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Suffering Violence at Your Own Hands: Hegel on Ethical and Political Alienation

The following paper was presented at the 2015 Telos Conference, held on February 13–15, 2015, in New York City. For additional details about the conference, please visit the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute website.

Hegel’s lectures on the philosophy of history chart the development of free, reflective self-conscious selves, but what exactly does that mean? For skeptics, it doesn’t mean much, as Hegel notoriously appears to ground this development in the development of the state. This has inspired Popper’s well-known accusations that Hegel was a puppet of the Prussian monarchy, the “enemy of the open society,” etc., etc., and that the “free” subjects of the state as Hegel describes it are anything but. Further, from Marx to Habermas, Hegel is indicted as one who adopts a quietist attitude of priestly monasticism, so while those imbued with the proper critical, historical consciousness are busy trying to change the world according to the dictates of one or another praxis philosophy, Hegel is content to contemplate it as it goes up in flames. Habermas sees in Hegel’s mature work a “blunting of critique” and a “stoic retreat” from the problems of modernity, the very ones that Habermas believes the younger Hegel so incisively diagnosed.[1]

Both kinds of criticisms miss their mark. Rather, Hegel sees a tendency in modern moral and political thinking to overwork and overextend its principles, which according to Hegel are representations generated through mere “reflection.” Why “mere” reflection? What does this frequently recurring Hegelian locution mean? The answers to these questions are arguably provided by Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, where a structure of reflective thought Hegel calls “consciousness” is under consideration.[2] Consciousness is in the habit of absolutizing and universalizing its epistemic and moral claims—i.e., its representations—heedless of its perspectival limitations. This mirrors a habit Hegel sees in moral and political philosophers, who posit some or another universal principle, for example, “freedom,” and who then seek in broad, blunt strokes to correct reality according to it. When, for example, consciousness makes a claim about moral truth, it typically does so according to the requirements of particular pragmatic scenarios that remain unacknowledged, which are then universalized to account for the whole of ethical-political reality (Sittlichkeit). The falsely conceived universal constitutes one of Hegel’s central critical preoccupations. Hegel takes such false theoretical conceptions, particularly of moral universality, to have problematic practical consequences. Thus, I wish to argue that there is indeed a critical dimension to Hegel’s thought, which far from denying the possibility of the prescriptive “normative ought,” is unprecedentedly mindful of how it should be generated. And while Hegel is not in any strict sense a historicist thinker, he is uniquely attentive to the manner in which actual ethical-political structures and institutions are historically embodied.

In the Phenomenology, we see that philosophical consciousness is in the business of reflecting on itself and the world, and producing representations (Vorstellungen) of them. What goes into a representation? It is an intellectualization of feelings, intuitions, desires, inclinations, and impulses of consciousness, in short, an intellectualization of conscious experience.[3][4] In their undistilled form, the components of a representation are a veritable index of consciousness’s natural and historical finitude, and of what is naturally and historically given to it. Yet, it is from this standpoint that consciousness makes its epistemic and moral claims to objective truth. For Hegel, the assumption that epistemic and moral truth can be known is sound, but the manner in which consciousness undertakes this enterprise is not. In the section entitled “Spirit,” the characteristic manner in which consciousness proceeds is to extract particular aspects of its experience of the ethical-political world, and to represent them as having a universal, foundational status, what Hegel calls the “in itself” of truth (PG/PS, 284/263). The in itself of truth serves as a ground for normative claims. Thus, particular aspects of a complex, historically embodied ethical-political world are converted into abstract principles and pressed into duty to account for the whole of ethical-political life, and to generate normative claims concerning it. We see variously that “personhood,” “rights,” “utility,” “duty,” “enlightened insight,” “freedom,” “faith,” and “conscience” each in turn render such synecdochic service. And each falls prey variously to skepticism, alienation, indeterminacy, or terminal abstraction.

With each successive failure of consciousness to ground and stabilize its normative claims, I take Hegel to be demonstrating two things: (1) the principles by which we theoretically represent the ethical-political world from the standpoint of reflective consciousness, are the very same principles by which we undermine and distort our comprehension of its actual nature; and (2) the normative, critical “oughts” we formulate from this distorted, fractured understanding can give rise to pathological practical attitudes that in turn generate distorted normative agendas. Indeed, in the most dramatic section of Spirit, “Absolute Freedom and Terror,” Hegel suggests that the telos of unrestrained, abstract criticism based on an incomplete yet totalized understanding of the social, ethical-political order is terrorism (PG/PS, 378/355).

One may reasonably conclude, not only based on Hegel’s discussion, but also based on the general character of modern normative philosophy, that it is the notion of freedom that is the premier candidate for theoretical and practical distortion. Indeed, I believe that throughout the various transformations of consciousness in the section on Spirit, there is a sustained, if implicit, focus on the question of how to properly conceive the ethical-political significance of freedom.[5] One comes away with the provocative impression that Hegel may not recognize a rigorous philosophical distinction between modern moral philosophies that truck in abstract conceptions of freedom, and ideologies of terror. ISIS and Rousseau: which one is the evil twin? The suggestion is that normative “oughts” that proceed as abstract posits from a limited reflective or pragmatic perspective, even if made in principled defense of freedom, at least distort, and at worst, do violence to freedom. The reflective habit of positing principles, values, or what have you in order to normatively underwrite the proper ethical-political order always falls prey to a form of vicious abstraction that “finds itself in a vacuum . . . that is itself mere vacuity” (PR, §10).

From the abundance of comments like these, one may be tempted to conclude that Hegel’s intention is, as Habermas says, to “blunt critique.” For Hegel appears to undercut the critical, emancipatory potential of normative philosophy right at the bud, at the level of principle. For Hegel, positing normative principles is a dead end, because they are necessarily incomplete; in the end, they merely indicate the limited reflective perspective of the one who posits them (one can see in page after page the anticipation of Nietzsche’s explicit ad hominem arguments against not just moral philosophy, but moral philosophers). Hegel adds fuel to the fire in the Encyclopaedia Logic by confirming readers’ suspicions about the meaning of his notorious saying “the rational is the actual and the actual is the rational” by dismissively asking, “Who is not smart enough to be able to see around him quite a lot that is not, in fact, how it ought to be? But this smartness is wrong when it has the illusion that, in its dealings with objects of this kind and with their ‘ought,’ it is operating within the [true] concerns of philosophical theory” (ENC, §6R). At this juncture, it would have been helpful to Hegel’s reception had he gone on to explicitly say something that is at least implied in the Philosophy of Right, that it is only by operating within the true concern of philosophical theory that one may acquire access to “oughts” that properly fit, as it were, onto the targets of their critique.

It becomes obvious, then, that much depends on what we make of Hegel’s philosophical theory. Again, Hegel has a keen philosophical interest in history, but methodologically he is not a historicist philosopher. Hegel’s explicit task is to frame a theory that is not itself merely a reflective posit of a historically conditioned reflective consciousness; otherwise, his philosophy falls to his own critique. If we are inclined to view this proposal as a tall order, consider this: Hegel plausibly claims that an objectivist philosophical thinking about the world is unavoidable, and that it can either be done well or poorly. Hegel’s argument in the Phenomenology is that at least since the time of the Stoics we have been doing it poorly, that is, in what he calls the reflective mode. It is a way that leads to insoluble aporias that breed alienation, indeterminacy, abstraction, thoroughgoing skepticism, and perhaps most notably, a positivism that continues to make crypto-philosophical and metaphysical claims while denying that philosophy and metaphysics exist. In short, the argument of the Phenomenology enjoins us to at least “suspend” (aufheben) the mode of reflective thinking in order to let another kind come into view, one that does justice to our intuitions that objectivist philosophical thinking about the world is possible.

I can do no more than adumbrate it here, but Hegel takes what we might call a “systems” approach to philosophical thinking that he believes is rigorously distinct from the isolating, reifying, abstracting actions of mere reflective thought. The determinacy of systematic thought is no more nor less than the determinacy of real systems that happen to be comprehensible. Any thought determination that is posited in its identity contains its own limit, is related to its other, in such a way that the moment of identity is only fully grasped via the moment of difference. And correspondingly, anything that may be legitimately understood in reality as having a dimension of self-standing determinacy—e.g., a particular number, a planet, or a person—can only be fully comprehended as determinate in relation to an other: e.g., a number in relation to other numbers, a planet vis-à-vis the star around which it orbits, and persons vis-à-vis other persons. In Hegel’s parlance, anything determinate is determinate as a kind of self-relating in implicit or explicit relation to an other. This is to suggest that anything comprehensible involves implicit and explicit structures of relation and interaction all the way down. A dynamic logic of relationality and interaction is immanent within any real structure. Thus, systematic thinking is said to be a kind of thinking that properly relates to what is thought, because its mode of determinacy is of the very same kind that is systematically embodied in real structures.

There is no way around the fact that Hegel’s argument involves strong ontological claims about the nature of thought and how it is embodied in reality. But one reason the Philosophy of Right continues to be read as a self-standing ethical and political treatise is because its basic premises have a certain plausibility. Such premises may be at least entertained in ignorance of the argument of the Logic that establishes them. One of the main premises in question is one that accords with modern ethical and political intuitions, and that is the equation of normative validity, what Hegel calls “right,” with freedom (PR, §29). But again, what is freedom? And especially, what is freedom not conceived merely from the reflective standpoint of consciousness? Even if in the absence of the fully fleshed argument, it is useful to advert to the master Hegelian concept adumbrated above of “self-relating in relating to what is other”: whatever freedom turns out to be and whatever forms it takes, it can only be properly comprehended in and through certain dynamic structures of interaction and relation.

The characteristic error of modern reflective philosophy in thinking about freedom is to take one legitimate dimension of it—what Hegel variously calls the moment of identity, self-relation, or being-for-self—and to posit it as a principle for grasping its entire nature. Accordingly, modern philosophy tends to posit the principle of self-determination as exhausting the meaning of freedom. But a complete understanding of what it means to be a modern, self-determining (i.e., free) individual, will require a comprehension of how such self-determination occurs within already standing, historically evolved structures of interaction. For example, Hegel believes that he sees in the emergence of civil society a sphere where individuals have the potential to freely determine themselves according to their own particular ends. But he immediately observes also that a “particular person stands essentially in relation to other similar particulars” who are pursuing their own ends. In other words, one has not fully understood the character of a particular person’s freedom in civil society unless one has considered the fact that her self-determining, self-relating activity is related to other free persons engaged in the same activity. Immanent within this relating is a structure of interaction that makes such free self relating in relating to others possible, and that is the legal-political association as it is embodied in both civil society and the state.

For Hegel, the tri-polar structure of ethical life as it develops in the family, civil society, and the state embodies the correctly conceived, and not merely posited, universal as it happens to exist in the modern world. Now of course, civil laws and states can be more or less coercive, but the point is that the way freedom is actually embodied, the way it actually exists, is in and through a structure of interaction, a legal-political order, that provides the conditions for the possibility of free self-determination. Therefore, the Hegelian critical norm, which Hegel sees as immanent within the ethical-political structures of modernity as they have more or less developed, eyes such actual conditions with a view to allowing “the principle of subjectivity to attain fulfillment in the self-standing [selbständigen] extreme of personal particularity, while at the same time bringing it back to substantial unity and so preserving this unity in the principle of subjectivity itself” (PR, §260). This comment suggests a critical picture of an ethical-political order that is strengthened rather than weakened by maximizing individual freedom. Individuals can in turn realize that the maximization of individual freedom relies on a common interest in preserving the strength of the legal-political structures that permit them to freely and happily pursue their particular lives.

To conclude, the Hegelian approach to prescriptive normative validity enjoins us to engage in a kind of theoretical thinking that permits already standing ethical-political structures to come into view and to be properly comprehended as more or less embodying freedom, rather than endorsed or condemned as free or not free, just or unjust in toto. Hegel argues that, for better or worse, free, individual self-conscious selves are always already embedded in a historically situated ethical-political world (Sittlichkeit) that is neither the subjective product of contingent choice, imagination, or construction, nor a merely external, coercive set of structures that impinge on freedom. Sittlichkeit is rather the objective, historically developed condition for the possibility of the actualization of whatever freedom self-conscious selves may happen to have at any given time or place. This is a theoretical insight; Hegel neither denies that objective so-called “ethical” structures in practical socio-political contexts can have a coercive function, nor that individuals may experience intense alienation within such structures. Hegel’s view is that if one theorizes from the standpoint of such reflective and pragmatic alienation, one is liable to acquire a distorted grasp of the actual nature of ethical-political institutions and one’s relation to them, and to posit principles of rectification accordingly. This has the tendency to generate distorted normative agendas, which are linked to impoverished forms of normative discourse. Action follows accordingly, whether at the level of decision-making processes in legislation, or revolutionary activism. Hegel’s philosophical agenda is not to abolish criticism; it is rather a plea to undertake a more philosophically nuanced, historically informed version of it.


1. Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, trans. F. Lawrence (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990), p. 43.

2. [PG] G.W.F. Hegel, Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807), ed. G. Lasson (Leipzig: Verlag der Dürr’schen Buchhandlung, 1907); [PS] G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977).

3. [PR] G.W.F. Hegel, Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts (1821), ed. G. Lasson (Leipzig: Felix Meiner, 1911); G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, trans. T.M. Knox (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1967), §5ff.

4. [ENC] G.W.F. Hegel, The Encyclopaedia Logic (1830), trans. T. Geraets, W. Suchting, H. Harris (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1991), §3/3R.

5. In the Lectures on the Philosophy of History, Hegel explicitly says “the essence of Spirit—its substance—is Freedom.” G.W.F. Hegel, Reason in History, trans. R. Hartman (Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, 1997), p. 22.

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