An Introduction to the Work of Hegel

George William Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) is among the most important of modern political thinkers and philosophers—and also one of the most difficult. His major work of political philosophy, the Philosophy of Right (1821), is a good introduction to Hegel’s manner of thinking.

The State

Hegel’s remarks on any subject, including justice, are systematic. He considers justice at a particular place in the overall system that he outlines in his Encyclopedia: it is preceded by individual right and followed by world history. He intends to clarify the substance of a state that embodies practices that combine individual right, moral freedom, and ethical institutions. The Hegelian “state” in this sense is not merely a mechanism that is useful for advancing private interests, as we often understand the state in liberal democracy, but a way of life as we consider it politically, similar to what Plato and Aristotle meant by a city formed by a regime. Such a state, which Hegel describes most fully in his Philosophy of Right, is more modern than ancient, however, because it includes individual rights and a modern economy. Moreover, unlike Plato, whose perfect city was only “in speech,” Hegel argues that a just state could now become actual in his own time.

Hegel begins his discussion in the Philosophy of Right with individual right. Neither my rights when I abstract them from any of my particular interests, nor the arbitrary interests to which I might direct myself, are rationally stable. Each is incoherent if we seek to consider or act upon it completely separately, because every particular interest “I” serve is general as “mine,” and “I” can exercise my rights, and act, only when I serve particular interests and needs. The true first subject of justice is, therefore, not an abstract “I” who holds rights, but my concrete individuality.

Hegel then continues his discussion along a similar path: each subject follows from what precedes it and is connected to and implicated in what succeeds it. Each is only partial although it appears to be complete. Each is countered or negated by its opposite, which is in turn negated, and so on, just as abstract personality and interest counter each other, yet become joined in the property that serves a concrete individual’s interests and needs. Hegel continues his discussion in this manner until all elements of the state have been accounted for rationally and shown to fit together. This process is Hegel’s dialectic, the way that reason proceeds to form and understand its subjects.

The transformation of material stuff into property that serves my interests is an important clue to how our reason or freedom shapes things beyond, but not apart from, natural material. For the material world does not as such know or contain “property.” The world of individual rights and property, however, cannot stand on its own: as Hegel sees it, the natural rights liberalism of Locke, with its roots in Hobbes, is insufficient. The limits of property and abstract right become visible once we notice that we are able not only to act freely, but to understand ourselves in our freedom, and, ultimately, to act freely on the basis of this self-understanding. The Lockean view had merely rested content in the possession of rights by virtue of man possessing a certain nature. For Hegel, freedom requires recognition—a uniquely human power. Hegel traces the incipient presence of this power through making contracts and through crimes and punishments. Morality, for Hegel, is where such freedom is most revealed. In morality, we choose our freedom, we choose to do our duty, simply because we recognize ourselves as universal and free.

Although acting morally goes beyond satisfying interests, and may limit or focus the ways we satisfy our interests, it does not tell us which among the morally acceptable things it is good or best to choose. Free, universal, or rational choice cannot show its full power until I come to recognize my subjective interests and myself as integrally connected to an objective, rational, form that permeates or pervades them, the family and the state being such forms. (It is in developing this argument that Hegel most clearly goes beyond the moral and political standpoint of his predecessor, Kant.) This organizing occurs in the family, civil society and the state, and the complex duties and citizenship that enable us to go beyond both empty morality and purely selfish interest to articulated reasoned choice. Together these make up what Hegel considers to be ethical life.

The family is the sphere of immediate unity with others, based on love. One is in the family “not as an independent person but as a member.” The family thus educates its participants in the meaning of community: members do not stand apart from each other as separate but, rather, each is continuous with the whole. Such membership is insufficient for freedom, however, because it does not leave enough room for individuality. It is in the realm of civil society that individuals have their own desires and goals. Civil society is a system that meets needs, both basic and refined. To meet their needs, people work, and by working they also participate in satisfying the needs of others. As needs develop, so too does the division of labor. Thus arises a rational system of interdependence: each person, while pursuing his individual interest, contributes to satisfying the needs of all. In a well-governed market economy, I can meet my needs only through a rational system of money, police, division of labor, general education, and welfare.

Even civil society, however, is insufficiently universal: freely governing and making rational law, and belonging to a structured order in which this occurs, is the next step in combining one’s particular needs and universal reason. A political constitution has a lawmaking or universal part, which represents the landowners and business class and allows them to participate in the common good, an executive or particularizing part, composed of civil servants who implement universal law, and the sovereign who stands for or activates this composite singularity through, say, his international actions and decisions. I thus unite my interest with my universal or moral good when I act as a dutiful and patriotic citizen.

The state cannot be itself and be completely isolated. For Hegel this does not mean that the next stage in uniting particular and universal is to make the state subservient to international control that dissolves the particular. Rather, the sovereign directs foreign affairs with the welfare of his own state in mind. The more universal principle that a state serves is found in world history, in the movement from the Oriental to the Greek to the Roman and finally to the Germanic realm of freedom. States have served this movement, but without fully understanding it.

History and Spirit

The account of History Hegel sketches in the Philosophy of Right and Encyclopedia is discussed more fully in the lectures that comprise his Philosophy of History. His contemporary world, including its social, political, religious, and philosophical life, permits the full actualization of the spirit (Geist), the universal subject who knows itself as perfectly embodied in the objective world. This actualization is the rational conclusion to the twists and turns of history, all of which exhibit Spirit in an imperfect or alienated form. Because each form is imperfect, it must negate itself and pass over into a more adequate expression. This movement, the driving force of history, exemplifies the dialectic that also drives the Philosophy of Right.

Another instance of this movement, to which political philosophers have paid special attention, is the Spirit’s struggle for recognition, a central theme of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1807). Hegel’s discussion of this subject attempts to clarify the conditions of the “I” of self-consciousness. Hegel intended the Phenomenology as preparation for the Science of Logic, the fullest statement of his central understanding. (Hegel later placed a version of the standpoint of the Phenomenology at its proper place in his Encyclopedia.) The Phenomenology is now regarded by thinkers such as Martin Heidegger and Alexandre Kojève as of special importance.

Master–Slave Dialectic

The theme of recognition is especially well developed in the Phenomenology’s Master–Slave dialectic. Although the slave must recognize the master, the master need not recognize the slave. This undermines the integrity of the slave. Moreover, because the slave must work, and is forced to struggle with the external world and bend it to his design, he achieves a certain mastery over his surroundings, and individual self-consciousness. He begins to recognize himself in his “other.” “I” proves to be possible only in relation to others, and this relation is mediated by material reality, by nature as transformed by human work. Hegel analyzes the various forms of this necessarily social constitution of self-consciousness, concentrating on the excessive, destructive abstraction of the French Revolution. Ultimately, it is only the highly complex, differentiated state that Hegel discusses in the Philosophy of Right that allows proper mutual recognition and universal freedom.

For further introductory reading, see also:

Pierre Hassner, Georg W. F. Hegel, in History of Political Philosophy, eds. Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, Chicago: 1987.

The Cambridge Companion to Hegel, ed. Frederick C. Beiser, Cambridge: 1993.