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Hegel's Critique of the Triumph of Verstand in Modernity

  • Stephen Houlgate (a1)


In his lectures on the philosophy of history Hegel passes this famous judgement on the French Revolution. “Anaxagoras had been the first to say that nous governs the world; but only now did humanity come to recognize that thought should rule spiritual actuality. This was thus a magnificent dawn”. What first gave rise to discontent in France, in Hegel's view, were the heavy burdens that pressed upon the people and the government's inability to procure for the Court the means of supporting its luxury and extravagance. But soon the new spirit of freedom and enlightenment began to stir in men's minds and carry them forward to revolution. “One should not, therefore, declare oneself against the assertion”, Hegel concludes, “that the Revolution received its first impulse from Philosophy” (VPW, p 924).

However, Hegel points out that the legacy of the revolution is actually an ambiguous one. For, although the principles which guided the revolution were those of reason and were indeed magnificent – namely, that humanity is born to freedom and self-determination – they were held fast in their abstraction and turned “polemically”, and at times terribly, against the existing order (VPW, p 925). What ultimately triumphed in the revolution was thus not concrete reason itself, but abstract reason or understanding (VPW, p 923). In Hegel's view, the enduring legacy of such revolutionary understanding was, not so much the Terror, but the principle that “the subjective wills of the many should hold sway” (VPW, p 932). This principle, which Hegel calls the principle of “liberalism” and which we would call the principle of majority rule, has since spread from France to become one of the governing principles of modern stat. It has been used to justify granting universal suffrage, to justify depriving corporations and the nobility of the right to sit in the legislature, and in some cases to justify abolishing the monarchy. What is of crucial importance for Hegel, however, is that such measures have not rendered the state more modern and rational, but have in fact distorted the modern state.



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1 Hegel, G W F, Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Weltgeschichte, Band II–IV (1919), edited by Lasson, G (Hamburg: Felix Meiner, 1923), p 926 . All translations from this edition of Hegel's lectures on the philosophy of history are my own. Further references are given in the main text in the form: VPW, p 926.

2 On the effects of the “democratic spirit” in the modern world, see, for example, Taylor, C, Hegel and Modern Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), pp 111–34; and Dallmayr, F, “Rethinking the Hegelian State”, in Hegel and Legal Theory, edited by Cornell, D, Rosenfeld, M, and Carlson, D G (New York: Routledge, 1991), p 341 .

3 Hegel, G W F, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, edited by Wood, A, translated by Nisbet, H B (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), §273. Further references will be given in the main text in the form: PR, §273.

4 Hegel's Political Writings, translated by Knox, T M, edited by Pelczynski, Z.A (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), p 299 .

5 See also Benhabib, S, “Obligation, Contract and Exchange: On the Significance of Hegel's Abstract Right”, in The State and Civil Society. Studies in Hegel's Political Philosophy, edited by Pelczynski, Z A (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), p 164 : “[R]elations of obligation and authority derive their legitimacy from the fact that the public rights of individuals are not private property, … but are secured by the impersonal and general norms of the rule of law”.

6 See also Hegel, G W F, Philosophie des Rechts. Die Vorlesung von 1819/20, edited by Henrich, D (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1983), pp 239–40. Further references will be given in the main text in the form: HPR, pp 239-40.

7 See Hegel's Science of Logic, translated by Miller, A V, foreword by Findlay, J N (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, 1989), p 115 . The relation between Hegel's Logic and his theory of monarchy is explored in more detail by Redding, Paul in “Philosophical Republicanism and Monarchism – and Republican and Monarchical Philosophy – in Kant and Hegel”, in The Owl of Minerva (Biannual Journal of the Hegel Society of America) 26, 1 (Fall 1994): 35-46, especially 40–1.

8 See Hegel, G W F, Lectures on Natural Right and Political Science. The First Philosophy of Right. Heidelberg 1817/18 (Wannenmann transcription), translated by Stewart, J M and Hodgson, P, introduction by Pöggeler, O (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), p 256 . Further references will be given in the main text in the form: WPR, p 256.

9 Hegel notes that the monarch may have to exercise his own judgement in certain circumstances, but, in those cases, either the state is not developed (ie not truly modern) or it is badly constructed (PR, §280 Add). Other functions to be performed by the monarch in a properly developed modern state include: granting clemency to convicted criminals (PR §282); commanding the armed forces and conducting foreign relations (through ambassadors) (PR, §329); appointing civil servants from those qualified by examination (PR §§291-2); and appointing his own ministers (PR, §283). In this last case, Hegel notes, the ministers must prove themselves before the legislature, so the monarch's choice is not wholly arbitrary (WPR, pp 258-9).

10 Pelczynski, Z A, “The Hegelian Conception of the State”, in Hegel's Political Philosophy. Problems and Perspectives, edited by Pelczynski, Z A (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971), p 25 . For Edmund Burke's view of the “inestimable value” of hereditary monarchy, see his Reflections on the Revolution in France, edited by Pocock, J G A (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987), p 23 .

11 Marx, K, Critique of Hegel's “Philosophy of Right”, edited by O'Malley, J (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970). References given in the main text in the form: CHPR, p 1.

12 Hegel, G W F, The Encyclopaedia Logic Part 1 of the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences with the Zusätze, translated by Geraets, T F, Suchting, W A, and Harris, H S (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1991), §80.

13 See Paine, T, Political Writings, edited by Kuklick, B (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p 163 .

14 Kolb, D, The Critique of Pure Modernity. Hegel, Heidegger, and After (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1986), p 116 .

15 On Marx's critique of Hegel's alleged “mediaevalism”, see also Avineri, S, The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968), pp 21–2; Berki, R N, “Perspectives in the Marxian Critique of Hegel's Political Philosophy”, in Hegel's Political Philosophy, pp 215–17; and Arato, A, “A Reconstruction of Hegel's Theory of Civil Society”, in Hegel and Legal Theory, p 318 .

16 Hardimon, M O, Hegel's Social Philosophy. The Project of Reconciliation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p 217 .

17 Hegel rejects the idea of constituency representation when all that is being represented is a certain number of people who live within a certain geographical area (WPR, p 219). However, he accepts the idea of constituency representation when the geographical area concerned – the town or the village – is itself regarded as a corporation whose members have identifiable common interests (HPR, p 206; PR, §§308, 309). See also Heiman, G, “The Sources and Significance of Hegel's Corporate Doctrine”, in Hegel's Political Philosophy, p 125 . Heiman is one of the few commentators to agree that Hegel's doctrine of corporate representation is distinctively modern:” The most substantial change that Hegel made in the corporate idea”, Heiman writes, “was his conscious recognition and utilization of the political implications inherent in it. … [T]o see a legal institution as a method of politicizing the individual, as Hegel did, was an innovation” (p 134).

18 G W F Hegel, The Encyclopaedia Logic, §82 (my italics for “unity”).

19 See Hartmann, K, “Towards a New Systematic Reading of Hegel's Philosophy of Right”, in The State and Civil Society, p 117 .

20 See Lyotard, J-F, The Postmodern Condition, translated by Bennington, Geoff and Massumi, Brian (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984), pp 33-41, especially p 37 : “The grand narrative has lost its credibility, … regardless whether it is a speculative narrative or a narrative of emancipation”.

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Hegel's Critique of the Triumph of Verstand in Modernity

  • Stephen Houlgate (a1)


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