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Terry Pinkard

Terry Pinkard, Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University in Washington DC, talks to AmirAli Maleki about how Hegel can help us make sense of modern social, cultural and political hot topics.

What is Hegel’s view of freedom?

His ideas about freedom have to do with four different questions. First, what is freedom? Second, what is its role in history? Third, how important is it? Fourth, what does it take to actually be free?

To take up the first issue: Freedom has three components. To be free is to be at one with oneself – what Hegel calls in German Beisichsein. One is at one with oneself when self-consciously acting out of a law that’s part of one’s own nature – acting according to ideas and principles of one’s own, not principles arbitrarily imposed from without.

This aspect of freedom involves being independent, but independence is often mistakenly identified with freedom itself, instead of being recognized as merely a component of freedom. Genuine freedom for Hegel involves not only independence, but also a kind of structured dependence on others. All three of these components – being at one with oneself, independence, and structured dependence – have to be in play for there to be full freedom instead of partial or even self-undermining freedom.

Terry Pinkard

Hegel thought this was easy enough to understand in practice, although difficult to grasp in theory. In particular, saying that freedom involves both dependence and independence might itself look like a self-undermining contradiction. However, the dialectical aspect of Hegel’s system tells us that what looks at first like a simple contradiction here is better understood as tension-filled moments of a greater whole, a totality. Hegel says that the free person is independent of others but is also in a form of dependence on others. He notes that we see this easily illustrated in relationships like friendship and love. In mutual love, I can be who I am in all my individuality, I can be an independent person; but I am capable of this only because of the recognition I receive from the beloved. (Sufi poets were especially good at expressing this dialectic.) I give myself over to the Other, so I am dependent; but in making myself dependent, I achieve the full recognition of myself as an independent individual, as does the Other in this relationship.

There is a danger to this, which lies in the fact that these components can, in social circumstances that are not fully rational, come apart from each other because of dialectical tensions. For example, it’s easy enough in certain situations to think that the only true freedom is complete independence, but this always results in relationships that totter between mastery and servitude. The reasoning goes that if I am to be completely independent, I must make others dependent on me – and of course, they have the same thought in reverse. All relations of mastery and servitude that are aimed at personal independence fall apart since the masters end up being dependent on the servants recognizing them as independent, even though they want to be independent of all such recognition! So relations between masters and servants (or slaves) throughout history have been fraught with difficulty. Ultimately, the relationship can be held together only by force, since only a little reflection shows how senseless this relation between mastery and servitude really is.

Genuine freedom – being at one with oneself and independent in one’s own individuality by virtue of being dependent on others in a certain way – is only really possible within the totality called Geist in German or Spirit in English. Hegel defines Geist as “an I that is a We, and a We that is an I”, where both are real. In a fully realized form of life, this would be a situation in which all of us are the unique individuals we each are by virtue of being recognised as such by others in our community. We depend on those others having civic virtue, whereby each of us cares that the others are as free as we are, and where the rules, institutions and practices all fit together to produce a society in which each ‘I’ is independent through participating in such a communal life.

The idea of Spirit is itself an example of the kind of totality that is by its essence always in a creative tension with itself. When things go wrong, the whole comes apart, and, in one case, all we have left over is a disjointed collection of I’s who form no real community – no real We. In these cases of atomization, we have what Thomas Hobbes called “the war of all against all”, in which, as he put it, all life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Or, in the opposite kind of case when things go wrong, all individuals are made subordinate to some overarching super-We that is partial and one-sidedly collectivist, where all individuality is extinguished and stirred into the pot. Examples of this include extreme nationalism, one-party dictatorship, and the like. In those cases, the state becomes a master seeking independence, and the people are merely its servants. Both of these cases are deficient actualizations of Spirit, and because they are so one-sided, are also basically unlivable. Unlivable social relations inevitably unravel.

Second, freedom is crucial in history because Hegel thinks that it provides the underpinning for historical progress. In Hegel’s best-known and most radical theory, when we look back over history, what we see is progress of the consciousness of freedom among peoples. In the beginnings of humanity, only a few people – the ‘masters’ of their time – were aware of themselves as free in the sense of independent. They were constrained only by other masters, and not by the wishes of people below them. This condition was always unstable, even though such relations of mastery and servitude lasted thousands of years. Yet over time, Hegel argues, the disenfranchised of the world gradually came to see their disenfranchisement not as the natural order of things, but as a set of humanly-constructed limitations built around an unjustifiable inequality of freedom. Hegel’s modern world differed from all other periods, in that all have come to view themselves as free and see any lack of freedom in their lives as caused by unjustifiable institutions and practices, not by the nature of the world itself. (Hegel was nineteen when the French Revolution happened.)

Third, how important is freedom? For Hegel, it is of absolute importance. Life has many goals, not all of them compatible, so in most cases we have to make tradeoffs. But above all worldly aims is the aim of living your own life, not a life commanded to you by an Other. For Hegel, freedom is not a matter of trading off some goods for others; it’s more like the recipe for a just social order. In tradeoffs, you take less of one good in order to have more of another, even though you’d like more of both. But in Hegel’s recipe for a mature society, you’re not trying to have more of all the goods, but rather, to get the goods arranged in such a way that freedom is more fully actualized. Just as in baking a cake, one does not want more flour and more sugar, one wants the right balance between sugar and flour. This is, moreover, not a self-centered freedom, because in an equally achieved freedom, we are each individually free only because all the others around us are free. We must therefore take care to keep the mediating institutions and practices around us functioning properly, so that we can each lead our own lives. In the unjust relation of master and servant, the master realizes he can be free only if the others, the servants, are not free. But in a social and political relationship where genuine freedom is actualized, each realizes he or she can be free only if the others are equally free. As Hegel says, once this idea of freedom has got into people’s minds, nothing can force it out again. The ruling orders can repress the idea, but they cannot suppress the yearning for freedom. Over time, despite the repression, the injustice of unequal freedom becomes unbearable. When that happens, people aren’t drawing philosophical conclusions as much as saying to themselves: “We can no longer be those people; we must change our world and become who we are.” This, so Hegel thought, was more or less the story of the modern world.

One of the more curious claims Hegel makes is that one is free only when one self-consciously knows that one is free. There were, he thought, entire historical communities that were not free because they did not know it. One is free when one is being oneself, acting according to a law of their own nature. To be free, one must thus have a conception of what it would mean to be at one with oneself. So as long as a person thinks he or she is dependent in some fundamental way on others, who thereby have the right of command over them, they are not free because they do not know they are free. They become free only when they become aware that whatever constraints have been imposed on them must be justified to them. And to think that you do not require this justification from others is not to know that you are free – and thus to not be free! And as we can see, this exact universal demand for justification is what characterizes the modern world.

What was the role of the state in Hegel’s thought? Is government a natural thing from his point of view?

Government, Hegel thinks, arises originally out of the need for people to coordinate with each other about important matters – food, shelter and the like – and to provide common defense and to share burdens with each other when the times become hard. That much, we might say, is ‘natural’. But that won’t necessarily justify the form of government we have. For that, we need to understand that governmental institutions were built by us, even though we almost always never built them fully self-consciously or with clearly defined aims in mind. But, being built by us, they can be unbuilt or transformed by us. And so whichever way it goes, our government institutions require justification by us.

In addition to government, there is also the state. Although Hegel thought it went back to antiquity, the state is actually a relatively modern invention. For most of history, people did not think of themselves as members of a state. Instead, they were the subjects of a prince or king, or subject to rule by some organization of elites. But as progress in the consciousness of freedom began to emerge in the collective self-understanding of various peoples, they began to think of their lives as united together under abstract ideals more than as being subjects of a prince. This way of being together – as a We that is an I – came to be called a ‘state’. By Hegel’s time, even an absolutist ruler such as Friedrich the Great of Prussia (1712-86) had proclaimed that he was only ‘the first servant of the state’.

Hegel picked up on this and saw the state as the unity of the people as citizens – as co-members of a social and political formation. Once again, his view was that it was only as a co-member of such a formation that one could be a free individual. Only in a set of institutionally and practice-oriented dependencies could we even be the kind of agents who have a right to chart the course of their own lives. The Hegelian state is thus a unity in which co-members set the extent of the power that some will inevitably have over the lives of others. In pre-modern states, elites – usually religiously-backed elites – had the power to set the limits of their own power over others. In modern democracies, that can no longer count as legitimate, because all are entitled to participate in the setting of the extent and limits of such power.

What was the role Hegel had for the people under the government? Are they completely dependent on the rulers, or not?

The relation between the government and the people exhibits the same tension we saw in the way Hegel handles all of the issues of Spirit – in terms of the potentially tense unity of the ‘I’ with the ‘We’. Those who want to see what Hegel thinks in particular about this question should read the long section §290 from Hegel’s 1820 work Philosophy of Right. There he makes it very clear that a proper comprehension of the unity of a political community strongly requires that the people must have their own sphere of authority independent of government and state authority. He is very suspicious of arrangements that for reasons of speed and efficiency centralize authority in the office of a prime minister or president, and thus centralize the state. He is even critical of the workings of the Prussian state in his own day, when he speaks there of recent ways in which all organization has come from ‘above’, when what it needs is more input from ‘below’. Such state centralization goes hand in hand with the coming apart of society into a kind of atomism of unorganized individuals. When the various spheres of society are atomistically unorganized, it can even seem ‘rational’ in a distorted way for the people at the top to centralize all power in their own hands for reasons of efficiency or ideological control.

Hegel’s views on this are strikingly similar to those put forward in the twentieth century by Hannah Arendt in her account of how totalitarianism gets a foothold in modern societies. Only when the people in a society have been so atomized do they then lack the kind of independence-in-dependence that would otherwise put a brake on such state centralization.

Are there similarities between Hegel’s system and today’s liberalism? Did Hegel fundamentally believe in something like liberalism?

The relation of Hegel to liberalism is difficult to pin down, because it’s difficult to say exactly what counts as modern liberalism. Keep in mind too that the word ‘liberalism’ itself was only coined in the early nineteenth century, even though since then the term has been retroactively applied to earlier thinkers, such as John Locke, who did not use the term to describe his own political philosophy.

In the early nineteenth century ‘liberalism’ was usually taken to mean laissez-faire free market politics – a commonly held position back then, and one to which Hegel was fundamentally opposed. He would be even more appalled at the twentieth and twenty-first century’s ‘neo-liberalism’, with its subservience to the already wealthy. As he put it to his students in 1824-1825, those who say that we should not interfere with the market since it will eventually correct itself if left alone, are just like those who say that when a plague starts to rage we should let it run its course. If we do, Hegel noted, hundreds of thousands will be dead, most of whom could have been saved. As John Maynard Keynes retorted to a similar claim about the free market righting itself in the long run: “In the long run, we are all dead.”

Hegel also had misgivings about the way in which the liberal economic policies of his day tended to atomize society and thus create the space for centralizing authoritarian governments to grab more power for themselves. In this, Hegel might well be called the first ‘post-liberal’ thinker.

On the other hand, as Edmund Fawcett has suggested in Liberalism: The Life of an Idea (Princeton, 2014), we can take a more expansive view of liberalism as structured around four very general ideas: the inevitability of social conflict, a necessary suspicion of accumulated power, the belief in social and political progress, and the need to respect individuals as individuals. If so, then Hegel is certainly a liberal sympathizer of sorts.

What are the effects of Hegel on today’s politics? In other words, does today’s political world depend on Hegel’s thought?

When Hegel published the Philosophy of Right (Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts) in 1820, he was laying out what he called, in the German title of the book, the Grundlinien – the baselines of a philosophy of legality. To lay out the baselines is like drawing the lines on a football field or a tennis court. It means that whatever disputes there are to be about what is to count as right, they must be carried on within the lines he lays out. In effect, what Hegel was arguing was that, by 1820, the baselines of the modern world have been fairly well laid out. He was also arguing that these baselines had also reached their final form of development, although they had not reached their final shape – just as one might say that the development of the institution of the Emperor in ancient Rome had reached its final form by roughly 50 BCE (with Julius, then with Augustus, Caesar), such that changes in it later on were only peripheral changes to its shape; or that the status of the Emperor in China had reached more or less its final form in the Ming Dynasty. Hegel could similarly say of various modern (to him) institutions, that they were now, at least in outline, in their final shape, too. The world had become anchored in certain abstract rights to life, liberty, and property, and in a moral worldview that was not restricted to distinct communities or cultures, but was to range over humanity at large. These two baselines were, however, still only abstract, and in order to be made real they required a set of institutions that translated them into practice. These institutions were, he thought: nuclear families based on affectionate marriages; a civil society with a large market-driven element, in which work was carried out in terms of a market for jobs, not just in terms of patronage positions; and finally, a constitutional monarchical state of free and equal citizens. So it was not a system of princely domains; marriages were not to be arranged in terms of dynastic claims or membership in a clan; and modern legality was to be justified in terms of how well it satisfied people’s unavoidable claims to be treated as free and equal.

Since Hegel wrote that, the world has undergone tumults, revolutions, wars, and pandemics, and has witnessed a technological progress that people in Hegel’s time would have found nearly impossible to imagine. However, we still find his appeal to human rights, to a moral sense that is more than just the customs of a particular community, and to affectionate marriages, to a bustling market life of jobs and bosses, and a state that cares to promote and to defend the freedom and equality of its citizens, more or less reflects the way our political discourse is still carried out. What has changed, is rejection of the idea that the European ways of working out these problems is somehow binding on the rest of the world. This is another way of saying that the demands of freedom and equality have thoroughly upended the old assertions of European hegemony. What we also find in our world is that the tensions that are part of our modern totalities put them under pressure of coming apart; and we see the state taking on a kind of independence of its citizens so that it ceases to regard them as citizens but more as atomized individuals, of whom it is the master. Or, to see morality as less about the rights of humanity as a whole, and more about how some can become judgmental masters over others. Or, about how religion can become a top-down moralizing judgmentalism, intent on replacing a bottom-up practice of love, friendship, reconciliation and forgiveness. Or, about how markets, rather than being vehicles for promoting and defending freedom and equality, are really rewarding elites and promoting them into the realms of the super-rich. When the whole is pulled apart, the parts cease to be anything like constituent moments, and become more like willful wayward fragments pretending that they and not the others are the real totality.

Hegel has no guidance for what we are to do when the parts start to come apart and become disordered elements of a detotalized totality, recombining in all kinds of socially pathological ways. What he offers us – which is what only philosophy can offer us – is a way of thinking about it. He offers a way of thinking about how social development can go right and how it can go wrong, and, most particularly, how it can go wrong even within the baselines of modern right and legality. Kant described orientation in thought as like trying to find one’s way around a dark room. You’re searching for something to hold onto. In the darkness of what the future holds, we look to philosophy to give us some markers. But we still have to find our own ways into the light.

Is Hegel an individualist? Can his philosophy be reduced to individualism or collectivism?

It depends on what you mean by an individualist. If you mean by ‘individualism’ the idea that the structures of the ‘We’ are only those formed by compacting together a set of individuals and their attitudes, then he is of course not an individualist. For example, a language is not simply the sum-total of what everybody who speaks the language has said. A language such as English carries its normative or defining structure within itself; but it’s still true that if there are no English speakers, then there is no English language. In speaking a language, the individual manifests the language in a concrete way, and the language shows itself in the speech-practices of the people who speak it. And Hegel says that language is ‘the existence of spirit’ – in other words, spirit cannot exist outside of human linguistic practices. Yet the language and the speakers of the language relate to each other in a non-additive way: language is ‘non-individualist’ in that sense.

However, if you just mean by ‘individualism’ the idea that individuals have interests and rights that the state must respect, so that the state must treat all individuals with equal respect, then Hegel is indeed an individualist in that more limited sense.

What’s the difference between the modern state and the ancient state? And what lessons for today can be learned from Hegel’s thoughts about the state?

There are two differences between the ancient state and the modern state that are crucial for Hegel. First, the Athenian state was small, so it could have a direct democracy, with every citizen himself voting on each crucial issue. This was a good thing. Modern states are too large and too complex to have direct democracy, so they’ve devised systems of representative government in order to function. Second, the Athenian state had no ‘civil society’ between itself and the family. (In fact, our modern English term ‘economy’ comes from the Greek words for ‘household’, oikos, and ‘law’, nomos.) The idea that people in a family could have a separate sphere of life that was outside of the family but not yet part of the state (say, of work in an occupation outside of the family) was unavailable to the ancient Greeks, but is it is an essential component of the baselines of modern life.

In my opinion, Hegel is the prophet of a new world religion. But my question is, what’s the connection between the state and religion in Hegel’s thought? Does he believe in the separation of religion from politics, or something else?

Hegel is very, very clear on the relation of the state to religion. He’s worth quoting at some length about this. On the idea that the modern, ‘Western’ separation of church and state is a bad thing, Hegel says in §270 of the Philosophy of Right: “Hence so far from its being or its having been a misfortune for the state that the church is divided, it is only as a result of that division that the state has been able to reach its appointed end as a self-consciously rational and ethical organization.” When the state as the center of legal coercion – which is necessary for enforcing the laws – and possessing a monopoly on violence through its police and army, is fused with religion, the result, Hegel says, is inevitably fanaticism and the falling apart of civil life.

Religion, philosophy and art are the three ways in which what Hegel calls ‘Absolute Spirit’ functions. Absolute Spirit is Spirit – that is, self-conscious individuals communally organized – thinking about what ultimately matters to self-conscious and ultimately mortal individuals. Religion is therefore for Hegel an absolutely essential element of human life properly lived. But to give some of the religious people all the coercive, violent powers of the state is to invite them to become no longer co-citizens, but masters over the rest of the population, whom they will now treat as servants of their own views. This was, thought Hegel, one of the very bitter lessons of the European wars of religion during the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which cost millions of people their lives and which should be avoided forever.

To those who say that the separation of church and state is a terrible thing for religion, since it might make it look as if religion is not really part of the Absolute Spirit, Hegel says in the same section: “this division is the best piece of good fortune which could have befallen either the church or thought so far as the freedom and rationality of either is concerned.” Religion flourishes where freedom flourishes. Where freedom does not flourish, religion debases itself into fanaticism and violence.

Last question. In your opinion, what need is there for reading German Idealism in today’s world? And what’s the right way to study it? Also, please tell Iranian thinkers how they should walk in this direction, and how to use Hegel to explain the current conditions of their society. I am Iranian myself.

The German Idealist thinkers lived in a world undergoing really seismic political, moral, and social transformations. Most of the great figures in it were born into one world, lived their youth in a world in transformation, and died as the new world that had been in the process of becoming was beginning to solidify. Kant started grappling with this when he was already old. Hegel, Schelling and the others got underway with the project when they were only in their twenties.

In some ways, we, both the young and the old, seem to be living in a similar set of circumstances. Hegel’s generation got lots of things right, and they also got a lot of important things wrong – and the same will of course be true of us. However, Hegel and his generation presented the most self-conscious, even courageous, attempt to, as Hegel put it, grasp their own times in thought. The idea that we’re free was certainly driving the thinking of the great German Idealists as the essence of their times. If we read them in the proper spirit, as fellow actors in a changing, confusing, even fearful, world, that is nonetheless full of opportunities for progress, we can perhaps better understand our own thoughts on our world and our own discomforts with it. In one sense, we now live in the great sociopolitical backwash the German Idealists created. We will be able to find our own way in it only by recognizing that, and in absorbing their views into our own, and thereby inevitably changing them – hopefully for the better.

• AmirAli Maleki is a philosophy researcher and the editor of PraxisPublication.com. He works in the field of political philosophy and hermeneutics.

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