The introduction to Hegel’s philosophy of Right in 1820 aims at establishing social philosophy as a speculative science about Law, social morality and the state. His approach is dialectical in many ways, but particularly in the way he understands that the position from which one reflects is in this case necessarily part of the object.
This is the first draft of an article about the shape of Hegel’s social thought.
Understanding the State as Reality
An axiom for this approach is the necessity to understand and clarify what is already given in reality. What Hegel has in mind is the idea, that we can only call something real, if it is to some extent rational, i.e. can be approached by reflection. The contents of that is already rational in itself must be expressed in its proper rational form. Our free reflection should be grounded in reality, not in wishful thinking or products of social fantasy.
The State can only be understood when it is neither approached descriptively as something given in external reality – in a misguided attempt to stay close to common experience – nor as a moral reality that must be judged by external standards.
The third option that Hegel develops starts with the idea, that any free reflection upon the State derives it own status from the reality given to it by the State. This interconnection between subjective reflection and the object of reflection is crucial. The State is not an object ‘out there’ but ground of my position in life, including my ability to reflect upon the world.
An indication of that reality is therefore precisely the question whether a State allows or calls for free reflection upon itself. In a free reflection upon the State, the fact of that freedom –whether it is enhanced or threatened by the State - is part of the object to be considered.
The Inadequacy of Descriptiveness
Precisely if we remain in descriptive mode, certain immediate principles like the idea of the authority and sovereign power of the State or the consensus among people, the general will, the social contract etc. will appear as foundational. They are taken at face value, and not understood. In this manner, we do not exercise a "freedom" of thinking but remain guided by what is already there on the surface. We accept the ideology of the State instead of conceptualizing it.
A free thought that cannot do otherwise than acknowledge the given authority of the state cannot be free. Only a free State can allow free reflection. Where it does not, the free reflection becomes revolutionary in essence. Where it does, the State can not be totally un-free.
If the freedom with which one reflects upon a society is not realized within that society, then it has to be critical towards that society – it is already in opposition to its very foundation.
The Inadequacy of Prescriptiveness
The opposite is true also. The moralistic position is untenable as well. In a sense, the point of view from which criticisms can be directed toward the State from the outside – as if one is not part of that society as well – is merely utopian fantasy. A free reflection on political reality as it is given is connected with the acceptance of random norms and values that are applied as a standard of conduct for the State without being derived from the reality of the State.
In such an approach to social reality the rationality that is already present in it, is not adequately expressed. The concept of social reality is only used in an abstract sense to be applied externally in a utopian, idealistic, moralistic manner.
Utopian idealism has no foundation in reality. It presents the position of an abstract "should-have-been" without concerning itself with the finitude of all human efforts as would be obvious from even a cursory glance at history.
The problem here is not only that in such a moralism reality cannot be understood adequately, but also because of this opposition to reality the moral content has no chance of realization whatsoever. There is such an absolute rift between ideal and reality that it is impossible even to imagine how the ideal can be realized. Precisely if we could determine that the social order is morally inadequate in an absolute sense, it is clear that the standard is not a part of that order.
Think about it: if society is totally unjust, doesn’t that imply its inability to even judge itself to be so? So whenever we can make that judgment, there is at least some justice in the sense that it can be known to be injust.
Only if the standard is part of the reality that we understand in some manner, can it be meaningful. Only then can it represent an ideal that we may achieve with the means at our disposal.
Beyond Descriptivism and Prescriptivism
This train of thought is characteristic for Hegel’s contribution to modern philosophy.
The form of reflection in which we think, actually determines the relationship with reality in which I stand.
Within the way of thinking about reality lies something that can be understood as a quality or determination of that reality, excluding that it is reducible to an immediate given. What is true is only apparently to be identified with the immediate as it is given to me. What is true is also the real as it is in my knowledge.
Moreover, my knowledge of reality must itself be understood as part of that reality that we speak about. The concept of reality in some manner involves a reality of the concept. Ultimately, Hegel can make the claim that there is a connection of identity between philosophical knowledge and its object, which is why he comes to speak about a self-understanding of reality. Only by paying attention to the logical form in which we understand, can reality itself be understood. The structure of our thoughts is an expression of the connection between subject and object that determines every act of knowledge and understanding. That is why there cannot be a simple transparency of thinking toward its object as an immediate given that can be described in order to confront it with a critical standard that is derived from elsewhere.
In a more positive sense, Hegel has summarized this way of thinking in a principle:
What is reasonable, is real; what is real, is reasonable.
In the context of political philosophy, the argument has been made against Hegel that this principle gives sanction to whatever system of government exists, the analysis becoming corrupt by conservative assumptions. Based on the above it is better to say that Hegel is trying to express a form of reflection in which the concept of social reality achieves a real grasp of the peculiar nature of its object. Within Hegel’s motivation up to a point coincides with the empiricist attitude, i.e. the approach to reality by description and clarification. Hegel shared with empiricism a deep respect for reality as it is. Precisely because of that respect, we should learn to understand that the reality cannot be conceived by us, without it being in itself rational. If reality is rational, that our knowledge of reality cannot or should not be grounded in a subjective predilections or utopian moralism.
If reality is always rational, then the existing social order cannot be simply understood as an irrational power. Its own reality must be to some extent at least an expression of its own principle. Although that rational principle, on the other hand, is to some extent already realized, it remains to function as the standard with which reality can be measured. The concept of the State is therefore both descriptive of its objective reality and prescriptive because of the realized concept. Its reality can be confirmed as in some me
asure the realization of its principle.
In this mode of the concept, consciousness and reality are not abstract opposites. The consciousness of the social order signifies both the knowledge of a social reality, as the social reality of that knowledge. Social consciousness is itself a social reality; to some extent, it is also possible to say that the social order is self-conscious. Hegel’s concept differs from Karl Marx, because according to the former we cannot speak about a social order producing a form of reflection, i.e. externally.
All of this leads to the principle, that our understanding of the social order should reflect the conditions in which we have a consciousness of the social order.
In Hegel’s thinking, reflection is always engaged in, is intrinsically connected to the reality it tries to understand. No concept of the social order is viable, in which the very conditions of understanding that social order are denied or ignored. One of the main analogies therefore, between the form of the reflection and the nature of the object in this case, must be the liberty of both. A free reflection on the social order cannot be but grounded in a social structure that allows for that kind of free reflection.