Lecture Notes, Philosophy 151, October 24, 1995

Hegel on Freedom & Marx on Hegel

"The history of the world," says Hegel, "is the progress of the consciousness of Freedom" (p. 79). But what is freedom? Classically it has been viewed as that which is not constrained by necessity. Thus Kant held that the human being is free only insofar as it can stand outside of nature with its principle of causality. Schopenhauer adopted the same standpoint.

But this is just a negative conception of freedom. Schopenhauer stops at this point, at the aimless activity of the will. But according to Kant, there is a positive conception, which is that of autonomy. A rational agent acts freely insofar as it acts according to a law given to it by its own reason.

Hegel also distinguished two kinds of freedom, but not quite along the same lines. "Formal" or subjective freedom is that of the individual, who is able to carry out his personal intentions. Such freedom is "mere caprice," which is constrained by law and morality. But such constraints do not mean the end of freedom; on the contrary it is "the indispensable proviso of emancipation."

The higher form of freedom is "objective," having its origin not in the desires of individuals but in reason itself. For Kant, it is reason which constrains the passions and gives rise to morality. But whereas Kant placed reason in the individual, Hegel understood reason as universal. For a people, it is realized in the morality and laws of the state. This is why constraint of subjective freedom is said to be emancipating.

True freedom is to be found in the harmony of the individual will with the precepts of the state. Those precepts, however, are not generated from the individual desires of the people, and hence does not arise out of subjective freedom. Thus it is not a social contract in which each person submits to constraints in order to "secure a small space of liberty," as one finds in Hobbes.

Rousseau had spoken of a "general will," which might be seen as a generalization of Kant's notion of autonomy. This general will expresses the moral nature of the individual, and its laws are thus the product of human nature itself. Hegel's view of objective will is similar to Rousseau's, but it contains some characteristically Hegelian features.

For Hegel, human nature is not fixed, but always developing into new forms. These forms are embodied in peoples, broad social groups such as the "Oriental," the "Greek," the "Roman," and the "German." According to Hegel, peoples have attained their own levels of freedom: for the Oriental, one is free; for the Greek and Roman some are free, and for the German, all are free.

The level of freedom attained by a people depends in part on previous developments, as is characteristic of Hegelian dialectic. But it also depends on the characteristics of the peoples themselves. In particular, Hegel singled out a feature of the German people, "heart" (German: Gemüth). The Germans enjoy life without any particular object in mind, in contrast to people of "character" who are defined by their projects.

The Oriental people are typified by the Chinese, whose society has the structure of an extended family, with the emporer (the one who is free) at the head. Subjective freedom is missing here, but it is found in the Greeks. Those Greeks who are not slaves revel in their subjective freedom. By contrast, the Romans are authoritarian, a Western reprise of the Oriental despotism. But the Roman empire gave birth to Christianity, whose acceptance by the German people was to lead to the realization of freedom.

The German barbarians, full of Gemüthlichkeit, destroyed the Roman empire physically, but ultimately they were brought under the authority of Christianity. Hegel found the Catholic church, with its virtues of poverty, chastity and obedience, to have been a harsh but essential vehicle for the civiliation of the Germans. "The hardness characteristic of the self-seeking quality of 'heart,' maintaining its position of isolation -- the knotty heart of oak undelyin the national temperament of the Germans -- was broken down and mellowed by the terrible disciple of the Middle Ages. . . . The Church drove the 'Heart' to desperation -- made Spirit pass through the severest bondage, so that the soul was no longer its own."

But the Catholic church was not the highest form of the spiritual, in Hegel's view. It was Luthur who made a virtue of the "Heart" of the German people, bringing a missing subjective element in Christianity as well. "Man himself has a conscience; consequently the subjection required of him is a free allegiance. This involves the possibility of a development of Reason and Freedom, and of their introduction into human relations; and Reason and the Divine commands are synonymous."

The vehicle for this unification of Reason and Divine command is the state. Hegel credited the Prussian King Frederick for having unified the two, on Lutheran principles. The laws of the state are the laws of God, which for Hegel is to say that they are the laws of reason. The highest point of unity has been achieved.

It should be noted that the attainment of objective freedom was seen by Hegel to have been necessary. "The latent abstract process of Spirit [is] regarded as Necessity, while that which exhibits itself in the conscious will of men, as their interest, belongs to the domain of Freedom.

The last two paragraphs suggest quite different emphases in the interpretation of Hegel. One can look at Hegel as an apologist for the existing order, the Prussian-Lutheran monarchy, as did the "right" Hegelians. Hegel himself acted to preserve order when called upon to calm down student demonstrators. On the negative side, Schopenhauer considered him a lackey of the state.

On the other hand, one could pay more attention to the methodology than to the result. The process of the attainment of freedom may not yet be finished; the Prussian state may be just another phase. So went the thinking of the "left" Hegelians. From this way of thinking emerged the social and political philosophy of Karl Marx.

We begin with the rather theoretical criticism of Hegel found in Marx's early "philosophical" writings. (His later writings were almost exclusively economic.) The basic charge against Hegel was that his philosophy dealt exclusively with abstraction, leaving aside real things. For example, in his philosophy of nature, Hegel considers only the idea of nature, not nature itself. The philosophy of spirit culminates in thought discovering itself, rather than flesh-and-blood humans in real social relations.

Hegel's concern is with alienation, the "otherness" or separateness of the thinking subject and its object (thought and being). This separation itself is an abstraction from the real alienation in the world. People treat other people as objects: they use them for their own purposes and deny their subjectivity. No intellectual reconcilation of "subject" and "object" can overcome real alienation.

Nonetheless, Hegel's philosophy has positive merit. First, it recognizes the dynamic aspect of human beings: human nature is not static, but humans create themselves through their activities, through their labor. Second, it recognizes the problem of alienation, of the "otherness" of other human beings, whose mere difference leads to their being treated as objects. Third, it recognizes the collective nature of the human being, which is "species being." Humans are not seen as atomic, isolated entities, but they become human throught their co-operative endeavors.

Having made these general points, Marx attacked some of Hegel's specific doctrines, as found in the final chapter of the Phenomenology, "Absolute Knowledge." Having rightly recognized the objectification involved in the alienated condition of the human being, Hegel wrongly believed he had overcome it by abolishing the object altogether, by absorbing it into the subject. Thus the human being becomes a spiritual being, not a natural being. This spiritual being is the logical outcome from Hegel's starting-point, the abstract self. Although Marx does not state as much, it is apparent that Hegel stands in the tradition of Descartes, who tried to build his positive philosophy on his own existence as a thinking thing.

Unable to reach things from the pure inwardness of the ego, the philosopher instead pursues thinghood, an abstract characterization of a thing. Because it is a product of the mind, thinghood is easily overcome in favor of spirit. Thus Hegel is an idealist, and the human being a mere knower. The knower knows his knowing as its object. But the human being is a natural being who acts and suffers in a natural world. (Naturalism is here distinguished from materialism, which would reduce all human acts to mere mechanisms of inorganic nature.)

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