What makes me Hegelian?

I sometimes describe myself as Hegelian. This confuses a lot of people, so I decided to write out a concise explanation of what it means to me. Take this essay as a radical simplification of the ideas contained within. It reflects my amateur understanding, and merges Hegel’s thought with interpretations that came much later, but are clearly in the same tradition. That said, given that Hegel is hard to understand, I hope my reconstruction of his thought is reasonably accessible and clarifying of my own views.

Samuel Hammond
9 min readFeb 14, 2019

Since the Enlightenment, philosophers have been grappling with two related problems: Cartesian dualism, i.e. bridging the objective / subjective dichotomy; and the origin of normativity, i.e. bridging the fact / value dichotomy.

Anglo empiricists like Hume generally embraced these dichotomies, leading to theories of perception as a bunch of sense data, and theories of morality as a bundle of noncognitive sentiments, desires, or prejudices. But this approach runs into problems: How do you motivate human action from a bunch of sentiments? How do you reason with others about right and wrong actions except in purely instrumental terms? How do you reconcile Hume’s problems of induction and causality, much less the problem of “mere appearances” like the possibility of life being an elaborate computer simulation? As a result, Cartesianism tends to lead to moral and epistemological skepticism. This is arguably a kind of reductio for any practical philosophical strategy. It was all well understood in Hume’s time, and was in a sense rediscovered in the 20th century debate over logical positivism, most notably with Quine’s “Two Dogmas of Empiricism.”

Nonetheless, when Kant read Hume it “awoke him from his dogmatic slumber” and got him thinking. Things like causality or spatial extension aren’t just one thing happening before the other or something we directly perceive. They’re literally inescapable, a priori preconditions of perception (what Kant called “conditions of possibility”). For example, to empirically perceive a 3D cube in space you must already have a concept of something being extended in multiple dimensions and through time. The mind is thus not a passive receptor of photons, but something that actively synthesizes sensory inputs into a unity of concepts (what Kant called judgments). This idea is related to the modern notion of perception being “theory laden.”

Kant offered an analogous solution to the problem of normativity. Judgments, as something we “do,” are inherently normative; that is, we are entitled to certain judgments, and by doing them we are automatically responsible for their contents and associated commitments. A simplistic way of putting this “transcendental” point is to argue that to act in the world without implicitly adopting norms or making judgments is, like imagining a cube without some concept of spatial extension, impossible. Being responsible is a constitutive feature of what it means to be a rational, intentional agent. What then are the practical implications of the world being a computer simulation on our active commitments and responsibilities? If there are none, the very assertion that we’re in a computer simulation is moot—a kind of empty, metaphysical speculation. A related, and even more stripped down version of this argumentation strategy is Habermas’s idea of a “performative contradiction” (like the assertion “I am dead”). But Kant means it in a far deeper way, like with perception, as something inherent in the very ability to form concepts.

Consider a modern artificial intelligence, like the system that drives Google’s autonomous car. Empirical data from the car’s cameras and lidar are meaningless without an internal, spatiotemporal model of the world, processes for synthesizing the flood of inputs into rational categories and inferences, and some intrinsic goal-orientedness to guide action (getting to the destination while obeying traffic rules). Kant derived all this long before the advent of computers by simply thinking through the conditions of possibility for conceptual, intentional action. Comtemporary philosophers in his tradition continue to produce important insights for cognitive science and AI research.

How Hegel Made Kant Social

Kant’s theory was a major advance in philosophy, but suffered by being highly formalistic and ego-centered. So Hegel came along and “naturalized” the theory, meaning he moved it from the abstract to the concrete and immanent sociology of actual human societies, customs, conventions. I have agency in some measure because other people around me recognize me as having agency and vice versa (norms are intersubjective or “recognitive”), in contrast to the Kantian notion of a pure “I” following abstract reason.

The world is thus intelligible according to Hegel because in a very literal sense the world is conceptual. This is what he means by “the rational is actual and the actual is rational” — all reality is capable of being expressed in rational categories. The conceptual isomorphism of the human mind and the world it is perceiving is what puts the “Idealism” in German Idealism. But where Kant’s theory is abstract and discursive, Hegel posits (since concepts and judgments are kinds of “doings”) that language originally acquires meaning and content-fulness in social practices. Only later do we make the judgments implicit in antecedent actions something explicit in language (Robert Brandom’s “Making It Explicit” argues this interpretation of Hegel in detail).

The social and pragmatic nature of semantic content is related to Wittgenstein’s argument about the impossibility of a “private language”, as well as the pragmatist notion of “meaning as use” rather than “meaning as reference,” as in the case of a semantic sign/signifer relation, or the idea that “dog” has some correspondence with the external world, eg. “dogness”. Reference theories of meaning tend to lead, due to their implicit Cartesianism, to skepticism about meaning (eg. semiotic deconstruction) or bullet biting about ideas having external reality (eg. Platonism). In the pragmatist interpretation, in contrast, if I say “It is raining outside” that entitles you to say “I shall get my umbrella” in our language game. Those explicit / discursive articulations are only meaningful because there are a set of “doings” behind them with pragmatic force and inferential implications. There are still such things as reference relationships (eg. “umbrella refer to that funny looking thing over there”), but those are subordinate in terms of intentional content to what you do with the thing—both our understanding of an umbrella in how we directly use it, and word’s contextual role in a sentence (hence the title of Schopenhauer’s “The World as Will and Representation”). For a full discussion of this perspective see Joseph Heath’s “The Fall Of Semiotics”.

Important Reminder: The “idealism” in German Idealism is about *meanings,* and not at all like Berkeley’s idealism in which the external world is subjective ideas. On the contrary, Kant’s “Transcendental Idealism” explicitly set out to refute skepticism about the external world. This carried over to Hegelianism, making it perfectly compatible with common sense realism and a rejection of mysticism. Indeed, one of the greatest scientific thinkers and experimentalists, C.S. Peirce, was inspired by German Idealism.

From Mind To History

Hegel’s move to immanentize concepts and normative statuses into actual social practices is why he sees the history of philosophy as culminating in the philosophy of history. The fact that we are discursive, reason giving beings is what separates us from non-rational animals. Specifically, it gives us this massive upgrade called culture, and thus history. Because language lets us take the reasons implicit in our actions and abstract them from any particular time or place, thereby embodying human reason in “objective” institutions like rules and governments, we are able to exercise “self-consciousness”. Rather than have random cultural drift, like the slowly evolving animistic religions of a pre-historic society, we can articulate the rationality implicit in our norms, write them down (“objectifying” them), make them concrete laws or customs, and critique them as inconsistent or arbitrary relative to the other commitments we are responsible to in our other actions. In Hegel’s words, “History is the process whereby the spirit discovers itself and its own concept.” This process is dialectical, meaning situated in actually existing dialogs, debates and negotiations with people around us. Where we find internal contradictions in our norms and concepts, we are forced to develop a new synthesis that transcends the contradiction and moves history and ideas forward. History, and our totality of concepts, is thus path dependent through our peers and broader culture (we’re all regional thinkers!)

Self-consciousness, in short, means we can use language to articulate a contradiction within a given norm or institution and, by appealing to our shared normative commitments, change the norm or reform the institution from within. No “outside” or God’s eye view of morality is necessary. This holds the promise of society becoming progressively more rationally ordered, giving cultural evolution a kind of directionality that, in Habermasian terms, isn’t strictly necessary, but rather represents a kind of progressive, universalizing tendency towards normative coherence and a greater synthesis of mutually recognized norms (this is the essence of Habermas’s theory of “discourse ethics”).

Compare common law to civil law. The common law is organic, and develops “judgements” up from social norms and practices, which become objective in precedent, and are later built up upon when new disputes arise. In contrast, civil law is as if a single norm from a single point in time is made abstract (thanks to our language faculty) and imposed on all of society from the top down. Civil law, and the French rationalists, are the paradigm case of what Hegel means by the self-consciousness enabled by the Enlightenment, illustrating both the potential for rational reform and the perils of trying to disconnect the “rational” from the “actual” when the imposition of objective law is dramatically out of step with antecedent practice. Progressive reformers are led to Hegel (and later Marx) because his theory suggests societies can be rationally designed (“Immanentize the eschaton!”), and conservatives are led to Hegel because he shows how reforms, to actually hold, have to be organic, bottom up, and will forever be linked in some way to what came before. A proper reading of Hegel not surprisingly requires a synthesis of both, pointing to a reconciliation of reformism with tradition.

The Philosophy of Freedom

Freedom for Hegel is the exercise of our rational will. That requires legal autonomy, but also social scaffolding (including other people). Andy Clark’s notion of “the extended mind” is a similar idea, though in context “the extended will” perhaps makes more sense. In a moment of high self control, I set out my running clothes before bed, so that it is easier to exercise my will to exercise in the morning. Lots of social institutions function similarly, helping us live not just harmoniously, but with a higher degree of autonomy and self-mastery.

While Hegel’s notion of freedom is far from the purely negative freedom of Lockean libertarianism, it is nonetheless in some senses liberal. Hegel, for instance, defended property rights as an important institution through which humans extend and make objective their rational will. As my friend Marcos Gonzalez argues, this illustrates how the tradition of natural law runs through Hegel’s political thought.

Hegel’s crucial break with classical liberalism is his rejection of ontological and methodological individualism. Meaningful concepts and norms are irreducibly inter-subjective. As such, the pragmatist philosopher Charles Taylor derives from his Hegelian critique of the sources of the self a kind of liberal communitarianism, to which I’m moderately sympathetic. However, as the common law example shows, Hegelianism might also be considered compatible with a more naturalized, bottom-up reconstruction of social contract theory and public reason. In particular, I find the Hegelian framework highly complementary to a form of political liberalism based on neutrality with respect to comprehensive moral doctrines, under a set of general rules reflecting the shared, cross-cultural presuppositions of human reason. Moreover, in contrast to atomistic notions of freedom, Hegel shows how individual autonomy is not only compatible with, but linked to the freedom of intermediate entities like communities and nations. Despite their clear differences, Hegel and F.A. Hayek have more in common than most realize.

The charge that Hegel’s thought contains the seeds of collectivist utopianism truly misses the point. By moving rationalism back down to earth, i.e. in concrete social relationships, Hegel was in a sense the non-ideal counterpart to Kantian “ideal theory.” As he writes in The Philosophy of Right,

Since philosophy is exploration of the rational, it is for that very reason the comprehension of the present and the actual, not the setting up of a world beyond which exists God knows where — or rather, of which we can very well say that we know where it exists, namely in the errors of a one-sided and empty ratiocination.

“The end of history,” if such a thing exists, is a hypothetical state in which our institutions and societies are fully rational and there are no more contradictions in our customary practices to reconcile. It’s related to Kant’s notion of a “kingdom of ends” where everyone is fully treated as ends in themselves, bound to a universal moral law. For Hegel that means a society of free people under a constitution. Yet unlike Kant’s idealistic universalism, Hegel’s framework appreciates the historical particularity of how freedom manifests in the actuality of human experience.

Alexandre Kojève’s famous introduction to Hegel, in contrast, represents a radical reinterpretation of his ideas, and led to the more simplistic versions of Hegelianism that should be avoided, including the one found in Fukuyama’s book “The End of History.”

In sum, Hegelianism, and the pragmatic, experimentalist philosophy that grew out of it, presents an attractive answer to the central problems in the philosophy of mind and ethics, and in a way that ultimately implies a humble commitment to social reform in the pursuit of freedom.