Introduction to Western Political Thought
Professor Mithilesh Kumar Jha
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati
Hegel –1 Intro and Freedom
Hello and welcome everyone. Today, we are going to start with a new thinker in western
political thought, Hegel. On Hegel, we are going to have three lectures. In the first
lecture, today, we will discuss his brief historical, political, and intellectual contexts We
will look at his personal life in the first part of the lecture, today. Then we will move on
to discuss his views on freedom.
In the second lecture on Hegel, we will discuss his views on particularly, state, civil
society, and family, and how he saw it as the unfolding of the human or universal spirit.
In the concluding lecture on Hegel, we will particularly discuss his views on the right or
philosophy of right. In the second part of the lecture, we will discuss the critical
assessment or critical reflection on Hegelian philosophy, and its influence on western
(Refer Slide Time: 01:51)
Let us start with his personal, political, and intellectual context. And his views on
freedom. Hegel was part of a tradition of thought in the continental or European philosophy which we call the ‘German Idealism’. This school of thought had a profound
influence on continental philosophy or European philosophy.
There was the kind of divide between what is the ultimate reality? Is it the idea, or the
matter? ‘German idealism’ had very decisively established the primacy of idea and Hegel
was the most influential thinker or the culmination of this school of thought that we
called ‘German Idealism’. He remained a profound thinker of this school of thought,
where one could see a kind of not just establishing the primacy of idea. But also, in a very
unique way transcending this difference between the material and ideal.
It is the boundary, that division, we often make in our intellectual discussions about what
is real, material, or only those things which we can perceive through our sense perception
should be the basis of the scientific knowledge. And things which are not possible to
perceive through sense perceptions are something which we should not bother too much
about. So, this difference between a material and the ideal was somewhat getting
transcended in the philosophy of Kant, Hegel, and many other thinkers in ‘German
Hegel is one of the profound influential thinkers of ‘German Idealism’ and as a school of
thought, it was associated with Immanuel Kant. Kant had established the role of reason
and rationality as the way forward to enlightenment, for the individual and society as a
But also, he profoundly and conclusively established the limits of human reason and
human rationality. Then how one should still be guided by reason and rationality by
following what he called the ‘categorical imperative’ that is the basis of ‘German
Fichte and Schelling further developed this tradition of ‘German Idealism’ and one can
regard Hegel as the culmination of this philosophical tradition who took it to the next
level by providing it a historical and contextual form. In other words, the real substance
to abstraction. In much of Kant’s writings, there was a great preference for abstraction. What is unique
about Hegel's contribution to ‘German Idealism’ was he not only acknowledged the
relevance or significance of the particular and material. But he considered it as the basis
of the realization of the abstract or ethical or universal.
Hegel in a sense truly transcended that boundary between the real and the material, the
particular and the universal, the contextual, or the abstract. So, as we discuss further his
views on human freedom, family, civil society, state, and his views on the history or
unfolding of the human spirit, we will come to know that Hegel had acknowledged the
historical or particular context as necessary or prerequisite for the realization of humanist
spirit or human freedom.
In Hegel, one would not find just a kind of abstract or formal sense of understanding
about human freedom, human reason, or rationality. But also, a kind of historical and
contextual approach to understanding these things. Like Kant, he did not remain confined
to the realm of the abstract. But also, he acknowledged and transcended the particular
historical and contextual existence of these things.
Hegel like other thinkers of ‘German Idealism’ had argued about the primacy of ideas in
the march of history or human progress. He saw it as a result of dialectics and this point
we will discuss when we discuss his views on freedom. But dialectics is this
understanding of opposites and how the interaction of opposites constitutes reality or the
nature of the phenomenon and further development of that phenomenon or development
of reality as the next stage of history. It is the movement of this struggle between the
opposites and its reconciliation through synthesis.
In popular terminology, one can understand dialectics through the idea of thesis,
antithesis, and synthesis. The movement of history, in a way, was the human movement
for progress. So one stage of life led to the next stage of life that was more mature and
progressive than the previous stage. That is a result of this struggle between the
opposites. Thesis, anti-thesis, and the contradiction between the two led to the next stage of life that
is called synthesis. And again, the next stage would be a result of further contradiction
that led further to the next stage of human history.
So, in such movement of history through dialectics, Hegel gave primacy to the ideas and
we will discuss it when we will look at the critical assessment of Hegel’s philosophy that
how Marx, and other materialist philosophers argued, it was not the idea but the matter or
the material condition or context that shaped the human ideas, imagination, and
consciousness. Therefore, it played a decisive role in human history through his idea of
But for Hegel, the primacy was that of ideas. So, the movement in history was the result
of a struggle between the opposites, where the primary force in history were the ideas.
Hegel's philosophy in a way combined this to a strong or intellectual tradition in
Germany that of the German romanticism and Enlightenment tradition.
While discussing Kant, we have discussed how enlightenment thinkers thought that
reason and rationality would be a way forward for humanity or human progress or
prosperity. In contrast to that, there are many thinkers such as Rousseau or Goethe and
many other thinkers in the German and European tradition, who were arguing that human
reasons had limits. And it created new challenges or problems for society.
So, they were thinking about a kind of uncontaminated or honest, simple life with nature,
without much use of human reason or human rigorous inquiry into the reality and then
transforming what the reality is.
The romantics were thinking about going back to nature or to the stage of life where
human life was simple. The association was based on mutual trust without driven by the
clever calculation of instrumental rationality. There was a strong attraction for this kind
of romantic thoughts as well. In Hegel, we find that how he also acknowledged the role
of passion, desires, and yet established the solid role of human reason and rationality to
guide human will or human freedom. So, in Hegel, one finds the combination of both these traditions. The German romantics
and enlightenment tradition and his conceptions of freedom, rights or views on history,
human progress, the relationship between master and slave, and self and other, his views
on families, civil society, and the state were profoundly shaped by his belief in the
unfolding of universal spirit or mind which he called the ‘Geist’. He argued that every
phenomenon on earth is animate or inanimate as the manifestation of the same universal
spirit or mind. And this universal mind or spirit is in constant motion.
There is a kind of constant movement in the history of universal spirit or world spirit and
a higher stage of the realization of such spirit. So, human history in that sense is the
constant forward movement of world spirit or humanist spirit manifested in every sphere
of life. Both animate or inanimate being is part of that universal spirit and human beings
as individuals, according to Hegel, also carries such spirit which they manifest in
different spheres of their life.
Starting from the family, civil society, and finally, in the state. So, our social, political,
moral world of a human being is constitutive of this movement of spirit or world-spirit or
unfolding of spirit that constantly realized. Its maturity depends on the society or
community which allows the human being to follow their free will, to use their free
reason, and not be guided by external authority or norms set by others.
So, there is the role of human reason or rationality. But it must be realized that only in the
association with others in the family, civil society, and state. Because for Hegel, the full
realization of human freedom was possible only in the life of state that is the ultimate
realization or maturity or complete maturity of human beings.
Human beings also start from an immature condition to the fullest maturity in the life of
the state. We will discuss more in the second lecture on Hegel that how human beings
constantly actualize or themselves by living in different domains of life. And his full
realization of maturity is possible only in the state while living among the free and equal
members. Therefore, he saw the state as the manifestation of universal will or God and he called it
the ‘march of God’ on the earth. So, human beings when leading free life in the life of a
state that allows him and her to realize their freewill. What is this free will? We will
discuss this later in this lecture. But the basic argument in Hegel was that human beings
could realize their true freedom or actualizes on the self fully in the life of a state that is
the representative of universal will or spirit of God in essence.
In Hegel, one has this combination of both as I said, the romantics and also the
enlightenment tradition in German intellectual tradition. One could understand the
overwhelming influence of Hegel's philosophy by the fact that the German philosophy
was broadly divided into two schools, after Hegel's death.
That is left Hegelians and right Hegelians. The left Hegelian saw in Hegel’s philosophy a
great many radical possibilities and provided a much more radical revolutionary
interpretation of Hegel's work. Whereas the right Hegelian saw Hegel as a conservative
thinker who defended the status quo.
So, there is a kind of very opposite interpretation of Hegel's philosophy by these two
schools of German philosophy, the left Hegelian and right Hegelian. The other point that
one needs to understand is the overwhelming influence of Hegel’s philosophy, where you
have to be Hegelian whether it is right or left, how you interpret it may differ.
Nonetheless, the influence of Hegel's philosophy is overwhelming in the further
development of German philosophical tradition. (Refer Slide Time: 16:45)
Now, we will look at the political and the intellectual context of Hegel that was a kind of
full of historical and epoch-making possibilities. So, there were new ways of theorizing
and thinking about politics, individual freedom, human reason, and how it could help in
the progress of mankind or humanity.
So, the context, political, and intellectual context of Hegel when he was writing or
developing his thought was full of such historical possibilities, where human thought or
philosophy had a profound influence in shaping the destiny of mankind or in organizing
the collective life of the nation. Also, thinking about new ways of organizing social and
It was full of historical and epoch-making possibilities and philosophy in the true sense of
the term that had a tremendous influence on the politics and historical events. It saved the
destinies of mankind and became the foundation of modern political imagination, so
much of our thinking about the state, freedom, human rights or human identity or selfconsciousness or individual rights were shaped by these philosophical discussions and
debates taking place in Germany. It also resulted in the French Revolution which was the particular epoch-making event for
the modern sensibilities to emerge. It was the very foundation of liberty, equality, and
fraternity. It was also a kind of republican way of organizing collective political life.
So, the French Revolution which we have discussed while discussing Rousseau that
much of its ideas were derived from Rousseau's political writings. He shaped historical
epoch-making events like the French Revolution.
And after the French Revolution, there was a kind of new development or rediscovery of
Rousseau, to understand many developments that were taking place after the French
Revolution and the motives for that revolution. Because the prevalent system or political
system was that of the monarchy. It was considered like the given thing that people
themselves could not govern and it led to many instabilities or kind of reign of terror.
There was a divide among the intellectuals when it comes to support or oppose the
French Revolution. Nonetheless, it shook the monarchies and dynasties across Europe.
There was a real danger about the people destabilizing the existing monarchies and
dynasties across Europe.
Hegel too was profoundly influenced by the French Revolution and its promises of rule
by people and republican values such as liberty, equality, and fraternity. Hegel also saw
in Napoleon, the manifestation of what he called the universal will or world spirit. So, it
was historically political or an epoch-making context where Hegel was developing his
thought on the state, Prussia. It was a part of Germany that was divided into 300 small
kingdoms and principalities.
Thus, modern Germany is very different from Germany that Hegel inhabited. It was
divided into different principalities or smaller principalities numbered around 300.
Prussia was a part of that 300 small kingdoms or principalities that was regarded as the
strongest among them and the most enlightened state. So much of the political philosophy
or development in arts, culture, and literature, in music, science, and military craft were
under the enlightened rule of Frederick in Prussia. However, the French under the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte sought to reunite Europe,
through wars and territorial expansions. It defeated Prussia in the Battle of Jena and at
this time, when this battle of Jena was taking place between the Kingdom of Prussia and
the French army of Napoleon Bonaparte, Hegel was teaching at the University of Jena.
He was working on his magnum opus called Phenomenology of Spirit. This is the most
influential text of Hegel which shaped many of his other writings.
So, whether it is about his views on freedom, his ideas on a state or civil society, or his
ideas on the philosophy of religion, history, and also the history of philosophy, it is seen
as a kind of movement of spirit, or what he called the ‘Geist’. So, he was working on this
manuscript when Napoleon's army was fighting this battle of Jena and the defeat of
Prussia in the battle had exposed the military weakness of the Prussian kingdom. It led to
the demand for the unification of Germany.
It was also kind of politically turbulent time and as we have discussed in other thinkers,
Hegel was also responding to those political changes in the real practical world taking
place. And at the same time, reflecting upon the intellectual discussions and debates,
whether it was the romantics or enlightenment thinkers.
So, it was a magnificent era of greats or many greats in the German intellectual tradition.
Immanuel Kant and his philosophy had provided the sound basis for the enlightenment
by rescuing it from the clutches of skeptics or empiricists, as we have discussed in the
previous lectures the enlightenment tradition was divided into two sharp groups.
Where one was believing in reason and rationality, and subjecting everything to human
thought or human inquiry through reason and rationality. There were the skeptics, so they
were skeptics who were apprehensive about everything given. They wanted to use human
reason and only those things which could convince human beings through their reason
In other words, reason and rationality alone were the sources of knowledge. Therefore,
everything must be subjected to critical inquiry, so there were the skeptics. The other was the empiricist who believed that human beings acquire knowledge about the world
So, there was tabula rasa or how human beings start his life as a blank slate and only by
living in the society, community, nation, and state through experiences that human being
derives knowledge about the world. There are the empiricists and skeptics, where one is
focusing on the reason and rationality, and the other is focusing on the experiences.
We have seen through Kant that how he tried to unite or transcend this contradiction
within the enlightenment tradition, by establishing the use of reason and rationality and
acknowledging the role of human senses. How it led to perception and perception
requires the role of reason and rationality for knowledge to be sound. So, all kinds of
senses, and it cannot be the basis of true knowledge or knowledge that requires the role or
involvement of human reason and intellect.
We have all kinds of sense of sensory experiences. But that is not the true basis of our
knowledge of the world. We organize or refine it and that organizing and refining of our
sensory experience of the world require the role of human reason and rationality.
Therefore, Kant tried to do in a way, that could unite these two groups within the
And he was regarded as the founder of ‘German Idealism’. Hegel and many other
philosophers had argued that Kant would be the beginning of philosophy and then he
went on to criticize particularly his views on freedom that was too abstract, according to
Thus, German romanticism had the greatest reflections in Goethe’s work, such as
literature, art, Beethoven in music, and Schelling, Schiller, and Fichte in philosophy. So,
Germany during Hegel's period was experiencing profound developments in art, science,
and philosophy. That was both the intellectual and the political contexts of Hegel. (Refer Slide Time: 26:45)
Now, we come to discuss, briefly, his personal life. So, George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
was born in the 1770s, in Stuttgart. It is in the southwestern province of Germany. His
father was a subordinate official in the Finance department of the Wurtemberg state. He
started with very modest living and moderate thinking or expectation from life.
He was not a very bright student from the beginning. He gradually developed his thought
by combining the prevalent schools of thought led by many other thinkers, such as
Schelling, Schiller, and Fichte in ‘German Idealism’ and certainly, Immanuel Kant.
So, after his schooling in Stuttgart, he went to Tubingen to study philosophy and
theology. He was profoundly influenced by Greek literature. He regarded it as a kind of
something which should be respected or asserted with pride that we derive our sense of
duty, morality, or reason and rationality through Greeks, and not through some stern
religion as he accused many other states in Europe, deriving their inspiration from the
stern religion. Whereas Germany, including himself, was deriving their inspiration from
the Greek literature.
So, Greek literature certainly played a very significant role in the development of
Hegelian thought and philosophy. After the completion of his studies, Hegel worked as a
tutor for the wealthy families in Switzerland and Frankfurt. During these years, he also developed his essays on religion and theology. Interestingly, he never published it during
So, when he was working as a tutor to some of the rich families in Bern in Switzerland or
Frankfurt, he was developing his thoughts on religion and theology, and there was a
reason for that. As we have discussed that the critique of enlightenment thinkers was
directed towards religion. Because it used to control every sphere of life, from childbirth
to his death, from the kingdom to dynasties, from family to the community.
In a sense, much of the development was taking place within the religious reforms of the
Protestant ethics that led to new ways of thinking about human identity, human freedom,
and organization of collective social and political life.
Hegel also begins his speculation or thinking about political issues or philosophy by
criticizing theology and religion. But interestingly, he never published it during his
Considering human freedom as an important attribute of human beings, he regarded
freedom. It is restrained from any external control or subjugation. That is the basis for all
progress and Hegel would acknowledge that human freedom or freedom is the important
attribute of human beings. In his essay, Hegel combined human freedom with the reason,
the role of reason, such as in Kant or the Kantian ethics is the combination of both human
reason and morality or a sense of duty.
It is derived by using one’s reason and not being dependent on others, such as religion or
society or community to tell us what to do, and what is good for us. So, you recall the
Kantian views on enlightenment. It was coming out of one self-imposed immaturity
condition and immaturity condition cannot be overcome. Human beings, the majority of
them at least, according to Kant, lacked the courage to act upon their own will or reason.
That is the problem or obstacle in the enlightenment for the society or individual.
So, he combined human freedom with reason such as in Kantian ethics and love or
compassion. That is the teaching of Jesus. He also compared Christ with the teachings of
Socrates on ethics and argued that orthodox religion is a barrier or obstacle in the realization of human freedom and the reasons. So, human freedom and reason cannot
flourish unless there is denial or subjecting the religious orthodoxy to critical rational
If ethics or morality is guided by a notion of religion or a kind of orthodoxy or what is
prevalent in society, then one is not free. One would not be using his/her reason. So, he
considered the orthodoxy or orthodox religion as an obstacle in the progress of human
freedom and human reason.
Human freedom and reason are realizable in the absence of any external control or
subjugation including the orthodox religion. When Hegel and many other philosophers
were discussing their ideas and developing their political philosophical argument, the
major restrained on such argument was coming from the religious orthodoxy or the
religious conservatism that does not allow certain ideas seen as destabilizing the status
quo or prevalent structure of power in society.
Hegel in this text considered orthodox religion as a barrier to the realization of human
freedom and reason. Because it subordinates human beings to external authority. So, the
religious orthodoxy and the values or ethics that it prescribes is not based on the
individual self-developed human capacity of reason or human will. Therefore, anything
not based on human reason or will is not the basis for his morality and ethics. The sense
of ethics, morality, or duty or obligation must necessarily be based on human reason or
understanding its duty.
These essays are now published as early theological writings. But as I said, it was not
published during his lifetime. However, many scholars consider this a key text to
understand Hegel's philosophy. That is the beginning or foundational text to understand
other writings of Hegel.
He had started his professional career as a lecturer at the University of Jena on the
recommendation of his friend, Schelling and contemporary turned rivals in the later
years. It was at the University of Jena that he wrote his magnum opus, Phenomenology of
a Spirit in 1807. While he was still working on this manuscript, Hegel saw Napoleon's army marching into the city after the defeat of Prussia in the Battle of Jena. The
university was closed and then Hegel started to explore newer opportunities.
(Refer Slide Time: 34:55)
After the closure of the university, Hegel worked as a newspaper editor in Bamberg for a
year and then became a headmaster of a high school in Nuremberg. It was surprising to
know that as a headmaster of a high school, Hegel continued to work on philosophy. It is
highly unlikely to expect in the contemporary modern world.
He worked as the headmaster of a high school for nine years and it was in this position
that he wrote Logic in 1812 which was a very dense text notorious for its unintelligibility.
Nonetheless, it captivated the German-speaking world and won him a chair of philosophy
at the University of Heidelberg. It was at Heidelberg that Hegel wrote Encyclopedia of
Philosophical Science, 1870. His reputation by the year 1818 was so great that the
Prussian Minister of Education asked him to take up a prestigious chair of philosophy at
the University of Berlin, which was the prestigious position among the philosophers in
the German-speaking world.
Since, then in the year 1818, he took up the chair of philosophy at the University of
Berlin, until his death in 1831 due to the outbreak of the cholera epidemic in Berlin and the rest of Europe. Hegel ruled the philosophic world as indisputably as Goethe, the
world of literature and Beethoven, the realm of music.
He was the indisputable king of the philosophic world. As I said at the beginning of this
lecture, there was the overwhelming influence of Hegelian thought and philosophy on the
later generation that was divided into young Hegelians as leftist and rightist with the very
contradictory interpretation of Hegelian philosophy.
Since, his appointment as the chair of philosophy at the University of Berlin in 1818 till
his death in 1831, Hegel was the undisputable leader in the philosophic world like Goethe
in the literature or Beethoven in the realm of music. He extensively wrote during this
period and gave lectures on the philosophy of history, philosophy of religion, aesthetics,
and history of philosophy.
If we look at the major works of Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit 1807, Logic 1812,
Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences, 1817, The Philosophy of Rights, The Philosophy
of History 1821, Philosophy of Religion and lectures on aesthetics, and there were much
other compilation of Hegelian work. Among these only, the Phenomenology of Spirit and
Logic were said to be written by Hegel. Both of these texts were very obscure and full of
abstract ideas and abstraction. So, it is not easy to read them.
Like Kant, you have that problem of abstraction or modification of each sentence and the
density that is hard to decipher for the ordinary readers. So, both these texts are notorious
for their obscurity and abstraction. But it has abiding influence or profound influence in
the German-speaking world as we have discussed earlier that Hegel became the
undisputed leader in the philosophic world.
The other texts were based on Aristotle's lecture notes taken by his students. So, in
Aristotle’s politics, it is said that texts, books, or chapters of that text were not
chronologically arranged. The reason being that it was based on the compilation of notes
taken by his student, not necessarily or organized coherently by the author itself.
Similarly, many of the Hegelian work was based on the lecture notes taken by his
students. (Refer Slide Time: 39:46)
Now, we move on to his views on freedom. Hegel acknowledged freedom as the
fundamental attribute of human beings. So, all progress, the realization of self, or the
development of self-consciousness are possible only through human freedom or in a
society that permits an individual to use his reason, to express his will, and then guide his
action, according to his reason and free will.
There is in Hegel a kind of comparative study with different civilizations at different
stages of maturity. That depends upon how much freedom they allow their individual. So,
the society or civilization gives more freedom to the individual to use their reason to
express their will, their action is a reflection of their will that society will be much more
mature, progressive than others which limits its freedom and reason.
He regarded freedom as the fundamental attribute of a human being. However, he
differed substantially from the abstract liberal and the Kantian notion of freedom. There
is a kind of counter-intuitive approach to understanding human freedom in Hegel.
So, much of the liberals under Kantian notions of freedom certainly, Kant was more
abstract theoretical in a sense that he wanted individuals to think for themselves that he is
free and act accordingly, as if he is free, even if there are obstacles and challenges to each freedom. It is only when an individual began to first think that he or she is free then
enlightenment can be brought about on a larger scale in society.
Liberals, on the other hand, generally, defined freedom as the absence of external
constraints. So, one is free to the extent that one’s actions are not controlled or regulated
by the external authority. So, for Isai
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