Hegel’s Practical Philosophy: Rational Agency as Ethical Life by Robert B. Pippin
(Cambridge University Press)
Karl Marx famously remarked upon the need to “discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell” of Hegel’s philosophy. But even this is too generous for some. Schopenhauer, who for a time was Hegel’s colleague at Berlin, scheduling his lectures in direct competition, gives this unvarnished verdict: “a commonplace, inane, loathsome, repulsive and ignorant charlatan” who had taken to “scrabbling together senseless and maddening webs of words, such as had previously been heard only in madhouses” but whose work was “trumpeted abroad as immortal wisdom by his mercenary followers, and which was regarded as such by blockheads.” But is there any truth in this – whether Marx’s claims of mysticism or Schopenhauer’s accusations of charlatanry?
The Hegel who emerges from Robert Pippin’s latest book can easily answer such worries. Here we are presented with a philosopher with thoroughly modern concerns who appears neither fit for the dustbin of history nor in need of an overhaul. As with Pippin’s reading of Hegel’s theoretical philosophy, the much-caricatured windy metaphysician is absent. Instead, Hegel’s practical philosophy is taken to stem from a social account of rational agents. In other words, he is out to understand those aspects of people which require us to make reference to reasons, and he thinks this is best done by looking to features of the way we relate to each other.
Rationality and sociality become linked in this way through Hegel’s central preoccupation: freedom. According to Pippin, Hegel thinks that the sphere of rational activity – where reasons come into play – is marked out by being the sphere of free action. Now, the traditional philosophical problem of freedom concerns “free will”. It asks how we can act freely in a world where every event is causally determined by a previous one. But Hegel is not much moved by this problem. For him, being free is not primarily a power to cause things. On Pippin’s account, it is not simply initiating behaviour that is important, but an action being “truly ‘mine’, such that I can fully or truly stand behind it, own up to it, claim ownership of it.” This is just as much a matter of values as it is of causes.
Pippin traces these thoughts back to Rousseau, whom he takes to claim that nothing can count as a value for me unless I can come to identify with it. It is in Kant though that this idea is seen as coming to fruition. In particular, Kant’s notion of “self-legislation” takes centre stage. As Pippin understands it, Kant is claiming that we can only be obligated to what we can rationally obligate ourselves to. In a deep sense, authority, whether moral, political or scientific, cannot be foisted upon us, and instead must be something justifiable to each individual who is subject to it. The image of freedom here is one in which people, in some sense, give laws to themselves.
This story of the path to Hegel is a controversial one, on both historical and philosophical grounds. One of the great merits of Pippin’s telling of it, against other attempts to do so, is that he is extremely sensitive to the paradoxical nature of the claim that we legislate for ourselves. Taken literally, it seems barely coherent: “Unless you are already bound to the constraint of reason, on what basis could you subject yourself to such constraints?” Pippin is keen to temper any radical existentialist reading of self-legislation, whereby value comes from an unaccountable act of committing oneself. Rather, Hegel’s great contribution is supposed to be his ability to domesticate the rhetoric of self-authorisation, placing it within a social frame.
For Pippin’s Hegel then, freedom demarcates the practical realm, but a social account is needed to round out that conception of freedom. So understood, Kant is right to think that freedom requires a specific relation to oneself in which one is able to identify with the actions one takes and the motivations they express. But where Kant thinks we can use pure reason to guide what we do and what we value, Hegel is meant to have seen that practical deliberation is always bound up with social norms. So, ultimately, practical reasoning is taken to be intelligible only as a social activity. Thus, the specific relations to ourselves crucial to being free are only achievable in co-operation with others. A rich account of this communal practice of exchanging and assessing reasons is provided. In this way, freedom is located at the level of both the individual and institutions, including the modern state thought to be needed to support complex communities.
As a whole, the book does a good job of rendering some very difficult topics intelligible, putting them within the grasp of the general reader. Pippin has an extensive grasp of Hegel’s texts, though arguably in places the discussion is anachronistic. In his defence, Pippin says he has tried to avoid “pious paraphrase” and has tried to think along with the historical figures he discusses. Whether that satisfies us or not, the book has more than enough to recommend it to contemporary readers, quite apart from its contribution to the history of philosophy. As a lucid work threading together the themes of rationality, freedom and the social world, it could be profitably read by anyone with an interest in these topics who is willing to engage with some challenging ideas.
Tom O’Shea is a PhD student in philosophy at the University of Sheffield