Thursday, June 25, 2009

Contra Jeffries

The article.

My reply:

Mr. Jeffries:

With all respect, I disagree both with your diagnosis of President Sarkozy’s ignorance and your interpretation of Hegel’s political theory.

Turning first to the trivial point, arguably European politics has seen too much Hegelianism across the centuries. Especially chilling in this regard is sec. 331 of the Philosophy of Right: “The nation state is the spirit in its substantial rationality and immediate actuality, and is therefore the absolute power on earth.” When Germans speak about the absolute power of nations, people are understandably concerned. Because the path from Hegel to Hitler is crooked, and none can doubt that faithful application of philosophical principles was not a chief feature of Nazi political life, I’ll say nothing more firm than this: Hegel is perhaps not the best place for politicians to go for enlightenment.

Turning from the trivial to the textual, I thought your reading of Hegel was superficial and mistaken. I say this realizing that I may scarcely be able to do better; still, if the failure to read Hegel is responsible for so much evil, a misreading can’t be much better.

First, the distinction between abstract freedom and concrete freedom is not between illusion and reality. Abstract freedom is freedom of a kind; its failing is its one-sided focus on the absolute liberty that possession of a free will entails. “But the free will in and for itself cannot be coerced.” (sec. 91). If the ethical life is possible at all, the will must be entirely free in the abstract; it is the voluntary submission by the will to the commands of duty that conditions concrete freedom: “A binding duty can appear as a limitation only in relation to indeterminate subjectivity or abstract freedom, and to the drives of the natural will or of the moral will which arbitrarily determines its own indeterminate good. The individual, however, finds his liberation in duty. On the one hand, he is liberated from his dependence on mere natural drives, and from the burden he labours under as a particular subject in his moral reflections on obligation and desire; and on the other hand, he is liberated from that indeterminate subjectivity which does not attain existence or the objective determinacy of action, but remains within itself and has no actuality. In duty, the individual liberates himself so as to attain substantial freedom.” (sec. 149). Abstract freedom is not an illusory sort of freedom, because abstract freedom is not a concrete fact of existence at all; it merely describes the infinite potential to act of a free will. Because concrete actions, even the sum of actions that constitutes an individual’s character, cannot occur without the application of a principle to the pure abstraction that is the free will, nothing ever occurs solely from abstract freedom. The “western fashion victim” of late capitalism has not chosen to exercise freedom without a determining principle, for any concrete application of freedom in a particular case requires some principle. What you disagree with is the choice of principle, and in that Hegel would agree. But no one in this world (except perhaps a devoted Ayn Rand cultist) is deifying abstract freedom and treating it as sufficient to determine concrete action – the infinite potential to do or not to do anything is precisely indeterminate by being indifferent to which of the infinite multitude of options ought to be selected.

Granted, Hegel does (as you rightly point out) blame hypostasization of abstract freedom for the Reign of Terror. But you cannot say without hyperbole that the French are still in the habit of executing dissenters. Under no national government today is abstract freedom considered the ideal incarnation of liberty.

Moving on from what I believe is a poor choice of words (“real” and “abstract” are not poles in Hegelianism), Hegel does not say that concrete freedom comes from “having the freedom from societal conditioning and the fatuous whirl of desires by using reason.” Indeed, this is almost exactly wrong. “Societal conditioning” includes the manifestations of duty particular to a certain arrangement of political affairs in a certain nation. To take an example from my own country, a strong sense of patriotic duty is wound up in the ethic of American political and social life. The “societal conditioning” that inculcates patriotic sentiment in American citizens is not a hindrance to concrete freedom, but a moment in its realization. Because “[t]he state is the actuality of concrete freedom,” (sec. 260) the richness of concrete freedom cannot be achieved except through collective determinations of individual wills. Whether the collective determinations have their source in law or in custom, the individual is never able to liberate himself other than through the state. Just so: “The determinations of the will of the individual acquire an objective existence through the state, and it is only through the state that they attain their truth and actualization. The state is the sole precondition of the attainment of particular ends and welfare.” (sec. 261).

If anything, President Sarkozy is opposing the divisive custom of a minority with the collective will of the French people. France has a history of hostility to subsidiarity, especially the formation of independent religious factions within the French state. This smells Rousseauian and Hegelian: by forcing Muslim women to be free (On the Social Contract Book I Sec. 7), President Sarkozy intends merely to enforce the general will and to prevent the dissolution of the state by intermediate organizations, organizations that may threaten concrete freedom by coming between the state and individuals and substituting a conflicting duty on those who are simultaneously French and Muslim.

I object to the idea that “capitalism” can define a society. Capitalism is a certain arrangement of economic affairs; it is not a general political ideology. If capitalism deprives anyone of an identity, it is because he was too shallow to form ethical principles of his own. Crass materialism is not a result of capitalism, but an ordering of values that find capitalism conducive to the efficient enjoyment of material goods. Capitalism is merely a tool for allocating material resources; those too shallow to value non-material aspects of existence have been quite capable of debasing themselves without capitalism’s help. To say that “late capitalism” does not encourage the exercise of concrete freedom is nonsensical; it can neither encourage nor discourage it, because it is not a determining principle in ethical life.

I hope you take these comments in the spirit they are offered – hope for enlightenment through the clarification of concepts.


At 9:55 PM, June 25, 2009 , Anonymous Nick Milne said...



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