Thus spake Hegel

by Chris Bertram on April 23, 2009

bq. Particularity by itself, given free rein in every direction to satisfy its needs, accidental caprices, and subjective desires, destroys itself and its substantive concept in this process of gratification. At the same time, the satisfaction of need, necessary and accidental alike, is accidental because it breeds new desires without end, is in thoroughgoing dependence on caprice and external accident, and is held in check by the power of universality. In these contrasts and their complexity, civil society affords a spectacle of extravagance and want as well as of the physical and ethical degeneration common to them both. ( _Philosophy of Right_ sec 185).


… “Everything is amazing; nobody is happy.”

via “The Online Photographer”: .



Anderson 04.23.09 at 1:04 pm

As usual with the great philosophers, Hegel is incisive in identifying the problem, less so in recommending the solution.

(I have always thought Leibniz had it backwards — philosophers criticize better than they affirm.)


studentb 04.23.09 at 1:11 pm

Particularity destroys itself and its substantive concept? lawks! Satisfaction of need is accidental? It gets worse. No wonder there’s ethical and physical degeneration all over the shop.


belle le triste 04.23.09 at 1:13 pm

when i wz wee and thought i wanted to be a philosopher, my tutor told me that kant’s prose is awful because he was struggling with new and counter-intuitive concepts and needed a jargon for em and that, unhappily, while he was a great thinker he was a bit of an awful writer when all’s said and done

meanwhile hegel’s prose is awful bcz he thought kant’s prose was great!



Anderson 04.23.09 at 2:03 pm

What my Kant prof claimed was that Kant ruined his originally readable prose through trying to conform to academic requirements.

Which I now suspect told me more about my prof than about Kant.

According to legend, Kant students in Germany used to read Kemp Smith’s translation rather than the original, because it was easier to understand ….


belle le triste 04.23.09 at 2:25 pm

hah! yes, i was told that abt kemp smith also!


belle le triste 04.23.09 at 2:25 pm

and come to think of it my tutor was german


richard 04.23.09 at 3:17 pm

Me the crappiest generation. Ugh, my phone’s not working as advertised because the company that makes it is engaging in a destructive, mercantilist trade war with the company that makes my computer.
OK, calming down, now.


Zeeb 04.23.09 at 3:48 pm

Louis C.K. is slightly brilliant.


Randolph 04.23.09 at 5:44 pm

Um, could we have that in plain, er, German, please?


Lee A. Arnold 04.23.09 at 6:42 pm

Very interesting that the failures in instrumental rationality were seen and described by the year 1820. Maybe it really is true that nothing but science and technology have been added to thought, since the 19th century.

I would like to know more about what Hegel meant by the “power of universality” — did he mean the generality inherent in the industrial scientific method, or the possible salvation in a wider synthesis of thought?


Sam 04.23.09 at 7:26 pm

Zhuangzi was on to this long, long ago…


john c. halasz 04.23.09 at 8:05 pm

Lee A. Arnold:

I’ll take a stab at that. In the intro to the “Self-consciousness” chapter, Hegel makes a distinction between animal appetite, which extinguishes itself as well as its “object” in the act of consumption, and human desire, which is a desire for recognition (of one’s own desire by an other’s desire as such a desire, such that self-conscious exists only through its mediation with other consciousnesses, etc.). Kojeve famously mistranslated both German words as “desire”, leading to no end of mischief on the Parisian scene. But that let’s slip a basic claim/point that Hegel is making, that only at and through the level of human desire, as desire for recognition, can a stable and enduring object world be appreceived. (Of course, this quickly goes wrong, as the “master/slave dialectic” results in a split between superordinate and subordinate consciousnesses and the divided, thwarted consciousness of the slave goes through the figures of stoicism, skepticism, and the unhappy consciousness, for whom the stability and endurance of the object world is attributed to a transcendent world beyond this world). At any rate, that should go to why Hegel says in the quote that satisfaction of need, whether necessary or accidental, retains an accidental, and dependent character.

As to the “power of universality”, Hegel’s dialectical “logic” amounts to a post-Kantian account and method for the generation, differentiation and synthesis of the catergories and concepts by which the world as a whole can be understood and experienced as a rational order of objective truth as reconciled with the self-consciousness of human freedom. Not the least of that process is the mediation of universals with particulars, yielding the synthesis of “individuals” or “concrete universals”, through which the objects of the world are differentiated and specified through their relations with one another in participating in the rational order of the world. And the motive source of that process of synthesis is the afore-mentioned desire for recognition, which yields the notion of “spirit”, as the I and is a we and vice versa, which is at once a collective, supra-personal source of synthesis and supposed to be accessible to individual rational reflection. So you’re second guess is the right one, “the possible salvation in a wider synthesis of thought”. The “power of the universal” in the context of the above quote would be rational agency, (and especially that attaching to the rights and duties of the citizen), as attaching to the capacity and guidance of synthesizing conceptual thinking, “reason”. Which is what is being contrasted to mere “caprice”.

It was Max Horkheimer who wrote a short book called precisely “Critique of Instrumental Reason”, drawing its resources from Hegel, as well as Marx and Weber, though partly directed against vulgar Marxism.

A last comment on the above quote. Older Hegel had thoroughly read Ricardo, just as younger Hegel had Steuart and Smith. And part of the underlying motivation of the “Philosophy of Right” was an attempt to resolve the problem and threat that Hegel perceived of a growing mass of impoverished industrial workers, utterly excluded and alienated from participation in citizenship and civil society, that he espied in Ricardo. That contrast between extravagance and want leading to physical and ethical degeneration seems to be speaking to that problem. And since Marx began his career in thinking with a lambasting critique of that work, one wonders whether he perceived and understood that connection and motivation.


Russell Arben Fox 04.23.09 at 10:00 pm

Hegel’s owl is flying late again; Patrick Deneen claimed Louis C.K.’s rant for Tocqueville in a post last Saturday.

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