Freedom and Reflection: Hegel and the Logic of Agency

Freedom and Reflection: Hegel and the Logic of Agency

Freedom and Reflection: Hegel and the Logic of Agency

Freedom and Reflection: Hegel and the Logic of Agency


There are many insightful discussions of Hegel's practical philosophy that emphasize the uniqueness of his expressivist and social theory of agency, but few recognize that these two aspects of Hegel's theory of the will are insufficient to avoid the traditional problem of free will. In fact, the problem can easily be shown to recur in the very language used to express why Hegel's theory is a theory of freedom at all. In part, this lack of recognition results from the fact that there has not yet been a study of Hegel's theory of the will that has formulated the problem against the background of the contemporary literature on free will, where basic concerns about the explicability of action loom large. By using the continuity between the contemporary concerns and those of Hegel's predecessors (particularly Kant), Yeomans shows the necessity of reference to the Logic in order to supplement Hegel's own practical philosophy and the scholarship based on it. In addition to adding significantly to our understanding of Hegel's theory of agency and recapturing its significance with respect to continuing modern reflection on free will, this study also shows that Hegel's Logic can do some real philosophical work on a specific problem.

Though Hegel's logical terminology is notorious for its impenetrability, Yeomans translates Hegel's jargon into a more easily comprehensible vocabulary. He further helps the reader by providing introductory discussions framing the central issues of each chapter both in terms of the problem of free will and in terms of the development of Hegel's argument to that point in the Logic. Presenting the reader with frequent use of examples, Yeomans leavens the abstractness of Hegel's presentation and makes the topic accessible to readers new to Hegel as well as those well versed in his work.


The freedom of the will is freedom in general, and all other freedoms are merely forms of it.

—Hegel, Nürnberger Propädeutik

The question cuts so deep, however, that any approach that stands a chance of yielding an
answer will look extremely weird. Someone who proposes a non-strange answer shows he
didn’t understand this question.

—Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations

Nozick was writing about the problem of why there is something rather than nothing, but his characterization is certainly true of the problem of free will as well – and for the same reason: both involve a kind of self-grounding that seems both necessary to and yet at the limits of intelligibility. Hegel’s answer to the problem of free will is a weird one, and therefore stands half a chance of being true.

It is a striking fact that on Hegel’s view, the best intuitive example of freedom is neither a moral choice nor a political arrangement, but is rather the human experience of love and friendship (PR§7Z). Unlike standard contemporary examples in the discussion of agency—for example, deciding whether to assassinate the president, or to save a robbery victim at the cost of being late for one’s meeting, or to get up and leave a room—Hegel’s freedom is more explicitly an inter-subjective form of experience. and unlike theories that focus on the metaphysical capacity required to make such choices, Hegel is interested in the conceptual structure that defines a requisite quality of our experience. These two elements make the natural and social embeddedness of agency crucial aspects of Hegel’s theory of the will, since this embedding is more a matter of the internal structure of the will on Hegel’s view than it is on any other theory one can . . .

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