Hegel's Critique of the Enlightenment

Hegel's Critique of the Enlightenment

Hegel's Critique of the Enlightenment

Hegel's Critique of the Enlightenment


The Enlightenment has turned different faces to those who have sought to demonstrate its significance for contemporary politics and philosophy. Some would call it the seedbed of all that is best in modern Western civilization: human rights, toleration, popular sovereignty, and the idea of progress. Others have glimpsed a darker side, stressing its celebration of "instrumental" reason, mechanistic determinism, hostility to religion, and political "atomism."

Lewis Hinchman discerns in Hegel the first major philosopher to have appreciated the ambiguous nature of the Enlightenment and to have undertaken a systematic inquiry into its origins and sociopolitical implications. Hinchman is sympathetic toward Hegel's philosophical approach, seeing in it anticipations of (even improvements on) influential nineteenth- and twentieth-century critiques on empiricism and liberalism. On the other hand, he does take Hegel to task in cases where Hegel appears to stray from his own program and principles (most notably in the philosophy of right).

Hinchman's approach to Hegel will appeal to a wide range of readers, including political scientists, intellectual historians, and students of comparative and nineteenth-century German literature, as well as philosophers interested in the history of their own discipline. He brings together for comparison texts and passages that are frequently studied in isolation from each other by scholars in diverse fields.

The burden of Hinchman's argument falls upon his reconstruction of Hegel's concept of the self. He shows how Hegel partly adopts ideas of the self that were longstanding among Enlightenment philosophers such as Descartes, Kant, and Fichte, and partly develops a novel conception in response to inadequacies in his predecessors' theories. Hinchman contends that Hegel is the first philosopher to work out a truly nonsubstantialist idea of the self, one that does not "reify" this most elusive of human activities. He then demonstrates that implications of this conception of the self when one applies it as Hegel did to a critique of the Enlightenment's epistemology and sociopolitical practice.


What impels human beings to start thinking philosophically? According to Hegel, they do so because the affective bonds of their polities have begun to unravel. When the "power of unification disappears from the life of man," political or public existence no longer satisfies him. The pleasures of what Hannah Arendt liked to call "public freedom" yield to the more esoteric attraction of the vita contemplativa. Philosophy therefore bespeaks a "rupture in the actual world . . . the demise of a real world." It is the symptom of and consolation for the decline of an integral "ethical life" or Sittlichkeit.

But while philosophy in Hegel's sense (here he is thinking especially of Socrates and Plato) involves a loss of something very valuable, it allows us to gain something even more precious. To think philosophically, one must disentangle the self, the "I," from the world. The individual who philosophizes begins to regard himself as separate from and independent of the web of natural and human relationships which had hitherto circumscribed him and yet made him an integral part of the political whole. Philosophy thus marks the emancipation of human self-consciousness from all particularistic norms and perspectives.

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.