Philosophers don't often share their most intimate thoughts within their works. Nor do they write confessional biographies. In fact, some of them prefer that their thought stand on their own and disdain commentators who try to figure out their personal motivations. However, it's often the personal motivation of a philosopher that provides the clue to why he formulated his philosophy the way his did.

With no philosopher is this more essential than Georg Friedrich Hegel. Much of his theoretical work was motivated by his need to make room for passions and feelings in philosophy. Whether he succeeded or not is one issue, but his theoretically abstruse style, full of interminably long sentences in imitation of academic Latin treatises, has certainly obscured his concern for passion and feeling.

Fighting the idea of morality as duty
One of Hegel's concerns was in fact to fight the rationalism embedded in Kantian ethics, a rationalism that seemed to say that morality depended on the blind obedience to principles of duty. In the Critique of Practical Reason, Immanuel Kant wrote that "moral worth must be found solely in this: that the action was done from duty.i.e., solely for the sake of the law... It is of the utmost important.. that morality of actions be found in their necessity from duty and from respect for the law, not from love and sympathy."

This Kantian view of morality has to be mentioned because Hegel's own philosophy was conceived to offer an alternative. In order to offer such an alternative, Hegel's metaphysics had to be conceived differently than Kant's. What Kant has managed to is to create two spheres in the human realm of activity: the sphere of sensibility and of sense perception and the sphere of understanding that dealt with concepts and ideas. Now, this whole metaphysical scheme was created in a way that reinforced Protestant morality. Kant's moral behavior resided in the sphere of concepts and ideas and was excluded from the spheres of sensibility or sense perception. Much like Martin Luther consigned the senses to a realm where the devil reigned and led men astray, Kant's system seemed to mirror these prejudices. Moral action, a sole result of obeying principles, obviously meant resisting the temptations delivered by the senses.

Linking moral ideas to desires and inclinations
Hegel's philosophy was devoted to breaking down the boundaries between the two Kantian spheres of sensibility and understanding in order to show that the ideas of morality could indeed be compatible with inclinations and desires and not necessarily hostile to them. Hegel's quest to bring together sensibility and understanding, nature and reason was heavily influenced by playwright and critic Friedrich Schiller. In "The Aesthetic Education of Man, in a Series of Letters", Schiller takes the spheres of sensibility and understanding and shows how they come together. Schiller does start with a conception that is very much protestant and Kantian: nature and its sensations drive human beings to act wantonly and respond to their needs/desires of the moment. The ideas and thoughts of morality are opposed to nature because they seek to suppress the impulses that it is responsible for. However, the conflict is resolved and harmonized because the sensations of nature which provoke impulsive actions (drives in Freud's terminology) can be sublimated and redirected to serve moral ends. In the "Letters", Schiller conceives of a life drive, chaotic arbitrary behavior provoked by nature and senses and of a form drive, behavior driven by ideas of moral obligation/duty. A third drive, the play drive, is the sublimation agent that harmonizes the actions of the two: it teaches the impulses provoked by nature, the life drive, to act in ways that are concordant with moral ideas and obligations, i.e the form drive. Now, just to be silly, Schiller would probably say that a person's frantic search for a bathroom in the middle of a busy city street is the result of his impulses being taught to automatically seek their satisfaction in moral behavior. (If urinating on the spot is to be considered an affront to the virtue of public cleanliness.) The same would be said about a person furious about being mistreated who spontaneously expresses his rage with his words instead of being driven to react with his fists.

Locating the roots of the split between the moral and the emotional in ancient history
Thus, Schiller's idea that feelings and emotions can be taught to spontaneously act in a moral/responsible way is a key influence for Hegel. This influence is most evident in the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel's most important work. Except, unlike Schiller, Hegel locates the harmonization between sensibility/nature/impulses and reason/ideas/morality in a historical context. According to Hegel, The Roman Empire's history of slavery was responsible for destroying the harmony between these two realms in the first place. In the historical period where Romans enslaved many of their subjects, these very slaves who had latched on to Christianity had to put morality into the abstract domain of ideas because it would have never taken root in the horrible conditions of real life. Note: Hegel calls this shape of consciousness Lord and Bondage. In the period where slaves had suffered a horrible life of forced labor and limited freedom, they decided to live in their hopes rather than reality. Hence, they created a domain of justice in the after-life and called it "the real world" while calling their own world of injustice "fake." Note: Hegel refers to this shape of consciousness as Skepticism

Hegel's phenomenology therefore manages to make fun of the Kantian separation of ideas/understanding and sensibility/morality by ridiculing it as a slave mentality. A fan of Sophocles' Antigone, he advocates the Greek moral viewpoint that the source of morality is feeling. In Antigone, the title-named character is a woman whose love for her brother leads her to insist on perform burial rites for him despite the prohibition of King Creon who is adamantly opposed on the ground that the brother fought against the city and is a traitor who doesn't deserve to be honored. Hegel's point is that morality lies in the heart. He recognizes that the historical origin of Christianity in slavery has made morality abstract because it could only be thought about and not demanded in the face of oppression. Hegel is very much for reversing this trend. In his mind, human beings will adapt their behavior more easily to moral laws if these resonate within their hearts and no such resonance can take place if the source of this morality is the theoretical rulebooks of theologians or moral philosophers.

It is thus no accident that Hegel's last shape of consciousness, at which humankind arrives, the Actualization of Rational Self-Consciousness through its Own Activity, is one where human beings discover that moral behavior has its origin neither in strict intellectual obedience to moral principles that oppose natural desires and temptations nor in theology. Hegel's phenomenology is written in historical form precisely to show that morality is the articulation of human desire to create a better world. If this sounds like common sense to you, it wasn't in his time. Protestant theologians and perhaps even Catholic ones believed that human beings were inherently evil and driven astray if left to their own devices. Whatever was good in them either came from heavenly divine sources or in Kant's case, from doctrines. For Hegel to say to his reader, "It is me and you that are moral, morality comes from us and we are not alienated from it" was from the point of view of religiously-minded folks a blasphemy. The implication is a profound blow to the ideas of original sin and redemption. If the trajectory that leads to morality starts from the heart and personal inclinations (i.e "human passions") and then progresses to ideas and action, God is almost cut out of the equation. Unless he is a God who wants people to listen to their inner voice instead of following dogmatically prescribed rules.

I leave you with these two telling quotes by Kant and Hegel about the "human passions."

Kant: "Passions are cancers.. and often incurable" (Antropologie, 1798)

"Thus we must say that nothing great in the world has been accomplished without passion." Hegel: (Lectures on the Philosophy of History)


Kaufmann, Walter. Hegel: A Reinterpretation. University of Notre Dame Press: Notre Dame, Indiana, 1978.

Forster, Michael. N. Hegel's Idea of a Phenomenology of Sprit. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1998


Commentary from SciPhi
(r) SciPhi says : This sucks. I really hope it was meant as an ironic commentary on how awful continental philosophy can be. I mean, I don't mean to be rude, but you did stick it out there on the list. The problem with your writeup is that I didn't learn a thing. Nothing you said was interesting. I learned that you think that pretentious posturing is good philosophy. Nothing else. You didn't even bother to explain Hegel and Kant, beyond vague platitues. Anyway... congrats if it was a joke. You got me. Otherwise... stop writing to impress other people. Because this sort of tripe doesn't change anyone's mind about anything.

My Response:
Dear Sciphi, if you found my essay on Hegel terrible, I do respect your opinion. I often do worry that my philosophical understanding is shallow and your thoughts may confirm this suspicion of mine.

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