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The Philosopher of Freedom

by klaus vieweg
stanford university, 488 pages, $40

Klaus Vieweg’s eight-hundred-page biography of Hegel made something of a sensation when the German original appeared in 2019. More lies have been told about Hegel than about any other philosopher, Vieweg averred, and the biggest lie of all painted Hegel as an apologist for the Prussian Restoration. That remains a common assessment of Hegel on this side of the Atlantic: As Leo Strauss remarked in 1958, Hegel is often seen as “both a reactionary and a metaphysician: a metaphysician, i.e., unscientific, and a reactionary because he sold his soul to the Prussian sham-constitutional monarchy of the early nineteenth century.”

The canard about Hegel’s “servility” to the Prussian monarchy was first promulgated by the arch-Romantic and virulent anti-Semite Jakob Fries, who once demanded that Judaism be “extirpated root and branch,” and whom Hegel had excoriated in the introduction to his Philosophy of Right. Fries riposted that “Hegel’s metaphysical fungus has grown not in the gardens of science but on the dunghill of servility.” Progressives like John Dewey and liberals like Karl Popper demonized Hegel after the First World War with the tendentious claim that he had deified the Prussian state. Walter Kaufmann, Shlomo Avineri, and other scholars unraveled the Hegelian Black Legend in the 1960s, and Terry Pinkard’s 2000 biography offered a balanced account. As Pinkard and Vieweg report, Hegel intervened with the Prussian authorities—at some personal risk—on behalf of students jailed for subversive activity. He opposed the Prussian Restoration as well as anti-Semitic and anti-French Romantics like Fries. The nationalist appeal to “heart, friendship and inspiration,” Hegel wrote derisively of Fries, abhors “what has been for many centuries the labor of reason and understanding.”

Hegel sent his sons to the French Gymnasium in Berlin and frequented Jewish salons. And “his Philosophy of Right proved that theories of nationalism, especially those that excluded Jewish and French people, were absurd,” Vieweg writes.

The Berlin secret police certainly didn’t mistake Hegel for a monarchist reactionary. They shadowed him and considered him a dangerous radical. Hegel opened a bottle of champagne every Bastille Day to toast the French Revolution, whose excesses he deplored but whose promise he defended until his death. And his last essay, a commentary on the English Reform Bill, preserved the republican spirit that had guided him throughout his whole career. His supposed self-indictment, the aphorism “What is real is rational” (Was wirklich ist, das ist vernünftig), did not mean—as his detractors alleged—that the Restoration was “rational” because it simply was there, but rather that what was rational should become real.

Leo Strauss of all people should have understood that Hegel sometimes obscured his views—for example, his sympathy for the French Revolution—from the Prussian secret police. Sadly, the Black Legend has persisted even among serious commentators. Paul Gottfried, for instance, wrote in 1978, “Again and again, Hegel set out to demonstrate that the German Protestant state and the Prussian monarchy, in particular, represented the highest synthesis of order and liberty that any people had ever achieved in the history of civilization.” Shlomo Avineri had already shown in 1962 that Hegel’s alleged German supremacism stemmed from a mistranslation. The “Germanic” world, for Hegel, “is not . . . an ethnic, racial, or political nation,” Avineri pointed out. “It is Christian Europe, Western Civilisation, including, according to Hegel, not only Germany, but Spain and France, England and Italy as well—and, perhaps, even Russia.” Nonetheless, the canard that Hegel argued for German superiority remains current, as in John Grant’s 2015 comment that Hegel “is the first progressive thinker. And progress manifests itself in certain peoples or races, and so he does come up, he does have the argument that says the Germans are the most free, most rational and hence, superior people.”

Vieweg’s book is a welcome addition to Pinkard’s book, published in 2000 and until now the only full-length biographical treatment available to anglophone readers. Vieweg’s account of Hegel’s politics coincides broadly with Pinkard’s, although Vieweg provides more detail. Hegel’s nemesis in Berlin was the police chief appointed in 1817, Karl Heinrich von Kamptz, “the Prussian Restoration’s figurehead, a Metternich supporter . . . rumored to ‘eat liberals.’” He set his sights on Hegel, Vieweg explains, and commissioned a report that deplored the “unholy mysteries of recent philosophy, especially Hegel.” Some critics, such as Richard Bourke, argue that Vieweg assigns too little weight to Hegel’s revulsion at Jacobinism, but this is a minor matter of emphasis.

This English translation of Vieweg’s magisterial work abridges the original by half, which is unfortunate: In addition to the cornucopia of new biographical material, Vieweg’s German original provides an excellent introduction to Hegel’s philosophy. In particular, Vieweg’s tour through Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind and Philosophy of Right is one of the best general guides to this challenging material that I have read, and the truncation makes the English edition less useful for teaching Hegel. Nonetheless, it is a major contribution to the available literature and indispensable for anglophone readers.

Hegel famously claimed that his work represented the culmination of all previous philosophy. Think of it this way: Hegel turned philosophy inside out. The job of philosophy is not to discover timeless truths, he argued, but to aid the mind in detecting the limitations of any given concept and replacing it with a better one. That is the nub of the opening of the famous preface to The Phenomenology of Mind. Hegel had me at “hello” when I read it in my college dorm room:

In the preface to a philosophical work, it is customary for the author to give an explanation—namely, an explanation of his purpose in writing the book, his motivations behind it, and the relations it bears to other previous or contemporary treatments of the same topics—but for a philosophical work, this seems not only superfluous, but in light of the nature of the subject matter, even inappropriate and counterproductive. For whatever it might be suitable to say about philosophy in a preface—for instance, to give some historical instruction about the biases and the standpoint of the text, or some talk about the general content and the results together with a set of scattered assertions and assurances about the truth—none of these can count as the way to present philosophical truth.

Those who look to philosophy for maxims of timeless wisdom will find nothing but frustration in Hegel’s concept of Vernunft, usually mistranslated as “reason.” “Reason” comes from the Latin ratio, that is, a comparison of fixed quantities. By contrast, Vernunft derives from the same Middle German root, “to grasp,” as vernehmen, “to interrogate,” as in a criminal investigation. To employ Vernunft means to step outside our habitual train of thought and reconsider how we think, to attack the premises of our thinking and discover better ones. Kant had distinguished Vernunft from Verstand, the categorizing and sorting function of the mind, or “understanding.”

The history of philosophy before Hegel is a procession of failed attempts to solve persistent paradoxes: The One and the Many, the finitude or infinitude of the world in space and time, existence and essence, freedom and determinism, nominalism versus realism, and so forth. The same inconsistencies that bedeviled Plato’s ideas and Aristotle’s universals—for instance, Aristotle’s Third Man Argument—reappear in modern set theory. Kant’s “Copernican Revolution” in philosophy encapsulated these paradoxes in four “antinomies” that lay beyond the capacity of reason to resolve. Hegel’s move was more radical still. His Phenomenology of Mind turned the problem inside out: The paradoxes of philosophy denote moments by which the mind frames, negates, and supersedes a concept. Hegel’s technical term aufheben is hard to put into English; in place of the German most translators use the obscure Latinism “sublate.” It means to destroy while incorporating some element of the original.

Hegel attacks the antinomies by constructing a scaffolding of assertion and negation from which to destroy and recreate hypotheses. Thought, for Hegel, is always rooted in the experience of the actual world. “Philosophy,” as Vieweg puts it, “is the thoughtful observation of objects, the thinking consideration of things, which translate the form of imagination into the form of conceptual thinking, the concept.”

This account of philosophy contrasts markedly with that of F. W. J. Schelling (1775–1854), Hegel’s old roommate at the Tübinger Stift, later invited to Berlin by Friedrich Wilhelm IV to “expunge the dragon’s seed” of Hegel’s philosophy from the youth of Prussia. Following his teacher J. G. Fichte (1762–1814), Schelling sought “the absolute unity of contradictions” through “intellectual intuition.” Hegel dismissed the notion of “intellectual intuition” unconnected to experience. Schelling believed that a special sort of vision given to a few seers could resolve the contradictions of philosophy. Hegel, by contrast, insisted that thought must be founded on experience. “To the extent that the precondition for philosophy is that the individual has an unmediated intuition of the identity between subject and object,” Hegel scoffed, “philosophy would have to be an artistic talent, a form of genius restricted to gifted children.” The “intellectual intuition” of Fichte and Schelling was the philosophical cognate of the Romantic nationalism that Hegel abhorred, and that was to reach its apogee in Heidegger’s irrationalism.

Hegel is first of all a philosopher of science, in which no theory is complete, for all theories will be superseded by better ones—Ptolemy by Kepler, Aristotle by Newton, Newton by Einstein. That fact also has moral implications: If our understanding of nature constantly changes through new discoveries, so must our understanding of natural law.

Strauss may have thought Hegel “unscientific,” but Hegel was very much a scientist, precisely because he was a metaphysician. His attack on the mystical notion of the infinitesimal in a long appendix to Science of Logic prefigured and to some extent inspired the rigorous formulation of the limit in calculus by Weierstrass later in the century. Vieweg barely touches on Hegel’s contribution to mathematics. That ground is covered well by John Lane Bell and Terry Pinkard, who have shown that Hegel’s reputation as a mathematician was maligned by Bertrand Russell’s flawed account.

Vieweg’s biography focuses on Hegel’s political thought, as one would expect from the author of the 2012 monograph Das Denken der Freiheit, which established him as one of Germany’s leading Hegel scholars. Hegel’s political theory, like his political allegiance, has been a source of controversy. The various schools of deconstruction and critical theory abused Hegel’s method of negation to create a theory in which all thought is subjective and directed by power relationships. On the contrary, Hegel insisted (in Philosophy of Right) that the family, the wellspring of tradition, is the foundation of human society, and that civil society—the realm of freedom—is a precondition for a rational state. Our Dasein, or being-there, is given to us by our family; our faculty of Understanding is cultivated by our free pursuit of self-interest in the marketplace of goods and ideas. Conservatives in the mold of Paul Gottfried may bridle at Hegel’s lifelong support for the French Revolution, but they should give him credit for his defense of tradition, especially in the context of what he called Sittlichkeit.

Sittlichkeit does not translate easily into English. The usual rendering, “ethical life,” obscures the root Sitten, which corresponds to “customs” or “mores” rather than “ethics” or “morality.” In Hegel’s thought, the transmission of tradition through the family, the exercise of personal freedom in civil society, and the embodiment of Vernunft by the state, have mutually supportive but distinct roles. The state must respect the sanctity of the individual personality, but individuals in the marketplace or professional pursuits must look beyond narrow self-interest. This presumes Sittlichkeit, or shared mores. Nations are the foundation for well-ordered states because they embody distinct, different forms of Sittlichkeit, as opposed to the abstract, deducible ethics of Kant.

Such an interplay—tradition instilled by the family, personal freedom realized in civil society, and Vernunft manifested in the State—does not lend itself to maxims easily recited from index cards. If Straussians have often distrusted Hegel, it is partly because they too often seek a logical solution to the problem of constituting a well-ordered polity. Once ascertained, some Straussians appear to imagine, this solution can be applied to every society in the world. That this kind of thinking has led to serial disasters in American foreign policy would be no surprise to Hegel, who demanded attention to each country’s distinct “national spirit,” arising from the different manifestations of Sittlichkeit of countries with radically differing histories.

To dismiss Hegel’s qualification as “historicism,” as Straussians sometimes do, is to assume that countries that never developed a civil society have the same affinity for democratic institutions as the eighteenth-century New Englanders who had governed their affairs and elected their clergy for generations. Far from being an unreconstructed “historicist,” Hegel begins Philosophy of Right with a withering polemic against the Romantic historicists. But he also saw the pitfalls of Kant’s utopian internationalism.

If Hegel has had a profound influence on conservative thought, it is not only for his defense of the family, civil society, and tradition, but also for his interest in two other areas: religion and the market. My own interest in Hegel was reawakened in 2020, when the Jewish journal Hakirah published student notes of lectures delivered by Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University in the late 1940s. I realized that Soloveitchik’s presentation of the moments of creatio ex nihilo paraphrased Hegel’s Science of Logic. That is less surprising than it sounds, for the Hegelian dialectic, as Gershom Scholem first observed, closely parallels the creation account in the sixteenth-century Kabbalah of Isaac Luria: To create a world that was separate from Himself, God first had to withdraw from the universe, leaving an empty space in which something could be created that was not God. Hegel summarized the Lurianic Kabbalah in his lectures on the history of philosophy and knew some of its secondary sources. It is possible that the Jewish dialectic of creation helped define Hegel’s dialectic, either directly or through such antecedents as Nicholas of Cusa, Giordano Bruno, and Gottfried Leibniz, as I reported in several contributions to Hakirah. It is indisputable that Hegel had an enormous influence on religious thinkers from Rabbis Samson Raphael Hirsch and Joseph Soloveitchik to Christian theologians such as Karl Barth.

There have been self-styled Hegelians, such as Jacques Derrida, who have their needles stuck in the groove of skepticism. But Hegel demands skeptical thinking about skepticism itself. In his Phenomenology of Mind, Hegel depicts skepticism as one moment in the formulation of concepts. Skepticism destroys its own premises and leaves the skeptic with “unhappy and estranged consciousness,” that is, nihilism.

Hegel was hardly a forerunner of Marx. He not only defends private property as a social institution but makes it a cornerstone of his epistemology. The answer to Kant’s mysterious “thing-in-itself,” the unknowable noumenon behind the phenomenon of perception, is ownership: We know the nature of a thing when we make it our property and make use of it. In this respect, Hegel anticipates Husserl, except that Hegel’s presentation is clearer and more intuitive.

On the other hand, Hegel rejects the idea that the market is self-regulating. That has broad implications: Reason and freedom are interdependent, such that Vernunft can be exercised only in a free civil society that assigns property rights to the human person, as opposed to a slave-based economy. In Vieweg’s summary:

The principle of private property rules, but not everything can become a ware, a commodity; neither the market nor people nor ecological systems can become wares. The market must have adequate rules; according to Smith, the functioning market has a hidden power, the invisible hand. This seems to be a process “in which self-centered, often contradictory interests of singular actors can create a stable, self-regulating system. . . . Equating arbitrariness with freedom is a theoretical fallacy; an arbitrary market cannot be described as free. Self-regulation theorists called the market the Holy Grail of freedom, while Marxists hated it. But Hegel did neither; the market is a prerequisite of freedom but is not itself free. . . . The market is the basis of the modern economy, which he respects, but also a realm of arbitrariness and chance, which requires reason and cannot function by itself.”

What is the purpose of the Vernunftstaat, the state guided by Reason? Markets don’t always regulate themselves. They suffer from endogenous bubbles and crashes, for the same reason that otherwise placid herds of grazing buffalo occasionally panic and run off the edge of a cliff. Extreme wealth disparities threaten social stability, and extreme poverty precludes freedom. The application of reason to the market, Hegel argues, entails regulation of markets to prevent panics and abuse, as well as a social safety net. Vieweg explains, “The state is no transcendent power, divided from the people, but a rational community of subjects with free will, founded on knowledge.” Civil society is a precondition for a well-ordered state. Without the exercise of Verstand in the conduct of private affairs, a people is merely a tribe or a mob subject to prejudice and passions, rather than a citizenry capable of Vernunft.

A weakness in Hegel’s thought is the optimistic presumption that the unfolding of Geist would guide human history. As Soloveitchik observed, Hegel never shows why the dialectic makes things better rather than worse. (Hegel’s “philosophy of history” consists of student lecture notes published after his death.) Without a religious teleology, Hegel’s musings about history can too easily be reduced to the banal “end of history” notion that has had a baleful influence on American policy.

Yet this is of minor consequence. Twentieth-century commentators like Alexandre Kojève became obsessed with Hegel’s teleology partly because of the use Marx had made of it. But Hegel was less interested in writing a spoiler for the conclusion of the human story than in cultivating freedom here and now. His Philosophy of Right makes strenuous demands on the reader in parsing the relation between family, civil society, and the state, and the corresponding functions of Dasein, Verstand, and Vernunft. He resists simplistic reduction. It is not surprising that Hegel was not popular in America, and that to the extent that he was popular, he was misunderstood. We prefer answers to complex problems that are simple, clear, and wrong, such as Burke’s appeal to tradition or Strauss’s attempt to derive political remedies from eternal nature.

Perhaps the Zeitgeist now points to a reconsideration of Hegel. American conservatives no longer believe unreservedly in market fundamentalism and governmental minimalism. The deterioration of America’s competitive position and relative military strength, and the weakened economic position of the middle class, have shifted the policy agenda. America best approximated a Hegelian Vernunftstaat when the Manhattan Project launched Big Science as a factor in policymaking, embedded in dozens of federal programs and national laboratories. This era reached its apogee with the Kennedy moon shot, which raised federal R&D to more than a tenth of the federal budget. The Defense Department, in cultivating digital technology in the late 1970s and early 1980s, helped launch the digital age. Leaders like John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan asked us to be citizens first and factors of production second. If we are fortunate enough to receive another such invitation, Vieweg’s account of the philosopher of freedom will be of help.

As noted, Hegel is tricky to translate, and some terms are better explained in footnotes than half-rendered into English. The translator does not provide such footnotes. There are a few instances of glaringly poor wording. For example, “die politische Friedhofsruhe,” literally, “the graveyard peace of politics,” becomes “the court’s political stagnancy.” I hope this edition attracts enough interest to persuade Stanford University Press to offer an unabridged English version.

David P. Goldman is deputy editor of Asia Times and a Washington Fellow of the Claremont Institute.

Image by Muesse licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped, filter added.

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