All posts by Øjvind Larsen

From Piketty’s Capital to Marx’s das Kapital

Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century has created a very new platform for a discussion of the global economy. There is possibly no other book on economy which has been published in so many languages, printed in so many copies, and has found its way to such a varied global public. Piketty’s Capital has been discussed in many high ranked academic journals, and at the same time, it has come out to a broader audience with advertisements in places like the underground public transportation in metropolises around the world. The title of the book is also very ambitious in so far as the title Capital claims to be a follow up of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital for the twenty-first century. Piketty is similar to Marx in his ambition to give a large historical, or a world historical perspective on the significance of capitalist economy for the development of global society. Given this background it could be interesting to consider the relations between Piketty’s Capital and Marx’s Das Kapital.



Main Thesis

My main thesis is that although Piketty gives a very essential theoretical and historically based prognosis and critique of the development of inequality as he expects it to increase in the twenty-first century. Ultimately, he is not able to provide a conceptual critique of capitalism which can surpass the basic market perspective in Adam Smith’s tradition of classical and neoclassical economy.

On this basis my thesis is that Marx’s conceptual determination of the capital, das Kapital, the capitalist mode of production, and capitalism in general could contribute to sharpen the outcome of Piketty’s enormous empirical and historical research on the development of inequality in capitalist societies beginning from the French Revolution. In addition, Piketty has also presented a calculated prognosis for the exacerbation of inequality in global capitalism during the twenty-first century.

According to Marx, the development of inequality is not accidental but inherent in the principle of capital and the capitalist mode of production. Therefore, Piketty’s empirically documented development of inequality should lead to a fundamental critique of capitalism. However, this is not the case.

On this background, I would like to consider a change of perspective from Adam Smith’s liberal market perspective to Marx’s productive perspective on capitalism. For Marx, capitalism is seen as an autopoietic bureaucratic and productive machinery or social system, which not only determines the production of inequality but also the basis for all social relations on a global scale.

Outline of the paper

In the following paper, I would like to substantiate this thesis with a presentation of Piketty’s theory, method and main results. I would further like to present Marx’s critical concept of the capital and capitalism. Finally, I would like to illustrate some of the consequences of Marx’s critical theory for the understanding of Piketty’s empirical work.

Piketty’s Capital


Piketty’s theory is situated in Adam Smith’s liberal tradition.

Piketty’s work is situated in Adam Smith’s liberal tradition. Adam Smith’s main work Wealth of Nations (1981 I-II) from 1776 is interesting because it represents the foundation of modern economy. Smith’s theory can be read in many ways and it has brought inspiration to many different perspectives on ethics, societal ethics, common moral, political philosophy, political theory, sociology and economy. Normally the economic perspective has been emphasized, but one could say the same regarding the other perspectives.

Wealth of Nations begins with a presentation of the division of labor as the basis for creation of wealth in a nation. Therefore, it should be emphasized that Smith has a general concept of work as the basis for his economic theory. Smith formulated this generalization on the basis of the Physiocrats’ more restricted idea that only agricultural work created value.

The second essential line of thought by Smith is that the products of work should be sold at a price determined in an open market, which on a larger scale implies the world market as its perspective. Therefore, the free market is essential for Smith.

The third line of thought is that the price of the commodity is determined by the work behind the creation of the product. However, Smith is not completely clear on this topic. The other perspective in Wealth of Nations is that the price is determined by the exchange in the market. In other words, Smith’s theory is ambivalent concerning the creation of value.

It is this ambivalence in Smith’s theory, which is in the center of discussion during the next two hundred years among economists, especially in the neoclassical economic tradition.

On the one hand, the work perspective leads to an internal understanding of the fundamental role of work in comprehending societal relations and institutions. This is what leads to the sociological perspective on the relationship between economy and society. Marx’s, Durkheim’s and Weber’s theories should also be mentioned here.

On the other hand, we have the price and market perspectives, which become the dominant perspectives in later economic traditions. It is in these traditions that we find the most economists having an influence on economic practice and on economic education. Thomas Piketty should be placed in these traditions.

Piketty’s research method: economy as part of the social sciences

Piketty is a market economist based in Adam Smith’s liberal tradition and the later neoclassical liberal tradition. However, Piketty has a much broader theoretical and methodical horizon, which should be understood on the background of Piketty’s French formation.

The interesting thing about Piketty’s method is that he wants to integrate economics as a sub discipline of social sciences, alongside history, sociology, anthropology, political science and even literature (Piketty 2014: 573 ff.). Piketty has his specific methodological perspective from the French Annales School and from Francois Furet’s quantitative historical method, which gives him a long and convincing historical perspective (Bouvier & Furet 1965; Piketty 1998; Piketty 2001; Piketty 2004; Piketty 2006). Piketty would not have been able to come to his results, if he had not integrated all these different perspectives.

Following this, Piketty wants to reconstruct the classical political economy as a value based science, which is connected to its political, normative and moral purpose (Piketty 2014: 573 ff.). This is the same ambition found in Adam Smith and further back in classical political philosophy by Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. The fundamental question according to Piketty is, how public policies and institutions can bring us closer to an ideal society (Piketty 2014: 574). This was also the question raised by Aristotle, Aquinas, Adam Smith, Hegel and Marx. They had very different answers to this question, but they all had in common that the economy should be subordinated to the political, normative and moral value horizon. Economy could not be sustained independent of the moral, social and political interpretation.

According to Piketty, political economy should be a part of public discussion meaning that the shared values should be found in public democratic discussion. According to Piketty, this is not the case in most economic theory and practice in which economic models are used without regard to the political, social, cultural and historical context.

Piketty’s basic thesis: r > g – revenue is bigger than growth in a long historical perspective

Although Piketty has these critical perspectives on economy, he is in many ways still a traditional market economist based in Adam Smith’s liberal tradition and the neoclassical tradition. Piketty’s focus is price, market and equality in the distribution of goods. It is in this background that Piketty is concerned with the liberal discussion of inequality.

Piketty’s basic thesis is that revenue, r, has been bigger than growth, g, during the last two hundred years in Europe and the US, and more generally in all higher developed societies in recent history. Therefore, there has been a tendency towards a strong inequality in the last two hundred years in Europe. In general, this has also been a tendency throughout European history and in all higher developed societies. In that sense, all societies in history have been class based societies, albeit in different forms.

Patrimonial Capitalism

It is Piketty’s expectation that a new form of capitalism has been created, which he calls patrimonial capitalism (Piketty 2014: 173). It could seem to be a new form of capitalism, but in fact, it is a form of capitalism, which was known from the late 1800s until 1914. It is characterized on a huge accumulation of private wealth among a small part of the population, the upper 10%, 1%, 0.1% and 0.01%. At the beginning of the 1970s, the total value of private wealth in the Western societies stood between two to three and a half years of national income. Forty years later, in 2010, private wealth represented between four to seven years of national income in the Western world. The general evolution is clear: This is a strong comeback of private capital in the rich countries since 1970 (Piketty 2014: 173). This concentration of wealth is what Piketty calls ‘patrimonial capitalism’.

Piketty regards the new patrimonial capitalism as a repetition of something, which was formerly known in history from the late 19th to early 20th century. It is characterized by a high concentration of wealth in a low-growth environment like the nineteenth century (Piketty 2014: 237). The crisis of 2008 was according to Piketty the first crisis of the globalized patrimonial capitalism of the twenty-first century (Piketty 2014: 473). He expects that it will be followed by other crises. This is the scenario that Piketty expects for the twenty-first century.

Patrimonial capitalism, heirs and entrepreneurs

Consequently, the strong concentration of wealth can give rise to a tendency where the ‘entrepreneur’ transitions to the ‘heir’ as the basic figure of capitalism. According to Piketty, all large fortunes, whether inherited or entrepreneurial in origin, grow at extremely high rates, regardless of whether the owner of the fortune works or not (Piketty 2014: 439ff.).

Piketty gives a very illustrative example comparing Bill Gates, the entrepreneur among all entrepreneurs, and Liliane Bettencourt, the heiress of the cosmetics company L’Oréal. Between 1990 and 2010, Bill Gates’ fortune increased from $4 billion to $50 billion. In the same period, Liliane Bettencourt’s fortune increased from $2 billion to $25 billion. Both fortunes thus grew at an annual rate of more than 13 percent from 1990 to 2010.

Piketty also mentions Steve Jobs, who is regarded as a more creative entrepreneur than Bill Gates. But at the top of his career, his fortune was only $8 billion in 2011.

Piketty’s conclusion is that inheritance becomes the main access to the creation or growth of fortunes, and not the entrepreneurial spirit. Therefore, wealth is not just a matter of merit, and capital grows according to its own dynamic, when it has passed a certain size. The reason for this is the simple fact that the return on inherited fortunes is often very high solely because of their initial size.

Inequality – The economic system is the problem

It is a common discussion in liberal political theory that inequalities are acceptable if they serve the common good. This is also what has been stated in §1 of the Declaration 1789: “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be found only upon the common utility”. It is on this basis that entrepreneurs becoming extremely rich while compared to other people becomes acceptable.

However, Piketty claims that the entrepreneurial argument cannot justify all the inequalities of wealth, no matter how extreme (Piketty 2014: 443). This is a claim that we find in Rawls’ liberal theory as well (Rawls 1971). As we have seen, the general class based inequality r > g combined with better returns on capital as a function of initial wealth makes it possible that fortunes can grow and perpetuate themselves beyond all rational limits and beyond any possible rational justification in terms of common utility.

In this way, it does even not take one generation to move from an entrepreneur to a rentier. Entrepreneurs can be transformed into rentiers in their own lifetime, and their wealth can be multiplied more than tenfold in twenty years as in the case of Bill Gates and Liliane Bettencourt (Piketty 2014: 443ff.).

The consequence is that even the merit criteria in §1 of Declaration that social distinctions are acceptable if they serve the common utility or the common good is very difficult not to say impossible to concretize. It is very difficult in praxis to sustain the distinction between the entrepreneur and the rentier when the first can be transformed into the second in a very short time as has been exemplified with the case of Bill Gates.

As I understand Piketty, he draws the conclusion that the most important problem is not to clarify whether inequality serves the common utility or not? The most important problem is that the accumulation of wealth among the 1%, the 0.1% and not at least the 0.01% tends to represent 70%-90% of all the countable wealth in global societies. It is this enormous concentration of wealth that justifies Piketty’s use of the concept of patrimonial capitalism.

Patrimonial Capitalism

The concept of ‘patrimonialism’ is situated in Max Weber’s classification as a traditional form of governance (Weber 1980: 682 ff). It has its origins in the specific patriarchal form of authority in the family. Following up, it can be broadened out to concern patrimonial forms of government in which political and or economic power can be concentrated. In this form of government, authority and power form a political unity. It is this traditional unity which transgresses into the power and authority of economic wealth in the patrimonial form of capitalism, as has been described above.

Problems with Patrimonial Capitalism

Per my observations, Piketty draws the following conclusions concerning the patrimonial form of capitalism.

Society will fall behind the French Revolution

Piketty’s perspective is overall that patrimonial capitalism will bring society back to before the French Revolution. Some of the modern institutions may formally be maintained but the reality may be different.

Suspension of basic principles of Human Rights 

The second point is that the basic values of modern society are suspended as they are formulated § 1 of the Declaration: “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be found only upon the common utility”. In patrimonial capitalism, there are basic distinctions which are bound to inheritance and which therefore are transferred from generation to generation. This is exactly what characterizes a traditional pre-modern society. In such a society, men are not equal in rights, because wealth is the basic structuring parameter for the life chances of people in all matters concerning wealth, education, health, work, and political, social and other positions in society. In short, human rights are suspended in such a society.

Suspension of democracy 

The third point is that democracy will be strongly weakened or even suspended in such a society, and there can be no possibilities to develop democracy in such a society.

Stagnation of society 

The fourth point is that patrimonial capitalism will not be able to develop a society because the entrepreneur and innovator will lose their possibilities compared to the primacy of secure reproduction and accumulation of the inheritance.

Violence and corruption will dominate society 

The fifth point is that such a society will be built on violence and corruption instead of legal and deliberative political institutions.

The rule of war between states 

The rule of war between states will be dominant because interstate conflicts cannot be solved through diplomacy and international law.


Patrimonial capitalism does already exist in many societies in the world

The description of patrimonial capitalism may seem like a doomsday prophecy, a description of the last days. But in fact, the reality is that this form of capitalism does already exist in different forms in many societies in the world and maybe even the most societies with a developed economy combined with a strong authoritarian and corrupt regime. Even in the US we find signs of patrimonial capitalism, when wealthy people have enormous possibilities to influence elections, political life, allocation of resources and social decisions.

Piketty’s Capital: A platform for a critique of capitalism and its perspectives

In the end, the interesting thing about Piketty’s analysis is in the end that it is an economic analysis on the basis of the fundamental principles of the French Revolution. Piketty’s own conclusion is that the French Revolution failed and is an illusion.

With this background, one could have expected that Piketty had been critical toward capitalism as an economic system. But this is not the case. Piketty is worried about the historical consequences of capitalism, but he does not criticize capitalism in itself as an economic and social system. However, this seems to be a relevant topic as he has at least created a new platform for a discussion of capitalism, because he has uncovered some of the historical destructive perspectives in capitalism.

Marx’s Das Kapital

Introduction to Marx

It is in this background that I would like to discuss Marx’s concept of capital, das Kapital, and some of his perspectives on capitalism. Marx is such an interesting thinker in this context because no one has delivered such a strong critique of capitalism and political economy as him.

If we want to understand Marx’s critique of capitalism, we have to look shortly at his intellectual background and development. Marx (1818-1883) is a German intellectual strongly influenced primarily by Hegel’s political philosophy. Marx is a Hegelian who criticizes Hegel’s perspective on state, civil society, politics, and economy in Kritik der Hegelschen Staatsphilosophie 1844 (Marx 1841/42: 20-149). His basic critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law (Hegel 1955; 1991) is that Hegel ‘aufhebt’, lifts up or sublates the basic contradictions in civil society into a reconciliation, ‘eine Versöhnung’, in the State as an all-encompassing unity of the contradictions in civil society. According to Hegel, the contradictions in civil society were first of all constituted through the struggle between economic agents, who were only concerned with their own business. This is an insight Hegel had acquired through Adam Smith’ Wealth of Nations (Smith I-II 1981) and David Ricardo’s Principles of Political Economy and Taxation from 1817 (Ricardo 1996).

In his Kritik der Hegelschen Staatsphilosophie 1844, Marx mostly critizised Hegel’s Aufhebung and Versöhnung. Later on, his project became to reconstruct this political and political-philosophical critique of Hegel as a critique of political economy. Therefore, it would be right also to consider Marx as a Hegelian in this later period of his life after 1849, when he arrived as a political refugee to London. This is also what Marx remarks in his postscript to the second edition of Das Kapital (Marx 1970: 27f.). Marx comments on his method and claims that there must be made a distinction between the research (die Forschungsweise), in which the subject is taken in consideration, and the presentation (die Darstellungsweise), in which the topic is reconstructed as it has taken place. Die Darstellung, the presentation, means for Marx the same as how the subject can be developed in an idealized way which gives the impression that it could be a pure construction. One could say that it could give the impression of being a pure construction without relation to the reality in so far as it should present the essential (das Wesen) of the topic. In that sense, ‘die Darstellung’ could also be considered as a form of presentation and interpretation at the same time. Although Marx claims to be a materialist, he has such a style of presentation that it does remind us of a constructed model in the idealistic tradition of Plato and Hegel.

Marx’s Hegelian method

It is very essential to understand Marx’s Hegelian method, because it indicates that for Marx and for Hegel there are always two levels in the understanding of social phenomena. On the one hand, we have the surface, ‘die Erscheinung’; this is the empirical level, where the events happen. On the other hand, we have the understanding of the phenomena; this is the level where the essence, ‘das Wesen’, is expressed. As the third step, Hegel and Marx claim that it is only from the perspective of the essence, ‘das Wesen’, that we can understand the empirical level, where the events take place. According to Marx and Hegel, this was the meaning of dialectics.

It is exactly this phenomenological double perspective with the movement from Erscheinung to Wesen and from Wesen to Erscheinung, which is so strange for the American and English way of thinking, and is also the dominant perspective in modern liberal economy. However, it is this double perspective, which gives Marx the possibility to make a critical reconstruction of the political economy and present a new perspective on the relation between economy and society.

Marx’s project is to reconstruct the classical political economy

With this background we can discuss what Marx is concerned with in Das Kapital. Here we should remark on the subtitle of Das Kapital, which is Kritik der politichen Ökonomie – Marx wanted to criticize and reconstruct the political economy because it did not present what should be its essence, das Wesen. One could say that Marx wanted to write a new edition of Smith’s Wealth of Nations. According to Marx, political economy had moved away from a scientific project to a political project that was only concerned with price and market, the surface, ‘die Erscheinung’, because it served to hide that the dominant economy’s ‘Wesen’, the workproces, was based on exploitation of the workforce, who produced value and surplus-value.

Marx did not finish his project; he did not finish the presentation of the total reproduction of the economic system. In that sense, we cannot say that Marx has presented a model for the total reproduction of the economic system. Marx edited only the first volume of Das Kapital in 1867. Friedrich Engels edited the next two volumes with support from Marx’s remaining manuscripts. Therefore, the question is what status can Marx’s theory have, when it is not finished in the same sense as Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations is a finished work?

The three edited volumes of Das Kapital, the collection of Marx’s preparatory work papers collected in Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie (Marx 196-?), combined with the rest of Marx’s work give a sufficient basis to understand Marx’s new theoretical contribution to the political economy. Marx presented the basic principles in a critical theory with a new perspective on political economy understood as the reproduction of what he called the capitalistic mode of production or the capitalistic economic system. Broadly speaking, it gives a new understanding of the basic principles in a capitalistic society. In that sense, Marx’s theory provides the basis for a sociological understanding of the relation between economy and society, and in a wider perspective for the interpretation of history.

The glorious and tragic days of Marxism have ended. Therefore, today Marx’s theory should be seen in line with other economic and sociological theories, and it should be seen as part of a hermeneutical work, which in the end determines the integration of the different possible scientific perspectives.

With this background, I would like to present some of the essential topics in Marx’s theory in Das Kapital and Grundrisse, which will be relevant for a discussion of Piketty’s Capital. I will concentrate on the first chapters of Das Kapital as it is here that we find the basis for all of Marx’s theoretical construction.

The concept of Capital – The constitution of das Kapital

It already becomes clear from the title page itself that Marx’s Das Kapital is a very special treatise. On the one hand, it is in fact very similar to Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (Hegel 1955), and on the other hand, it is very different compared to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Piketty’s Capital. Therefore, it can be enlightening to compare it with these treatises.

Smith’s theme is the nature and causes of the wealth of nations, and chapter 1 begins immediately with a presentation of the division of labor as what has mostly improved the production of wealth (Smith 1981, I: 13 ff.). All the categories here and in the rest of the treatise refer to empirical matters. All of Smith’s categories have an empirical reference.

The same could be said about Piketty’s subject, which is equality and inequality with reference to the distribution of wealth.

Marx’s Introduction does not have this character. The title of the book, Das Kapital, is an abstraction and does not have an immediate empirical reference. The subtitle is Critique of the Political Economy. This means that the treatise is concerned with a critique and reconstruction of political economy as we know it from Smith and Ricardo. The subtitle of the first volume of Das Kapital is the Capital’s Production Process. The subject in Das Kapital is the capital. This is very strange in itself. How should capital be understood in a determined form? Normally we understand capital in quantitative terms, however, in Marx’s determination of das Kapital (Marx 1970: 12) we have to do with a concept. Capital is a conceptual abstraction, and it is the production and reproduction process of this subject, which is the topic of Das Kapital. This is also, what Marx emphasizes in the introduction to the first edition of Das Kapital in 1867 (Marx 1970: 11-17). In the postscript to the second edition from 1875, Marx comes back to the same theme concerning his method, which he designates as being the same as Hegel’s method, although turned around, because Marx claims that Hegel is an idealist, and Marx claims to be a materialist (Marx 1970: 27). I think that the two methods are very closely connected, and I find it difficult from a methodological perspective to see the difference between the beginnings of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and Marx’s Das Kapital.

Marx’s development of the concept of capital

The first chapter of Das Kapital begins in the same abstract style with an analysis of the wealth in a society dominated by the capitalist mode of production, which presents itself as an amazing collection of commodities. The skeleton, ‘die Elementarform’, the basic element of such a society is the commodity. This is the reason why Marx begins his analysis with an analysis of the commodity.

In chapters 1-3, Marx develops all the basic concepts of work such as the production of the commodity, the use and exchange value of the commodity, the equal exchange of commodities, and the invention of money as the means of exchange of equal values.

I would especially like to emphasize chapter 1, section 4, where Marx introduces the fetish character of the commodity and it’s secret. In a commodity producing society, all social relations become hidden in the commodities, which are all a product of the work process. It is the commodities that seem to be the real actors in society (Marx 1970: 86). This is the beginning of the creation of the alienation in a society dominated by the capitalist mode of production.

In the third chapter, Marx describes how money becomes the general presentation of the circulation of commodities. There is a change from the form ‘commodity – money – commodity’ to the form ‘money – commodity – money’. In this way, money comes into the center of society and becomes an aim in itself.

In the fourth chapter, The Transformation of Money into Capital, Marx questions the addition of value when only equivalents are being exchanged all the time. Marx’s simple answer is that the workforce, ‘die Arbeitskraft’, is a commodity, which has the ability to produce more value, a surplus value or ‘Mehrwert’, than it costs to reproduce it.

Marx speaks about the transformation of money into capital, when the production takes the character of a production of surplus value, ‘Mehrwert’, and in that sense a production of Capital (Marx 1970: 180 ff.). Marx speaks about society as a capitalist society when the production of capital dominates society.

The term ‘capitalism’ is a technical term, a concept for a specific form for economy and society. The concept capitalism has its origin in the Late Latin word capitale derived from caput, meaning ‘head’, which is also the origin for chattel and cattle in the sense of moveable property. Capitale emerged in the 12th to 13th centuries in the sense of referring to funds, stock of merchandise, sum of money, or money carrying interest. In English language, the word capitalism is used since the 1850s as the determination of a specific form of society, in which capital and capitalist modes of production have a determined significance.

On the basis of the concept of capital, Marx’s project is to develop an all-encompassing description of the reproduction of a society dominated by the capitalistic mode of production. As mentioned, Marx did not finish this project. In this sense we could say that Marx did not succeed. However, this would not be a correct judgement, because Marx developed the base for a new understanding of economic significance in a modern society.

I will not go in detail with a further presentation of Das Kapital, but would only like present some of the consequences of Marx’s perspective. I speak here about the abstract theory in itself and not about the specific historical forms, which are determined by many other historical and social factors. In that sense, the abstract principle of capital does only indicate the determinate productive principle in a specific historical form of society.

Marx gives a totally new perspective on liberal economy

The essence is that Marx determines a new perspective on economy and society. Das Kapital, the capital, is a driving machine or subject, which aims to produce capital in an escalating intensity and quantum. This is also determined as accumulation of capital.

Das Kapital is a critique of the liberal market economy

Marx theory is a critique of political economy. The word ‘critique’ could be mystifying. Therefore, let me first express what I think critique means in this context. It primarily means to show what is inconsistent, hidden or suppressed in the understanding of a liberal market economy, and secondarily to present a reconstruction of a basis for another understanding of economy. In the liberal economic perspective, the economy does only mediate social relations; it does not produce social relations. The basic categories are therefore price, market and commodity. In this perspective, the economy is in itself a neutral mediator. In Marx’s perspective, it is different.

Das Kapital is the productive and destructive subject of society

In Marx’s perspective, das Kapital not only produces ‘Mehrwert’ and ‘Kapital’, or is not only an economic productive force. Das Kapital forms a society, its institutions and its social relations in a specific adequate way. In this context, the following topics can be emphasized:


Das Kapital has a tendency to create a commodification of all social relations and all human life.

Die groβe Profanierung – All pre-given norms are broken down and restructured in accordance with the new historical imperatives

All pre-given norms are broken down, because they are under pressure to be relativized and commoditized. This is ‘die groβe Profanierung’, this is the big profanation of the Holy and of all social norms. In The Communist Manifesto, it is stated in this way: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind” (Marx 1968b: 529).

Die groβe Verschleierung – the big concealment

The big paradox in capitalism is that its consequences are ‘verschleiert’ or veiled. The astonishing thing is that this veil is constituted through the liberal market economy, in which all distinctions are ‘aufgehoben’, lifted up and abolished in the general equivalent, money, at the market. All social distinctions are relativized and hidden on the market. In the end, there is only the distinction more or less of the general equivalent, money.

The big illusion – the liberal market economy produces the big illusion about society

The liberal market economy creates or produces the big illusion about this same form of society, because the abolishment of all distinctions becomes a hindrance for critique. We are all equalized in the general equivalent, money. Therefore, there is no internal way from the liberal market economy to a critique of the specific formation of the social relations, because these distinctions are not inherent in the economic theory. The liberal market economy is constituted through an abstraction from the possible distinctions.

Summing up – Marx has presented a specific theory which can be applied on empirical work with economy and society

What I have presented are the basic principles in Marx’s critique of the political economy. As mentioned, Marx has developed a much broader and differentiated theory compared to, what has been presented here. However, in the end, what we have from Marx is a theory with a specific perspective on economy and society, making it possible to apply it in specific empirical work.

From Marx to Piketty – From Piketty back to Marx


Marx and Piketty on empirical work – What is the difference?

In this context, it could be interesting to question how empirical research would be different in a Marx perspective compared to a Piketty perspective. Let us imagine that Marx had conducted similar research as Piketty on the development of inequality in France the last 200 years. What would be different? I am not sure that the concrete research method would be different. Piketty has gone down to the sources and tried to give an answer to his question. The difference would lie in how the questions are posed. Piketty poses his questions inside the horizon of the liberal market economic theory and the neoclassical economic theory. He does not pose questions to or discuss this economic perspective. It is as if it were pre-given or impossible to fundamentally question it. Consequently, we do not move outside the framework of this economic perspective.

The practical results of Piketty’s research are not very significant compared to the enormous research he has done.

The taxation card is Piketty’s only solution to the huge problems created by growing inequality. However, Piketty does not really believe that it is possible to establish the necessary taxation system. Therefore, one could say that there is a lack of critical potential in his theory although he delivers amazing empirical material. The practical results of his research are not very impressive compared to the enormous research he undertook.

Marx’s perspective on empirical economic research

On the other hand, Marx has an incomparably stronger critical theory, which can help pose many interesting research questions and could be integrated in an empirical project.

In the end the dividing line between Piketty and Marx is the following. For Piketty, the liberal market economy is regarded in itself as a neutral system. For Marx, the problems of inequality observed by Piketty are an inherent consequence of capitalism. It could simply not be otherwise because a basic principle in capitalism according to Marx is capital accumulation and capital concentration. Piketty remarks that contingent historical events, the first and second world wars combined with a strong left wing policy, created the basis for diminished inequality in the period 1945-1975, and not fundamental changes in the liberal economic system.

In Marx’s perspective, it would also have been a good idea to change inequality through taxation. However, the interesting perspectives are the basic contradictions in the economic system itself, and whether these contradictions can find a practical solution is a political question.


Marx and Piketty – research perspectives and strategies

What to do in a world dominated by the liberal economic perspective?

A basic question would be how one should conduct research in economic oriented topics when most research resources are concentrated around the liberal economic perspective. The strategy could be to integrate research from the liberal economic perspective in a hermeneutical horizon, which is more influenced by critical theory. In this way, it would be possible to use the given empirical resources in another critical hermeneutical perspective in which an inherent critique of capitalism could be formulated.


Declaration of Man and the Citizen 1789

Bouvier, Jean; Furet, François; Gillet, Marcel (1965), Le mouvement du profit en France au XIXe siècle, Paris and La Haye, Mouton & Co

Hegel, G. W. F. (1955), Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts, Hamburg, Felix Meiner Verlag.

Hegel, G. W. F. (1991), Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Marx, Karl (1968), Die Frühschriften. Stuttgart, Alfred Kröner Verlag.

Marx, Karl (1968a), Kritik der Hegelschen Staatsphilosophie 1841/42, in. Marx, Karl (1968), Die Frühschriften. Stuttgart, Alfred Kröner Verlag

Marx, Karl (1968b), Manifest der kommunistischen Partei, in: Karl Marx, Die Frühschriften. Stuttgart, Alfred Kröner Verlag.

Marx, Karl (1970), Das Kapital band I, MEW 23, Berlin, Dietz Verlag.

Marx, Karl (196-?), Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, Frankfurt, Europäische Verlagsanstalt.

Piketty, Thomas (1998), Les hauts revenus face aux modifications des taux marginaux supérieurs de l’impôt sur le revenu en France, 1970-1996, CNRS, URA928, numero 9812. [High-Income Taxpayers’ Reaction to Marginal Income Tax Rates Changes in France, 1970-1996].

Piketty, Thomas (2001), Les hauts revenus en France au 20e siècle: inégalités et redistribution, 1901-1998, Paris, B. Grasset.

Piketty, Thomas (2004), L’impact de la taille des classes et de la ségrégation sociale sur la réussite scolaire dans les écoles françaises: une estimation à partir du panel primaire 1997, EHESS, Paris-Jourdan.

Piketty, Thomas; Valdenaire, M. (2006) L’impact de la taille des classes sur la réussite scolaire dans les écoles, collèges et lycées français – Estimations à partir du panel primaire 1997 et du panel secondaire 1995, Ministère de l’éducation nationale, Paris.

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“Crisis and Crisis Scenarios: Normativity, Possibilities and Dilemmas” (Lysebu Conference Centre in Oslo, Norway, April 9th — 12th, 2015)

This special issue of Nordicum-Mediterraneum contains select proceedings from the third meeting of the Nordic Summer University research circle called “Crisis and Crisis Scenarios: Normativity, Possibilities and Dilemmas”, held April 9th — 12th, 2015 at the Lysebu Conference Centre in Oslo, Norway. The circle’s research program runs from 2014 to 2016 and is aimed at examining the concept of crisis as it is used today in academia and public discussion. In this collection of papers from the symposium we present some of the different ways in which the topic of the study group was addressed.

Continue reading “Crisis and Crisis Scenarios: Normativity, Possibilities and Dilemmas” (Lysebu Conference Centre in Oslo, Norway, April 9th — 12th, 2015)

Piketty’s Capital. The Revival of Political Philosophy, Political Economy and Social Sciences in the Light of the Declaration of Human and Citizens’ Rights in the French Revolution of 1789

Piketty’s Capital in Twenty-First Century has posed a totally new platform for the discussion of the economy and capitalism. Piketty has reinvented the classical political economy founded by Adam Smith in his 1776 Wealth of Nations. Piketty has shown via massive historical research how growth and inequality have developed since 1793. Piketty’s conclusion is that the French Revolution did not change the existing inequality either in the medium or in the long term. Piketty’s prediction is that a new form of global capitalism will arise, patrimonial capitalism, in which inequality will develop further and the 1% of the World population will control 95% of all wealth in the World.

Continue reading Piketty’s Capital. The Revival of Political Philosophy, Political Economy and Social Sciences in the Light of the Declaration of Human and Citizens’ Rights in the French Revolution of 1789

From Critical Theory to Critical Hermeneutics


The origin of critical theory in the Frankfurt School during the 1930s

From their beginning in the 1930s, critical theory and the Frankfurt school had their focus on a critique of disturbed social relations in western society dominated by totalitarian political regimes like Stalinism, Fascism, Nazism, and by capitalism as an oppressive and destructive economic system and culture. The main theoretical references were Freud and Marx. According to Rolf Wiggershaus, the historian of the Frankfurt School, it was appropriate to talk about a school in the 1930s insofar as Max Horkheimer was a charismatic “managerial scholar”, who was able to formulate a theoretical program for the school that was institutionalized into the Institut für Sozialforschung (Wiggershaus 1986: 9-10). Horkheimer was able to attract many brilliant scholars like Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Marcuse, Erich Fromm, Franz Neumann and Otto Kirchheimer to participate in the critical theory program. They all wanted in different ways to contribute to an interdisciplinary social science that could embrace the many specialized forms of social sciences, and express a critique that united the moral and social scientific perspectives. However, as Wiggershaus remarks, even in the 1930s there was no paradigmatic unity in the brilliant scholars’ different perspectives. Therefore one could say that even in the 1930s it was misleading to speak about critical theory as the expression of one single theory. There was, to a certain degree, only a common understanding that the task of social sciences is to exercise critique. But what could be meant by critique was not at all clear and univocal.


Now, 80 years later, this has all become history and thus it is time to leave the concept of critical theory behind us, and instead bring the concept of critique to a broader theoretical framework such as hermeneutics. This allows for the possibility of retaining the theoretical intentions of the old Frankfurt school and at the same time there will be no boundaries by specific dominant theoretical perspectives such as Marx’s, Freud’s, etc. This does not mean that these specific theories no longer have any relevance. But today we have another horizon of understanding and we live in another époque.


In the following, I would like to sketch a framework for such a critical hermeneutics with a discussion of the concept of hermeneutics by Weber, Gadamer and Habermas.



Max Weber’s concept of a hermeneutical social science

In fact, the idea of social sciences as a hermeneutical science is not a new idea. Max Weber is the great founder of hermeneutic sociology in which the important thing is to create an understanding of social relationships. Weber speaks programmatically of “eine ‘verstehende’ Soziologie” in his article, “Über einige Kategorien der verstehenden Soziologie” (Weber 1988a: 427 ff.). In Weber’s special version of “the sociology of knowledge,” the notion of “the objectivity of social science” has a very special meaning. Weber writes in “Die ‘Objektivität’ sozialwissenschaftlicher und sozialpolitischer Erkenntnis“:


Die ‘Objektivität’ sozialwissenschaftlicher Erkenntnis hängt vielmehr davon ab, daß das empirisch Gegebene zwar stets auf jene Wertideen, die ihr allein Erkenntniswert verleihen, ausgerichtet, in ihrer Bedeutung aus ihnen verstanden, dennoch aber niemals zum Piedestal für den empirisch unmöglichen Nachweis ihrer Geltung gemacht wird. Und der uns allen in irgendeiner Form inne wohnende Glaube an die überempirische Geltung letzter und höchster Wertideen, an denen wir den Sinn unseres Daseins verankern, schließt die unausgesetzte Wandelbarkeit der konkreten Gesichtspunkte, unter denen die empirische Wirklichkeit Bedeutung erhält, nicht etwa aus, sondern ein: das Leben in seiner irrationalen Wirklichkeit und sein Gehalt an möglichen Bedeutungen sind unausschöpfbar, die konkrete Gestaltung der Wertbeziehung bleibt daher ?ießend, dem Wandel unterworfen in die dunkle Zukunft der menschlichen Kultur hinein. Das Licht, welches jene höchsten Wertideen spenden, fällt jeweilig auf einen stets wechselnden endlichen Teil des ungeheuren chaotischen Stromes von Geschehnissen, der sich durch die Zeit dahinwälzt“ (Weber 1988b: 213-214).


What is paradoxical in the formulation is that Weber turns the usual discussion of objectivity completely on its head. For Weber, it is a matter of guarding against the conception that the empirical could give our subjective values an objective sheen and turn them into an ideology (Larsen 1996: 81). It is not the purpose of science to justify values; the purpose of science is, with the help of values, to clarify empirical relationships (Collin 1996: 54 ff.). Yet, this clarity can never be final. It is a hermeneutic relationship, because it depends on the value point of view taken on the social relationship. In an extension thereof, it becomes an important, perhaps, the most important task of sociology to clarify what values lay the groundwork for the evaluation of the empirical social relationship.


Weber discusses this, among other places, in “Wissenschaft als Beruf”, where he reaches the conclusion that science has four professional tasks (Weber 1988d: 606-609). The first is technical insight into social reality. The second is training in a methodological procedure for inquiry. The third is clarity of thought, including, among other things, clarity in the choice between goals and means. The fourth is clarity about what values are at the basis of those assessments. Thus, science as a professional calling (“Beruf”) must serve “self-knowledge”’ and “knowledge of interrelated facts” (Weber 1988d: 609).


Weber discusses the same problem in “Der Sinn der ‘Wertfreiheit’ der soziologischen und ökonomischen Wissenschaften“, in which he writes:


Durch empirisch-psychologische und historische Untersuchung eines bestimmten Wertungsstandpunktes auf seine individuelle, soziale, historische Bedingtheit hin gelangt man nun und nimmer je zu irgendetwas anderem, als dazu: ihm verstehend zu erklären. Das ist nichts Geringes. Es ist nicht nur wegen des persönlichen (aber nicht wissenschaftlichen) Nebenerfolgs: dem wirklich oder scheinbar Andersdenkenden persönlich leichter ‘gerecht werden’ zu können, erwünscht. Sondern es ist auch wissenschaftlich höchst wichtig. 1. für den Zweck einer empirischen Kausalbetrachtung menschlichen Handelns, um dessen wirkliche letzte Motive kennen zu lernen, 2. aber, wenn man mit einem (wirklich oder scheinbar) abweichend Wertenden diskutiert, für die Ermittlung der wirklichen gegenseitigen Wertungsstandpunkte. Denn dies ist der eigentliche Sinn einer Wertdiskussion: das, was der Gegner (oder auch: man selbst) wirklich meint, d. h. den Wert, auf den es jedem der beiden Teile wirklich und nicht nur scheinbar ankommt, zu erfassen und so zu diesem Wert eine Stellungnahme überhaupt erst zu ermöglichen. Weit entfernt [davon] also, daß vom Standpunkt der Forderung der ‘Wertfreiheit’ empirischer aus Diskussionen von Wertungen steril oder gar sinnlos wären, ist gerade die Erkenntnis dieses ihres Sinnes Voraussetzung aller nützlichen Erörterungen dieser Art. Sie setzen einfach das Verständnis für die Möglichkeit prinzipiell und unüberbrückbar abweichender letzter Wertungen voraus. Denn weder bedeutet ‘alles verstehen’ auch ‘alles verzeihen’, noch führt überhaupt vom bloßen Verstehen des fremden Standpunktes an sich ein Weg zu dessen Billigung. Sondern mindestens ebenso leicht, oft mit höherer Wahrscheinlichkeit, zu der Erkenntnis: daß, warum und worüber, man sich nicht einigen könne. Gerade diese Erkenntnis ist aber eine Wahrheitserkenntnis und gerade ihr dienen ‘Wertungsdiskussionen’. Was man dagegen auf diesem Wege ganz gewiß nicht gewinnt – weil es in der gerade entgegengesetzten Richtung liegt –, ist irgendeine normative Ethik oder überhaupt die Verbindlichkeit irgendeines ‘Imperativs’. Jedermann weiß vielmehr, daß ein solches Ziel durch die, zum mindesten dem Anschein nach, ‘relativierende’ Wirkung solcher Diskussionen eher erschwert wird. Damit ist natürlich nun wieder nicht gesagt: daß man um deswillen sie vermeiden solle. Im geraden Gegenteil. Denn eine ‘ethische’ Überzeugung, welche durch psychologisches ‘Verstehen’ abweichender Wertungen sich aus dem Sattel heben läßt, ist nur ebenso viel wert gewesen wie religiöse Meinungen, welche durch wissenschaftliche Erkenntnis zerstört werden, wie dies ja ebenfalls vorkommt“ (Weber 1988c: 503-504).


It appears from this quote and the whole discussion in “Der Sinn der ‘Wertfreiheit’ der soziologischen und ökonomischen Wissenschaften” that Weber attributes discussions about fundamental values a decisive significance to scientific work, because it is through this discussion that what values are to be at the basis for scientific assessments are clarified. According to Weber, there is no such thing as a value-neutral scientific statement, which means that positivist sociology is, in Weber’s view, nonsense. On the other hand, according to Weber, there is no ultimate justification of values (Bruun 1996: 33 ff.; Crone 1996: 72 ff.). Scientific investigation is at the focal point of this contradiction (Bertilsson 1996: 11 ff.). Therefore, scientific investigation for Weber is ultimately grounded in a passionate ‘calling,’ whose virtue is “schlichte intellektuelle Rechtschaffenheit” (Weber 1988c: 613).



Critical Theory and the Frankfurt School

Critical theory is an attempt to get beyond the positivist and hermeneutic views of the social sciences. The social sciences must not merely explain and understand; they must also criticize. Horkheimer states this programmatically in the article ”Traditionelle und kritische Theorie” from 1937 (Horkheimer 1970a). Rolf Wiggershaus describes it in this way in his history of the Frankfurt School, Die Frankfurter Schule. Geschichte, Theoretische Entwicklung, Politische Bedeutung:


Seit Horkheimers Aufsatz über Traditionelle und kritische Theorie (1937) wurde ‘kritische Theorie’ zur hauptsächlichen Selbstetikettierung der Theo­retiker des Horkheimerkreises. Das war zwar auch ein Tarnbegriff für marxistischen Theorie, aber mehr noch ein Ausdruck dafür, daß Horkheimer und seine Mitarbeiter sich nicht mit der marxistischen Theorie in ihrer orthodoxen Form identi?zierten, die auf die Kritik des Kapitalismus als eines ökonomischen Systems mit davon abhängigem Überbau und ideologischem Denken ?xiert war – sondern mit dem Prinzipiellen der marxistischen Theorie. Dies Prinzipielle bestand in der konkreten Kritik entfremdeter und entfremdender gesellschaftlicher Verhältnisse. Die kritischen Theoretiker kamen weder vom Marxismus noch von der Arbeiterbewegung her. Sie wie­derholten vielmehr in gewisser Weise Erfahrungen des jungen Marx. Für Erich Fromm und Herbert Marcuse wurde die Entdeckung des jungen Marx zur entscheidenden Bestätigung der Richtigkeit ihrer eigenen Bestrebungen. … Für Adorno z.B. war dagegen der junge Marx kein Schlüsselerlebnis. Aber er wollte mit seinem ersten großen Musik-Aufsatz, der 1932 … erschien, die Erfahrung demonstrieren, daß im Kapitalismus alle Wege versperrt seien, daß man überall gleichsam auf eine gläserne Mauer stoße, daß also die Menschen nicht zum eigentlichen Leben gelangten … Das Leben lebt nicht – diese Feststellung des jungen Lukács war das treibende Element auch der jungen kritischen Theoretiker. Der Marxismus wurde für sie in erster Linie, soweit er um diese Erfahrung zentriert war, inspirierend. Nur für Horkheimer (erst später für Benjamin und noch später für Marcuse) bildete die Empörung über das Unrecht, das den Ausgebeuteten und Erniedrigten angetan wurde, einen wesentlichen Stachel des Denkens. Letztlich entscheidend war aber auch für ihn die Empörung darüber, daß in der bürgerlich-kapitalistischen Gesellschaft ein rationales, der Allgemeinheit verantwortliches und in seinen Folgen für die Allgemeinheit kalkulierbares Handeln nicht möglich war und selbst ein privilegiertes Individuum und die Gesellschaft einander entfremdet waren. Lange Zeit bildete er so etwas wie das gesellschaftstheoretische Gewissen des Kreises, die Instanz, die immer wieder mahnte, die gemeinsame Aufgabe sei, eine Theorie der Gesamtgesellschaft, eine Theorie des gegenwärtigen Zeitalters zu liefern, die die Menschen als die Produzenten ihrer historischen Lebensformen, aber eben ihnen entfremdeter Lebensformen zum Gegenstand hatte“ (Wiggershaus 1986: 13-14).


From its beginning, critical theory was borne by three interlinked views of criticism.

The first view of criticism deals with a critique of social relations as they appear in contemporary society. It is this desire for critique that makes it obvious to link it to the young Marx, who develops his critical theory from an immediate critique of bourgeois society and its limitations. In this sense, there is not so much a link to a particular theory, but to a particular theoretical matter and a particular theoretical practice in which the young Marx is a model. In this view, there is a strong desire to change society through criticism, as it was expressed in Marx’ 11th thesis on Feuerbach: “Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kommt darauf an, sie zu verändern” (Marx 1968a: 341).


This leads to the second view of critical theory, which deals with a much broader traditional concern, i.e., that it is the task of every theory to be critical (Larsen 1991). In Plato’s dialogues, the philosopher is compared to a doctor, and Plato’s dialogues are permeated by the disparity between idea and phenomenon. Aristotle takes the true task of philosophy further in his phenomenological critical theory. Thus, from the beginning with Plato and Aristotle, there is a conception that the job of theory is to be critical. It is also this concern that leads to positivism and hermeneutics. In both these theories, there is a desire to be critical, even though the concept of criticism is entirely different.


Finally, the third understanding of critical theory is linked to a specific view of criticism, developed by Marx in his later work, as summarized in his critique of political economy.


It is no longer possible to refer unilaterally to Marx’ theory, as there is a tendency to do among a number of members of the Frankfurt School, without thereby disparaging the meaning of Marx’ work. On the other hand, the concerns of critical theory mentioned here are still relevant to the understanding of the purpose and significance of theoretical work (Larsen 1991). It is this concern in critical theory I will maintain as I take it into a broader hermeneutic horizon of understanding, as it will appear in the following.



Gadamer’s Hermeneutics

According to Gadamer, hermeneutics is not only a method but a fundamental philosophical understanding of our access to human life. In Wahrheit und Methode, Gadamer puts it in the following way:


Indem wir nun als das universale Medium solcher Vermittlung die Sprach­lichkeit erkannten, weitete sich unsere Fragestellung von ihren konkreten Ausgangspunkten, der Kritik am ästhetischen und historischen Bewußtsein und der an ihre Stelle zu setzenden Hermeneutik, zu einer universalen Fragerichtung aus. Denn sprachlich und damit verständlich ist das menschliche Weltverhältnis schlechthin und von Grund aus. Hermeneutik ist, wie wir sahen, insofern ein universaler Aspekt der Philosophie und nicht nur die methodische Basis der sogenannten Geisteswissenschaften“ (Gadamer 1990: 479).


In Gadamer’s hermeneutics, language has a fundamental ontological meaning as the fundamental horizon of human life, and it is the task of hermeneutics to interpret this horizon of understanding, so that it not only expresses the tradition of theology, literature, and the humanities but also concrete living conditions insofar as these concrete living conditions, according to Gadamer, must be seen as a hermeneutic linguistic matter. It is the latter that leads to the relevance of hermeneutics for the social sciences, insofar as hermeneutics’ view of human life as a linguistically-mediated relationship must also be expressed in the social sciences. Hermeneutics is often viewed as a conservative view of social life – in part, because hermeneutics is traditionally bound to texts of the past and, in part, because emphasis is laid in Gadamer’s interpretation of hermeneutics on the problem of the hermeneutic circle, which consists of the fact that we are always in a previously given view, a pre-understanding, or, in a true sense, prejudice and that we are bound to it (Gadamer 1990: 270 ff.).


However, one must be aware that Gadamer’s hermeneutics can also be read in such a way that it is inquiry and criticism, which are the important things in hermeneutics. Gadamer develops this in his discussion of the hermeneutic priority of the question, “Der hermeneutische Vorrang der Frage” (Gadamer 1990: 368 ff.). Gadamer notes that it is an inquiry and a radical negativity that is the decisive thing in hermeneutics. Gadamer puts it this way:


Damit ist uns der Gang der weiteren Untersuchung vorgezeichnet. Wir fragen nämlich …, welche Bedeutung bei der Analyse der hermeneutischen Situation dem Begriff der Frage zukam. Daß in aller Erfahrung die Struktur der Frage vorausgesetzt ist, liegt auf der Hand. Man macht keine Erfahrung ohne die Aktivität des Fragens. Die Erkenntnis, daß die Sache anders ist und nicht so, wie man zuerst glaubte, setzt offenbar den Durchgang durch die Frage voraus, ob es so oder so ist. Die Offenheit, die im Wesen der Erfahrung liegt, ist logisch gesehen eben diese Offenheit des So oder So. Sie hat die Struktur der Frage. Und wie die dialektische Negativität der Erfahrung in der Idee einer vollendeten Erfahrung ihre Perfektion fand, … so ?ndet auch die logische Form der Frage und die ihr einwohnende Negativität ihre Vollendung in einer radikalen Negativität, dem Wissen des Nichtwissens. Es ist die berühmte sokratische docta ignorantia, die in der äußersten Negativität der Aporie die wahre Überlegenheit des Fragens eröffnet. … Es gehört zu den größten Einsichten, die uns die platonische Sokratesdarstellung vermittelt, daß das Fragen – ganz im Gegensatz zu der allgemeinen Meinung – schwerer ist als das Antworten“ (Gadamer 1990: 368).


It is the central significance of an inquiry, a critique and a negation that leads me to be able to view hermeneutics as a critical science, which can also be applied within the social sciences. In an extension thereof, I will try to unite the concerns of critical theory, mentioned above, with the view presented of hermeneutics through which I am able to talk about a ‘critical hermeneutics’ in order to distinguish the critical dimension in hermeneutics.


Paul Ricœur has the same concern in his essay, “Pour une herméneutique critique”, in which he tries to show the connection between hermeneutics and critical theory (Ricœur 1986: 362 ff.). For Ricœur, hermeneutics and critical theory form a unit that must be viewed together. John B. Thompson has a similar perspective in his Critical Hermeneutics, in which he discusses the concept of a critical hermeneutics in the light of the theoretical works of Ricœur, Gadamer and Habermas (Thompson 1981) and Hans-Herbert Kögler, Die Macht des Dialogs – Kritische Hermeneutik nach Gadamer, Foucault und Rorty (Kögler 1992).



Habermas on Critical Hermeneutics

Habermas presents his view of critical hermeneutics in the introduction to Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns (Habermas 1981, I, 8-9). Habermas shares hermeneutics’ conception of the fundamental ontological significance of language for human life – that is, the circumstance that human life is fundamentally defined as a linguistic matter. Habermas’ critique of Gadamer’s hermeneutics in his article “Der Universalitätsanspruch der Hermeneutik” (1970) is not directed toward hermeneutics as such, as it has often been understood, but toward the special understanding of hermeneutics that Gadamer sets forth in Wahrheit und Methode. According to Habermas, the problem is that Gadamer does not only connect hermeneutics to language in its abstract universality, but also to language in its particular tradition. Whereas, in Gadamer, there may be a tendency to displace the ontological from language to tradition, which makes it impossible to distinguish between a true and a systematically distorted communication. Habermas expresses it in the following way:


Gadamer ist, wenn ich recht sehe, der Auffassung, dass die hermeneutische Klärung unverständlicher oder mißverstandener Lebensäußerungen stets auf einen Konsensus zurückführen muß, der vorgängig durch konvergierende Überlieferung verläßlich eingespielt ist. Diese Überlieferung aber ist für uns objektiv in dem Sinne, dass wir sie nicht einem prinzipiellen Wahrheitsanspruch konfrontieren können. Die Vorurteilsstruktur des Verstehens verbietet nicht nur, sondern läßt es als sinnlos erscheinen, jenen faktisch eingespielten, unserem Mißverständnis und Unverständnis jeweils zugrunde liegenden Konsensus wiederum in Frage zu stellen. Hermeneutisch sind wir gehalten, uns auf konkrete Vorverständigungen, die letztlich auf Sozialisation, auf die Einübung in gemeinsame Traditionszusammenhänge zurückgeht, zu beziehen. Keine ist der Kritik grundsätzlich entzogen, aber keine kann abstrakt in Frage gestellt werden. Das wäre nur dann möglich, wenn wir einen durch wechselseitige Verständigung herbeigeführten Konsensus gleichsam von der Seite einsehen und hinter dem Rücken der Beteiligten erneuten Legitimationsforderungen unterwerfen könnten. Aber Forderungen dieser Art können wir nur im Angesicht der Beteiligten stellen, indem wir uns auf ein Gespräch mit ihnen einlassen. Damit unterwerfen wir uns wiederum dem hermeneutischen Zwang, einen klärenden Konsensus, zu dem das wiederaufgenommene Gespräch führen mag, als tragendes Einverständnis vorerst zu akzeptieren. Der Versuch, dieses gewiß kontingente Einverständnis abstrakt als falsches Bewusstsein zu verdächtigen, ist sinnlos, weil wir das Gespräch, das wir sind, nicht transzendieren können. Daraus schließt Gadamer auf den ontologischen Vorrang der sprachlichen Überlieferung vor möglicher Kritik: wir können daher nur an jeweils einzelnen Traditionen, indem wir selbst dem umfassenden Traditionszusammenhang einer Sprache angehören, Kritik üben.

Diese Überlegungen erscheinen zunächst plausibel. Sie werden aber durch die tiefenhermeneutische Einsicht, daß ein scheinbar „vernünftig“ eingespielter Konsensus sehr wohl auch das Ergebnis von Pseudokommunikation sein kann, erschüttert. Albrecht Wellmer hat darauf hingewiesen, dass in der Tradition der Aufklärung jene traditionsfeindliche Einsicht generalisiert worden ist. Die Aufklärung fordert bei allem Interesse an Verständigung, dass Vernunft als das Prinzip gewaltloser Kommunikation gegenüber der erfahrenen Wirklichkeit einer durch Gewalt verzerrten Kommunikation zur Geltung gebracht wird: “Die Aufklärung wußte, was die Hermeneutik vergißt: Daß das ’Gespräch’, das wir nach Gadamer ‚sind‘, auch ein Gewaltzusammenhang und gerade darin kein Gespräch ist… Der universale Anspruch des hermeneutischen Ansatzes (läßt sich) nur dann aufrechterhalten, wenn man davon ausgeht, dass der Überlieferungszusammenhang als der Ort möglicher Wahrheit und faktischen Verständigtseins zugleich auch der Ort faktischer Unwahrheit und fortdauernder Gewalt ist“ (Wellmer 1969: 48f).

Wir wären nur dann legitimiert, das tragende Einverständnis, das Gadamer zufolge der verfehlten Verständigung jeweils vorausliegt, mit dem jeweiligen faktischen Verständigtsein gleichzusetzen, wenn wir sicher sein dürften, dass jeder im Medium der sprachlichen Überlieferung eingespielte Konsensus zwangslos und unverzerrt zustande gekommen ist. Nun lehrt aber die tiefenhermeneutische Erfahrung, dass sich in der Dogmatik des Überlieferungszusammenhangs nicht nur die Objektivität der Sprache überhaupt, sondern die Repressivität eines Gewaltverhältnisses durchsetzt, das die Intersubjektivität der Verständigung als solche deformiert und die umgangssprachliche Kommunikation systematisch verzerrt“ (Habermas 1970: 97-99).


As it appears, Habermas has a positive relationship to hermeneutics, but he does not link hermeneutics to a given tradition as an ultimate arbiter of truth, because the tradition is also interwoven into a power relationship. Therefore, according to Habermas, it is a matter of taking a position with the help of reason as a critical relation to the given tradition. This is expressed in the following way:


K. O. Apel hat mit Recht betont, dass hermeneutisches Verstehen zugleich der kritischen Vergewisserung der Wahrheit nur in dem Maße dient, als es sich dem regulativen Prinzip unterstellt: Universale Verständigung im Rahmen einer unbegrenzten Interpretationsgemeinschaft herbeizuführen (Apel 1970: 105). Erst dieses Prinzip sichert nämlich, dass die hermeneutische Anstrengung nicht ablassen darf, bevor nicht im gewaltsamen Konsensus die Täuschung und im scheinbar zufälligen Mißverstehen die systematische Entstellung durchschaut sind. Wenn Sinnverstehen nicht a fortiori gegenüber der Idee der Wahrheit indifferent bleiben soll, müssen wir mit dem Begriff einer Wahrheit, die sich an der idealisierten, in unbegrenzter und herrschaftsfreier Kommunikation erzielten Übereinstimmung bemißt, zugleich die Struktur eines Zusammenlebens in zwangloser Kommunikation Vorwegnehmen. Wahrheit ist der eigentümliche Zwang zu zwangloser universaler Anerkennung; diese aber ist gebunden an eine ideale Sprechsituation, und das heißt Lebensform, in der zwanglose universale Verständigung möglich ist. Insofern muß sich kritisches Sinnverstehen die formale Antizipation richtigen Lebens zumuten. … Wir können auch sagen: sie schließt die Idee der Mündigkeit ein. Erst die formale Vorwegnahme des idealisierten Gesprächs als einer in Zukunft zu realisierenden Lebensform garantiert das letzte tragende kontrafaktische Einverständnis, das uns vorgängig verbindet und an dem jedes faktische Einverständnis, wenn es ein falsches ist, als falsches Bewußtsein kritisiert werden kann“ (Habermas 1970: 99-100).


In the 1970s, Habermas developed the fundamental principles, which were later developed in his theory of communicative action. It is worth noting that “the principle of rational discourse” is a regulative principle, which is the same as a critical principle for distorted speech and discourse. Thus, from the beginning, there is a critical principle embedded in Habermas’ ideas about language, which makes it legitimate to look at Habermas’ theory of language as a theory of critical hermeneutics, even though, in Habermas’ theory, there is also a strong tendency to look at language in positive consensus-oriented terms.


Concerning Habermas’ critique of Gadamer, Allan How’s The Habermas-Gadamer Debate and the Nature of the Social can be recommended, in which How recounts the way Habermas incorporates large parts of the hermeneutical view of language, even as he advances the above-mentioned critique (How 1995: 116 ff.). In this context, Paul Ricœur’s essay “Herméneutique et critique des ideologies” in Du texte à l’action. Essais d’herméneutique II should also be mentioned, in which Ricœur discusses the debate between Habermas and Gadamer (Ricœur 1986: 333 ff.). It is in this connection that Ricœur introduces his concept of critical hermeneutics (Ricœur 1986: 362 ff., see also Hermansen and Rendtorff (2002: 11 ff.)).


It is this critical perspective in Habermas’ theory that I have further developed in a more detailed way in the treatise The Right to Dissent, as I discuss the central meaning of the principle of Das Nein-sagen-Können in Habermas’ later theory of communicative action and his subsequent political and jurisprudential development of this principle (Larsen 2009 210 ff.; 220 ff.). Das Nein-sagen-Können, the right to dissent, represents the final critical perspective in Habermas’ theory of communicative action.


In the treatise Ethik und Demokratie, I use the concept ’dialectical hermeneutics’ instead of ‘critical hermeneutics’ related to the problem of a hermeneutical understanding of the ancient Greek democracy compared to modern democracy (Larsen 1990: 3 ff.). However, the two concepts are pretty much used in the same way.





Bertilsson, Margaretha (1996), ‘Weber: Videnskab som besindelse’, i: Dansk Sociologi nr. 4, 7. årgang, København.


Bruun, Hans Henrik (1996), ‘Værdi og værdifrihed i Max Webers sociologi’, i: Dansk Sociologi nr. 4, 7. årgang, København.


Collin, Finn (1996), ‘Værdi og idealtype hos Max Weber’, i: Dansk Sociologi nr. 4, 7. årgang, København.


Crone, Manni (1996), ‘Max Weber mellem etik og nihilisme – Leo Strauß om Webers dobbelte værdibegreb’, i: Dansk Sociologi nr. 4, 7. årgang, København.


Gadamer, Hans-Georg (1990), Wahrheit und Methode – Grundzüge einer philosophischen Hermeneutik, 6. Auflage, 1. Auflage 1960, i: Hans-Georg Gadamer, Gesammelte Werke Band I, J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), Tübingen.


Habermas, Jürgen (1970), ‘Der Universalitätsanspruch der Hermeneutik’, i: R. Bubner, K. Cramer og R. Wiehl (Hrsg.), Hermeneutik und Dialektik. Festschrift für H. – G. Gadamer, Band I, J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), Tübingen.


Habermas, Jürgen (1981), Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns, bind I-II, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main.


Hermansen, Mads og Dahl Rendtorff, Jakob (2002), ‘Indledning. Omrids af Paul Ricœurs handlingshermeneutik’, i: Ricœur, Paul (2002), En Hermeneutisk Brobygger. Tekster af Paul Ricœur, redigeret af Mads Hermansen og Jacob Rendtorff, Forlaget Klim, Århus.


Horkheimer, Max (1970a), ‘Tradisjonell og kritisk teori’, i: Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Theodor W. Adorno, Jürgen Habermas (1970), Kritisk teori – En antologi over Frankfurter-skolen i filosofi og sosiologi, Gyldendal Norsk Forlag, Oslo.


How, Allan (1995), The Habermas – Gadamer Debate and the Nature of the Social, Avebury, Ashgate Publishing Ltd, Aldershot.


Kögler, Hans-Herbert (1992), Die Macht des Dialogs – Kritische Hermeneutik nach Gadamer, Foucault und Rorty, Metzler Verlag, Stuttgart.


Larsen, Öjvind (1990), Ethik und Demokratie. Die Entstehung des ethischen Denkens im demokratischen Stadtstaat Athen, Edition Philosophie und Sozialwissenschaften 17, Argument-Verlag, Berlin – Hamburg.


Larsen, Øjvind (1991), ‘Etik og Sociologi’, i: Social Kritik nr. 17, København.


Larsen, Øjvind (1996), ‘Kritik og kommunikation i samfundsvidenskaberne’, i: Dansk Sociologi nr. 4, 7. årgang, København.


Larsen, Øjvind (2009), The Rigt to Dissent, Museum Tusculanum Press, Copenhagen 2009.


Marx, Karl (1968), Die Frühschriften, Alfred Kröner Verlag, Stuttgart.


Marx, Karl (1968a), Thesen über Feurbach (1845/46), i: Karl Marx, Die Frühschriften, Alfred Kröner Verlag, Stuttgart.


Ricœur, Paul (1986), Du texte à l’action. Essais d’herméneutique II, Édition du Seuil, Paris.


Ricœur, Paul (2002), En Hermeneutisk Brobygger. Tekster af Paul Ricœur, redigeret af Mads Hermansen og Jacob Rendtorff, Forlaget Klim, Århus.


Thompson, John B. (1981), Critical Hermeneutics. A study in the thought of Paul Ricoeur and Jürgen Habermas, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.


Weber, Max (1988a), ‘Über einige Kategorien der verstehenden Soziologie’, i: Weber, Max (1988), Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftlehre, Herausgegeben von Johannes Winckelmann, , 1. Auflage 1922, 7. Auflage, J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), Tübingen.


Weber, Max (1988b), ‘Die ‘Objektivität’ sozialwissenschaftlicher und sozialpolitischer Erkenntnis’, i: Weber, Max (1988), Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftlehre, Herausgegeben von Johannes Winckelmann, , 1. Auflage 1922, 7. Auflage, J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), Tübingen.


Weber, Max (1988c), ‘Der Sinn der ‘Wertfreiheit’ der soziologischen und ökonomischen Wissenschaften’, i: Weber, Max (1988), Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftlehre, Herausgegeben von Johannes Winckelmann, , 1. Auflage 1922, 7. Auflage, J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), Tübingen.


Weber, Max (1988d), ‘Wissenschaft als Beruf’, i: Weber, Max (1988), Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftlehre, Herausgegeben von Johannes Winckelmann, , 1. Auflage 1922, 7. Auflage, J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), Tübingen.


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Kierkegaard’s Critique of Hegel. Existentialist Ethics versus Hegel’s Sittlichkeit in the Institutions of Civil Society of the State

Kierkegaard establishes this problem in his treatise, The Concept of Irony.[1]  Kierkegaard and Hegel are in agreement that Socrates is the founder of morality; insofar as Socrates, through irony, creates a distanced relationship to the substantive ethical order in the Athenian city-state, and they both ascribe this as having a world-historical significance (Kierkegaard SV 1, 248 ff).[2]  However, their assessment is different; for Hegel, Socrates is a tragic hero, because his fate – being executed in Athens – is determined by a collision between two equally worthy principles.  He is talking about a collision between abstract right in the Athenian city-state and subjective self?determination, as it is expressed in Socrates’ ironic relationship to the substantive ethical order of the city-state.  A mediation or reconciliation is lacking between these two relationships.  In other words, the Athenian city-state lacked an ethical order to mediate between objective right and subjective sentiment.  Hegel sees Socrates as the first person to form a bridge between abstract right and the arena of morality, because he validates subjectivity.  Socrates brings the individual to the point that he no longer exclusively acts from fear of the law but is conscious of why he is acting.  According to Kierkegaard, this is  “the principle of subjective freedom” (Kierkegaard SV 1, 252; Kierkegaard 1965: 251).

Further, according to Kierkegaard, the question is the extent to which Hegel succeeded in demonstrating that Socrates had a positive understanding of the principle of subjective freedom or whether Socrates had an exclusively negative understanding of this principle (Kierkegaard SV 1, 252).

From Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Kierkegaard refers in this context to Hegel’s statement that Socrates advances the proposition in a conversation with Xenophon that it is the just who obey the laws, claiming against the objection that this cannot be absolute, since people and rulers often change them, that those who conduct war also wind up concluding with peace (Hegel 1971a: 478).  According to Hegel, Socrates is referring to the fact that it is the best and happiest state in which citizens are of one mind and obey the laws. According to Kierkegaard, in this context Hegel sees an affirmative content in Socrates (Kierkegaard SV 1, 253).

It is at this point that Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel’s views on Socrates becomes relevant.  He writes: “But this, as anyone can see, is a negative determination: it is negative towards the established [Bestaaende] as well as negative towards that deeper positivity, that which conditions both negatively and speculatively” (Kierkegaard SV 1, 250; Kierkegaard 1965: 249).  Socrates denied the universal substantive ethical order of the Athenian city-state, but he could not sublate this subjective appropriation of the law into a new universal, subjectively founded ethical order, a Sittlichkeit, in the city-state.

According to Kierkegaard, if Socrates was unable to create a new positive relationship to the law, it is because he could not realize his standpoint and thus could not reach the point at which he arrives, namely, the good in and for itself.  Socrates permits the established to endure [lader det bestående bestå], and the positive does not follow upon his infinite negation of the established –, thus his inquiry into its validity – but follows a positivity preceding it, namely, what was established prior to the negation or his inquiry (Kierkegaard SV 1, 253).  Socrates has gone beyond “immediate Hellenism”, insofar as he is interested in the laws in his reflection and takes them out of their immediate givenness.  But this is only a feigned movement and in no way an authentic social movement.  Therefore, the positive relationship to the law mentioned can be used as documentation for the fact that Socrates did not reach a positive determination of what is moral.

According to Kierkegaard, Hegel should have attended to the fact that Socrates only made universally applicable the negative and thus indeterminate.  Kierkegaard writes: “For this constriction of the universal to be stable and not accidental, for the universal to become known in its determinateness, however, is only possible in a total system of actuality.  But this is what Socrates lacks.  He negated the state without ever arriving again at the higher form of the state wherein infinity is affirmed, as he negatively required.” (Kierkegaard SV 1, 254; Kierkegaard 1965: 253).  This somewhat surprising quotation must be seen as an expression of how deeply Kierkegaard was still anchored in Hegel’s way of thinking, even as he is in the process of going beyond it.  For what he says is what Hegel tries to implement in his Philosophy of Right (1955) with the introduction of the substantive ethical order, Sittlichkeit, as a mediation between personal morality and the law.  At the same time, Kierkegaard is on his way somewhere else, since he says that Socrates may very well be called the founder of morality in the sense in which Hegel takes it, and that Socrates’ standpoint “could still have been irony” (Kierkegaard SV 1, 254; Kierkegaard 1965: 253).  If what is moral is related to the negatively free subject, the morally good can only be understood as an infinite negativity.  But it is clear that the former is a positively free subject, who can have the good as the infinitely positive as his task and realize it in practice.  The negative cannot be connected with any seriousness, and the same holds true of the negatively free subject, which according to Kierkegaard is also Hegel’s view.  True seriousness or the positively good is only possible in a totality, wherein the subject no longer arbitrarily determines himself at each moment to continue his experiment, where he feels that the task is not something he set for himself, but as something which has been set for him (Kierkegaard SV 1, 254; Kierkegaard 1965: 254).

It is striking how close Kierkegaard is to Hegel, even as he is in the process of surpassing him.  He writes: “It is essentially here that the difficulty with Hegel’s conception of Socrates lies, namely, the attempt he has constantly made to show how Socrates has conceived the good.  But what is even worse, so it seems to me, is that the direction of the current in Socrates’ life is not faithfully maintained.  The movement in Socrates is to come to the good.  His significance for the development of the world is to arrive at this (not at one point to have arrived at this).  His significance for his contemporaries is that they arrived at this.” (Kierkegaard SV 1, 255; Kierkegaard 1965: 254).

Thus, according to Kierkegaard, Hegel is correct that Socrates was the founder of morality, insofar as through his inquiry he formed the distance of negativity to the given social order in the Athenian city-state, but Hegel lacks the vision to see that Socrates could do no more.  Socrates could only abstractly make the good a theme as a value in itself, unconnected to the given social order; but according to Kierkegaard, he could not return from this movement of negativity and point out what the abstract good in and of itself consisted of as a concrete, and actual limited social order or Ethical Life in the city-state.

Kierkegaard summarizes this beautifully: “As Charon ferried men over from the fullness of life to the somber land of the underworld, and in order that his shallow barque might not be overburdened made the voyagers divest themselves of all the manifest determinations of the concrete life: titles, honours, purples, great speeches, sorrows, and tribulations, etc., so that only the pure man remains, so also Socrates ferried the individual from reality over to ideality, and ideal infinity, as infinite negativity, became the nothingness into which he made the whole manifold of reality disappear” (Kierkegaard SV 1, 255-256; Kierkegaard 1965: 255).

Kierkegaard concludes on this basis that Socrates had the concept of the absolute in the form of nothingness.  “Actuality, by means of the absolute, became nothingness, but the absolute was in turn nothing” (Kierkegaard SV 1, 256).  Socrates could maintain this radical negativity, according to Kierkegaard, because he saw himself as “a divine missionary” and it is through this that Socrates becomes a world-historical individuality, insofar as it is characteristic of world-historical individualities that their whole life belongs to the world and they have nothing for themselves.  Therefore, according to Kierkegaard, the world has even more to thank them for (Kierkegaard SV 1, 256).

Here the relationship between Hegel’s and Kierkegaard’s interpretations is pushed to the extreme, since Kierkegaard ascribes his interpretation of Socrates to Hegel’s whole world-historical perspective and movement, even as he demolishes this point of view from within and points towards a different understanding of morality than that we encounter in Hegel.  Whereas Hegel’s interpretation of Socrates points towards the emergence of morality in order then to embed it in another context – namely in The Philosophy of Right (1955) – as a moment in the Ethical Life of the state, Kierkegaard points towards the divine dimension and mission in Socrates’ works, which, according to him, cannot be redeemed but had to remain as a radical negativity, however it would form the movement that was to be fulfilled by another world-historical individual, namely, Jesus of Nazareth.  Hegel also had an eye for this second world-historical individuality, but Hegel’s perspective is once again historical mediation.  Whereas Kierkegaard, through many mediations scattered throughout his entire work, ultimately points towards Jesus of Nazareth as a world-historical individuality and event, Hegel points to the world-historical mediation of this individuality and event, as it is expressed in the Protestant form of Christianity. The beautiful thing about Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel is that he attempts to explode Hegel’s world-historical perspective from within, with a reference to the fact that we still encounter the world spirit in Ur-Christianity, rather than in cultural Christianity.  There is an amazing radicality in this critique, because it turns the movement of Hegel’s world-historical spirit inside out while still maintaining the entirety of Hegel’s world-historical perspective.

From this perspective, the decisive question becomes whether Kierkegaard can find his way back and thereby qualify a morality, not to speak of an Ethical Life, or whether he becomes the victim of his own critique of Socrates as radical negativity and of Hegel as a world-historical systematic thinker who neglects individuality as a moment in the movement of the world spirit.

If we look at the whole of Kierkegaard’s writings, there is a running theme that the ethical relationship to another human being or morality is mediated through Christianity, insofar as the relationship to another person is mediated through one’s relationship to God.[3]  The ethical passes through the relationship to God to grapple with the individual’s relationship to himself or herself, i.e., as a demand to be oneself in relation to God, and the individual’s relationship to other human beings, understood as a demand to perform works of love.[4]  In the relationship to God, love becomes the fundamental determinative essence of the individual human being.  The ethical is made applicable in the social insofar as the individual encounters the other person in a social relationship.

However, the Ethical Life may not be derived from the ethical demand to care for one’s fellow human beings.  Kierkegaard’s project is to clarify the independent meaning of the ethical for individuals in relation to themselves and their fellow human beings as mediated through the relationship to God in contrast to the historically determined and thus contingent Ethical Life in a given society.  The demand to love is an unconditional demand.  Thereby, Ethical Life is conditional and contingent.[5]

According to Kierkegaard, there is no mediation between the ethical and Ethical Life, and Kierkegaard sees it as his mission to make this distinction more precise.[6]  The ethical is always tied to an immediate relationship to God, so that it is mediated through the actualization of Ur-Christianity.  The ethical demand could be said to be bound to the event of Christ, whereby its entire historical mediation in cultural Christianity is, so to speak, skipped over as a veiling of the original event of Christ.[7]

For Kierkegaard, it is a matter of uncovering the ethical demand’s special characteristics in the original Ur-Christianity, as this relationship has become veiled through Ethical Life, since it was formed through cultural Christianity.  In this way, Kierkegaard’s project may be said to be diametrically opposite to Hegel’s. Since, Hegel’s project is to account for the ethical’s mediation in Ethical Life as mediated through cultural Christianity.[8]

Against this background, it is clear that Kierkegaard could not see any possibility for creating a mediation between the ethical and Ethical Life.  It would conflict with the entire intent of his project.  Thus, in Kierkegaard, Ethical Life by necessity appears as a contingent historical relationship.  No mediation is possible, and any attempt to create mediation only veils the special character of the ethical.  According to Kierkegaard, this is also true of the mediation that Hegel describes in his Philosophy of Right between morality and Ethical Life.

It is also here that Kierkegaard’s significance in relationship to Hegel may be found.  The ethical is deemed to be something independent, which does not only have meaning as mediation with respect to Ethical Life.  According to Kierkegaard, the bifurcation in modern society cannot be eradicated, and it is not desirable to try to overcome it.  As it is said in Concluding Unscientific Postscript, there cannot be “a conclusion or transition from the ethical to something non-ethical” (Kierkegaard SV 9,112; Kierkegaard 1968: 121).  This would only lead to, as it is said in The Present Age that the ethical is destroyed in the leveling of the ethical relationship (SV 14, 78).

On the other hand, Hegel’s problem of the mediation between morality and Ethical Life remains as an important problem in modern society.  Kierkegaard’s understanding of the ethical may have validity in the individual’s immediate relationship to himself and his fellow human being.  But if the ethical cannot be mediated in an Ethical Life, Ethical Life is decoupled from the ethical as an independent contingent relationship, which is defenseless against arbitrary institutional power.  This will, as Hegel says in his Philosophy of Right, lead to an extreme loss of Ethical Life, ‘Extreme verlorenen Sittlichkeit’ (§184).

Upon deeper reflection, in a society where there is an extreme loss of Ethical Life or Sittlichkeit, the question is whether there is room for ethical action, which Kierkegaard speaks of. Kierkegaard says that love cannot depend on pre-ordained social relations. He may be right with respect to the immediate relationship between human beings. But as soon as an action is mediated through an institution, social relationships emerge, and Ethical Life steps in as something decisive that is also determinative of the immediate relationship between human beings. Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel bypasses Hegel’s important problem of whether it is possible to found an ethical order in modern society. Hegel’s problem with respect to the basis of an Ethical Life, Sittlichkeit, remains, even after Kierkegaard’s critique as an important problem.




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Taylor, Mark C. (1980), Journeys to Selfhood. Hegel & Kierkegaard, University of California Press, Berkeley & London.

Wind, H.C. (2001), ‘Kierkegaard og det historiske’, in: Lystbæk, Christian T. & Aagaard, Lars (red.) (2001), Kierkegaard og … hovedtemaer i forfatterskabet, Philosophia, Århus.





[1] In my discussion of Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel, I take my point of departure in the young Kierkegaard’s dissertation On the Concept of Irony, because the young Kierkegaard was so influenced by Hegel’s philosophy during this period that it constitutes a critique of Hegel’s spirit. See Marc Taylor’s treatise on Kierkegaard’s relationship to Hegel, Journeys to Selfhood. Hegel & Kierkegaard (Taylor 1980: 8 ff). H.C. Wind in Kierkegaard og det historiske [Kierkegaard and the Historical] has a similar approach to the understanding of Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel. Wind believes with the same justification that one must begin with the young Kierkegaard rather than the mature Kierkegaard, who has separated himself to a great degree from the Hegelian influence. Wind writes: If a Dane wanted to know a little about Hegel – but preferably without having to deal with the man himself – they could easily go to Kierkegaard.  Not the Kierkegaard who has a formidable critique of Hegel in the Postscript and countless other places, but the author of his dissertation On the Concept of Irony. In the foregoing, I […] have upgraded Kierkegaard’s early work, against the master’s own estimation; I have also used the dissertation for a critical consideration of the mature thinker’s real work” (Wind 2001: 27; 37). This view is supported by Jon Stewart in his major new treatise, Kierkegaard’s Relations to Hegel Reconsidered (Stewart 2003). It is Stewart’s view that throughout Kierkegaard’s writings, there is a strong influence from Hegel’s philosophy.  In this connection, Stewart divides Kierkegaard’s works into three periods, stating that the influence, not surprisingly, is strongest in Kierkegaard’s early writings (Stewart 2003: 32 ff).


[2] This has been discussed, among others, by Pia Søltoft in Svimmelhedens etik [The Ethics of Giddiness] (Søltoft 2000, 127 ff).


[3] In this context, I look at the whole of Kierkegaard’s writings from this perspective, since it is Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel and Kierkegaard’s relation to Hegel that has my interest.  Thus, it is this particular problem I will examine in Kierkegaard’s work. Therefore, like H.C. Wind, I also place the primary emphasis on the problem as formulated in Kierkegaard’s early writings and use this as the guiding theme for my broader understanding of Kierkegaard’s work. As a matter of form, I note that an internal theological reading of Kierkegaard’s work would have to be done in a different way.  Here, the hermeneutic approach would have to be different.  However, this is not my task.  I make reference in this context to K. E. Løgstrup’s Opgør med Kierkegaard [Critique of Kierkegaard] (Løgstrup 1967), in which Løgstrup, from a completely different perspective, undertakes a very decided reading of Kierkegaard, which according to Løgstrup, also bypasses a number of other problems with which Kierkegaard has also been occupied. In his critique of Kierkegaard, Løgstrup claims that it is through the experience of love in the encounter with another person that we come to understand love and, thus, our relationship with God expounded in the Gospels.  In Kierkegaard’s interpretation of Christianity, the relationship with God is prior to love of one’s neighbor; in Løgstrup’s phenomenological interpretation of the essence of Christianity, the encounter with the other person is prior to the relationship of faith.  This is a theological contradiction outside the framework of this treatise. Løgstrup writes:

In my critique of Kierkegaard, I am only interested in the tendencies and consequences of his understanding of Christianity, and not in what he said in his other discourses.  He said quite a bit along the way which he later abandoned and much that was at cross purposes with the driving themes in his thought.  I ignore these and leave them to those who are convinced that he is the only Church Father and read him for their own edification.  I am interested in the question: what is Christianity as understood controversially.  For this reason, I do not stick too closely to Kierkegaard but also include the views of Jaspers and Sartre in the discussion” (Løgstrup 1967: 9). Clearly, a great classic opus such as Kierkegaard’s cannot be reduced to a single perspective.  It is always possible from a hermeneutic point of view to take many different perspectives on great classical works.  This is precisely what makes them classics, as Wind also notes (Wind 2001: 37).


[4] The individual can only become himself in a relationship with God.  Kierkegaard analyzes the psychological path to the relationship to God in Sickness Unto Death (Kierkegaard SV 15). In the relationship to God, there is a demand for works of love.  This is stated, inter alia, in Works of Love (SV 12), in the speeches and sermons in Christian Discourses (SV 13), An Edifying Discourse (SV 17), Two Discourses at the Communion on Fridays (SV 17), For Self-Examination (SV 17) and Judge for Yourself! (SV 17), and in the edifying discourses to ”whom I with pleasure and gratitude call my reader,” Eighteen Edifying Discourses (SV 4:13; 55; 101; 73; 209; 269), Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions (SV 6: 245), and Edifying Discourses in Various Spirits (SV 11: 13; 145).


[5] It is Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel in Fear and Trembling that the individual in the unconditional relationship with God is placed above the universal.  Kierkegaard writes:

“The ethical as such is the universal it applies to everyone, which from another angle means that it applies at all times.  It rests immanent in itself, has nothing outside itself that is its telos [end, purpose] but is itself the telos for everything outside it, and when the ethical has absorbed this into itself, it does not go any further.  The single individual, sensately and psychically qualified in immediacy is the individual who has his telos in the universal, and it is his ethical task continually to express himself in this, to annul his singularity in order to become the universal.  As soon as the single individual asserts himself in his singularity before the universal, he sins, and only by acknowledging this can he be reconciled again with the universal.  Every time the single individual, after having entered the universal, feels an impulse to assert himself as the single individual, he is in a spiritual trial [Anfægtelse], from which he can work himself only by repentantly surrendering as the single individual in the universal.  If this is the highest thing that can be said of man and his existence, then the ethical has the same nature as a person’s eternal salvation, which is his telos, forevermore and at all times, since it would be a contradiction for this to be capable of being surrendered (that is, teleologically suspended), because as soon as this is suspended it is relinquished, whereas that which is suspended is not relinquished but is preserved in the higher, which is its telos. If this is the case, then Hegel is right in ‘The Good and the Conscience,’ where he qualifies man only as the individual and considers this qualification as a ‘moral form of evil’ (see especially The Philosophy of Right) [Hegel, Philosophy of Right 1955: § 139 ff.], which must be sublated [ophævet, aufgehoben] in the teleology of the moral in such a way that the single individual who remains in that stage either sins or is immersed in spiritual trial.  But Hegel is wrong in speaking about faith; he is wrong in not protesting loudly and clearly against Abraham’s enjoying honor and glory as a father of faith when he ought to be sent back to a lower court and shown up as a murderer. Faith is namely this paradox that the single individual is higher than the universal – yet, please note, in such a way that the movement repeats itself, so that after having been in the universal he as the single individual isolates himself as higher than the universal.  If this is not faith, then Abraham is lost, then faith has never existed in the world precisely because it has always existed.  For if the ethical – that is, social morality – is the highest and if there is in a person no residual incommensurability inn some way such that this incommensurability is not evil (i.e., the single individual, who is to be expressed in the universal), then no categories are needed other than what Greek philosophy had or what can be deduced from them by consistent thought.  Hegel should not have concealed this, for, after all, he had studied Greek philosophy.”  (Kierkegaard SV 5: 51-52; Kierkegaard 1983: 54-55).


[6] It can be debated whether Kierkegaard even has a concept of Sittlichkeit. At any rate, Kierkegaard does not have a concept of Ethical Life as we find it in Hegel. In Hegel, the ethical is developed as an ethical relationship in the institutions of society – the family, civil society and the state.  However, Kierkegaard only grapples with the development of the ethical in marriage, as seen in the contrast with the aesthetic view of life.  Kierkegaard discusses this in Either – Or (SV 2 & 3) and in Stages on Life’s Way (SV 7 & 8). According to Hegel in The Philosophy of Right, marriage is an ethical relationship between two people (§161-168). Hegel speaks here of the institution of marriage as an immediate ethical relationship (“das unmittelbare sittliche Verhältnis”), which is borne, first, by the natural life-process and then transformed spiritually into self-conscious love (§161). In its way, this is the same view we encounter in Kierkegaard. There is an agreement between the ethical in Kierkegaard and the moral in Hegel understood as “das unmittelbarer sittliche Verhältnis”. But, there, the waters are parted. Kierkegaard does not have any independent interest in how marriage is developed into a family. Kierkegaard focuses on the immediate in marriage, which is the obligatory ethical relationship as a contrast and critique of the aesthetic view.  Kierkegaard is interested in a critique of Don Juan in Either – Or, not in marriage itself.  The ethical becomes in this manner a stage in life’s way in which a personal relationship of faith is the final religious stage. Hegel also reflects upon marriage  in its immediate meaning which we also find in Kierkegaard. There is also in  Hegel a personally obligatory relationship that is entered into freely and can, therefore, also be dissolved, ”once [the spouses’] dispositions and actions have become hostile and contrary” (§176). But this is not what is important, according to Hegel.  Rather, it is to be mentioned in order to show that Hegel also reflects upon the limited relationship we encounter in Kierkegaard.

The important thing for Hegel is that the spontaneous ethical relationship between the spouses is developed as an ethical relationship in the family as an institution.  A distinction must also be drawn, according to Hegel between marriage as an ethical relationship between two persons and the family as an institution founded when the spouses’ freely-given affection bears fruit in the child. Hegel writes: “In den Kindern wird die Einheit der Ehe, welche als substantiell nur Innigkeit und Gesinnung, als existierend aber in den beiden Subjekten gesondert ist, als Einheit selbst eine für sich seiende Existenz und Gegenstand, den sie als ihre Liebe, als ihr substantielles Dasein, lieben“ (§173). According to Hegel, it is not until a child is born and the parents hereafter have a special love for the child, that the unity of immediate Ethical Life takes an independent form and, therefore, according to Hegel, it is here that the family in a true sense is founded in marriage and there is a true or substantial Ethical Life.  Kierkegaard never gets that far – and he never gets that far, because he would not thereby be able to move toward his next stage, i.e., religion, which is his real problem. On the other hand, the interesting thing about Hegel is that he thinks about the existential relationship as an existential relationship in Ethical Life. This is distinctly demonstrated in the way that Hegel not only discusses an ethical foundation of marriage in the family.  He also speaks about an ethical dissolution of the family, when he writes: Die sittliche Au?ösung der Familie liegt darin, daß die Kinder zur freien Persönlichkeit erzogen, in der Volljährigkeit anerkannt werden, als rechtliche Personen und fähig zu sein, teils eigenes freies Eigentum zu haben, teils eigene Familien zu stiften (§77).”

The Ethical Life in the family, thus, has its limit and the limit is “the free personality“, which in the first instance enters into a relation with the Other in the family and then in a multiplicity of relations with others in civil society, which Hegel then defines as the free personality’s “second family“ (§238 ff; §252). On this basis, it is my view that Kierkegaard does not have a true concept of Sittlichkeit or, at any rate, it is incredibly weak in relation to the concept of Ethical Life to which we are introduced in Hegel. This does not mean that Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel can be ignored.  The important thing for Kierkegaard is to maintain that subjective freedom cannot be mediated without being destroyed and that the institutions of civil society, therefore, cannot have a primateship in relation to subjective freedom.  This is a paradox for which Hegel also had an eye, even though he could not provide a satisfactory solution to the paradox.  In recent years, there has been an interest in the meaning of the ethical in Kierkegaard’s work. In this connection, two works have been published that concentrate particularly on this problem.  They are Pia Søltoft’s Svimmelhedens Etik[The Ethics of Giddiness] (Søltoft 2000) and Wenche Marit Quist’s Den enkelte og det mellemmenneskelige – den etiske betydning af det mellemmenneskelige forhold hos Søren Kierkegaard [The Individual and his Relation to the Other – Kierkegaard’s Interpretation of the Ethical Significance of the Individual’s Relation to the Other] (Quist 2000), both of which indirectly confirm my analysis that Kierkegaard does not have a true concept of Sittlichkeit, but only a concept of ethics. In their analysis, the ethical in Kierkegaard is expounded only in relation to the Other. 


[7] Kierkegaard discusses this problem in Training in Christianity. Kierkegaard speaks of becoming contemporary with Christ. Kierkegaard writes: “If thou canst not prevail upon thyself to become a Christian in the situation of contemporaneousness with Him, or if He in the situation of contemporaneousness cannot move thee and draw thee to Himself – then thou wilt never become a Christian.  Thou mayest honor, praise, thank, and reward with all worldly goods him who maketh thee believe thou nevertheless art a Christian – but he deceiveth thee.  Thou mightest count thyself fortunate if thou wert not contemporary with anyone who dared to say this; thou canst become exasperated to frenzy at the torture, like the sting of the ‘gadfly,’ of being contemporary with one who says it.  In the first case thou are deceived; in the second, thou has at least heard the truth” (Kierkegaard SV 16: 71, trans. by Walter Lowrie).


[8] The primary opposition between Kierkegaard and Hegel can be conceptualized as the opposition between Ur-Christianity and cultural Christianity.  In my interpretation of Hegel, it is Christianity that draws the decisive distinction between antiquity and modern times.  It is the Holy Spirit, theologically understood, that in Hegel’s philosophical interpretation with its many cultural, historical mediations is the real force in the World Spirit, which breaks through in modernity.  If I write that it is the Holy Spirit, theologically understood, and not Christianity, that breaks through, it is to indicate that Hegel is also quite clear about the fact that, theologically, there is a distinction between the event of Christ as a religious and existential relationship and Christianity as a cultural and historical relationship.  In Hegel’s view, there would not have been any cultural Christianity, if there were not also an ur-Christianity. Hegel also notes that Ur-Christianity can be a religious, an existential and a theological determination, which must be seen together with the event of Christ, and a historical determination of early Christianity and that it is the first definition that in Hegel’s idealistic philosophy is decisive for the second.  That is, since Luther, the fundamental understanding in Protestant theology upon which Hegel builds. The question is whether the cultural mediation of Christianity ultimately stands in the way of the religious and existential relationship.  This is Kierkegaard’s view. By contrast, we have Hegel’s view that the religious and existential relationship can only be mediated through the cultural relationship in the institutions of modern society as an ethical relationship.  According to Hegel, it is the Church’s task as an institution to keep this mediation alive as a cultivation of the Spirit.  But for Kierkegaard, this mediation becomes a deception that stands in the way of the religious and existential relationship. Kierkegaard summarizes his work at the end of the 1840s in, respectively, Bladartikler, der staar i Forhold til »Forfatterskabet« [Articles Relating to My “Authorship”] (SV 18), On My Activity as a Writer (SV 18) and The Point of View for My Work as an Author (SV 18) in an attempt to mediate this message “indirectly”. It is also during this period that Kierkegaard in Bladartikler 1854-55 (SV 19) and in his periodical Øjeblikket (SV 19) abandons the indirect statement and enters into a direct personal statement as a Christian in his struggle against the Church and cultural Christianity. With a little re-writing, one can say of Kierkegaard, what Kierkegaard said about Socrates, that Kierkegaard could only maintain his radical negativity, because in the decisive and concluding phase of his life he saw himself as an Apostle of Christ.  But unlike Socrates, Kierkegaard does not hereby achieve significance as a ”world-historical individuality” in Kierkegaard’s sense, but it might have been his ambition. It is through what Kierkegaard himself calls his ”genius” (SV 18: 183), which he displays in his writings, that he achieves significance – for cultural Christianity and, in a wider sense, for the cultivation of modern society. Thus, Kierkegaard comes to confirm Hegel’s thesis in a tragic way that Ur-Christianity can only be mediated through cultural Christianity.


Philanthropy and Human Rights – The Genealogy of the Idea from Antiquity to Global Society


Philanthropy has been well known in all of the history of western society and has in long periods played an essential role. From the middle ages the church played an essential role by sustaining social security. Later, from the 18th century, the rise of capitalism led to increased poverty in the growing big cities. Again, private donors were needed to sustain social life. The classical example is in England with the growth of unsupportable workings conditions and slum habitation for the working class population. The church was still in charge of philanthropic efforts but many other private donors played an essential role as well. With the rise of welfare society in Western Europe after the Second World War, private philanthropy began to lose its essential role. The new welfare society took over many of the tasks that formerly had been managed by private donations. From the perspective of welfare state, philanthropy was regarded as something belonging to the past when well-intentioned bourgeoises wanted to show their charity to the poor.


However, the world is no longer what it was before. The power of the welfare state is declining and attitudes are changing in the entire Western world. The personal engagement to do well has become a public value. This is the case for individuals and also institutions. Therefore, in the last couple of decades, philanthropy has become a concern which is taken seriously in the Western world. Normal people give donations and volunteer on a large scale within the institutions of civil society. This is the case for business corporations as well, who now have to act with a form of personal responsibility. Such a responsibility is institutionalized in the big global CSR movement, which has now been integrated in the UN Global Compact.


At the same time, the richest people in the world are establishing foundations with the aim of doing philanthropic work, on a national and an international scale. They engage in welfare projects, democratic development and health care all over the world – especially in Africa. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Georges Soros and many others have started foundations and organizations with a size and power that can compete with even the biggest national and international welfare programs in the world. This form of philanthropy has earned the name of ‘philanthrocapitalism’ (Bishop 2008)


Philanthropy has many dimensions; these include ethical, juridical, political, economic and cultural dimensions. In the last years, a lot has been written about philanthropy from a political, sociological, anthropological and managerial perspective. However, an essential question remains: what does philanthropy mean?


In a Greek context, philanthropy is connected to a friendly act towards one’s owns close connections such as family or fellow citizens, and normally utilized to promote one’s own prestige in the city-state. In Roman context, universal humanism, humanitas, was invented. This universal perspective was also supported by Christianity. It is this universal concept of philanthropy which is the foundation for the different philanthropic traditions in Germany, England, France and USA. In each tradition is developed special features of the concept of philanthropy. The four traditions are summarized in the UN universal human rights, which has become the common normative reference for global philanthropy.


In this way philanthropy has become, in a modern sense, a charitable act with the aim to promote human happiness independent of gender, class, race, etc. This is the genealogy of the modern understanding of philanthropy, which will be developed further in the following presentation.



The Antique Tradition

The Origin of Philanthropy in Greek Tradition

The concept of philanthropy has, as with many other philosophical concepts, its origin in Greek antiquity. Philanthropy comes from the Greek word philanthropia, which is a combination of the word philein, which has to do with friendship, and anthropos, a human being. Philanthropi can literally be translated and understood as showing friendship for a human being. However, the meaning is much more differentiated. This will be made clear in the following sections.

Three things can characterize the Greek understanding of philanthropy. First, it is normally reserved for the powerful and wealthy, such as gods, kings and high ranked citizens (Laqueur 1930: 14 ff.; Constantelos 1962: 351 ff.). The second is that it does not include all people, but, on the contrary, only certain social groups such as citizens in one’s town or members of one’s language and cultural community (Ferguson 1958: 107 f.). Third, it is not imagined as something stemming from unselfishness or altruism. The antique philanthropist expects that his human friendship will bring him advantages.


In the Greek understanding, philanthropy is connected with the cultivation of the human being. Diogenes Laertius (300 AD) cites Aristippus of Cyrene (435 – 356 BC), when saying that it is better to be a beggar than an uncultivated person because the first is short of money while the other is short of humanity (anthropismos) (Laertius 1966: II, 70). According to Laertius, the human friendly action is characterizes in contrast to the barbarians first of all the Greeks. They are characterized by language, formation and culture. However, this should always be seen in the mentioned limited sense. For example, Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) mentions philanthropy, but it is always meant to be about specific friendship and not a universal equality between all human beings (Aristotle 1982: VIII, 1155 a 1 ff.; Ferguson 1958: 63 ff.).


Plutarch (45 – 125 AD) uses the word philanthropy more than any other classical author, and in many different ways. Plutarch uses the word to signify many different meanings, including politeness, grandiosity and charity. The word philanthropy is connected to the political imagination of democracy. The Athenians are seen as philanthropic by virtue of their citizen friendly democratic constitution (philanthropos politeia) (Plutarch 1968b: 8, 1), their human friendly laws (nomoi philanthropoi) (Plutarch 1968a: 1, 4) and their human friendly relation to other citizens. This arraignment is in contradiction to the oligarch and the oligarchic constitution. Democracy constitutes the foundation for a way that many people can live together in a civilized way (Plutarch 1969a: 31, 82 D ff.).


Humanitas in Roman Empire

It was Marcus Cicero (106 – 43 BC) that transferred the Greek word philanthropia to the Latin Roman world with the word humanitas, the human. Cicero mentions the term in his letter to Quintus, who was promagistrate of the Province of Asia 61 – 59 BC. Cicero writes to Quintus that if he had been sent to govern wild and barbaric tribes in Africa, Spain and Gaul he would, as a civilized man, have been bound to think of their interests (… tamen esset humanitatis tuae consulare …) and devote himself to their needs and welfare. However, Quintus and the Romans are, according to Cicero, governing the nation that itself represents humanism (ei generi hominum prasimus). In fact, it is the nation from which civilization is believed to have passed to others, and therefore Cicero thinks that the Romans should give benefits above all to those from whom the Romans have received humanism (.. sed etian a quo ad alios pervenisse putetur humanitas..) (Cicero 2002a: I, 1, 27). According to Cicero, the Romans owe a special duty to these people, which is above their common obligation to mankind. This helps to demonstrate that the Romans understood Greek humanism and the Greek culture (Cicero 2002a: I, 1, 28).


It is this form of philanthropy that Cicero brings to a Latin concept as humanism, which becomes the basic for later European humanism (Ferguson 1958: 116 f.). The essential thing in humanism is that humanitas, the human, is not bound to a limited social unity or a determined political community, etc., but is universal. According to Cicero, the Romans should also demonstrate their humanism in relation to the wild and barbarian tribes, although he himself absolutely prefers the cultivated Greeks. In our time, when we attempt to understand what is meant by philanthropy, it is best to use the word humanism, because it is a concept that is inherent in our recent culture and something we can immediately understand.


Universality in Stoicism and Christianity

It is the same concept of humanism we find in the Stoics, who claimed the natural relatedness between all human beings. For Seneca (41 BC – 65 AD) human beings are by nature united with each other (hominem homini natura conciliat) (Seneca 1967: 9, 17; Chaumartin 1984: 351 ff.).


It is similar thoughts that were formulated anew in Christianity, not least in the East Roman Church in the 5th century, when the theologians regarded philanthropy, philanthropia, and the Christian concept agape to be synonymous (Downey 1955: 199 ff.). Originally, the Greek word agape means to treat other people with respect. Agape is a central concept in the New Testament, where it means Gods love or to take care of the human beings. It is also understood as the challenge to Christians to take care of their neighbor and of all other people as if they were their neighbor (Nygren 1953: 41 ff.). Agape is different from the Greek word philos, which refers to a specific personal relation to the friend, and eros, which refers to an erotic or sexual form of relation.


In Vulgata, the Latin translation of the New Testament, agape is translated with charitas (NT 1963: 1 John 4, 12), which in English is translated to ‘charity’ (OED – charity).


There is an inner philosophical and theological relation between the determination of all humans equal dignity, right, etc. in humanism, and agape in Christianity, which is universal as well. However, the Christian concept of agape goes beyond the humanistic perspective. Christianity contains a personal challenge that should be realized as a command to take care of one’s enemies.



Agape in the Middle Ages

When the Roman Empire began to break down in the 5th century, it was, in practice, the Christian concept of love, agape, that was to carry on the humanistic concept that all human beings are of equal value, right, etc. Philanthropy incurred the same significance as agape in theology and political practice in the Byzantine Empire – the eastern part of the Roman Empire (Constantelos 1962: 351 ff.). After the break down of the Western part of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church took over as the central institution that sustained and developed theology and humanism as well. Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1275) is the great example. He developed the concept of natural right in Summa Theologica (Aquinas 1988). The Christian notion of agape was continuously developed in a form of unity between theology and philosophy in the Middle Ages, and can be considered as the culmination of Christianity.


Humanism and civil duty in Renaissance and Reformation

During the Renaissance period, the unity between philosophy and theology broke apart. Humanism gained new ground (Burckhardt 1989: 201 ff.) during the 15th century in the north of Italy and later in the 16th century in northern Europe in combination with the protestant reformations. An example can be found in the Italian Renaissance, with the increased interest in Plutarch (Pade 2007, I, 14 ff.). An example of northern European humanism is the discussion about the free will between Erasmus of Rotterdam (Erasmus 1959: 74 ff.) and Martin Luther (Luther 1962: 76 ff.) in 1524. However, this example can be used as well to show that there was still in Northern Europe a relatively close relationship between humanism, philosophy and theology – in so far as Erasmus as a leader of a humanist movement at the same time was grounded in theology, Christianity and the Catholic Church. In this period it is not possible to draw a clear distinction between humanism and Christian theology.


The result of this historical development is a very broad understanding of philanthropy and the humanism, which is on one hand based in a universal recognition of all human being’s equal value, and on the other hand stems from the Christian challenge to do the good. This broad spectrum is historically created in a pluralism of historical trends. As a method for organizing the different historical trends, I will briefly reconstruct four traditions, in which the notion of philanthropy has been developed in different ways. This is, respectively, the German, the British, the French and the American tradition. It is evident that such a structuring principle is a construction and that historically there is a close relation between these different traditions. On the other hand, this method allows one the possibility to clearly present the central themes and perspectives of the different traditions.


German Tradition: Humanism, Duty, Reasonable Love

In German context, the close relationship to and at the same time difference between the humanistic oriented philanthropy and the protestant notion of charity, agape, is transferred into German idealism. This is developed from the middle of the 18th century as a new form of humanism. On the spontaneous level, there is not a fundamental distinction between the humanistic and the Christian tradition. Human friendly love, philanthropy, is understood as identical to the Christian challenge of love. However, there are two meanings to humanism. The first is the anthropological character as a definition of the human being as such. The other refers to human love as a duty towards the other person. This is the same distinction made during the Reformation in the 16th century between humanism with a relative distance to Christianity, and on the other hand, the Christian notion of love as a challenge and a duty. Christian Thomasius (1655 – 1728) states that the distinction must be made between reasonable and unreasonable forms of love (Thomasius 1968a: 156 ff.). The reasonable form of love consists of showing charity to all people without distinction (Thomasius 1968b: 133). The unreasonable form of love is in contrast a reference to the decline of the reasonable love. It can consist of a form of love to oneself (such as regarding oneself to be better than other human beings); it can be an exhibition of unrestrained carnal desires; or it can consist of setting oneself above the community and to deposit one’s total desire and joy in earning money and to acquire what is connected herewith (Thomasius 1968b: 133). The reasonable love should consider all humans as equal, and therefore one should not force their will on another, but, on the contrary, respect others’ free will (Thomasius 1968a: 161). All virtues are considered as a consequence of reasonable love. In accordance with the classical Lutheran Protestantism, these include patience, mildness, charity, generosity, etc. (Thomasius 1968b: 139). At the same time there is a difference in comparison to classical Protestantism. This form of what could be labeled as “Protestantism of enlightenment” puts a high importance on reason and the rational argument for an action – something that was not the case for Luther.


Human love is determined as a fundamental principle in natural right in Enlightenment Protestantism. Christian Wolf (1679 – 1754) argues that love contributes to the creation of welfare for all humans in society (Wolff 1976: 545 ff.). Christian Crusius (1715 – 1775) says explicitly that human love is the highest duty in natural law (Crusius 1969: 444 ff.).


Finally, Johan Gottfried von Herder (1744 – 1803) summarizes the human and the protestant theological perspective on the notion of human love and human friendship (philanthropy). Humanity has its origin in human beings’ own sentiment, disposition and nature, while at the same time it is a fulfillment of the Christian commandment to love thy neighbor (Herder 1968: 402 ff.).


The following summarizes the unity of sentiment, reason, natural right, philosophy, theology and religion, which forms the basis for the development of the German idealism and humanism in the end of 17th and the beginning of 18th century.


Kant (1724 – 1804) and Hegel (1770 – 1831) take the two most important positions. Kant argues that that human love (philanthropy) should be understood in ethical terms as a moral duty that should be realized in practice in relation to other humans (Kant 1966b: § 25-26). Kant, thinking universally, creates a concept of humanity that encompasses all human beings. By extension, Kant, develops a notion of a universal human right. Kant has only one single human right, which is concerned with the determination of freedom. It is according to Kant the fundamental meaning of human right:

Freedom (independence from being constrained by another’s choice), insofar as it can coexist with the freedom of every other in accordance with a universal law, is the only original right belonging to every man by virtue of his humanity” (Kant 1966a: 43).


In opposition to Kant, Hegel claims that Kant’s understanding of philanthropy is too limited because it is entirely abstract, and therefore empty and not bound to anything concrete (Hegel 1969: 271). Therefore Hegel claims that philanthropy or the moral should be incorporated as a form of Ethical Life (Sittlichkeit) in the institutions of society and the state; it cannot stand alone, as he describes it in a chapter on morality in Philosophy of Right (Hegel 1955: § 129 ff.). Hegel operates with a developed concept of civil society. He had read Adam Smith’s (1723 – 1790) Wealth of Nations (Smith 1981), when he wrote his Philosophy of Right (Hegel 1955), which came out in 1821. One of Smith’s biggest merits is his creation of a social theory in which civil society formed the center of society in contrast to the state. Although Hegel had integrated Smith’s perspective in his Philosophy of Right – one of the reasons that it is so fascinating – Hegel elevates the family and civil society into the state as the real basis for these. A consequence is that although Hegel regards private philanthropic donations, almsgiving, etc., as a good and necessary “subjective help”, private philanthropy is, according to Hegel, accidental. Therefore, he regards it as necessary that the state sustains general public organizations like public poorhouses and hospitals. (Hegel 1955: § 242). However, general, public organizations would be overloaded if they were required to take care of all things. Therefore, Hegel emphasizes the right and duty of the corporation, under the supervision of the public authority, to take care of its own members and protect them against “particular contingencies:” in that sense to be a “second family” for its members (Hegel 1955: § 252). The family is the first ethical root of state, and the corporation is the second, and it is based in civil society (Hegel 1955: § 255). However, both family and civil society are limited in their scope, and therefore they must both be elevated into the state (Hegel 1955: § 256).


Hegel’s praise of the state in Philosophy of Right is a peak in the German tradition, but it should not be forgotten that this tradition goes back to the Reformation when Luther handed the Church over to the state. This is in a radical difference to the British tradition which will be considered in the following section.



British Tradition: Charity in Civil Society

In the British tradition, philanthropy should be seen in the light of liberalism and utilitarianism. It is difficult to point to a particular founder of British liberalism, but it might be obvious to point to John Locke (1632 – 1704) and his Two Treatises of Government. In the introduction to the second treatise, he mentions the famous natural right dictum that all men are born free and are equal in rights (Locke 1988: § 4). This is the basis for the constitution of society, which has the aim to preserve life, liberty and property (Locke 1988: § 123).


After Locke, it is essential to point at Adam Smith, because he is starting up as a moral philosopher, and later on he begins to work with economy. For Smith, there is a connection between these two subjects. There is a unity in his work.


Smith’s first major work is The Theory of Moral Sentiments from 1759 (Smith 1984), which is concerned with ‘the moral sentiment’ as the authority, through which we relate to other persons. We are able to have sympathy for other people and this sympathy can motivate us to do good deeds for other people. As an expression of ‘philanthropy’, Smith speaks about ‘benevolence’ and ‘beneficence’. In the British tradition, Francis Hutscheson (1684 – 1746), Joseph Butler (1692 – 1752) and David Hume (1711 – 1776) had already developed these concepts that Smith takes up in his moral philosophy (Roberts 1973: 1 ff.).


Benevolence means the sentiment that a person has who would like to do good towards another person (OED – benevolence; Smith 1984: 245 f.). Beneficence means to do the good – motivated by the sentiment of benevolence (Smith 1984: 122 ff., 239 ff.; OED – beneficence). In this way, philanthropy can be defined as a beneficent action that is motivated by a benevolent sentiment. We use this in the context of the word ‘sympathy’, which comes of the Greek word sympatein, meaning to feel or suffer with another person.


However, it is Smith’s general moral philosophical opinion that the sentiment of sympathy is insufficient to sustain a society. In the end, human beings are fundamentally selfish. Therefore, according to Smith, we need to have laws that can mediate human selfishness. This is the point of departure for Smith’s formulation of his ground-breaking economic theory in his principal work, Wealth of Nations (Smith 1981), in which he founds modern, liberal economic theory. However, it should be noticed that Wealth of Nations is not only an economic theory but also a theory of society that includes the conditions for action in society.


Civil society is in the center of Adam Smith’s societal theory. The state has only a subordinated role, which consists of taking care of the defense of civil society against enemies from outside and inside, securing the rule of law, and creating the necessary infrastructure and primary school system. This should all be kept on a minimal scale and only serve the sustainment of civil society.


Smith places self-interest at the center of his societal theory. In civil society, the essential thing is to optimize one’s own possibilities and happiness. Smith has the famous dictum that it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. Therefore, we should never talk to them out of our own ‘necessities’ but only of their ‘advantages’ in their business (Smith 1981, I, 25 f.).


According to Smith, no one except the beggar chooses to depend on others’ benevolence (Smith 1981, I, 73). But even the beggar must act rationally and strategically in the same way as all others to fulfill his immediate needs. The beggar must, according to Smith, like everybody else, make arrangements with other people, exchange basic requirements of life and do his best to attain the objects of his desires.


John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) develops Smith’s general moral theory for utilitarianism. In his main work on utilitarianism, Utilitarianism (1985a), Mill determines his philosophy in relation to Kant. Mill criticizes Kant for not formulating a first principle for the substantial content of the principle of moral duty that Kant had formulated in his Metaphysics of Ethics: “So act, that the rule on which thou actest would admit of being adopted as a law by all rational beings” (Mill 1985a: 261). Therefore, according to Mill, Kant’s ethics is formal, abstract and empty. It is interesting to remark that there are similarities between Hegel’s and Mill’s critique of Kant. They are both pointing at the same problem, but their solutions are very different. Hegel proposes that the personal morality should be elevated into the Sittlichkeit, into Ethical Life in the institutions. In contrast, Mill maintains the sovereignty of personal morality and formulates the moral principle of “utility or the greatest happiness principle”, which is explained as an action that is correct in proportion as it tends to promote happiness and wrong in proportion that it tends to produce the reverse of happiness. Mill defines happiness as intended pleasure and absence of pain (Mill 1985a: 262).


It is also this concept that Mill makes the basis for his moral theory about philanthropy or beneficence (Mill 1985a: 292). Mill distinguishes between absolute perfect moral duties, which we should always obey, and the imperfect duties, which we should evaluate ourselves. The last ones are the duties where it is up to ourselves to judge when we want to fulfill the duty and how we would like to act towards other people. According to Mill, this is the case with charity and beneficence, which are duties we have to exercise, but where we can decide ourselves when and towards whom we would like to act charitable (Mill 1985a: 292). Therefore, according to Mill, there is no one who has the right to claim our charity. It is a free moral relation; it is a virtue. This has similarities with Kant, who in his moral theory of virtues determines charity as a virtue. However, by Kant is the claim stronger than by Mill, because it is as mentioned connected with a duty to show charity (Kant 1966b: § 25-26).


The conclusion is that that both in the German Kantian tradition and in the British utilitarian tradition there is a demand to exercise philanthropy, human love and charity. The two traditions are different but they should not necessarily be seen as contradictions, which is how they are often interpreted. They can be seen as complementary as well. It is possible to move from the deontology to the utility in the sense that the act of duty should have a utility as well, or it should bring a form of happiness. As mentioned, Hegel was occupied with the same problem when he regarded the Kantian pure duty to be totally abstract and empty as regards content (Hegel 1955: § 135). The duty should according to Hegel be mediated, although in another way as by Stuart Mill. On the other hand, according to the German philosopher Otfried Höffe (b. 1943), it is not possible to move from utility ethics to deontological ethics because it is not possible to move from the relative calculation of happiness to the unconditional ethical duty (Höffe 1992: 49-51). Therefore, according to Höffe, it is only with a departure in the deontological ethics that it should be possible to reconcile the two forms of ethics.



French Tradition: Human Rights and Altruism

The French tradition is significant in the determination of philanthropy because of the French Revolution, where, for the first time, human rights received a formalized status. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen from 1789 is a preamble to the new constitution for France. In this way, human rights were declared as the fundamental principle for the legal system in the new republic.


The French declaration of human rights is inscribed in religious tradition (Scrubla 2004). In the introduction it is written that the rights of men and citizens are declared “in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being” (Morange 1988: 118). However, it is not clarified what is meant by this statement. It is a formulation that was integrated in the editing of the declaration in the last moment. The religious reference should be seen as a guarantee for the natural right argument, which was regarded as the essential basis for the declaration. As mentioned, this argument is based in the British tradition from John Locke (Locke 1988) and in the German tradition from Wolff, Herder and Kant.


In the declaration, the natural right argument is presented in the first paragraph: “Men are born free and remain free and equal in rights” (Morange 1988: 118). It is a pure natural right argument – that all men are born free. According to Kant, freedom is the only natural right (Kant 1966a: 43). Secondly it is said in § 1, that all men are equal in rights. This is in accordance with Kant’s understanding of the mutual recognition of freedom, which means that the one’s freedom can be coordinated with another’s freedom (Kant 1966a: 43). It is in this sentence in § 1, that all the philosophical basis for the French declaration can be found.


It is evident that the declaration of human rights poses a new agenda for the understanding of philanthropy as well. With the declaration, the individual is recognized as having a status as a universal human being, who can demand rights. These rights are fundamentally formulated in the declaration from 1789. Later on, they are transferred in a differentiated way to the new French civil law, Code Civile des Français, which was given by Napoleon in 1804 (Code Civile 1804). With the French Revolution, philanthropy is related to the individual as a legal person (Code Civile 1804: § 7-8), and not only to the person as a human being in theological and philosophical context. This legal usage was first introduced in France and afterward spread out into the rest of Europe through the Napoleonic wars in the first decade of the 19th century. Later, it is brought out to the rest of the world. This will be further elaborated on in the section on the United Nation’s declaration of human rights.



American Tradition: Democratic and Capitalist Philanthropy

USA is a country where most of the mentioned traditions are found together in a big melting pot. However, the American tradition also has had a definite significance in the creation of a modern understanding of philanthropy. The first emigrants were protestant dissidents from England, Holland and Germany. They brought Protestantism, especially Calvinism, with them to America in 1600. This had a big significance in the development of modern thought about philanthropy and humanism. The emigrants formed communities where they had their own religion, self-government and their own system of law (Nash & Jeffrey 2001: 55 ff.).


Formed with the constitution in 1776, the United States was one of the first modern republics and the first democratic state. The preamble to the Declaration of Independence states that: “we hold it to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (Nash & Jeffrey 2001: A-1). This formulation was inspired by John Locke’s formulation in Second Treatise of Government (Locke 1988: § 123). Locke writes that the constitution should preserve life, liberty and property. The difference is that the American declaration emphasizes the pursuit of happiness, where Locke emphasizes property. The American declaration was a determinate inspiration for the formulation of the French declaration, which thereafter had a determinate influence on all later constitutions in Europe and other countries in the world.


American democracy is especially important in the development of the philanthropic and humanistic moral theory and practice. The reason is that in the American democracy there has developed a strong and autonomous civil society which is founded in self-organization and where it becomes a democratic virtue to contribute to the sustainment of the institutions in civil society. This has in detail been documented by Tocqueville in Democracy in America (Tocqueville 2003: Part 3, 649 ff.).



Global Society: UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights in 1948

After the end of the Second World War, there began a global period where it became necessary to formulate a global normative foundation that could find acceptance among the nations of the world. As we have seen, the concept of philanthropy has a history that includes many different traditions, especially of philosophical and theological character. In 1948, all these traditions were integrated in a condensed form in the UN Declaration of Human Rights.


There is no single document more than the UN Declaration that unequivocally enforces a basis for a modern philanthropy in a global world. The first article states that: ”All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”


It is fundamentally the same formulation in the French declaration from 1789: all human beings are born free and equal in rights. The UN declaration adds “equal in dignity”, but it is not evident why this determination should be included here in the fundamental determination of the first paragraph. The following part of the paragraph concerns a moral duty to act towards one another in the spirit of brotherhood. This paragraph could be a definition of the moral duty to philanthropy, which herewith becomes a prominent place in the UN declaration.


The central difference in relation to the French declaration is that the UN declaration is a normative statement of intent for all nations, but it does not confer legal rights. This is only the case when it has been integrated in a country’s legal code. However, in relation to philanthropy, the essential is that there is a universal moral reason that justifies philanthropy.  This justification is integrated in the first paragraph of the UN universal declaration.



Philanthropy and Economy

From the perspective of the history of ideas, there has always been a close connection between philanthropy and economy, but this connection has taken many different forms throughout history. From a sociological perspective, there can, in a Max Weber sense, be a distinction between four different ideal types; namely, the Maecenas, the foundation or in German ‘die Stiftung’, philanthropic capitalism and democratic philanthropy.


The Maecenas is the ideal type, where a king or a rich man donates his fortune for certain purposes. He has the exclusive right to determine the criteria for what or to whom he will donate, mostly with the aim to promote his own social status or interest. The word Maecenas has its origin in the name of Gaius Cilnius Maecenas (68 – 8 f. v. t.) who was a wealthy Roman man that supported poetry and art. Maecenas are known in different variations throughout all history.


The foundation, or in German ‘die Stiftung’, is an autonomous institution, which is founded through a gift or a testament, for a specific purpose. The foundation is separated from the giver’s private fortune and the foundation is recognized as an autonomous private subject of law. In this way, the founder has given up the right to dispose of the fortune that he has given away to the foundation. Eventually, he can become chairman of the board of the foundation. In this function he has to act in accordance with the charter of the foundation.


The foundation or die Stiftung was invented by the church in the Middle Ages in order to create a subject of law that could be passed from generation to generation. With its many institutions, the Catholic Church can be seen as composed of foundations or Stiftungen. These Stiftungen were normally exempt from taxes or they paid only minor taxes. The foundation is bound to its regulations and cannot sell its property. Most of the activities in the Catholic Church and in other church communities, apart from the strict religious activities, can be characterized as philanthropic. However, because these church societies were so dominant in European history, they are normally not characterized as philanthropic organizations.


Later on, Die Stiftung became the model for a broader organization of institutions such as schools, universities, hospitals, social security, etc. in civil society. This emerged in the late Middle Ages, and developed drastically in the 16th century with the development of civil society and forms of capitalism. Many of these institutions have also a philanthropic perspective.


In the era of capitalism die Stiftung became a model for the foundation as an organization of enterprise that made it possible to contain the capital undivided in contrast to a split between the heirs.


However, all the enterprise can also be transmitted to a Stiftung with an instrument of foundation, and with the aim of serving the common good. In this way, the capitalist foundation can have similarities with the medieval foundation.


Especially in USA, we see a union of philanthropy and capitalism as a political goal directed at changing society. In the US it was customary from the beginning of the 20th century to establish big foundations like the Carnegie Foundation (founded in1905, the foundation promotes education), the Rockefeller foundation (founded in 1909 and promotes health care, research and education) (Fosdick 1989: 14 ff.), and finally the Ford Foundation (founded in 1936 and promotes science, education, democratic values and the fight against poverty).


Today we talk of ‘philanthrocapitalism’ as a political concept, and something that supports fundamental issues like education, health and democracy (Bishop 2008; Thorup 2012). The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which works with health at a global scale, is the biggest foundation in the world (Bishop 2008: 158).


Democratic philanthropy is the fourth form of philanthropy. It started in the US and grew out of the community foundations. These are foundations that have their roots in civil society; where many different stakeholders contribute to a foundation with the aim of meeting specific objectives. For example the creation of a health care clinic, a school, leisure facilities for children, etc.


Voluntary work should also be mentioned, as it can be regarded as the most essential and extensive form of philanthropy in a modern democratic society. In this, citizens sustain many different forms of social institutions. Voluntary work is difficult to calculate, as it is not paid work. However, it must be supposed that if voluntary work could be measured in economic terms, it would represent the largest philanthropic effort in most western societies, not least in the US (Bundesen 2001: 356 ff.; Laneth 2011: 38 ff.).



Philanthropy and Human Rights in Global Society

Philanthropy is a concept that as a long and meandering history is connected to all the cultural and social development in Europe and USA. Philanthropy is connected with the development of the fundamental values in these societies. As it should be clear from this presentation, philanthropy can be seen as a moral value, which is inherent in a broad spectrum of personal, societal and cultural values that are bound to specific forms of societal order.


Philanthropy has its origin in the Greek tradition. With the historical dominance of the Roman world, philanthropy was translated to the Latin word humanitas, which is the word mostly used today. At the same time, philanthropy has an origin in Christianity, which would later be developed to a specific North European Protestantism. It is in this tradition that philanthropy is developed to be a personal and social duty. It is in the British and American tradition that the idea of Human Rights is developed, before finally championed in the French tradition. In Kant’s and Hegel’s Northern European societal philosophy, philanthropy comes from a moral philosophical perspective formulated as Ethical Life, Sittlichkeit, in civil society and state. These different perspectives in Philanthropy are further developed in a 19th century American context where the democratic perspective and civil society become determinately significant for the understanding of philanthropy.


The European and the American traditions do not have the same perspective. However, in the many different traditions there develops an extensive common agreement in the claim that the universal should be realized in the concrete. This means that in the Western tradition the idea is developed that in the end there is only one valid criterion for societal morals and societal life – the criterion of universality. This is precisely what is theoretically formulated by Kant in his political philosophy, and is practically demonstrated in the French declaration of Human Rights. Therefore, it is hardly astonishing that it is this perspective that becomes the fundamental perspective in the formulation of the UN declaration of universal human rights in 1948. It is with a formulation in the American declaration of independence of the self-evidence that all men are created equal and that this should be the normative standard for a universal global system of values and rights.


The UN declaration is a triumph of humanism and the universal foundation of philanthropy in a global world. This is the way that the declaration is promoted. The declaration is in a paradoxical way presented as being independent of any Western tradition. One reason is of political character. It would not be acceptable for the rest of the world that the common societal ethics and normativity has its origin in Western tradition. A second argument is of philosophical character. The UN declaration consists fundamentally of some universal principles. It is exactly this universality that characterizes western philosophy and culture in opposition to other religious and cultural traditions in the world. Human rights are not self-evident in the rest of the world as they are in the West. A third argument is of religious- and cultural-sociological character. Human right can be seen as a form of western culture in confrontation with the many different concrete religious and cultural traditions and lifestyles in the rest of the world. The concrete life has a complexity, richness and inertness with a rationality which is totally different compared to abstract principles.


Although these arguments seems to be striking, it is interesting to see that these arguments already are inherent in Hegel’s critique of Kant as they are the arguments from many theologians and religions in the world. Human rights can therefore be seen as a form of idealism. The same is the case for philanthropy and therefore, they can both be criticized. However, there are no critics who are able to present a possible alternative. This is in the end the pragmatic argument for the human rights: There is not a better alternative.


It is remarkable to observe that this is Kant’s perspective as well. Kant has not only an idealistic perspective, but he has a realistic and pragmatic perspective as well. In his essay On the common saying: this may be true in theory but it does not apply in practice (Kant 1964a), Kant emphasises that it is not the traditional community or any other community that forces people to create a common human right. On the contrary, it is, according to Kant, violation, strife and violence between people that forces them to create public laws and national civil constitutions. In the same way, it is the state of war that coerces people to unite, if not in support of a constitution for world citizens, than at least in a form of federation or international law (Kant 1964a: 111).


The UN declaration of the universal human rights can be seen as a preamble to international law in the same way as the French human rights are a preamble to the Napoleonic Code  According to Kant, it is realism that drives the universal norm formation; it is not only the learned idealism. Kant’s conclusion is in On the common saying: “Here then is a clear proof that everything in moral philosophy that is correct for theory must also hold for practice” (Kant 1964a: 113). According to Kant, theory and practice can go together, but with an idealistic and a realistic justification.


In our age, philanthropy as theory and practice should be seen in the same perspective. Philanthropy is carried by idealism, but it is at the same time carried by the necessity and coercion of realism. This is the case in the local, the national and the global context. There are people in the world that, with an idealistic motive, will do the good; but perhaps the same people consider that it is necessary and useful for them as well. There are two different perspectives but they can be united in praxis. This is the practical moral ground for philanthropy in a modern global world.


In conclusion, philanthropy is a social praxis that in our time is carried out by universal norms. Philanthropy is exercised locally, nationally and globally and it can have many practical expressions – from concrete projects in the community to a global economic effort. Philanthropic projects are different, but they can all be understood in relation to the universal normative standard, formulated in human rights, which has become the normative standard of our time.



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Thorup, Mikkel (2012), ’Pro Bono? – om filantrokapitalisme’, in: Raffnsøe-Møller, Morten; Thorup, Mikkel; Larsen, Thomas Vinter; Hansen, Ejvind (2012), Kapitalismens ansigter, Århus, Forlaget Philosophia.

Tocqueville, Alexis (2003), Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition of De la démocratie en Amérique, ed. Isaac Kramnick, translated from the French by Gerald E. Bevain, London, Penguin Books.

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Praxis, Sittlichkeit and Communicative Action. On the connection between praxis, Sittlichkeit and communicative action in Aristotle, Hegel, Habermas and Honneth

The concept of praxis is one of the most fundamental concepts in the history of political philosophy from classical antiquity to our time and it is still used as a fundamental concept in contemporary political philosophy. Politics is fundamentally concerned with praxis. The most famous example may be Marx’s statement in the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, that the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, but the point is to change it (Marx 1968: 341). However, in Marx’s theses on Feurbach and in the later use of the concept of praxis in political philosophy, the close relation between praxis and polis, which was grounded in Aristotle’s political philosophy, is ignored. This close relation was dissolved with the breakdown of the autonomy of the Greek city states around the end of the 4th century BCE. Following this event, the concept of praxis is not used in political philosophy in the same way for a very long time. We have to move forward to Hegel to find a new corresponding political philosophical concept in the history of ideas. Hegel uses his concept of Sittlichkeit as corresponding to the ancient concept of praxis.


The German word Sittlichkeit has no immediate correspondent in English. Sittlichkeit has the same connotation as the Greek word ????, ?thos, but Sittlichkeit has in addition a strong subjective dimension or maybe first of all a subjective dimension. This is the reason why it normally can be translated with the English term ‘Ethical Life’. However, this translation has also the deficit that it is bound to the philosophical concept of ethics, whereas Sittlichkeit, according to Hegel, is bound to general society as well. A possible translation could also be ‘decent life’, ‘social ethics’, ‘societal ethics’ or simply ‘normativity’, but in the following paragraphs the term Sittlichkeit will be used as such.


Hegel’s concept of Sittlichkeit has been central in later political philosophy, but at the same time it has become a difficult concept because Sittlichkeit is no longer understood in the same spontaneous way as it was understood in early 19th century Germany. Therefore it is necessary to complement Sittlichkeit with a new interpretation of the concept of praxis. 


I would like to illuminate this problem by considering Habermas’ and Honneth’s discussion of the concepts of praxis and Sittlichkeit. Both of them take their point of departure in the young Hegel’s essay to formulate a concept of Sittlichkeit, but they reach very different conclusions. Honneth sees, following the young Hegel, that the concept of praxis cannot stand alone, but he is not able to create a new mediation between praxis and Sittlichkeit. The two concepts stand separated by Honneth. Habermas takes his point of departure from the young Hegel as well, but succeeds in reconstructing a concept corresponding to Aristotle’s antique concept of praxis through a new concept of communicative action. Habermas is able to unfold this new concept of praxis with the same complexity and differentiation as was the case for Hegel’s concept of Sittlichkeit. Yet, opposite to Hegel, Habermas’s new concept of praxis calls attention to democracy as the ground for modern Sittlichkeit.



Aristotle’s practical philosophy

The word ‘praxis’ has its origin in the ancient Greek language: ??????, (praxis) refers to performing an action, such as a passing a way, traversing a distance, causing or bringing about an operation. When a project has been fulfilled, it is called ‘well done’, ?? ???????? (eu prattein). It is from this point that Socrates, among others, takes the step to the moral evaluation of life as praxis. According to Xenophon, Socrates speaks about eu prattein as a learning process with reference to realizing the good, eu, and herewith the good life, eudaimonia (Xenophon 1979: I, VI ff.). Herewith has the moral and political significance of the concept of praxis been thematized.


The word ‘praxis’ was later on taken over in classical Latin as a Greek word denoting an act, a deed. It is through Latin and French that the word practizare has been imported into English as the verb ‘to practice’ and the noun ‘practisant’, referring mostly to an instrumental act such as exercising a profession, for example practizare in medicina, to practice medicine (OED: practice). Practice can be used in relation to political, moral, and religious values as well.


There is not a substantial difference between ‘practice’ and ‘praxis’. In English the Greek-rooted ‘praxis’ could even be regarded as subordinated to the Latin-rooted ‘practice’ and the two words can be used as synonymous. However, inspired by the 1960s translation into English of Marx’s early writings (i.e. prior to 1849), ‘praxis’ became a concept to emphasize the moral and political dimension in practice and that is the reason why this concept is used in this paper. Still, it would not change much to use the broader word ‘practice’ (OED: practice; OED: practise, OED: praxis).


In Plato we do not find a systematic development of the concept of praxis. The explanation is that Plato emphasizes reason, logos, and insight, gnosis, as the essential, in opposition to praxis, which is not regarded to have any value in itself. For example, Plato’s Republic (Plato 199; 1965) makes it clear that the fundamental political problem is how the class of leaders of the state can attain the right insight. Correspondingly, the two other classes, the guardians and the craftsmen, are described as practicing in a condition of intellectual blindness. From this perspective, it would simply be without any interest to develop a philosophy of praxis in the political sense. Plato’s concern is first of all insight; praxis is secondary.


Aristotle turns this perspective around. It is Aristotle that systematically develops a concept of praxis as a central concept in his philosophy. Upon the background of Aristotle’s philosophy it is possible to establish a diaeretic schema for praxis that includes the praxis of Gods, plants, animals and human beings, such that they have all their specific form of praxis. According to Aristotle, the concept of praxis becomes one of the grounding concepts for the determination of the human being. It implies both theoretical praxis, the?ria, and practical praxis that can be devised in praxis, concerned with ethical and political action as an aim in itself, and poi?sis, a technical-instrumental action concerned with an external telos or aim.


In the first sentence of The Nicomachean Ethics it is said that praxis strives for a good, although Aristotle makes it clear that praxis cannot be bound to an external absolute idea (Aristotle 1982: I, vi, 13) and therefore should be bound to itself (Aristotle 1982: I, i, 1 ff.). Practical philosophy becomes herewith a separate part of philosophy where the task is to determine praxis as good both in the ethics in relation to the individual person and in the political philosophy in relation to the political community (koin?nia politik?) in the state (polis) (Aristotle 1977:1253a)


For Aristotle there should be an inner connection between the ethical perspective of the single person’s praxis and the political perspective of the person’s praxis in the political community in the polis. The single person cannot govern himself alone by his own reason. It is necessary for him to act upon a higher explicit reason, embedded in the law, and grounded in both phronesis (phron?sis) and reason (nous) (Aristotle 1982: X, ix, 12). In Aristotle’s Politics it is even said that the polis is the ground for the single house (oikos) and the single person (Aristotle 1977: 1253a19 ff.). Praxis as ?thos, ???? can therefore only be realized in the polis. For Aristotle this is a prerequisite and therefore it is also said in the end of the Nicomachean Ethics, as a form of introduction to the Politics, that the polis is prior to the household (oikos) and the single person (ekastos h?m?n) (Aristotle 1977: 1253a19). This unity in the concept of praxis between ?thos and polis is, for Aristotle, self-evident, and this is the reason why he does not invent a special concept like Sittlichkeit to express the inner relation between ethics and the political community in the polis that beforehand and in itself represents ?thos and herewith Sittlichkeit. Praxis is for Aristotle the same as to practice in accordance with ?thos in the polis, the city-state.



The historical dissolution of the relation between praxis, ?thos and polis

From the perspective of the history of ideas, the close relation between praxis, ?thos and polis is dissolved with the breakdown of the autonomy of the Greek city-states in the end of 4th century.


In the Hellenistic and Roman civilisations of the Mediterranean world this relation disappears. The concept of praxis becomes reduced to a concept about personal ethics that only concerns the individual person’s conduct in life, without this being necessarily related to a larger societal context (e.g. the Stoic philosophy of life). The Greek concept of polis acquires a new meaning as well with its translation into Latin. Seneca translates Aristotle’s passage in Politics about the human being as a political being, a z?on politikon (Aristotle 1977: 1253a3), into animalis socialis, a societal animal which implicates that polis is substituted by societas, society, and common ethics (?thos) with individual morals (moralis) (Arendt 1958: 23).


The same is the case in the early Christian theology as can be seen by Augustine, who created a political philosophy in The City of God in which it is a central point that the inner relation between common ethics and society, moralis et societas, understood as the Roman state, has been broken (Augustine 1998). According to Augustine, the common ethics, moralis, has its ground in God’s state and not in the earthly state.


This problematic is taken up anew by Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages in his Summa Theologica (St. Thomas 1988) with his introduction of Aristotle’s political philosophy to Christian theology. Thomas Aquinas tries to revive Aristotle’s praxis concept as a unity of ethics (moralis) and society (societas). However, Aquinas’s praxis concept is in the end hold up by a theological metaphysical concept of God and the divine world order. This theological metaphysical construction could not stand against the increasing individualization and secularization of the European society from the Renaissance through the Reformation, where the political and the economic changes posit a totally new agenda and where individualization becomes the new ground for the constitution of the new liberal political philosophy of Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Adam Smith and Kant.



Hegel – Praxis as Sittlichkeit

It is upon this background that Hegel takes Aristotle’s problem about the connection between ?thos and polis up to discussion, not least in his Philosophy of Right (Hegel 1955). Hegel’s Philosophy of Right is one of the most interesting political philosophical treatises about modern society. It presents in the most concentrated form the unity of all the many contradictions of modern society as one expression and concept that, according to Hegel, is the state, ‘der Staat’.


Hegel’s Philosophy of Right is a combination of Plato’s Republic (Plato 1999; 1956) and Aristotle’s Politics (Aristotle 1977). It comprises both a strong Platonic idealism and a form of Aristotelian pragmatic phenomenology. According to Hegel, from a philosophical perspective all contradictions are elevated (aufgehoben) into the unity of state. The state is from a philosophical perspective the precondition for the dynamic development of the contradictions in the institutions of civil society and herewith the upholding of society in a certain balance – at the same time as this development from a genealogical perspective leads socially to the concrete historically existing state (Hegel 1955: §256). This is similar to what we are reading in Aristotle’s Politics when he writes that the city-state (polis) is by nature (physis) before the house (oikos) and any individuality (ekastos h?m?n) (Aristotle 1977: 1253a19).


Hegel summarizes the essential in modern political philosophy, Hobbes, Adam Smith, Rousseau and Kant, and gives them their full place at the same time as they become subordinated to his own political philosophical perspective. 


Behind it all, we find Hegel’s attempt to present a new modern edition of Plato’s Republic. Hegel’s  introduction to the Philosophy of Right is first of all Platonist. As it is explained in the introduction, due to his idealism, Plato has on the one hand presented the Greek ?thos, the Greek Sittlichkeit, as an empty ideal of the Greek nature of ethics (Hegel 1955: 14). On the other hand, according to Hegel, Plato was aware of the fact that his own time was penetrated of a new deeper principle, which Hegel calls ”die freie unendliche Persönlichkeit”, i.e. the free boundless personality, that later on should be brought into history by Christianity, as Hegel has described it in many places (Hegel 1955: 14). It is in connection with this presentation in the introduction that Hegel writes his maybe most discussed and maybe most conservative political philosophical statement as well:


Was vernünftig ist, das ist wirklich;

und was wirklich ist, das ist vernünftig“ (Hegel 1955:14).


This passage could be translated as follows:

“What is reasonable is what real exists,

And what real exists is what is reasonable”


The statement is very conservative because it seems, on the spontaneous level, to identify what is factually given in a society, the facticity, with what is reasonable or maybe even rational. However, if one does only see the conservative political philosophical statement, although this is also the case, one misses the determinate point in Hegel’s presentation that is the idea. The rational is synonymous with the idea (Hegel 1955: 14). The essential point is that Hegel wishes to present the idea in the modern state in a Platonic sense; he wishes to present as well the reason in the modern state, which in an Aristotelian sense contains and mediates the free boundless personality, the family, the institutions of civil society, the concrete state with its different forms of institutions, etc. This is the essential grip of Hegel’s Philosophy of RightIn a paradoxical way, we have to do with an idealistic and at the same time pragmatic form of phenomenology such as it has been described shortly by Hegel himself in the introduction to the Philosophy of Right, where he writes that the essential concern is in the temporal and passing to realize the substantial and immanent (Hegel 1955: 14 – 15).


What Hegel wants to do is to establish a “Staatswissenschaft” or a combination of political philosophy and political science. Herewith Hegel means to understand and describe the state as both reasonable and  ideal (Hegel 1955: 15). In contrast, Hegel abstains from saying anything about how the state ought to be, or how it could be. Hegel’s concern is not to instruct the state but on the contrary to realize ”das Sittliche Universum”, the ethical universe that the state is (Hegel 1955: 16).


It is evident that this project resembles Aristotle’s project. However, for Hegel, it is essential that Christianity stands as the determinate historical event between antiquity and modern times, in the sense that it is with Christianity that the subjective freedom or the free boundless personality comes into history. This is followed up by the individualization, secularization and historical change that have been thematized above.


The consequence is that all the ‘Staatslehre’, all the theory of the state, should be turned around in comparison with the way in which it is presented by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics and Politics. Both treatises open by saying that all is striving towards a good and in Politics it is subsequently said that the highest aim (telos) for the political community is polis, the city-state. Opposite to this is Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, introduced by a determination of the individuality and the free will (Hegel 1955: § 4). Whereas the city-state for Aristotle represents fundamentally the Sittlichkeit, the task for Hegel is to construct and reconstruct the ?thos in the state with a departure in the free will of the individual.


Aristotle can immediately transfer his ethics to the city-state because the city-state is constituted fundamentally after the same model, namely a striving towards the good. In contrast, the situation is totally different for Hegel, because he cannot transfer his original Kantian ethics without mediation to the state. Hegel’s theory is a praxis-oriented conflict theory where the fundamental problem is to describe how the subjective freedom, the free boundless personality, can find itself as a mediated relation at a certain historical moment to a historically determined state. As Hegel states:


“To comprehend what is is the task of philosophy, for what is is reason. As far as the individual is concerned, each individual is in any case a child of his time; thus philosophy, too, is its own time comprehended in thought (Hegel 1955: 16; Hegel 1991: 21).


Hegel’s Philosophy of Right is fascinating because Hegel accomplishes this project about the modern state as a concept about ‘praxis as Sittlichkeit’ in civil society within the state. Hegel’s Philosophy of Right is a new interpretation of the unity between the idealism in Plato’s Republic and the pragmatism in Aristotle’s Politics


Hegel sets with his concept of ‘praxis as Sittlichkeit’ a new agenda for ethics and political philosophy that extends to our time. It is also in Hegel’s spirit (Hegel 1955: 13 – 14) to ask anew whether society has been changed in such a way that his concept of ‘praxis as Sittlichkeit’ has become irrelevant or whether it is still relevant but should be modified and, if so, to what extent.



Honneth – From praxis as a struggle for recognition to post-traditional Sittlichkeit

One of the latest major interpretations of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right is offered in Axel Honneth’s Recht der Freiheit (Honneth 2011). Honneth’s treatise can be seen as an essay developing a new edition of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right for our time, where the concepts of praxis and Sittlichkeit are very central. Therefore it can be interesting to look at how Honneth solves the thematized relation between praxis and Sittlichkeit.


In the introduction, entitled ‘the theory of justice as societal analysis’, Honneth tackles also the afore-mentioned question about the relevance of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. On the one hand, Honneth emphasizes Hegel’s project about presenting the reasonable in the institutions of his time and to call attention to the fact that Sittlichkeit was already realized in the central institutions of society (Honneth 2011: 16 – 17). On the other hand, Honneth emphasizes that it is not only society, but also the philosophical way of arguing that has changed significantly since Hegel’s time. The normative stability that was found at Hegel’s time has changed towards a greater reflexivity and henceforth greater uncertainty about applicable norms (Honneth: 2011: 17). In addition, the experience of the Holocaust has, according to Honneth, dampened the imagination that there should be a continuous development of reason in society.


It is difficult to see the validity of the latter argument by Honneth. After the major upheaval of the French Revolution and the ensuing Napoleonic wars, it is difficult to see that the normative standards would have appeared more stable at Hegel’s time. The Holocaust may seem to be a trump card, but it might have been used too much. vHowever, Honneth uses this argument as a point of departure for his critique of the fundamental idealistic principle of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right when he writes:


“For us, the children of a materialistic enlightened age, Hegel’s idealistic monism as a precondition for the spirit is not really imaginable. Therefore Hegel’s idea of an objective spirit realized in the social institutions must be grounded in another way” (Honneth 2012: 17).


It is in this formulation that we should find the turning point in Honneth’s presentation of his project in relation to Hegel’s Philosophy of RightIt is not difficult to understand that Honneth could wish to reject Hegel’s central perspective, which he calls “idealistic monism”, and Hegel’s idea about the objective spirit realizing itself in the institutions. Idealistic monism and objective spirit are totally strange concepts for our time. However, the problem is that the interesting thing about the Philosophy of Right is exactly that Hegel, by means of this strange philosophical grip, is able to give a concentrated presentation of modern society that has not its equal in the history of philosophy.


It can be questioned as well whether Honneth escapes from Hegel’s idealism when he introduces the idea of freedom (die Idee der Freiheit) as ground for his theory of justice (Honneth 2011: 18), immediately after having rejected Hegel’s metaphysical ground. It is not so easy to be post metaphysical! 


In our time, we are maybe not able to give a presentation like Hegel’s, but the challenge in Hegel’s presentation is his “idealistic monism”, supported by his idea of “the objective spirit”. In so far as we find Hegel’s monistic one-sided and extreme concentrated presentation interesting, at the same time as we are not able to sustain his metaphysical perspective or simply his idealistic perspective, we are still intellectually challenged to try to find a an acceptable interpretation for our time that, from a philosophical perspective, can compete with Hegel’s presentation. The question is therefore whether it is possible to formulate one sustainable principle for our time that can match Hegel’s metaphysics. 


For Honneth, that is not possible. Honneth’s philosophical interpretation of Hegel declines to a form of sociological oriented societal analysis, i.e. ”Gesellschaftsanalyse” (Honneth 2011: 31), which can be interesting and informative, but lacks the philosophical grip, the philosophical concept’s one-sidedness, that can turn all the perspectives around, and herewith form the ground for the formulation of new concepts of praxis and Sittlichkeit that can be relevant for our time.


Honneth has a concept of praxis as a ‘struggle for recognition’ that he retrieves from the young Hegel and that he develops in his treatise Kampf um Anerkennung (Honneth 1992). The struggle for recognition is a differentiated concept of action that includes love, rights and solidarity (Honneth 1992: 148 ff.) and that has its counterpoint in violence (Vergewaltigung), loss of rights (Entrechtung) and disrespect (Missachtung) (Honneth 212 ff.). Honneth realizes in the end of Kampf um Anerkennung that it is necessary to offer a mediation of a concept of Sittlichkeit that he can thematize formally and shortly (Honneth 1992: 274 ff.). However, in Kampf um Anerkennung, Honneth presents only a formal concept of Sittlichkeit without any substantial or institutional differentiated content. It is this project that Honneth takes up in Das Recht der Freiheit, in which he formulates four premises for his development of a concept of Sittlichkeit.


The first premise is that every society is bound to a common orientation that is grounded in ideals and values. There is therefore always, according to Honneth, a common legitimization problem with respect to justifying values in every society (Honneth 2011: 18). 

The second premise is that justice is not an independent objective standard. It must, according to Honneth, be determined by historical and social standards of value that are indispensable for the reproduction of social values. Honneth speaks in this context about a reconstruction of values and about the necessity to focus on values that are indispensable for the reproduction of a society (Honneth 2011: 20).

The third premise is concerned with the method for such a normative reconstruction. To this end, according to Honneth, Hegel’s concept of Sittlichkeit and Aristotle’s notion of praxis should be recovered as an intersubjective habitual practice and not as predetermined convictions (Honneth 2011: 24).

Finally, there is the fourth premise, namely that it should be possible to criticize values in society mediated through a concept of Sittlichkeit (Honneth 2011: 28). Honneth, for the sake of example, mentions Hegel’s concept of corporations as a platform for critique of the labor market (Hegel 1955: § 250 – § 256).


Honneth’s final conclusion is that such a theory about justice understood as an analysis of society, or Gesellschaftsanalyse, is totally dependent upon the way in which a critical interpretation of social norms in the institutions is done. Such a critical interpretation should make it possible to reconstruct a concept of praxis as a form of “post-traditional Sittlichkeit” (Honneth 2011: 31). 


Honneth’s treatise is formally built up like Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: it comprises parts A, B and C, where part C, like Hegel’s own, produces a great analysis of praxis or Sittlichkeit in the institutions (Honneth 2011: 219 ff.). Hegel’s own presentation in part C is a systematic and dialectic presentation of the dynamic and contradictory constitution of the modern state and civil society. Family and the institutions in civil society form, according to Hegel, a special unity in the state, which is presented both from an actor perspective and a social systemic perspective. In contrast, in Honneth’s work we do not find such a developed unity in the state. Honneth is giving a side-ordered action-oriented presentation of three themes concerning social freedom, namely: personal practice in relation to friendship and family; business practice; and finally political practice with democratic will formation, public sphere, and democratic society based on the rule of law and political culture.


Compared to Hegel, Honneth has an extreme concept of praxis, in so far as all sociality is seen as one-sided, i.e. from an actor perspective. Honneth has no form of social systemic perspective. There is even no economic system, for the economy is only seen under the sociological actor perspective (Honneth 2011: 317 ff.).


Honneth is not able to transform his concept of praxis into a concept of Sittlichkeit. Aristotle’s concept of praxis and Hegel’s concept of ‘praxis as Sittlichkeit’, although in different manners, are essentially related through a series of mediations to polis and state. The consequence of Honneth’s sociologically oriented philosophical perspective is that Honneth has no concept about the state. It is not thematized in a philosophical sense, but only factually, in a sociological and social historic sense. The consequence is that Honneth is not able to thematize  in a philosophical sense ‘praxis as Sittlichkeit’. The paradox here is that Honneth, with his extreme one-sided concept of action, is not able to transform this concept of praxis into a concept of Sittlichkeit. To conclude, Honneth lacks the unifying idea or another form of unifying transmission principle that can mediate the transition from praxis to Sittlichkeit.



Habermas – Praxis as communicative action

It is such a transmission principle that Habermas is able to construct in his theory of communicative action (Habermas 1981). Habermas develops the general cultural historical and cultural political ground for this theory in his cultural-philosophical treatise about the creation and decline of the public sphere, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Habermas 1962). Habermas develops the more specific philosophical perspective with an initial reference to Hegel’s Jena lectures about the phenomenology of the spirit, 1803-1806 (Habermas 1968: 9). Hegel’s lectures are connected to his fragmentarily developed 1802 System of Sittlichkeit (Hegel 1923b) that, according to Habermas, is influenced by the political economy of the time and is normally seen as a preliminary study to Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit (Hegel 1952), not least in the Marxist tradition (Lukács 1968: 398 ff.).


According to Habermas, Hegel is concerned with a special type of formation (Bildung) of the spirit that later on disappears in his Phenomenology of the Spirit. The spirit’s absolute reflection of itself, subordinated in relation to language, work and Sittlichkeit, is not regarded as essential. On the contrary, according to Habermas, Hegel’s perspective is here that it is the dialectical relation between linguistic symbolization, work and interaction that constitutes the concept of the spirit (Habermas 1968: 10). Thus, it is the three dialectical patterns, linguistic symbolization, work and interaction, which together constitute and penetrate the spirit in its specific forms for the existing consciousness.


With this hermeneutical maneuver Habermas succeeds, following the young Hegel’s Jena lectures, to ground a new concept of praxis that can match Aristotle’s concept of praxis as an all-encompassing concept of action. This concept of praxis is differentiated, like the one by Aristotle, between, on the one hand, interpersonal and social communication and praxis (logos and praxis), and, on the other hand, a teleological doing and technical instrumental action (poi?sis and techn?).


Habermas grounds here his concept of praxis as communicative action, which he develops later in different fields such as ethics, politics, philosophy of law and critical theory. For Habermas it is a central perspective to focus on praxis as Sittlichkeit mediated through communicative action in the institutions of society under a democratic government. Under this perspective, Habermas could be called the philosopher of democracy.


According to Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, the state precedes the family and civil society from a philosophical perspective, whilst the state follows after the family and civil society from a genealogical perspective, and it should finally have a hereditary monarchy that could be able to secure the decisive monological procedures of decision (Hegel 1955: § 281). In contrast, according to Habermas, the state should have a democratic government that not only shall ensure dialogical procedures of decision in the state, but also shall ensure praxis as dialogue and communication as the fundamental relation in the family and institutions of civil society.




In conclusion it can be said that Aristotle grounds a concept of praxis that becomes one of the fundamental concepts in the history of modern political philosophy. Hegel leads this concept further with his concept of praxis as Sittlichkeit. Honneth and Habermas are both grounded in the young Hegel’s writings when they try to extrapolate what is essential in Hegel’s concept of praxis and generate a new concept, which may be valid for our time. Honneth is standing by Hegel’s concept of recognition, which he is subsequently forced to leave many years later when rediscovering Hegel’s concept of Sittlichkeit. However, Honneth fails to reconcile praxis and Sittlichkeit. In contrast, Habermas sets language in a hermeneutic maneuver as a substitute for Hegel’s concept of spirit. With this new, effectively metaphysical concept, he is able to formulate a practical philosophy in which both praxis and Sittlichkeit are summarized in communicative action. Habermas’s practical philosophy follows Hegel’s and extends its roots into the history of ideas, back to Aristotle’s foundation of the concept of praxis and, in a broader sense, to the antique democracy of Athens.



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Xenophon (1979), Memorabilia, i: Xenophon in Seven Volumes IV, Memorabilia and Oeconomicus, Symposium and Apology, The Loeb Classical Library 168, Cambridge Massachusetts and London, Harvard University Press.



From Pericles to Plato – from democratic political praxis to totalitarian political philosophy


  1. From democratic praxis to totalitarian political philosophy

It is my thesis that political philosophy has its historical origin in democratic praxis and government in the democratic city-state Athens and that it is taken over by sceptics and anti-democratic critics like Plato. The consequence is a break between democratic praxis and antidemocratic political philosophy that has lasted until our day where the global dominance of democracy is taken to force a reconsideration of the inner relation between democracy and political philosophy (Roberts 1994: 6 ff.; Castoriadis 1997: 227).

In the following I want to consider this thesis. I will first consider Plato’s political philosophy as it has been formulated in his Republic from around 380 and second I will consider Pericles’ funeral oration from 430 as an example of the existence of a democratic political philosophical alternative that was grounded in the democratic praxis of Athens.

  1. The origin of political philosophy in the democratic city-state Athens

Democracy is a form of government that was invented and developed in the Greek city states, first and foremost in Athens. Democracy is first named around 472 in Aeschylus’ The Suppliants (Aeschylus 1970: 102, line 604). The word ‘democracy’ consists etymologically of the word demos, which means the broad population or the people, and kratos, which means power (Aeschylus 1980: 490 – 492; Ehrenberg 1965: 266, 270 – 272). The two words together form the word democracy, which can be translated as the exercise of power in the polis, the city, by the people (Larsen 1990: 15 ff.).

It is significant from a historical perspective that democratic governments have many different forms from antiquity to our times and the historian therefore has a tendency to emphasize these differences instead of the similarities (Vidal-Naquet 1990: 121 ff.; Hansen 2005: 41 ff.; Hansen 2010: 15 ff.).

From another perspective, the different forms of democratic government all share a concern about what should be understood by democracy and whether the given form of government is a real democracy. This discussion raises the question of the validity or the legitimacy of the concrete instantiation of democratic government. This perspective or discussion was conceptualized as philosophy or more specific political philosophy. It is in the Greek democratic city-state that political philosophy has its origin and became determinant for how we discuss modern democracy as well.

From a historical perspective, political philosophy can at best be regarded as a form of ideology (Hansen 2005: 46 ff.; Hansen 2010: 39) because the historian does not accept a political philosophical concept of truth, whatever it might consist in. The historian thus has a tendency to bypass the fact that democracy can only persist by being permanently determined as valid or legitimate. Political philosophy has a definite practical significance in its function of raising the discussion about what ought to be regarded as the right, or, at least from a pragmatic perspective, the best, government and what could be the basis of such a government. This discussion was already raised in the democratic city-state Athens and it continues to our day.

  1. Plato’s political philosophy and the contempt for democracy in the political philosophical tradition

Plato is regarded as one of the founders of political philosophy and many will even say that he is the real founder in so far as Plato’s work is so monumental and forms a beginning where even Aristotle is a scholar of Plato. It is not at least Plato’s Republic that has had a definitive significance as one of the fundamental works in the political philosophical tradition.

Plato’s Republic has been read in many ways but one common distinctive feature in the many readings is that Plato regards philosophy as a special way of thinking that is connected with a special insight that the political leader in the aristocratic republic should have. It is only by this insight that the leader is able to lead in a way that is superior to the leadership that is dominated by desire, which was the case in timocracy, oligarchy, democracy and tyranny – the forms of government that Plato brings on concept, describes and criticizes in the Republic (Plato 1970: 545c ff.).

In this perspective, philosophy is elevated over the concrete political fight in the city-state. Philosophy has a special insight which can classify different forms of politics and government in a hierarchical organized history of decline where democracy is surpassed only by tyranny as the worst form of government (Plato 1970: 564a).

This understanding of democracy has not been seriously problematised in the later history of philosophy until recent time. Certainly, Aristotle has formulated a different schema where he poses a contrast between three good forms of government and three bad forms of government: kingdom versus tyranny, aristocracy versus oligarchy, republic (politeia) versus democracy (Aristotle 1977: 1279b 6 ff.). Aristotle regarded also democracy as a deviation or a form of decline.

When we are looking at the later history of philosophy, we find only very few who are emphasizing democratic government like Locke, Rousseau, Madison and Jefferson. But many others like Hobbes, Kant and Hegel did not prefer the democratic form of government. Here one might also mention Karl Marx; although he was one of the significant theorists and leaders in the socialist movement, he did not emphasize democracy. In so far as society was a class society, he could not believe that democracy had an essential role to play.

John Stuart Mill is one of the first who in Considerations on Representative Government from 1861 emphasizes representative democracy as the best form of government for big modern states, where it is not possible to meet in a popular assembly as in the ancient democratic city-states (Mill 1991: 55 – 80). For Mill, the difference between direct and representative democracy is a merely practical matter and has no principled significance (Mill 1991: 80).

It is first in the beginning of the 20th century that political philosophers and sociologist more generally begin to emphasize a form of government with certain advantages (Durkheim, Weber, Schumpeter) or even as a good form of government (Dewey), and it is first after the Second World War that we find serious discussions dominated by the perspective of democracy as the best form of government (Popper, Rawls, Habermas and many others). This corresponds to Mogens Herman Hansen’s periodisation when he emphasizes that democracy first became a positive concept after 1850 and finally became the dominant positive concept of government in the 20th century (Hansen 2005: 47).

  1. Democracy as the new hermeneutical perspective

Just after the Second World War, Karl Popper was one of the first who pointed at this in The Open Society and its Enemies where he claims that the fundamental problem in western political philosophy is that the totalitarian way of thinking has had primacy over the idea of the open democratic society (Popper 1962 a; 1962 b). From this perspective, Plato derailed the political philosophical discussion that was taking place in the democratic city-state of Athens, an event of great significance for the development of the main topics in the political philosophical tradition.

This derailment raises the question what we in modern democratic society should understand by political philosophy and especially how we should understand Plato’s Republic, which is where political philosophy, first off all, is grounded.

One possibility could be in a banal way to pass over Plato and maybe even a large part of the political philosophical tradition. This is also what is partly done in political science, where political philosophy does not play any significant role for empirical research in so far as facts are taken to be more relevant than broader hermeneutical justifications. However, there can be good reasons to hold on to political philosophy because political life in a democratic society constantly raises value-oriented political-philosophical problems that ought to be taken up as a challenge for empirical political science. Here it becomes evident that political philosophy has its origin in the democratic city-state and especially Athens and that we in a conceptual, theoretical and substantial sense are totally dependent on the formation and discussion of political-philosophical concepts in the schools of ancient Athens (Ober 1994: 154 ff.). From a democratic perspective, there are so many similarities that it is possible to speak about a unity between the ancient Greek and the modern political-philosophical discussion (Kagan 1990: 5 ff.; Ober 1994: 171; Ober & Hedrick 1996: 3 ff.; Wallace 1996: 105 ff.).

The consequence is that we have to find a strategy that gives us the possibility of maintaining democracy as our hermeneutical perspective which can be applied in the interpretation of Plato’s Republic as well.

This should not be understood to say that Plato’s critique of democracy should not be essential. On the contrary, Plato’s critique of democracy suggests fundamental and unavoidable political-philosophical problems in the democratic form of governance, and these should be discussed. The problem in Plato’s critique is that democracy as mentioned is situated in a totalitarian perspective of declining forms of government, where aristocracy, timocracy and oligarchy are regarded as better forms of government than democracy. We must not forget that timocracy translated to modern language is a form of totalitarian military dictatorship and oligarchy a government of the few wealthy people. From a democratic perspective, such forms of government were as unacceptable in Plato’s time as they are today.

The problem is that Plato’s political-philosophical hermeneutic perspective is grounded in an ideal of a city-state, politeia. As a counterpoint, it is necessary to create another hermeneutical perspective while Plato’s Republic is at the same time acknowledged as an essential work for the discussion of the political-philosophical problems in the antique democratic city-state and the modern democracy as well.

In other words, it is not possible to follow Plato in all his construction of the political-philosophical architecture such as it is to be found in the Republic, where he moves from the primitive city-state to the constitution of the ideal city-state, aristocracy, which forms the point of departure for the critique of the other forms of government in decline. There is an inner logic in this construction, one that cannot simply be reconstructed as an opening to a political philosophical dialogue about democracy. Plato’s Republic stands as a political philosophical monument; it is a fort that can only be hermeneutically conquered through a new reading strategy where we do not follow Plato’s construction but on the contrary try to deconstruct Plato’s politeia. There is with other words a need for a deconstruction of all Plato’s enormous construction of politeia with the aim to get in contact with the fundamental problematic in Plato’s philosophy that is relevant for the discussion of antique and modern democracy.

  1. Plato’s way from democratic politics to political philosophy

As an introduction to this deconstruction, it is essential to remark on the dialogical form of the Republic. The dialogical form is the political form of democracy and therefore the reader gets the immediate impression that the Republic must be related to democracy. This impression becomes strengthened because Plato lets Socrates be the proper narrator in the Republic. We know very little about the historical Socrates, but the few sources we have tell us that Socrates was one of the many that walked around at the Athenian agora and discussed the political problems in the city state (Larsen 1990: 35 ff.). Socrates is described as the person who poses questions rather than giving answers. In this way Socrates took part in the public political discussion in the democratic city-state. It is this political discussion that Plato gives a philosophical form. This can be seen as a formative transformation of Socrates’s lively critical outspoken questioning in the political discussion in the agora in Athens to a positive written formulation of a political philosophy in dialogical form in the Republic (Larsen 1990: 53 ff.).

When we start to read the Republic, we immediately become uncertain about what we are dealing with. The reader is presented with a discussing and lecturing Socrates in dialogue with Adeimantus, Glaucon, Cephalus, Polemarchus, Thrasymachus and several other persons. But who is the discussant Socrates and where is Plato in the dialogue? Is it the historical Socrates who speaks in the dialogues or is Socrates a marionette or spokesman for Plato? Plato does not give any explanation in the Republic or in his other dialogues (Roberts 1994: 72 ff.).

However, in Plato’s letters we can get an impression of the historical content of the formative transformation of Socrates’ living political discussion in the agora to the positive philosophical written discourse in Plato’s dialogues. It is here, especially in Plato’s Seventh Letter to Dion’s relatives and friends that is of interest (Platon 1991c: 323d – 352b). Dion (409 – 354) belonged to the dominant old family in Syracuse on Sicily who Plato visited in 389 – 388, 366 – 365 and 361 – 360. Dion was father-in-law and brother-in-law to Dionysius the Younger who governed in Syracuse 367 – 355 and 346 – 344 and who Plato tried without success to educate to be the philosopher king he had described in the Republic.

The authenticity of the letter has been discussed but it is a widely held among classical philologist that nothing speaks against the authenticity of the source and that it can therefore be used as a historical source (Raven 1965: 25 f.; Gadamer 1985: 249; Larsen 1990: 54; Castoriadis 2002: 121).

At the beginning of the Seventh Letter, Plato presents his understanding of the transformation from politics to philosophy (Platon 1991c: 324b – 326b; Gadamer 1985: 249 ff.). It is essential to make this transformation clear because the key to Plato’s political philosophy should be found here (Ober 1998: 162 ff.). According to the letter, as young man Plato defined the aim of his life as a participation in the public affairs of the city-state, fulfilling the ideal of the son of a citizen with high status. This life perspective collapsed for Plato because of the political events in Athens which he interpreted through the life and death of Socrates.

What characterizes Socrates according to Plato is his righteousness. It is this righteousness that first brought Socrates into conflict with the thirty oligarch’s tyranny in the year 404 – 403 and, later on, with the democrats who ultimately charged him by the people’s court and finally executed him in 399. Plato interprets these events to mean that those at the head of affairs were no longer guided by traditional morals and that the written laws and traditions had lost their significance. In this way, the Seventh Letter expresses a deep political existential crisis in Plato’s life where Plato’s fundamental understanding of life in the city-state collapses.

This is the reason Plato decides to reconstruct the city state in an ideal philosophical form, which he calls ‘the right philosophy’. Plato will with the right philosophy give an account of what is just, both in the city-state and for the single citizen. What follows is that it must be the people who have this insight in the right that should govern the city-state or eventually that it should be the people that govern the city-state who should acquire this insight.

The interesting thing here is that there is no positive mediation between the collapse of Plato’s existential understanding of the city-state and the formulation of the positive political philosophy. Plato identifies all this political-existential collapse figuratively with the judgment and the execution of Socrates who becomes the form through which the new political philosophy can be formulated in the written dialogue. Herewith Plato gets the possibility to formulate his political philosophy in the dialogical form of the democratic city-state at the same time as the content of this philosophy is a trenchant critique of democracy as a form of governance. Plato’s anti-democratic political philosophy is veiled as democratic through the formal form of dialogue that only could and only can take place in a democratic state. Plato’s political philosophy thus gets its place in the democratic city-state just as its content is turned against the democratic city-state’s inherent philosophical problems and institutional arrangements (Monoson 1994: 185 ff.).

In the dialogue Gorgias, Socrates discusses with Gorgias, Polus and Callicles. Socrates starts with a critique of Athen’s great politicians, first of all Pericles (Platon 1991a: 515b ff.). Socrates’s main question is whether the great politicians have had the good as ground for their politics and whether they on this ground have had as the only aim to make the Athenians as good as possible: Have the Athenians really been ameliorated by Pericles? Have the Athenians not, on the contrary, been brought into depravation such as it has been told that Pericles made the Athenians lazy, cowardly, chatty, and money-grubbing, because he instituted payment for holding a public office? (Platon 1991a: 515e).

These critical questions go to the root of the Athenian democracy because payment for public offices was a necessary precondition to ensure that all citizens, not at least citizens with limited means, could participate in the political institutions of the city-state (Euben 1994: 202 ff.). The oligarchs regarded this arrangement as the final decline of the city-state that the citizens should be paid for participating in the political life (Dodds 1959: 357).

In contradiction to this arrangement, Socrates poses himself – as Plato’s spokesman – as the only Athenian who tries to preserve true statesmanship (t? a?th?s politik? tekhn?), and the only one who transforms it in practical politics by always taking the best (to beltiston) into consideration and never merely pleasantness (to h?diston) (Platon 1991a: 521d).

Herewith, the contradiction is brought to its extreme between on the one hand the leading Athenian democrats with Pericles in front and on the other hand Plato with Socrates as spokesman. Socrates is according to Plato the only representative for the true statesmanship which is a profession (tekhn?), namely, political philosophy as a tekhn? building on insight into the good (Platon 1991a: 521d). In this way, Socrates becomes the only one who puts political philosophical tekhn? into practical politics, the philosophy Plato in the Seventh Letter named ‘the right philosophy’. This is the fundamental contradiction that is developed in the entire Republic.

  1. Republic – From totalitarian political philosophy to antidemocratic political ideology

At first it is not useful to go into details to determine whether Plato is right in his critique of democracy. The problem lies in the general construction of political philosophy. Under cover of democratically formed dialogue, Plato, with Socrates as his spokesman, constructs the ideal city-state in a long monologue. It is hierarchically constructed with three classes, namely, the leaders with insight, the soldiers with courage and the artisans with sober-mindedness where the right order between classes is determined as justice (Platon 1991b: 432b – 435d). The leaders of the city-state should keep desire under control. This should be done by living promiscuously instead of having a wife and children in one family, by not having any property and by being maintained by the third class or estate (Platon 1991b: 450b – 461d). The coming leaders, finally, should be educated through a long philosophical education which should give them an insight in justice (dikaiosyn?) and virtue or the ability to exercise the good government (Platon 1991b: 444d). The ideal city-state is called a kingdom when it has a single leader, and an aristocracy, which means the government of the best, when it is governed by the few (Platon 1991b: 445d).

This ideal, however, appears to be a perverted ideal model of a city-state which in modern language is governed by something like a combination of consistent rationalized technocracy and a military dictatorship. Plato uses the so-called aristocratic form of government as a platform for criticizing the four known forms of government: timocracy, oligarchy, democracy and tyranny. It stated in advance that aristocracy is not only a good but also the only and incomparable best form of government, which stands in contradiction to all the other forms of government. If the aristocracy is the right form of government, all the other forms of government must be wrong.

Unfortunately, it is not so easy to reject Plato’s critique of the different forms of government. Plato presents a sharp and precise critique of the four mentioned forms of government, not at least of democracy where the problem of freedom is discussed. Since all forms of government are exposed to a sharp critique, it becomes difficult for the democratic-minded reader to reject the critique as irrelevant. The reader can even come to the conclusion that the Republic is a magnificent philosophical work, which is of course the dominant opinion in the history of philosophy.

However, the problem in Plato’s critique is that, if we accept the critique, it follows that we should also accept the premise of the critique. We must then abandon dialogue because the selected leaders have raised themselves, through their insight, above the dialogue with the many who, according to Plato’s allegory of the cave, have not understood anything (Platon 1991b: 514 ff.).

If the reader does not accept the ideal aristocratic state at the outset, he can assume the political realistic perspective and move further on in the historically well known forms for government. Here we meet, first, timocracy, which is signified as the second best form of government after the kingdom or aristocracy. In modern English usage, this could be determined as a form of military dictatorship while it in the ancient context is most similar to the form of government in the city-state Sparta, what Plato also explicit mentions (Platon 1991b: 544c).

For the democratic minded reader this form of government is not acceptable. He can therefore choose to go on in Plato’s hierarchy of governments to the oligarchy where the few have government by means of their fortune. This model is neither acceptable.

This brings us to democracy where the problem, according to Plato, is that all on equal footing are obsessed with unrestrained freedom and no one has the necessary philosophical qualifications to relate to it. What Plato does not mention is that it is only in the democratic city-state that there is developed a genuine political philosophy through the open and public discussion in the city-state and that all this political-philosophical discussion focuses on the concept of freedom and what follows of it (Hansen 1996: 91 ff.). Plato’s political philosophy is in itself a testimony to open discussion in the democratic city-state. It is not developed in the city-state Sparta he praises but in Athens whose democracy he criticizes (Popper 1962a: 198 – 201).

Plato has a point in his critique of the handling of freedom in the democratic city state. It was a problem how freedom should be handled in the same way as it is a problem in a modern democracy. The excessive desire for freedom leads according to Plato to the dissolution of any authority (Jones 1957: 44 ff.). The examples Plato emphasizes are so ironic and living that they could have been examples taken out of our own time such as the dissolution of the authority in the relation between children and their parents, between teacher and pupil, etc. (Platon 1991b: 562e – 563e). In this connection Plato has also some grotesque and humorous descriptions when he makes ironic remarks about freedom that gains ground overall, even among domestic animals where horses and donkeys have been so conscious of freedom and self-confident that they push against everyone who is standing in their way (Platon 1991b: 563c). In the middle of the irony and the grotesque, Plato asserts that freedom in the democratic city-state only deserves critique.

  1. Popper: How can we organize the political institutions so that bad or incompetent leaders can be prevented from doing too much damage?

On this background, it could be a temptation to recognize Plato’s critique but in that case there is only the possibility in Plato’s universe to move upwards in the hierarchy of forms of government to an oligarchy, a timocracy or an aristocracy. But neither of these forms of government is acceptable and we therefore lack a passage from Plato’s critique to an open discussion of how the problems Plato has pointed at should be understood in a democratic philosophical perspective and how they eventually could be handled in praxis. The reader is enclosed in Plato’s hierarchy where there is no way up the ladder because the one form of government is worse than the other and where there is also no way down, where one man’s tyranny is the only possibility. In short, there is from a democratic perspective no possibility to maneuver in the political philosophical universe of hierarchical forms of government. The reader is enclosed in this philosophical construct which thereafter, as mentioned, is presented as an open philosophical universe which is supported by the Socratic and the democratic deliberation, two sides of the same coin.

On this background, it will be right to characterize Plato’s political philosophy such as it has been presented in the Republic as a totalitarian political philosophy which from a democratic perspective is pointing toward some political philosophical choices where neither of them is acceptable because neither of them satisfy the fundamental democratic oriented demand to every form of government that it as a reflexive relation should be open for discussion.

That is not all that can be said, however. Plato is not only a political philosopher in Athens. He is also exactly what he characterize Socrates as, namely, a statesman or a politician, and he may have considered himself to be that outstanding statesman who had the insight everybody else lacked. This is Popper’s opinion: “Plato speaks here of himself” (Popper 1962a: 154). If this is the case, either Plato becomes at best a philosopher king in his political-philosophical hierarchy or, at worst, a philosophically seductive tyrant.

Popper’s fundamental critique of Plato in The Open Society and its Enemies is that Plato presents a closed universe where the essential thing is who with more or less insight should govern such as it is represented in Plato’s hierarchy of forms of government (Popper 1962a: 121). In contrast Popper claims with a reference to Stuart Mill’s mentioned Considerations on Representative Government that the essential question is not “who should govern” but that political leaders in all forms of political regimes, included democracy, potentially are dangerous and that the right question on that background is: “How can we so organize political institutions that bad or incompetent rulers can be prevented from doing too much damage” (Popper 1962a: 121). It is in extension of this question that Popper points at democracy, not because democracy in its positive determined sense should be the good form of government but on the contrary because democracy does not have this positive determination and therefore permanently has to be determined or legitimized and therefore contains the potential for a permanent critique of any political leader or any form of government.

It is therefore not that case that Popper rejects Plato’s critique of democracy’s tendency to let freedom become unrestrained. However, this was not Popper’s urgent problem when he during the Second World War was sitting as political refugee in New Zealand writing against the totalitarian Nazis and fascist regimes that dominated Europe and the rest of the world. Plato’s political philosophy is from Popper’s perspective totalitarian because it is, like in the allegory of the cave (Platon 1991b: 514a ff.), grounded on the idea that a single or some few persons should be able to reach an insight that all others are excluded from and that this insight thereupon should be able to legitimize the power that these few persons – kings, aristocrats and philosophers – without contradiction should rule over all others in the city-state.

In Popper’s perspective, Plato’s political philosophy can only be characterized as totalitarian whose significance in all its greatness is being worthy of critique because it is inevitable and therefore only can be bypassed with critique. In that sense Plato’s Republic can open an interesting discussion about the democratic city-state and of our modern democracy and in that sense can Plato’s political philosophy still have an inestimable significance for its critiques. Plato’s philosophy is unavoidable; it stimulates political-philosophical discussion to this day. In this connection it is, as a hermeneutical opening to Plato’s political philosophy, worth remembering that Plato not only was a philosopher, he was also a politician and political ideologue – a strong antidemocratic political ideologue in the democratic city-state Athens.

  1. Sophism and tragedy – The sophist’s political philosophy and the tragedy at the theatre as critical reflexive institutions in the antique democracy in Athens

Herewith has the question been raised: what is the alternative to Plato? From a hermeneutical perspective, it is not enough to exercise critique of the antecedent philosophers. The philosophers must first of all be seen in their own time and in their own social and cultural context. Here it is interesting that there is an alternative to Plato, namely the democratic city-state itself with its many cultural and philosophical expressions. In the Republic, Plato turned against all that which we in the light of history see as the great and sublime in the golden age of Athens which is connected to democracy. It lasted with short interruptions from its introduction with Cleisthenes in 507 until 322 where it was turned down by the Macedonians. It is in this relatively short period that democracy becomes developed as a form of government and that there is created the political, military, artistic, architectonic and philosophical institutions that in their unity form the democratic city-state. The summary of this form of government is that it is open. Herewith is meant that the last determinations of the city-state concerning government and social life always is standing to discussion.

It is in this context that philosophy arises as a big living discussion of the fundamental problems in Athens. It is here first of all the sophists that start the philosophical discussions in their teaching of the sons and young men in the Athenian upper class. Some of the sophists are known such as Protagoras (490 – 420), Gorgias (485 – 380), Prodicus (470 – 400) and Hippias (480 – 410), also because they are mentioned in Plato’s dialogues, but there has been ´many others. The sophist have through Plato got a bad reputation as seducers, deniers of truth and strategic rhetoricians and this reputation has been passed on through all the history of philosophy because there as mentioned was no understanding of the fundamental background of philosophy in democracy. From a cultural sociological perspective, Socrates and Plato belong to the same typology as the sophist. They are, from a sociological perspective, only different forms of philosophical schools responding in different ways on the open democratic form of government. When Plato claims that philosophy is something totally different compared to sophism, this can only be understood as a part of his anti-democratic rhetoric where he will repress that it is precisely in the democratic city-state that a living philosophical discussion is taking place.

The other big institution is the theatre, which challenges and emphasizes the reflexivity of life and politics in the democratic city-state. Here we have the three great dramatist Aeschylus (525 – 456), Sophocles (495 – 406) and Euripides (485 – 406) who created the Greek tragedy. It is first of all through the tragedy that substantial individual and common conflicts and dilemmas have been brought to reflection in the broad population in the democratic city-state. But in the Republic, Euripides and the other tragedians are related to tyranny and democracy and they should be forbidden to enter city-states with higher-ranking constitutions such as oligarchy, timocracy and aristocracy. In the Republic it is even said that the poets pass from town to town, letting eminent actors with winning and euphonious voices present their plays for the mob and that they in this way mislead the city-states step by step toward tyranny and democracy (Platon 1991b: 568a-d).

  1. Pericles’ funeral oration – the democratic alternative to the totalitarian political philosophy

Plato’s main adversary is Pericles (495 – 429), who is the great leader of democracy in Athens and who Plato see as the person before all others who has contributed to the decline of Athens such as Plato had experienced it (Rhodes 2010: 59 ff.).

Pericles’s speech in the popular assembly has never been published but Thucydides has a reproduction of the famous funeral oration for the fallen in the first year of The Peloponnesian War 431 – 404 (Thucydides 1967: Livre II, XXXIV, 1 – XLVII, 1). In Pericles funeral oration, we find a positive and idealized reproduction of democracy in Athens which in any sense constitute a counterpoint not only in relation to Plato’s critique of democracy but also in relation to all Plato’s political philosophy such as it is presented in the Republic (Loraux 1981: 183 ff.). It is the dominating opinion among philologists that Thucydides’s reception of the funeral oration in all essentiality can be led back to Pericles and therefore can be used as a historical source (Sicking 1995: 404 – 425; Bosworth 2000: 1-16).

In Pericles’s edition of democracy, it is freedom which is presented before all other things as the foundation of the democratic city-state – just as Plato also is pointing at and criticizes in the Republic. Pericles makes a clear distinction between private and public life (Thunderbird 1967: Livre II, XXXVII, 1). The individual citizen should as a private person follow the city-states laws, but apart from that, the city-state should be governed by tolerance and every person should have the right to live in a way which he finds appropriate for himself. In contrast, public life is about doing the good for the benefit of the city-state (Thucydides 1967: Livre II, XXXVII, 2).

In the democratic city-state, pleasure and joy is according to Pericles high evaluated. There are festive competitions in the city, beauty and pleasure has significance in the public and the private life, and there is a rich business with other states that gives access to all the worlds’ commodities (Thucydides 1967: Livre II, XXXVIII).

In military practice, the democratic city-state is according to Pericles an open city where all can see what happens and where nothing is hidden for enemies because military strength not only builds on preparation and strategies but also on individual strength and the ability to exercise judgment in the situation (Thucydides 1967: Livre II, XXXIX, 1). This personal ability is according to Pericles related to the education with a free training where the personality is educated to easily act on his own judgment in the concrete situation, contrary to the Spartan who is only able to make war with military discipline and who has no personal courage (Thucydides 1967: Livre II, XXXIX, 2).

The citizen who does not take part in the public life of the city-state is according to Pericles useless. The public discussion takes place in the city-state in which all problems can be deliberated in common before action (Thucydides 1967: Livre II, XXXX, 3). In this way the Athenians are, according to Pericles, able with greater boldness to make a plan, because the largest inner strength is to be found by those who recognize both the horrifying and the pleasant and on that background does not fall back before the danger. In this context the Athenians should not according to Pericles be afraid of helping others instead of awaiting help from others (Thucydides 1967: Livre II, XXXX, 4).

Pericles presentation of the democratic city-state has a philosophical ground. Pericles says that “we are cultivating the beautiful in simplicity without resorting to the bombastic” (philokaloum?n te gar met’euteleias) (Thucydides 1967: Livre II, XXXX, 1). Herewith is meant that the beautiful is subordinated an aesthetic judgment which the Athenians are able to pronounce (Kakridis 1961: 47 ff.; Castoriadis 1997: 287 f.; Castoriadis 2008: 163 ff.). In the same way Pericles presents also a moral criteria for practice which is expressed as follows: “we take the philosophical deliberation serious without losing the determination (philosophoumen aneu malakias)” (Thucydides 1967: Livre II, XXXX, 1). This means that the Athenians are able to integrate the philosophical perspective, deliberation, and to let this deliberation be the ground for a decision and the following action (Kakridis 1961: 47 ff.; Castoriadis 1997: 287 f.; Castoriadis 2008: 163 ff.). This aesthetic, moral and practical deliberation gives the Athenians the possibility to take care of both their private affairs in the house (oikos) and the public affairs in the city-state (polis) with insight (Thucydides 1967: Livre II, XXXX, 2).

Pericles’s conclusion is, that “Athens is a mentor for the rest of Hellas” and Athens is the city where each single citizen autonomously in one person can unite the most forms of practice with a versatile happiness in life’s beauty (Thucydides 1967: Livre II, XXXXI, 1).

It should be clear that Pericles’s funeral oration expresses many essential features of the democratic city-state. It applies both to the private freedom to live and act as desired and to the public freedom to deliberate together with citizens about the common affairs, commonly to establish the laws for the city and participate in the united warfare. This should all be done by developing the practical, the aesthetic and the moral sense, that is the philosophy which according to Pericles is included in every life situation.

Pericles’s funeral oration should have been kept around 430 and Plato’s Republic should have been written around 380. Historically, Pericles’ funeral speech is prior to Plato’s Republic, but it is also in a philosophical sense prior in the way that it is Pericles and in a broader sense the democratic city-state Athens that poses the agenda that Plato criticize fifty years later. According to Karl Popper, Plato’s critique of democracy is both an expression of a totalitarian political program and a totalitarian political philosophy (Popper 1962a: 86 ff.). Today, it should no longer be possible to maintain Plato’s hermeneutical political-philosophical perspective on democracy in Athens. The hermeneutic perspective should be turned around. It is Pericles and the democracy in Athens that are prior to the totalitarian critique of democracy. However, this is not the end of the reading of Plato. In fact, it has only just begun – and it should continue as a further deconstruction of Plato’s totalitarian political philosophy and practice – and in a further perspective it should continue in a deconstructive reading of all forms of totalitarian political philosophy.


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Die Versprachlichung des Sakralen: The Transformation of the Authority of the Sacred into Secular Political Deliberation in Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action

Taking Weber’s thesis in consideration, it seems difficult to uphold Habermas’ thesis about a happy transformation of the sacred into deliberation. The consequence is that morality can only be successful in so far as the validity claims of communicative ethics can be institutionalized in modern society without any reference to holiness. This seems also to be the general conclusion in Habermas’ work – ironically apart from his theory of secularization.

Cornelius Castoriadis’ theory of the imaginary institution and Claude Lefort’s theory of the empty place of the political as a new insecure moral ground for modern society are presented together as an alternative theory of secularization which can serve as a new framework for Habermas’ theory of communicative ethics and deliberative politics in modern society.


  • Die Versprachlichung des Sakralen 

It has been astonishing to observe over the last decade a growing interest for religion not only in more or less premodern societies around the world, but also in the western world. The many theories about secularization seem to have been shocked by this reappearance of religion and this can give a good reason to reconsider what could be a common ground for a modern secular society. Here I find the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas’ thesis about die Versprachlichung des Sakralen, the linguistification of the sacred, especially interesting, because Habermas has formulated an optimistic theory about how the sacred could be safeguarded in a harmonious transformation into deliberation in modern society. By discussing this theory the aim should be to try to understand why secular society has not been safeguarded from discussions of religion such as has been the case in the last decade.

In connection with his development of the theory of communicative action, Habermas claims that the sacred is transformed in a positive way and can take the form of free deliberation in society (Habermas 1981, II: 118 ff.; Habermas 1989, II, 77 ff.). Habermas speaks in this connection about die Versprachlichung des Sakralen. The thesis is that the authority which could be found in religion, and which is of fundamental significance for the integration of pre-modern societies, is taken over by modern society in forms of deliberation.

Habermas develops this thesis in a discussion of Durkheim’s religious-sociological considerations about the transformation from mechanical to organic solidarity. Durkheim indicates this transformation of the authority of law from unconditional, which is exercised through punishment, to contractual, which is exercised through debate, proceedings and compromise. Habermas interprets this transformation of law in saying that the contract represents a linguistic transformation of law that has similarities with the linguistic transformation of the authoritative character of religions in modern society. But so far as I can see, this argument is not valid because we cannot compare religion and civil law in this way. Law can be compared to religion because law in different ways has its origin in religion. But this argument cannot be turned around. Religion cannot be explained by law. I should like to add that, in my opinion, Durkheim is not the most interesting of the classical sociologists with regard to religious-sociological considerations, because he is mostly occupied with primitive religions, which is the case in his main work, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (Durkheim 1960: 67 ff.; Durkheim 1995: 45 ff.).

Habermas would not have been able to make the same analysis if he had taken his point of departure in Max Weber’s religious-sociological investigations, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie, which in my opinion are much more qualified and differentiated than Durkheim’s sociology of religion (Weber 1988). Weber studied most forms of religions to find out what significance they have had for the integration of different societies. Weber’s conclusion is that the essential significance of religion in society is to give an explanation of how the divine, and in that sense God’s world, can be just when at the same time injustice is dominant in society (Weber 1988a: 242; 571 – 573.). Religion has had the significance to give a solution to this problem of theodicy in all forms of society so that social injustice did not disrupt social integration. The Judaic and Christian religions have here a special status compared to other religions, because the theodicy problem in these traditions is displaced into a demand for a realization of justice in society. This religious claim of social justice is later secularized and integrated in the European tradition of jurisprudence.

  • Weber’s theory of secularization

Weber discusses the question of secularization in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Weber 1988b; Weber 1995). He shows in this analysis that the sacred, the absolute authority of religion, is dissolved in the secularization of European culture and that we therefore have lost the relation to religious authority. This is a much more interesting thesis than Durkheim’s thesis. It is also this thesis of Weber which is the real challenge for Habermas and which he discusses throughout his theory of communicative action. Therefore, we also find later on in Habermas’ analysis of the linguistic transformation of the sacred a discussion where Habermas relates directly to Weber’s theory of secularization, rationalization and differentiation of the occidental culture (Habermas 1981, II: 140; Habermas 1989, II, 92). Here Habermas, in the spirit of Weber, points out that neither occidental science nor art can be the heir of religion. The occidental science is founded upon the criteria of objectivity and art is founded upon the criteria of subjective taste.

According to Habermas, it is only communicative-oriented morals that are able to replace the authority of religion (Habermas 1981, II: 140; Habermas 1989, II, 92). However, this is not valid from Weber’s religious-sociological perspective. According to Weber, the authority of the sacred is dissolved through the secularization of modern society. This is the reason why Weber, in the end of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, concludes that we in the occidental culture are dominated by the technical-instrumental rationality because we no longer have a reference to the sacred, which at the end is necessary to uphold morality in any society (Weber 1988b: 202 ff.; Weber 1995: 180 ff..). The paradox is that Habermas follows Weber in this thesis, although he does not follow Weber in his analysis where he, as mentioned, tries to rescue the authority of the sacred in a new secularized form through his reading of Durkheim’s religious-sociological work.

With this background, I will try to sum up my own interpretation. Habermas’ first critique of Weber, which formed the starting point for all of Habermas’ analyses in his theory of communicative action, was that Weber had too narrow an understanding of the rationalization of the occidental culture, because he confounded the potentials of the cultural rationalization with the technical-instrumental rationalization that has taken place historically. I do not only follow Habermas in this critique of Weber; I try to strengthen it because I think that the occidental culture has also been historically rationalized in a communicative direction through historical events such as the Renaissance, the Protestant reformations in their various forms, and through political reformations and revolutions such as the British Glorious Revolution and the French Revolution. Weber does not take these forms of communicative rationalization into regard in his understanding of occidental culture; he is only concerned with the technical-instrumental rationalization. On this point, I think Habermas is right in his critique of Weber. However, I follow Weber in his theory of rationalization of the occidental culture in the sense that I think Weber is right in pointing out that the authority of the sacred is dissolved in this process of rationalization, which could also be called a process of secularization. The question is now what the consequences are for the understanding of the authority and validity of communicative ethics.

The question of the validity of communicative ethics depends on the rational communication in which there can be given good reasons for a specific moral opinion. This is a philosophical problem that Habermas to my mind has treated in a persuasive way. However, the problem is that good reasons are not enough. Habermas sees correctly that in moral questions there is also a problem of authority and he tries to solve this problem through his reading of Durkheim’s religious sociology. But if we follow Weber, the question is whether communicative ethics can acquire an authority in modern society that corresponds to the authority that religions have in pre-modern societies. In this connection, I think Habermas has too widespread an understanding of religion in pre-modern society. Habermas has the understanding that religion in general could give an immediate authority in pre-modern society. But to my mind this is not the case. We have to take into consideration that the authority of religion in pre-modern society was not a free-floating authority. On the contrary, it was mediated through the practice in religious institutions, first of all through cult and worship and secondly through theology in higher forms of religion. Therefore, the authority of religion was not free-floating but bound to institutions in pre-modern society. In the spirit of Durkheim we could even say that it is the institution that gives the authority to religion.

The consequence of this is that communicative action and communicative ethics should be seen in relation to institutions in the same way. From a sociological perspective the decisive point is whether communicative ethics can be institutionalized in modern society, which means the same as whether the institutions of modern society can take such a form that they can mediate communicative ethics in practice.

  • A tragic theory of secularization

The validity of communicative ethics depends upon a philosophical point of view on the tenability of the validity claims. But from a sociological perspective, this is not sufficient. Here the question is whether communicative ethics can be institutionalized in the same way as the authority of the sacred became institutionalized in religion in pre-modern societies. So far as I can see, this is also the line Habermas follows and which he tries to develop in the continuation of his theory of communicative action. But if we do not accept Habermas’ linguistic transformation of the sacred, which I, as previously mentioned, do not, then the consequence for the sociological understanding of communicative ethics is that the claim of its institutionalization is radicalized. Modernity has only a linguistic reference to itself; there are no other references. This internal self-reference can only be upheld if the philosophical validity claims can find their place in practice in the institutions of society.

Habermas presents his thesis about the linguistic transformation of the sacred as a harmonious theory of secularization and therefore it has been an easy target for his critics. However, if we follow Weber in his religious-sociological considerations of modernity, we reach a tragic theory of secularization that poses the real problem that the social ethical challenge consists in securing the institutionalization of the validity claims of communicative ethics in modern society.

The consequence is that Habermas’ theory of die Versprachlichung des Sakralen should be placed in an alternative theoretical framework. In this context, it can be fruitful to look at the philosophers Cornelius Castoriadis and Claude Lefort who have pointed at an alternative theory of secularization where they emphasize the imaginary of the political as an alternative to the imaginary of the sacred as the normative ground for modern democratic society.

  • Castoriadis – The imaginary institution of society

Cornelius Castoriadis developed the concept of the imaginary in his major work The Imaginary Institution of Society (Castoriadis 1975; 1987). Castoriadis defines the concept of the imaginary in this way:

The imaginary of which I am speaking is not an image of. It is the unceasing and essentially undetermined (social-historical and psychical) creation of figures/forms/images, on the basis of which alone there can ever be a question of ‘something’. What we call ‘reality’ and ‘rationality’ is its works. …… What I term elucidations is the labor by means of which individuals attempt to think about what they do and to know what they think. This, too, is a social-historical creation. The Aristotelian division into theoria, praxis and poiesis is derivative and secondary. History is essentially poiesis, not imitative poetry, but creation and ontological genesis in and through individuals’ doing and representing/saying. This doing and this representing/saying are also instituted historically, at a given moment, as thoughtful doing or as thought in the making (Castoriadis 1975: 7–8; Castoriadis 1987: 3 – 4).

According to Castoriadis, society is not only in a permanent historical creation but also in a permanent historical creation of imagination, which forms the ground for a following possibility of creation of objectivity, meaning, etc. that have to be interpreted. Castoriadis speaks of elucidations (élucidation), an enlightenment that must be understood in a hermeneutical sense, which harmonizes well with the fact that he takes his phenomenological approach to the interpretation of history from Heidegger. Thus, the imaginary is a critical hermeneutical interpretation of the social, an interpretation (une élucidation) that takes place ultimately in the political as a project (un projet politique). According to Castoriadis, the political is the ultimate horizon of interpretation for the social and societal.

The important thing is that Castoriadis’ definition of the imaginary can be understood as something historically created, which is to be interpreted through critical hermeneutics. The political forms the general horizon of understanding for hermeneutics. Thus, the political becomes an approach to the interpretation of the social and, secondarily, forms the basis for the interpretation of political institutions in a larger interpretation of social life.

In French, there is a clear linguistic distinction between the political (le politique) and politics (la politique), which is a limited form of action within particular institutions and systems in society (Interview with Marcel Gauchet, Philosophie Magazine N°7). In modern Anglo-American political science, this distinction is, for the most part, lost or maintained as a distinction between political philosophy and empirical political science. The problem with this approach is that the political then loses its meaning as a social fact that is generally determinative for politics, and that political science then loses its relation to the determinative horizon of understanding within the political.

The central point is that Castoriadis’ understanding of the creation of the imaginary in the form of the political can be seen as a competing concept to Weber’s concept of the sacred. In this connection it should be emphasized that according to Castoriadis, it is only in the Antique democratic city-state and later on in the modern democratic state that politics is conceptualized and, therefore, it is in the Antique democratic city-state that the political historically first is constituted. This coincides with the fact that it is only the democratic city-state and later on modern democracies that have freedom as the central focal point. In Castoriadis’ perspective history has mostly been dominated by totalitarian states and societies.

  • Lefort – … from the speech of power to the power of speech

This is also the premise of Claude Lefort’s analysis that most societies in history are of a totalitarian character and that the democratic city-states in antiquity and the democratic states in modern times form an exception or a breach with the dominance of totalitarianism. Lefort develops his ideas in a critique of the totalitarian Eastern European societies and states, and he uses the French Revolution as an important historical example of the transition from a totalitarian society to a free society.

What is important in Lefort’s analysis of the French Revolution is that the prince as the incarnation of the totalitarian state is replaced through the revolution by “un lieu vide”, an empty place (Lefort 1986b: 27; Lefort 1988b: 17 f.). Whereas power in the totalitarian state is substantial as an incarnation in the prince, it can only be representative and symbolic in the democratic state, because this lieu vide cannot be occupied substantially. In this way, a new symbolic order is constituted in which democratic society is instituted as a society without a body (sans corps), in which the organic totality in the form of the prince is brought to an end (Lefort 1986b: 28; Lefort 1988b: 18). Democratic society thus becomes a society that, from a philosophical point of view, is in permanent incertitude, because it can never have any real substantial definition. Any definition can only stand as long as it is not made problematic.

This is especially clarified in Lefort’s analysis in the essay ‘Interpreting Revolution within the French Revolution’, that the empty place, le lieu vide, presents the fundamental change in the imaginary of society from the regime of the powers word to the spoken words power, or with Lefort’s word: “But whereas it was once the speech of power which ruled, it is now the power of speech” (Lefort 1986c: 134; Lefort 1988c: 110).

It is this idea that provides the foundation for the understanding that language is the ground of democracy, insofar as it is the essence of language that any statement can only acquire validity by being made problematic. We can say that Habermas develops the idea in Lefort’s political philosophy in a differentiated way including the whole problem of practice and institutions in a modern democratic society. It is Lefort’s paradoxical political-philosophical thesis on permanent incertitude as the cohesive binding in modern society that makes it clear that it is only the possibility of criticism that can lead to the constitution of a morally founded order in modern society. The moral order in modern society is paradoxical; it cannot have a substantial character relating to the sacred or something similar as the moral order has been understood throughout most of history, including our own time. This moral order can only exist in modern society through the possibility for criticism – thus, the moral order cannot ultimately be defined but must be kept open in the sense that it always is in the process of being defined.

It is this abstract definition that we see play out in modern democratic society. Governments are changed regularly, presidents only hold office for limited periods and laws are reformulated when necessary. From a substantive moral and political point of view, this must all seem irrational and reprehensible. But the rationality consists of the fact that le lieu vide has replaced the substantive and, therefore, it would be irrational and totalitarian from this point of view to refer to a positive substantive morality. Norms are constituted by raising questions as to their validity.

  • The union of ethics and politics

Here we find the mediation between Lefort and Habermas. The central point in Habermas’ work is similar to Lefort’s, namely that language is constituting society and in that sense is its fundamental institution. Society has to be understood through language. This is the way whereby Habermas gives the key to understanding the mediation between ethics and politics. Ethics and politics become the two sides of one and the same matter.

Communicative ethics is a Kantian form of language-ethics in which it is possible in positive terms to determine the criteria for action. But Habermas goes beyond Kant’s ethics in three ways. Firstly, in Kant’s ethics, there is an impassable distinction between, on the one hand, the intelligible world, in which the free will and duty in the categorical imperative is found; and, on the other hand, the phenomenal world, which is dominated by desire, subjective motives and institutions (Habermas 1991: 20 f). In communicative ethics, this distinction is mediated through the common use of language. Secondly, communicative ethics transgresses through the public discussion the inner Kantian monologue about the maxims for action. Thirdly, the Kantian problem of the reasonable justification of ethics is transformed into a problem of universal argumentation in dialogue with the other.

The central thing is that discourse ethics is consolidated in the immediate use of language, and that it is not possible to transcend this usage because language is the fundamental instance which is simultaneously used in an immediate sense.

This leads us to the discussion of politics, which according to Habermas is also based on the immediate linguistic practice in the public sphere. This understanding represents a discourse-theoretical transformation of the Kantian understanding of politics. There is in this understanding of politics a moral dimension insofar as the ethical maxims should provide the basis for the general law. However, whereas Kant’s morals are bound to individual reason, morals in discourse ethics are bound to public deliberation where maxims are determined, which should be the basis for common law. In this way the same problems in Kant’s understanding of politics find their solution as in his understanding of ethics. These are the contradiction between the idealistic and the phenomenological perspective, the transgression of the monologue and finally the problem of the justification of norms. Following this, politics can, according to Habermas, be determined as a public deliberation between the implicated parties about problems which concern them all, and as a determination of the maxims which should be the basis for determination of the common law. There is in this way an inner connection between ethics and politics that makes them into the two sides of one and the same matter. On the one hand, ethics cannot be sustained without politics because ethical deliberation must take place between people in the public sphere, and this is also the determination of politics. On the other hand, politics can only be sustained on the background of the discussion of the maxims that underlie the common law, and this is also the determination of ethics. The public sphere is the common meeting place for ethics and politics because both ethics and politics demand the possibility of public deliberation.

  • Bifurcation – negation – validity claims

The public sphere is constituted through the immediate and free public dialogue between people. It is the use of language that constitutes the public sphere, and there is no public sphere except through the use of language. However, the public sphere can be institutionalized. That means that a possibility can be secured for a public dialogue in advance. This is the precondition for politics and political institutions in modern society insofar as there could not be any politics without a public sphere. This is an abstract ideal type in the Weberian sense, which can be further developed in a philosophical, sociological, political-scientific and historical perspective.

The essential matter is to maintain the fundamental unity between ethics and politics, which in principle cannot be divided. This is the positive Kantian perspective. This is broken up in practice, when we take the Hegelian perspective. Modern society, according to Hegel, is bifurcated (Entzweiung), which has the consequence that moral unity cannot be sustained. However, this principle does not abolish the close connection between ethics and politics but it makes the connection more differentiated and complicated. The public sphere can no longer be sustained in the singular. In practice, it takes the form of a plurality of voices that cannot form a harmonious symphony and where it is not consensus but dissent that dominates. Therefore, the public sphere and critical discussion should be viewed as existing together in modern society.

Habermas himself is aware of this and speaks in several works about das Nein-sagen-Können, i.e. about the possibility to negate, the determinate negation, and try out the validity of a proposition (Habermas 1981, II, 113 ff.; Habermas 1989, II, 73 ff.; Habermas 1992: 394, 515; Habermas 1996: 324; 427). However, the principle of negation does not suspend the Hegelian bifurcation. The consequence is that it is not possible from a sociological and a political-scientific perspective to retain the thought of consensus as the fundamental condition for politics in modern society. However, this is not the essential point. The essential point is that politics has its centre in the dialogues taking place in the many public spheres and that it is possible from a philosophical perspective to test the validity of a statement. This represents a negative reading of Kant and Habermas, which aims at retaining the validity claims that are the fundamental crux of the matter in their political philosophies. This negative reading of Kant’s and Habermas’ political philosophies is not in principle suspended by the reality principle, such as it is represented in the traditions of sociology and political sciences. In these traditions, politics must be regarded by necessity as a positive concrete matter, which is subject to the reality principle insofar as praxis is bound to positive action. Nevertheless, the validity claims are not sustained by the reality principle. They constitute the instance that makes it possible to justify human action in the perspective of the reality principle.

In this way we reach an understanding of politics that contains both a reality principle, in the form of the linguistic praxis under the conditions that are given in modern society, and a philosophical principle, which concerns the questioning of the validity of this praxis. The concept of praxis must by necessity be a positive determination; the concept of validity must by necessity be a negative determination. Therefore, there must by necessity be a contradiction in politics between the positive and the negative determinations, which neither can nor should be dissolved. It is fatal only to regard politics under the perspective of the reality principle, and it is an illusion only to regard politics under the perspective of negation, without any relation to the reality principle. It is necessary all the time to take both perspectives into consideration when we deliberate about politics. We have to have both a Kantian and a Hegelian perspective on politics all the time. This is possible in Habermas’ political philosophy.

  • Civil society

Habermas’ political philosophy is fundamentally a Kantian political philosophy, insofar as his fundamental problem is to discuss the possibility to raise the validity claims for moral and political action, which he imagines can be done through free deliberation between the implicated parties. The great problem arises when the Hegelian perspective is introduced, where Habermas has to explain how such a deliberation can take place in modern society. It could be said that Habermas introduces a communicative transformation of the Hegelian perspective. Habermas points, like Hegel, at the decisive significance of civil society for moral order in modern society. In civil society the citizens can form associations in which they can discuss their common business. Hegel relates civil society to these associations, whereas Habermas has a much broader concept of civil society, which contains many different forms of associations, societies, unions, organizations, and so on. However, at the same time he also restricts the concept of civil society, insofar as he has a tendency to regard state and economic reproduction of society from a pure systemic perspective, as he describes in his theory of communicative action.

It is not appropriate to restrict the concept of civil society in this way, because a large part of the interaction in modern society, in which state and economics have a great influence, is excluded. This concept of civil society excludes the many institutions in a modern welfare society such as schools, health care, childcare, care of the elderly, and so on, which are organized by states and municipalities, and economic institutions that also have a central role in this connection. Therefore, I work with the broadest possible concept of civil society, which not only contains the institutions that are organized immediately by citizens, but also institutions that are mediated through the state and economy insofar as they are related to the immediate life of the citizens. This concept can be claimed when we, in accordance with Habermas, focus on the public sphere as the centre of civil society, in that it is more the form of communication than the function that is essential for the determination of the institutions in civil society.

Civil society is characterized by a plurality of communication in a plurality of public spheres which all relate to the immediate life of the citizens. This interaction includes not only social movements and associations of citizens, but also state-organized institutions and corporations, insofar as they all play their role in the citizens’ communication in the public sphere. Herewith is raised the old Hegelian problem of whether it could be possible to sum up this variety of communications in the many public spheres in a common morality.

Hegel tried to solve the problem by saying that it should be the state that mediates the contradictions in civil society. The state was therefore seen as being prior to civil society. However, this had the consequence that there could be a tendency in Hegel’s concept of the state to disregard the interaction between state and civil society, and to focus instead on the sovereignty of the state in relation to civil society. This is the reason why Hegel’s concept of the state has often been regarded as a totalitarian concept. However, Hegel is right in saying that the state is prior to civil society in the sense that there could not be a civil society without a state. The problem is whether it could be possible to create mediation between civil society and state.

According to Habermas, it is through the political institutions of democratic society that the many discussions in the public spheres of civil society can be mediated to political decisions. Habermas speaks in his chief work concerning legal philosophy, Between Facts and Norms, about ‘sluices’ through which the deliberations in civil society can be mediated and transformed to decisions in the political institutions (Habermas 1992: 431 ff; Habermas 1996: 356). However, Habermas is not able to give a conclusive solution to the Hegelian problem of meditation between civil society and the state. On the one hand, the deliberations in civil society should only seek to influence the political institutions. In that sense, Habermas’ understanding of civil society relates very much to Hegel’s. But there is no necessity in this influence. On the other hand, the political institutions can only be representative through procedures which are acceptable to all parties in society (Habermas 1992: 449 ff.; Habermas 1996: 371 ff.). Finally, it seems that we are confronted with the same bifurcation as was thematized by Hegel. Therefore, it is not possible to say that there should be any necessary positive mediation of moral discourses that can constitute a real substantial social morality in civil society.

  • Testing deliberation as the form of morality in modern society

The question now is what the consequence of this could be. This is the central problem in the discussion of social morality and the solution, as mentioned, cannot be a positive substantial social morality. We here come back to the problem of how we should interpret Kant’s ethics. One way is to interpret it in positive terms as an attempt to constitute positive norms. However, it seems as if this way is not passable. The other possibility is to read Kant’s ethics in negative terms as a critical ethics, where the crux of the matter is the possibility to test the normative validity of the maxims of an action. This is in my opinion the right way to read Kant, and it is the same way that we should consider Habermas’ communicative ethics. This should also be read critically as the possibility to test the validity of the normative maxims for an action. The consequence is that it is decisive that the institutions of civil society and the political institutions take such a form that it is possible in praxis to have a testing deliberation about the normative maxims for an action. In this connection it becomes decisive that there are public spheres in each institution where such critical deliberations can be raised. It is not possible to constitute a positive substantial moral in society. But it should be possible under the aforementioned conditions to test critically the validity of the normative maxims, if there is sufficient freedom in the public spheres of the institutions to raise the validity claims in relation to dominant discourses and preconceived opinions. For this reason ethics in society can only be secured indirectly by the constitution of the conditions which are necessary for the critical test of the validity claims.

On the immediate level, we can here refer to Kant, who ascribes the individual with the capability to ask the reasons for the validity which lie at the root of the determination of social norms. We have to start here, because this is the precondition for posing the question of validity. On the next level there is the possibility that more people can question the validity of the maxims, which form the basis for common action. However, here we are still at a level that does not necessarily have any influence on the public discussions in society. The problem is whether these deliberations can become public and take their place in the political institutions in democratic society.

It is evident that the form that politics and political institutions take should be understood positively at first. The social must always be understood in a positive way. But the characteristic of the political institutions and the political system is that they cannot only be understood in a positive way, because they have to be legitimized. The question of legitimization always concerns the validity of the political action in the institutions. Here, we come back to the problem of a critical reading of Kant. According to Kant, political institutions are legitimate insofar as there is a fair chance to participate. This does not necessarily mean that political interaction in the institutions takes an ethical form. According to Kant, we have to make a distinction between ethics and politics (Kant 1966: RL § 43 – §49, p. 311 – 318). Therefore it is not possible to claim that there should be a necessary positive connection between ethics and politics. The consequence is that ethics cannot be directly secured in a positive way in the political institutions. This does not mean that it should not be possible to sustain ethics in the political institutions; but there is not necessarily an internal positive connection between ethics and politics. The connection between ethics and politics can only be created indirectly through the possibility of questioning political action from an ethical point of view. However, this demands that there is a real possibility of raising such a question. According to Kant, this should be possible, and Habermas is of the same opinion. However, we have to take into regard that this is a political and philosophical claim that cannot necessarily be argued from the perspective of political science and sociology. In reality, politics takes its own institutional forms, where it is not deliberation but power which is in the centre. This is the general opinion in political science and sociology. The discussion is whether legal order can be understood by itself or whether it necessarily implies a form of legitimization. As long as we regard the political institutions from a positive perspective, they can be regarded as a part of the legal order, which can be seen as a self-sustaining institutional arrangement without need of further legitimization. This is Hegel’s and Weber’s perspective. But when conflicts arise, this perspective becomes insufficient. It becomes necessary to question the legitimacy and thereby the validity of the political order. This is Kant’s and Habermas’ perspective. Such a questioning does not only concern the political order but also the ethical validity of political action.

  • The open society and the totalitarian temptation

Herewith we return to the problem of whether a critical ethics can be institutionalized. So far as I can see, this is not possible insofar as this would mean the same as that critical ethics could be regarded as a pre-given substantial ethics, which could be determined in positive terms. However, this does not have the consequence that the critical ethical investigation is excluded from the political institutions. On the contrary, it is part of the understanding of the political institutions in a democratic society that they should be a constituent part of the public sphere. This gives the possibility to formalize the rights to question the political institutions, and this is the case in a modern democratic constitutional state. However, we again have to take into regard that such rights are formal rights and therefore do not necessarily say anything about how they function in practice. In this connection Kant would say that it is not possible to go further from a philosophical point of view. In Habermas’ perspective, things are different because he takes Hegel’s perspective, in which the political culture is essential for the understanding of the political institutions in society.

The conclusion is that there should be a close relationship between ethics and politics in modern society. However, this connection can only be secured indirectly through the formalization of civil rights to take part in political deliberation and through the cultivation of these rights in the public spheres of society. Therefore, a philosophical discussion of the relation between ethics and politics is insufficient; at the same time we have to introduce the empirical perspective of political sciences and sociology. It is not enough to have the correct Kantian idea; we must conclude with Hegel that ideas have to be well-founded in social and institutional practice in society. Habermas has created this mediation between Kant’s and Hegel’s perspectives, which should be interpreted critically.

Here we meet the difficult problem which can contribute to explain why religion anew has become a central topic in the discussion of moral norms in modern society. In modern society, it is not possible to present the positive mediation of norms that could give a justification of positive substantial norms. Therefore one could say that there is a fundamental normative insecurity in modern society, or along Claude Lefort’s understanding, an insecure ground of an empty normative space, that can be upheld only as empty so long a time as there is in praxis a living that does not end discussion about norms and their justification, and concerns all forms of normative problems in democratic society. In praxis, it can be difficult to fulfil such a living discussion in a modern democratic society and therefore there can always be a temptation to revitalize substantial norms grounded in tradition and religion. From a modern perspective, this represents what Lefort would describe as an attempt to reinstall a totalitarian formation of society, which falls behind the French Revolution.


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