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

Portrait of G. W. F. Hegel
G. W. F. Hegel

I continue with my discussion of four paper on Hegel’s theory of the state as presented in his Philosophy of Right by discussing the last two papers. For the first two papers by Riedel and Sedgwick see this post. The papers I discuss this time are by Hans-Martin Jaeger and Thom Brooks.

  • 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.

While the first two papers discussed how Hegel’s theory of the state in the Philosophy of Right relates to philosophical positions which historically precede Hegel, the last two paper discuss Hegel in relation to current theories of the state.

Hans-Martin Jaeger’s starting point is that Hegel is generally associated with the so-called realist position in International Relations. The basic idea of the realist picture is that states are the primary agents in international politics, that they behave so as to maximise their own relative welfare compared to other states, and that this takes place in a sort of Hobbesian state of nature. Jaeger argues attributing such a realist position to Hegel overlooks the role of Hegelian civil society – note that “civil society” has a rather specific meaning in the Philosophy of Right – in two ways: 1) Hegel’s description of the civil society works as a model for the relations between nation-states. Therefore one should expect to see transnational institutions as important players in international politics, just as e.g. corporations are important transindividual players in civil society. 2) Civil society goes beyond the limits of the nation-state. Jaeger mostly focusses here on market relations, which go beyond the narrow boundaries of the nation-states.

Thom Brooks criticises these two claims, and as far as I am concerned Brooks offers the more convincing interpretation of Hegel. Of all the papers on Hegel I have discussed, that of Jaeger ranks lowest when it comes to historical scholarship, although it is much better than much other Hegel scholarship. In the end, however, the quotes seem to be on Brooks’ side. Brooks points to a quote in which Hegel stresses the difference between the relations of nation-states with each other and relations of individuals in a civil society with each other, a quote which undermines claim 1 by Jaeger.

The second line of argument offered by Jaeger was rather thin from the beginning, the market relations which go beyond the nation-state are at best given secondary importance by Hegel and such market relations on their own hardly move Hegel beyond realism.

However, in Jaeger’s defence one might note that there are indeed moments in Hegel, which – one might argue in hindsight – ought to have pushed him beyond a strictly realist position. For example that transnational markets lead to transnational externalities could have made him see that there is a role for transnational institutions like the one of his national civil societies, which could in its turn have Hegel questioned whether what the realist picture shows is a completely realisation of reasonable politics. But Hegel did not see a place for such move beyond realism in favour of giving transnational institutions a major role and so many later philosophers working broadly in the Hegelian tradition – I am thinking of Habermas and Honneth amongst others – had to deal with this issue.

I also found myself wondering whether Hegel’s philosophy of history might not be the better starting point for questioning the interpretation of Hegel as a realist. After all the idea of Spirit realising itself in history through the development of nation-states seems to sit awkwardly with the idea of there being some kind of Hobbesian state of nature between nation-states. But this would be another paper than the one Jaegar wrote.

Overall I hope that my discussion of these four papers has shown that Hegel’s theory of the state can be approached in quite a variety of ways. Some of them might be of mostly historical interest, while others might be of use for other purposes. These papers are only a starting point.


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