Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

The Unity of Theoretical and Practical Spirit in Hegel's Concept of Freedom

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

The Unity of Theoretical and Practical Spirit in Hegel's Concept of Freedom

Article excerpt


Since the early nineteenth century it has been assumed - indeed it has become something of a cliche - that, whereas Kant drew a sharp distinction between theoretical and practical reason and clearly exalted the practical over the theoretical, Hegel insisted on the indissoluble unity of the theoretical and the practical. Whether that familiar picture of Kant is accurate is not something I propose to examine in this essay. However, I do wish to consider to what extent that familiar picture of Hegel is correct. My judgment is that it is indeed correct, but that not enough attention has been paid by commentators to the precise ways in which theoretical and practical spirit are unified in Hegel's philosophy. The aim of this essay is to shed light on the unity of the theoretical and the practical in Hegel's theory of freedom, in particular, and so perhaps to provide a foundation for future work on the relation between Hegel and his German Idealist predecessors.

In [section]481 of the 1830 Encyclopaedia, Hegel states explicitly that "actual free will is the unity of theoretical and practical spirit."(1) In so far as human beings, in Hegel's view, are not just animals, but are self-conscious, thinking beings, their practical activity - or willing - must involve knowledge and understanding of what they want to achieve through such activity; and knowledge and understanding, for Hegel, are precisely what is meant by theoretical intelligence.(2)

This connection between theoretical and practical activity is not simply contingent, but stems from the fact that both practical and theoretical activity are modes of the same basic human activity of thought. The difference between understanding and willing for Hegel is thus simply the difference between the theoretical and the practical attitude or comportment (Verhalten) of thought itself, between thought as theoretical and thought as practical. Thought and will are not to be regarded as two distinct mental faculties, therefore; rather, "the will is a particular mode of thought; it is thought as translating itself into existence, as the drive to give itself existence."(3)

Nevertheless, there is a difference between theoretical and practical activity - between thinking as thinking and thinking as willing - and this difference is set out clearly by Hegel in a handwritten note to [section]4 of the Philosophy of Right. Theoretical intelligence, he writes, involves "considering [what is], letting it be (es lassen) and - cognizing [it] as it is, knowing it as universal." Practical spirit, on the other hand, entails relating negatively to the world, "changing" it in accordance with a determination that is "posited by me."(4) Yet, in spite of this clear difference between letting things be and negating and changing them, if theoretical and practical spirit are both modes of thought, then human beings will be required by their nature as thinking beings to engage in both theoretical and practical activity and not to neglect one for the sake of the other. In fact, the fully developed human spirit will be the explicit unity of theoretical and practical activity: the will which knows itself as will, understands all that it means to be will, and wills (or lets itself be determined by) what it understands willing to entail.(5)


The first thing to note about theoretical intelligence, Hegel says, is that it finds itself "externally determined" by the given content of sensation; that is to say, it sees colors, hears sounds, feels pressures, and so on, which it does not produce from within itself.(6) The second thing to note is that theoretical intelligence regards the sensations it has as stemming from, and as constituting perceptions of, objects which are different from us. "When I touch something hard," Hegel says, "I feel a pressure, but I say straightaway that the pressure comes from something hard."(7) This idea that what I perceive is something hard is not contained in the sensation itself, but, as Hegel argues in the Encyclopaedia, is the result of an act of consciousness whereby the mind "separates this [sensory] material from itself and gives it initially the determination of being. …

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