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Hegel and Politics: Dialectics of the Will

Lecturer: James Muldoon

Originally Taught: Summer School 2013

This course will introduce students to Hegel’s writings on social and political philosophy within the context of contemporary politics. Attention will be focused on two major texts: 'The Spirit of Christianity and its Fate' and the Philosophy of Right. We will take the time in class to read several extracts from the texts so that students will gradually learn how to decipher the intricacies of Hegelese with the help of some initial guidance.

The course is designed based on the insight that the preface to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit might not be the best way to introduce students to Hegel’s philosophy. Instead we will begin with Hegel’s essay, 'The Spirit of Christianity and its Fate', which is instructive for our reading of his work as a whole because it develops, in lucid prose uncomplicated by technical language, several themes that will recur throughout his later writings. This early essay allows us to see Hegel at a relatively unguarded moment before the gradual crystallisation of his system. It also reveals his deepest philosophical concerns in a very raw and unmediated form. Despite being contained within an underdeveloped metaphysics of love and life, the text grapples with the fundamental problem of diremption, arguably the central theme to which all of Hegel’s philosophy responds.

The Philosophy of Right, on the other hand, is Hegel’s final published work and the most definitive statement of his later position on ethics and politics. Hegel’s primary aim in this text is to reveal how the modern principle of freedom, which arose out of the Reformation and the French Revolution, can be given content and embodied in the social and political institutions of the modern state. He constructs what might be called a “logic of political life” that justifies and gives an account of the rational structure of the family, civil society and the state.  In contrast to liberal political theory, which conceives of an individual’s freedom as limited by the state, Hegel proposes that modern individuals can be free in the fullest sense of the term only within the social and political structures of the state. Essential for Hegel are the various mediating institutions that stand between the individual and the state and are able to integrate individuals into modern society. We will critically examine Hegel’s claim through a close reading of his text.

This study will enable us to undertake a re-interpretation of the relationship between Hegel’s early and late writings by calling into question Habermas’ well-known thesis that while starting off with a promising philosophy of inter-subjectivity, Hegel ends up lapsing into a monological philosophy of the subject.

Course Schedule:

Lecture 1 The Politics of Love and Life
Lecture 2 Hegel’s Early Political Writings: Towards a Modern Polis
Lecture 3 Introduction to the Philosophy of Right
Lecture 4 The Drive to Freedom
Lecture 5 Reconciliation and the Modern State

Recommended Readings:
  • Schlomo Avineri, Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972)
  • Frederick Beiser, Hegel (New York and London: Routledge, 2005)
  • Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourses of Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1987) Chapters 1 and 2.
  • G. W. F. Hegel, Early Theological Writings (trans. T. M. Knox.) (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975)
  • G. W. F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)
  • G. W. F. Hegel, Political Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)
  • Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012)
  • Allen Wood, Hegel’s Ethical Thought (Cambridge University Press, 1982)

Level of Difficulty: The course is an introductory course and all students are welcome to attend, but it is Hegel, so students should come prepared to tarry with the negative, tremble in every fibre of their being and so on. Having said that, I will bring cookies! (maybe)