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The Role of Modern Irony in Hegel's Philosophy of Right

  • David James (a1)

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In what follows I shall attempt to explain why Hegel includes an account of modern, or Romantic irony in the Philosophy of Right, even though a discussion of this type of irony might be thought to belong more properly to the realm of aesthetics than to a work which deals with ethical and political issues. I shall identify two main reasons for the inclusion of modern irony in the Philosophy of Right. The first reason is a fairly obvious one, and I shall therefore not spend much time on it. The second reason is, however, far less obvious, since it concerns a problem with modern irony which Hegel does not make explicit in his brief account of modern irony in the Philosophy of Right. I shall nevertheless argue that Hegel elsewhere provides us with the resources that are needed for identifying this problem with modern irony. We shall see that the problem in question is one that serves to undermine the modern ironist's claim to be absolutely free, thus showing the need for an alternative account of freedom, such as Hegel's theory of ethical life (Sittlichkeit), which in the Philosophy of Right directly follows his remarks on modern irony.

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1 Hegel, G. W. F., Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts , § 133, in Werke 7, ed. Moldenhauer, Eva and Michel, Karl Markus (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1971). English translation: Elements of the Philosophy of Right, trans. Nisbet, H.B. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991). With regard to works in which the text is divided into paragraphs or sections (§), the letter A indicates a remark (Anmerkung) that Hegel himself added to the paragraph or section, while the letter Z indicates an addition (Zusatz) that derives from notes made by one of his students.

2 Hegel, Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts § 135A. We here find a restatement of the criticisms of the categorical imperative which Hegel had already developed in more detail in his Natural Law essay and the Phenomenology of Spirit. Cf. Über die wissenschaftlichen Behandlungsarten des Naturrechts, in Werke 2, pp. 460ff. English translation: On the Scientific Ways of Treating Natural Law, on its Place in Practical Philosophy, and its Relation to the Positive Sciences of Right , in Political Writings, trans. Nisbet, H.B. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 123ff. Phänomenologie des Geistes, in Werke 3, pp. 316ff. English translation: Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. Miller, A. V. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), paragraphs 429ff.

3 Hegel, Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts § 137.

4 Hegel, Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts § 137.

5 Hegel, Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts § 140A.

6 Hegel, Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts § 140A.

7 Hegel, Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts § 140A.

8 Hegel, Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts § 140A.

5 Hegel, , Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik I, in Werke 13, p. 95 . English translation: Aesthetics, trans. Knox, T. M. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), vol. 1, p. 66 .

10 Hegel, Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts § 137.

11 Cf. Behler, Ernst, und Hegel, Friedrich Schlegel, Hegel-Studien 2, 1963, pp. 217ff and p. 230 . As regards the view that modern irony is immoral, this view is undoubtedly in large part due to Schlegel's novel Lucinde, which challenges contemporary social conventions. One of its main characters claims, for example, to have completely forgotten the rules of morality. Cf. Schlegel, F., Lucinde, in Kritische Friedrich-Schlegel-Ausgabe, ed. Behler, Ernst et al. (München: Ferdinand Schöningh, 1957ff), vol. V: Dichtungen, p. 8 . Hegel also refers to Lucinde in the Philosophy of Right in connection with the views expressed in this novel concerning the dispensability of the marriage ceremony. Cf. Hegel, Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts § 164Z. Behler argues, however, that Schlegel's conception of marriage is not as immoral as Hegel makes it out to be.

Hegel's reading of Lucinde is also evident in the section on conscience in the Phenomenology of Spirit where he speaks of the ‘divine worship of a community’, the spirit and substance of whose association is the ‘mutual assurance of their conscientiousness, good intentions, the rejoicing over this mutual purity, and the refreshing of themselves in the glory of knowing and uttering, of cherishing and fostering such an excellent state of affairs’. Cf. Phänomenologie des Geistes, p. 481 / Phenomenology of Spirit, paragraph 656. For this description can be compared to the following passage in Lucinde: ‘And they all burned with a noble love; many great powers slumbered here undeveloped, and not seldom they said lofty things in rough but apt words about the miracle of art, the value of life, the essence of virtue and self-reliance. But especially about the divinity of male friendship’. Cf. Schlegel, , Lucinde, p. 46 .

12 Hegel, , Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik I, p. 93 / Aesthetics, vol. 1, p. 64 .

13 Schelling, F. W. J., System des transzendentalen Idealismus (Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag, 1957), p. 35 . English translation: System of Transcendental Idealism (1800), trans. Heath, Peter (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1978), p. 26 .

14 Schelling, , System des transzendentalen Idealismus, p. 43 / System of Transcendental Idealism, p. 32.

15 Schlegel, F., Lyceum-Fragment No. 42, in Kritische Friedrich-Schlegel-Ausgabe, vol. II: Charakteristiken und Kritiken I, p. 152

16 Hegel, , Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik I, p. 94 / Aesthetics, vol. 1, pp. 6465 (translation modified).

17 Hegel, , Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik I, p. 95 / Aesthetics, vol. 1, pp. 6566 .

18 Hegel, Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts § 14.

19 For a more detailed account of how Kierkegaard's discussion of irony in The Concept of Irony is shaped by Hegel's views on irony, together with a convincing refutation of the idea that Kierkegaard's Hegelianism in this work is itself ironic, see Stewart, Jon, Kierkegaard's Relations to Hegel Reconsidered (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 132ff.

20 Kierkegaard, Søren, The Concept of Irony, with Continual Reference to Socrates, trans. Hong, Howard V. and Hong, Edna H. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 275 . Kierkegaard also claims that modern irony has ethical implications since it becomes important for the modern ironist to suspend morality and ethics. Cf. Concept of Irony, p. 283. Kierkegaard's view of modern irony as something deeply immoral is also undoubtedly due to Schlegel's novel Lucinde. Indeed, Kierkegaard concentrates exclusively on this novel in his discussion of Schlegel.

21 Hegel, , Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik I, p. 94 / Aesthetics, vol. 1, p. 65 .

22 Hegel, , Phänomenologie des Geistes, p. 143 / Phenomenology of Spirit, paragraph 174.

23 Hegel, , Phänomenologie des Geistes, p. 143 / Phenomenology of Spirit, paragraph 175.

24 Hegel, Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts § 15A.

25 Hegel, Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts § 15.

26 Kant, Immanuel, Grundlegung der Metaphysik der Sitten, in Kants Gesammelte Schriften vol. IV (Berlin, Ausgabe der königlich preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1910ff.), p. 441 . English translation: Groundwork of a Metaphysic of Morals, trans. Paton, H.J. (London/NewYork: Routledge), 1989, p. 102 .

27 Kant, , Grundlegung der Metaphysik der Sitten, p. 389 / Groundwork of a Metaphysic of Morals, p. 55.

28 Kant, Immanuel, Grundlegung der Metaphysik der Sitten, p. 418 / Groundwork of a Metaphysic of Morals, p. 82.

29 Kant, , Grundlegung der Metaphysik der Sitten, p. 416 / Groundwork of a Metaphysic of Morals, p. 80.

30 Hegel, Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts § 20.

31 Hegel, Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts § 20Z.

32 Hegel, , Vorlesungen über Rechtsphilosophie vol. 4, transcription by von Griesheim, K. G. of the 1824/1825 lectures, ed. Ilting, K. H. (Stuttgart: Frommann Verlag, 1974), p. 137 .

33 Hegel, , Vorlesungen über Rechtsphilosophie, vol. 4, p. 138 .

34 Hegel, , Vorlesungen über Rechtsphilosophie, vol. 4, p. 138 .

35 Kierkegaard, , Either/Or: A Fragment of Life, trans. Hannay, Alistair (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992), p. 234 .

36 Vorlesungen über Rechtsphilosophie vol. 3, transcription by Hotho, H. G. of the 1822/1823 lectures, ed. Ilting, K. H. (Stuttgart: Frommann Verlag, 1974), p. 137 .

37 Kierkegaard, , Concept of Irony, p. 284 .

38 Modern irony, as it is described by Hegel and Kierkegaard, and not just the conception of freedom on which it is based, might be said to find expression today in the standpoint of a post-modernist such as Jacques Derrida, who, while being suspicious of the supposed unity of the self, nevertheless appears to some to celebrate the freedom and the power of the self. Charles Taylor describes the practice of deconstruction, for which Derrida is famous, in terms which strongly resemble Hegel's characterisation of modern irony, when he states that ‘what … comes to be celebrated is the deconstructing power itself, the prodigious power of subjectivity to undo all potential allegiances which might bind it; pure untrammelled freedom’. Cf. Taylor, Charles, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modem Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 489 .

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