<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="65001"%> Discussion 5

Agenda for Discussion, February 20, 2008.

Allow me to call attention to several issues about Hegel.

1. Change: Above all, comparativists want to know about “change.”  Why do political identities
become transformed over time?  What are the forces behind these changes, and are they the same
over time?  What does this mean about the institutions that have worked for one era but
may not work for another?  To appreciate the importance of the theme of change, all you need to
do is to look at some key dualities in the field: tradition and modernity; dictatorship and
democratization; collectivism and liberalism; etc.  Notably, all (or most) of the great scholars in
the social sciences have put the issue of change at the center of their inquiries.  Otherwise,
politics would be static; our academic roles would be purely descriptive; life would be boring.

This is where we come to Hegel.  Hegel claims to be writing about historical changes, but he is
also encouraging us to see the world (and ourselves within it) as though we are unchanging.
Nothing can come from nothing but only from something.  That something is all that there is.
Accordingly, there can’t be something outside of it since this “it” is all there is.  As a result;
“cause and effect” are terms that don’t make sense.  We seem to be thrust into a world that is
always changing but never really changes!

2. Morality:  Today, we are accustomed to thinking about morality in modern terms.  That is, we
see moral judgments as issuing primarily from the individual.  Although one’s community (e.g.,
family, church, peer group, living hall, et al.) may play a role in these judgments, we even tend to
be a little suspicious of any limitations upon our ability, as individuals, to be the final arbiters of
what is good or bad.  If some of these claims sound a bit like Kant to you, this circumstance is
hardly coincidental since modern conceptions of morality have their roots in the Enlightenment.

Here again, we come to Hegel.  Hegel certainly does not want to downplay the role of human
choice in world history; the personalities he describes (e.g., Napoleon) are identifiable actors who
make the concrete moral decisions.  But at the same time, Hegel does not want to treat moral
decision-making as merely the province of individual will.  He wants to say that some choices
are right and others are wrong and thereby give substance to moral claims.  Hence, he argues that
people should make moral choices on the basis of what already is and can only be.  As Taylor
emphasizes, Hegel  sees no distinction between “what is” (Sein) and “what out to be” (Sollen).
Right away, this way of thinking about ethics makes us feel uncomfortable.  After all, how can
we choose something when the proper decision is, in effect, already in place.  Where’s the room
for choice?

As we have discussed, my goal is to look at Hegel’s philosophy through his eyes.  It would be too
easy to dispense with his claims by saying they are confusing and contradictory.  One way to
begin is to ask what Hegel was trying to do, especially in light of the ontological and moral
uncertainties generated by the Enlightenment.

As you are reading Hegel, please keep Gentile in mind.  Gentile is unmistakably writing in the
Hegelian tradition.  Look at what he has to say about key terms like “culture,” “consciousness,”
“soul,” and “nature.”  Of course, Gentile was also a fascist.  So, what has changed in Gentile’s
writing that distinguishes him from Hegel?  Or do we want to say that Hegel is a proto-fascist?