Hegel's Practical Philosophy: Rational Agency and Ethical Life. By Robert B. Pippin


Pp. xi, 308 , Cambridge , Cambridge University Press , 2008 , $30.00.

Towards the end of the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant somewhat immodestly claims that thanks to his understanding of the mind and its cognitive capacities, he is now in a position to understand the great philosophers of the past better even than they understood themselves. Although the book under review by the influential University of Chicago philosopher, Robert Pippin, never explicitly makes such a claim, it comes close to endorsing the spirit of Kant's remark regarding his own understanding of Hegel's practical philosophy, by which is meant Hegel's theory of action and freedom that underlies the conditions of rational agency in the modern world. Pippin's book is the most ambitious and complex treatment of its subject in English and will surely become the touchstone for future scholars writing not only in English, but in German as well.

Hegel's systematic philosophy, in both its practical and theoretical aspects, has been undergoing a significant transformation in Anglophone research over the last 20 years, due principally to a willingness on the part of analytic philosophers (most prominently Robert Brandom and John McDowell) to treat Hegel as a contemporary participant in the debate about the determination of conceptual content and meaning in cognitive theory, and the status of practical reason and normativity in ethical and social theory. Pippin's book takes its place in this distinguished company.

For Pippin, Hegel grasped at an early stage of modernity's development what would become its defining crisis, namely, how to justify its conception of freedom, how to hold its members to account in a world in which previous standards of ethical conduct (nature, religion, or traditional authority) had already begun to lose credibility and relevance. Thus, if freedom has irreversibly become the single universally accepted value of modern societies, the question of how one ought to act, what ends a free person and a free society ought to pursue, in short, the question of moral normativity, becomes the overriding issue for both social and ethical life as well as for philosophical reflection. One of the most interesting conclusions of Pippin's complex and exhaustive interpretation is that society somehow manages to get it right, to develop rationally and freely on its own (weak teleology) without the guidance of philosophy.

The book is divided into three parts, ‘Spirit’, ‘Freedom’, and ‘Sociality’; the first two develop at length Hegel's theory of rational agency as the capacity to identify fully with one's deeds by having reasons that are not just reasons ‘for me,’ but also ‘to me’; the final section addresses the vexing question of normativity in terms of rules and roles embodied in social practices and institutions.

Pippin constructs his analysis of what it means to live a free life in the modern world around Hegel's central concept of spirit (Geist). Spirit is not a thing or a substance (p. 127), but an activity by means of which spirit is ‘productive of itself.’ The key to understanding Hegel's account of freedom as a self-relation is to understand that its actualization is dependent on intersubjectivity, what Hegel calls ‘being with oneself in the other.’ Spirit then is an achieved social status of being recognized by other ‘like-minded’ rational agents as a competent reason-giver. ‘Reasons are offered and accepted as entitlements and justifications for actions, all with a collective, binding authority, all with varying historical degrees of independence from what is experienced as the natural realm of unavoidable immediate necessity … such beings can collectively bind themselves over time to rules and principles and laws constraining, sanctioning, and directing conduct …’ (p. 194). Pippin contrasts this view with both the Kantian conception of practical reason as a formal faculty that legislates moral law for itself by its own universalizing intentions, as well as with the Christian conception of free will as a causal capacity to restrain desire in order to realize some objective good. Both theories, according to Pippin, presume levels of self-knowledge and self-control contradicted by actual behavior. Failure to do what we ‘intended’ is not the result of some obscure weakness of the will's causal power, but a clear indication that we were never the sort of persons who intended such an action to begin with.

Of course, answering the normativity question by an account of public justification raises problems of its own, namely, relativism and historical positivism (pp. 195, 240, 266). If Pippin easily handles the relativism charge by placing justification in social practices that will either validate or challenge one's claims, the positivist worry is harder to defeat. When we find a justification not to our liking, if a particular reason strikes us as being against our accepted practices, such as a racist or sexist act, then ‘we have no practical choice but to react to the claim as a move in their space of reasons, an attempt at justification, and then to trot out, to offer, and then to try to convince them of, the extended understanding of personhood and natural right and so forth that function in our claim that this is unjust’ (p. 266). Yes, this is the practice in a liberal society, but how is it that ‘we’ have come to hold these norms of social justice and equality in the first place? There is no other reason except the fact that that's the way spirit has developed according to its own immanent telos of becoming increasingly freer and more rational – more self-related as mediated by the other. In a world where God and nature no longer provide normative criteria for human conduct, this weak teleology is the best Hegel can do; but, Pippin thinks, it is all that we need, in fact, all we could ever rationally desire from an account of normativity for the modern world. I think Hegel does offer us more than what Pippin is willing to grant – but only, and this is a matter of considerable contention, if Hegel gives us a richer metaphysical account of spirit beyond ‘like-mindedness’ and social status. In the end, if Pippin has not produced an account worthy of Hegel's Geist, then he has certainly produced one worthy of the present Zeitgeist.