Hegel’s Political Philosophy
Hegel’s Political Philosophy: Problems and Perspectives
Hegel’s Philosophy of History
Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State
Introduction to the Reading of Hegel
The American Hegelians: An Intellectual Episode in the History of Western America
From Marx to Hegel
In the first part of this article I discussed the current state of opinion about Hegel, his relation to previous philosophy, in particular that of Kant, and went on to consider his theory of knowledge or method and its most grandiose application in his general metaphysics. I concluded that recent studies of his account of the universe in general, even Ivan Soll’s very good one,1 had not succeeded in making clear what Hegel took the relations of Nature and Spirit to be, in particular whether Spirit should be conceived as something like the God of theism or rather as human mentality taken as a collective whole. I turn now to the application he makes of his dialectical method of reason to the specifically human subject matter of society, politics, and history. Here its implications are very much clearer and, if there has been vigorous controversy over what precisely they are, the issues in dispute, I shall suggest, are within reasonable distance of being settled.
Raymond Plant’s Hegel does for Hegel’s social philosophy very much what Soll’s book does for Hegel’s metaphysics. I mentioned earlier that for Plant Hegel’s social philosophy cannot be understood abstracted from his metaphysics, but the relevant part of the metaphysics is the theory of knowledge or method rather than the theory of God, man, and nature. Plant has something to say about the latter but it has a secondary role since he sees all Hegel’s thought as rooted in his social and political experience. In general he sees Hegel’s mature philosophy as the culmination of a process of reflection set in motion by a pained awareness of the incoherence and division within men’s personalities and between men in society, taking the form of nostalgia for the ancient Greek ideal in which men were not divided into public and private beings, and where state, society, and religion were fully integrated.
Plant stresses the influence on the direction of Hegel’s thinking of Steuart’s An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy, which convinced him of the social and psychological importance of economic change. The emergence of commercial, industrial, urban society had deepened the divisions between and within men, and intensified the problem of reestablishing coherence. Yet the process, with its division of labor and of classes, is irreversible. It is a social parallel to the cosmic alienation of men from nature. Where the latter is to be overcome by a metaphysically transfigured religion, the former is to be cured by the state as Hegel conceives it—and to effect the cure he required a strong state.
An issue that emerges here, which Plant does not seem to me to deal with, is that while cosmic alienation seems eliminable by thought, by the transfigured conception of man’s place in the total scheme of things supplied by Hegel, actual political change seems required for the reintegration of society. Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach appear to imply that Hegel’s theories (i.e., “previous philosophy”) are a sort of analgesic pill which makes everything look all right. How far is this correct? How far is right thinking about actual social circumstances enough to show that they are all right, or are shortly, and inevitably, going to be? Hegel’s conception of the state included a hereditary monarch, a universal bureaucratic class, functional representation by estates, largely free but supervised activity of “corporations.” In so far as this conception deviates from the actual, is it something men ought to seek to realize or is it going to be realized anyway?
In his final chapter Plant does indeed raise this and a number of other fundamental questions under the highly appropriate heading, “Transfiguration or Mystification?” and concludes that Hegel’s claim that the modern state is truly “universal” is not really borne out. But the crude question of what is Hegel actually up to—is he prescribing, predicting, or describing—is never forthrightly posed.
Most recent discussion of Hegel’s political philosophy in the English-speaking world has taken the form of concrete polemical argument for and against the view that Hegel is to some extent responsible for Wilhelm II and the First World War and for Hitler and the second. The apparent message of Hegel’s political theory is that law and the interest of the state transcend and override morality and the interests of the individual. Hegel’s “realism” about war and about the domination of historical epochs by particular states seemed to some a theory fitting such manifestations of German Kultur as the invasion of Belgium, the atrocities inflicted on Belgian civilians, and the punitive burning down of the University of Louvain. This line of argument began with L. T. Hobhouse’s Metaphysical Theory of the State, an attack on the English Hegelian Bosanquet, motivated by the death of Hobhouse’s son in battle in the Kaiser’s war. The issue was revived by a debate between T. M. Knox and E. F. Carritt in 1940 on Hegel and Prussianism.
This and a further debate of the mid-1960s between Shlomo Avineri and Sidney Hook are the main pieces in Walter Kaufmann’s collection, Hegel’s Political Philosophy. This is a lively collection of essays, more in the nature of hand-to-hand fighting with bayonets than the more usual long-range artillery exchanges of scholarly controversy. A faintly irritating feature is the partisan intrusiveness of the editor, who embellishes the contributions of Carritt and Hook (for whom Hegel is, broadly speaking, a beastly Hun) with nagging footnotes. Knox is perhaps more successful in arguing, against Carritt, that Hegel was not servile than in arguing that he was not a might-is-right worshiper of the state. Similarly Avineri makes a persuasive case that Hegel was a supporter of rational government rather than a nationalist of the ethnic-cultural variety. But Pelczynski makes less headway against Hook’s other charge that he was a bureaucratic authoritarian rather than any sort of liberal.
Both sides to the disputes which Kaufmann referees are equally firm in their rejection of the full fury of Karl Popper’s case.2 Popper makes Hegel out to be a nationalist, a racialist, a militarist, and an adherent of the Führerprinzip by hyperbolic extrapolation of the much milder positions he actually holds. Hegel did think that states should not be bits of dynastic property but should be associated with coherent communities; that in each epoch there is a nation that dominates the scene (but culturally rather than politically); that war is both inevitable and an engine of progress (agreeing on this second point with Popper’s paradigm of political enlightenment, Kant); and he assigned a historic role to Great Men. But he was certainly no fascist. He favored constitutional monarchy with representative institutions, not inspired heroic leaders; he supported autonomous corporations; he lauded reason not intuition; he held art, religion, and philosophy to be “higher” than the state.
One virtue of Kaufmann’s collection becomes clearer when it is compared with Z. A. Pelczynski’s similarly named anthology, Hegel’s Political Philosophy: Problems and Perspectives. Its thirteen essays were specially written for the occasion, a fact that reveals itself in a certain stodgy resolution, an air of heavy breathing, that attends a good many of them. Pelczynski does something to undermine the view that Hegel was in the ordinary sense a state-worshiper by pointing out that by “state” he means not the government but the whole organized community; K. H. Ilting uses Hegel’s idea that a satisfactory system of law must rest on a shared moral consensus, that civil liberty can prosper only in conjunction with public-spiritedness, to make a suggestive criticism of liberal-individualist accounts of law; W. H. Walsh is agreeably informative about Hegel’s philosophy of history, pointing out its extremely Eurocentric character and arguing that Socrates and Luther are the heroes of the Hegelian historical pageant (for inventing morality and bringing the Middle Ages to an end, respectively); R. N. Berki has a good essay on Marx’s criticisms of Hegel.
What is very noticeable about many of the essays in the Pelczynski collection is an excessive tolerance toward Hegel’s intellectual extravagances that is a widespread feature of writings about him. Everybody knows rather demure and censorious people who number among their friends some drunken and lecherous rascal whose outrages of conduct are genially indulged. He can get away with throwing up at the dinner table, while others are ruthlessly condemned for minor infractions of propriety. Historians of philosophy tend to treat Hegel with an uncritical benevolence that they would never extend to Locke or Mill. I am thinking here not of the moral defects alleged by such critics as Popper, Carritt, and Hook, but of the extreme unintelligibility of much of what Hegel wrote. Of course shrewd aperçus do float by on the surface of the murky torrent of Hegelian verbiage. But few dare to take this particular bull by the horns and suggest that the whole quasi-logical apparatus of “deduction” and “necessity” and “contradiction” is no more than a dense incrustation of baroque ornament or, to vary the image, a kind of pastoral idiom in which often interesting opinions are presented.
Burleigh Taylor Wilkins’s Hegel’s Philosophy of History is a conspicuous example of this kind of treatment. It is not that he is uncritical: he is not inclined, he says, “to campaign for the ‘resurrection of Hegel’s immanent teleology.” But his doubts do not have their proper consequences. “Failure to accept a position or perspective does not prevent us from appreciating the significance of the position or perspective in question or from making various uses of it.” But this is altogether too reasonable. It is not so much that Hegel’s larger principles “fail to secure acceptance”: they are very often absurd or unintelligible. The only thing to do is to ignore them and concentrate on the intelligible and discussable bits.
This is, in effect, the strategy of Avineri’s Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State. A highly, but never oppressively, learned book, it is a brilliant feat of demythologizing. Throughout, the more abstruse and ethereal aspects of Hegel are either simply ignored or else translated into concrete, socially realistic terms, a procedure whose conspicuous success amounts to a quiet criticism of the grand panoply of the system. As a result, Hegel the political theorist is presented, despite his own efforts to conceal the fact, as a man with a coherent system of definite and perceptive things to say about the political life of mankind, past and, above all, present. The magnitude of this labor is nowhere revealed by any detailed recapitulation of the interpretative process or any brow-mopping asides of the what-Hegel-seems-to-be-getting-at-here variety. It emerges only in the startling contrast between Avineri’s main text and the corresponding footnote citations of bits of Hegel’s own prose. Avineri is the Jeeves of the Absolute Idea. To Hegelian equivalents of such Woosterisms as “dash it all, a conk on the noggin is a bit of a facer” he responds with something like “I agree, Sir, that a sharp blow on the head is a cause for concern.”
In Introduction to Hegel's Metaphysics (University of Chicago, 1969).↩
In his chapter on Hegel in The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945).↩