Hegel’s Political Philosophy

Themes and Interpretations

by Evangelia Sembou (Volume editor)
©2022 Edited Collection VI, 242 Pages


This collection examines different themes and offers novel interpretations of Hegel’s political philosophy. Thus, it sheds new light on what has been perhaps the most controversial area of Hegelian scholarship. It includes eight essays by a group of international scholars at different stages of their career. Its distinctive contribution is that it explores both Hegel’s early and mature political philosophy. It includes a paper on Hegel’s early essay on «Natural Law», published in two instalments in 1802 and 1803, and the System of Ethical Life, also published in 1802-1803, as well as papers on Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (published in 1821). Two papers also discuss «The German Constitution», written between 1798 and 1802. The volume comes as an addition to the current debate that has been occasioned by the bicentenary of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editor
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • 1 Hegel’s Early Political Philosophy: The Natural Law Essay and the System of Ethical Life
  • 2 The Structure and Argument of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right
  • 3 Forms of Freedom: Hegel on Civil and Political Liberty
  • 4 Hegel’s Political Organicism: A Proposal for Renewal
  • 5 Hegel and the Philosophy of Right: The Role of “Mediation” and the Overcoming of the Homo uti Singulus Conception
  • 6 From Nation to Religion: Hegel’s Critique of the Political Economy of Colonialism
  • 7 Just Aspirations and Philosophical Method: Egalitarian Critiques of Hegel’s Concept of Civil Society
  • 8 A Political Philosophy to Guide Practice: Hegel’s Rechtsphilosophie and Criminal Accountability
  • Bibliography
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index

Evangelia Sembou


Fifty-one years have passed since the publication of Walter Kaufmann’s collection with the title Hegel’s Political Philosophy, which dealt with controversies in Hegel’s political theory.1 One year later Zbigniew Pelczynski published his own momentous collection entitled Hegel’s Political Philosophy: Problems and Perspectives.2 This was followed a decade later by Pelczynski’s equally celebrated collection The State & Civil Society: Studies in Hegel’s Political Philosophy, which focused on the distinction between the state and civil society in Hegel’s political thought.3 Robert Williams’s Beyond Liberalism and Communitarianism: Studies in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right was the first collection to appear after almost twenty years.4 As its title suggests, this latter argued that Hegel’s political theory offered an alternative to both individualist liberalism and communitarianism. A decade later Thom Brooks’s Hegel’s Philosophy of Right appeared, a collection of essays that address ethics, politics, and law in Hegel’s mature political work.5 More recently, Thom Brooks and Sebastian Stein published a collection entitled Hegel’s Political Philosophy: On the Normative Significance ←1 | 2→ of Method and System, which examines how the Hegelian method and system inform Hegel’s political philosophy.6

The present volume is meant to add to this literature. Its distinctive contribution is that it includes a paper on Hegel’s early essay on Natural Law,7 published in two instalments in 1802 and 1803, and the System of Ethical Life, also published in 1802–1803, as well as papers on Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1821). Two papers also discuss “The German Constitution,” written between 1798 and 1802. The book offers novel interpretations of various themes in Hegel’s political philosophy, while the essays are written by a group of international scholars.

In Chapter 1 Ayumi Takeshima reads Hegel’s early essay on Natural Law and the System of Ethical Life as a starting-point for his political thought in the Jena period. She argues that in the essay on Natural Law Hegel’s political thought takes the form of “reconciliation without recognition”; the concept of recognition, especially mutual recognition between individuals, has not yet been established. There is only religious reconciliation in Greek tragedy or Christianity. Takeshima maintains that the System of Ethical Life is Hegel’s first work to present his theory of recognition systematically. However, she says, this is heavily influenced by Fichte’s natural law theory and is immature compared to the theory of recognition in the late Jena period. She argues that here Hegel’s political thought takes the form of “recognition without reconciliation.” She concludes by claiming that Hegel’s theory of mutual recognition must wait until the Phenomenology of Spirit. Eventually, Hegel’s political philosophy combines recognition and reconciliation.

In Chapter 2 I am doing two things. First, I argue that in the Philosophy of Right Hegel did not put forth a blueprint for or a model of a state. Instead, he renders explicit the principles immanent in the notion of the ←2 | 3→ state. Second, I contribute to the debate in Hegel scholarship as to the relation of the Philosophy of Right to Hegel’s larger philosophical system. The debate was initiated by Thom Brooks and prompted the response of Paul Redding, Michael Rosen, and Allen Wood. Adopting Nance’s distinction between “internal-systematic” and “external-systematic” readings of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, I analyze the structure and argument of the Philosophy of Right, attending to its internal systematicity. The argument of the Philosophy of Right is so structured that the state proves to be the creation of the individual will. The three parts of the Philosophy of Right – that is, “Abstract Right,” “Morality,” and “Ethical Life” – are “moments” or aspects of the whole. Each stage arises out of the contradictions or inadequacies of the previous one.

In Chapter 3 Günter Zöller places Hegel’s political philosophy, mainly presented in Elements of the Philosophy of Right (1820–1821) but already laid out in The German Constitution (1799–1802), in the context of the debate between the ancients and the moderns about the relation between the citizen and the state. Zöller argues that Hegel’s was a third, conciliatory position beyond the fixed opposition between the ancient republican ideal of civic commitment and the modern ideal of individual liberty and personal self-fulfillment. He pays particular attention to the early Hegel’s analysis of personal liberty and political liberty in Germany’s past and present and to the later Hegel’s distinction between civil society and the political state in modern times. He focuses on the historical and systematic linkage between political liberty and political representation, as well as on the status and function of the “estates” in Hegel. So far as methodology is concerned, Zöller maintains that it is necessary to supplement Hegel’s main published work on political philosophy, viz. Elements of the Philosophy of Right, which presents his mature thought, with the narrower context of his earlier published and unpublished work on political philosophy as well as with the wider context of modern political theory and practice in general and Germany’s earlier and more recent political history in particular. In Section 1 Zöller relates Hegel’s politico-philosophical thought to the contemporary debate about the liberty of the ancients and the liberty of the moderns, as Benjamin Constant put it. In Section 2 he discusses the early Hegel’s polemical portrayal of Germany’s failing constitution under ←3 | 4→ the Old Empire, concentrating on his distinction between the twofold liberty to be found in Germany’s peculiar political landscape both past and present (“German freedom”). In Section 3 he draws on the two distinctions between ancient and modern liberty and between the two kinds of “German freedom” to clarify the mature Hegel’s novel distinction between civil society and the political state.

In Chapter 4 Eduardo Assalone advances a novel reading of Hegel’s political organicism based on three “thematic nuclei” that are present in Elements of the Philosophy of Right: First, the mutual dependence of the whole and the part within ethical life; second, the threefold syllogistic mediation of the state by civil society and the powers of the state with each other; and, third, the conception of the people as an organic whole. He argues that political organicism advances a conception of society and the state that is a theoretical bulwark both against liberal atomism and the totalitarian subjugation of individual freedom. For Assalone, this reappraisal of Hegel’s organicism starts from an understanding of society as a single body, according to which every intersubjective relationship is a bond of corporal interdependence. Simultaneously, it emphasizes the moment of harmony between the powers of the state, so that political conflicts are resolved in the appropriate institutional spaces. He maintains that political organicism is also connected to a defence of the legitimacy of the state’s right to intervene in private activity, while at the same time continuing to value the mediating role of the individual as individual and recognizing the organizations of civil society as fundamental to popular participation. Finally, Assalone argues, Hegel’s organicism introduces a complex conception of descriptive representation that can be associated with a “politics of presence” based on the equal recognition of every social group.

In Chapter 5 Andrea Serra explores the roots and influences of the realism of Hegel’s political philosophy. These can be found, according to Serra, both in the German historical-cum-political context and in Machiavelli’s thought. He argues that his purpose is not only to provide a different perspective from the classic Marxian interpretation, which has always seen Hegelian political philosophy as apologetic and mystical, but also to demonstrate the originality of the two concepts of Sittlichkeit and mediations, as these are the real operative instruments of Hegelian realism. ←4 | 5→ His aim is to show how these categories can be useful for the present, particularly in relation to the crisis of our democratic systems, which are increasingly weak in the face of populism. Hegel’s insight is that in complex systems true freedom can only be achieved through mediations. Immediacy, the revolver shot, can only be the “black night of the black cows,” according to the famous phrase of the preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit.

In Chapter 6 Angelo Narváez León and Pablo Pulgar Moya approach the religious dimension of Hegel’s critique of political economy in order to contextualize and analyze both Catholicism and Protestantism as different experiences of the spatial behaviour of modern capitalist societies. They start from the recognition of a radical critique of capitalism in Hegelian political philosophy. Moreover, they adopt a logical perspective rather than an anthropological or ethnographic one. From that perspective, they argue, a confrontation with the theses of Weber and Troeltsch does not show a theological-subjective origin of modern colonization but establishes a difference between its variable historical development, their specific religious realization exemplified by the formally independent post-colonial countries of North and South America, and the way in which these new national economies replicate the original contradictions of capitalism on a new differential global scale.

In Chapter 7 Sebastian Stein examines two egalitarian critiques of Hegel’s account of civil society, those of Jean François Kervégan and of Frank Ruda, that seem to reject his accounts of poverty and inequality, as well as his philosophical method. These critics deny that poverty and some excessive inequalities are part of right and suggest that all philosophical thought is conditioned. Stein argues that for Hegel a successful, philosophical account of civil society explains poverty and inequality as necessary companions of wealth creation and distribution. This argument, Stein maintains, is based on the logic of the unconditioned, metaphysical concept that freely implies the negation of its positive moment. When the concept-based, unconditioned truth is comprehended by finite philosophers, their thought and truth coincide. Stein notes that this might mean that the empirically situated thinker Hegel may have failed the concept’s standard and that his egalitarian critics have a superior concept of civil society. However, he continues, these critiques would have been more ←5 | 6→ successful had they included an immanent refutation of Hegel’s method and deductions.

In Chapter 8 Mark Tunick makes an argument in favour of the practical relevance of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. He demonstrates how in his mature work Hegel develops a political philosophy that takes individuals to be both (i) part of an “ethical substance” that shapes them and provides an objective basis for establishing what is right, and (ii) agents of will with a right of “subjectivity,” that is, a right to know the grounds of the laws they ought to obey. Tunick argues that Hegel uses this right of “subjectivity” to articulate a theory of criminal accountability that is relevant to modern debates about whether the law should recognize defences on the basis of insanity or culture. According to Tunick, Hegel’s approach challenges utilitarians and theorists who resolve legal issues by considering the economic efficiency of the outcome(s). Arguing against those theorists who criticize Hegel on the grounds that his philosophy is unintelligible, Tunick maintains that, not only is Hegel’s theory intelligible, it presents an understanding of an individual’s place in society and the significance of social relations and upbringing, as well as a conception of freedom and human dignity that are lacking in the utilitarian analysis.

All in all, the essays that are contained in this volume address several themes and offer novel interpretations of Hegel’s political philosophy. I entertain the hope that this collection will be a valuable addition to the literature on the subject.


VI, 242
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (December)
Hegel political philosophy themes and interpretations Hegel’s Political Philosophy Evangelia Sembou
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2022. VI, 242 pp.

Biographical notes

Evangelia Sembou (Volume editor)

Evangelia Sembou was born in Athens, Greece. She attended the Moraitis School in Athens before travelling to Britain to attend university. She holds a BA in Politics and History with First Class Honours from Queen Mary and Westfield College of the University of London, an MSc in Social and Political Theory with Distinction from The University of Edinburgh and a DPhil in Politics from the University of Oxford. Sembou’s doctoral thesis was on G. W. F. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. She has taught political theory and philosophy at different colleges of the University of Oxford, political theory in the Oxford University Department for Continuing Education and philosophy in the Faculty of Continuing Education at Birkbeck College, University of London. She now lives in Athens, Greece.


Title: Hegel’s Political Philosophy
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