The aim of the Philosophy of Right is to comprehend the modern social world so as to reveal it as rational, and its demands on us as justified, by demonstrating how its principal institutions work together to realize ‘practical freedom’, the species of self-determination that Hegel associates with will or free agency. Right (Recht), as Hegel employs the term, is defined in relation to practical freedom: it is what he calls freedom as ‘Idea’ (Idee) or, equivalently, the ‘existence [Dasein] of the free will’ (PR § 29). Both of these expressions refer, more colloquially, to any respect in which practical freedom is realized in the world (PR § 4), but, as is fitting for social and political philosophy, most instances of Right will be ways in which practical freedom finds an existence (is realized) in institutions and practices of social life. The Philosophy of Right's goal is not to prescribe new institutions but to bring individuals, through the comprehension of their social world, to regard the demands their social life places on them as rationally justified, in large part because fulfilling them is necessary for their own freedom to be realized. It is because philosophical comprehension involves seeing ‘what is’ (PR Preface, 21) as essential to the realization of freedom that such comprehension reconciles individuals to the social world they inhabit and sustain through their own activity: what can otherwise appear as external constraints on their activity is shown by philosophy to be instead the conditions of their freedom. It is relevant to grasping the method of the Philosophy of Right that Hegel describes philosophical comprehension as a process of giving rational form to an existing content that is already ‘in itself’, or, implicitly, rational (PR Preface, 11[13–14]). Hence, whatever else is involved in seeing existing institutions as rational, part of philosophical comprehension consists in regarding them as systematically ordered – as constituted, both internally and in their interrelations, in accordance with the complex requirements of their overarching end, the realization of freedom.
My aim in this essay is to illuminate some aspects of the distinctive method by means of which the Philosophy of Right claims to achieve the goals just described.