitrarily imposed from without. (The “self-consciousness” condition is crucial there.) This aspect of freedom involves one’s being independent, but this independence is often mistakenly completely identified with freedom itself instead of being recognized as merely a component of freedom. Genuine freedom involves not only independence but also a kind of structured dependence on others. All three – being at one with oneself, independence and structured dependence – have to be in play for there to be full freedom instead of partial or even self-undermining freedom.
Hegel thought that this was easy enough to understand in practice although it was difficult to grasp in theory. In particular, saying that freedom involves both dependence and independence might look like a simple self-undermining contradiction. The role of dialectical thought in Hegel’s system is to show that what looks at first like a simple contradiction is better understood as tension-filled moments of a “whole,” a totality. He says that the free person is independent of others but is also in a form of dependence on others – but he notes in passing that we see this easily illustrated in relationships like friendship and love. In mutual love, I can be who I am in all my individuality, I can be an independent person, but I am also capable of this only because of the recognition I receive from the other (the beloved). (Sufi poets were especially good at expressing this dialectic.) I give myself over to the Other (so I am dependent), but in making myself dependent, I achieve the full recognition of myself as an independent individual, as does the Other in this relationship. There is a danger to this, which lies in the fact that these respective components can, within social circumstances that are not fully rational, come apart from each other because of the dialectical tensions in the totalities. So, for example, it is easy enough in certain situations to think that the only true freedom is equivalent to complete independence, which always results in relationships that totter between mastery and servitude. The reasoning goes that if I am to be completely independent, I must make others dependent on me (and of course they too have the same thoughts in reverse). All relations of mastery and servitude that are aimed at such independence fall apart since the masters end up being dependent on the servants recognizing them as independent, whereas the masters want to be independent of all such recognition by the servants. This is why all such relations between masters and servants (or slaves) are throughout history fraught with difficulty. They ultimately can be held together only by force since only a little reflection shows how senseless the relation between mastery and servitude really is.
Genuine freedom as being at one with oneself and independent in one’s own individuality by virtue of being dependent on others in a certain way is only really possible in the totality called Geist in German, “Spirit” in English. Hegel defines Geist as an I that is a We, and a We that is an I, where both are fully real. In a fully realized form of life, this is a situation in which we are all recognized as the unique individuals we each are by virtue of our recognition from the others in our community. We depend on those others for their civic virtue, in the way each of us would care that the others are as free as we are, and in the way that the rules, institutions and practices all fit together to produce a society in which each “I” is independent by participating in such a common life. The whole idea of Geist itself is an example of the kind of totality that is by its essence always in a creative tension with itself. When things go wrong, the whole comes apart, and, in one case, all we have left over is a disjointed collection of “I’s” who form no real community (no real “We”). In those cases of full atomization, we have what Thomas Hobbes called the war of all against all in which, as he put it, all life is nasty, brutish and short. Or, in another case, in a mirror image of the first case, when things go wrong, the whole comes apart, and all individuals are made subordinate to some super-“We” that can only be partial and one-sided. Examples are those of extreme nationalism, one-party dictatorship and the like where all individuality is extinguished and stirred into the pot of one overarching “We.” In those cases, the state becomes a master seeking full independence, and the people are merely its tools and servants. Both of these cases are deficient actualizations of Geist and because they are so one-sided are also basically unlivable. Unlivable social relations inevitably unravel on their accord.
Second, freedom is important in history because Hegel thinks that it what provides the underpinning for our sense of historical movement and – this is Hegel’s most well known and radical view – when we look back over the past, what we see in this movement is a progress of the consciousness of freedom among peoples. From the early beginnings of humanity in which only one or a few people – the “masters” of their time – were aware of themselves as free (in the sense of independence), that is, as being constrained only by their peers (other masters) and not by any others below them. This was always unstable even though such relations of mastery and servitude lasted thousands of years. Over time, Hegel argues, we see how all the disenfranchised of the world gradually came to see their own disenfranchisement not as part of any natural order of things but as a set of humanly constructed institutions built around the unjustifiable inequality of freedom. The modern world differs from all other periods in that all have come to view themselves as free and that lack of freedom in their own lives has to do with such unjustifiable institutions and practices, not with the nature of the world itself.
Third, how important is freedom? For Hegel, it is of absolute importance. Life has many goals within itself, not all of them compatible with each other. In most cases, we have to learn to make tradeoffs among such goods. But above all those other worldly aims is the aim of living your own life and not a life that commanded to you by an Other. Freedom is not a matter of trading off some goods for others. It is more like the recipe for a just social order. In tradeoffs, you take less of one good in order to have more of another even though you would like more of both. In a “recipe,” you are not trying to have more of all the goods, but to get the goods arranged in such a way that freedom is more fully actualized. As we might put it, in baking a cake, one does not want more flour and more sugar, one wants the right balance between sugar and flour. This is, moreover, not a self-centered freedom because in the case of equally achieved freedom, we are each individually free only because all the others around us are free and we must therefore take concern to keep those mediating institutions and practices around us functioning properly so that we can each and all lead our own lives. In the unjust relations of master and servant, the master realizes he can be free only if the others (the servants) are not free. In a social and political relationship where genuine freedom is actualized, each realizes he or she can be free only if the other is also equally free. As Hegel says, once this idea of freedom has come into people’s minds, nothing can force it out again. The ruling orders can repress the idea, but they cannot suppress the yearning for freedom. Over time, despite the repression, the injustice of unequal freedom becomes unbearable. When that happens, people aren’t drawing philosophical conclusions as much as they are saying to themselves: We can no longer be those people, we must change our world and become who we are. This, so Hegel thought, was more or less the story of the modern world.
One of the curious claims Hegel makes is that one is free only when one knows self-consciously that one is free. There are, he thought, entire communities of the past that were not free because they did not know it. Hegel does not speak of freedom in terms of rulership, command or even control over one’s will or feelings. One is not free when one is having to command oneself. One is free when one is being oneself, acting according to a law of their own nature. To be free, one must thus have a conception of what it would mean to be at one with oneself. As long as a person thinks he or she is dependent in some ultimately fundamental way on others who thereby have the right of command over them, they are not free because they do not know they are free. They become free only when they are aware of whatever constraints have been imposed on them must also be justified to them. To be required to do something without having any insight into why others are justified in putting those constraints on people is to lack freedom, and to think that one does not oneself require this justification from others is not to know that you are free and thus not to be free. This equal and universal demand for justification is what characterizes the modern world.
What was the role of the state in Hegel’s thought? Is the government a natural element from his point of view?
Government, or so Hegel thinks, arises originally out of the need for people to coordinate with each other about important matters – food, shelter and the like – and to provide common defense and to share burdens with each other when the times become hard. That much, we might say, is “natural.” But that won’t justify government or tell us much about why we should worry about the form of government we have. For that, we need to come to understand that these governmental institutions were built by us, even though we almost always never built them fully self-consciously or with clearly defined aims in mind. But, as built by us, they can be unbuilt or transformed by us, and thus whichever way it goes, they require justification by us.
In addition to government, there is also the phenomenon of the state. The state is actually a modern invention (although Hegel himself thought it went back to antiquity). For most of history, people did not think of themselves as members of a “state.” Instead, they were subjects of a prince or subject to rule by some kind of organization of elites. As progress in the consciousness of freedom began to emerge in the collective self-understanding of various peoples, they began to think of their collective lives under more of an abstraction than that of subjects of a prince. This way of being together – as a We that is an I – for various reasons came to be called a “state”. Even an absolutist ruler such as Friedrich the Great of Prussia proclaimed that he was only the “first servant of the state.” Hegel picked up on this and saw the state as the unity of the people as citizens, as co-members of a larger social and political formation. And once again, his view was that it was only as a co-member of such a formation that one could be an independent individual who is free. Only in the set of institutionally and practice-oriented dependencies could we even have the reality of being the kind of agents with a right to chart the course of their own lives. The Hegelian state is thus the unity in which co-members set the extent and limits of the power that some will inevitably have over the lives of others. In pre-modern states, there was an elite – usually a religious elite – that had that power to set the limits of their power over others. In modern states, that can no longer count as legitimate power. All are entitled to participate in the setting of the extent and limits of such power.
What was the role that Hegel considered for the people in the government? Did he try to be completely dependent on the rulers or did he consider a place for the people?
The relation between the government and the “people” exhibits the same tension that we saw in the way Hegel handles all of the issues of Geist in terms of the potentially tense unity of the “I” with the “We.” Those who want to see what Hegel thinks in particular about this question should read the long section §۲۹۰ from Hegel’s 1820 Philosophy of Right. There he makes it very clear that a proper comprehension of unity of a political community strongly requires that the people must have their own sphere of authority independent of government and state authority. He is very suspicious of the arrangements that for reasons of speed and efficiency centralize authority in the office of a prime minister or president and thus centralize the state. (He is even critical of the workings of the Prussian state in his own day when he speaks there of recent ways in which all organization has come from “above” when what it needs is more input from “below.”) Such state centralization goes hand in hand with the whole coming apart into a kind of atomism of unorganized individuals. When the various spheres of society are atomistically unorganized, it can even seem “rational” in a distorted way for the people at the top to centralize all power in their own hands for reasons of efficiency or ideological control. Hegel’s views on this are strikingly similar to those put forward in the twentieth century by Hannah Arendt in her account of how totalitarianism gets a foothold in modern societies. Only when the people in a society have been so atomized do they then lack the kind of independence-in-dependence that would otherwise put a brake on such state centralization.
What are the similarities between Hegel’s government system and today’s liberalism? Did Hegel fundamentally believe in the concept of something like liberalism?
The relation of Hegel to liberalism is difficult to state because it is difficult to state just exactly what counts as liberalism. Keep in mind too that the word itself (“liberalism”) was only coined in the early nineteenth century, even though the term since then has been retroactively applied to earlier thinkers (such as John Locke) who did not use the term to describe their own political philosophy. Hegel himself took liberalism to mean laissez-faire political economy (a common view in the early nineteenth century) and one to which he was fundamentally opposed. (Hegel would be even more appalled at twentieth and twenty-first century “Neo-Liberalism” with its subservience to the already wealthy) On the other hand, we can take a more expansive view of liberalism (as Edmund Fawcett has suggested) as a view structured around four very general ideas: The inevitability of social conflict, the necessity of suspicion of accumulated power, the belief in social and political progress, and the need for respect of individuals as individuals. If so, then Hegel is certainly a liberal sympathizer of sorts. Nonetheless, he disagreed with the liberals of his day most directly about their belief in an unfettered free market. As he put it to his students in 1824-1825, those who say that we should not interfere with the market since it will eventually correct itself if left to its own unfettered movement are just like those who say that when the plague starts to rage, we should just let it run its course. If we do, Hegel noted, hundreds of thousands will be dead, most of which could have been prevented. As John Maynard Keynes retorted to a similar claim about the free market righting itself in the long run: “In the long run, we are all dead.” Hegel also had misgivings about the way in which liberal policies in his day tended to atomize society and thus create the space for centralizing authoritarian governments to grab more power for themselves. Hegel might well be called the first “post-liberal” thinker.
What are the effects of Hegel in today’s politics? In other words, does today’s political world depend on Hegel’s thought? If there is such a thing, how is it explained?
When Hegel published in 1820 what we know in English as the Philosophy of Right, he was laying out what he called in the German title of the book the Grundlinien, the baselines of a philosophy of right and legality. To lay out the baselines of something is like drawing the lines on a football field or a tennis court and to say that whatever disputes there are to be about what is to count as right in the times to come, those disputes must be carried on within these lines. In effect, what Hegel was arguing was that by 1820, the baselines of the modern world had now been fairly well laid out, and he was also arguing that these baselines had also reached their final form of development although they had not reached their final shape. Just as one might say that the development of the institution of the Emperor in ancient Rome had reached its development by roughly 500 CE (such that changes in it later on were only peripheral to its shape) or that the status of the Emperor in China had reached more or less its final form in the Ming Dynasty, one could say of various modern institutions that they were now, at least in outline, in their final shape. The modern world was anchored in certain abstract rights to life, liberty and property and in a moral worldview that was not supposed to be restricted to distinct communities or cultures but was to range over humanity at large. These two baselines were, however, only abstract and in order to be made real, they required a certain general set of institutions that translated them into practice. These were, he thought, the general institutional structure of nuclear families based on affectionate unions (in marriage), a civil society with a large market-driven element to itself in which work was carried out in terms of “jobs” in that marketplace and not just in patronage positions and the like, and finally in a constitutional monarchical state of free and equal citizens. It was not a system of princely domains, marriages were not to be arranged in terms of dynastic claims or membership in a clan, and the full force of modern legality was to be justified in terms of how well it actualized (or “made real”) the now unavoidable claims to be treated as free and equal on the part of all of the world’s peoples. Since Hegel wrote that, the world has as we know undergone various tumults, revolutions, wars, pandemics and has witnessed a technological progress that people in Hegel’s own time would have found nearly impossible to imagine (and especially in any detail). However, we still find the appeal to human rights, to a moral sense that is more than just the customs and usages of a particular community and to affectionate marriages, a bustling market life of jobs and bosses, and a state that cares to promote and to defend the freedom and equality of its citizens to be, more or less, the way in which our discourse is still carried out. What has changed in all of this is the rejection of the idea that the European way of actualizing this and working it out is somehow normative for the rest of the world (which is another way of saying that the demands of freedom and equality have thoroughly upended the older assertions of European hegemony). What we also find in our own world is the way in which the tensions that are ingredient in these modern totalities are under pressure of coming apart, and, for example, the state taking on a kind of independence of its citizens so that it ceases to see them as citizens but more as atomized individuals of whom it, the state, is their master. Or to see morality as less about the rights of humanity as a whole and more about how some can become the judgmental masters over others. Or about how religion come turn into a top-down moralizing judgmentalism intent on replacing a bottom-up practice of love, friendship, reconciliation and forgiveness. Or about how markets, rather than vehicles for promoting and defending freedom and equality, are really supposed to be rewarding the elites and promoting them into the realms of the super-rich. When the “whole” is pulled apart, the parts cease to be anything like constituent moments and become more like willful and wayward fragments pretending that they and not the others are the “real” totality. Now, Hegel has no guidance for what we are concretely to do when the parts start to come apart and become disordered elements of de-totalized totality combining in all kinds of pathological ways. What he offers us, which is what philosophy only can offer us, is a way of thinking about it and, most particularly, a way of thinking about how it can go right and how it can go wrong and, most particularly, how it can go wrong even within the baselines of modern right and legality. Kant had defined orientation in thought like finding one’s way around a dark room. You look for footholds to grab onto. In the darkness of what the future holds, we look for footholds in philosophy to hold onto. But we still have to find our own ways into the light.
Many consider Hegel to be the father of Nazism. However, this evidence has been rejected by many. What do you think? Didn’t Hegel’s thought from the historical position leave an impact on what is called “Nazism” in the world?
Let’s keep in mind that the Nazis did not like Hegel. They regarded him as too liberal and too influenced by Jewish thought. They also did not like his dismissal of German nationalism (the celebration of Deutschtum) as really just German stupidity (Deutschdumm). They especially did not take kindly to his statement in the Philosophy of Right that “‘a human being counts as a human being in virtue of his humanity, not because he is a Jew, Catholic, Protestant, German, Italian, etc.” (§۲۰۹) The Nazis did not think people counted simply in virtue of their humanity. Of course, none of that stopped Karl Popper from declaring that along with Plato, Hegel was one of the intellectual supports of the Nazi regime. One would have hoped that Walter Kaufmann’s famous 1959 article, “The Hegel Myth and Its Method,” would have put an end to all of this “Hegel was a Nazi” nonsense, but the various Cold Warriors who latched onto this have never given it up despite all the evidence to the contrary, and they continue to propagate this through their students. These people are too wedded to what they call their love of eternal readiness to fight totalitarianism (which they identify with anything that goes against American hegemonic interests) to cast it aside. Moreover, since Hegel is often linked with Marx in the eyes of many, they think that dismissing Hegel also helps them to dismiss Marx.
Let’s get a little more specialized. Is Hegel’s political philosophy present only in the work “Elements of the Philosophy of Right”? In my opinion, his view on politics can be found linearly in all his works. what is your opinion?
I must admit that it’s hard to see Hegel’s politics much at work in his lectures on the philosophy of nature, although it is there in a lot of his other work. However, since he thought that his philosophy formed a fairly tight systematic whole, it would follow that many parts of it would also be circulating in the rest of it. That does not mean that his politics is driving the rest of his thought, only that the thought on everything in his system is to be seen as a moment of the whole as is his politics
In my opinion, “Shape of spirit”(Form of life – In the previous writings “The Phenomenology of Spirit “) is one of the most important keywords of Hegel’s philosophy. what is your opinion? What can be read from it in the modern world? What is Hegel’s purpose in simple language in this chapter?
Was Hegel an “individualist”? It depends on what you mean by that, but if you mean by “individualism” the idea that the structures of the “We” are only those of adding up a set of individuals and their attitudes, then he is of course not an individualist. For example, a language is not simply the sum-total of what everybody who speaks the language says. He says that language is the existence of spirit – in other words, spirit cannot exist outside of the practices of the kinds of linguistic creatures that we are. The language (for example, English) carries its normative structure within itself, but it is still true that if there are no English speakers, there is no English language. The language and the speakers of the language relate to each other in a non-additive way (“non-individualist” in that sense). In speaking a language, the individual manifests the language in a concrete way, and the language shows itself in the speech-practices of the people who speak it. Bu if you just mean by “individualist” the idea that individuals have interests and rights that the state must respect – so that the state must treat all with equal respect – then Hegel is indeed an individualist in that more limited sense.
What is the role of the “failure of the city-state” as the collapse of the ancient world in the explanation of the modern state? What is the difference between the Hegelian state and the ancient state? What lessons can be learned from Hegel’s thought about the state for today?
As for the “lessons” of Hegel’s thought about the state, see the answer to #5. As for the difference between the ancient state and the modern state, there are two that are crucial for Hegel. First, the Athenian state was small so it could have a direct democracy which was a good thing. Modern states are too large and too complex to have direct democracy, so they have to devise a system of representative government in order to function. Second, the Athenian state had no “civil society” between itself and the family. (In fact, our modern English term for the economy comes from the Greek word for the household.) The idea that people in a family could have a separate sphere of life (that of work in an occupation outside of the family) that was outside of the family but not yet part of the state was unavailable to the ancient Greeks, but is it is an essential component of the baselines of modern life.
In my opinion, Hegel is the prophet of the new world religion. Replacing God with “concept” is something that can be found in the relationship between his thought and religion. But my main question is, what is the role of the state and religion in Hegel’s thought? Does he believe in the separation of religion from politics or is he considering another form of governance?
Hegel is very, very clear on the relation of the state to religion. He’s worth quoting at some length about this. To the idea that the modern, “Western” separation of church and state is a bad thing, Hegel says in §۲۷۰ of the Philosophy of Right: “Hence so far from its being or its having been a misfortune for the state that the church is divided, it is only as a result of that division that the state has been able to reach its appointed end as a self-consciously rational and ethical organization.” But when the state as the center of legal coercion (of enforcing the laws necessary to run a state dedicated to freedom and equality) and as possessing a monopoly on violence (through its police and army) is fused with religion, the result, Hegel says, is inevitably fanaticism and the falling apart of civil life. Religion, like philosophy and art, are the three ways in which what Hegel calls “absolute spirit” function. Absolute spirit is just spirit – self-conscious individuals communally organized – thinking about what ultimately matters to being such a self-conscious and ultimately mortal individual. Religion is therefore for Hegel an absolutely essential element of human life properly lived. But to give some of the religious people all the coercive, violent powers of the state is to invite them to become no longer co-citizens but independent masters over the rest of the population whom they will now treat as servants to their own views. This was, Hegel thought, one of the very bitter lessons of the European wars of religion during the 16th, ۱۷th, and 18th centuries which cost millions of people their lives and which should be avoided forever.
To those who say that this separation of church and state is a terrible thing for religion since it might look as if it were saying that religion is not really part of “absolute spirit,” Hegel says in the same section: “Moreover, this division is the best piece of good fortune which could have befallen either the church or thought so far as the freedom and rationality of either is concerned.” Religion flourishes where freedom flourishes. Where freedom does not flourish religion itself debases itself into fanaticism and violence.
Is Hegel dead? Can Hegel’s thought be considered finished for today’s world? Or as long as he is thought of, there is a need for his presence in the world?
Benedetto Croce published in 1907 a book with the title: What Is Living and What is Dead of the Philosophy of Hegel. Just about every book on Hegel published since then could have the same title. It would take more pages than you have in your journal to answer that question in the detail it would deserve. Some of my own answers indicate that I think that there is still much to be learned from Hegel.
And the last question. In your opinion, what is the need for reading German idealism in today’s world? And also tell the Iranian thinkers interested in this field how they should walk in this direction and how to use it to explain the current conditions of their society. In other words, what is the right way to study German idealism?
The German idealist thinkers lived in a world undergoing really seismic political, moral and social transformation. Most of the great figures in it were born, as it were, in one world, lived their youth in a world in transformation, and died as the new world that had been in the process of becoming was beginning to solidify itself. Kant started it when he was already old. Hegel, Schelling and the others got underway with the project when they were only in their twenties. In some ways, we, both the young and the old, seem to be living in a similar set of circumstances. Hegel’s generation got lots of things right, and they also got a lot of important things wrong, and the same of course will likely be true of us. However, Hegel and his generation presented the most self-conscious, even courageous attempt, as Hegel phrased it, to grasp their own times in thought. The idea that we were free was certainly driving the philosophies of the great German idealists as the essence of their times. If we read them in the proper spirit, as fellow actors in a changing, even confusing and fearful, world nonetheless full of opportunities for progress, we can perhaps better understand our own thoughts on our world and our own discomforts with it. In one sense, we now live in the great backwash they created, and we will be able to find our own way in it only by recognizing that and in transforming their views into our own and thereby inevitably changing them, hopefully for the better.