What I Am Reading: Four Papers on Hegel’s Theory of the State. Part I

G.W.F. Hegel
G.W.F. Hegel

Lately I have read the following four papers on Hegel’s theory of the state in his Philosophy of Right:

  • Riedel, Manfred. 1962:“Tradition und Revolution in Hegel’s ‘Philosophie des Rechts’ ”. In Zeitschrift für philosophische Forschung. Volume 15. Issue 2. 203-230.
  • Sedgwick, Sally. 2001: “The State as Organism: The Metaphysical Basis of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”. In: The Southern Journal of Philosophy. Volume 31. Issue 1. 171-188.
  • Jaeger, Hans-Martin. 2002: “Hegel’s Reluctant Realism and the Transnationalisation of Civil Society”. In: Review of International Studies. Volume 28. Issue 3. 497-517.
  • Brooks, Thom. 2004. “Hegel’s Theory of International Politics: A Reply to Jaeger”. In: Review of International Studies. Volume 30. Issue 1. 149-152.

In this post I discuss the first two papers and in a follow-up post, I am going to cover the other two.

The first paper is Manfred Riedel’s “Tradition und Revolution in Hegel’s ‘Philosophie des Rechts’ ” as published in Zeitschrift für philosophische Forschung in 1962. There is also a book version of this paper, which has been translated into English, but I did not get hold of it so far. I might put more effort into getting it, however, because the paper proved a gem. The paper manages to put Hegel into his historical context in a manner that is enlightening and was new to me. Riedel does not dwell much on a particular influence on Hegel, so if you are interested in how Kant influenced Hegel’s theory of the state Sedgwick’s paper I discuss next is more of interest to you. Instead Riedel paints a much broader picture going back to ancient Greek philosophy and covering traditional European political philosophy before the revolutionary upheavals which found their clearest expression in the French Revolution. In doing so Riedel contrasts Hegel with the likes of Christian Wolff. The focus is on the historical tensions between tradition and revolution, which helps a lot to see Hegel’s motivations for distinguishing civil society and the state in the way he does. By comparison with traditional European political philosophy Riedel can show what is truly novel in Hegel’s account of the state.

I find it hard to give a critical assessment of Riedel since his historical scholarship is clearly superior to the one I have achieved so far. Nonetheless I want to add two caveats to my praise of Riedel’s paper. While Riedel makes it possible to see how historical tendencies motivated Hegel to draw distinctions the way he did, Riedel provides less help for judging whether these distinctions also have the philosophical importance which Hegel attributes to them. Neither does Riedel’s paper help much with understanding what to make of Hegel’s position after it had been historically motivated. Riedel’s narrative goes up to Hegel but stops with him. Putting it more positively, one might say that Riedel shows how political philosophy ended up at Hegel’s theory of the state, but leaves it open for others how to go on after this.

The second paper develops the historical roots of Hegel’s theory of the state as well, albeit with a very different focus. Sedgwick’s paper looks at the relation between Hegel’s theory of the state and Kant’s theory of the organism in the Critique of the Power of Judgement. The basic idea is that organisms are exhibiting a sort of reciprocal determination of their parts and the form of the whole. In elaborating this Sedgwick combines different aspects of the relationship between Kant and Hegel in a very clever way, showing why for Hegel it made sense to think of the state as an organism. The main insight seems to be that, if the citizens in the state stand in this specific relation of reciprocal determination to the state, then the laws of the state are not merely external to them, while they are also not simply reducible to the inclinations of the individuals. This is developed very well by Sedgwick’s paper, but the paper has also its limitations. The treatment of Hegel’s theory of the state as it is presented in the Philosophy of Right ends up being rather short, since most of the focus is on developing the relationship between Kant and Hegel with focus on the theory of organism. Furthermore Sedgwick does not consult Hegel’s Logic, while I am under the impression that Hegel’s theory of the state as an organism has to be understood in reference to his Logic – maybe I am wrong about that. Sedgwick also ignores other influences on Hegel’s theory of the state, although Hobbes is mentioned in the paper. This is fair enough since a single paper cannot cover everything and so Sedgwick focusses on one important aspect of Hegel’s theory of the state as an organism. nonetheless one should be aware of this limitation.

Next time I am going to cover the other two papers, which are more interested in connecting Hegel’s theory of the state with contemporary discussion.


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