Portrait painting of Hegel

In Review

Turning Hegel on His Side

An interview with Thomas A. Lewis

What do you mean by philosophical anthropology, and why is it important to your study of Hegel?

In many contemporary discussions of ethics, people talk about theories of human beings, or theories of the self. For me, the language of philosophical anthropology allows me to refer as broadly as I can to conceptions of what we think human beings are. What, for instance, are the roles of feelings, of cognition, of self-consciousness, the body, and the will? The phrase “theories of the self ” has specific connotations and seems too specific. So I use anthropology in a more literal sense, as a theory of what human beings are—which is very different from the contemporary discipline of anthropology.

The term is important, because it is a place where my interests in contemporary ethical discussions and the scholarship on Hegel converge in interesting ways. Much recent work in ethics has focused on virtue and human flourishing rather than simply on deontology and accounts of duty (often inspired by Kant). This recent theory has drawn attention to how we understand what human beings are and what the good is for human beings, often building on conceptions that trace back to Aristotle.

Within Hegel scholarship, there is, on one hand, an acknowledgment that Hegel’s anthropology is extremely important, that his notion of spirit is very much about what human beings are. On the other hand, some of the most explicit treatments of anthropology, particularly the discussion of subjective spirit from his Encyclopaedia, have hardly been talked about at all in the secondary scholarship. Some of that has to do with what materials have been available. My book draws on lectures first published in 1994 that expand upon that section of Hegel’s system and give us a much more concrete account of what he thinks human beings are. Hegel is more accessible in his lectures, whereas he wrote the Encyclopaedia in a condensed format meant to be commented upon in lectures.

You argue that the lectures available since 1994 make a difference in reading Hegel with regard to the practical versus the theoretical.

Right. When people think of Hegel, and especially Hegel compared with Marx, Hegel is seen as the one who privileges theory and doesn’t really care about practice. It’s all about ideas and “idealism” in some narrow sense. But one of the things that I’ve always found fascinating about Hegel is the way in which he brings together a concern with theoretical reflection and cognition with a deep and enduring concern for institutions, ethical practices and ways of life. One of the things that I found particularly helpful about the lectures, the Vorlesungen über die Philosophie des Geistes, is the way in which they bring out that dynamic relationship much more clearly—the way in which our way of life informs our thinking and reflection, and vice versa. So though Hegel is often juxtaposed with Marx—and Marx is seen as standing Hegel on his head—part of what I’m saying in the book is that Hegel’s original view was actually much more complicated than that. He was already on his side, so to speak.

You wanted to take a more systematic approach than some scholars have taken around these topics. At the same time, you take a thematic approach in concentrating on freedom. Why is each of those methods important for your study?

Many of the questions that led me to Hegel are contemporary questions: questions about the nature of freedom, the role of community in making us who we are, and so forth. Hegel seemed to be such an important source for so many of the people whose ideas I found helpful on these issues. So I was initially led to Hegel because I was thinking about what he can teach us that’s relevant today. However, some people who take that approach, whether to Hegel or any other figure, can end up playing rather fast and loose with the material. The more time I spent with Hegel, the more rewarding I found it to be, and the more I felt that with someone who is this insightful, it was worth trying to see how he put it all together. Why did he think it needed to be systematically done? So even though I continued to be concerned about what Hegel means for today, I came to think that if you dive in only a little bit, you’re not going to get nearly as much out of Hegel for contemporary purposes as you would through immersing yourself in the material, and in Hegel’s time period, at a much deeper level.

Part of the reason that Hegel is so interesting today is that he stands at a point in Western intellectual and social history where these questions about freedom are so prominent. Digesting, or coming to terms, with the French Revolution and its consequences, and what that meant for what modern society should look like, is absolutely central to Hegel’s project. And so questions about freedom and tradition, what it is that we inherit as well as what capacities we have for critiquing that inheritance, are Hegel’s own concerns.

As an undergraduate and in the early part of graduate school, I was very influenced by some of the communitarian discussions, and yet I also felt that they didn’t do nearly enough for individual freedom. I felt that Hegel’s way of reconciling or developing a conception of freedom that incorporated a role for tradition did a much better job of taking traditions and communities seriously, and yet not falling into a repressive model. The dialectical and dynamic interrelationship between theory and practice was another of the other things that drove my interest in Hegel from early on. Even in what some would see as a postmodern age, I think he was wrestling with so many of the problems that have come to define our era. His questions are still relevant for us, including questions about how rational our social order can be, what a community needs to share to function well politically, and discussions about identity and belonging. These are precisely the questions that were at the forefront for Hegel and his generation and have continued to be for much of modern Western society.

One of the most interesting things I found in your book was your discussion of Hegel vis-à-vis the French Revolution. How does that relate to the charge of him supporting totalitarianism?

Hegel was concerned with what he saw as the problems and failure of the French Revolution, including the Terror—the point when virtually any leader who began to stand out from others was guillotined. At the same time, he thought that the French Revolution was bringing about a new era of history and that it wasn’t something to undo. It was important and fundamental to the society and world in which he lived.

It is interesting that throughout his life Hegel continued to toast Bastille Day. Doing that at a time of political repression, when powerful forces in Prussia were focused on strengthening the monarchy and going back to a more traditional and conservative vision, was a controversial thing to do. Within the specific dynamics of Prussia at that time, that kind of support for the Revolution shows that Hegel was much more allied with the reformers than with those he saw as the reactionaries or the nationalists. He thought Napoleon had played a role in a rational vision of reform, and he saw that going forward.

He’s often seen as a mouthpiece for the Prussian government at that time, but it’s a much messier picture. The political picture was much more complicated than is often presented, and there were concerns about censorship. His students were being arrested as possible subversives. In fact, the ministry refused to appoint the person he wanted as a teaching assistant, because he was considered a political subversive. Hegel himself was worried about being arrested at some points, but he never actually was.

You note that his was also a time when there were more challenges to all kinds of authority than ever before, including religious authority.

The social mores were changing at that time in a way that was very profound. Faith was being challenged by the Enlightenment and the beginning of biblical criticism. Napoleon was sweeping back and forth across Germany. So, at every level, you have challenges to authority.

You point out that scholars have tended to read Hegel in one of two different ways, either as supporting the status quo, or they try to redeem certain parts of him and propose a more liberal Hegel. Where do you place yourself?

On one hand, I am definitely sympathetic to those who are trying to dispel the myth of Hegel as the Prussian reactionary. I see Hegel as presenting much deeper challenges to the status quo than he’s often seen as presenting. So I agree with those scholars, but at the same time, part of what I do is to note the places where I don’t think that Hegel has gone nearly far enough. There are places where his own  anthropology should lead him to challenge much more substantially various kinds of stratification within society. Among these areas are gender, issues of class, and other kinds of social differentiation that Hegel raises questions about, but he doesn’t go far enough on them. So I argue for a Hegelian critique of Hegel on some of these concrete issues.

How common is that methodology in the field, to read Hegel against himself?

Part of my motivation for doing this was that I wanted to take Hegel’s own systematic claims seriously. I think one response when one finds things one doesn’t like in Hegel is just to ignore them and say, “I’ll pick and choose.” A great deal of excellent work on Hegel has done that. I don’t mean to disparage it, but I wanted to get enough into Hegel to see whether Hegel himself offers reasons for rejecting some of what I find problematic in his thought. This way of reading Hegel is done, but probably less so than the picking and choosing—or just railing against Hegel. There’s plenty of that!

Part of my motivation was trying to figure out this thinker in whom I find so much that is so powerful, while finding other aspects of his thought so objectionable. I was trying to wrestle with that in a way that was intellectually honest for me.

What about Hegel’s views of women? You have a long discussion in your book about this.

His views are extremely problematic. Hegel largely limits women’s roles to the family, and largely excludes women from precisely the kinds of capacities for critical reflection that are central to his vision. It’s one of the things I wrestle with, because it is where you see Hegel at his worst. It would be easy to say, well, he lived in different times and dismiss it for that reason. But at the time, there were a number of women who were rejecting traditional models of femininity and who wanted to participate in intellectual discussions, who were exhibiting freedoms that Hegel thought were important for men—and Hegel thought it was terrible. So it wasn’t simply a matter of there being no alternative visions. He saw the alternatives and he didn’t like them. Seyla Benhabib says that, with regard to women, “Hegel saw the future and he didn’t like it.” It’s something to be faced squarely, but you can take a lot of Hegel’s anthropology, the three stages or dimensions of development, without accepting his views on women. In fact, his anthropology helps us to argue against his view of women on “Hegelian” grounds.

A lot of your study has to do with Hegel’s ideas of tradition versus the three-stage development that each human being goes through that may allow him or her to  challenge tradition. Can you describe his vision?

Hegel’s anthropology sets out a three-stage trajectory of development that is central to what it means to be a human being. The first stage is a process of habituation, during which we largely uncritically and unconsciously take on the norms and pat-terns of our society. Hegel uses this for everything from standing upright to how one dresses when one goes to church. I always think of it in terms of the issue of personal space, like when you’re on a bus in a foreign country and you suddenly realize that other people stand much closer than what you’re used to.

The next stage involves a critical questioning about what we took on unconsciously in the first stage, so we ask, “Why do I have to dress up in order to go to church? Why do I have to behave in this way?” Hegel doesn’t think that we can question all of these habits at once, but he thinks this capacity to question is important, because one of the key points Hegel makes with regard to habituation is that it is both free and un-free. Habit frees us from being overwhelmed by every physical sensation around us, like the feel of a chair, the sense of clothing against our skin. So we are able to ride a bicycle and think at the same time. But it’s un-free precisely because it’s mechanical, it’s not something that we consciously choose. The ability to step back from our habits and reflect upon them is the basis for our freedom from them.

The third level is the level at which Hegel thinks it is—ideally—possible to find our habits rational and justifiable.  We realize that there is meaning and sense in those habits that we were taught as  children or that we acquired over time. So we will continue to do what we did before, but with a very different consciousness about it. For Hegel, that’s crucial to free-dom. But it’s only possible in societies with certain kinds of habits. If we’re in a situation where our action is shaped by habits or compulsions that we don’t find justifiable, we’re in a profound sense un-free.

With regard to the broader issue of tradition and modernity, or tradition and freedom, I try to emphasize the way in which I think Hegel wants to reconcile those. He wants to say that inheriting traditions is absolutely essential, since we only develop critical capacities on the basis of having appropriated some traditions uncritically. For instance, education involves developing language skills, some of which happens through rote memorization and learning how grammar works, but it’s only on the basis of doing that foundational work that we can then come to innovate in the language, like great writers do.

What about religious traditions and habits?

One of the things that I find so fascinating about Hegel’s conception of religion is just how expansive it is. Religion is dealt with as a separate sphere in some of his system, and yet he’s also very explicit that the kinds of traditions, attitudes toward others, and attitudes toward the absolute that are passed on by religious traditions play a fundamental role in various social and political institutions. What we think about human freedom is largely shaped by our religious inheritance, and that, then, plays a role in whether we find social arrangements just or unjust. One could think about debates about slavery, for instance, and the role of religious beliefs in the abolitionist movement. Hegel sees that kind of political impact happening in his time. He thinks that churches and religious institutions in general play an absolutely central role in inculcating the kinds of habits and ways of life that make up our social and political practices.

Is it possible to reach that third stage if the prevailing order you’re living in is not rational? How does Hegel deal with that question?

I think he deals with it remarkably little. One understandable reason is that he thinks if our institutions aren’t good enough to provide us with a critical perspective and critical skills, then we most likely won’t even get to that critical moment to begin with. For instance, it’s only because we were instilled with a certain sense of democratic participation that we might be more alarmed when we see  democracy eroding.

At the same time, I don’t think he does enough to think about what we should do when we experience those kinds of conflicts, whether it feels like we are going backward and our political institutions are becoming less free, or we are finding aspects of society inadequate even if we’re standing still. He does give us some tools to identify what we need, what I identify in one chapter as “mid-level norms,” that give us a sense of what requirements freedom would need to satisfy to be able to instill habits that we could find rational and justifiable. But in the epilogue, I talk briefly about a tragic side to this vision. Habits don’t change easily. Various forms of discrimination are deep within people’s psyches. We may find them objectionable as we reflect on them, and yet finding them so doesn’t make them instantly go away. Hegel’s distinction between habit and reflection gives us language for talking about that, and suggests that it’s important to shape our schools well, but he also says it’s going to be hard. He sets the bar for freedom extremely high, and in that sense, there may be ways or areas in which we’re just not going to be able to be free.

For me, personally, one of the reasons that I don’t find Hegel’s vision so depressing is that it still gives us a sense of the direction in which to aim. Even though it has a tragic side, it doesn’t need to make us complacent or pacify us.

You include that well-known quote that  “to cite Hegel is to misunderstand him.” Some people may read this who have never read Hegel, and only know him in terms of  how he’s been used, or misused, by others. What would you say to them?

Hegel gets misread very often and very easily. One of the things about Hegel that’s so fascinating is that he tries to weave  together so many intellectual traditions that came before him. The metaphor I imagine for Hegel is a kind of tapestry that tries to weave together Enlightenment as well as anti-Enlightenment figures, early Christians and Reformers, as well as more classical ideas from Aristotle and Plato. It’s what makes Hegel very exciting, to see how he thinks these strands can all be brought together. But it means that it’s very easy to read one paragraph, or even more, which on its own gives a very different picture than if you concentrate on how he wants to weave things together.

His effort to bond different ideas means that so much is in flux, and sometimes all you can really say is, “Hegel says it seems that . . . ,” because often what he says is undermined or qualified in the next stage of his thought. Saying “to cite Hegel is to misinterpret him” means that if you take a piece out of his system, you can’t really see what’s going on. It’s like if you take a river and you try to take one piece of water out of the middle of it. It doesn’t have the same significance or meaning as it does as part of the river as a whole.

Hegel is one of those thinkers who gets read in diametrically opposed ways, whether it’s as the antithesis to postmodernism or the key figure in the beginning of postmodernism. It’s frustrating in some ways, certainly, if you think about this person whose writing is almost 200 years old and yet there is not a basic agreement regarding what his project is about, much less the details. That level of disagreement is one of the things that’s most challenging about reading Hegel, but it also makes it exciting to keep working on him.

Your field is “philosophy of religion,” but of course, Hegel has been claimed by religion scholars and by philosophy scholars, and they’ve sometimes battled over who should be able to claim him. What do you think?

I want to read Hegel from both sides of that line. People approach Hegel with very different sets of concerns and interests, some of them more theological and some of them not very theological at all. That is one of the ways that the interpretations of Hegel divide, though it’s not necessarily the decisive one, because you have huge differences on either side. One of the things I find interesting about Hegel is that he’s writing at a time when those fields haven’t diverged to the extent that they have today. That connection, to me, is part of what is rich about his work. Part of what I seek to do in this book, and  certainly in my next work on Hegel, is to take seriously that this is Hegel’s account of what he thinks Christianity is. For Hegel, the philosophical is a kind of validation of Christianity, not to its detriment but to its credit.

At the same time, in thinking about his account of the relationship between religion and philosophy, he does set up a hierarchy where philosophy achieves things that religion does not. That doesn’t make religion in any way superfluous or obsolete. I think reading him that way is a mistake and doesn’t take Hegel’s own project seriously enough. However, a lot of great work is being done today by philosophers on Hegel who aren’t necessarily as concerned with his religious thought, and I take that work into account, as well, to inform my reading and interpretation of his philosophy of religion.

Who are some of the other thinkers who use Hegel as a source that have been important to you?

Alasdair Macintyre is a particularly interesting figure because he spent a lot of time on Hegel early on and edited an important collection of essays on Hegel. Once he made his own turn to After Virtue, Hegel almost completely disappears from his discussion in a way that I think is both misleading and interesting. Much of Macintyre’s criticism of modernity is already in Hegel, but what Hegel represents is an alternative conception of modernity, an alternative way of dealing with precisely the problems that Macintyre’s worried about. Macintyre seems to say, “Well, modernity fails, so let’s return to figures like Aristotle and Aquinas,” whereas Hegel says, “yes, this version of modernity is bound to fail, but there are other possibilities within modernity itself.” I don’t think Macintyre takes those other possibilities on in his work, and they’re worth exploring.

Some of the other people whose work initially got me interested in Hegel were Charles Taylor and figures like him who have been engaged in the discussions around communitarianism. They tend to have Hegel in the background. There’s also the wonderful line from Foucault to the effect that, as much as one tries to  escape Hegel, typically one finds him standing there waiting at the end of the journey. More generally, Hegel is background for Marxism, and for existentialism, particularly through Kierkegaard.

He has certainly been one of the most influential figures for the last 200 years of philosophy and philosophy of religion in the West.

Who are some of the other Hegel scholars important to your discussion?

The last 25 or 30 years have seen a renaissance of interest in Hegel. Allen Wood, Charles Taylor, and Shlomo Avineri have been three who’ve played a real role in undermining the “Hegel as a totalitarian” view. More recently, I think the work of Robert Pippin and Terry Pinkard has been very important in giving a more post-Kantian reading of Hegel, that is, seeing Hegel not as a return to a pre-Kantian vision, but as someone who takes Kant seriously and seeks to go beyond him. It is more post-metaphysical than a return to metaphysics. Fred Neuhouser’s more recent book on Hegel’s ethical and political thought is very good, and has opened up a lot of productive discussions. Hegel is difficult, and he’s been easy to dismiss, as in, “well, we should read him but he’s ultimately a conservative totalitarian, so it’s not worth getting into him.” It’s becoming more obvious what you miss if you do that.

So how do you respond at a dinner party  when you tell someone you’re studying Hegel and they say, “Oh, Hegel, he’s that conservative totalitarian!”

I think it’s important not to soft-pedal the problematic aspects of what Hegel does. At the same time, he’s deeply concerned with modern issues about freedom, about education, that are not the least bit totalitarian. There are certainly plenty of things I disagree with, but it’s precisely Hegel’s effort to articulate a vision of a free society that I appreciate. One of the things  I find so interesting about his articulation is that he doesn’t think that freedom is simply everyone getting to do whatever they want, but rather that it requires certain kinds  of institutions that support it, and the cultivation of certain habits and attitudes. I think this is something we are seeing the need for today, through the absence of it. That one can care about both freedom and the traditions that support freedom, and believe that not only are both important, but rather, they need each other, is helpful to our current struggles and discussions.

One of the things I find helpful in Charles Taylor’s reading of Hegel is that he says, “Even if we don’t always like Hegel’s answers, he’s asking some of the crucial questions for us.” I think some of his answers are pretty good, but I also think that simply asking the right questions is absolutely vital.

There are also more specific replies as far as the totalitarian charge goes. He’s often seen as glorifying the state. He thinks that government is very important; it’s not a free-market vision of everything. But his conception of the state includes not only the institutions of government, but also the broader patterns of behavior, attitudes toward elections, and other kinds of habits that are central to having a good, functioning state. A state is not just a set of laws. It involves the people, not just the laws.

You note that Hegel is also important in regard to how we think about liberalism, a term that is very much up for grabs these days.

I think that Hegel is very concerned with many of the kinds of freedoms we associate with liberalism very broadly today—that is, concerns about autonomy and individual freedom. Whereas he’s often thought of rejecting those, to the contrary, they’re central to his project. Hegel is much more attentive than certain liberals have been to the kinds of institutions that are necessary to support liberalism.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on another book that also deals largely with Hegel. The next book focuses more centrally on the philosophy of religion and tries to locate what Hegel is doing with religion within the broader context of late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century thinking about what religion is. Coming back to one of my earlier comments, Hegel is writing at a time when religion isn’t necessarily a discreet category clearly separated from politics or morality, and I think that what can seem to us a messier vision is in some ways a much more helpful vision. It helps to conceptualize religion in a way that is very closely connected to politics, in that the kinds of religious attitudes that people are brought up with are going to deeply shape their political inclinations. At the same time, Hegel doesn’t think that religion is a “conversation stopper,” to use Richard Rorty’s phrase. That is, it can also be critiqued; faith is not simply a given. In that way, his thinking about religion is directly relevant to a contemporary context. 


Thomas A. Lewis is Assistant Professor of Christian Studies at Harvard. His book Freedom and Tradition in Hegel: Reconsidering Anthropology, Ethics, and Religion was published in 2005 by the University of Notre Dame Press. Wendy McDowell spoke with Lewis recently about his work.

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