Published online by Cambridge University Press: 16 March 2017
Whether Hegel's political philosophy, as he developed it in the last part of his Elements of the Philosophy of Right (1821) in particular, is modern or ‘reactionary’ has been disputed from the time of his own students up to this day. For Karl Marx, to give one example, Hegel's method was admittedly modern in the sense that every scientific treatment of the constitution and development of society and the state must employ dialectical thinking. The content of Hegel's political philosophy, however, contradicted this modern element. It revealed that Hegel's thinking remained determined by a metaphysical concept of spirit, which represented a hypostatization and projection ultimately derived from religion and philosophical theology. Today the assessment is often reversed: it is widely disputed that Hegel employs a scientific method in Marx's sense, which consists in the development and ‘sublation’ (Aufhebung) of contradictions in concepts and objects of thought, and is ‘applied’ to norms, social systems and institutions. His concepts of freedom and action, law and the constitution, market society and the welfare state, however, are regarded by many as relevant today, because they at least partly anticipated the problems of modern society. Precisely as a diagnostician of social developments is Hegel to be classed as ‘modern’. Jürgen Habermas, for instance, calls him ‘the first philosopher to develop a clear concept of modernity’, and likewise the first ‘for whom modernity became a problem’.
The assessment has also swung in this direction in the Anglo-Saxon philosophical world. Although the image of the metaphysician and reactionary ‘Prussian philosopher of the state’ was the dominant one after the end of the British and American Hegelianism of the late nineteenth century, Hegel is today regarded by many eminent Anglophone philosophers as a prominent thinker of modernity. The revival of pragmatic thought and the influence of the later Wittgenstein favour such a viewpoint. Hegel is regarded as a precursor of the notion that consciousness and language, action and society cannot be comprehended on the basis of individualistic premises alone, but must instead be understood on the basis of social and communicative processes. His practical philosophy is said not to proceed from eternal ideas of an a priori law of nature or reason but instead to have paved the way for the conception of an open society which finds itself engaged in a continual process of communication and shaping of a common will.