Introduction to Western Political Thought
Professor Mithilesh Kumar Jha
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati
Lecture No. 24
Hegel - II Civil Society & State
Hello and welcome everyone. This is the second lecture on Hegel. Today, we are going to
discuss his views on family, civil society, and the state. We will discuss his contribution in
understanding the civil society and description of the state that is regarded as the major
contribution of Hegel in the history of political philosophy or western political thought. No one
before Hegel took so much interest in describing what is civil society? what are the modes of its
functioning? and how it eventually led to a different sphere of life that is called state.
In this lecture, today, we are going to discuss his views on civil society and the state. In the
previous lecture that we have on Hegel, we discussed his intellectual or political contexts. It was
the time of great art, literature, music, and philosophy in the German intellectual context and
there was the time of political development taking place after the French Revolution. There was
also the demand for the unification of Germany. So, we have discussed this in the previous
lecture and the personal life journey of Hegel, and his views on freedom.
So, in this lecture, today, we will begin with this argument of Hegel on freedom and how he saw
it as the idea that must embody something, other than itself. The embodiment of the other is
central to the understanding of freedom, according to Hegel. In all the spheres of life, that is
family, civil society, and the state, human beings have realized their freedom, his self-will while
living with others through the associational life. And how he or she does that, which we will
discuss in this lecture.
In the next lecture on Hegel, we will particularly discuss his philosophy of rights such as
property and we will critically look at his contribution to the history of western political thought.
Let us begin this lecture by looking at the family, civil society, and state as the realms where
progressively human being had realized his or her freedom. (Refer Slide Time: 3:23)
Freedom as we discussed in the previous lecture, means a central attribute, according to Hegel of
the human being. So, freedom is essential or the central characteristic or attribute of a human
being. Without the realization of freedom, there is no ethical life, no question of progress,
prosperity, and happiness in the individual or social life. So, freedom is the central attribute of
However, in contrast to the liberals or Kantian abstract or formal notion of freedom, Hegel
argued, about its concrete or actual realization in the world through association with others and
that distinguished Hegelian conception of freedom from the liberals and the Kantian views of
freedom. For Kant, it was necessary to think about oneself being free from social and external
constraints. So, the thinking was very necessary which for Hegel was a kind of empty idea, and
remained abstract. For Hegel, the emphasis was more about the will part, where individuals do
not just think he or she is free. But act upon that thinking or idea. And it is the acting upon that
makes that idea real rather than the abstract and hollow.
And he was against the many liberal conceptions of freedom that are about the choice or freedom
from all kinds of impediments. For Hegel, the freedom must be constitutive of both, the
subjective will of the people that is his motive, his end or goals, and also his objective reflection
within a given society and context, what is possible to achieve? That one could realize only
through the rational assessment of his own goals and ideals, and thereby when one meets both, the subjective and the objective conditions, one could truly realize one’s freedom. And the
realization of it requires its manifestation, not just in the realm of ideas, thinking, or abstractness.
So, that is what distinguishes Hegelian conception. This for him, even an absolute idea, and this
absolute idea was a kind of Kantian sense of human or something in life which remained beyond
the reach of human reason and rationality. How to go about it? How to think about it? Did he
bring back the idea of God in his conception of morality or how to lead a good ethical life?
Similarly, in Hegel, one has the idea of absolute will or universal will which for many scholars is
his reference to God, especially, when he talked about the state as ‘march of God’ on earth or it
represented the universal and absolute will of the individuals. He was somewhat referring to
something beyond the particular subjective will of the individuals, the larger or the universal
spirit, or world spirit that is called ‘Geist’. It is the unfolding of spirit that starts with the family,
civil society and reaches its ultimate stage in the life of the state.
So for him, even this abstract idea and many scholars considered it Hegelian or Hegel's reference
to God could not exist, unless, it manifested itself by embodying in something concrete or real in
the world. Even the absolute or universal will must express itself or manifest itself in the real
concrete world to be realized, to get to know even itself. This idea of embodiment or
manifestation in the concrete real world, we can better understand by this description of Peter
Singer’s of the Hegelian idea of embodiment.
For Hegel, saw God not as eternal or immutable. But as an essence or spirit if you like, an
essence that needs to manifest itself in the world, and has made itself manifest, to perfect the
world to perfect itself. So, this is a kind of dichotomy of self and other. For the individual to
know his self, to become aware of his self, the presence of others is necessary. It is in contrast, or
in comparison to others that human beings have constantly tried to or strive for perfection.
Similar is the case with this idea of absolute will or universal will. Those will in the absence of
concrete manifestation is immaterial. It is inconsequential. It becomes aware of itself when it
manifests itself in the real world. So, the realm of the state is that realm, where the universal or
the absolute will manifest itself. Now, that will to become perfect, it must perfect the world.
Thus, in Hegel, as we have discussed in the previous lecture, this transcendence of idealism and
material divides. There were this discourse and philosophy, where a group of scholars would give primacy to the
idea as the primary thing and the material as the manifestation of that idea in a way. It is
secondary. Whereas many other scholars would give primacy to the matter. The matter is real
and it leads to the consciousness or formation of ideas depending upon your material existence.
In Hegel, you have a kind of transcendence of this divide between the ideal and the material,
ideas, and the matter. So, even for the absolute will or the universal will to realize itself, to
perfect itself, it must manifest itself in the real world and that is the realm of the state. We will
discuss it later in this lecture, today. For individual freedom, for the realization of self, for the
realization of individual freedom, this embodiment in others is necessary for Hegelian
philosophy. This we have discussed in the context of the absolute universal will which many
scholars referred to as God in the Hegelian philosophy.
Similar is the case with freedom, according to Hegel, and for human beings to realize their
freedom, they must find its embodiment in something concrete and real, that is other than their
self. The self and other is the necessary relationship for the self to become aware of itself, to
become consists of itself, and then to distinguish itself from the others. It constantly and
progressively perfects itself. Thus, the realization of freedom requires its embodiments in others.
So, one is aware of your existence or the freedom that one enjoys, or the use of rationality that
one deploys while acting upon certain things or in one’s practical life. It all depends on how you
are perceived, how you are seen by others. The others are necessary for the realization of one’s
self, and that is the crucial, unique description of freedom in Hegelian notion. Unlike, the liberal
conception of freedom, where the individual is seen as atomistic, in isolation from others, and
freedom is that realm of life, where you are free to do anything. One exercises one’s choice and
options the way one likes without the constraints or interference from the other or external
Here, in Hegel, the realization of freedom must necessarily require the presence of the other, and
it is in the embodiment of the other where one realizes one’s freedom. So, the others, here in
Hegelian philosophy of freedom are prerequisites for the development of self and selfconsciousness of the individual. So, human freedom is thus realized only through living with
others and this is the progressive movement from one stage to the other. We will discuss in this lecture, today, how it develops from this sphere of the family to civil society and finally, to the
So, the social institution and the practices, according to Hegel, are the realm of human freedom
or the location of human freedom. It is not an abstract idea. It is something one can perceive,
understand while looking at the social practices, social association or the life of community. It is
in association with others that human beings realize freedom. And this actual realization of
freedom by exercising one's free will is true genuine freedom, according to Hegel. It is not in
isolation from others, not in living a kind of atomistic life, disconnected from others. The
realization of freedom is more important. But that realization should be based on one’s free will.
But that must acknowledge the pre-existence of others. And this relationship with others is
necessary for the realization of freedom.
So, in that sense the social or its institution and practices are the realm or location of human
freedom, not in absence of that. In other words, the social or political institutions such as family,
civil society, and state are locations of human freedom, and the abstract ideal of freedom finds its
concrete manifestation in these institutions. As an individual, one has the freedom or free will
that is not sufficient in itself. Unless one manifests it or actualize it while living with others in
the institution of society and the political organization.
Hegel discussed these relationship of the individual freedom with the social and political
institution in his famous text, Philosophy of Rights and considered them as the expression or
extension of the ethical life. His theorization of civil society and state is Hegel's best-known
contribution to the history of western philosophy. And since, Hegel, think of a civil society or
and it led to think why civil society matters? So, would it replace the state? This discussion had
started in the 1980s and 90s with the revolution in the East Europe, where the authoritarian
regime was challenged by the civil society or voluntary organizations.
Since then, it becomes a kind of hurrah word, everyone wants to have civil society and discuss
about the absence of civil society and whether civil society is civil or uncivil. So, this discourse
can be traced back to this Hegelian conception of civil society. Before him, as we have discussed
in different thinkers, there is not a serious or systematic exploration of this realm called civil
society and the social contradiction, particularly in Locke, one has two stages of the contract. But the very idea of contract for Hegel was the functioning of the relationship that exists in the civil
So, one enters into a contract for certain benefits or mutual benefits and the very purpose of the
contract is the fulfillment of one’s objectives or purpose or goals. But the relationship between
the individual and state cannot be contractual. And we will discuss when we will discuss Hegel's
views on the state. Nonetheless, what we need to remind is that for the first time in Hegel, we
have a very thorough or systematic differentiation between the realm of life that is civil society
and the realm of a state different from the civil society. It is often confused that the realm of
society and the functioning and behavior in the civil society is mistaken or confused with the
realm of state or vice versa.
Hegel's greatest contribution to the political philosophy or in the history of western political
thought is perhaps his categorical differentiation between the civil society and state or his views
on civil society and the state.
(Refer Slide Time: 17:52)
Now, as we have discussed in the previous lecture that the ‘self’ to be aware of itself requires the
presence of others. Thus, each person needs the other to be aware of himself or herself. So, it is
necessary for even having the self-consciousness that you exist. In the absence of others, one may not be aware of one’s self or the nature of one’s self. Thus, to develop that consciousness,
each individual requires the presence of the other.
What they expect from other than is this acknowledgment and recognition. That is the
fundamental expectation of human beings from each other, that one wants to be recognized.
One’s existence must be acknowledged by others or recognized by others. It is the absence of
acknowledgment or recognition that leads to conflict or problems in society or social
relationships. So, when one ignores someone when one does not recognize the existence of
someone when one does not acknowledge the existence of the other that leads to conflict. That
leads to social tensions.
The individual needs others and what is the expectation of others is mutual recognition and
acknowledgment. It is the absence of what leads to social conflict and social tension. But there is
the other side of this self and other relationship, that is, an individual's self-perception or what
you think of yourself might be threatened by the very presence of others. So, often in one’s life,
one may come across an individual getting upset or getting threatened by the very presence of
others. It is also possible.
Theoretically speaking, individuals should ideally recognize and acknowledge each other. But
there are occasions in practical life, where individual may feel threatened by the presence of
others. They do not want to do anything with others. Or they do not want to have any kind of
relationship or association with others. Now, that would lead to conflict or control or domination
of one over the other. So, human history is the history of domination and subordination, control
by one over the other, or one over the many. There is this relationship between control,
domination, and subordination, and that does not help in the realization of freedom or human
freedom, neither at the individual level nor at the societal level.
Hegel explained this condition of domination and control with his famous and strikingly original
idea of master and slave relations, and how it hampers individual freedom. He argued that in this
relationship master enjoys the fruits of labor done by slaves and slaves are dependent on the
master for their survival. So, this condition of servitude of one over the other or this relationship
between the master and slave are unequal relationships. It does not help in the realization of human freedom neither for the master nor for the slave. He gave the slave a scope for the
realization of his self. But the master is deprived of that.
Hegel argued that it might appear in this relationship of master and slave, where the master
enjoyed all the fruit of labor done by the slaves. And slaves were dependent on the master for
their survival. So, for the master, the slaves were merely things or objects which they could
dispense with or they could treat it like they treat the objects or mere thing, not a living, a
subjective human being with a will. In such a context, the master may have everything. Thus, the
master enjoys everything. One may get the impression when you have many people over who
However, Hegel gave a very counter-intuitive argument for this relationship. So, he argued that
the urge of the master who seemed to exercise all the benefits or labor done by the slaves. His
urge is the natural urge of the master for the recognition and acknowledgment by others who are
not equals. So, the master while exercising the fruits of labor done by the slaves does not get the
opportunity necessary for the realization of freedom as we have discussed in the Hegelian idea of
freedom, that it is the embodiment of self in other. It is by the recognition or acknowledgment by
others that one develops the consciousness about self. One acquires one’s nature and then
constantly tries to perfect it.
In the absence of that mutual recognition and acknowledgment, one cannot be free. So, in this
dialectics of master and slave, where master seemed to exercise all the fruits of labor done by
slaves, he is deprived of this recognition and acknowledgment by others. Because in slaves, he
could not think of the slave as himself, or equal to himself. The slaves were merely things and
objects to him. So, the masters could not see in slaves his self-image, and seeing one’s selfimage in others is necessary for the realization of freedom. Therefore, the master was deprived of
Whereas, the slaves could develop their self-consciousness through his labor on an external
object. Gradually slaves, through the fruits of his labor developed his self-consciousness about
working on external objects. And this theory was further developed by Marx and others when he
talked about human alienism. We will discuss it when we will discuss Marx that how society or market, or society deprives the individual of his natural association with others and from himself
that leads to the condition of alienation.
Hegel gave the slaves this scope for self-consciousness or developing self-consciousness through
his labor on an external object. However, the master was deprived of it. Thus, Hegel, argued that
the control or domination of one over the other would be an obstacle to the realization of human
freedom. In other words, the master and slave relationship do not maximize the scope for the
realization of freedom, neither for the slaves nor for the masters. Even masters are much more
deprived of freedom than the slaves if you go by the reasoning of the Hegelian conception of
master and slave relationship.
Now, we look at this idea of spirit for what you call the ‘Geist’ and its relationship with ethical
life or the unfolding of spirit to understand the manifestation of universal or abstract will in the
real concrete situations in life. The idea of spirit or ‘Geist’ is also referred to mind or universal
mind and will, that is the human capacity to be aware of his or her desire or goals or motives, yet
apply his rational brain or rational faculty to understand what is doable. So, the combination of
both leads to action. The practical part or acting upon the will is more important.
In Hegel, therefore, the focus was not on reason and rationality. But on will that combine both
the subjective element in the individual subject and also the objective conditions in which that
will can materialize. So, these two concepts and ‘Geist’ or spirit are also known as the universal
mind and the will are central to the Hegelian philosophy. He considered the absolute will as the
basis of all human actions materialized through association with others.
Human beings realize the presence of absolute will in themselves. So, everything, as we have
discussed in the previous lecture, is the manifestation of universal will. The universal spirit or the
world spirit is the presence in everything on this planet, both animate or inanimate. A human
being can progressively realize it, when they began to live with the associational life or with
others in different realms in their life, family, civil society, and state.
However, the association with others should be directed towards the realization of ethical life
which he called ‘Sittlichkiet’. That means living an ethical life. And that connects to this idea of
liberty or freedom which combines within it certain practical aspects or moral and ethical aspects
within which one human being can truly or genuinely realize his freedom. It is not like the libertarian conception in the absence of all kinds of restraints or all forms of morality or values
or ethics. Those ethics, morality, and values should be self-legislated, self-constituted
nonetheless, the ethical or moral sense requires for the true or genuine realization of freedom. In
the absence of that, freedom cannot be realized.
The realization of freedom requires a notion of ethical life which he called ‘Sittlichkiet’ and it is
the constant unfolding from different levels of individual life in a family, civil society, and the
state. It gives the individual a sense of belonging and an obligation towards each other. So, this
ethical life is something necessary for a human to realize his sense of belonging, his place in the
world, and his obligation to that world, to that association to which he or she belongs. That
ethical sense of life or ethical life which he called ‘Sittlichkiet’ is necessary or the guiding
principle for the association of an individual with others.
So, they see in the expression of his free will while performing his obligation towards the
community or to the associational life with others. The individuals progressively realize this
ethical substance, while living the associational life with others in different realms of modern
communities such as family, civil society, and finally, the state which are, according to Hegel
reflection of three kinds of will, subjective will in the realm of family, particular and reflective
will in the realm of civil society and universal or absolute will in the realm of the state. Now, we
will discuss one by one all these three spheres of human life which make it possible for an
individual to gradually realize his freedom and thereby, leading an ethical life, ‘Sittlichkiet’.(Refer Slide Time: 30:30)
So, the first such association is the individual life in the family and according to Hegel, the
family is the realm of subjective will. That means an individual is well aware of his/her own
subjective will, subjective desire, passion, and he realized those wills in the realm of civil
society. This is the realm of subjective will, where two consenting individuals come together to
live a life that is based on mutual trust, love, care, and recognition.
The foundation of the family is this mutual trust among the partners or the consenting individual
who are willing to come together to live an associational life in the close-knit intimate bonds of
family. So, the sentiments, care, selflessness determines the characteristic of the family. It is
constitutive of a husband, wife, and children. Thus, Hegel’s description of the modern nuclear
family is based on the conventional and orthodox notion of family. So, if you compare it with a
single mother family or another kind of imagination about living a conjugal relationship or living
an intimate relationship with others in the family.
In Hegel, you have a conventional and orthodox understanding of a family, where the presence
of husband and wife are the necessary part of the institution called family. They come together to
raise the children who would again, after living the life with care and protection in the family
will mature enough to join the life in the civil society and state. So, this family for Hegel is
conventional and orthodox, in the sense that it must have a male or a female. However, he acknowledged that such a family was constituted and protected by the legal
arrangements of the modern constitution state. Because there was a realm of trust or property
relationship that guides human behavior in the family. And in Hegel, there is a kind of
interconnectedness between different institutions such as family, civil society, and the state. And
the state is seen as something which regulates all the institutions including the family and civil
society. The family has then a kind of legal backup or legal arrangement that is provided by the
institution of the modern constitutional state.
So, he regarded marriage, unlike many other scholars, not merely as a contract. For many
scholars including Kant, marriage was something merely a kind of contract between two
consenting adult individuals. But Hegel considered it something more than that as something
bigger than merely two individuals coming together under a contract for the mutual benefit. That
is the realm of civil society. It is something very altruistic and the Hegelian idea of spirit
continued to shape many of his discussions on the family, family relationship, family ties,
sentiments, or realization of the subjective will.
He did not regard marriage merely as a contract. But a union where, when consenting partner
agree to come together. They forego their personality or subjective will and then see in each
other their self-image. That is a kind of union, rather than a kind of contract which is the
language of civil society. It was not merely a contract. But a union of two consenting adults
based on their mutual love and trust. He regarded love as akin to freedom or reason as it also
finds itself in others. So, one cannot think of love without the presence of others, and it is in that
sense, similar to the idea of freedom. One cannot realize one’s freedom in the absence of the
other, so it is the feeling of love and trust. It requires the presence of others.
Thus, for Hegel, the family is first of all a union of two individuals having their subjective will.
So, whether the two consenting individuals come to form this family on their voluntary decision
or they come in that arrangement through their parents. But when they enter as an individual
themselves, they carry certain subjective will, subjective desires or motives or goals. Now, this
union is based on free consent and mutual recognition. When both the partners whether on their
own or through their partner coming together to live a life in the family, the act of living together
requires the mutual recognition and free consent of both the partners. Thus, in this union, the consenting adults give up their natural or individual personality or if you
like, subjective wills. However, in doing so, they do not lose themselves. It is not a kind of loss
of subjective will. But they do so together. They constitute a single person and form their selves
or subjective wills in each other. That is the mutual trust and recognition that shapes the family
relationship or behavior of individuals in the family. Thus, individuals in the realm of the family
are guided by altruistic behavior. That is to say, they are willing to sacrifice for the other
members in the family and the behavior of individuals in the family is that of altruistic behavior,
that is selfless care or protection or sharing of one’s share with other members in the family.
The family in that sense is a very close-knit relationship among the consenting individual and the
principle that guides family relationship is altruistic behavior, not personal, selfish interest.
However, human beings could not realize his true self with the confines of family, so (0:37:55)
in this sense perfect setup for the individual where one’s relationship with others is that of total
trust or complete trust or recognition of each other, love, and care for each other and that is the
best possible life one can think of.
But it is very limited, according to Hegel. That is, one’s altruistic behavior is limited to only kith
and kin, that is near and dear one. Beyond that one does not extend that altruistic behavior and
the ideal for Hegel is to realize the absolute will of the individual. So, the individual is the part of
that absolute will which he realized, not within the limits of family, although in each, there is the
realm of family, individuals see the complete self-image in the other. Yet it is very limited or
confined space for the realization of subjective will with the absolute will. That is possible
among the strangers, where you are willing to sacrifice oneself for something that is larger,
universal, or absolute and that is the realm of state for Hegel.
It has limits, where selfless behavior of individuals is limited to his kith and kin, therefore he or
she must transcend it to foster association among the free and equal members in the realm of
civil society.(Refer Slide Time: 39:29)
And now, we move on to Hegel's conception of the civil society. This is Hegel's biggest
contribution to political science and before him, he argued, political thinkers often confused civil
society with the state or the state with the civil society, the most glaring example of that is the
social contract tradition. So, the contract is the language of civil society and there cannot be a
contract between the individual and the state. It is merely hypothetical construct. So, Hegel
accused many other scholars or political theorists of confusing the civil society with state and
state with the civil society, and he himself distinguished it very clearly.
He provided a detailed description of the civil society and distinguished it from the state. So,
civil society for Hegel exists in between the realms of the state and the family. It is the realm of
collective life that exists be
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