The Founding Act of Modern Ethical Life: Hegel's Critique of Kant's Moral and Political Philosophy. By Ido Geiger
Version of Record online: 16 FEB 2009
© The author 2009. Journal compilation © Trustees for Roman Catholic Purposes Registered 2009
The Heythrop Journal
Volume 50, Issue 2, pages 341–342, March 2009
How to Cite
Madigan, P. (2009), The Founding Act of Modern Ethical Life: Hegel's Critique of Kant's Moral and Political Philosophy. By Ido Geiger. The Heythrop Journal, 50: 341–342. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2265.2009.00460_26.x
- Issue online: 16 FEB 2009
- Version of Record online: 16 FEB 2009
Pp. xiii, 173 , Stanford, CA , Stanford University Press , 2007 , $35.50.
One basic convention of Greek philosophy had been that love should be proportional to its object: it is wrong to love an object above or below its merits. This made it impossible to explain the existence of the world. God should be locked upon himself in a narcissistic self-enthrallment –‘thought thinking itself’, as Aristotle put it. Even if there was a world, it would be inappropriate for God to know or care about it; he would thereupon sink to its level, and cease to be perfect. Plotinus attempted to solve the problem by making the world an unintended side-effect of God's self-contemplation, but this is manifestly a jury-rigged, mythological solution and unsatisfying. The Judeo-Christian suggestion was that if God's goodness is of a sufficient critical intensity, it would lead him beyond the godhead to want to share himself with a creature capable of receiving and appreciating this gift. Hegel is distinctive in injecting this Judeo-Christian dynamism into the abstract categories of purely rational speculation to argue for an ultimate reality that leaves the ‘noumenal’ sphere to push for complete expression in the ‘phenomenal’ realm. The difficulty is that, on the traditional interpretation, this adequate expression leads to a final form of self-consciousness by the Absolute in the State in which, in being able to review all past phases as leading up to itself, it sees them as necessary and itself as legitimately absorbing all lower forms of organization (including individuals) into its higher unity and more comprehensive reality. It is not the least merit of Geiger's book to open up an alternative reading of Hegel's final stage – the ‘founding act’ of modern ethical life – that, perhaps unintentionally, causes the Hegelian State-as-God-incarnate to implode and subside into a traditional view of the state's limited remit merely to safeguard freedom, leaving to other institutions, through subsidiarity, the task of providing the various goods by which individuals confer value on their lives.
Kant's view of ethical life had been untenable because the motive for every action had to be referred to the moral law before it could be judged to be ‘moral’. As against Aristotle, virtue does not consist in developing the right habits or ‘second nature’, but in having no habits; each act is originary and must be judged anew, no matter how often in the past we have done similar things. Kant's moral act is formal and empty, cut off from ‘inclination’ below and from a theoretical or speculative ‘good’ above. Hegel's remedy is to expand Kant's single ‘ethical life’ into a whole series of stages that stretch the length of human history, whereby each has a revolutionary ‘founding act’ led by a ‘world historical individual’ who, out of the contradictions and dissatisfaction with the current stage, sees and acts upon a ‘higher good’ that until that time had been abstract and non-actual. Eventually his insight spreads and the entire society is elevated to this new level. Each stage thus raises a notch the good of civilization. Thereby, if we have been properly educated within a (relatively) just society, we may trust the customs and habits which have been instilled in us, all the while remaining open to new insights that may be the revolutionary catalysts for lifting society to a yet higher stage. The traditional reading burdens Hegel's philosophy, however, with making the ‘world historical individual’ a virtual puppet of the Absolute, acting ‘unwittingly’ when he disobeys current norms in the name of a ‘higher value’, and reciprocally limiting the freedom and initiative of ordinary people to act apart from the group; on Hegel's account, no one individual seems able to act until the group as a whole does – thus reinforcing the traditional interpretation of the group or the State as encompassing (and being ‘more real’ than) the individual. Geiger does little to counter this reading, but he does open a window for a different interpretation of the ‘founding act’ of modern ethical life. Like Kant, Hegel thought the French Revolution (and the destruction of the monarchy) constituted the transition to such a higher stage for European civilization; equal freedom would now be extended to all, though it would take individuals a while to rise to this new level of opportunity and responsibility. In fact, this becomes the key question for Hegel: how will they use their freedom? Will the future be better or worse, now that the old inequalities (and securities) are dismantled? One could make a case that the increasing ‘alienation’ (a term Marx got from Hegel) and Nietzschean ressentiment that burden the contemporary mind stem from this revolutionary transition Hegel celebrated – but from accepting the first reading of Hegel and consequent disappointment in the ‘broken’ grandiose Hegelian promises. Geiger here argues to the contrary that Hegel deliberately refrained from answering this question, and in fact argued that the question had not been and could not be answered by ‘speculative’ philosophy. The ‘founding act’ of modern ethical life lies in the future, not the past. It is for each individual to decide around which good(s) he or she will orient their lives, rather than waiting for the State to decide for them. On this reading the Hegelian State-as-God-Incarnate collapses like a soufflé and subsides back into the limited state protecting and empowering other institutions to put forward particular goods that will for the first time give content to our otherwise empty ‘freedom’.