Published online by Cambridge University Press: 16 March 2017
In his main work of social and political philosophy, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, it is Hegel's declared intention to show that a form of the state is being established in Europe that realizes what he calls ‘the Concept’ and which is therefore ‘rational’. States exhibiting this type of rationality are, both in their character and in their functioning, not only fully comprehensible but also entities which allow citizens to be ‘at one with themselves’ (bei sich selbst) (PR § 7A; see also § 268) in their everyday and political lives. In Hegel's view, they therefore enable citizens to lead an ethical life (ein sittliches Leben) in which freedom is realized and reconciliation with the social and political world achieved.
More precisely, Hegel explicitly claims that states must have a specific basic structure in order to realize this type of rationality. This structure is comprised of two ethical ‘spheres’ (PR § 261), the ‘family’ and ‘civil society’, wherein people have a legally secured space to cultivate and maintain private relations and to pursue economic activities of their own free will. Hegel likewise understands the political state as an ethical sphere, one which functions to give citizens the possibility of identifying with the polity as a ‘whole’ (PR § 253) and to obtain thereby a ‘consciousness’ (PR § 268) of freedom and reconciliation.
Did Hegel successfully realize the philosophical project outlined above? Was he able to adequately explain how the social and political structures emerging in Europe during his lifetime enabled people to lead an ethical life? This has been repeatedly denied. Numerous critics have charged Hegel with having underestimated the tensions and conflicts which civil societies generate and which endanger ethical life, and with having overestimated the prospects that political states could establish institutions fostering ethical life. This assessment was expressed very early on by Hegel's pupils and the Left-Hegelians, and it promoted the alternative theories of state and society found in Marx, Marxism and contemporary critical theory.