On Kant’s ‘Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals’​ — Good will hunting — Part Three

David Proud
38 min readJul 10, 2022


Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day,

And make me travel forth without my cloak,

To let base clouds o’ertake me in my way,

Hiding thy bravery in their rotten smoke?

’Tis not enough that through the cloud thou break,

To dry the rain on my storm-beaten face,

For no man well of such a salve can speak,

That heals the wound, and cures not the disgrace:

Nor can thy shame give physic to my grief;

Though thou repent, yet I have still the loss:

The offender’s sorrow lends but weak relief

To him that bears the strong offence’s cross.

Ah! but those tears are pearl which thy love sheds,

And they are rich and ransom all ill deeds.

— William Shakespeare, (1564–1616), ‘Sonnet’ 34

To continue with Immanuel Kant’s, (1724–1804), application of the second formulation of the categorical imperative (‘Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end’) to his chosen examples, in this case promise-breaking, while some new aspects of all four of Kant’s examples emerge when they are subjected to the second formulation, it is the second, that of promise- breaking, that most demonstrates the efficacy of the formulation such as it is. Regarded in its light the person who makes a false promise ‘is intending to make use of another man merely as a means to an end which he does not share’, since the latter ‘cannot possibly agree with my way of behaving to him and so cannot himself share the end of the action’. Kant suggests here that a legitimate social order is one which embodies ends which can rationally be shared by its members and that this is a significant part of much of our subsequent thinking upon the necessary conditions of a rational consensus, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, (1770–1831), demurs, for is not Kant importing the content of his examples from institutions legitimated elsewhere that may be sustained in other cases but not here where form and content are united in the principle of treating all persons as ends in themselves? Promise-keeping is a necessary instantiation of such a principle.

In his essay of 1802/03 on ‘Natural Law’ Hegel delivers some praise for ‘the great element’ in the philosophy of Kant and Johann Gottlieb Fichte, (1762–1814), namely the ‘aspect under which the essence of right and duty, and the essence of the thinking and willing subject, are one and the same’. And then some criticism follows: ‘But that philosophy has not remained true to this oneness; by recognizing this oneness as the essence and the absolute, it posits the separation into the one and the many just as absolutely, and places one beside the other as equals’. We must look more closely at Kantian dualism and the division of intellectual labour, for Hegel assails Kantian dualism at all levels and in the ‘Natural Law’ essay he criticizes the unbridgeable dualism of modes of being, the being of the moral subject on the one hand, and the being of the legal subject on the other, not only separate, but ‘downright opposed to one another in the relation of being mutually conditioned’, with the consequence that each can then ‘ground a special science — one dealing with the unity of the pure concept and the subjects, or the morality of actions, the other with their non-unity, or legality’.

This idea of the division of the ‘sciences’ of moral philosophy and jurisprudence and of the corresponding division of intellectual labour Kant addresses in his political pamphlet ‘The Conflict of the Faculties’ wherein he follows the traditional division of the University Faculties into three higher Faculties and one lower Faculty, while noting that ‘this nomenclature [was] adopted with reference to the government rather than to the learned professions’. Thus the three higher Faculties of theology, law, and medicine train ‘the businessmen (Geschaftsleute) or technicians of learning … tools of government’ whereas ‘the faculty whose function is only to look after the interests of science is called lower because it may use its own judgment about what it teaches’. Kant’s manifesto for the right to intellectual freedom on the part of this Faculty is expressed thus:

‘It is absolutely essential that the learned community at the university also contain a faculty that is independent of the government’s command with regard to its teachings; one that having no commands to give, is free to evaluate everything, and concerns itself with the interests of the sciences, that is, with truth: one in which reason is authorized to speak out publicly. For without a faculty of this kind, the truth would not come to light (and this would be to the government’s own detriment); but reason is by its nature free and admits of no command to hold something as true (no imperative ‘Believe!’ not only a free ‘I believe’)’.

The philosopher as guardian of the lower Faculty is licensed to search for answers in the legal and political domain to questions quid iuris? (What is the law?) The jurist, in the higher Faculty of law, must restrict himself to questions quid ius? (What is right?):

‘… [A]s an authority on the text, [he] does not look to his reason for the laws that secure the Mine and Thine, but to the code of laws that has been publicly promulgated and sanctioned by the highest authority (if, as he should, he acts as a civil servant). To require him to prove the truth of these laws and their conformity with right, or to defend them against reason’s objections, would be unfair’.

Such division of labour is of course treated with suspicion by Hegel, particularly in the ‘Philosophy of Right’ wherein reason’s systematic embodiment in institutions is unfolded for his audience and the opposition between the critical (quid iuris?) and descriptive (quid ius?) moments is purportedly transcended, albeit within Hegel’s own work that transcendence tends increasingly to obscure the legitimate distinction between the two moments making room, it is alleged but it works both ways, for the right-Hegelian normative advocacy of the status quo.

‘Guru Guri Dhar. Path of the Teacher of Teachers’, 1931, Nicholas Roerich

Within the context of Kantian dualism morality is perfected as a ‘Beyond’. Hegel’s forceful argument against the project of Kantian morality is that it presupposes its own impossibility, that ‘the harmony of the sensuous and the rational … abrogates morality’. I say forceful but in the eyes of many commentators Hegel’s argument is somewhat weak for it is true that for Kant ‘perfected morality must remain a Beyond’ (‘Die vollendete Moralität muss ein Jenseits bleiben’), as Hegel puts it in the ‘Lectures on the History of Philosophy’, in virtue of the fact that human beings are finite and imperfect, but it does not follow, it is said, that Kant is antagonistic to the endeavour to bring about the realm of perfection in which that opposition would be overcome. Hegel is mistaken, it is alleged, in attributing that inference to Kant, just as he was mistaken, it is further alleged, in attributing to him the view that ‘the principle of morality’ and ‘the principle of happiness’ are not only distinct but also opposed. Well that may not have been a view that Kant held but it does not mean that we cannot infer it from his moral theory anyway deny it all he likes, for much turns upon whatever ‘happiness’ is supposed to mean, not to mention ‘finitude’ and ‘imperfection’, terms in need of some elaborating upon.

Sir Malcolm Knox, (1900–1980), contends that Kant’s model of the kingdom of ends, ruled by the holy will, ‘whose maxims necessarily accord with the laws of autonomy’ (that’s not morality perfected as a ‘Beyond’?) is closer to Hegel’s model of embodied Sittlichkeit (ethical life) than Hegel himself recognizes, both being ideal types drawn from religion. Knox reminds us not to lose sight of the deep continuity between the two positions, (well I would follow his reminder were the continuity there in the first place .. ah the vagaries of language, what is religion or religious ethics anyway?) while seeing Hegel’s critique of the ‘Beyond’ as signalling a decisive shift in the Gestalt (the whole is greater than its parts, how things are put together, there is no English equivalent), of practical philosophy, a re-arrangement of the foreground and background of that discipline, a re-arrangement that has a dual consequence upon what constitutes for Kantian the problem of morality. In the first place it displaces Moralität, the individual’s action performed from duty, from being the centre into being a moment of the whole, alongside abstract right. Moralität ‘throughout portrays the real aspect of the concept of freedom’, but cannot embody that concept completely, as he explains in the ‘Philosophy of Right’:

‘Since subjectivity now constitutes the determinacy of the concept and is distinct from the concept as such (i.e. from the will which has being in itself), and more precisely since the will of the subject, as the individual [des Einzeltzen] who has being for himself, at the same time exists (i.e. still has immediacy in it), it follows that subjectivity constitutes the existence [Dasein] of the concept. — A higher ground has thereby been determined for freedom; the Idea’s aspect of existence [Existenz], its real moment, is now the subjectivity of the will. Only in the will as subjective will can freedom, or the will which has being in itself, be actual’

‘The second sphere, i.e. morality, thus represents in its entirety the real aspect of the concept of freedom … ‘

Limited to Moralität Kant’s principles of action make the standpoint of ethical life (Sittlichkeit) completely impossible, in fact they explicitly put it out of action and kick it into touch, as Hegel explains:

‘Philosophical subdivisions are certainly not an external classification — i.e. an outward classification of a given material based on one or more extraneous principles of organization — but the immanent differentiation of the concept itself. — Morality and ethics, which are usually regarded as roughly synonymous, are taken here in essentially distinct senses. Yet even representational thought [Vorstellung] seems to distinguish them; Kantian usage prefers the expression morality, as indeed the practical principles of Kant’s philosophy are confined throughout to this concept, even rendering the point of view of ethics impossible and in fact expressly infringing and destroying it. But even if morality and ethics were etymologically synonymous, this would not prevent them, since they are now different words, from being used for different concepts’.

And in the second place it brings into relief elements of the Kantian system which previously lay in the background, the practical ‘postulates’ of the immortality of the soul, of the existence of God, and, most fundamentally, of ‘freedom affirmatively regarded (as the causality of a being so far as he belongs to the intelligible world)’ as Kant puts it in the ‘Critique of Practical Reason’. A postulate of pure practical reason is defined by Kant as ‘a theoretical proposition which is not as such demonstrable, but which is an inseparable corollary of an a priori unconditionally valid practical law’. Kant applies that definition to each of the three ‘postulates’ in turn and each receives explicit criticism from Hegel in the ‘Lectures on the History of Philosophy’ and elsewhere.

In defence of the first postulate Kant contends that we are bound to aspire for the goal of holiness, ‘complete fitness of the will to the moral law’, which ‘our knowledge of ourselves’ demonstrates to be unattainable by human beings: ‘only endless progress from lower to higher stages of moral perfection is possible to a rational but finite being’ (from the ‘Critique of Practical Reason’). Since the attainment of the goal is ‘necessary’ for our existence as moral beings, then, if the goal is impossible, it follows that our existence as moral beings is impossible. But our existence as moral beings is possible. Therefore the attainment of the goal too is possible. But it is not possible in this finite existence. Therefore it is possible beyond it. Thus the goal is attainable only in the immortality of the soul. Hegel endorses the Kantian argument up to and including the penultimate step. While he does not deny the immortality of the soul, he finds the realm of the true infinite, true perfection, here on earth, in Sittlichkett: ‘It is the will whose potentialities have become fully explicit which is truly infinite, because its object is itself and so is not in its eyes an ‘other’ or barrier…’, as he explains in the ‘Philosophy of Right’:

‘The will which has being in and for itself is truly infinite, because its object [Gegenstand] is itself, and therefore not something which it sees as other or as a limitation; on the contrary, it has merely returned into itself as an object. Furthermore, it is not just a possibility, predisposition, or capacity (potentia), but the infinite in actuality (infinitum actu), because the concept’s existence [Dasein] or objective [gegetlständliche] externality is inwardness itself’.

God’s existence is postulated in an equally impromptu manner. As Kant writes in the ‘Critique of Practical Reason’:

‘… [T]here is not the slightest ground in the moral law for a necessary connection between the morality and proportionate happiness of a being which belongs to the world as one of its parts and as thus dependent on it … Nevertheless, in the practical task of pure reason, i.e., in the necessary endeavour after the highest good, such a connection is postulated as necessary: we should seek to further the highest good (which therefore must be at least possible). Therefore also the existence is postulated of a cause of the whole of nature, itself distinct from nature, which contains the ground of the exact coincidence of happiness with morality’.

Kant concludes that it is ‘morally necessary to assume the existence of God’, but that ‘this moral necessity is subjective, i.e., a need, and not objective, i.e., duty itself’. There is a move in the argument from the premise that if we are obliged to attempt to further the highest good, then that highest good must be possible, to the conclusion that the existence of a being must be postulated which makes that highest good not only possible but actual: ‘the exact coincidence of happiness with morality’. Hegel retorts, in the ‘Lectures on the History of Philosophy’: ‘The actuality of the God who produces harmony is of such a character that it does not enter into consciousness at all; it is accepted by consciousness for the sake of harmony, just as children make some kind of scarecrow, and then agree with each other to pretend to be afraid of it’.

Right on target as usual. In re-arranging the Gestalt Hegel thereby highlights the problematic status of the religious doctrines postulated by Kant impromptu, for like love, they emerge as ‘an indispensable complement (Erganzungstuck) to the imperfection of human nature’, rather than as an integral part of the whole. Hegel also finds incoherence in the relation between moral autonomy and religion in Kant: ‘The ground on which God is accepted — that by the conception of a holy law-giver the moral law may acquire additional reverence — contradicts the fact that morality really consists in reverence for the law simply for its own sake’. (‘Lectures on the History of Philosophy’). But Kant is careful to mark off autonomy from any heteronomous principles, even ‘rational’ (as opposed to ‘empirical’) ones, especially from ‘the theological concept which derives morality from a divine and supremely perfect will’. (‘Groundwork’). No such derivation is permitted. The existence of God is postulated both in order to found the conception of harmonization of ends and in order to introduce an imperative additional to the moral imperative: ‘Religion is the recognition of all duties as divine commands, not as sanctions, that is arbitrary and contingent ordinances of a foreign will, but as essential laws of any free will as such. Even as such, they must be regarded as commands of the Supreme Being because we can hope for the highest good (to strive for which is our duty under the moral law) only from a morally perfect (holy and beneficent) and omnipotent will; and, therefore, we can hope to attain it only through harmony with this will.’ (‘Critique of Practical Reason’). Hence there is no contradiction in Kant’s position, it is alleged, albeit there may be a radical failure to integrate the moral and religious imperatives.

Which brings us to the dualism of phenomena and noumena, for underlying these dualisms in Kant are yet two others running more deeply, an ontological dualism of phenomenal and noumenal, and a methodological dualism of descriptive and normative. The significance of the phenomenal/noumenal dualism, established in the first ‘Critique’, emerges fully only in the second Critique. In the latter the noumenal gains its entitlement granted it by the antinomies, in particular, the third antinomy, (see my article On Immanuel Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason’: Making Honours of Men’s Impossibilities — Part Two), the claim that, alongside the causal laws of nature, ‘there is also another causality, that of freedom’. Hegel approves of the primacy accorded to practical reason by Kant, for whom the moral law ‘determines its reality’ and contains its own ‘concept of causality’. For Kant, the causality of freedom is an ‘inscrutable’ (uncrforschlich) faculty, it marks the limit of the intelligible. Every specification of it is negative and it is ‘not self-contradictory to regard all [the agent’s] actions as physically conditioned so far as they are appearances, and yet at the same time to regard their causality as physically unconditioned so far as the acting being is regarded as a being of the understanding’. (‘Critique of Practical Reason’). It is not self-contradictor, but it remains as ‘inscrutable’ as it was in 1643 when Descartes, (1596–1650), wrote to Elisabeth, Princess Palatine of Bohemia, (1618–1680), that ‘the human mind is incapable of conceiving distinctly at one and the same time both the distinction between the body and the soul and their union’, even though ‘everyone constantly experiences the union of body and soul within him without philosophizing, i.e. he knows that he is a single person who has a body and thought together ‘. Hegel endeavours to revive Descartes’ ‘pre-philosophical’ intuition and to construct that intuition into a philosophy of mind which obstructs the way to the path leading to Cartesian and ultimately Kantian dualism. Hegel proceeds with a combination of negative, critical moves, identifying incoherences and stresses within different variants of dualism, on the one hand, and positive, phenomenological-descriptive moves, making concrete Kant’s idea of the ‘causality… of freedom’, on the other. In the latter it is a matter of finding oneself in practices of different kinds, creative work, in which one expresses, embodies the spiritual in material artefacts, physical danger, in which one realizes oneself as a unity of the mortal/physical and the conscious, a biological individual who can nonetheless step back from, reflect upon and even sacrifice one’s own finite life, the family, where one lives as a part of a biological system of related human beings, always already given and indispensable, but which one as a particular member can within limits transform, and at the other diverse and not fully integrated levels of modern life at which an individual finds oneself as an ‘embodied consciousness’.

‘Soul in Bondage’, 1891/92, Elihu Vedder

Hegel develops a philosophy of mind in the ‘Anthropology’ section of the ‘Encyclopaedia’ wherein against Cartesian dualism he contends that ‘the standpoint which separates them is not to be regarded as final, as absolutely true. On the contrary, the separation of the material and the immaterial can be explained only on the basis of the original unity of both’:

‘The soul is not only immaterial for itself. It is the universal immateriality of nature, its simple ideal life. Soul is the substance, the absolute foundation of all the particularizing and individualizing of mind, so that it is in the soul that mind finds all the stuff of its determination, and the soul remains the pervading, identical ideality of this determination. But in this still abstract determination, the soul is only the sleep of mind — the passive nous of Aristotle, which is potentially all things’.

‘[Remark] The question of the immateriality of the soul is no longer of interest, unless matter, on the one hand, is represented as something true, and mind, on the other, is represented as a thing. But in modern times even the physicists have found matter grown thinner in their hands; they have hit upon imponderable matters, such as heat, light, etc., to which they could easily add space and time as well. These imponderables, which have lost the property (characteristic of matter) of weight and, in a sense, even the capacity of offering resistance, have still, however, a sensory reality, a self-externality; whereas the vital matter, which may also be found counted among them, not only lacks weight, but even every other reality which would lead us to count it as material’.

In order to crawl from out of the wreckage wrought by modem dualism Hegel goes back to Aristotle, (384–322 BC): ‘The books of Aristotle on the Soul, along with his discussions on its special aspects and states, are for this reason still by far the most admirable, perhaps even the sole, work of philosophical value on this topic. The main aim of a philosophy of mind can only be to reintroduce unity of idea and principle into the theory of mind, and so reinterpret the lesson of those Aristotelian books’. But Aristotle’s notion of the ‘ensouled body’, (empsychon soma), is only a rough anticipation of Hegel’s version of monism, which is in essence expressivist: ‘The Soul, when its corporeity has been moulded and made thoroughly its own, finds itself there a single subject: and the corporeity is an externality which stands as a predicate, in being related to which, it is related to itself. This externality, in other words, represents not itself, but the soul, of which it is the sign. In this identity of interior and exterior, the latter subject to the former, the soul is actual: in its corporeity it has its free shape, in which it feels itself and makes itself felt … Under the head of human expression are included, for example, the upright figure in general, and the formation of the limbs, especially the hand, as the absolute instrument, of the mouth — laughter, weeping, etc., and the note of mentality diffused over the whole, which at once announces the body as the externality of a higher nature’. As it happens twentieth century phenomenologists developed Hegel’s insights with a new phenomenology of the body albeit it raises problems as much as the traditional philosophies of dualism, materialism, and so on. Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980), for instance, taking some liberties with grammar, asserted that (in ‘Being and Nothingness’):

‘Indeed, at this hill’s summit — which I describe, precisely, as a ‘lovely point of view’ — I am, in the very instant in which I look at the valley, taking up a point of view, and this point of view on the point of view is my body. But I cannot take a point of view on my body without an infinite regress. From this it follows, however, that my body cannot be transcendent and known for me; my spontaneous and unreflective consciousness is no longer a consciousness of the body. Rather, we should say, by using the verb ‘to exist’ transitively, that it exists its body. Thus the relation between the body-point-of-view and things is an objective relation, and the relation between consciousness and the body is an existential relation. How should we understand this latter relation?’

Consciousness exists its body hence my body is a conscious structure of my consciousness. Whereas for Maurice Merleau-Ponty, (1908–1961), the experience of our own body reveals to us an ambiguous mode of existence, as he explains, (in ‘Phenomenology of Perception’):

‘The analysis of bodily space has led us to results which may be generalized. We notice for the first time, with regard to our own body, what is true of all perceived things: that the perception of space and the perception of the thing, the spatiality of the thing and its being as a thing are not two distinct problems. The Cartesian and Kantian tradition already teaches us this; it makes the object’s spatial limits its essence; it shows in existence partes extra partes, and in spatial distribution, the only possible significance of existence in itself. But it elucidates the perception of the object through the perception of space, whereas the experience of our own body teaches us to embed space in existence. Intellectualism clearly sees that the ‘motif of the thing’ and the ‘motif of space’ are interwoven, but reduces the former to the latter. Experience discloses beneath objective space, in which the body eventually finds its place, a primitive spatiality of which experience is merely the outer covering and which merges with the body’s very being. To be a body, is to be tied to a certain world, as we have seen; our body is not primarily in space: it is of it’.

The body is not an object, my awareness of it is not a thought, that is to say, I cannot take it to pieces and reform it to make a clear idea. ‘Its unity is always implicit and vague, whether it is a question of another’s body or my own, I have no means of knowing the human body other than that of living it, which means taking up on my own account the drama which is being played out in it, and losing myself in it. I am my body, at least wholly to the extent that I possess experience, and yet at the same time my body is as it were a natural subject, a provisional sketch of my total being’ .

In the ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’ Hegel presents a phenomenological description of the process of formation (Bildung) of the ‘single person’ within a public, material/spiritual world which that person makes increasingly his own, and central to that formation is the development of self-consciousness, hence the importance of the dialectic of Lord and Bondsman which exemplifies Hegelian features of form and content. Formally it is an arresting instance of phenomenological description taking the place of traditional normative epistemology and its content is the play of recognition and power between individuals, a play always mediated through the finite physical bodies of the participants. Only creatures that are already embodied consciousnesses can engage in such play and go on to construct the social forms which allow that potential to be actualized. Ontological dualism is not refuted by Hegel directly, rather the manner by which dualism might be constructed is obstructed,

Methodological dualism is descriptive and normative whilst Hegel’s methodological monism opposes any search for foundations of either knowledge or institutions in norms that are ‘external’ to their formation and the standard (Massstab) for evaluating any cultural form (Gestalt), whether it be epistemological, aesthetic, social, and so on, must emerge from within the formation of that form itself. the Hegelian method is explained in the ‘Phenomenology’:

‘We do not need to import criteria or to make use of our own bright ideas and thoughts during the course of our inquiry; it is precisely when we leave that aside that we succeed in contemplating the matter in hand as it is in and for itself … since what consciousness examines is its own self, all that is left for us to do is simply to look on (das reine Zusehen)’.

Within das reine Zusehen there is room for left and right Hegelianism alike and in requesting of the philosopher that he or she ‘look at’ the thing itself, Hegel grants him or her a complex interventionist role in bringing the truth to light: ‘… philosophy is not meant to be a narration of happenings but a cognition of what is true in them, and further, on the basis of this cognition, to comprehend that which, in the narrative, appears as mere happening’. (‘Science of Logic’). But he also grants him or her a passive role that accrues to him or her at critical moments of political theory:

‘[T]his dialectic is not an activity of subjective thinking applied to some matter externally, but is rather the matter’s very soul putting forth its branches and fruit organically. This development of the Idea is the proper activity of its rationality, and thinking, as something subjective, merely looks on at it without for its part adding to it any ingredient of its own. To consider a thing rationally means not to bring reason to bear on the object from the outside and so to tamper with it, but to find that the object is rational on its own account’.

Left and right Hegelians can hence occupy the space marked Zusehen, the latter presenting a mere ‘narration of happenings’ with the normative explanation of it as ‘a cognition of what is true in them’, though here we get into murky waters just as do those taking the view that it obstructs the new perspectives opened up by eighteenth-century natural law theorists by proscribing the oppositions which were the engine of their radical criticism: ‘At one time the opposition between morals and politics and the demand that the latter should conform to the former were much canvassed’. (‘Philosophy of Right’):

‘There was at one time a great deal of talk about the opposition between morality and politics and the demand that the latter should conform to the former. In the present context, we need only remark in general that the welfare of a state has quite a different justification from the welfare of the individual [des Einzelnen]. The immediate existence [Dasein] of the state as the ethical substance, i.e. its right, is directly embodied not in abstract but in concrete existence [Existenz], and only this concrete existence, rather than any of those many universal thoughts which are held to be moral commandments, can be the principle of its action and behaviour. The allegation that, within this alleged opposition, politics is always wrong is in fact based on superficial notions [Vorstellungen] of morality, the nature of the state, and the state’s relation to the moral point of view’.

‘The Soul of the Good Thief’ (‘L’âme du bon Larron’), James Tissot, (1836–1902)

The ‘Philosophy of Right’ definitively replaces dualistic oppositions by ‘dialectical’ triads as Hegel had done earlier through identifying social contract theory and ‘abstract’ constitutionalism as the characteristic errors of formalist natural law theory. In that tradition a paradigm was explicitly taken over from the civil law to put to the test the legitimacy of political institutions, a paradigm a model of rights and duties stemming from a hypothetical contract. And for Hegel this application of the categories of abstract right to the highest level of Sittlichkeit involves categorial confusion between private and public norms, it ‘reduces the union of individuals in the state to a contract and therefore to something based on their arbitrary wills, their opinion and their capriciously given express consent’.

‘… it was the achievement of Rousseau to put forward the will as the principle of the state, a principle which has thought not only as its form (as with the social instinct, for example, or divine authority) but also as its content, and which is in fact thinking itself. But Rousseau considered the will only in the determinate form of the individual [einzelnen] will (as Fichte subsequently also did) and regarded the universal will not as the will’s rationality in and for itself, but only as the common element arising out of this individual [einzebzen] will as a conscious will. The union of individuals [tier Einzebzen] within the state thus becomes a contract, which is accordingly based on their arbitrary will and opinions, and on their express consent given at their own discretion; and the further consequences which follow from this, and which relate merely to the understanding, destroy the divine [element] which has being in and for itself and its absolute authority and majesty. Consequently, when these abstractions were invested with power, they afforded the tremendous spectacle, for the first time we know of in human history, of the overthrow of all existing and given conditions within an actual major state and the revision of its constitution from first principles and purely in terms of thought; the intention behind this was to give it what was supposed to be a purely rational basis.

Is it even so? It is suggested that this is a misreading of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (1712–1778), since the wills of the signatories of his social contract are, it is said, certainly not arbitrary or capricious but rather are wills normatively characterized by reference to the specific terms of the contract itemized in the Social Contract:

‘I SUPPOSE men to have reached the point at which the obstacles in the way of their preservation in the state of nature show their power of resistance to be greater than the resources at the disposal of each individual for his maintenance in that state. That primitive condition can then subsist no longer; and the human race would perish unless it changed its manner of existence.

But, as men cannot engender new forces, but only unite and direct existing ones, they have no other means of preserving themselves than the formation, by aggregation, of a sum of forces great enough to overcome the resistance. These they have to bring into play by means of a single motive power, and cause to act in concert.

This sum of forces can arise only where several persons come together: but, as the force and liberty of each man are the chief instruments of his self-preservation, how can he pledge them without harming his own interests, and neglecting the care he owes to himself? This difficulty, in its bearing on my present subject, may be stated in the following terms:

The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before. This is the fundamental problem of which the Social Contract provides the solution.

The clauses of this contract are so determined by the nature of the act that the slightest modification would make them vain and ineffective; so that, although they have perhaps never been formally set forth, they are everywhere the same and everywhere tacitly admitted and recognised, until, on the violation of the social compact, each regains his original rights and resumes his natural liberty, while losing the conventional liberty in favour of which he renounced it.

These clauses, properly understood, may be reduced to one — the total alienation of each associate, together with all his rights, to the whole community; for, in the first place, as each gives himself absolutely, the conditions are the same for all; and, this being so, no one has any interest in making them burdensome to others.

Moreover, the alienation being without reserve, the union is as perfect as it can be, and no associate has anything more to demand: for, if the individuals retained certain rights, as there would be no common superior to decide between them and the public, each, being on one point his own judge, would ask to be so on all; the state of nature would thus continue, and the association would necessarily become inoperative or tyrannical.

Finally, each man, in giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody; and as there is no associate over whom he does not acquire the same right as he yields others over himself, he gains an equivalent for everything he loses, and an increase of force for the preservation of what he has.

If then we discard from the social compact what is not of its essence, we shall find that it reduces itself to the following terms:

“Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.”

- ‘The Social Contract’, 1762.

While particular goals may be willed by particular persons under particular circumstances (arbitrarily, capriciously), only a society ordered according to the social contract is worth willing by any rational person at any place or time, but Hegel employs the accusation of arbitrariness and capriciousness to attack the nerve of constitutionalism as a political programme based upon social contract theory, which ‘consists in rights against the state’. Kant’s model of a ‘republican constitution’, ‘allowing the greatest possible human freedom in accordance with laws which ensure that the freedom of each can coexist with the freedom of all the others’ (‘Critique of Pure Reason’), would provide a typical basis for making claims of ‘rights against the state’. In ;The German Constitution’ Hegel maintains that such claims are merely abstract in the context of a fragmented Germany in which it is questionable whether ‘a power still accrues to the state in virtue of which it really is a state’. Later Hegel puts to one side the problem of constructing a rational constitution akin to Kantian als ob, as if: (‘Philosophy of Right’):

‘,..[I]t is absolutely essential that the constitution should not be regarded as something made, even though it has come into being in time. It must be treated rather as something simply existent in and by itself, as divine therefore, and constant, and so as exalted above the sphere of things that are made’.

And Sittlichkeit and the people? For Sittlichkeit occupies the foreground of Hegel’s social and political philosophy, at that level he ask what set of relationships should be willed in order to construct a rational legitimate social order? And what set of relationships can permit such rational willing? Hegel in his early work envisaged the people (das Volk) as the key to the answer, a notion already there in his essay on ‘Natural Law’: ‘the absolute ethical totality… is nothing other than a people… the absolute ethical element… [is] membership in a people’. The notion is more fully developed in the ‘System of Ethical Life’ and the ‘First Philosophy of Spirit’, in the former Sittlichkeit, the level at which an individual lives an objective ethical life, consisting of laws and customs, is embodied in a people: ‘the intuition of ethical life, the form in which it appears in its particular aspect, is the people’. Not a merely empirical stance: ‘A people is not a disconnected mass, a mere plurality’, rather it is normative, in virtue of a people precisely speaking existing only when there is a lived organic connection between public standards and particular aspirations and also when there is ‘absolute indifference’, ‘a living indifference’, in the sense that ‘all natural difference is nullified, the individual intuits himself as himself in every other individual; he reaches supreme subject-objectivity’.

‘My Soul’, 1917, Jacek Malczewski

This somewhat echoes passages to be found in Rousseau’s ‘Social Contract’:

‘If, when the people, being furnished with adequate information, held its deliberations, the citizens had no communication one with another, the grand total of the small differences would always give the general will, and the decision would always be good. But when factions arise, and partial associations are formed at the expense of the great association, the will of each of these associations becomes general in relation to its members, while it remains particular in relation to the State: it may then be said that there are no longer as many votes as there are men, but only as many as there are associations. The differences become less numerous and give a less general result. Lastly, when one of these associations is so great as to prevail over all the rest, the result is no longer a sum of small differences, but a single difference; in this case there is no longer a general will, and the opinion which prevails is purely particular’.

Thus ‘the people as an organic totality is the absolute identity of all the specific characteristics of practical and ethical life’. And in the ‘First Philosophy of Spirit’ Hegel emphasised work and language as the forms in which a people passes from ‘a disconnected mass, a mere plurality’ to a genuine unity. Hegel was breaking from Fichte in emphasising the objective character of Sittlichkeit and rediscovering Aristotelian models of teleology and ‘the people’ while sticking with Fichtean conceptions of intelligence, will, and self-recognition, albeit ‘the people’ never played the central role that it had done in the early texts it did retain the status of an irreducible component of of the ‘Philosophy of Right’. Ascending above the abstraction of his predecessors through a more concrete analysis he addressed the phenomenological descriptive question: ‘What is it to create a community with shared values?’ Through work a people finds its identity in the objects which it produces, both for the present and as its inheritance for future generations, thus it is work that produces a people’s past, its traditions, as its members ‘ … come to be themselves outside of themselves in it, but this outward being is their deed, it is only what they have made it, it is themselves as active but superseded; and in this outwardness of themselves … they intuit themselves as one people’. (‘First Philosophy of Spirit’).

Like work language plays both a synchronic (exists at one point in time) and a diachronic (develops and evolves through time) role, synchronically it is the essentially public form in which the individual encounters a given meaning set objectively, as a ‘dead other’, and at the same time masters it, makes it his own and transforms it, while diachronically it is through language, the system of shared meanings, that the cultural inheritance is transmitted from generation to generation. Hegel’s conception of language in the ‘First Philosophy of Spirit’ (Sprache) implicates a people being united by a natural language (German, English, and so on.). But the later ‘German Constitution’ is more pluralistic as Hegel dissociates himself from any commitment to a shared natural language contending that:

‘In our day the tie between members of a state in respect of manners, education, language may be rather loose or even non-existent. Identity in these matters, once the foundation of a people’s union, is now to be reckoned amongst the accidents whose character does not hinder a mass from constituting a public authority … Difference in language and dialect (the latter exacerbates separation even more than complete unintelligibility does), and difference in manners and education in the separate estates, which makes men known to one another in hardly anything but outward appearance — such heterogeneous and at the same time most powerful factors the preponderating weight of the Roman Empire’s power (once it had become great) was able to overcome and hold together, just as in modem states the same result is produced by the spirit and art of political institutions’.

From which he concludes: ‘Thus dissimilarity in culture and manners is a necessary product as well as a necessary condition of the stability of modern states’. What needs to be shared is a set of meanings which exist and are transmitted publicly, which may or may not be identical with a natural language, the shared religious language of medieval Europe or the envisaged shared language of the constitutional Rechtsstaat serve as a paradigm for that. The imposition of a dominant natural language was. of course characteristic of the formation of many nation states but commitment to the norms of a constitutional Rechtsstaat is compatible with the maintenance of a multi-lingual culture, as in Switzerland and elsewhere. The notion of the people as the bearer of a shared meaning set is certainly significant within the context of trying to find a foundation of the metaphysics of morals.

How so? Well now we really are getting on to contemporary concerns. Take the issue of the people and peace for instance. From the ‘German Constitution’ to the ‘Philosophy of Right’ repeatedly ridicules Kant’s idea of perpetual peace and his project for ‘a great federation’ from which ‘every state, even the smallest, could expect to derive its security and rights’. (‘Idea for a Universal History’). Think of the World Economic Forum or World Health Organisation. For Kant the increasing complexity of international relations, the fact that ‘the mutual relations between states are already so sophisticated’, establishes the prudential basis upon which perpetual peace might be established. Hegel is equally aware of this complexity but derives from it the opposite lesson from Kant, that is to say, that such a tangled web is irreducible to reason:

‘It is as particular entities that states enter into relations with one another. Hence their relations are on the largest scale a maelstrom of external contingency and the inner particularity of passions, private interests and selfish ends, abilities and virtues, vices, force, and wrong. All these whirl together, and in their vortex the ethical whole itself, the autonomy of the state is exposed to contingency. The principles of the national minds are wholly restricted on account of their particularity. for it is in this particularity that, as existent individuals, they have their subjective actuality and their self-consciousness’.

But why should that be? What stands in the way of realizing Kant’s ideal of ‘the highest purpose of nature, a universal cosmopolitan existence?’ (Just the thought of it sends shivers down my spine). For Hegel, the obstacle is not purely technical but rather he envisages that war has a positive function in the formation of the two ultimate poles of the social whole, the single person on the one hand, and the people on the other, an individual, whether a particular human being, a philosophical school or a people, defines itself in relation to another individual, it asserts its difference from that other by ‘negating’ it. But the form that that negation takes is open and not predetermined and within society, the physical struggle to the death of the Lord and Bondsman in the ‘Phenomenology’ is soon superseded by socially legitimated forms in which individualism can be asserted. As Hegel explains in the ‘Encyclopaedia’:

‘To prevent any possible misunderstandings with regard to the standpoint just outlined, we must here remark that the fight for recognition pushed to the extreme here indicated can only occur in the natural state, where men exist only as single, separate individuals; but it is absent in civil society and the State because here the recognition for which the combatants fought already exists. For although the State may originate in violence, it does not rest on it; violence, in producing the State, has brought into existence only what is justified in and for itself, namely, laws and a constitution. What dominates in the State is the spirit of the people, custom, and law. There man is recognized and treated as a rational being, as free, as a person; and the individual, on his side, makes himself worthy of this recognition by overcoming the natural state of his self-consciousness and obeying a universal, the will that is in essence and actuality will, the law; he behaves, therefore, towards others in a manner that is universally valid, recognizing them — as he wishes others to recognize him — as free, as persons. In the State, the citizen derives his honour from the post he fills, from the trade he follows, and from any other kind of working activity. His honour thereby has a content that is substantial, universal, objective, and is no longer dependent on an empty subjectivity; honour of this kind is still lacking in the natural state where individuals, whatever they may be and whatever they may do, want to compel others to recognize them’.

War placed in the context of negation whereby at one pole ‘the individual proves his unity with the people unmistakeably through the danger of death alone’ and at the other pole, that of the people as a whole, negation is given an open, general sense: ‘the state is an individual and individuality essentially implies negation’. But the conclusion which he derives from that premise makes use of a specific sense of ‘negation’ denoting hostility and conflict: ‘Hence even if a number of states make themselves into a family, this group as an individual must engender an opposite and create an enemy’. As he explains in ‘Natural Law’ arguing from a particular anthropological perspective:

‘[W]ar preserves the ethical health of peoples in their indifference to specific institutions, preserves it from habituation to such institutions and their hardening. Just as the blowing of the winds preserves the sea from the foulness which would result from a continual calm, so also corruption would result for peoples under continual or indeed ‘perpetual’ peace’.

In response to an outside threat individuals find themselves as mutually recognizing members of a whole to which they belong. A struggle to the death can have a socialising function as illustrated in the ‘Phenomenology’: ‘The principle of the modern world — thought and the universal — has given courage a higher form, because its display now seems to be mechanical, the act not of this particular person, but of a member of a whole. Moreover, it seems to be turned not against single persons, but against a hostile group, and hence personal bravery appears impersonal. It is for this reason that thought has invented the gun, and the invention of this weapon, which has changed the purely personal form of bravery into a more abstract one, is no accident’.

The French ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen’, the US ‘Declaration of Independence’, the European ‘Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms’, documents all embodying the grand ideological languages of modem times, were all forged during or in the aftermath of struggle against an oppressive political order or alien occupation. It is self-evident that such struggle is a powerful source of social bonding. Whether it is the only possible source, well, Sartre thought about that in his ‘Critique of Dialectical Reason’ wherein he saw a threat as involved in the formation and maintenance of all groups, either an external threat in the case of the ‘group in fusion’ or an internal threat in the ease of the ‘sworn group’. as he got older he was to propound a more optimistic view that human beings were linked by a primary relationship of ‘fraternity’ which could provide the basis of unity without the bond of a shared enemy but alas he died before he could develop the idea.

Hegel demonstrates that within society it is possible to transform the struggle to the death between brute human beings into a socially mediated form of reciprocal recognition between citizens. Can the logic of that account be extended to international relations? Hardly, albeit Kant anticipates that extension in his idea of ‘representing an otherwise planless aggregate (Aggregat) of human actions as conforming, at least when considered as a whole, to a system (System)’. In Hegel’s own terms a system would consist of a set of individuals each the bearer of its own legal persona (abstract right) and moral autonomy (Moralität), connected within a sustaining set of relationships (Sittlichkeit), which alone would give expression to the aspirations of the first two moments and provide the conditions under which genuine, non-coercive interaction would be possible. The passage from vendetta to rule of law marks the advent of a certain level of reason within society. Is the passage to the rule of law between states not equally possible? Hardly. Hegel’s phenomenological descriptive procedure leaves room however for an irreducible particularity and contingency at the point where reason is most urgently needed.

‘Angel Fighting for Possession of a Soul’, Alexey Vasilievich Tyranov (1808–1859)

It may seem I have strayed somewhat from the theme of Kant’s foundation of the metaphysics of morals but I haven’t really. In the Anglo/American analytical tradition of philosophy, which I have not touched upon in this series, the discussions on moral philosophy tedious as they are to begin with are even more so with their boring examples, a bit like Kant’s promise keeping in fact, if I promised to send so and so a letter must I do so as morality demands it? Who cares? Whereas for Sartre, and Albert Camus, (1813–1960), now they faced real moral dilemmas, collaborate with the Nazis or join the resistance? Kant and Hegel have an immediacy stemming from a reflective self-conscious awareness of modernity inaugurated in political theory by Thomas Hobbes’, (1588–1679) break with theologically-based natural law and by Rousseau’s elaboration of the concept of endorsement by the autonomous human will as the ultimate ground of legitimacy. Kant endeavours though somewhat reluctantly and indirectly to articulate that endorsement to components of a social order within which alone it would be meaningful and these components would include peace and the republican constitution. For Hegel that point of articulation (Sittlichkeit) becomes the central concern of political theory but as it is brought to the foreground so too does the problematic nature of the modern social order and Hegel’s opus marks the first clear recognition and thematization of the problems that would pre-occupy nineteenth- and twentieth-century social theory up to Émile Durkheim, (1858–1917), and Ferdinand Tönnies, (1855–1936), secularization, atomization, alienation, and loss of traditional Gemeinschaften.

Hegel poses a central problem of modernity, is it possible to integrate society and produce a ‘people’ with shared values when the dominant values are themselves individualistic, pluralistic, and centrifugal? Probably not, maybe this is why Hegel’ philosophy is sometimes thought reactionary, relative to Kant anyway, and as his thought develops Hegel comes increasingly to hold that the survival of a community fragmented, as all modem communities must be, into the domains of public and private, depends upon the neutralization of the critical edge of formalist natural law theory, on the containment of its dualisms within a dialectical whole of which traditional oppositions would become integrated members. there you have the right Hegelians. And what of the left Hegelians? Have they are response to right Hegelian reactionaries, a defence and extension of the values of the constitutional Rechtsstaat and an assersion of the irreducible critical function of the Kantian dualisms that are to be embodied institutionally in a genuine division of powers whilst developing an insight into the historical specificity both of the Rechtsstaat as the typically modern form of legitimate order and of the autonomous will as the key to legitimation?

It may seem somewhat jarring to bring in Friedrich Nietzsche, (1844–1900), at this point, but:

‘The task of breeding an animal with a right to make promises contains within it, as we have already grasped, as a condition and prerequisite, the more urgent prior task of making a human being necessarily uniform to some extent, one among many other like him, regular and consequently predictable. The immense task in what I have called the ‘morality of custom’ (cf. Daybreak, p. 7, 13, 16), the essential work of a man on his own self in the longest-lasting age of the human race, his entire pre-historical work, derives its meaning, its grand justification, from the following point, no matter how much hardship, tyranny, monotony and idiocy it also manifested: with the help of the morality of custom and the social strait jacket, the human being was rendered truly predictable’.

- ‘On the Genealogy of Morals’

Perhaps a left Hegelian model of a pluralist community, a comprehensive but loose set of shared values and commitments within which particular more closely integrated ‘experiments of living’ may flourish, might well be developed.. If the youthful Hegelian notion of a shared language can serve the values of a pluralist Rechtsstaat and, a fortiori, those of the Kantian ‘cosmopolitan existence’, then individuals, communities, and peoples must learn to be bilingual or even multilingual between different cultural languages. And more specifically it must be possible to articulate both a language of a particular Gemeinschaft, one of fraternity and sorority, as well as a language of a more or less universal Gesellschaft, one of rights and duties and responsibilities. Ah for Hegel (and for me) at least at the level of international relations it is a utopian dream (or rather nightmare as realised ‘utopias’ always are), and furthermore it would prevent a ‘people’ from achieving identity through self-recognition in conflict. The multilingual ‘peoples’ of the left- Hegelian model may lack the strong sense of identity generated by a shared antagonist. But in matters appertaining to morality the limits of the possible are less narrow than we conceive them to be and this reflection upon the immediacy of Hegel’s debate with Kant may serve to expand the limits of our imagination as indeed great philosophy always does.

‘The Grave’ (excerpt)

by Robert Blair (1699–1746)

For part they must: body and soul must part;

Fond couple! link’d more close than wedded pair.

This wings its way to its Almighty Source,

The witness of its actions, now its judge:

That drops into the dark and noisome grave,

Like a disabled pitcher of no use.

If death were nothing, and nought after death;

If when men died, at once they ceased to be,

Returning to the barren womb of nothing,

Whence first they sprung; then might the debauchee

Untrembling mouth the heavens: — then might the drunkard

Reel over his full bowl, and, when ’tis drain’d,

Fill up another to the brim, and laugh

At the poor bugbear Death: then might the wretch

That’s weary of the world, and tired of life,

At once give each inquietude the slip,

By stealing out of being when he pleased,

And by what way, whether by hemp, or steel.

Death’s thousand doors stand open.- Who could force

The ill pleased guest to sit out his full time,

Or blame him if he goes? Sure he does well,

That helps himself, as timely as he can,

When able. — But if there’s an Hereafter;

And that there is, conscience, uninfluenced,

And suffer’d to speak out, tells every man;

Then must it be an awful thing to die …

The Reunion of Soul and Body. From Blair’s ‘Grave’’, 1808, William Blake



David Proud

David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.