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§2. Philosophy as Reconciliation

§2. Philosophy as Reconciliation

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be rational. The word Hegel uses for rational here is vernuănftig. As I have

said in discussing Kant, this is an important term in German philosophy. It

must not be mistaken for instrumental, or means-ends, or economic rationality. Often the English word “reasonable” is better. When in our reflections

we understand our social world as expressing our freedom and enabling us

to achieve it as we lead our daily life, we become reconciled to it. Philosophy

in this role is not merely an academic exercise. It tells us something about

ourselves; it shows us our freedom of will—that we have it through institutions, not in other ways. This understanding in turn makes a form of life real.

The explanation is that a form of life is not fully made real or actual (wirklich)

until it is made self-conscious. Geist only fully realizes itself in human thought

and self-consciousness. So the form of the modern state, which in its political

and social institutions expresses the freedom of persons, is not fully actual

until its citizens understand how and why they are free in it. The work of

political philosophy is to help them to understand that. It looks not to a world

that ought to be that lies beyond the world (as Hegel thought Kant’s philosophy did), but to a world before their eyes that actualizes their freedom.

Here Hegel is attacking Kant’s idea of freedom at the deepest level. He

takes Kant to think that our freedom raises us above all the contingencies

of our human nature (our inclinations and needs), and above all the contingencies of our society and its history, and therefore that it is possible for us

always to act from the moral law and to achieve a good will, albeit gradually, once we fully resolve to do so. This alleged transcendental freedom

implies that all persons have an equal chance to attain the ideal of a person

of good moral character (a good will), whatever their more particular fortunes in the world. We might say that Kant thinks God has arranged things

so that we all equally have the power (or capacity) to work for our salvation.

Hegel will deny that human freedom can be fully actualized apart from the

appropriate social framework. It is only within a rational (reasonable) social

world, one that by the structure of its institutions guarantees our freedom,

that we can lead lives that are fully rational and good. And although no

social world can guarantee our happiness, it is only within such a world

that full happiness can be attained. Thus Hegel endorses the Pythagorean’s

advice: “When a father asked him for advice about the best way of educating his son in ethical matters, a Pythagorean replied, ‘Make him the citizen

of a state with good laws’ ” (PR §).

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. This brings us to another level of Hegel’s criticism of Kant. Hegel

wants to avoid the ethics of Sollen and thereby to change the point of ethics—what it should try to do. The basic shift is found in the idea of Sittlichkeit. It is the location of the ethical, the whole ensemble of rational (vernuănftig) political and social institutions that make freedom possible: the family,

civil society, and the state.

Hegel regards Kant’s ethics as trying to provide specific guidance for

people in their particular situations in everyday life. This guidance is given

in the form of testing their (sincere and rational)5 maxims by the categorical

imperative (CI) procedure. Using the CI-procedure provides the individual

with detailed and clear answers. By contrast, Hegel wants us to find our

moral compass in the institutions and customs of our social world itself,

as these institutions and customs have been made part of us as we grow

up into them and develop habits of thought and action accordingly. Kant

would reject this view as incompatible with his ideal of autonomy. As Hegel

sees the matter, Kant doesn’t provide real autonomy. For this, we must

belong to a rational (reasonable) social world that individuals on reflection

can accept and be reconciled to as meeting their fundamental needs. Hegel

wants to show that people can and do act freely when conducting themselves on the basis of habit and custom (assuming them to be reasonable

on reflection). This condition is met in the modern world (in contrast to the

ancient or the medieval world), in which social institutions must promote

subjectivity, individuality, and particularity, or what Hegel refers to as substantiality (which covers all three).

Hegel’s view of freedom is that only a substance can be fully free, and

that a rational social world is a substance. Moreover, individuals can attain

the fullest freedom available to them, as opposed to the misguided autonomy of Kant’s ethics, only by becoming self-reflecting and endorsing accidents (as Hegel says) of a rational social world. The term “accidents” brings

out that for Hegel, individuals cannot by themselves be substances, cannot

be free on their own. Rather, they are accidents, as it were, of a substance—

of a rational social world—and it is through that substance that they achieve

their real freedom. Do not be antagonized by Hegel’s use of the substanceaccident terminology, although it is not entirely without fault and may

5. Here we must, of course, understand rational in Kant’s sense as given by the hypothetical

imperative, and not in Hegel’s sense.



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encourage misinterpretation. It is crucial to stress that it is only through

the self-reflection of individuals, and only in their being reconciled to their

(rational) social world and in their correctly seeing it as rational and living

their lives accordingly, that the social world itself is brought to its full substantiality. So while rational social institutions are the necessary background

for freedom and for individuals’ real autonomy, the reflection, judgment,

and rational (reasonable) conduct of individuals are necessary to bring about

the substantiality and freedom of their social world.

Thus for Hegel, in contrast to Kant, the aim of the account of ethics

as Sittlichkeit is not to tell us what we ought to do—we know that—but to

reconcile us to our real social world and to convince us not to fix our thinking

and reflection on an ideal social world. For when we contemplate an ideal

social world, we are likely to dwell on our real social world’s shortcomings

and then to criticize and condemn it. Whereas what we need to do is to

become reconciled to the real social world by gaining insight into its true

nature as rational; to gain this insight, we need a philosophical account of

that world, and eventually a philosophical conception of the world as a

whole, including a philosophy of history.

. Hegel’s criticisms of Kant are of several kinds, some more fundamental than others. Having looked at two of the deeper criticisms, we should

also note some that are less fundamental but more familiar. Having the

deeper criticisms in mind, we can better understand the others. The most

familiar is Hegel’s claim that Kant’s formal conception of morality is in

some ways empty (PR §).

Hegel does not hold that there is no content at all to Kant’s moral

doctrine. Certainly the CI-procedure rules out some things; Hegel doesn’t

contest this. Rather, he holds that the procedure doesn’t provide us with

all the content Kant claims it does. Moreover, what it does give us are not

moral conclusions that we can properly be said to know: we do not attain

moral knowledge through the CI-procedure. We attain moral knowledge

only in what Hegel calls Sittlichkeit.

Further, the conclusions derived from the CI-procedure are not fixed

and valid for all circumstances, as Kant seems to think. The reason is that

in order to arrive at those conclusions in the first place, we have to assume

certain contingent circumstances, take certain background conditions as

given. Thus, in general, which maxims are accepted and which are rejected

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will depend on such factors. The specific duties that Kant claims to derive

from the moral law—as stated in the general way in which Kant renders

them—are more or less acceptable to Hegel. That is, he doesn’t in general

dispute the scheme of duties Kant professes to derive from the moral law.

But Hegel thinks that Kant arrives at this content only because he presupposes in the background a rational social world; by assuming that background, Kant simply avoids the main questions. For Hegel, those questions

are precisely questions about how to give a philosophical characterization

of a rational social world.

At a second level, Hegel’s criticism is that the kind of guidance Kant

aims to give us is not adequate. The reason is that it does not meet our

fundamental ethical needs, which are connected with how we stand toward

our social world. Hegel thinks that what we need to know is when its

institutions are rational and what is their point.

. Hegel views Kant as moved by a desire for radical purity, by a desire

to act from the moral law itself and by nothing else. It is this, he thinks,

that lies behind Kant’s distinction between prudence and morality and his

account of the supremacy of the good will. Hegel thinks that the way we

are supposed to view ourselves as moral agents in Kant’s doctrine is both

narrow and alienating.

(a) It is narrow because, first, it doesn’t take account of the features of

ourselves that we assume as members of our social world or of our particular community. And it is narrow because, second, on the level of motivation, it restricts far too much the kind of motives consistent with good

moral character.

(b) It is alienating because the form of moral life that Kant’s doctrine

requires excludes so many of the desires and aspirations of everyday life

and so greatly distances us from them that it alienates us from ordinary

affairs. One might say that Hegel rejects Kant’s distinction between prudence and morality: rather, he wants to allow that the aims of everyday

life—those of love and friendship, family and association, and the rest, all

pursued in their own terms from normal motives—are fully consistent with

ethical life, with what he calls Sittlichkeit.

. An essential aspect of Hegel’s view is that a rational social world is

not by any means a perfect world. Indeed, a rational social world has serious

social problems that cause great human unhappiness and pain. He discusses

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the problems of divorce, poverty, and war, among others. Thus Hegel

writes (Preface, paragraph ): “To recognize reason as the rose in the cross

of the present and thereby to delight in the present—this rational insight

is the reconciliation with actuality which philosophy grants to those who

have received the inner call to comprehend.”

Thus to be reconciled to our social world is not to think everything is

just fine and everyone is happy. A reasonable social world is not a utopia.

That is naive and foolish: there is no such world and there cannot be. Contingency and accident, misfortune, and bad luck are necessary elements of

the world, and social institutions, no matter how rationally designed, cannot

correct for them. However, a rational social order can provide for freedom

and makes it possible for citizens to realize their freedoms. Their freedom

can be guaranteed, and for Hegel freedom is the greatest good. Happiness

cannot be guaranteed, though freedom furthers it by enabling us to achieve

it, provided that we are fortunate and lead our lives wisely.

A difference between Hegel and Marx in this respect is that Hegel thinks

that the citizens of a modern state are objectively free now, and their freedom is guaranteed by its political and social institutions. However, they

are subjectively alienated. They tend not to understand that the social world

before their eyes is a home. They do not grasp it as such, nor do they feel

at home (bei sich) in it, nor do they accept and affirm it. By contrast, Marx

thinks that they are both objectively and subjectively alienated. For him,

overcoming alienation, both subjective and objective, awaits the communist society of the future after the revolution.



§. The Free Will

. Recall that we want to understand what Hegel means in saying, “The

free will is the will that wills itself as the free will.” Here we are concerned

with §§– in the Introduction. This part is very difficult, but it is where

Hegel begins and what he takes as his starting point. But that is not our

only reason for taking this up. Understanding what Hegel means here is

necessary if we are to understand the importance of Sittlichkeit in general,

and the role of civil society and right in the project of reconciliation.

Consider the concept of willing as the concept of being able to act for

the sake of some end, an end that we identify with, or accept, as our own.

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What elements, or moments as Hegel sometimes says, would we expect

this concept to have? I take §§– as a unit.

(a) Hegel starts in § with the element of pure indeterminacy. This is

what we are left with by taking away every limit and every content that

is present to our consciousness at any moment of time. Suppose these limits

and contents are presented to you by nature or by your desires and impulses. Now, imagine that you do not have any of those desires and impulses. Hegel says in the lectures of –: “The human being can abstract

from every content, make himself free of it, whatever is in my representation I can let it go, I can make myself entirely empty. . . . [H]e [the human

being] can let go all bonds of friendship, love, whatever they may be” (see

Wood, p. nn.). This is the will’s pure thought of itself: “Das reine Denken

seiner selbst.” In the remark to §, Hegel stresses, as Kant does, that thinking

and willing are not two separate things but two aspects of one thing.

(b) In §, Hegel indicates that, in willing, the self is in transition from this

pure indeterminacy to the positing of determinacy: it gives itself content and

an object. By this positing of something determinate, the self steps in principle

into determinate existence. It has resolved its indeterminacy and has become

something particular in seeking its content and obtaining its object.

(c) In §, the concept of the will is said to be the unity of both the preceding elements. The will’s content and object are reflected back into itself, and

in this way brought to universality. It is, as Hegel says, individuality.

Taken together, §§– characterize the will’s capacity to determine itself

from its pure indeterminacy and then to make those ends and aims its own,

or, let’s say, to identify itself with the ends it has adopted. In doing this,

the will (or the self, if you like) knows—recall that it is thinking and willing

together (§)—that it could have adopted other ends and aims, that it must

adopt some ends, and that it must identify with the ends it has adopted.

It could have adopted other ends since it starts from pure indeterminacy;

it must adopt some ends, else it remains empty and never steps into existence and realizes itself; and if it is truly to act, it must identify with, or

adopt as its own, the ends it adopts.

. At this point, we must discuss what content is appropriate for the

concept of the free will. The concept of the free will is not simply that of

a will that wills whatever it wants. Nor is a free will a will that simply

adopts whatever desires and impulses it happens to have. Hegel follows

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§2. Philosophy as Reconciliation

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