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Hegel’s Very Odd Definition of Freedom

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Todd McGowan, a professor of film studies at the University of Vermont, has done something remarkable. In his just published Emancipation After Hegel, he writes clearly and forcefully about Hegel, a notoriously difficult philosopher. People often view Hegel as an enemy of freedom, but McGowan says the critics have it all wrong. Hegel, far from being an enemy of the “open society,” as Karl Popper would have it, offers the best account of freedom that we have. I shall try to examine McGowan’s argument for this surprising view.

Hegel, he tells us, thinks freedom of the utmost importance. Hegel writes,

For the will there is no other end than the one created out of itself, the end of its freedom. It is a great advance when this principle is established that freedom is the last hinge on which humanity turns, the last summit from which humanity lets nothing impress it and accepts no authority that goes against its freedom. (pp. 134–35)

What could be better than that? How can Hegel be considered an enemy of freedom? It soon transpires that things are not what they seem. When we think of freedom, we naturally think of freedom from coercion. The nonaggression principle (NAP) forbids attacks on people’s rights, and the leviathan state is the supreme danger to freedom so conceived.

This is not what Hegel means by “freedom.” McGowan says that to Hegel, the NAP is too narrow:

When one examines Hegel’s conception of freedom…it becomes clear just how far it is from the liberal conception. Liberalism conceives of freedom as the absence of constraint. One is free, for the liberal thinker, when no one is unjustly hindering what one can do. But liberalism misses how constraint most often operates…direct constraint is the easiest to defy. The most pernicious form that constraint takes occurs when the external authority presents itself as substantial and thus impresses the subject. (p. 135)

The last sentence is initially baffling, but before I try to explain it, I’d like to call attention to a problem. According to Hegel, there are other types of constraint besides coercion. Suppose that this is correct. It does not follow that you can coerce people without violating their freedom. As we will see, Hegel’s key contention is that the state frees people from noncoercive sorts of constraint. Even if it does that, it is still using or threatening to use force against those who disobey it. Coercion is sufficient to deny freedom, even if it is not necessary, as Hegel thinks. Because Hegel supports a coercive state, his argument that the state is a necessary condition for freedom is guaranteed to fail.

Let us put this crucial point aside and try to look at Hegel’s argument on its merits. As McGowan presents this argument, Hegel thinks that your freedom is threatened if some person or institution presents itself as a supreme source of truth. You must obey this source of truth without question. To defeat this threat to freedom, you must realize that there are no supreme sources of truth:

The free subject relates to the figure of authority as a fellow being divided by contradiction rather than as a self-identical substance. The authority is just another subject, not a self-identical being elevated above the subject. (p. 135)

Whatever you think of this opinion about supreme sources of truth, you might wonder, what does it have to do with the state? Hegel’s answer will surprise you. He thinks that we need the state so people don’t act only in their self-interest:

When the individual subject conceives itself without reference to the state, it conceives itself initially as a being of pure self-interest…the problem is that this pursuit is not freedom…hence, as Hegel sees it, self-interest has nothing to do with the subject’s freedom, which depends on the subject alienating itself from the interests that society and nature have given it. The free subject alienates itself from its own givens, and the state is the vehicle for making this alienation explicit to the subject. (p. 203)

Readers will naturally recoil in horror. People guided by self-interest are “unfree.” Is there a better example of Orwell’s Newspeak? But we can go further. Putting our justified horror aside, we can see that the argument still fails. Hegel, as McGowan construes him, opposes unquestioned sources of truth. But the passage just given talks about interests naturally and socially given to individuals. It does not follow that such interests are unquestioned. What prevents someone from thinking about whether he should be guided by self-interest? Why does he need the state to engage in such self-examination? And if he does examine himself and quite properly concludes that he should act in his self-interest, what is the matter with that?

For Hegel and McGowan, this will never do. But even if we accept—as we should not—that an individual needs some outside institution to block the uncritical pursuit of self-interest, why must this institution be the state? Can’t civil society do the job?

In the Hegelian view, it can’t:

Even if it doesn’t lead to authoritarianism, the great danger of modernity is not a powerful state that impinges on individual freedom but the failure to recognize the state as a state and to mistake civil society for it. In civil society (Hegel’s term for the social bond established through economic exchange), individuals benefit the whole by following their self-interest. (p. 205)

The problem with this is obvious. Civil society includes a myriad of people and institutions, with all sorts of opinions about the good of society. If Hegel’s fear is that in the absence of the state, people would without question pursue their economic well-being, it is groundless.

There is yet another problem with the argument. Why does the existence of a state in which people are free to debate political and social questions—the type of state that McGowan says Hegel wants—ensure that people will view their individual self-interest in a critical way? The state can certainly weaken or destroy the free market, but how does doing so encourage people to examine carefully claims to authority? The state as Hegel describes it would more likely bring about unthinking deference to its own dictates. Hegel’s notion of freedom arrogates to the state the prerogative of God, “whose service is perfect freedom,” in the familiar phrase from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. For Hegel, this would not be an objection. He says that the state is the “march of God in the world.” Somehow, I doubt it.

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