Agency according to Hegel

What does it mean to be a free individual? Conceptualized negatively, freedom is the ability to do whatever one desires, the absence of impediments. For the libertarian, freedom is conceptualized entirely different. We are only free when we are released from the desires that control us. Hegel, on the other hand, understands freedom entirely different. For him, one is free only when the self is in harmony with society. According to Hegel, the human individual is free insofar as the self has internalized and absorbed the culture of his or her time; including the mores, traditions and ideals of society. In other words, the more one is identical with the society in which he or she lives, the more he or she is free. In this manner individual freedom is not defended in opposition to society—as with an abstract, negative ideal of freedom—but is included within it.

There is, therefore, no such thing as freedom apart from a good society. If one were to live in a corrupt State the individual would never be free to conform to the fabric of society. Thus, “[I]ndividual freedom is valuable to the extent that it permits one to engage in and identify with a common, public life” (Richard Lichtman, An Outline of Marxism, pp. 28-9). Simply put, there must be harmony between the individual and the collective; congruency between the oikos and the polis.

An abrupt quagmire, however, surfaces when we begin addressing the concept of agency in resisting counterfeit States. Clearly, following Hegel, an individual is no longer free when he or she is no longer able to conform, in good conscious, to the spirit of the age. The trouble with Hegel becomes conceiving “just how one gets outside the state, absorbs it, and transforms it” (p. 26).

Reconciling this impasse is not limited solely to Hegel but is encountered in most critical thought. We encounter the same form of deadlock, for instance, with Hauerwas: “our freedom is dependent on our having a narrative that gives us skills of interpretation sufficient to allow us to make our past our own through incorporation into our ongoing history” (Stanley Hauerwas, Community of Character, p. 147). For Hauerwas, freedom is the ability to recognize oneself in a community and narrative that the self has learned to make one’s own. But this freedom is particularly dangerous in societies that inhabit the worst forms of evil; the same difficulty that befell Hegel’s understanding of the State.

This parallel between Hauerwas and Hegel is, however, not an anomaly. Although Hauerwas fails to acknowledge his dependence on the modern intellectual traditions of Hegel and Marx, Jeffrey Stout has not overlooked this significant connection (Democracy and Tradition, p. 138). In fact, Stout looks to Hegel himself to find a way out of this Gordian knot: the Hegelian paradigm of discursive, dialectical exchange where individuals are able to articulate their deepest commitments in reasonable argumentation, thus enabling citizens to modify situations they inhaibt. In this instance, at least, we can look to the same philosopher who inflicted the wound of incommensurability as the one who can potentially cure it.


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