Tag Archives: Hegel

Asger Sørensen, Capitalism, Alienation and Critique: Studies in Economy and Dialectics (Leiden: Brill, 2019)

The compilation of texts under the title Capitalism, Alienation and Critique: Studies in Economy and Dialectics is Volume one of a trilogy named Dialectics, Deontology and Democracy by Asger Sørensen. The collection is a child of its time: ambivalently modest and dashing when stating its aim, it scratches the surface of vital questions about human prospects impregnated in a global capitalist system and goes in-depth at others in the same class of issues, offering both less and more than what one might expect under certain headings.

The volume includes seven main Chapters divided in two parts (i.e. Economy and Dialectics) and throughout comes back to the initial argument that dialectics, deontology and democracy are “obligatory and necessary ways of relating to social reality” (p.11). Notwithstanding that ‘necessity’ arguments invoke primarily the necessity of immediate syllogistic precision, the exploration is generally done without being oblivious to the need to question various claims on ‘validity’ or to think of (social) science as a political practice. The included name index with bibliography and a separate subject index could well serve students stepping into the world of the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, getting inspired by the Hegelian dialectical nuances of Aufhebung, or discovering briefly Durkheim’s sociological conception of value as a way to situate persistent to this day realities, in which liberal politics ‘liberate’ the economic decision-making from moral reasoning.

An Interlude considers the potency of the classical Critical Theory and its current relevance, whereas the work concludes with a Postscript where the critique of political economy is continued from the first part and refreshingly deepened. This last and closing section in fact abounds with solid critique of several layers of capitalist ideology and is perhaps what one might prefer to read precisely in the first part dedicated to Economics, rather than an analysis of George Bataille’s quasi-political and neo-gnostic flow-of-energy concept on general economy in a macro- and micro- perspective.

The second part dedicated to Dialectics has a low start. Its beginning chapter dedicates only few lines to summarizing Aristotle’s contribution to the topic. The point is not that there is no mention of Topika or Analitika protera or that relevant works from Aristotle’s deeply political anthropoeia philosophia are, as if, footnoted (and briefly abstracted in other chapters), but that in the volume’s Introduction, the author summarizes this Chapter as the one where “dialectics is presented in a very classical philosophical way, i.e. taking it all the way from Plato and Aristotle to Hegel and Marx […]” (p.14). A careful reader (or simply a radical one in the sense of going back to the original ancient text in the spirit of the Hegelian Bildung tradition) can arrive to Aristotle’s dialectics either through his logic and the understanding of dialectic premises, or his Metaphysics and the theory of ousia. At least, this is what one would expect from a classical philosophical treatment.

Hence, the reader gets the impression that Aristotle somehow falls under the ‘et al.’ category, which the author uses throughout the entire volume. No matter how playfully or only practically intended, the ‘et al.’ practice is at points inadmissible for arguments’ sake, opening up with no need a dismissive context which inadvertently goes against the author’s own hailing of credible normative frameworks and emancipatory politics. At times the usage is outright obdurate as in “[…] and the discovery of Auschwitz et al. […]” (p.49). In any case, even if the promised classical treatment is missing as a simple consequence of preference or choice of focus, we should be mindful that these themselves might be due to a long tradition of ‘readings’ of Aristotle which sometimes impoverish dizzyingly (Kant), adapt fecundly (Hegel) or appropriate catachrestically (Heidegger) Aristotle’s potent theoretical system and dialectic approach.

In this sense, by being too eager to ‘move on’ in his argumentation at points too quickly, Sørensen risks being not radical enough in the most necessary sense, the political one. Leaving unmined treasures of insights and knots that could have been brought to light is evidenced also when the dynamic of lotteries, gambling halls, internet scams and casinos is put under the umbrella of ‘ideology of hope’ (p.290), without mining one’s own or contextual anthropological assumptions as crucial for giving a consistently critical perspective. The work itself, for instance, is seen as seeking to contribute to the establishment “of credible normative frameworks enabling us to comprehend conceptually, and hopefully also to cope with, the current human predicament, while remaining painfully aware that such an ambition may in fact be overly presumptuous” (p.20). Perhaps claiming an aim only to give it up rhetorically in the same assertion might be attractive to a certain readership, but some might see the claimed scope as complacent and missing any substantial ethico-political challenge. Moreover, even though Sørensen is afraid that Honneth’s critique might be politically impotent “due to its very radicality” (p.12), the reader might wonder what in particular is radical in reducing Critical Theory to social philosophy, given also the well-presented argument on Honneth’s approach in light of the classical critical project (p.67-82).

Imprecision, inaccuracies, and possible contradictions are thus somewhat burdensome, even though the volume is not lacking in solid demonstrations; among else, into how the ever-growing mathematization of political economy is covering up its deeply ideological violence, which leaves out the problem of social (and political) justice. Nonetheless, the claim that an apolitical relation to social reality fails to recognize the value of all intermediary institutions, since it subscribes to the idea of a single individual facing the absolute (p.122), is potentially ideological itself if left unpacked, despite one’s otherwise evident dedication to the critical project. The fact that Durkheim’s or our current intermediary institutions would condition an answer to relevant questions, or aim to eliminate the challenging ethico-political questions altogether, does not cancel or salvage us from the human condition and facing ‘the absolute’ whose historical trajectory, from God to State to Market, is only a potent soil to plough into critically.

The collection is therefore a good reminder of a struggle. A struggle of weakened States embedded in the new practices of imperialism and fragmented by the cynical ideology of global capitalism, which relies on the displaced likelihood that once something happens, it can be quickly renormalized as already having been possible. Examples abound, but think of a recent one: the imposition of a European State onto a non-European one to change its name even in its relation to all other states, against the clear will of the only sovereign (i.e., the people) and through an openly illegal and anti-constitutional process, but such that the first (politically) demarcates the (ethnic) identity of the ‘Other’ by claiming exclusivity over cultural history and even symbols. It is such political violence par excellence that defines our current world, alongside the direct one and the one that counts several millions of people as nothing, for they are neither consumers nor employees. But, if we do not see that all three orders of violence sit in the lap of greed, force and ‘this is mine’ ideology so typical of capitalism, we have understood nothing of its nature.

Hence, if our aim is effective change of the conditions currently guiding people’s lives, the grand problem might not even be how do we system-wise sustain such change and reach those that are most in need of justice and equality. Badiou has already addressed this question elsewhere. Rather, are we aware that an ‘all-inclusive’ proletarization is already underway? Such that we are all (beyond the classical image of proletarians) potentially stripped of our substance? We could, at least potentially, imagine a rich rather than a meagre symbolic life offered to newborns brought to a world of biogenetic manipulation (geared, likely, out of any democratic oversight) and threatening ecological breakdown, coupled exponentially with freedom reconfigured as being able to follow one’s whims: yet lo and behold, our political problem is deeply ethical. It reconfigures for each of us the quintessential question of what do you believe in and hope for, and how do you live in the name of it.

There was a reason why Marx was concerned with raising the awareness of the working class and the need for unity in making a change that will indeed not be in the interest of the few only, and why education is such a potent ‘game-changer’, or why for that matter Hegel was obsessed with Bildung in line with the tradition of the classical Athenian polis, and his view that critique presupposes alienation. Potentially excluded from our very substance, each-of-us a Homo Sacer might be the only proper conceptual start.

Responsibility: The First Virtue of Innovation? A discussion of some ethical and meta-ethical issues concerning the concept of ‘responsibility’ in technological innovation



John Rawls famously stated that justice is the first virtue of social institutions as truth is of systems of thought (Rawls 1971). In the context of technological innovation, which forms the background of my paper, we could paraphrase Rawls and say that responsibility is the first virtue of innovation as justice is of social institutions. The paraphrase is not supposed to work as a motto for my paper. Rather, it is a problematic statement relating to an empirical fact. A press release issued by the European Commission in November last year may serve as an illustration. The headline of the press release read as follows: ‘EU-wide poll shows public support for responsible research and innovation’. According to the poll, most Europeans (76 percent of the respondents) want science and research to be carried out ‘with due attention to ethical principles’ (European Commission 2013). The overarching principle supposed to ensure this is, as the headline indicates, that of responsibility. This is also indicated by university strategic commitments and large scale funding of research programs for “responsible research and innovation” (RRI) in Europe.

The programmatic stress on responsible (research and) innovation in European institutions, and the widespread use of the concept of responsibility in the formation of public opinion (cf. the EC press release), seems to demand some clarity as to what responsibility as an ethical concept means in this context. However, as we shall see in the following, it is quite unclear what responsibility means and can mean as an ethical concept in this context – and thus how it is supposed to work as a kind of first virtue in the ethics of innovation.

The obscurity of the references to responsibility in this context is problematic. In this paper I want to focus mainly on some suggestions as to what responsibility can mean – on how a philosophically sound concept of responsibility can be conceived of – in this context. The discussion unfolds on the background of Dieter Birnbacher’s distinction between two types of responsibility: 1) ex post responsibility, meaning responsibility ascribed to an agent for an act committed, and 2) ex ante responsibility, which means responsibility ascribed to an agent for the production of a certain state of affairs, with the acts realizing this state of affairs lying in the future (Birnbacher 2001). On the basis of an exposure of the shortcomings of ex post responsibility in the context of innovation, followed by an explication of the necessity of an ex ante concept, I look into different ways of conceiving of a form of ex ante responsibility suitable for our current technological situation. Outlining some criteria for this form of responsibility, I identify two positions with very different approaches to the question of the ethical status of responsibility. One is the position of Hans Jonas, who conceives of responsibility as an ethical principle structuring moral behavior. The other is found in the reflections on Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) by René von Schomberg, who has been an influential figure in the European Commission’s work on the ethical issues of science and technology. Here responsibility is conceived of as a kind of “tool” for responsive communication and collaboration among stakeholders on ethical issues related to research and innovation. As this conception depends on external ethical principles, I argue that it represents a form of demoralization of responsibility, which leaves it standing on a shaky moral ground. Suspending this concept, I argue in favor of a critical rehabilitation of some basic thoughts in the philosophy of Jonas, which I suggest makes better sense of the idea of a responsible subject within the field of innovation. Finally, I suggest taking a step from the Jonasian ethics of responsibility, with its strong Kantian influence, towards the Hegelian concept of Sittlichkeit – a concrete social morality supposed to disentangle responsibility from the paradoxes of subjectivist morality.  



Two problems: the subject and object of responsibility

To get a good grip of what it is that makes it so difficult to conceive of responsibility in the context of technological innovation, let us first have a quick glance at what we may call the classical, juridical concept of responsibility. While the theoretical debate on responsibility can be traced back at least as far as Aristotle’s discussions in the Nicomachean Ethics – and onward through the philosophical and theological debates on free will and determinism by Empiricus, Cicero, Agustine, Erasmus and Luther, leading up to the classical discussions in Hume, Kant and Hegel, among others – the modern meaning of the term, as it develops during the 19th and 20th centuries in particular, is most clearly expressed through its juridical usage. In civil law, responsibility comes to be understood as the obligation to make up or to compensate for the harm one has caused through one’s own fault (which in certain cases is defined by law). In penal law it comes to be understood as the obligation to accept punishment. This way of conceiving of responsibility, i.e. as a retrospective principle evoked after the events have taken place, corresponds to what Dieter Birnbacher (2001) calls ex post responsibility, and can even today be considered to be the standard way of understanding and using the terms “responsibility”, “responsible” etc. in a juridical context.[1]

The first problem this form of ex post responsibility faces in the context of innovation concerns the subject of responsibility. In the classical juridical sense, responsibility is to be ascribed to an agent capable of recognizing himself as the author of the act in question (cf. Kant). If the agent cannot do this, he cannot assume responsibility for the act, and it would therefore be problematic to punish him or make him compensate for it. Conversely, if the agent can recognize himself as the author of the act, he will be able and obligated to assume responsibility for it. In the context of technological innovation, this criterion for ascribing responsibility in the ex post sense faces a series of problems. First of all, the processes of innovation often involve so many people or groups of people that it is impossible to point out a single subject – whether collective or individual – responsible for initiating the action that led to the condemnable consequences. Consider, for example, the famous case of the invention of nuclear science, which finally led to the catastrophes of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Who are we to hold responsible for this catastrophe: the scientists, the developers of the bomb, the politicians and military strategists, the pilot who pushed the button? They all undoubtedly played a role in this catastrophic event. But we would hardly hold the innovators of nuclear science and all the people involved in the development of this science responsible for the catastrophes involved in the use of nuclear weapons. So in what sense can we decide whether their research and innovation entail responsibility or not?

While the problem regarding the subject of responsibility is serious and difficult to solve, it is not principally insoluble within the framework of ex post responsibility, since in theory these agents could all recognize themselves as authors of actions leading to the catastrophic events. A second problem, however, which concerns a displacement of the object of responsibility, tears this framework apart. Within the framework of ex post responsibility, the object of responsibility is the harm caused by the action of an agent. To ascribe responsibility therefore requires a clear view of the action and its (actual or possible) consequences: the agent is declared responsible with reference to the harm his action causes or may cause. In the case of technological innovation, however, we are dealing with possible effects that are largely unknown to us, and that may stretch far into the future. The case of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) may illustrate this point. Currently there exists no scientific certainty about what the impact of GMOs being released into the environment may be, and possible negative effects ­– ecological as well as social and economic ­– may not reveal themselves for generations. The same holds for several other forms of biotechnology and for nanotechnologies. Responsibility in such cases concerns some possible, future state of affairs that may or may not prove harmful to someone. So when we raise the demand that those involved in the development of new technology act responsibly, we do not call on them merely to make up or to compensate for harm done, or to accept punishment for their deeds. On the contrary, we call on them to act responsibly in the sense that their actions do not produce undesirable consequences – so that their actions may not produce a state of affairs causing harm to anyone. We call on the innovators in the field of biotechnology to be careful so that their activities do not alter human beings and their environment in ways that could prove harmful to them; we call on corporations not to use risky technology; we want politicians to regulate and monitor the access and circulation of potentially harmful technology on the market, and so on.

In short, in addition to taking responsibility for one’s actions, responsibility in the context of innovation means acting in such a way that one’s actions do not produce a state of affairs causing harm to any present or future being. And for this purpose, any concept of responsibility that focuses solely on the imputation of an action to an agent, as is the case with the ex post concept, will not suffice.



Reframing responsibility: Hans Jonas vs. the European Commission

Through the explication of the shortcomings of the ex post concept we see the contours of a different form of responsibility, that we with Birnbacher can label ex ante responsibility: A form of prospective responsibility that is to be evoked before the events take place. Rather than focusing mainly on ascription, imputation, accountability etc. – which are all typical focuses for ex post responsibility – the main focus here is on the relation between the agent and the people (present or future) potentially affected by his or her actions.

An interesting question at this point concerns the ethical status of this concept. We can identify two poles in the literature on this topic:

1. On the one side, we have responsibility as an ethical principle, canonized in the philosophy of Hans Jonas (2003).

2. On the other we have the reflections on RRI by René von Schomberg (especially in Schomberg 2011). Here responsibility is thought of as a principle, or rather a kind of tool, supposed to ensure rational communication and collaboration between stakeholders on ethical issues.

In the first case, we are clearly dealing with a moral concept of responsibility; for Jonas, responsibility is a supreme ethical principle imposing on us specific moral obligations (we will return to this below). In the second, however, it seems as if responsibility is in a sense demoralized: Responsibility in von Schomberg’s version of RRI is not a moral concept in itself, but a tool for structuring action according to external ethical principles, as can be seen in his proposed definition of RRI:

Responsible Research and Innovation is a transparent, interactive process by which societal actors and innovators become mutually responsive to each other with a view to the (ethical) acceptability, sustainability and societal desirability of the innovation process and its marketable products (in order to   allow a proper embedding of scientific and technological advances in our society). (Schomberg 2011:9)

The formal character of the procedure seems to suggest that it is in a sense morally neutral. However, as it is developed and initiated out of moral concerns – one of its main aims is to make science and technology compatible with shared moral values – and relies totally on external ethical principles, it is of course embedded in ethics. Resting on a contingent moral ground, however, it stands in danger of becoming just another tool for structuring ethical discourse without any real moral obligation imposed on the parties involved.

At this point we might speak of the adventure of responsibility becoming a misadventure: Devoid of any internal moral value, it ventures into a sort of ethical overinflation where it can mean everything and nothing.

Jonas, on the other hand, promotes responsibility as an ethical principle stating that we are obligated to act in such a way that our actions ensure the continuing existence of human life on earth – which also implies intervening when the risk occurs of endangering humanity in any way and in any prospect of time. This imperative – understood not in the Kantian sense of a principle it would be logically contradictory to go against, but as a kind of “axiom” (Jonas 2003:36), a necessary point of departure of ethics given the situation we are in, with our stage of technological development giving us an unprecedented power to change and control our environment – thus imposes on us a duty to take all measures in answering the “call” of the fragile other (fragility may be considered the primary object of responsibility in Jonas) to take care of it, and to protect it against every possible risk regarding its further existence.

An obvious challenge related to this approach is that the imperative of absolute precaution requires substantial knowledge about possible risks and benefits, knowledge that is often lacking in the complex field of technological innovation. Still, the imperative has a strong appeal, both intellectually (it seems unreasonable to put the future of humanity to risk) and to our feelings of solidarity, compassion with others and so on. The EU-poll referred to earlier, for example, indicates a strong positive evaluation of precautionary concerns in the European population. (At the same time, it is striking that many Europeans seem not to support responsible research and innovation. Here I can only speculate, but one might suspect that some of the skepticism can be due to the dubious status of ethics in this context.) Furthermore, the precautionary principle has a strong position in EU laws on matters of science and technology. However, the precautionary principle as applied in this way is attached to specific areas of innovation. It does not, for example, have a strong position within the field of economic innovation. But does the answer lie in the Jonasian universalization or totalization of responsibility? As Paul Ricoeur (2000:32) observes, the final consequence of a totalization of responsibility may be unlimited responsibility of everyone for everything. Paradoxically, this might lead to a kind of fatalism making the subject truly responsible only for his intentions, not for his actions (I will return to this dilemma, identified by Hegel in his Philosophy of Right, shortly).

Jonas, however, puts a limit to responsibility by way of his principle that knowledge together with power implies responsibility: We are responsible to the degree that we have sufficient knowledge about the actualities and possibilities of the situation coupled with the power to do something about it. (Or applied differently: Knowledge about the destructive powers of our actions obligates us not to proceed with the action.)

This also gives us a clue as to how the subject of (ex ante) responsibility can be conceived of. The subject of this form of responsibility is none other than the subject (individual or collective) possessing knowledge about the risks involved in an action and the powers to either proceed with it or to restrain it.



Responsibility and beyond: A passage to Hegel

We have seen that the shortcomings of the ex post concept of responsibility in the context of innovation requires that we conceive of new ways of thinking about responsibility. For responsibility to work as a first virtue of innovation, as seems to be the ambition of the EU with its programmatic stress on responsible research and innovation, we need a theory of responsibility that clarifies how responsibility can be evoked as an ethical principle before the harmful actions and events take place, while at the same time maintaining the idea of a responsible subject.

I have suggested that this concept of responsibility can be developed on the background of a critical rehabilitation of the Jonasian concept of responsibility: A concept that, through its coupling of the imperative of precaution with the idea of the fragile other as the object of responsibility, speaks both to our intellects and to our moral feelings of solidarity with and compassion for others – and further provides us with an idea of the subject of responsibility as the subject capable of causing harm.

As a final (but none the less, on my behalf, experimental) move, I suggest taking a step beyond the Jonasian ethics, with its Kantian influence, towards the Hegelian concept of Sittlichkeit. In the Philosophy of Right, Hegel places responsibility – in the Kantian sense as the ability of an agent to recognize itself as the author of the act causing the events in question – under the category of Moralität, i.e. the individual’s capacity to make moral decisions or to draw up a moral vision of the world in a kind of social vacuum. It is here that Hegel identifies the “paradox” or dilemma referred to above: Action involves the externalization of subjective will (intention), which means that when one acts in the world, the will, or rather the action constituting the will, is instantly subjected to external necessity, and is therefore brought out of the control of the subject (meaning the subjective will). Eventually we get what might be called “side effects” of the action: effects neither intended nor foreseen by the subject. These effects might be catastrophic, but since they are unintended and unforeseen, they are outside the realm of the subjective will, which means that it cannot recognize itself as their true author and therefore cannot accept being held responsible[2] for them (Hegel 1986:203–292). Still, someone must be held responsible; and who could that be other than the subject initiating the action? But if we really were to hold it responsible, this would mean burdening it with an unlimited responsibility, making it impossible to act at all. This dilemma of the side effects of actions is especially pertinent in the case of technological innovation, where the actual catastrophic effects produced by the use of the technology seldom coincide, and can even be in direct conflict, with the intentions of its innovators. For Hegel, this dilemma cannot be solved within the framework of subjective morality (Moralität), because it is produced by the fact that this framework isolates the subjective will from the (social/objective) sphere in which its actions take place. This in turn necessitates the move from Moralität to Sittlichkeit.[3]

I cannot give a detailed account of Hegel’s theory of Sittlichkeit here, but the point is that responsibility is moved from the sphere of subjective morality to the objective sphere of society. In Sittlichkeit, subjective will is dialectically sublated by the logic of the collective. This means that there are no purely subjective actions, and therefore no purely subjective form of responsibility: The subject is always already a part of (or embedded in) the social sphere – with its objectivity in the form of mores, customs, shared beliefs, laws, institutions and so on – as are its actions and their effects. The actions and their effects are thereby subjected to a necessity not purely external, but constituted by the subject as an integral part of this sphere of necessity, which at the ontological level of Sittlichkeit is the sphere of sociality (which is also the sphere of true freedom, in the Hegelian sense of freedom as constituted by the social/moral-psychological process of recognition, Anerkennung).

This may appear overly abstract, but in fact it is meant to show how morality changes from being expressed in an abstract “ought” (Sollen), drawn from the subject’s relating to itself and its idea of the good, to being played out in the concrete social setting of society (bürgerliche Gesellschaft). From the Hegelian perspective, what is abstract is rather any theory of moral responsibility presenting it as something that can be ascribed to an agent principally existing outside the social sphere of morality – as would be the case in the RRI scheme proposed by von Schomberg, that is based on the metaphysical idea of an agent acting on the world of ethics and morality from the outside. Hegel, on the other hand, places the individual in the social sphere from the beginning, realizing that any concept of a subjective will acting on the world from the outside – or rather, from the inside of its isolated existence – is bound to be contradictory, or at least insufficient, and that the attempts to ascribe responsibility for an action and its effects is absurd within this framework. Instead, we must start from the observation of the subject unfolding in the social sphere, and, according to Hegel at least, base our conception on the dialectic of subjective and objective morality.

In short, the reason why I want to explore this path in my investigations into the concept of responsibility is that I see a clear need to make a move from abstract ethics – with its dualism of the subject of intentions and the external sphere of ethical principles – to a concrete social morality. I would like to see where it leads to when, on the basis of a critique of responsibility in RRI-schemes and moral philosophies of responsibility such as Jonas’s, we pay renewed attention to Hegel’s social theory and philosophy of moral agency; not accepting the whole theory at face value, but concentrating on the sublation of classical (ex post) responsibility into the ethico-institutional realm of Sittlichkeit – a realm where no action is considered purely subjective, but is instead conceived of as the subject’s constitutive self-investing in the (social) world of institutions, laws, mores, customs, shared beliefs etc. – making the consequences of its actions, whether intended or unintended, future or present, intelligible as moral aspects of the actions themselves.



Concluding remarks: Hegel with Jonas?

An important question will be to what extent the ex ante responsible subject can be incorporated into the Hegelian ethics of Sittlichkeit. How would the responsible subject of Jonas’s ethics, for example – making individual moral decisions on the basis of a strict imperative of precaution – fit in with Hegel’s basic thesis of the fundamental social character of moral agency? I suspect that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to make Jonas’s responsible subject fit seamlessly into the Hegelian scheme of ethical life. Jonas’s subject does not make its moral decisions in a social vacuum ­– here he is on a par with Hegel – but the Jonasian “call of the other” does not seem to be conditioned by any form of Sittlichkeit. Rather, this call seems to be the (ontological) source of moral responsibility itself (Jonas 2003, especially pp. 234–240.). Thus, the subject’s morality is not necessarily linked to its belonging to an existing social order, but rather has its origin in singular encounters with fragile others (archetypically exemplified by the encounter with the extreme fragility of the newborn child).

A theoretical affiliation can, however – with some adjustments on both sides – be construed regarding one crucial matter at stake here: the matter of the side effects of actions. Trying to solve the (Hegelian) problem of the side effects of actions, Jonas evokes the idea of (what Ricoeur calls) the succession of generations (Ricoeur 2000:31). The impacts – intended or unintended – of an action (Tat, in Hegel) on future generations are linked to the action – the Handlung manifested by the externalization of subjective will in Hegel’s theory – and thereby to our subjectivity by the way the action (Tat) is carried on into the future by the succession of generations. In other words: The action (Handlung as well as Tat) unfolds, through its effects, as part of an inter-generational chain of being. This makes responsibility a matter more of ethical life as a whole – i.e. as a system irreducible to its (at any time T) existing parts – than of a subjective will acting upon the matter of ethics and morality from the supra-moral standpoint of the “rational agent” or the like – which, as implied above, can be said to be the metaphysical starting point of von Schomberg’s theory of the (co-)responsible subject; a subject that seems stripped bare of any moral capacity besides that of the (displaced?) intention or interest to act according to external ethical principles.

Whether this theoretical affiliation stands the test of philosophical scrutinizing remains to be seen. In any case, the demands for responsibility in our time make urgent the need for further reflection on and clarification of the meaning of the concept – not least if it is to continue functioning as a “first virtue” in the ethics of technology and innovation.



Birnbacher, D. (2001): “Philosophical Foundations of Responsibilty”. In    Responsibility: The Many Faces of a Social Phenomenon. Auhagen, A.E. et al. (eds.). London/NY: Routledge.

European Commission (2013): “Press release 14 November 2013: Eu-wide poll shows public support for responsible research and innovation.”   http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-13-1075_en.htm (accessed 25   November 2013).

—— (2013): Options for Strengthening Responsible Research and Innovation. Report of the Expert Group on the State of Art in Europe on       Responsible Research and Innovationhttp://ec.europa.eu/research/science-society/document_library/pdf_06/options-for-strengthening_en.pdf (accessed 21 July 2014).

Hegel, G.W.F (1986): Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.

Jonas, H. (2003): Das Prinzip Verantwortung. Versuch einer Ethik für die technologische Zivilisation. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.

Rawls, John (1971): A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.

Ricoeur, Paul (2000): The Just. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Schomberg, R.v. (2007): From the Ethics of Technology towards an Ethics of Knowledge Policy and Knowledge Assessment. A working document from the European Commission Services, Directorate General for Research, Brussles.

——. (2011): “Prospects for technology assessment in a framework of     responsible research and innovation”. In: Dusseldorp, M., and Beecroft, R.   (eds) Technikfolgen abscätzen lehren. Bildungspotenziale tranzdisiplinäre Methoden, pp. 39–61. Wiesbaden: Vs Verlag.


[1] There are some prominent exceptions, notably: 1) obligations of means (as opposed to obligations of result, cf. in particular French civil and (presumably) penal codes, 2) state responsibility (international law, especially human rights obligations), and 3) duty of care (Anglophone common law, especially English). While responsibility in these cases are revealed in law courts ex post, i.e. in case of a breach of them, they are present in the law in the prospective sense as duties whose fulfillment is expected of the relevant agents (private individuals, corporations or organizations, states). I am indebted to Professor Giorgio Baruchello (University of Akureyri) for this remark.

[2] Hegel does not use the contemporary German word for responsibility, Verantwortung, but uses related terms such as zurechnen (ascribe) (1986:218) and imbutabel (1986:212) where we today would speak of responsibility/Verantwortung.

[3] That is, it does not alone necessitate this move, but is one of the ”contradictions” of subjective morality necessitating it. 



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.




Hegel, G.W.F. (1955), Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts, Philosophische Biblio­thek Band 124a, Felix Meiner Verlag, Hamburg.

Hegel, G.W.F. (1971a), Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Philosophie I, Werke Band 18, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 1), Om Begrebet Ironi, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker vol. 1, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 2), Enten – Eller, Første Halvbind, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker vol. 2, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 3), Enten – Eller, Andet Halvbind, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker vol. 3, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 4), Atten opbyggelige Taler, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker vol. 4, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 6), Tre Taler ved tænkte Leiligheder, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker vol. 6, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 7), Stadier paa Livets Vei, Første Halvbind, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker vol. 7, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 8), Stadier paa Livets Vei, Andet Halvbind, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker vol. 8, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 9), Afsluttende uvidenskabeligt efterskrift til de philosophiske smuler, Første Halvbind, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker vol. 9, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 10), Afsluttende uvidenskabeligt efterskrift til de philosophiske smuler, Andet Halvbind, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker vol. 10, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 11), Opbyggelige Taler i forskjellig Aand, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker vol. 11, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 12), Kjerlighedens Gjerninger, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker vol. 12, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 13), Christelige Taler, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker, vol. 13, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 14), En literair anmeldelse, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker, vol. 14, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 15), Sygdommen til Døden, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker, vol. 15, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 16), Indøvelse i Christendom, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker, vol. 16, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 17), En opbyggelig Tale, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker, vol. 17, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 17), To Taler ved Altergangen om Fredagen, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker, vol. 17, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 17), Til Selvprøvelse, Samtiden anbefalet, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker, vol. 17, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 17), Dømmer selv!, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker, vol. 17, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 18), Bladartikler, der staar i Forhold til »Forfatterskabet«, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker vol. 18, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 18), Om min Forfatter-Virksomhed, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker vol. 18, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 18), Synspunkter for min Forfatter-Virksomhed, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker vol. 18, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 19), Bladartikler 1854-55, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker Bladartikler 1854-55, vol. 19, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (SV 19), Øjeblikket, in: Søren Kierkegaard, Samlede Værker Bladartikler 1854-55, vol. 19, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1994.

Kierkegaard, Søren (1965), The Concept of Irony, trans. by Lee M. Capel, Indiana Univ. Press, Bloomington & London 1965.

Kierkegaard, Søren (1968), Concluding Unscientific Postscript, trans. by David F. Swenson & Walter Lowrie, Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton 1968.

Kierkegaard, Søren (1983), Fear and Trembling, trans. and ed. by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton 1983.

Løgstrup, K.E. (1967), Opgør med Kierkegaard, Gyldendal, Copenhagen.

Stewart, Jon (2003), Kierkegaard’s Relations to Hegel Reconsidered, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Søltoft, Pia (2000), Svimmelhedens etik, Gads Forlag, Copenhagen.

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.


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.



Aristotle (1977), Politics, The Loeb Classical Library XXI, Cambridge Massachusetts and London, Harvard University Press & William Heinemann.

Aristotle (1982), The Nicomachean Ethics, The Loeb Classical Library XIX, Cambridge Massachusetts and London, Harvard University Press & William Heinemann.

Arendt, Hannah (1958), The Human Condition, Chicago & London, The University of Chicago Press.

Augustine (1998), The City of God Against the Pagans, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Habermas, Jürgen (1962), Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit – Untersuchungen zu einer Kategorie der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft, Neuwied, Hermann Luchterhand Verlag.

Habermas, Jürgen (1968), ‘Arbeit und Interaktion. Bemerkungen zu Hegels Jenenser ‘Philosophie des Geistes’, i: Jürgen Habermas (1968), Technik und Wissenschaft als ‘Ideologie’, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, s. 9 – 47.

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

Hansmann, Otto (1992), Moralität und Sittlichkeit, Weinheim, Deutscher Studien Verlag.

Hegel. G. W. F. (1923a), Schriften zur Politik und Rechtphilosophie, Georg Lasson (Hrsg.), Sämtliche Werke band VII, Leipzig, Verlag von Felix Meiner.

Hegel. G. W. F. (1923b), ‘System der Sittlichkeit‘, in Hegel. G. W. F. (1923a), Schriften zur Politik und Rechtphilosophie, Georg Lasson (Hrsg.), Sämtliche Werke band VII, Leipzig, Verlag von Felix Meiner, s. 414 -499.

Hegel, G. W. F. (1952), Phänomenologie des Geistes, Philosophische Bibliothek Band 114, Hamburg, Felix Meiner Verlag.

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.

Honneth, Axel (1992), Kampf um Anerkennung – Zur Moralischen Grammatik sozialer Konflikte, Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp.

Honneth, Axel (2011), Das Recht der Freiheit; Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp Verlag.

Lukács, Georg (1981), Der junge Hegel, 3. Au?age, 1968, Neuwied und Berlin, Hermann Luchterhand Verlag.

Marx, Karl (1968), „Thesen über Feurbach“ i Karl Marx, Die Frühschriften, Stuttgart, Alfred Kröner Verlag, s. 339 – 341.

OED – Oxford English Dictionary: practice, noun, Third edition, December 2006; online version June 2012. <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/149226>; accessed 10 July 2012. An entry for this word was first included in New English Dictionary, 1907

OED – Oxford English Dictionary: practise | practice, verb, Third edition, December 2006; online version June 2012. <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/149234>; accessed 10 July 2012. An entry for this word was first included in New English Dictionary, 1907.

OED – Oxford English Dictionary: praxis: praxis, noun, Third edition, March 2007; online version June 2012. <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/149425>;; accessed 10 July 2012. An entry for this word was first included in New English Dictionary, 1907.

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St. Thomas Aquinas – On Politics and Ethics (1988), Paul Sigmund (red.), New York London, W. W. Norton & Company.

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.



Alienation, language and freedom. A note on Bildung in Hegel’s writings

The General Argument

Hegel’s concept of Bildung is often explained with reference to the Introduction and chapter four in the Phenomenology.4 It is thought that for Hegel experience, negation and productive work are the determining elements for the Bildung of the consciousness as conscious being, in German Bewu?t-sein. In contrast to this, I argue that for Hegel Bildung cannot be completed through production. The most elaborate discussion of Bildung in the Phenomenlogy is found in the chapter six on Geist (i.e. spirit), and here it is the alienation and tearing apart of the self that is constitutive for Bildung, not working with some material. Bildung presupposes alienation as something experienced, but also as expressed. Language is thus a necessary component for Bildung. The point is here, that Bildung as a phenomenon is collective (a people and a family), political (about wealth, power and law), and historical (it develops until revolutions). Bildung is something that happens in relation to the spirit, not production. Bildung is therefore not just a matter of concern for an individual consciousness working with some material. This is the idea of Bildung, I will elaborate a little further on in the next section. In the rest of this section I will just complete the general argument.

With this general idea of Bildung as a framework it is obvious that Hegel must put a lot of emphasis on the importance of language and alienation also in the Gymnasium. In his annual speeches as rector he pays homage to traditional Bildung (W4: 307), but he also wants to open the minds of the students for new developments (W4: 314). This opening, however, can according to Hegel be achieved by confronting the students with the classical writings in Greek and Latin (W4: 319). The learning of language requires discipline, and since it is strange, it also breaks with conformity. The content of the classics, however, also give you the instruments to reconcile yourself with reality once again (W4: 320-21). As would be expected from his reputation as the spokesman of the state, Hegel of course emphasizes discipline (W4: 334-35), but he is also very careful to spell out that the youth needs time by themselves to be able to develop the character necessary for grating them freedom and liberty (W4: 351-53).

In his teaching material from the same period Hegel emphasizes that the Bildung should be both theoretical and practical. According to Hegel virtues to be cultivated in relation to science are the recognition of the limits of judgment, the importance of objectivity and disinterestedness (W4: 260). Practical virtues are first of all health, which enable us to fulfill our calling. We should be faithful to our calling, since as part of humanity it expresses something universal and necessary (W4: 262-63). Bildung is to Hegel what Kant would consider duties toward oneself. With these duties fulfilled in relation to ourselves, we are enabled to have duties in relation to others.

Bildung thus requires education, not just working with a material. In relation to Bildung, work can at most create tacit knowledge, whereas Bildung in the full sense presupposes language and culture. As such this account of Bildung in Hegel differs from interpretations in the slipstream of Marxism. The historical subject can never be the working class; the historical subject must have studied Greek and Latin in the Gymnasium.

The interpretation offered, however, also differs from the way the term has recently been understood by Robert Pippin. Bildung is not just a “learning process” (Pippin 2008: 122), neither is it “collective self-cultivation” (2008: 126), since cultivation is an instrumental purposive practice, whereas Bildung relates to the split between individual and collective, it partly happens behind your backs, and it is never completed. It is precisely by the consciousness being torn apart that Bildung is always open to freedom.

Some Details from the Phenomenology

This being the argument, I will just supply a few details to substantiate it a little more. In discussions of Bildung it is as mentioned common to refer to chapter four of the Phenomenology. It is here we get the detailed account of the conceptual logic of work, as it is carried out by the slave. Slavery is to be forced to work for somebody else. The consciousness of a slave in the service of a master is thus characterized by fear. For Hegel desire is characterized by requesting the “pure negation of an object”, which will thus be lost, and in this perspective Hegel can therefore think of work as another kind of negation, namely as “inhibited desire, delayed disappearances” (W3: 153). Crucial to Hegel is that the slave in this formation of the thing “comes to himself” (W3: 153). It is therefore common to link the work on the object to Bildung as such. One is supposed to form oneself, when working and thus forming the thing according to one’s own idea. In giving the thing its shape one externalizes oneself, and one can therefore recognize oneself in the resulting object.

It is normally presumed that Hegel in this figure let an awareness of one self in self-consciousness be created through the working process, and that Bildung therefore will be the result of production. However, Hegel consistently fails to use the word ‘Bildung‘ in this context. Instead when Hegel is writing on the formation of things in this passage, he uses the word ‘Bilden‘, and none of the two words appears in the account of the evolution of consciousness. It is clearly the case that Hegel let the thing be formed according to the idea of man working with the material and also that an awareness is generated through this work. That, however, does not mean that self-consciousness thereby attains Bildung.

The close connection between Bildung and alienation mentioned above is indicated already by a superficial look at chapter six on The Spirit. The combination of both these elements actually constitutes the title of section VI.B., “The world of the spirit, which is alienated for itself; Bildung”. Furthermore subsection VI.B.1 on “The world of the spirit alienated from itself” contains a sub-sub-section VI.B.I.a., which is named “Bildung and its realm in reality”, and this sub-sub-section is one of the longest in the book.

In this realm of Bildung consciousness confronts conflicts, contradictions and divisions, which are developed in relation to objects, in relation to consciousness itself, and even in relation to the contradictions themselves. For Hegel Bildung not only presupposes that consciousness becomes external to itself. It also means that consciousness becomes alienated to itself; actually Hegel goes as far as to say that alienation becomes alien to itself (W3: 366). Basically the problem is from the outset the conflict between the universal, which consciousness strives to express, and the individual or particulars, which appear in reality. Consciousness thinks to have the truth about itself, but again and again it becomes obvious to consciousness itself that what is expressed by consciousness does not have universal validity, and thus for Hegel no reality in the strict sense.

In the realm of Bildung the decisive contradiction is between the political power of the state and wealth (W3: 367). This conflict Hegel describes in various steps, which as a whole reconstructs the logic in the societal development from the feudal society to bourgeois or capitalist society. The decisive moment for Hegel, however, is, when language is introduced in the analysis. For Hegel it is language that really makes alienation and Bildung possible. The language is “the existence of the self as pure self” (W3: 376). Language allows the silent loyalty to be transformed into “heroic flattery” (W3: 378), and on the other hand, it elevates the power to “an existence refined to spirit”, the pure “similarity-in-itself: the monarch “(W3: 378). For Hegel it is language that constitute the absolute sovereignty of the king – l’état, ce moi – and this form of state on the other hand implies the most extreme alienation on the side of the servant.

The result is “laceration”, i.e. being torn apart in such an extreme sense that it must lead to a revolution. To Hegel this means that everything that is universal, everything “that is called law, good and right” (W3: 382) falls apart and is destroyed; “everything equal has dissolved” into “the purest inequality “(W 3: 382). According to Hegel, however, it is in this absolute alienation, we encounter the truth of Bildung. “The language of being lacerated is […] the perfect language and the true existing spirit of this whole world of Bildung.” (W3: 384) Self-consciousness is exalted in this rejection of “the absolute equality-with-itself in the absolute laceration” (W3: 385). The “pure Bildung” is “this absolute and general distortion and alienation of reality and thought” (W3: 385). In this alienated Bildung consciousness transcends both the noble loyalty and the vile meanness of the rebel. Its existence is “the general speech and the lacerating judging” (W3: 386) which, however, expresses what is “true and irrepressible” (W3: 386). This “lacerated consciousness” is “the consciousness of distortion”(W3: 386), which distorts “all concepts and realities “. The” shamelessness to pronounce this deception”, “alternately furious and soothing, urgent and mocking” is however “the greatest truth “(W 3: 387). For Hegel “the laceration of consciousness that is conscious of itself and speaks itself” is a “scornful laughter about life as well as about the whole confusion and itself” (W3: 389).

This description of Bildung in the Phenomenology of Spirit obviously presupposes the development of the culture of modern society, where people linguistically can relate both to themselves, to their surroundings and to the contradictions that arise in relation to themselves as well as between them. Bildung reaches its climax in the clear recognition of the contradictionary character of existence itself. Bildung is what is achieved by the one, who is indeed alienated, that is, not only alienated from himself and his surroundings, but also from the very alienation.

Concluding Remarks

Bildung and alienation are for Hegel thus processes, which clearly take place in the upper strata of society. Bildung presupposes the alienation, which can only be brought by in the formal education, and on its side Bildung creates the enabling conditions for further alienation, fragmentation and freedom of expression. Pushed to the extreme Bildung is simply alienation. Bildung is directed towards an end, which can be determined in advance. As Gadamer says, then Bildung is not a means to shape natural dispositions, which are given (Gadamer 1986: 17). In Bildung man must break with what is merely given and through negation sublate himself to universality.

These remarks apply both to the general concept of Bildung, as it is described in the Phenomenology and to the more pedagogical concept of Bildung that Hegel developed in his Nürnberg-writings. In relation to the classics in Greek and Latin one can develop alienation and laceration, and still it is precisely in these works, in the midst of lacerating despair, that it is possible to find one self again. However, this means that for Hegel there must be some kind of contradiction between being an educated person and having Bildung. For Bildung seems to be so closely associated with alienation, that Bildung can never be a process brought to a close. Bildung is precisely this that consciousness – that is, man’s conscious being – can still be moved by the impressions, which are worth being moved by. With Bildung one becomes able to form still better judgments, but one does not receive a set of final judgments.

Hegel clearly sees that higher administrative officers, as the Gymnasium mainly were to educate, must be able to take responsibility. Bildung as a special kind of spiritual formation thus require the experience of real freedom; Bildung must develop the capacity to make the right judgments in a very complex reality, and therefore it must not imply the feeling that action is concluded, or that that the answer is already given. The laceration means that each and every person must decide concretely for himself in every case. In a gender and class perspective, one can say that the upper-class sons of Hegel’s high school are trained for the freedom, responsibility and sovereignty required by the roles they must fill out in bourgeois society. This also means that for Hegel one of course gets some formation through productive work, but that does not mean that one gets Bildung. Negation is a necessary component of all kinds of consciousness formation, but productive work is not the only kind of negation, and actually it is a rather primitive one. In Bildung it is the experienced strangeness of antiquity, which is the negative component. The necessary break with the given reality happens in the alienation experienced in relation to the classical languages. To get the Bildung necessary for living in freedom and taking responsibility, for Hegel the worker thus has to enter high school.


Gadamer, H.-G. 1986. Wahrheit und Methode. Tübingen: Mohr. (Gesammelte Werke, Bd. 1)

Hegel, G. W. F. (W3). Phänomenologie des Geistes, i Hegel W.

Hegel, G. W. F. (W4). Nürnberger und Heidelbergerschriften 1808-1817, i Hegel W.

Hegel, G. W. F. (W). Werke in zwanzig Bänden. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1969-71.

Heidegren, C.-G. 1995. Hegels Fenomenologi. En analys och kommentar. Stockholm/Stehag: Brutus Östlings Bokförlag Symposion.

Pippin, R. B. 2008. Hegel’s Practical Philosophy. Rational Agency as Ethical Life, Cambridge University Press.


1 The German term Bildung is very difficult to translate adequately into English. Bildung is a specific kind of formation, and the word can signify both the process of what in the US would be called liberal education, and the normative goal for such an education, namely to acquire Bildung or to end up as an educated person. These difficulties cannot be ignored when dealing with this matter in English, but for now I have restricted myself to a simple technical solution. In what follows I have thus used the German term, whenever there was any possibilities of misunderstandings.


2 The relation between the German Gymnasium and the high school of the English speaking world will not be dealt with here.

3 This note stems from a presentation at the winter session in Nordic Summer University at Turku University in Finland, February 11th 2012. I have given a fuller account of the argument in the original Danish version, ”Hegel. Fremmedgørelse, sprog og frihed”, which will be a chapter in the Norwegian anthology edited by Ingerid Straume, Danningens Filosofihistorie (Oslo: Gyldendal).

4 Cf. e.g. Heidegren (1995: 464).

The Dialectics of Democracy



Modern democracy cannot be conceived only in terms of political equality, mass participation, competition, or tolerance. Nor can it be defined as a system where the public good is determined through rational or ethical deliberation. All these are, at least in principle, possible even in autocratic or oligarchic systems. What is peculiar for modern democracy is that opposition and dissent are not only tolerated, but they are recognized as necessary aspects of the system. Governments need oppositions, because their right to govern is legitimized only through the presence of an opposition. The task of the opposition in a democratic system is to express distrust: to criticize the actions of the government and to provide an alternative. The opposition institutionalizes distrust, and, paradoxically, the presence of this institutionalized distrust is, for the citizens, one important reason to trust the democratic system. Insofar as the opposition is incompetent, or bribed or otherwise made toothless, the system appears as less democratic, and the democratic legitimacy of the government is consequently diminished.

The idea that an organized or institutionalized distrust embodied in the opposition could ultimately be the basis of legitimacy is complex and even paradoxical. It is no wonder that the classical normative theories of democracy have not been able to conceptualize the role of opposition. The idea of democracy as the sovereignty of the People was born in the French Revolution. Typically it conceived the People as united and homogeneous. The Marxist and nationalist conceptions of democracy (for example, that of Carl Schmitt 1985; 2008) are direct descendants of this idea. Even when it was admitted that the “Will of the People” could, in practice, only mean the will of the majority, the unavoidable presence of a distrusting minority was conceived as a defect, a deviation from the pure ideal of democracy. The perfect democracy was, ideally, based on unanimity and a complete identity between the rulers and the ruled (see Rosanvallon 2006, ch 3.). There was no room for organized opposition in this conception.

The liberal version of popular sovereignty presented in John Locke’s Second Treatise (Locke 1988) was not based on the hypothetical identification of the rulers and the ruled. According to Locke, the government was based on trust. Trust was, unlike a contract or identity, an asymmetrical relationship. The people or the community could unilaterally withdraw its trust and replace the government by another. If the rulers refused to obey, the ruled had a right to resist the rulers, and if necessary, rise to arms. Nevertheless, trust was for Locke, the normal and natural situation. Distrust remained exceptional and external.

The epistemic conception of democracy as a method to find the true, best or most justified solutions to problems which concern all derives from Aristotle’s Politics. There, Aristotle famously argues that a decision-making group may be wiser or better informed than any of its individual members. In The Social Contract Jean-Jacques Rousseau expressed this idea in the following terms:

When in the popular assembly a law is proposed, what people is asked is not exactly whether it approves or rejects the proposal, but whether it is in conformity with the general will, which is their will. Each man, when giving his vote, states his opinion on that point; and the general will is found by counting votes. When therefore the opinion that is contrary to my own prevails, this proves neither more nor less than that I was mistaken, and that what I thought to be the general will was not so. (Rousseau 1973, p. 250)

In this conception, disagreement is the starting point. Yet, opposition becomes irrational and unjustified when the democratic decision has been made. The legitimacy of democratic decisions is based on the hypothesis that a democratic majority is more likely to find the correct solution than any individual voter or a sub-group of voters. Hence, post-decisional opposition must be a sign of irrational stubbornness. The contemporary theories of deliberative democracy (for example that of Jürgen Habermas 1986) are partly based on the epistemic conception. Habermas and his followers (Benhabib 1994; Cohen 1989) argue that in the ideal conditions constituted by free, unlimited discussion, the discussion partners would ultimately agree on reasons as well as on conclusions. This rational consensus would guarantee the truth or validity of the conclusions, for, ideally, it would incorporate into itself all imaginable counter-objections and criticisms. The deliberative theorists are ready to admit than in the real life, disagreements are unavoidable. But, again, such disagreements only show that the democratic process falls short of the ideal. Again, the presence of a persistent opposition appears as a (perhaps unavoidable) defect.

Finally, the “realist” theorists of democracy (for example, Weber 1994, or Schumpeter 1962) conceive democracy in terms of power struggle. For them, struggle for power is the essence of all politics, and democratic competition is one form of it. The “realists” admit the unavoidability of disagreements in democratic politics. However, when conceptualizing democratic politics as “war by other means” they neglect an important difference between the democratic competition and other forms of power struggle. In democracy, unlike, say, in international politics, the relations between the competing parties are internal rather than purely external and contingent. True, parties compete for power. However, power in a democratic society is not simply an ability to realize one’s own will. The winning party, which forms the government, has power only because it is obeyed by the citizens, and it is obeyed (at least partly) because the citizens see its claim for power as legitimate; it deserves its power. It is perceived as legitimate because it has temporarily won its opponents in a fair competition, yet those opponents may challenge it again. Hence, the permanent presence of an opposing force is a necessary condition for the power of the government. Within the democratic political body, the idea is thus not to press into consensus, or to silence the parties which do not belong to the government after the last elections. The winners are winners because there are losers who recognize their defeat, but still continue to disagree. While competition for power may be a near-universal phenomenon (as the “realists” claim), this mutual dependence between competitors is a unique property of democracies.

Opposition as an internal controller

I would characterize democracy as a necessarily contradictory whole, in which the parties are internally related to each others. The idea is to continue the struggle over matters which concern “all”. This internal struggle between mutually contradicting parties serves democratic purposes. There can, of course, be no opposition without a government which it opposes, but equally, there cannot be a democratic government without an active opposition. The opposition provides, by its public criticism and inspection of the government’s actions, a “system of checking” of whether the government is doing what it has promised to do and whether it is acting in the best interest of “all”. In fact, the role of the opposition is to try to reveal that the government is actually not acting in the best interest of the community as a whole, but, instead, pursues more or less parochial aims i.e. it pursues too much the aims of the party which has last won in the elections. Interestingly, a system which comprises of a government, checked and radically criticised by a sort of “internally external” opposition that also provides an alternative choice for voters in the next election, is considered a trustworthy democratic system. While an external controller, for example a Supreme Court or a body of scientists or experts, are supposed to present impartial, disengaged, neutral and apolitical (“power-free”) evaluation, the role of opposition is to be fully engaged concerning the things under discussion. One important aspect of the opposition is to criticise the rationale, by which the government legitimizes its decisions, for being biased or parochial.

In her article ‘Unpolitical Democracy’ Nadia Urbinati (2009) discusses the role of contestation and criticism in various theories of democracy (for example, in those of Pierre Rosanvallon and Philip Pettit). She promotes the idea that democracy, as a system in which things that concern “all” are decided by all, should not diminish the role of partisan, engaged opposition. If the evaluation of things is transferred away from the area where politically engaged parties confront each others, into an area where neutral parties are supposed to evaluate or judge the public good impartially (from the point of view of an apolitical judge or a scientist), democratic decision making is compromised. Power becomes hidden behind the veil of a neutral judge or some other external evaluator. Issues under discussion become easily divided into “political” and “apolitical” parts, into issues which can be struggled upon politically and issue which are thought to belong to the sphere of external evaluation. Urbinati writes:

It prefigures a transformation of the meaning of politics according to goals and criteria that recall the nineteenth-century utopia of the rational power of the experts. It suggests that politics is a cognitive practice for reaching true outcomes, solving problems, and moreover eradicating “politically-relevant reasonable disagreement. (Urbinati 2009, 74)

For Urbinati, one problem with the external controlling is that experts typically give evaluations on a restricted frame of questions, the framing of which is not part of the political process itself:

in the deliberative fora the formation of the agenda and the frame of questions to be discussed by the selected citizens are not part of the political process. They are instead kept outside the forum as the task of the mediators and organizers of these deliberative experiments. In clear violation of the democratic principle of autonomy, both the issues to be discussed without prejudice, and the procedures regulating the discussion, are not decided and chosen by the participants. (Urbinati 2009, 74)

The practice of splitting issues into political and apolitical aspects is not itself part of the democratic (political) process. It is done externally by actors which are not themselves exposed to democratic criticism. The grounding idea of democracy is that it exercises autonomous power over things which concern “all” (res publica). There is no party external, beyond or not accessible to it, which would determine the problems to be discussed, or which would set the frame, outline or circumscribe the politically relevant aspects of things under discussion. When issues are divided into those aspects which are discussed politically and into those which are left to neutral, external experts, it can be forgotten that there are hardly any aspects which do not relate to questions of power or carry ethical implications. Few aspects are purely technical, power-free or abstract. Moreover, even that neutral parties, like judges, scientists or various selected citizen bodies are important sources of knowledge and opinions, they are not external in the sense of being completely “power-free”. Scientific or legal expertise is always practiced in a cultural context and, hence, it should not be considered as beyond democratic criticism and analysis.

Hegel and the dialectics between the self and the Other

The claim defended here is that the relationship between the government and the distrusting, internal opposition can be understood in terms of Hegel’s dialectics. At the first sight, Hegel is not a promising starting point for democratic theorizing. His main political work, Philosophy of Right, is not a particularly democratic work. Admittedly, Hegel does defend representative institutions, constitution, and the basic rights. Thus, the once widespread claim that Hegel was simply an apologist of the contemporary Prussian state is mistaken, for Hegel’s Prussia had none of these. Moreover, in the lectures held before the publication of Philosophy of Right Hegel did discuss the principle of opposition (see, for example, Hegel 1974, 707-9). Nevertheless, in the published version of Philosophy of Right Hegel conceived the State basically in terms of a unity. Conflicts appear at the level of the civil society where parochial aims are pursued; nevertheless, they are superseded and reconciled rationally at the level of the State. Thus, it is not surprising that both Hegel’s right-wing adherents and his liberal and leftist critics have emphasized the unifying aspects of his philosophy: disagreements are solved by rational communication. Even his radical interpreters, who – like Alexandre Kojève – have emphasized the more conflictual aspects of Hegel’s theory, have seen a “homogeneous state” as the ultimate outcome of the historical process.

However, other readings are possible. The British Idealist political theorist Sir Ernest Barker (1942; 1951), while accepting the standard liberal criticism of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, nevertheless argued that the other aspects of Hegel’s philosophy had democratic potential:

His conception of the eternal debate of thesis and antithesis, and of the opposition of thought to thought in the operation of Mind [Geist], involves the necessary conclusion that debate and discussion must always be at work in any society of minds, now emphasizing this idea, and now emphasizing that, but always seeking to achieve a synthesis, or as we also say, in one of our common terms, ‘to find a compromise’. If we think of political parties as representing thesis and antithesis, and of Parliament as seeking to find a reconciling synthesis, we can defend parliamentary democracy in terms of Hegelian ideas. We can even argue that Hegel himself was untrue to his own ideas when he became a political absolutist. He failed to see that the sovereign thing in political thought, as in all the thought of the world is the process of thought itself, as it works its way between the clashing rocks of thesis and antithesis. (Barker 1951, p. 23)

According to my interpretation, the dialectics between the self and the Other, presented in Hegel’s earlier work, Phenomenology of Spirit, offers still a valid theory of why the on-going clashing of thesis with antithesis is the base for democratic equality and freedom between people. An important instance of this dialectics appears in the contemporary parliamentary systems where the government clashes with the opposition. In the next chapter I will go shortly through Hegel’s theory of the dialectics between the self and the Other. Then I will offer an interpretation of how it relates to the theme of democracy and distrust.

For Hegel, self-consciousness – in short, “self” – is a complex construction. The basic feature of the self is thinking. Thinking is situated: it is conditioned by time, place, cultural context and various individual, personal and material factors. Consequently, thinking makes up a limited, interpretative system, a particular universe. Thinking is a universalizing and generalizing activity, yet, at the same time it is parochial and limited. By conceptual and abstract thinking the thinker may obtain a critical distance towards itself and its cultural limits. However, even abstract thinking is situated because it is internally linked to, and it mediates with, the subjective parts of the thinking system. Thinking is always subjective. The Other is, like the self, a complex construction: subjective particularity is one of its features. Like the self, the Other is an interpretative, meaning-giving system: a particular universe. A grounding idea in Phenomenology of Spirit is that with the Other or, ideally, from a point of view which is constituted jointly by the self and the Other, the self can go over its respective limits. In fact, only by trying to see the world from the point of view of the Other, the self can acknowledge that it’s own universe is particular and limited. With the Other, the self may go over its limits and see the world, including its own self, from a new perspective which can be called a more democratic perspective, even that democracy did not belong to Hegel’s terminology. However, the new perspective is also a located perspective. The self cannot rise above perspectivity as such, because subjectivity continues to be a basic feature of its thinking. (Hegel 1977, pp. 109-112)

Self’s way to relate to the Other is, however, not easy. The relationship between the self and the Other can be called a radical difference, or, mutual otherness. It might, however, be also called a radical similarity. The Other is, like the self, its own, self-determining, internally differentiated system of subject-object-relations. Both the self and the Other are centres of their own universes. Consequently, both selves appear to be, from the point of view of the other, threatening. Freedom of the Other – the Other as a self-determining being and a universalizing, generalizing being (a being who has views about things which concern “all”) – appears as a threat. (Hegel 1977, pp. 111-119.)

Nevertheless, the dialectical narrative in Phenomenology shows that the self is not satisfied until it creates a relationship of reciprocal recognition with Other. What self yearns for most is freedom and only reciprocal recognition – or, actually an ethical society which is based on reciprocal recognition of parties which are “other” to each other – satisfies this yearning.

According to Hegel, the self strives for a contact with the Other because, ultimately, it wants to be free. Freedom includes various inter-related aspects such as epistemological freedom (knowledge which is not parochial, instead, constituted in mutual recognition, for self and for Other), inner freedom at a psychological level, and social freedom. For Hegel, the self can live a satisfactory life – at these various levels – only if it acknowledges Other as its equal and enters into a recognizing relationship with it. In recognizing the Other as an equal self and, reciprocally, recognizing itself as the Other’s Other, the self is able to reconcile contradictions at the aforementioned levels. In Hegel, freedom means that people and societies can, both, reconcile contradictions, and, at the same time, see contradictions as the permanent part of a free, ethical society. This means that both the self and the Other, as bearers of mutually contradicting world-views, are recognized as valid sources of knowledge, views and opinions over things which concern “all”. A free society does not try to silence contradicting world-views because that would mean that some specific, parochial world-view, of some specific particular self, would gain a dominating position in the society. Freedom as reciprocal recognition is a process where the existence of, and the on-going clashing together, of contradicting world-views are recognized as a permanent part of the society. Contradicting world-views clash together, yet, the clash is considered a source of freedom and good, ethical life. Mutually contradicting selves can all contribute to the constructing of the society, its basic principles, institutions and laws. The clashing together of mutually contradicting selves cannot be disposed of because, at any given time, the particular synthesis which governs or which has a hegemonic status in the society (i.e. displayed at the level of, for example, commonly shared beliefs) cannot take all possible views into consideration equally.

In Hegel, the complex structure of the thinking self is shown also in the complex structure of the things, which are thought by the self. Thought things are complex structures which means, for example that limited subjectivity is always an internal aspect of them. Things cannot be divided into parts which are external to each others in the sense that they would not affect each others. We can not bracket off subjective aspects from things and think of them as pure abstractions. When things are thought rationally, or as abstractions, subjective limitedness continues to be present, too. Things are complex constructions in which political, ethical, cultural and personal aspects are internally mediated with each other.

Hegel, democracy and distrust

According to my interpretation Hegel’s seemingly abstract figures “self and “Other” may be seen to stand for groups, comprising of like-minded individuals. Thinking, which is the basic feature of both the self and the Other, does not develop in a social vacuum. Instead, individuals are, to a great extent, born into those “particular universes”, which render them social subjects. By linguistic, communicative internalization of selfhood, individuals become thinking selves and subjects. Like-minded individuals can be thus seen to constitute the particular universes. These universes may be also called as discursive, cultural contexts. Within them meanings, ethical and moral principles and world-views are generated and kept alive by the individuals committing to them and reproducing them. Hegel suggests that in order for the society to be free, these groups as well as individuals comprising them, need to acknowledge that there is an outside (Other) to their own group. In order for the society not to be parochially constituted – which would mean the suffocation of some groups and closing them out from amongst those who determine what the society as a whole is like – the groups and their world-views would need to clash together. This clashing together of one particular universe with another, or, one thesis with its antithesis, would mean that contradictions are acknowledged as an internal part of the society.

How can Hegel’s theory of the need for contradicting parties to clash together inside a social community be seen to promote an idea of the need for an institutionalized distrust in democracy, embodied in the government-opposition-relationship? As said above, Hegel is often seen to promote the idea of unifying and synthesizing rationality as the way to reconcile disagreements at the level of the state. Theorists like Habermas, with his idea of communicative ethics, draws from this line of thought. To claim that Hegel’s theory would support an idea of an institutionalized distrust and government-opposition- relationship would mean that conflict or distrust between parties, which decide about matters of state concerning “all”, is seen as an internal aspect of a free society. Freedom as reciprocal recognition between its members would not be understood in terms of reaching consensus by rational communication only, say, in the ordinary way of continuing discussion until agreement, compromise or consensus is found. Instead, it would emphasize the clashing together – feature of the mutually recognizing parties as well as the idea that genuine and even passionate conflicts and distrust are a necessary part of how the parties relate to each other in order to produce ethically sound and free decisions concerning “all”. This way to interpret Hegel’s notion of freedom as the on-going clashing together of the self and the Other – thesis with its anti-thesis – implies that the syntheses are temporary and open for further debate and revision.

For Hegel, the self, as a thinker, is a complex system where different aspects influence each others internally. This implies, importantly, that rational thinking, also at the state level, is not neutral or impartial in the sense that it would take place in a power-free or apolitical vacuum. It also supports the idea that any synthesis, resulting from the clashing together of selves and Others with their theses, makes up a new thesis, a particular universe, which should be open to further dialectical revision. Every state-level synthesis is limited because one of its aspects is material objectivity, i.e. the level of limited economical and material resources. When ever a synthesis is made, it is based not only on what the outcome is from the struggle between the conflicting parties in the last elections. When elections are over, the parties, forming the government, make decisions, on how various material resources are concretely distributed between all the members of the society. The government often also makes some alterations to laws, institutional principles and so forth, according to the deliberations of its member parties. In other words, the struggle between conflicting groups leads, through elections, to the formation of a new government and, by the government’s deliberations, to some alterations at the level of the objective reality. The transformation of any synthesis into a new thesis, open to the criticism of opposition, takes place at this point. The government is formed by some parties, enough like-minded to be able to make decisions and compromises together and execute its will through administrative and bureaucratic bodies. The decisions must be particular and limited in order to mean something concrete. The decisions cannot be vague or ambivalent; otherwise they would give room for arbitrary interpretations and arbitrary application. Nevertheless, this rationality, shared by the “like-minded” members of the government renders the government also a “particular universe”. The government provides rational arguments for the decisions it executes, and claims to act in the best interest of all. This claim becomes, however, the base for criticism – or, in Hegelian words claim for recognition – coming from those who claim that it, nevertheless, acts more in the interest of just some, not all. It needs to be checked and critically analyzed by its outside, and clash with its outside (the Other as opposition), in order for its rationality not to fall into parochialism which compromises the democratic idea that the state ought to be governed by “all”.

The agonistic theory of democracy

The Hegelian dialectic insight of democracy, presented in this paper, resembles in some ways the agonistic theory of democracy. Especially the political theorist Chantal Mouffe has spoken for an idea of democracy in which a permanent, agonistic conflict between mutually contradicting parties (between “we” and “them”) is considered as a constitutive and an indispensable feature. Mouffe’s idea of the relationship between “we” and “them” resembles in some ways the dialectical relationship between the self and the Other, defended in this text. However, there are important differences between the dialectical notion of democracy defended in this paper, and the theory of Chantal Mouffe. I shall argue that the idea of agonism as formulated by Mouffe is actually incoherent.

In criticizing consensus-oriented authors like Rawls or Habermas, Mouffe uses the following argument: The criticized authors try to solve the “paradox of democracy” by presenting a comprehensive theory of democracy, and claim that all consistent democrats should agree with them. However, an actual consensus on the truth of any particular interpretation of democracy would, in effect, destroy the agonistic tensions which are central for democracy. An agreement on the basic principles of democracy would stop the movement of democratic society, create a stasis. It is this very process, produced by the tensions and differences that is really important and valuable in democracy. Thus, all attempts to provide a comprehensive theory of democracy are (indirectly) self-defeating. If the correct, true theory of democracy were to be found, and if it were generally accepted it would undo the whole democracy. If a theory of what the relations between the various mutual “others” (the political subjects) were recognized by the political subjects themselves, there would be no attitude of exclusion any more. The political subjects (which constitute each others “others”) would not exclude each others any more from their vision of the ideal society, and try to gain universal recognition just for their own particular ideal any more. This kind of “reciprocally recognitive” attitude would undo the democracy itself:

To believe that a final resolution of conflicts is eventually possible – even if it is seen as an asymptotic approach to the regulative idea of a rational consensus – far from providing the necessary horizon of a democratic project, is something that puts it at risk. Indeed, such an illusion carries implicitly the desire for a reconciled society where pluralism is superseded. When it is conceived in such a way, pluralist democracy becomes a “self-refuting ideal” because the very moment of its realization would coincide with its disintegration (Mouffe 2000, 32)

For Mouffe, pluralism and difference are themselves positive goods. They are something we should “valorize” and “be thankful for” (Mouffe 1993, 139). All attempts to “close” the democratic process are dangerous because conflicts and confrontations are the very essence of democracy:

One of the keys to the thesis of agonistic pluralism is that, far from jeopardizing democracy, agonistic confrontation is in fact its very condition of existence (Mouffe 2000, 103)

Of course, not any confrontation or conflict would do. Pure power-struggles between self-interested actors or clashes of forces between fanatical groups are not radical in the required sense. A radical agonist does not praise all conflicts. Democratic conflicts are, in a sense, always conflicts about democracy, about its content. They arise between principled and sincerely held views:

Without a plurality of competing forces which attempt to define the common good, and aim at fixing the identity of the community, the political articulation of the demos could not take place. (Mouffe, 2000, 56)

According to Mouffe, the existence of different genuinely competing conceptions is essential:

Ideally, such a confrontation should be staged around the diverse conceptions of citizenship which correspond to the different interpretations of the ethico-political principles: liberal-conservative, social-democratic, neo-liberal, radical-democratic, and so on. Each of them proposes its own interpretation of the ‘common good’… A well-functioning democracy calls for a vibrant clash of democratic political positions. (ibid.., 103-4)

Thus, Mouffe shares the idea that a dialectical conflict is fundamental for democracy. However, her own view remains thoroughly relativistic. No dialectical synthesis is possible. This makes her own position ambivalent. Obviously, all the proponents of the different democratic conceptions are expected to defend their own conception as true (correct, valid). Otherwise the views would not “clash”. The theorist of agonistic democracy appears here as a stage-master, as someone standing outside and above the confrontation. She knows that none of the protagonists playing their part in the democratic drama is actually defending the true view, for there cannot be any correct interpretation of the common good or the democratic basic principles – that was her starting point. Nevertheless, because the confrontation between different conceptions of citizenship and/or common good is the very condition of the existence of a working democracy, it is important that there are sufficiently many people around who sincerely hold these various convictions, however misguided they might be.

To conclude, Mouffe’s theory can be criticized by using the same form of argument she herself uses against Rawls and Habermas. The theory of agonistic democracy is self-defeating in the same way as the criticized theories are claimed to be. If all (or sufficiently many) citizens would actually accept the agonistic view that there are no justifiable solutions to the problems of justice and of common good, the essential agonism would disappear. In order to work, the agonistic democracy has to presuppose that most people do not share the agonist view. To put it in Hegelian terms, it presupposes a Lord-Bondsman –relationship.

For this reason, the agonistic theory cannot work as a basis for the self-understanding of those subjects who themselves participate in political struggles. In Mouffe, politics is divided dualistically into two realms. There is concrete politics, where hegemonic claims are made. This realm is conflictual, and its processes take place through a “struggle for recognition”. Then there is the realm of the observing theorist, who does not itself take part in the struggle for recognition. Instead, the external theorists just observes how the various “terms” such as “common good” become politically constructed within the various struggles. This agonistic democracy is possible only when most people continue to believe in something which, according to this theory, is actually impossible, a “necessary error”. I claim that my account does not have these paradoxical consequences. The rival parties are not simply clashing and struggling for hegemony. They may also recognize each others as legitimate rivals who are continuously needed as rivals, because only their continuous presence makes the process itself democratically legitimate.

Conclusion: distrust as the basis for trust

In modern western democracies people are expected to trust a political system which consists of a government and a contradicting, distrusting opposition. Acting and decision-executing government ought to be controlled and checked by an alert opposition, in Hegelian words an Other. The Other provides a necessary “look from the outside” which cannot be disposed of in order for the political system to be considered democratic. According to my analysis Hegel’s theory of the dialectics between the self and the Other, presented in Phenomenology of Spirit, supports this idea. Through it, it can be argued that any government which produces particular decisions, based on specifically circumscribed arguments and rationale (as governments always necessarily and rightfully do, in order not to give room for arbitrary governing) constitutes a “particular universe”. Particular universes carry within them an aspect of particular political subjectivity, democratic checking of which cannot be left to the hands of disengaged external controllers, like judges or experts. Instead, internal controlling of those Others who are fully engaged and fully affected by the governments decisions, is necessary, in order for not only some specific aspects of government (falling under the expertise of for example juridical experts) to be scrutinized. In order for the various inter-related aspects of the acting governments actions to be critically evaluated “from the outside”, the political realm of the outside opposition should not be diminished. The central and seemingly widely acknowledged reason why the existence of an institutionalized opposition is considered as the base for the legitimacy of the political system is that democratic changes in the substantive inside of the government takes place through the distrusting criticism, coming from the outside. The criticism comes from those who are inside the democratic society yet not under the pressure to consent to or comply with the government’s rationale, because of a joint membership in the present synthesis (unity) of the government. In fact, it is considered the ultimate role, even a democratic and ethical duty, of the opposition to look at the government from a critical distance.

The idea that an institutionalized and internal conflict (carried by an institutionalized distrust embodied in the opposition) is the source of general good and ethical life is a novel development. It challenges most of the traditional political theories which considered conflict as a potentially dangerous defect, feared to lead into disorder or possibly even to a violent disintegration or fragmentation of the political body. The important idea in the internal conflict and its capacity to give legitimacy to the political system, lies in the fact that through the dialectics between the government and opposition, things concerning “all” (the present synthesis, unity or “substance” of the state, shown as positive laws, institutions, distribution of material resources and so forth) is in a constant democratic process and under critical ethical evaluation “from the internal outside”.

I have argued that an organized distrust, in the form of opposition, is the fundamental source of trust in democratic societies, and that this paradoxical unity of trust and distrust can be conceived in terms of the dialectics of Hegel’s early philosophy. Would this kind of view help us to understand any real-life political phenomena? Let me conclude this essay with an example. An example of a political community which is often said to suffer from a “democracy deficit” is the European Union. One possible reason why the EU is perceived as undemocratic is the absence of a recognized government-opposition dimension. The Commission is officially an “apolitical” government of technocrats, while in the European Parliament the majorities are built on issue-by-issue basis. While the Parliament is constituted in a democratic way – by free and equal elections – the lack of a responsible government and of an organized opposition which would channel the distrust is the main cause of the perceived “deficit”. According to my hypothesis, the low turnout in the elections of the Parliament and the increasing scepticism and even cynicism towards the Union itself reflects this problem. The Euro-citizens, in Finland for example, are not convinced that the power-holders within the Union have really deserved their power in a meaningful, democratically dialectical process. Without an opposition, this distrust may take a malign form.




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Against that revolution Edmund Burke wrote his Reflections that are taken by several of the authors in this collection to the origin of conservative thought. Burke emotionally abhorred the practices of the revolutionaries but, more theoretically, he abhorred the very idea of the attempt “to obliterate their former selves.” Underlying the Reflections are the convictions: that one ought not break with the past in the way that the revolutionaries of 1789 intended; and, perhaps less clearly, that one could not break with the past in that way. Tocqueville continues: “I have always felt that they were far less successful in this curious attempt than is generally supposed in other countries and than they themselves at first believed”. In other writings, e.g. on taxation in America, on the East India Company, on slavery… Burke clearly did not suggest that traditional practices and ideas were necessarily good and to be retained. He opposed neither liberty nor change. What he opposed was the revolutionary idea that it was imperative to break utterly with the past before the radically new and perfect invented future could be imposed from above. “The conservative emphasis on the importance of tradition and established order, which entails mutual obligations and duties for all [is] … opposed to that illegitimate order which is simply established by violence and comes with no obligations on the part of its rulers ..”.(Andreasson, 100) supposes not merely tradition but good tradition. It is as purblind to suppose the past to have been entirely bad as to expect a newly invented order to be entirely good. A tradition is the ambiguous fruit of greed and power and of many good ideas and practices that have stood the test of time. To winnow the wheat from the chaff, to distinguish the good from the bad, to discover what ought now to be done or not done are the unavoidable and enduring elements of argument.

Conservatism is not as clear as revolution. Hence Levante Nagy, in the first essay in Reflections, thinks of it as an “essentially contested concept”. Different people use the same term differently, such that if someone claims to be a conservative the listener does not yet know what precisely is claimed. That this is so is borne out in several valuable essays that examine the conservative tradition in different countries. Gergely Egedy writes of “The [Patrician] Conservatism of Jósef Antall” in Hungary, Kasper Støvring of “Cultural Conservative Traditions in Postwar Denmark”, Dogancan Özsel, Hilal Onur ?nce and Aysun Yarali of “New Trends in the Political Discourse of the Turkish Military: Marching towards Radical Conservatism?”, Agnès Alexandre-Collier of Sarkozy’s

UMP, Peter Dorey of “A Conservative ‘Third Way’ …” in the United Kingdom after Thatcher and William Miller of “Current Trends in Conservatism in the United States”.

In Turkey, the radical conservatism of the military that would preserve what Ataturk established in a fairly recent revolution (239 but passim) is far removed from the conservative traditions in Denmark, where some “conservative intellectuals are preoccupied with the necessity of a cultural community of common mores and customs, which are interpreted from a national perspective” (282). The Danish traditions are not wholly identical and are unlike the conservatism of Jósef Antall, the first Prime Minister of Hungary after the collapse of communism, who “In keeping with the Burkean traditions of organic change … made it clear that his government would try to implement the necessary and painful changes by ‘relying on our historical heritage’ instead of copying mechanically a foreign model.” (257) (It is worth noticing that to speak of social change as “organic” is to speak metaphorically; see, Rose on Hegel 111-115) In many of the post-communist central European states, initial euphoria at the removal of a crippling lack of freedom was soon tempered by the discovery that the new freedom brought with it new, not entirely welcome, responsibilities, uncertainties, and risks. In the older democracies, when the trauma of the second war had abated, and a welfare state established, the difference between “conservative” and “socialist” parties became far greater in rhetoric than in practice; and, in those democracies where violent (revolutionary) civil strife erupted what drove it was often based more on an image of traditional cultural identity than on a difference between conservatism and socialism although the (conservative) recovery of the past was often expressed in socialist rhetoric.

A great advantage of the collection is that beside studies of the particular countries and states stand theoretical studies and interpretations – Peter Dorey on “The Importance of Inequality in Conservative Thought” concentrating largely, but not exclusively, on contemporary writings in English and on the United Kingdom; David Rose on the influence of Hegel; Stefan Andreasson’s “On the Nature of Anglophone Conservatism and its Applicability to the Analysis of Postcolonial Politics” and John Varty on Adam Fergusson.

Giorgio Baruchello’s “What is to be Considered? An Appraisal of the Value of Conservatism in the light of the Life Ground.” discusses the contemporary Canadian environmentalist John McMurtry and Gerard Casey’s “Conservatism and Libertarianism: Friends or Foes?” Both are concerned with values, that is, with what is to be conserved or brought about. The values they discuss are neither the same nor necessarily wholly incompatible. “McMurtry’s life ground entails that a good economic system: (1) must secure the provision of vital goods for as many citizens – ideally all of them – for as long a time as possible – sustainability being no short-term goal; and (2) it must generate the conditions for a fuller enjoyment of life along the same spatio-temporal coordinates.” (Baruchello, 309) Someone who thinks of himself as a conservative might very well agree with that ideal – or might not – but to think of it as a specifically conservative ideal is to give yet one further twist to the meaning of that essentially contested concept. A particular libertarian might well accept the ideal, but qua libertarian will ask how it is to be achieved, for the libertarian qua libertarian concentrates on the value of freedom over against coercion, particulary state coercion.

The freedom valued by the libertarian is not unfettered; it is freedom from coercion, particularly state coercion, to do or not do what does not damage another. The libertarian rule: “do not agress against another” is, in fact, the second of Ulpian’s precepts of justice: “hurt no-one” (Justinian Institutes I.I.3 Digest It does not follow from the injunction to love of one’s neighbour – which is to an extent the positive expression of “hurt no-one” – that people ought to be coerced into doing so. The basic libertarian value is the repudiation of coercion when the intended action does not harm another. The repudiation of coercion is the fundamental libertarian value but libertarians must have others also and two libertarians may well have different values: “One more or less certain way for to prevent its [libertarianism’s] collapse into libertinism is for it to adopt the cultural core values of conservatism [once one has determined what those values are and found them to be good] and this libertarians are free to do. Conservatism, on the other hand, is always at the mercy of the questions – whose tradition? Which customs? What habits?” (Casey p.53) Every human is born and educated into a tradition, which it is wise to examine and to keep what one finds good, unwise unthinkingly to try wholly to abandon, and unwise blindly to accept in all it details. That having been said, the basic moral question remains: what am I to do in the world in which I find myself?