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A Theory of Moral Objectivity (Section 3h - Hegel)

By Robert M. Ellis, originally written as a Ph.D. thesis 'A Buddhist theory of moral objectivity' in 2001. This html version copyright 2008.

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3h)      Hegel


If Kant represented a new and far more philosophically systematic form of eternalism arising in response to post-Reformation individualism, Hegel represented a still greater systematisation, which attempted to resolve the tensions between the phenomenal and noumenal in Kant. Whilst Kant’s work can be used and interpreted for nihilistic as well as eternalistic purposes, Hegel re-asserted the eternalist tradition together with its primarily conservative political base, whilst including and subsuming Kant’s ethic of autonomy and liberalism. Whilst modern interpreters of Hegel[1] have stressed that the tradition of interpretation of Hegel as a reactionary is flawed and based on superficial reading of his impenetrable writing, I shall be arguing here that an interpretation of Hegel as part of the eternalist tradition does at least partly reveal the truth of this perspective.


In giving a brief account of Hegel’s eternalism I shall largely ignore the intervening philosophical steps between Kant and Hegel made by Fichte and Schelling, simply because these philosophers have been influential mainly because of their influence on Hegel: it is enough to note here that in attributing views to Hegel I do not mean to imply that they necessarily originated with him.


i)                    Enlightenment and Romanticism


Hegel’s context is one of the dominance of two ideological traditions which originated in the eighteenth century: the rational tradition of the Enlightenment and the Romantic tradition. These two traditions were apparently opposed: the former stressing the universality of reason as the basis of value, the latter stressing passion. Likewise the Enlightenment stressed the commonality of humanity, whilst Romanticism celebrated individuality, heroism, and the differences of nation and culture. Whilst the Enlightenment was related to the bourgeois rationalisation promoted by the rise of capitalism, Romanticism appeared to be a reaction against such rationalisation and a re-assertion of repressed feeling. In England, particularly, Romanticism took the form of a direct reaction against industrialisation through an appreciation of natural environments and traditional forms of life. The strength of reaction against the early capitalist ethos and all that it had created is strongly depicted in William Blake’s portrait of London.

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,

Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe.


In the cry of every Man,

In every Infant’s cry of fear,

In every voice, in every ban,

The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.[2]


Romanticism is essentially a reaction to the effects of eternalism, a release of energies in the psyche repressed by rationalism, an anarchic force not easily categorisable except in these negative terms. What positive value can be seen as releasing the “mind-forg’d manacles” is less clear: though it was often understood in terms of an infinite experience that could be accessed by the imagination, the values with which this infinity could be associated varied.  The excesses of Romantic individualism can make Romantic ideology into a tool of nihilism, as it appears to be in Blake’s provocative proverb “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires”[3]. Where the Romantic drive combined with the rationality of the Enlightenment it could result in a more balanced perspective more conducive to the Middle Way, as in such figures as Goethe and Schiller. But more typically, perhaps, Romanticism merely perpetuated eternalism in a new form in which individual feelings of absolute value became rigidified, stereotyped and finally sentimentalised so as to avoid challenge to the dominant conceptions.


It is in this third form that Romanticism can be seen, not as opposed to the Enlightenment so much as complementary to it[4]. Both were bourgeois movements, for it was only the bourgeoisie who had the leisure and education for such concerns, and both reflected, in differing ways, the concern with autonomy as a basis of value which had been systematised by Kant. Both sought absolute and universal values on some other basis than the dogmatism of the Christian tradition, though both often continued to try to redefine that tradition. But each sought that alternative foundation of absolute value in a slightly different sphere of individual human experience. Both, in fact, sought a kind of transcendental humanism whereby the divide between human experience and absolute values could be bridged. The whole eternalist tradition continued to provide the expectation that it could be bridged, and that such a bridging would consist in some instantaneous discovery through thought or feeling.


The thought of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is thus characterised by premature announcements that the expected transcendental humanism had at last been discovered. Politically, this atmosphere was expressed in the French Revolution of 1789, where old institutions were swept away in a humanistic fervour for freedom, but it was rapidly discovered that there were no readily practicable alternatives to the old system of divinely-sanctioned kingship. The French Revolution reflected both the movements of the Enlightenment and those of Romanticism, as the rationalism of universality was accompanied by the Romantic belief in the rightness of the spontaneously-expressed will of the entire community first formulated by Rousseau[5]. Philosophically, this was reflected in the primarily Enlightenment philosophy of Kant, in the Utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill, and, more Romantically, by Hegel.


Hegel’s philosophy is influenced by the spirit of the age particularly by the urgency of the requirement to reach a complete solution to the problem of the foundations of values. In line with the requirements of eternalism, such a solution could only be based on a complete explanation of the universe. Hegel was influenced by Romanticism in finding Kant’s rationalism inadequate: the solution would have to take full account of the range of human experience and human feeling rather than merely specifying a rational conception of normativity. His dialectic thus poses the apparently insoluble demand created by the tension between the Enlightenment and Romanticism: the demand for rational universality to be reconciled to the real subjectivity of human feeling. But it also, in the tradition of eternalism,  attempts to offer a resolution. This resolution is made possible by the ultimate identification of the ideal and the actual through absolute idealism.


Hegel’s solution involves an apparent non-dualism which is entirely spurious. Instead of the recognition that our experience is in fact dual, as the correlative to a non-duality which lies beyond our experience, Hegel asserts that the non-dual is actually manifesting itself in the current experience of human beings. This assertion is not a pragmatic strategy to get us to temporarily believe that the ideal is real just to help overcome our alienation from it: it is intended to be taken literally. I shall be arguing that this supposed non-dualism, based on idealism and not recognising the unknown noumenon beyond our experience, in fact makes even a coherent idea of a universal ethic impossible and merely attempts to appropriate the universe into an egoistic pattern. His apparent non-dualism is in fact deeply dualistic. 


ii)                  Hegel’s Dialectic


At the foundation of Hegel’s approach is the view that contradiction has a positive philosophical function, and that the contradictions produced by reason working on the basis of differing premises can be resolved by reason reconciling itself to reality through the dialectical process. Hegel’s version of non-dualism leads him into the assumption that the whole universe partakes in this resolution as part of the necessary process of history. It is this “necessity”, rather than the mere idea that contradictions can  be resolved which is the basis of the eternalism in Hegel’s dialectic.


There is disagreement about what exactly Hegel means by “necessity”: it is clearly not logical necessity or entailment in any strict sense. Richard Norman suggests that the necessity is one of presupposition:

Each form of consciousness presupposes its successor – that is to say, in attempting to provide a coherent description of a certain form of consciousness we are logically required to postulate the existence of a different form of consciousness.[6]


Norman goes on to admit that this notion of necessity cannot be applied to all the dialectical progressions in the Phenomenology of Spirit, but nevertheless uses it as a way of attributing some consistent rationality to Hegel’s scheme. On this view, understanding of a given form of consciousness can only be reached at the next level up from that form, where not only that form of consciousness exists, but a reflective awareness of it, its assumptions and limitations. The dialectical process in this sense is one by which, if the conditions are present, a given form of consciousness can be stimulated by explicit opposition into greater awareness, and thus create a “higher” (in the sense of more aware) consciousness. Robert Solomon’s account of the dialectic is similar, though more inspiring and less precise than Norman’s:

Hegel’s dialectic of “the concept” or “forms of consciousness” is an attempt to “think through” our ideas about the world, and about ourselves, developing these ideas – or letting them develop – to the point where we can see their consequences, their inadequacies, their inconsistencies. And by doing so our comprehension “grows”, it becomes more encompassing, letting us see things we did not see, letting us appreciate ideas we could not accept, forcing us to see connections we had not seen before.[7]


The “necessity” in this sense can thus be likened to the notion of psychological objectivity that I put forward in chapter 2, provided that “forms of consciousness” are understood as clusters of mutually consistent beliefs. The evidence collected by Lakatos about the ways in which science advances, I suggested, points to the idea that success in correlating theories and observations is driven by a psychological objectivity involving a balance between attachment to theories (dogmatism) and attachment to observation (scepticism). If the conditions are present for science to make new discoveries relative to a given position, then those conditions are “necessarily” going to include a greater degree of psychological objectivity on the part of one or more scientists than existed at that position. Without such greater psychological objectivity, attachment to existing theoretical or sceptical beliefs would continue to inhibit further investigation, whether this be in the form of new theorisations or of new observations.


Such an understanding of necessity is in my view a useful one, but by itself it gives a misleading impression of Hegel, since it involves a radical bowdlerisation of his approach to suit modern tastes. The progression of the dialectic is not merely conceptual, although it has conceptual presuppositions, but also historical. Norman’s and Solomon’s accounts not only ignore the claims Hegel makes about the necessary progression of history, but are incompatible with his idealism, whereby not only is the human race working, individually and collectively, towards the realisation of Spirit, but Spirit is working towards the realisation of the human race[8]. Hegel’s grand inclusiveness requires not only that the dialectic must take place because the conditions required for it will necessarily be present, but that the “synthesis” will take the form of a complete incorporation of the premises of the prior “thesis” and “antithesis” without residue, removing only the apparent contradiction between them. If this were not the case, the end-point of absolute knowledge could not be reached because either the natural forces which supply necessary conditions for it would not have been understood, or some of the partial premises of the synthesis would not have been included. Popper brings a breath of analytical clarity to the confusions created by Hegelian inclusiveness (though here he was addressing the topic of dialectic in general, including that of Hegel’s interpreters):

We must be very careful…with a number of metaphors used by dialecticians….An example is the dialectical saying that the thesis “produces” its antithesis. Actually, it is only our critical attitude which produces the antithesis, and where such an attitude is lacking – which often enough is the case – no antithesis will be produced. Similarly, we have to be careful not to think that a struggle between a thesis and its antithesis will always “produce” a synthesis. There are many instances of very futile struggles in the history of human thought, struggles which ended in nothing. And even when a synthesis has been reached, usually it will be a rather crude description of the synthesis to say that it “preserves” the better parts of both, the thesis and the antithesis. Crude, at least, in the sense that such a description may be a possible way of looking at the situation but not an extremely enlightening one, because the synthesis will, in many cases, embody some idea or other which is entirely new and not capable of being reduced, without doing injustice, to foregoing stages of the development.[9]


Popper here disentangles those features of the dialectic which reflect heuristic insight from those which merely create an obscurity within which premature claims of holistic knowledge can be made. He particularly brings out the contingency of the process of dialectic, in the light of which grounds for the assumption of cosmic justice through a theory of the rationality of history are removed. Hegel’s pretensions in this area are unmasked as another attempt to support eternalism through transcendental humanism.


iii)                Pure thought, representations and idealism


Hegel’s dualism, like that of other thinkers, is rooted in a theory of meaning, which in his case is perhaps more explicit than that of any previous eternalist philosopher. Hegel seems to have understood the limitations of representation (vorstellung) as necessarily dualistic in relying on the concept of an external object to produce meaningful internal representation. If we are to be able to transcend this dualism we must thus also transcend representation. Hegel’s solution is to make a distinction between dualistic representation and a non-dualistic foundational meaningfulness found in pure thought.

In the case of anything we can ask for its sense or meaning; thus in the case of a work of art [we can ask for] the meaning of the form (Gestalt), in language for the meaning of a word, in religion for the meaning of the conception or the ritual, in other actions for their moral value etc. This meaning or sense is nothing but what is essential, or universal, substantial in an object, and this substantial aspect of an object is the concrete thought of the object. We always have here two types of thing, an external and an internal element, an outer appearance, which is sensibly perceptible, intuitable, and a meaning which is just the thought. But now since our object is itself the thought, these two elements are not present, but rather the thought is what is meaningful in its own self. The object is here the universal; and thus we cannot ask here for a meaning separate or separable from the object….The thought is here itself what is innermost, highest and one cannot therefore establish a thought above it.[10]


“Now” in this quotation refers to when we are thinking in the pure thoughts of philosophy. Hegel believes that thoughts which are about the universal can have a content[11], and that the language in which these thoughts can be expressed is clearly differentiable from language which is empirically dependent[12], although pure thought is present, together with empirical conceptions, in everyday uses of language[13]. Philosophy, as thought thinking itself, thus attains a universality unattainable by any other means, based on the fact that its meaning is only directly comprehensible through thought alone.


Hegel here makes the unfortunate error of identifying non-duality with a particular form of language. In doing so he actually introduces a  representationalism, since pure thought still represents a supposed reality, even if a universal or non-dual reality. Since the relationship of pure thought to such a reality is completely beyond experience, he is naturally driven only to dogmatically assert the meaningfulness of such language outside our representations of it. This dogmatism must also extend to asserting the existence of a dichotomy between universal and non-universal representations where there exists only an incrementality of increasingly more or less general significance. Whilst a pragmatic understanding of the meaning of philosophical language can explain its meaningfulness through its connection with the purposes served by philosophy, Hegel’s approach actually isolates philosophy from any human significance, since we should not be able to understand such language (supposing it to exist) unless we had reached non-duality ourselves. Hegel of course assumes that we have reached non-duality, or at least that philosophical language refers to a non-dual essence of the universe in which our own non-dual essence partakes, but thus excludes the possibility that we can meaningfully refer to desired states or objects ahead of our actual attainments. For if the mere use of language about the non-dual already enables us to discuss it in specific terms, it appears that we would then not be able to meaningfully talk about any further progress: any such progress must be explained in terms of a still greater universality, and is based on a distinction between the reality of our current experience and the ideal which Hegel does not allow us to make.


Hegel is thus a representationalist pretending not to be a representationalist, because his belief in the transcendence of representation rests only on an implicitly claimed special category of universal representation. This special category is based on, and supportive of, his absolute idealism, whereby subject and object are identical but within the sphere of the known, and the knower is ultimately neither subject nor object but “Spirit”. Hegel supports this idealism through an attack on the Kantian idea of the noumenon as separate from the phenomenon. He argues that the idea of a noumenal object is already an object of consciousness (consciousness is here understood impersonally) by virtue of being an idea, and thus that the process of discovery of apparently new objects is one that takes place within the sphere of consciousness. Consciousness is said to compare its existing phenomenal impression with the idea of the noumenon, and thus realise that its experience is merely phenomenal and modify it negatively so as to cohere with its idea[14]. This would suggest something similar to a heuristic process were it not for Hegel’s insistence that this process involves what he calls a “determinate negation” whereby a shift in level of consciousness occurs to a higher degree of knowledge[15]. This is another instance of Hegel’s philosophy of the identity of reason and reality, for the determinacy involved in the shift requires that it moves closer to reality by virtue only of the mental process involved.


As an assertion about the advance of human knowledge this approach is defeated by the arguments of Lakatos that I have already examined[16], which make it clear that no negation of a theory is ever determinate, being rather a matter of contingent judgement in the light of evidence which must itself be interpreted in the light of theories which are contingently assumed to be true. Hegel’s assertions about the possibility of advances in human knowledge within an idealist framework, however, rest on his views about pure thought. For pure thought is the medium of the “Absolute knowledge” or “Systematic Science” (Begreifendes Wissen) which culminates the dialectical progression of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. At each stage in the process thought becomes slightly more purified, and the system of concepts which Hegel saw as the essence of non-duality is no longer so much ‘abstracted’ (i.e. the concepts are no longer understood so much in isolation from one another). The movement towards absolute knowledge, then, is marked by shifts from the fallible and ‘abstracted’ language of empirical representation to the infallible and universal language of pure thought. Mere representation, for Hegel, represents nothing beyond the Ego, but it is the pure thought which appears to not be representative that represents reality, albeit a universal and interconnected reality.


iv)                Freewill and ethical foundationalism


Hegel manages to combine a doctrine of freewill with an impersonal conception of the self, and thus his account of it at first appears quite different from the Cartesian association of freewill with the soul: his doctrine is more reminiscent of that of the Stoics. Freewill, for him, is the manifestation of Spirit, firstly in individual thought so that the distinction between subject and object is theoretically removed, then in will, so that apparent objects bear the imprint of this cessation of the distinction. These two parts of the process are said to be inseparable, because both the infinite thought of freedom of action and the determining, finite will are essential to one another[17]. Hegel goes on to make use of this version of freewill in his account of the basis of ethics and political philosophy in his Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Here the central idea is that the individual should choose his own determinations, i.e. that an individual acts in full accordance with the Spirit of infinite freedom within him by freely choosing his determinations, the constraints under which he will operate. The will is thus “particularity reflected into itself and thereby restored to universality” which “posits itself…as determinate and limited, and at the same time remains with itself [bei sich], that is, in its identity with itself and universality”[18]. For Hegel the identity of self and world thus requires that acting rightly in accordance with that whole means the acceptance of the world by the self.


Despite the absence of a distinct metaphysical self here, Hegel has not dropped the idea that the perceived self acts without prior determination, i.e. without sufficient causality. By identifying this perceived free self with impersonal Spirit Hegel does not do anything to dissolve the contradiction between this perceived freedom and the perceived determinism offered by scientific observation. Instead, he invites us to imagine that the universe is functioning according to our individual will. Whilst he is obviously correct in his argument that we require an acceptance of constraints in order to act in the world, the prior belief that we are absolutely free in selecting such constraints can only provide the basis for an egoistic appropriation of such constraints. Such an appropriation of constraints in fact comes readily to the ego because, once it passes the infantile state of imagining that its desires can be limitlessly fulfilled, its nature is to constantly draw boundaries behind which to exclude opposed forces: the existence of constraints is constitutive of the ego as I have previously described it[19]. The selection of some sorts of constraints over others, however, can only be guided by the selection of some ends as more desirable than others, and the grounds for such a selection cannot be based on freedom alone.


Like Kant, Hegel uses the concept of freewill, as rational choice rather than as arbitrariness, as the foundation of his ethics. The use of pure thought in reflection determines the rightness of any particular exercise of the will, as it enables the breaking down of “abstraction” (i.e. the separation of concepts that are actually mutually dependent). But Hegel is careful to differentiate his rationalism from Kant’s on the grounds that Kant’s idea of autonomy produces a concept of duty which is purely negative in its relationship to empirical desires and does not involve a positive self-determination[20]. He associates this “abstract” idea of freedom without self-determination with the shallow and disastrous libertarianism of the French Revolution[21]. For Hegel the truly rational approach to freedom involves the complete adoption of empirical desires by the reason as acting in accordance with Spirit.


Hegel thus attempts to get beyond what he regards as the empty universality of Kant’s categorical imperative through the appeal to institutions that exist in the actual world, even though he believes such institutions only exist to serve the self-determined positive freedom of individuals. Morality cannot be seen in terms of abstract individuality but only in relation to concrete historical settings. The highest-level, and therefore most universal, institution in the actual world is the state. It is this advocacy of the moral role of the state which has given rise to the suspicion that Hegel is a conservative authoritarian.


It is certainly unfair to regard Hegel simply as a crypto-totalitarian apologist for the moral and political status quo, as Allen Wood points out[22], because there is a standpoint for criticism of the state in his philosophy of right insofar as it promotes the freedom of the individual. However, this standpoint is itself dependent on a circular appeal to the actual. Hegel’s ethical system is thus, like Kant’s, a coherentism pretending to be a foundationalism, a closed system with claims to an absolute status which does not actually possess any grounds beyond itself from the standpoint of which it could be criticised.


Hegel’s appeal to freewill can thus not be justified on the grounds that it supports a satisfactory ethical foundationalism. It also contradicts his implicit determinism in an abrogation of the law of contradiction, which is premature because he has not abandoned all the dualistic premises which create the contradiction. Hegel’s determinism, is, it is true, not of the kind which requires every detail of all events to be in principle predictable. As Richard Norman remarks of the dialectical progression in the Phenomenology of Spirit, “Hegel’s system can be likened to a jigsaw puzzle. Each piece has to fit into one particular position. It has to be closely related to the other pieces. But there is no necessity for us to assemble the pieces in a particular order”[23]. Nevertheless the dialectic must proceed, by some combination of the dialectical steps put forward, to reach its inevitable conclusion, without which the dialectic as a whole is not validated. This is enough of a determinism to completely contradict the radical contingency of freewill. It is only by reducing historical change to conceptual change and maintaining a faith in the capacity of the Spirit-driven freewill to causally determine all phenomena that Hegel can maintain that the two are compatible.


v)                  Cosmic justice


Enough has been said already to make it clear that Hegel adheres strongly to a belief in cosmic justice. This belief is quite sufficiently articulated within a pantheistic framework through the implication of his idealism and his belief in the rationality of history not to require any further additions from a more explicitly supernaturalist Christian one. Hegel’s view of cosmic justice relies on a belief in providence which is entirely in harmony with the naturalism running through Christian ethics and deriving from Judaism and Stoicism. I must thus disagree entirely with Robert Solomon’s description of Hegel as a “strictly secular, virulently anti-theological , and more or less anti-Christian philosopher”[24]. This description can only be based on a narrow conception of Christianity which fails to recognise the interrelationship of Christianity with almost every other manifestation of eternalist ethics in the Western tradition.


One difficulty which might be raised concerning the classification of Hegel’s view with other systems of cosmic justice is the fact that he does not identify a metaphysical self which might be considered the individual recipient of moral requital. Surely then, it might be said, there is no possibility of recompense in individual terms? However, it is not individuality per se which is necessarily the object of an egoistic projection of continuity: for the ego is defined, not by the metaphysical glue of the person, but by the commonality of belief among a set of desires[25]. To the extent that an individual succeeds in the kind of self-determination Hegel describes, she identifies, not with her individual continuity but with the continuity of the actual institutions or groups to which she ascribes value. In many more traditional societies identification with the institutions or groups may indeed exist prior to that of oneself as an individual. But in either case a dualism remains between the subject of identification and the dispensing reality. A belief in the merit of serving the particular state one is in, for example, results from identification with that state, and, in the moral framework Hegel offers, the belief that the state is just and serves the cause of universal value: in other words that universally good effects will result from identification with the state. Good effects to the state are then expected as the outcome of meritorious acts done in identification with the state, just as good effects to the individual are expected from meritorious acts done by the individual in other forms of eternalism. Whatever the range of identification of the ego beyond the individual, short of universal identification, that identification implies a desire for good consequences for what is identified with as distinct from what is not identified with, and these good consequences then become definitive of universal goodness.


In Hegel the good consequences of identification with real institutions consist in the final state of absolute knowledge. Whilst Hegel would stress that individuals do not need to have a conception of the final goal at any stage in the dialectic, because they need to work through that stage with its associated beliefs before the final goal is reached, nevertheless a moral criterion for judgement exists in the free decision to reconcile oneself to current institutions, and this moral criterion can only be justified through the final moral goal of the dialectic as a whole. In deciding to identify oneself with an institution, then, one adopts this moral justification in terms of consequences towards which the institution is judged instrumental. That the institution will in fact prove instrumental to such consequences is purely a matter of faith.


The same problems of continuity are also raised for the state (or any other finite range of ego-identification) here as for the individual in earlier forms of cosmic justice: will the state which receives good consequences in the future be the same as the one I serve now? Belief in this continuity amounts to the same faith as that in the continuity of individuals whose goodness is rewarded by the operation of nature, even if individuals are not conceived as receiving this good. If the state that I serve is not the same state which is instrumental to the final good in the sense of enabling its citizens to receive its benefits, then my identification with it will not have been justified. However, given the contingency of all institutions there does not seem to be very good ground for belief in this continuity.


In the Phenomenology of Spirit Hegel tries to present the expectation of cosmic justice as merely part of the dialectical process of moral progression, so that as a belief it is necessarily transcended by the realities of absolute knowledge. The difficulties of this can be seen in the section on “Moral Duplicity” in The Phenomenology of Spirit[26]. Here Hegel points out a fundamental incompatibility in naturalistic morality. Morality, he says, assumes that the universe is good in order to make it so. But the fact that it is not good means that there is actually no ground for morality. The faith that there will be consequences which enable us to describe the universe as good thus amounts to a sort of deception, and this deception, Hegel says, creates an intolerable tension which must ultimately lead to a further move of the dialectic to the position of “pure conscience”. The tension in the earlier position, however, was entirely created by the naturalistic premise that the universe had to be good in order for there to be a foundation for morality. The further move of the dialectic does not involve any transcendence of this assumption, since judgement as to the moral truth of the conscience (or, if the conscience is said to be morally true definitively, whether any given inward belief is the product of the conscience) still requires some naturalistic belief that universal values are expressed in inward experience[27]. Thus if naturalism is read as a thesis and anti-naturalism an antithesis, conscience does not produce any synthetic transcendence of naturalism, but rather preserves it. If, however, conscience itself is read as an antithesis to the naturalistic thesis, the further synthesis that is offered is that of religion: since religion consists in Spirit conscious of itself, however, and Spirit is conscious nature, the very idea of religion demands a further naturalism[28].


Such unsatisfactory “resolutions” of the dialectical tension are typical of the whole development of the Phenomenology of Spirit, in which different forms of naturalistic assumption about the basis of ethics are not so much superseded as piled in an irresolvable heap. Hegel would like to give us the impression that he is resolving them, but he is actually left with all the tensions still left at the end precisely because of his belief that they must be resolved, due to his general belief in cosmic justice. It does not occur to him that it is not merely a particular limitation in the understanding or application of cosmic justice which creates the initial dialectical tension, but the belief in cosmic justice itself.


vi)                Hegel and Totalitarianism


When we come to examine Hegel’s politics, controversy rages as to whether Hegel should be categorised as a “liberal”, because of his stress on the freedom of the individual, or as a “conservative”, even crypto-fascist, because of his stress on the role of the state. For those of the former opinion, Hegel’s life is interpreted as one of a moderate advocate of reform, who keenly supported the French Revolution when it occurred in his youth, but, becoming more realistic and pragmatic began to work through the medium of established institutions. This culminated in Hegel’s appointment to a professorship in Berlin in 1817 at the instigation of ministers in the Prussian government who wanted constitutional reform. Hegel’s Elements of the Philosophy of Right can then be interpreted as lending support to this liberal process within the state, giving as its ideal not the actual Prussian state but one that the reformers wished to introduce.  Those of the latter opinion, such as Popper[29], stress the fact that the nationalism which Hegel opposed in Berlin was in fact a liberal nationalism produced in reaction to Napoleon, and that Hegel’s doctrines regarding the state, the necessary place of war, and the importance of heroism can, and frequently were, interpreted in a conservative fashion. In fact the former view tends to concentrate on Hegel’s intentions whilst the latter stresses the actual contextual effects of Hegel’s philosophy.


Perhaps the best summary of Hegel’s own attitude is that of Allen Wood, who writes that although he was not a conservative, he was not an unreserved liberal either in the sense that liberals take individual freedom to be of paramount value and are suspicious of grand theories.

Hegel does not see liberalism in this sense as a foe, since he see its standpoint as expressing something distinctive and valuable about the modern world. But he does see its standpoint as limited, and for this reason potentially destructive of the very values it wants to promote. He regards this standpoint as salvageable only when placed in the context of a larger vision, which measures the subjective goals of individuals by a larger objective and collective good, and assigns to [individual] moral values a determinate, limited place in the total scheme of things.[30] 


Hegel thus adopts the conservative belief in the value of institutions together with the liberal belief in the value of the fulfilment of individual desires, with the conviction that these two standpoints of value could be integrated. In the light of these convictions it is scarcely surprising if different fashions of analysis (usually by scholars who want to either appropriate or reject Hegel for their own political standpoint) result in quite different conclusions about him.


What is more important in considering the history of eternalist political ethics, however, is the role that Hegel’s philosophy played in the subsequent development of influential conceptions of value. Popper’s argument about Hegel is strongest when he points out the ways in which Hegel’s political philosophy could be readily understood and used to support totalitarian movements such as militant German nationalism and Marxism[31]. What is most significant about Hegel in this regard and enables him to be used (or abused) in this fashion is not only his ambiguity, obscurity and inclusiveness but the way in which his philosophy represents a new twist in the authoritarianism I have traced through the eternalist tradition from Plato through Christianity, a twist I shall call perfectionism.


The most basic features of perfectionism are those found amongst fanatical eternalists of the type who slew their way through the Israelite camp in the Golden Calf episode I mentioned earlier in this chapter: namely, as I earlier described it, “an excessive preoccupation with a particular moral theorisation[32] based on a extreme alienation associated with an excessively naïve representationalism. The additional feature that emerges in the West at around the time of Hegel, however, is the coupling of this kind of theoretical preoccupation with the belief in a wholly human absolute. Whilst religious eternalists at least occasionally display humility and are conscious of a sense of mystery before God, perfectionists tend to believe that the theory they subscribe to provides such a complete verbal explanation of the source of all value that they do not even have this possible source of restraint. All things are explicable and predictable and there can be no doubt that the consequences of action will be in accordance with the explanatory theory. Eternalistic dogmatism about values is here combined with scientistic dogmatism about facts.


The beginnings of perfectionism seem to lie in that strand of  German Romanticism which was developed by Hegel. Faced with the Kantian rationalism of the Enlightenment, this strand adopted its belief in the sufficiency of human reason to find universal values, but its strongest impulse was a feeling of impatience typified by the desire for immediate solutions to the divide between ideal and experienced reality, which led it to believe that reason could provide an immediate, actual realisation of the ideal, ignoring the complexity of processes. Whatever the real subtlety of Hegel’s account, his idealism could be readily adopted in the service of this perfectionism. As Popper details, there are clear links between Hegel and not only Marx (whom I shall consider in the next section) but the German nationalism of Bismarck, the First World War, and finally Nazism. This is not to underestimate the complexity of the historical causes of these developments, but to argue that their most horrific features (apparently going beyond the lesser barbarities of the past) can scarcely be accounted for without reference to their particular, and apparently new, psycho-philosophical features and the relationship between those features and the eternalist tradition.

[1] E.g.  Wood (1990), Wood’s introduction to Hegel (1991) and Solomon (1983)

[2] The first two stanzas of “London”, first published in Songs of Experience (1794) and now very widely anthologised

[3] Blake (1975/1789) plate 10

[4] A case made in more detail in Solomon (1983) p.49-57

[5] Rousseau (1987)

[6] Norman (1976) p.121. By “different” Norman evidently means to express his reservations about the idea that Hegel’s dialectic involves moral progression, but in terms of explaining Hegel this would read much better as “higher”.

[7] Solomon (1983) p.25

[8] See for example Hegel’s account of reason as the basis of history: Hegel (1953) p.11-13

[9] Popper (1940) p.406

[10] Hegel (1983) p.71, quoted by Inwood (1983) p.280

[11] Inwood (1983) p.265-8

[12] ibid. p.22-4

[13] ibid. p.282-3

[14] Hegel (1977) §84

[15] ibid. §79

[16] see 2.b.iii above

[17] Hegel (1991) §4

[18] ibid. §7

[19] see 2.a.iii

[20] Hegel (1991) §29

[21] ibid. §5 & 29

[22] Editor’s Introduction to Hegel (1991)

[23] Norman (1976) p.121

[24] Solomon (1983) p.5

[25] See 2.a.iii

[26] Hegel (1977) §616-631

[27] ibid. §639

[28] ibid. §672-9

[29] Popper (1962b) ch.12

[30] Editor’s Introduction to Hegel (1991) p. xi. My addition in parentheses.

[31] Popper (1962b) p.60-78

[32] 2.f.i


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A Theory of Moral Objectivity: quick links to other sections


1. introduction

2a. Psychology of belief

2b. Heuristic process

2c. Psychology & philosophy

3ab. Eternalism

3cd. Plato

3e. Stoicism

3f. Christianity

3g. Kant

3h. Hegel

3i. Marx

3j. Schopenhauer

3kl. Utilitarianism

4a. Nihilism

4b. Scepticism & Aristotle

4c. Hume

4d. Analytic Philosophy

4e. Wittgenstein

4f. Pragmatism

4g. Nietzsche

4hi. Existentialists

5. Integration

6. Philosophical Problems

7. Normativity

8. Middle Way Ethics

9. Conclusion

10. Appendix



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