Hegel’s Critique of Liberalism

Smith, Steven B. Hegel’s Critique of Liberalism. Chicago and London, 1989.


My purpose here is… to examine the genesis of the critique of rights-based liberalism in the philosophy of Hegel. One advantage of this approach is that as a critic of liberalism in at least its early modern or classic form, Hegel provides us with an insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the liberal tradition that are simply not available to a more conventional liberal thinker. Hegel’s strategy is often to criticize especially the psychological and ethical foundations of classic liberalism, while at the same time praising many of its concrete political and historical accomplishments. This strategy allows him to provide a fuller, richer account of liberalism than one could find in the work of any other member of that tradition, while also expanding and improving upon our understanding of what it means to belong to that tradition. His method of providing a series of comprehensive contrasts between liberalism and its various alternatives allows us to grasp in a particularly illuminating way the specificity of the liberal tradition.

The argument I want to defend in this study is that Hegel provides us with a middle ground between the two alternatives outlined above. Like the modern communitarians, he is critical of the individualistic and ahistorical conceptions of rights underlying the liberal polity, but like many liberals in both his day and ours, he is skeptical of any attempt to return to some form of democratic participatory gemeinschaft based upon immediate face-to-face relations. Put another way, Hegel’s goal is to combine the ancient emphasis on the dignity and even architectonic character of political life with the modern concern for freedom, rights, and mutual recognition. To this end, he developed a political theory that sought to prove that the liberal constitutional state instantiated in his own day in the most advanced societies of Northern Europe constituted the legitimate goal of historical aspiration. Instead of rejecting liberalism out of hand, Hegel accepted many of the institutions of the modern “bourgeois Christian” world, especially the rule of law and the separation of civil and political life, as forming the basis of a common culture and a sense of social solidarity. Hegel’s political philosophy might be seen as an attempt to reappropriate the terrain of ancient Aristotelian political theory by means prepared by Kant.

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