Andy Blunden. June 2007

The Young Hegel against Liberalism*


In the late-18th/early-19th century, amongst advocates of modernity and the Rights of Man who were almost by definition liberals, Hegel stands out as decidedly anti-liberal. It wasn’t that Hegel was ‘in the middle’ or conservative or ‘soft’, but rather that for Hegel, liberalism and freedom were antithetical.

Throughout the 200 years since the publication of the Phenomenology, Hegel’s anti-liberalism has generated a lot of confusion amongst his interpreters: should he be seen as an advocate of the absolutist state or of the rule of law? Was he a bourgeois communitarian or a precursor of socialism? Was he for or against democracy?

It is not that Hegel wanted to balance the need for individual freedom against its negative impact on social cohesion; he saw individual freedom and social cohesion as prerequisites of one another and the development of individual freedom and the overcoming of social fragmentation were one and the same project.

Hegel’s angle can be readily understood if one takes into account the condition of his native Germany at the time. Not only was the Germany of his time backward and feudalistic, while Britain and France were dynamic and modern, but Germany was fragmented, while Britain and France were powerful, integrated and centralised states. Hegel saw the philosophy of his German predecessors, Kant and Fichte, as contributing to and expressive of fragmented human beings, while the classic advocates of liberal capitalism, like Hobbes and Rousseau, he saw as gravely mistaken in their conception of freedom. Also, he did not see the atomisation of civil society as an inevitable accompaniment of capitalism, but traced its roots back to Roman times and early Christianity.

Hegel wrote at a time when bourgeois society was still struggling to free itself from the fetters of feudalism and while the condition of the poor in Britain and France was at its very worst, he knew nothing of a class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat. Hegel’s political views are altogether antique, but I will argue that if his views are appropriately interpreted, at a philosophical level, he gives us an invaluable insight into the crisis of social integration which threatens humanity at the beginning of the 21st century.

Hegel’s early theological projects

Until Hegel’s friend, the poet Hölderlin, introduced him to criticisms of Kant while they were in Frankfurt together, when he was already 27, Hegel did not have a critical attitude towards Kant and had no plans to become a systematic philosopher himself. Up till this time, Hegel saw himself as a kind of Kantian agitator, preparing the people to fulfil the promises of the Enlightenment in Germany (Pinkard 2000). The perception that Kant’s philosophy was inadequate to the historical tasks of the day, but that ‘Professor of Philosophy’ was the best possible position from which to work for the German Revolution, led Hegel to pursue a career as a professional philosopher.

Hegel’s views prior to his taking up a position as unpaid lecturer in Jena in 1801 are not typical of his mature philosophy, but they do give us an idea of what Hegel was trying to achieve by his work in systematic philosophy.

The earliest fragment we have of Hegel’s writing is an essay he wrote while a student at the seminary in Tübingen. Written in 1793, the same year in which Kant published his Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, and the “Festival of Liberty and Reason” was held in Paris, as part of Robespierre’s ill-fated program to replace the Christian God with a rational religion. In this essay, Hegel discusses what would be required to launch a new current of Christianity which could foster a social movement to modernise Germany.

Kant’s idea was that religion was necessary to teach the people morals, integrate their beliefs, and foster social solidarity, but over the years, under the impact of Enlightenment, this religion would become more and more rational, and the need for a formal organisation and a priesthood to interpret and enforce the Scriptures, would become unnecessary. Thus would an ‘invisible church’ gradually come to pass. Whereas Robespierre wanted to impose a state-organised atheism, Hegel’s plans were quite different. The young Hegel wanted to foster the ‘invisible church’ by propagating a new ‘folk religion’. The following considerations would be implied by such a new ‘folk religion’:

“Its teachings must be founded on universal reason. Imagination, the heart, and the senses must not go away empty-handed in the process. It must be so constituted that all of life’s needs, including public and official transactions, are bound up with it.

“What must it avoid? Fetishistic beliefs, including one that is especially common in our prolix age, namely the belief that the demands of reason are satisfied by means of tirades against enlightenment and the like. As a result, people are endlessly at loggerheads over points of dogma without doing anything constructive either for themselves or for anyone else.”

Hegel was particularly concerned with the distinction between public and private religion and between objective and subjective religion.

By public religion he meant a religion which is tied up in the public life of believers, in their way of dealing with each other, as well as in the activity of institutions; a private religion, on the other hand, was a religion which existed only in the inner life of an individual. In this sense, Christianity was a private religion. Jesus taught his disciples to rid themselves of worldly wealth; how? Hegel asked, could such a stricture be extended to the whole of society, it would be an economic disaster. Christianity was concerned not with social behaviour and institutions, but just with the private conscience of individuals.

An objective religion was a religion which existed only in formal practices, books, laws, or even practical knowledge – “frozen capital” as Hegel calls it, in contrast to subjective religion, which existed in the hearts of people, in a disposition towards religiosity even in a person ignorant of doctrine. Christianity was an objective religion because it no longer lived in the heartbeat of the population. The dissonance in describing Christianity as “private” but not “subjective” is perhaps the earliest exhibition of Hegel’s feel for dialectics.

Later, in The Positivity of the Christian Religion, a tirade against Christianity written while working as a private tutor for a rich family in Berne, he introduced another nuance. “Positivity” meant that the truths of religion were presented as facts, dogmatically asserted by established institutions standing above the people. Negativity, by contrast, meant critique, not taking the status quo as fact, but rather as something which could be revolutionised and transformed by thought.

In any case, Hegel’s youthful investigations of religion clearly had ‘practical intent’. In May 1795, Hegel wrote his own “Life of Jesus,” portraying Jesus in the image of Kant, with an eye to ‘rewriting’ the Scriptures, even after Robespierre’s project had fallen flat and Robespierre himself had met the guillotine. Obviously the idea was in the air; but Hegel did not pursue this line any further. When he returned from Switzerland to Germany and spent more time with Hölderlin, he abandoned the idea of a “folk religion” as a means towards raising the German people to the Enlightenment.

During his time in Frankfurt, Hegel changed his attitude towards Christianity. It is hardly likely that the strong antipathy that he expressed in Berne evaporated, but he became ‘reconciled’ to Christianity not only as ‘real’ and therefore to be regarded as ‘rational’, and his historical studies demonstrated to him that it was Christianity and no other religion which had paved the way for modernity.

Hegel’s Long view of History

Hegel saw that life was very different from one principality to the next in Germany and from country to country in Western Europe. England was modern, Protestant and extremely liberal under a constitutional monarchy, while France was revolutionary, Catholic and republican. But Italy and Germany wallowed in backwardness and could not be called states at all. To make the revolution in Germany it was obviously essential to understand the origins of the differing fate of each different nation, and he looked to history for an explanation.

In his youth, along with his contemporaries, Hegel held onto an idealised image of the ancient Greek polis. He soon became aware of the extent to which the democracy of the ancient polis rested on slavery, but even as a mature philosopher, Hegel never entirely let go of his admiration for the ancient polis. His view was that the good life of the ancient city-state lacked the individuality which gave modernity its dynamism and was necessary for the development of human freedom; the early Christians had introduced the idea of the individual being responsible to their own conscience, but as soon as their church grew beyond being a small band of brethren, the teachings of Jesus could not be maintained, and Christianity became a religion of hypocrisy and dogmatism, a ‘positive’ religion. The third stage of development of the human spirit was initiated with the French Revolution which sought to realise the rights of the individual citizen while restoring the fraternity of the ancient republic. Hegel confronted at the outset the problem of scale; the democracy of the ancient polis could not be implemented on a mass scale in a modern nation, it would have to be ‘organised’.

In the course of developing his view of history, Hegel determined nuances of sometimes great subtlety, but he always had this very long view of history, and it was Christianity which occupied the long interval between the Aristotle and Robespierre. Trying to work out how freedom could be realised in a modern nation led Hegel to the study of the spirit of different peoples and the source of these differences.

Hegel’s original conception of Spirit

This was the context in which Hegel started to use the concept of “spirit.” Each people has a characteristic spirit; this spirit is built up out of the conditions of their life, the type of labour they engaged in, how they raised their children, and was modified by conquest and war, began as a youthful spirit and became aged. Connected with the spirit of a people (Volksgeist) is their fate, generally determined by success at war or submission to a foreign power. Hegel also, of course, famously, borrowed the idea of Zeitgeist, the “spirit of the times,” from the Romantic critic and poet Johann Gottfried Herder.

It was in “The Spirit of Christianity and its Fate,” that Hegel began to work out his mature, ‘realistic’ attitude to Christianity, in contrast to his earlier idealistic antipathy to Christianity. Clearly, religion constitutes the pre-eminent sensibility binding a people together as a people. Hegel pointed out that individuals are free only when we act in accordance with to principles that follow from the free spirit of the people of which they are a citizen, just as we must act in accordance with Nature, and the spirit of a people constitutes for the individual a ‘second nature’. Only the spirit of the people as a whole, not the isolated individual, can be absolutely self-determining.

It always remained a problem for Hegel, that because the national religion was so important to the spirit of a people and their identity as a people, it seemed that the religion ought to be identified with the state; but at the same time, he knew that while religion had to be public, it also had to be subjective and above all the spirit of a people had to be negative if it was to be modern. So a people needed a state in order to make itself objective, and it needed a religion, but the state and the church had to remain separate. Later, Hegel identified the aesthetic and philosophical achievements of a people as important alongside religiosity in constituting its spirit.

Now there is no doubt that this concept of “spirit” in the sense of the spirit of a people or of an age is problematic. But we still hear people talking about “Baby-boomers” and “Gen-X” which is exactly the same concept, and while these concepts are terribly abused, generational changes in attitude are empirically verifiable. To deny national differences, let alone differences in the spirit of different social classes, would be unsustainable. But it is not all easy to put observations about ‘spirit’ in this sense on a scientific footing. It had never been done before and Hegel’s early investigations of the idea should be given their due.

During the heyday of the national liberation movements, Volksgeist was a highly plausible concept, but since then, with the rise of the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the plethora of recognition movements of the period since, the idea of a presumably unitary spirit characteristic of a whole people, lumping together all the classes, genders, generations, occupational groups and sexualities amongst that people, is taken to be oppressive and exclusionary.

We will return to this question later, but rejection of the notion of spirit in this way is self-contradictory. The very movements which have cracked open the notion of the homogeneous spirit of a people – ‘difference’, are given their canonical expression by Hegel. ‘Postmodernism’, on the other hand, is the biggest ‘grand narrative’ of them all: for a culture to come to view with scepticism and disdain any claim to social progress is the boldest claim to social progress of all.

Hegel’s problem was the backwardness and fragmentation of the German people, and their lack of a state, and his aim was to bring self-consciousness to that people, not because he was a nationalist in any modern sense, but for the purpose of emancipating Germany and giving Germany self-consciousness. Everything that we can learn from Hegel about Volksgeist can be carried over into understanding the complex formation of self-consciousness through social, political and cultural conflicts. But more of this later. For now, it should simply be noted that this conception of spirit, a concept expressing the character or ‘personality’ of a people, is quite sustainable, if challenging, from a scientific point of view.

The concept of spirit underwent a gradual shift between its first appearance around 1798 in “The German Constitution” and “The Spirit of Christianity” for example, and the second sries of lectures in Jena in 1805-6.

In the earlier formulations, the spirit of a people can be likened to personality; it is empirically evident and has its origins in the life experiences of the people. It is the outcome and expression of a really shared history. By 1806, Spirit has become a unitary entity manifesting or expressing itself in different peoples at different times.

In the earlier formulations, ‘spirit’ is an expression of collective character or personality which is the outcome of a shard history, but in the later formulations, it is spirit which is driving history. This contrast can be made by comparing the systems of 1803-4 and 1805-6, but before we can see the full picture we must return to a couple of important aspects of the critique that Hegel developed of Kant.

Hegel’s criticism of Kant’s fragmentation of the person

Not only Hegel, but Fichte and Schelling and many philosophers since found a number of interrelated problems in Kant’s philosophy which needed to be addressed, namely contradictions which Kant resolved by the creation of mutually exclusive categories or dichotomies. For example, Kant described two sources of knowledge: intuition which was acquired through the faculty of sensation, and concept which was acquired through the faculty of reason. Thus the world is divided between phenomena (or appearances, things-for-us) and noumena, or “things-in-themselves” beyond sensation and inaccessible to experience.

Each of the philosophers who followed Kant tried to resolve this problem in a different way. Hegel charged that Kant had fragmented the human being into a bundle of faculties.

In his 1802 article (“Faith and Knowledge”) in the “Critical Journal of Philosophy” that he produced jointly with Schelling, his approach was to claim that (for example) intuition and concept were originally identical, but had been sundered in two creating apparently incompatible faculties. Schelling’s claim was similar; Schelling claimed that absolute knowledge apprehended the unity of concept and intuition. But Schelling had a great deal of difficulty explaining by what faculty this ‘absolute’ knowledge was acquired. At one stage he argued that it was the aesthetic faculty that was able to perceive the absolute. This is the context in which Hegel described the absolute as “the night in which all cows are black” in the Phenomenology. Both these solutions which were based on the concept of an underlying or original unity proved unsatisfactory however. Hegel’s conviction that Kant fragmented the human into a bundle of faculties, was not resolved by simply declaring the identity of the faculties.

Hegel’s critique of Kant’s conception of Subject

Another problem with Kant’s philosophy was his conception of the subject. In an effort to overcome Descartes’ dualism, and materialist attempts to understand individual perception which lead, via an infinite regression, to a homunculus, Kant relied on the idea of a transcendental subject. That is, the subject was at bottom not anything real, but an abstract point, behind all experience, and beyond all cultural or historical determination, an abstract human being. Hegel’s investigation of spirit allowed him to understand how different was the individual of this or that people, and gave Hegel an angle from which to criticise Kant’s abstract, fragmented human subject.

The shift in the concept of Spirit 1795 to 1807

The work which first brought Hegel’s ideas into an overall systematic shape was the “System of Ethical Life.” This unfinished draft, written in 1802-3 begins:

“Knowledge of the Idea of the absolute ethical order depends entirely on the establishment of perfect adequacy between intuition and concept, because the Idea itself is nothing other than the identity of the two. But if this identity is to be actually known, it must be thought as a made adequacy. But because they are then held apart from one another in an equation as its two sides, they are afflicted with a difference. One side has the form of universality, the other the opposed form of particularity. Therefore, in order that the equation be completely established, what was first put in the form of particularity must be put in the form of universality, while what was given the form of universality must now be given the form of particularity.”

The whole work unfolds from this beginning by the alternate subsumption of intuition under concept and subsumption of concept under intuition, and winds up with an unfinished outline for the idealised constitution of a state. Allowing that Idea [Idee] here stands for Spirit [Geist], this drafts marks a number of stunning breakthroughs:

With these conceptions Hegel has truly cut the Gordian knot of Kantian conundrums. Instead of the human being having an abstraction at its centre with hypothetical innate faculties, Hegel’s problem of understanding the differing spirit and fate of different people’s finds its ground in the cultural-historical formation of the spirit or psychology of a people.

Hegel does not use the word “spirit” until the last section on the constitution. At this level, the constitution and the government constitute the two moments, concept and intuition of the Idea, and only here does Hegel begin to talk of “spirit.”

However, between the “System of Ethical Life” of 1803/4 and the next extant version of Hegel’s system, the “Philosophy of Spirit” of 1805/6, a number of subtle but important changes have taken place in how Hegel formulates these ideas. In this work, Spirit has subtly changed its meaning and has become something which pre-exists history and culture and is expressed in its work through human beings and the construction of culture; spirit finds a different expression in different peoples.

This understanding of “Spirit” remained with Hegel thereafter. In “Philosophy of Right,” when he says “Spirit is the nature of human beings en masse,” there is nothing to oblige the reader to see this ‘nature’ as pre-existing the human beings whose nature it is. Likewise, in his descriptions of the formation of consciousness and self-consciousness in the Phenomenology and the “Encyclopaedia,” these passages make perfect sense in ‘pragmatic’ terms. It can be said that the answer to a riddle is there before anyone sits down to solve it, whether the riddle is given by Nature or by another person, but riddles do not necessarily have one and only one solution. Throughout Hegel’s works, the original interpretation of spirit, as the product of a people’s labour and experience, remains a plausible and valid interpretation. Nevertheless, Hegel speaks of Spirit as something like God, which exists outside of human activity, but expresses itself in human activity. And the conception of spirit as a universal subject acting through the actions of human beings, but behind their backs, does lead Hegel to some well-known methodological problems.

We are all familiar with this conception of ‘spirit’; the very idea of the study of history as a science presumes that history is law-governed in some way, and consequently that the ‘laws of history’ in some way pre-exist any sequence of historical events in which they are manifested. Likewise, the whole science of economics takes for granted that the market has laws, laws of which every actor in the market must take account. When Marx wrote to Engels on 22 February 1858: “Taken all in all, the crisis has been burrowing away like the good old mole it is,” [from Hamlet: “Well said, old mole, canst work i’ th’ earth so fast?"] he had the same idea of processes at work beneath the surface of history, as Hegel was referring to when he wrote to his friend Niethammer:

“I adhere to the view that the world spirit has given the age marching orders. These orders are being obeyed. The world spirit, this essential, proceeds irresistibly like a closely drawn armoured phalanx advancing with imperceptible movement, much as the sun through thick and thin. Innumerable light troops flank it on all sides, throwing themselves into the balance for or against its progress, though most of them are entirely ignorant of what is at stake and merely take head blows as from an invisible hand.” [Hegel to Niethammer 5 July 1816]

and this last expression “invisible hand” is a perfectly self-conscious reference to Adam Smith’s conception of the laws of the market as an ‘invisible hand’.

Again, this concept has been under attack in recent decades, mainly for its presumption of a totalisation of processes and tendencies which cannot be justified. But more than this, the idea of ‘spirit’ in this sense presumes that human actions are subject to laws which are themselves extramundane. This is not a simple issue; human life is obviously law-governed in some way. We will return to this issue below, but for the moment it should be noted that somewhere around 1804 or 1805, Hegel’s conception of spirit shifted from being a kind of personality (character, disposition, abilities), formed through cultural activity, to something resembling a personification of the ‘laws of history’.

Recognition as Key to Self-consciousness

Now, there was another change taking place in Hegel’s philosophy from the “System of Ethical Life” to the mature system, and that is the place give to Recognition. Indeed, it is the concept of recognition which is the most widely known feature of the Young Hegel.

“Recognition” features in the philosophy of the Young Hegel because this concept was at the centre of Johann Fichte’s critique of Kant. At the centre of Kant’s philosophy was the transcendental subject, whose actions were to be subject to maxims which derived from pure reason, to which every transcendental subject was presumed to have recourse. This so-called ‘practical reason’ was self-evidently remote from any kind of practical life, and supports a dogmatic ethics. Fichte approached this problem by replacing resort to pure reason with interaction with other individual subjects who place demands on the subject.

In contrast to this reliance on ‘pure reason’, Fichte’s basic substance was activity. The self, or Ego, was pure activity (and Hegel adopted this definition of the Ego from Fichte), but this was not activity of the self, which would have led to a Cartesian dualism, but rather the Ego was this activity, and self-consciousness was this activity, when activity was turned upon itself. Activity (or practice) is both subjective and objective, in as much as activity is subject to the constraints of both subjective thought and the outer objective world. So Fichte saw no need to posit ‘things-in-themselves’ outside of activity: “what is not for us does not concern us.”

Since, according to Fichte, the Ego could only come to know something by first finding it through activity in the outside world, how could an Ego come to know itself as a free being? It would have to be able to recognise another free being, something which would be possible only for a subject which already knew itself as a free being. This infinite regression is resolved by a person being recognised by another as a “free being” and being “summoned” to exercise their freedom, and respect another’s property. In this way, natural law arises not from maxims derived from pure reason, but rather intersubjectively, by individuals treating other individuals as free beings.

This move took the first step in overcoming the residual dogmatic rationalism of Kant’s philosophy, taking the problems of consciousness and ethics away from universal maxims of reason and locating them instead in the historical development of society and interactions between people, negotiating the rules of interactions between them.

Hegel’s criticism of Fichte’s liberal individualism

Fichte was an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution and was sympathetic to the Jacobins. His philosophy represented an extreme liberal position and is the classic expression of the liberal notion of freedom. Fichte overcame the dichotomy of object and subject in Kant’s philosophy by taking ‘activity’ (read ‘practice’) as substance. Because he effectively put everything on the side of the subject, he was described as a subjective idealist.

From the standpoint of what Hegel was trying to achieve, the problem with Fichte is that he was trying to deduce the state from the individual instead of the other way around and in casting the state simply in negative terms as a limitation upon freedom. Hegel summed this up in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy as follows:

“Fichte likewise makes freedom the principle in the Rights of Nature; but, as was the case with Rousseau, it is freedom in the form of the isolated individual. This is a great commencement, but in order to arrive at the particular, they have to accept certain hypotheses. The universal is not the spirit, the substance of the whole, but an external, negative power of the finite understanding directed against individuals. The state is not apprehended in its essence, but only as representing a condition of justice and law, i.e. as an external relation of finite to finite. There are various individuals; the whole constitution of the state is thus in the main characterized by the fact that the freedom of individuals must be limited by means of the freedom of the whole. The individuals always maintain a cold attitude of negativity as regards one another, the confinement becomes closer and the bonds more stringent as time goes on, instead of the state being regarded as representing the realization of freedom.” [History of Philosophy, III, Three, C 1]

In his early effort at building a system, the System of Ethical Life, Hegel appropriated Fichte’s concept of recognition, though in an inverted form. With Fichte, recognition is extended to the subject by an Other who, by demanding that the subject exercise their freedom by respecting the other’s property, recognises the subject as a free being. With Hegel, the subject demands recognition from the Other by defending their own honour and property rights. Both these approaches have merit in fact, but that discussion would take us too far form our theme.

For both Fichte and Hegel, the significance of Recognition lies in the transition from Consciousness to Self-Consciousness or free self-determination. For Fichte however, this process is exclusively intersubjective, and the dialectic is developed on a subjective idealist basis, with the Ego supplanting Activity as the operative concept. For Hegel, firstly, Recognition is the action of a subject, which is not identical with ‘individual’, especially at the point of deriving the concept of ‘self-consciousness’, prior to the development of individuality. Secondly, Recognition begins from a subject’s defence of their own objectification, and their struggle to translate their status as an immediate possessor into the universal; by being recognised, the subject does not have to fight every day to protect their honour and property from attack. Thirdly, the struggle for recognition leads to self-consciousness only through a process of mediation, not immediately, ‘intersubjectively’. This process of mediation played a key role in the exposition of the System of Ethical Life. Here recognition has to do with the transition from ‘absolute ethical life’ to a system of needs based on exchange between economic agents. Such a system, ‘the first system of government’ according to Hegel, presupposes that subjects treat each other as property owners and make contracts with each other, in other words, recognise each other as trustworthy and possessing legal rights within a basic framework of rights and duties.

In the succeeding formulation of Hegel’s system known as the Philosophy of Spirit, the Jena lectures of 1805-6, the word ‘recognition’ is more ubiquitous than ever before or since in Hegel’s writing. However, the meaning of the term has moved away from what can really be encompassed within the concept of recognition. ‘Being-recognised’ means being an agent within a legal framework, and contributing with your labour to the system of needs of the society as a whole. The element of ‘intersubjectivity’ has completely disappeared. ‘Being recognised’ is a self-relation mediated by participation in institutions and by the circulation and use of the products of one’s labour. A person is recognised when they come of age, move out of the protection of their family and begin to act within the wider society as a person in their own right.

In the Phenomenology, Recognition is dealt with in the section on the development of self-consciousness, also known as ‘Self-consciousness Recognitive’. The key relation is the ‘master-servant dialectic’ which involves a subject gaining the recognition of another subject by subjugating them and subsuming them into their own system of needs. In this work, the master-servant dialectic is concerned with the transition from life in isolated, self-sufficient communities to life in a modern economy. This transition involves the transformation of naïve self-certainty into modern bourgeois-individualist consciousness.

In the later works which make up the various sections of the Encyclopaedia, ‘self-consciousness recognitive’ is confined to what Hegel calls his ‘Psychology’ and does not figure in the Objective Spirit or “Philosophy of Right.” This is because Hegel saw objective spirit as unfolding out of the dialectic of Right and therefore presupposing ‘being-recognised’. This clear separation between objective and subjective spirit is a later development however, and throughout his earlier period, objective spirit and subjective spirit are conjoined in ‘formations of consciousness’.

‘Recognition’ is the paradigmatic concept of pragmatic interpretations of spirit and other ‘intersubjectivist’ social and ethical theories. For many writers, ‘recognition’ is the key concept for understanding the Young Hegel. But the concept of ‘recognition’ really belongs to Fichte. With it, Fichte took Kant from the critique of pure reason to the activity of human beings interacting and placing demands on one another. Hegel took up this concept with the aim of giving is a ‘communitarian’ rather than a liberal-individualist spirit. This meant that the mediating term in social activity plays the key role. Ultimately, Hegel’s conception of the role of culture in the development of the human spirit meant that Hegel’s idea outgrew the limitations of the notion of recognition and it was reduced to just a moment in the development of self-consciousness. Even here, Hegel’s was not a concept of intersubjectivity as such (Hegel never used the term ‘intersubjectivity’), but rather a concept of mutual self-mediation. The concept of recognition could take you as far as participation in the market place, or even civil society perhaps, but it could not take you to the state. The only kind of state which can be deduced from a theory of intersubjective recognition is that of a Hobbesian state whose role was the limitation of freedom. What Hegel needed was a concept which facilitated the understanding of the state as an expression and not a limitation upon freedom.

The state as an expression not a limitation of freedom

Hegel’s conception of the state as the expression of the universal will, and as the culmination of a protracted struggle for freedom, was in marked contrast to the notions of Hobbes and Rousseau, that, necessary or not, the state was essentially a limitation upon freedom which existed in order to restrain the war-like disposition of its citizens. Even today, the liberal notion of the state as an interference in the free life of its citizens, and that the state is necessary in order to maintain law and order, with its police and prisons, but apart from these unfortunately necessary functions, we would be better off without it. This is the dominant view today as it was then.

Hegel disagreed, and his sharply anti-liberal views on this topic go back to the situation we mentioned above, that Hegel lived in a country that had no state. Germany was fragmented into small principalities lacking any real vision of itself and powerless alongside its mighty neighbours. Germany was of course not short on regulations and law and order. In fact it was suffocating in laws and regulations. This is an important point to grasp: Hegel was opposed to the state being involved in regulation of the market, but he was working from a point where his country had no state, and the lack of freedom he experienced as a result was palpable.

Secondly, even at this early stage, Hegel’s conception of the state was very different from the welfare/interventionist state which today’s liberals so abhor.

Hegel elaborated his idea of the state in terms of an historical development from the “Absolute state” to the “Universal state” to “free government.” He sees that the state begins with a great leader bringing a people together into a united force and giving them a constitution. His will is ipso facto, the universal will. There is nothing democratic about this, but by uniting the people, the founder gives to every individual the force of the whole people. The tyranny of the absolute state is abhorrent however, but Hegel says, it is not overthrown because it is abhorrent but because it becomes superfluous (he has Robespierre in mind). The universal state, on the other hand, is run by a whole class of public-spirited, meritocratic civil servants, such as the civil service under Napoleon. Here there is a division between the roles of the different “classes” in society. Classes in inverted commas because Hegel changed his formulation of these classes over time, and at no time did he understand them in quite the way “class” would later be understood.

So government becomes the role of a whole class, not just an heroic individual, just as tending the land and running the economy are the life-projects of different classes. Hegel always imagined however, that the state should continue to be represented by an individual, a constitutional monarch or heroic emperor, but once the work of founding the state is done, according to Hegel, the role of the individual head of state is either as a figure head (like the Queen of England) or to lead the country in war (one is reminded of the role of US Presidents).

Hegel did not develop his conception of the state much beyond this in his early days, other than to rather surprisingly indicate that he did not think it much mattered whether the “Free Government” was a republic or a monarchy, but that a free government rested on the separation of powers! In the kind of state which Hegel imagined, it didn’t much matter whether the head of state was an hereditary monarch like the Queen of England or an elected President like the American, because they could rule only insofar as they expressed the universal will, and – and this is the key point to understand – with the organised population which Hegel saw the state as resting upon, this will was to be no abstraction, but an absolutely substantial, organised and self-conscious body of people. The key point is the mediation between the state and the people.

By the time he came to write the Philosophy of Right, he subsumed the “Public Authority” which included the police and judiciary into Civil Society, alongside the “Corporations” which were kind of professional societies cum trade unions incorporating everyone who worked in a given industry. These corporations had the responsibility, like the English craft unions and early modern ‘companies’, of providing the full range of welfare services for their members as well as regulating the trade and representing their members to the rest of civil society and the government. When Hegel first broke with idea of resuscitating the democracy of the ancient Greek polis, he had said that participation of individuals in the affairs of government would require some kind of organisation, and this is what he came up with. Not only the Corporations, but also the “Estates,” or local communities, would exercise participatory, democratic self-government (along the lines of an ancient polis), including regulation of the market for their own labour, criminal justice, pensions, health and so forth. In other words, a fully-developed social democracy, but within civil society, not mediated by the state. Individual philanthropy was not part of this conception however, and the corporations would in turn have to be authorised by the state.

The individual person gains recognition firstly by being a citizen of a state governed by the rule of law. This guarantees the integrity of the person and ensures that the individual exists, not just as particular but as universal. Secondly, the individual is recognised and commands respect for their skills and labour and by their contribution to welfare or solidarity work in their particular corporation. Thirdly, in their local community and family, as an individual person, they receive and provide loving care and pass on the family property to a new generation. Interestingly, Hegel was in favour of compulsory education to be provided by the state, not the corporation. Clearly, Hegel had in mind the binding role of Bildung along with art and religion, something which cannot be provided from within civil society which is the domain of particularity, and presumably education in a trade or profession.

The force that an individual can exert is nothing alongside the power of a whole people, which is universal, but through exercise of universal legal rights and through the combined power of their particular corporation an individual can make an impact on the state, and will see the actions of the state as expressing their own personality. This action is in relation to other states in the “animal kingdom” of international relations and in the creation and modification of the law which is the substance of the universal, the second-natural environment in which individuals live.

The nation-state as a social movement

Hegel never denied that life under a state was on the whole oppressive, but such oppression was an indication of the underdevelopment of the state, not the state as such. There can be no freedom without the state, so to see the state as the source and cause of oppression would be, from Hegel’s perspective, misguided. By the time Hegel died in 1831, there had never been any event or movement which could provide any basis for a conception of the self-emancipation of the poor. The workers began to confront the soldiers in the streets of Paris under the banner of Communism only in the 1830s. Likewise, the Chartist Movement in England dates from the 1830s. People like Fourier and Owen, did not envisage socialism being won by the political struggle of the workers themselves, in fact, there could be no talk of a working class at all until the 1830s at the very earliest. At the time that Hegel was writing, in Europe, the bourgeoisie was the universal class and Napoleon was riding around Europe overthrowing the old regime and instituting the code civile. Hegel could never have foreseen the possibility that the exploited class under capitalism could attain self-consciousness and become a revolutionary force and in fact that proposition still remains an open question.

Hegel’s conception of the state is important however, because by conceiving the social movement which was to emancipate Germany as a state, he also conceived of the state as a social movement. In modern terms, Hegel’s is a theory of social movements, not government.

Hegel’s opposition to general elections

Universal suffrage existed in no country in the world in Hegel’s day. Universal male suffrage had been enacted in France in 1792 and 1793, and there was restricted suffrage in a number of countries. The demand for universal suffrage only became widespread only after the Chartist movement in England and built up throughout the nineteenth century. But it is impossible to imagine any state or progressive social movement today which did not incorporate universal suffrage.

Hegel, however, poured scorn on the demand for universal suffrage. His ideal was the democracy of the ancient Greek polis and it was patently obvious that this sort of democracy cannot be implemented in a modern nation state. In that context, universal suffrage is a fraud. There is no way that universal suffrage gives to the individual any real say in the affairs of state. Hegel could not and did not foresee the significance that universal suffrage would take on. But his criticisms of universal suffrage still stand. Universal suffrage makes sense within and on top of the kind of participatory democracy Hegel saw as immanent in modernity.

Hegel’s opposition to individualism

Hegel rejected as a fraud the claim for universal suffrage as a route to freedom within a modern state. He was well aware of the fact that the creation and strengthening of the state had been and would remain the road along which human freedom would march. The problem was: how could the state be so organised that the state really was a substantial expression of the universal will of its citizens and was seen by such by its citizens.

“It [the universal] is a people, a group of individuals in general, an existent whole, the universal force. It is of insurmountable strength against the individual, and is his necessity and the power oppressing him. And the strength that each one has in his being-recognized is that of a people. This strength, however, is effective only insofar as it is united into a unity, only as will. The universal will is the will as that of all and each, but as will it is simply this Self alone. The activity of the universal is a unity. The universal will has to gather itself into this unity. It has first to constitute itself as a universal will, out of the will of individuals, so that this appears as the principle and element. Yet on the other hand the universal will is primary and the essence – and individuals have to make themselves into the universal will through the negation of their own will, [in] externalization and cultivation. The universal will is prior to them, it is absolutely there for them – they are in no way immediately the same.” [Jena Lectures of 1805-6, Part III. Constitution]

The individualist has no answer to this; either the individual can genuinely act with the force of a popular movement which expresses their own will, or they are powerless. But on the other side, Hegel was not a communitarian who counted individuality for nothing. On the contrary. He credited the Early Christians with introducing the moment of individuality into the demand for freedom and the entire span of history from the second century AD is the struggle to make that idea a reality.

When Hegel says:

“Spirit is the ‘nature’ of individuals, their immediate substance, and its movement and necessity; it is as much the personal consciousness in their existence as it is their pure consciousness, their life, their actuality.” [System of Ethical Life, Part III]

there is a double meaning. On the one hand, as in “Philosophy of Right” spirit is defined as “the nature of human being en masse,” but on the other hand, this spirit is the “second nature” within which an individual lives. It would only be in the Logic, which Hegel completed in 1816, that he was able to fully work out the relation of the individual to the whole people, but the real meaning of the logic he worked out prior to 1807.

Self-consciousness and inclusion or recognition

Recent interest in the Young Hegel focuses on the concept of Recognition and the role of Recognition in the formation of self-consciousness. This interest follows on from the interest of French Hegelianism in the master-servant relation in the Phenomenology. As we remarked above, the profile given to Recognition by the Young Hegel was a direct response to the place of Recognition in Fichte’s philosophy, which was intended to underpin an extreme liberalism. As it happens, all those who take the concept of Recognition as their starting point in interpretation of the Young Hegel omit the moment of mediation in Hegel’s conception of Recognition and by doing so line up with Fichte, and in direct opposition to Hegel.

As we outlined above, by 1805, when “Recognition” figures most frequently in Hegel’s writing, “recognition” has ceased to mean Recognition at all. Recognition finds its appropriate place in the mature system and this reduced emphasis given to Recognition is not a failing of the mature Hegel, but a more consistent working out of the intentions which are clear as daylight in the Young Hegel.

Recognition remains a crucial relation in the section on recognitive self-consciousness in the Subjective Spirit. It marks the first moment in the development of self-consciousness when a subject confronts another subject without mediation by any third party.

Recognition lies at the base of the “Philosophy of Right” in as much as “being recognised” means “having the right to have rights” and inclusion within a society governed by the rule of law; that is to say, having one’s personality existent in the universal (i.e., in the actions of the whole people). After 1806, use of the term “recognition” for this relation was dropped. Instead, Hegel talked about “being a person” and having abstract right, or property.

Recognition also figures in the “Philosophy of Right” in dealing with the recognition an individual gets from their “corporation.” This recognition is mediated by the individual’s labour and their participation in social solidarity and mutual aid. Within the corporation, it really is possible for an individual to be recognised in their particularity; the corporation is of a scale and homogeneity commensurate with the ancient polis. Whereas modern society by definition does not mandate any particular way of life, the corporation is built around particularity. This relation cannot be extended to the whole of society, not only because of problems of scale, but more importantly because the very nature of modern society forbids it.

The places of labour and law in recognition

In the 1805-6 Lectures, Hegel explored a mode of recognition which was mediated by the circulation of a worker’s labour within the system of needs. Here, Recognition was to be mediated not only by law, but also by labour. This mode of recognition is not retained in later versions, such as the “Philosophy of Right.” The recognition and respect a person gets within their corporation replaces this relation so far as it is concerned with the domain of Objective Spirit.

In the “System of Ethical Life” and the 1805-6 Lectures, the formation of consciousness through labour, as well as in the raising of children and the use of language, play an important role. It seems that Hegel continued to hold on to this analysis, but they do not receive a great deal of prominence inasmuch as they concern the formation of consciousness and Hegel’s main interest continued to lie in the formation of self-consciousness and the form of freedom characteristic of modern society. Hegel did not have any particular interest in anthropology, and in any case, did not have the information to support such an interest.

So labour seems to play a lesser role in the mature system. This is a weakness that is probably associated with Hegel’s unfamiliarity with class struggle and the importance of the formation of difference forms of consciousness within the labour process. His early insights into this process are groundbreaking, but for further development of these insights one looks to Marx and Engels rather than to Hegel. In the present time, when the boundaries between labour and communicative action in general are blurred to say the least, this aspect of Hegel can become a strength rather than a weakness.

Perhaps the most impressive feature of the Young Hegel which disappears after 1806 is the conception of spirit as the product of history, rather than its source. When Hegel began to talk of Spirit as the universal subject, coming to itself by means of human history, then he made a methodological reversal which cannot be supported. All in all, the most reliable and enduring part of Hegel’s corpus is the Logic, because it is this work which is furthest removed from real history and real politics. As Lenin remarked: “in this most idealistic of Hegel’s works there is the least idealism and the most materialism” (Volume 38, p. 234)

Hegel claims:

“To the historian of philosophy it belongs to point out more precisely how far the gradual evolution of his theme coincides with, or swerves from, the dialectical unfolding of the pure logical Idea.” (Shorter Logic, §86n)

But this really is the wrong way around, and it shows when Hegel treats of real history. So, it is to the Logic that we should turn in order to find Hegel’s purest treasures, but the Young Hegel has shown us how the Logic should be read.

Hegel’s conception of the Subject

So by the time we have followed Hegel up to the writing of the Phenomenology we understand that the individual consciousness is to be understood as an individual moment of universal consciousness. This individual moment is not simply an instance of the general consciousness, since this would be just the inverse of casting the universal consciousness as a abstract, dumb generality. The individual consciousness understands itself in relation to the universal and the universal exists in and through the particular forms of activity in which individuals are engaged. These relations were worked out in detail only in the Science of Logic. Hegel had been working on his distinctive understanding of logic from the very beginning of his stint as an unpaid lecturer at Jena, and he continued to revise it up to his death in 1831, but it is the definitive version published in two volumes 1812-1816 which contain, in unforgivably abstract form, Hegel’s exposition of the Subject.


What is unique about Hegel’s approach and which is its greatest importance, is that Hegel never operated with an individual-social dichotomy. The history and way of life of a whole people constitutes a form of consciousness – the universal, and individuals participate in that universal form of consciousness by means of particular systems of activity. There are not two ‘levels’ of consciousness here. Social consciousness has no separate existence from the psyche of individuals and the artefacts and forms of collective practice which individuals use in their own cognitive and practical activity.

But modern life, both as it is and how Hegel envisaged it, is not a homogeneous form of life. Every individual participates in a multiplicity of intersecting systems of activity, and Hegel’s approach has to be understood in that light. For the vast majority if not all of us living in conditions of modernity, the nation is not the most important social movement, and Hegel’s conception of the state has to be appropriately interpreted in that light.

But despite the lapse of 200 years, Hegel’s philosophical approach to the problems of modernity retain their relevance because he was an anti-liberal supporter of individual freedom, and it is only today that it has become clear that liberalism is the principal threat to individual freedom.

The Crisis in Social Solidarity

The principal problems of social justice today hinge not around the institution of state programs of income distribution and democratic participation. The main problem today is the actual disintegration of the social fabric, as a direct result of the market and the dominance of liberal ideology. The Young Hegel’s ideas have a lot to contribute to tackling this problem in a realistic way.

Footnote: By “Liberalism,” I mean laissez-faire in economics and for ‘small government’, individual autonomy, the priority of right over good, religious and life-style pluralism and methodological individualism. In the context of claiming that Hegel was anti-liberal I have in mind ‘small government’, the priority of right over good, and methodological individualism. Hegel was very much for individual freedom and religious and life-style pluralism.