ntroduction to Western Political Thought
Professor Mithilesh Kumar Jha
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati
Hegel-III: Rights and Critical Assessment of his Thought
Hello and welcome everyone. This is the third and concluding lecture on Hegel. Today, we are
going to focus on his philosophy of rights. In the second part, we will discuss the critical
assessment of his philosophy and how he interpreted young Hegelians, particularly, the Hegelian
left and those who are in the right.
And also, we will look at how there is a kind of contradictory interpretation of Hegelian
philosophy and renewed interest among the communitarian philosophers in contemporary
philosophy. We will discuss the enduring legacy of Hegel before concluding today's lecture. In
the previous two lectures, we have discussed the Hegelian understanding of human freedom, the
expression of absolute will or spirit.
Human being constantly tries to actualize himself or herself by manifesting this spirit or will in
different arena of his life. So, we have started our discussion on Hegel by looking at his
conceptualization of freedom that is different from the liberal conception of freedom or the
conception of freedom and it embodies the other.
Then we discuss in the second lecture, his views on civil society and how civil society is the
realm of life that should not be confused with the state. So, one of the greatest contributions of
Hegel in the history of western political thought is his theory of civil society. That we have
discussed in the second lecture along with the other two institutions of life. It is where
individuals realize their wills such as subjective, reflective, or the universal, absolute will in the
realm of family and state. That we have discussed in the second lecture. (Refer Slide Time: 3:10)
Today, we will focus on his philosophy of right and the critical assessment of his thought. So, if
you recall the point that I have made, one of the major contributions of Hegel to the history of
western political thought is his theory of civil society. And before Hegel, there was a kind of
recognition of an arena of life which is called the pre-political or social life. But it was not
systematically theorized as Hegel did.
He also argued that the realm of civil society should not be confused with the state which we
often find in the language of the social contract. The contract is among the two partners for
certain mutual ends or mutual gains. But that cannot be the basis of the relationship of
individuals and the state for political obligation. Thus, Hegel had a systematic and thorough
description of life in the civil society that should be differentiated from the state.
It does not mean that there is no presence of the state in the realm of civil society. We have
discussed that while we were discussing Hegel's idea of family, civil society, and state that
certain institutions of the state such as the administration of justice or police were present in the
realm of civil society as well. Nonetheless, the individual behavior and action in the state or his
or her obligation to the state should not be guided by the language of contract prevalent in the
realm of civil society.So, this was his greatest contribution to the theory of civil society and its interrelationship with
the state. He regarded civil society as a necessary institution different from the state. Many
romantics during this time argued that to go back to some kind of pre-rational or innocent kind of
living the harmonious life between man and nature, and man and man. For Hegel, that is not
Once individuals develop their subjective or reflective being, there is no question of going back
to the subjective will or the pure era of innocence or harmony. One has to navigate through it.
One has to realize that particular will. But one must transcend it to something higher, bigger,
representative of universal or absolute will. That is the realm of the state. So, Hegel makes that
distinction very clear.
And these two institutions that are civil society and the state along with the family as the realm
of subjective will represent three wills, according to Hegel. That is the subjective will which we
realize in the realm of family, particular, or reflective will that guides one’s action in the civil
society, absolute or universal will. It is where the subjective will can be merged with the larger
will of the society or the larger goal of the state.
His conception of human freedom, therefore, is unique in the sense that it realizes as an
embodiment of self. That is unique. We have discussed that freedom is seen as something absent
from external interference or impediments. So to the extent, such absence is there, the individual
is seen as free. That is the liberal dominant conceptualization of freedom.
In contrast to that, Hegel saw the realization of freedom in others that human beings could not
even develop their self-image or self-consciousness without the presence of others. So, there was
a sense of being intimate with others. Thus, one sees oneself in others, one realizes one’s
freedom, when one gets acknowledgment or recognition from others. And that is why the
realization of freedom is possible only in the society or community living with others.
There was the presence of others. For Hegel, individuals needed to develop their selfconsciousness and realize their freedom. And the location of such freedom then is in the society
or community. And individuals realize it progressively. So, from one stage to the next, to the ultimate stage in the realm of society is a kind of progressive movement. That was something
like Aristotle’s teleological understanding.
In Hegel, we have discussed the history for Hegel that is the movement from one stage to the
next, in the realization of human freedom. Similarly, the individual realization of freedom from
family to the civil society and state is like a kind of linear progressive movement from the
limited or partial realization to the complete and ultimate realization in the realm of the state.
The individuals realize this freedom progressively in family, civil society, and state, and
somewhat akin to Aristotle's telos that is the full development of a thing, contains in that thing
itself. For Hegel, that is true development or full realization of human freedom or the complete
actualization of self or ethical life, ‘Sittlichkeit’ (09:41) is possible only in the state.
So, if you recall our lecture on Aristotle, he said that the best kind of life is possible in the life of
polis that is the public and political life necessary for realizing full human potentialities or to
develop a true friendship among free and equal members while living a social life in the state,
somewhat similar not the same.
You have in Hegel this assertion of the state and the realm of the state as the condition for the
full or the ultimate realization of human freedom. Hegel’s philosophy was subjected to many
criticisms and often contradictory interpretations. Many saw in him a conservative or status-quo
thinker, while for others there are many radical possibilities in his philosophy.
Hegel's opposition to direct elections for legislatures and people's right to vote and his support
for unconditional obedience to the state-led many scholars to consider him as the forerunner of
authoritarian and totalitarian regimes in the 20th century. So, many considered him as an antiliberal or anti-democratic thinker as well. This we will discuss in the second part of the lecture.
Today, we will move on to his conceptualization of right that is based on his philosophy of right. (Refer Slide Time: 11:24)
Hegel’s philosophy of rights is somewhat again very Hegelian, a unique conceptualization of
right from its absolute sense to its concrete manifestation in the real, practical, material world.
The first section of Hegel's, The Philosophy of Rights deals with the idea of absolute right,
something absolute, universal, or abstract.
So, it is argued that person, agent, or will are having the capacity to act, according to one’s will,
they constitute the social world. The social world is constitutive of the person regarded as an
agent who is capable of changing the world and their surroundings. And this capacity to change
the surroundings is a necessity for the realization of self-worth or self-value.
The social world that we can think of whether it is the family or civil society is constitutive of
this person who is capable of willing and acting upon their will. Now, what is unique to the
person, and what makes that person or agent capable of acting upon their will? What kinds of
rights are necessary for individuals to realize their self to act according to their will and achieve
the mastery of their surroundings?
They should not be the slave or confined or limited to their surroundings. So, individuals exist in
the surroundings. But the surroundings do not determine the individuals rather than the
individual determine or establish his or her independence from those surroundings. There is a kind of dialectical relationship, where one recognizes the surroundings. But one is not limited
and subjugated to that surrounding.
And that capacity to assert mastery over the surrounding makes the human will the actual will to
realize his or her personality and that requires certain rights. For Hegel, the individual
personality is not a given thing. The individual acquires it while achieving the mastery of one
surroundings. So, the personality represents for Hegel the abstract, immediate, and minimal
possible conception of free agency.
So, there is an abstract, immediate, or minimal possible conception of free agency in human
personality. What does it mean to have free will and then the capacity to act upon those will?
That requires some abstract conception of a person or individual personality, and certain rights
are given based on those abstract conceptions of the human self. But it also manifests itself in the
concrete real and material world.
Thus, a personality for Hegel represented the most abstract, immediate, and minimal possible
conception of free agency. To be a person is recognized. Both that one is confronted by a set of
givens and this given may be natural and the social environment. And that one is independent of
those givens. So, the individual lives in a natural environment given to him. But then individuals
have to develop their personality and they must also assert their independence from that givens.
And that is the realization of one's actual will when you act upon your given things and then
transform your surroundings that they do not fully determine one's being or active activities.
One's self or being and activities are not determined by the set of givens, natural, or the social
environment. It is in effect to think of oneself as a maker of choice, capable of imposing one's
will in a given situation.
And that makes human beings realize their personality, capacity, and in other words, the actual
will that is independent of the social, physical, or natural environment of his or her surroundings.
How do individuals can express those will in that surroundings? What kind of surrounding is
necessary for the realization of that will? It is something which he goes on to discuss when he
argues what a family, civil society, and state are.According to Hegel, individual personality is constituted when a person looks at himself as his
property. So, you own your own body, you own your own will or you own your own choice,
motives, and goals which guides your behavior to others. The basis of abstract rights for Hegel is
when the individual began to look at himself or herself as his or her body independent or free
from his or her surroundings.
When a person looks at himself as his property capable of willing and acting upon his will that
leads to the constitution of human personality in the abstract sense. So, it is this sense of selfownership that reinforces individual capacity and self-understanding. This development of self or
idea of personality is necessary for individual realization or individual capacity to know himself,
to understand himself, and then also act upon those understanding.
This led Hegel to develop an interesting theory of property rights. What does it mean to own
property? What does it mean to have ownership over one’s body, one’s self? He considered
property in the sense of both owning a person and owning the external object. He considered
property and contract as something necessary for the growth of human personality and the
progressive realization of freedom.
So, it reflects his endeavors and exercise of free will that is the motivation of the individual
which leads him to act upon certain wills that is his will, the actualization of his real will.
According to Hegel, a person can see the reflection of him and choice in his property. So, the
property can be both as I said, one’s body or the perception of self. But also something that one
owns, suppose a car or a building or any tools.
You see one’s image in the ownership of that thing. It may be one’s car, it may be a building or it
may be anything x y z that is external to one’s personality. Yet it is in the sense of extension of
one’s personality. That is in owning that thing, one sees in one’s reflection. So, society should be
based on mutual recognition, where the worth of an individual or capacity of one individual is
recognized based on ownership of his properties.
That is the ownership that enables the individual to develop a self-image, self-consciousness, and
then progressively realize his or her freedom in different realms of collective life. So, it is like an extension of his self that is the ownership of property. Hence, the value of labor as the source of
self-identity in the Hegelian conception of master and slave.
He viewed that the relationship between the master and slave was some kind of obstacle in the
realization of human freedom, where the slave while acting upon certain external objects
developed his self-consciousness. But the master was deprived of it. Because he would never see
in the slave his self-image and the other was necessary for the realization of one's self or one's
freedom or one's person.
So, the master while exercising his control over the slaves or enjoying the freedom based on the
labor done by the slaves was deprived of developing his or her self-consciousness. Because it can
be done only among the equals. Whereas, the slave while acting upon certain external objects
through the use of labor develop his or her self-consciousness. The labor for Hegel or the
individual motive to act upon one's own will is the source of development of self-consciousness.
And that is something further developed in Marxist understanding where he argued that in the
capitalist economy, the labor was alienated from his object of labor. He is also alienated from the
other human beings and ultimately, alienated from his self. And that will discuss when we will
discuss Marx's conception of alienation.
But for the Hegelian conception of ownership or property rights, the value of labor was
recognized through which individuals developed their self-image, their self-perception, and
thereby they saw in the product of their labor, the extension of their self, and will. And that is
why the property is necessary according to Hegel. Thus, individuals need to own property that is
the basis for developing and sustaining their personality, according to Hegel. (Refer Slide Time: 22:57)
For Hegel, the right in the absolute sense is about the right to property which includes both
ownership over the self-independent of his or her surroundings. Then also, owning certain things
or objects in which human beings see the reflection or extension of his self. So, it is about
ownership or control over something, over one's person or property that is recognized by others
That is the kind of from abstract to the real concrete manifestation of those rights. It is one thing
to theoretically or in the abstract think of oneself being independent. That is not sufficient for the
realization of one’s freedom for developing one’s personality. It is only possible when one
manifests it in the society and others recognize certain things as one’s property, maybe one’s
Thus, one owns the body, when others recognize their right or control over my own body’ or my
ownership of a car or my ownership of any other external objects requires the presence of others
who recognize that this property or object is the ownership of that person. They also see the selfworth of that individual in the ownership of that property or external object. So, the recognition
by others is very important for the individual ownership over self or any property.
The ownership of property becomes the basis for the self as well as for others to recognize the
person's self-worth or free will. So, one’s motivation or will to act upon one’s decisions ordesires or whatever one thinks is possible rationally within the limits of one’s surroundings to
realize one’s freedom, self-worth, or free will. For Hegel, it is possible to realize or materialize
when one has the presence of others and through the presence of the recognition of one’s
ownership over certain things or objects.
It is further mediated by the language of the contract and social institutions such as family, civil
society, and the states. So, these things are necessary for the individual abstract rights to be
materialized or manifested in the actual real material world, not merely in the realm of thought or
ideas. Hegel’s justifications for the property was different and unique in some sense. It is not
justified for the sake of it. So, there is a kind of intimate, organic relationship between the self
and ownership of the property as an abstract right in Hegel.
So, it is very different from Lockean idea, so if you remember when we did John Locke and his
theory of property rights, his argument was basically when human beings mixed one's labor with
nature, the outcome of such mixing is his/her property. So, Hegelian conception is different from
such Lockean idea of property and the ownership of property.
In Hegelian philosophy, property ownership is seen as necessary for the progressive
development and realization of individual free will and freedom. So, free will requires that you
own your own body and you develop the capacity to act, according to your own will. You
actualize your own will.
In that sense, there is a kind of enlightenment tradition within the limits of community or society,
where individuals do not lose his self or subjective will, while living with others, while living in
the community or social life in the civil society, where they merge their self with the larger self
in the state.
So, individuals in all the spheres of life realize their self and worth progressively, not in the
absence of others. But even when in association with others, they realize themselves. They do
not lose sight of their will and freedom. And to realize that he regarded property, our self, and
external object as something necessary for its progressive development.
However, this ownership of property as an abstract right must be actualized in a concrete and
material condition such as in the institution of family, civil society, and state, and that we have discussed in the previous lecture while we discussing his views on civil society and state. But
also in the family as the realm of altruistic behavior or selfless behavior of the individual.
And yet it serves them to see completely their images in their partner. There is a kind of union of
two adult individuals with their subjective will and when they come together, they see
themselves in each other. That is the realm of family and how it moves to civil society and state
is the actual real manifestation of individual on freedom.
So, you will further argue that an individual's deepest conviction, values, and motivations are
shaped by the social practices and institutions in which he participates. The presence of a social
or community and its values are necessary for the individual's self-imagination or those will or
motives that shape his practical actions. Thus, in the right social environment, individuals would
find the right ends in their conscience and the motivation to follow those ends.
There is a kind of dialectical relationship between the individual self or subjective will and the
society or values that society nurtures in the individuals. So, it is not like a liberal self-defining,
the atomistic individual in isolation from society. But in a relationship with the society or in a
kind of dialectical relationship with society that mutually reinforces each other in that sense.
And he regarded that in the right environment such as in the family or civil society and state, the
individual would realize his or her subjective will or freedom. He did not consider either
morality as the guide of action. So, it will lead to humans, the purpose of individual life, and the
realization of individual freedom is each to have some motivation or a sense of duty.
Now, to develop that motivation or the sense of duty, one requires the others. Morality is limited
in the sense that it gives one a moral, ethical sense of one’s duty. But it is not enough for the
subjective realization of one’s freedom or motivation in itself. It is not a guide for the realization
of ethical life or the realization of one’s freedom. So the idea of freedom, once again, if you
recall is the combination of both the subjective will and objective will.
And that is possible to progressively develop or realize only in association with others while
living in the community, family, civil society, and the state. So, morality or individual
motivation, according to Hegel, is on its own would not lead to an individual's leading an ethical
life or ‘sittlichkeit’ or realizing his true self or freedom. Hegel did not consider that morality in itself or individual motivation in isolation from society
would be a guide for living is an ethical life. It requires individual association with others in the
family, civil society, and the state. And it is this dialectical relationship with others that helps
human being to realize their freedom. Now, we will move on to the next part of today's lecture
that is to look at the criticisms against Hegelian philosophy.
(Refer Slide Time: 33:14)
Hegelian philosophy had a tremendous influence on German thought and philosophy. He was the
undisputed leader of the philosophic world as like Goethe was the voice to the world of literature
and Beethoven to the world of music. We have discussed while we discussed Hegelian
contribution to German idealism and how it was seen as a kind of culmination of ‘German
Idealism’ found by Immanuel Kant.
He remained somewhat the undisputed leader after his appointment at the University of Berlin
till his death in 1831. And even after that, for many decades, Hegel had a profound influence on
any discourse on philosophy. That is what the ease of Greeks like Goethe on literature or
Beethoven in music.
So, many of the Hegelian terms such as the history as the progressive movement of human
freedom or ‘Geist’ that is a spirit or ‘Sittlichkeit’ the ethical life, the idea of self, and others, and
master and slave have become the reference point for any discussion on philosophy. Particularly,this idea that history is the progressive movement of human freedom was taken to the logical
conclusion by many left-leaning philosophers, including Marx, who believed in the Hegelian
And based on that they argued, the next stage or the full realization of human freedom is
inevitable. Because of the contradictions that are simultaneously present in any historical given
moment. These ideas become a reference point for any discussions on philosophy and after his
death, his followers were split into two groups, right and left Hegelians.
And right Hegelians provided a conservative and orthodox interpretation of Hegel's philosophy
where they focused more on Hegel’s views on religion and reconciled it with the Protestant
ethics. And his positive attitudes towards the Prussian state. So, while Hegel was developing his
philosophy as I said that Germany was divided into three hundred smaller states or principalities
ruled by a monarchy.
Prussia, the most enlightened state in the German-speaking world was itself ruled by the
absolutist monarchy, where there was the promise for reforms. But again, the reassertion of
absolute control of the monarch. And even if you look at the justification of Hegel for the state
and unconditional obligation towards the state, many of the Hegelian rights argued that Hegel
was the status quo.
His argument that his own is the ultimate realization of human freedom or his philosophy as the
attainment of maturity was something a Hegelian right projected as the conservative or status
quest, characteristic of Hegel philosophy. Similarly, they focused on his views on the state as the
‘march of God on earth’ and citizens’ unconditional obligation towards it.
However, Hegelian right did not produce any major thinkers and within a few decades maybe
two and three decades after his death, the Hegelian right was out of fashion in Germany. The
other groups were more prominent. It consisted of a group of young men with radical leanings.
They found in Hegel's philosophy many radical possibilities that Hegel, according to these
radical leaning young Hegelian had failed to carry through to their logical conclusions.
They saw in Hegel’s philosophy many radical possibilities. But according to them, Hegel himself
failed to carry through this to their logical conclusions, such as dialectics or the nature of conflicts that existed in the civil society. He brought the notion of the state or universal will
which for many of them was a kind of mysterious world, did not resolve the tension that existed
in the civil society that is real.
And the next stage of human history or human progress would be the outcome of that conflict
that existed in the civil society. Hegel failed to do so when he considered ‘state as the march of
God on earth’ representing the will of everyone. The young Hegelians are also called left
Hegelians. Hegel's philosophy had radical possibilities. But Hegel himself did not carry them
through to their logical conclusions.
And many of these young Hegelians, interpreted the philosophy of Hegel, in their fight or
struggle for a better or just world. According to them, it derived inspiration from the Hegelian
philosophy. But they were also critical of the many flaws, according to them in Hegelian writing.
So, Ludwig Feuerbach from 1802 to 1872, and Karl Marx were the most prominent thinkers in
this school of young Hegelians.
And they derived from Hegelian philosophy inspiration to demand and struggle for a better
world or just world organized on rational principle. So, as we have discussed in the philosophy
of right, for Hegel, the search of philosophy is to look for the conditions, where a human being
will realize his or her self. He argued about the constitutional monarchy.
He also recognized that the power of the state should be divided into three organs as
Montesquieu said, executive, legislature, and the judiciary. That it has to be a kind of universal
clause that would work on behalf of everyone in the society and not based on a particular
interest. In other words, the Hegelian argument is for the creation of a rational order which
would help human beings to realize their self and actual will while living with and among others.
(Refer Slide Time: 40:54)So, the young Hegelians derived such inspiration and then took it to the next level. They
considered Hegelian dialectics, basically, the simultaneous presence of opposites and their
reconciliation. They considered this dialectic as the fundamental role of human progress and this
is something inevitable. The historical moment is pregnant with possibilities and those
possibilities are based on the contradictions that existed in the civil society.
And the next stage would be the outcome of such a contradiction and reconciliation, and they
agree with this Hegelian dialectic. But much more in the material and realistic interpretation
rather than the ideal interpretation based on the realm of thought or idea of universal or absolute
will as in the Hegelian philosophy. Marx used this Hegelian dialectic in his historical
We will discuss it in the next lecture, while we start discussing Marx and his philosophy. These
young Hegelians saw in religion and religious orthodoxy the biggest obstacle in the realization of
human freedom. So, the purpose of human life, according to Hegel, and also many enlightenment
thinkers is to realize one's capacity to think for oneself, what is good and what is bad.
It should not be based on any external authority. Religion and religious orthodoxy prevented the
men from realizing his/her self-worth or develop his/her rational faculty that should be the basis
of his/her action. So, Kant argued that enlightenment said a similar thing. It is there in the Hegelian idea. But particularly, for the young Hegelian or the left Hegelian, they
considered religion and the religious orthodoxy as the biggest obstacle in the realization of
human freedom. Because human beings willingly or voluntarily subject themselves to the image
they have created. So, God is something which human beings have invented and once they
invent God they subject their will to do thei
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