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§2. Philosophy as Reconciliation
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 §).
. 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.
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
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
(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
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.
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