Back to the Future: Hegelian Pragmatism

Understanding Collective Self-consciousness

Hegel is usually thought of as defending an obscure metaphysics that claims reality is the manifestation of a collective mind, Geist. But, as Terry Pinkard argues, Hegel has a lot in common with the more "down-to-earth" movement of pragmatism. Geist doesn't need to be interpreted as one gigantic metaphysical entity, but as the collection of self-conscious individuals whose practices reveal that they are part of something greater. Following this approach, Hegel's idealist view of history as the development of our collective self-consciousness begins to make a lot more sense.

This is the second installment in our series on idealism, Mind & Reality, in partnership with the Essentia Foundation. Read the previous installment of the series, Parmenides: the first Idealist.


Hegelianism is often thought of as the super-theoretical German mishmash of absolutist philosophy that is great in theory but ridiculous in practice, whereas pragmatism is often thought of a kind of philosophical version of “who cares whether it’s true, the question is whether it works,” which is enough for some to reject it as crass and unphilosophical. Or, to reverse the joke ascribed to Sidney Morgenbesser: The problem with pragmatism is that it is great in practice but not in theory.


Hegel often spoke as if he were a pragmatist avant la lettre. What we do with the words and thoughts makes an enormous difference to the very meaning of the concepts themselves.


Given the diametrically opposed reputations these philosophical movements have, it might come as a surprise to many people just how close the two schools of thought actually are. Sure, people might know that Hegel influenced many of the early pragmatist thinkers, but the suggestion that he himself was a pragmatist of any sort has until very recently been out of bounds. That has all changed in the last couple of decades as many non-Hegelian pragmatists have been taking a new look at Hegelian thought, and Hegelians have been enticed to start working out an updated Hegelianism via a refreshed investigation of twentieth century pragmatism. Most recently, the noted contemporary philosopher of language, Robert Brandom, has taken to describing his own analytical work as pragmatist and Hegelian, a combination that only a few decades ago would have resulted in strict social sanctions against such intellectual heresy.

But this turn of fortune shouldn’t actually surprise anybody. If anything, Hegel shares with the pragmatists an opposition to misplaced abstraction in philosophical thought. "Man" as such doesn’t exist, he would tell his students, and “laws and principles have no immediate life or validity in themselves. The activity that puts them into operation … has its source in the needs, impulses, inclinations and passions of man.”

Like the pragmatists who (much later) came after him, Hegel opposed a tempting but ultimately false view of human action. On that view, we must distinguish sharply between the meaning and truth of thoughts taken on their own, and the force we give those thoughts when we do things like use them to make assertions. For example, many philosophers would hold that the truth or falsity of the abstract thought, “The state is best comprehended in terms of a social contract,” stands independent of whomever is asserting it and whenever it’s asserted. As the great logician-philosopher, Gottlob Frege, put it, the meaning and truth of a concept should be entirely distinct from the force we give it when we put it to use to assert things. Hegel, on the other hand, thought that this suggestion falsified the intricate way in which thought and action are linked to each other. In particular, in his practical philosophy, Hegel often spoke as if he were a pragmatist avant la lettre. What we do with the words and thoughts makes an enormous difference to the very meaning of the concepts themselves. The real meaning of a concept does not emerge until it gets put to use, and that means that its materiality in use makes a difference to its meaning.


For both Hegel and the pragmatists, there has to be a way in which the “ideal” also explains the material course of human life and can make a difference as to what we do.


In particular, Hegel rejected a hard and fast distinction between – to use the terms given to it in contemporary discussions – justifying and motivating reasons. Motivating reasons are the ones that can causally explain your actions, such as “She was really angry, which explains what she did.” Justifying reasons are, well, the ones that justify (or don’t) your actions – such as “Yes, being angry may prompt you to say such and such, but it never justifies it.” Sometimes the two – justification and motivation – may coincide, but it might seem as if that is just a happy accident when it happens. However, if we are to hold onto the idea that human life involves some measure of free action, it cannot be the case that justifying reasons are completely irrelevant when explaining one's actions. What we think is right must have some explanatory value in accounting for our actions. For both Hegel and the pragmatists, there has to be a way in which the “ideal” also explains the material course of human life and can make a difference as to what we do. “Concepts” are not merely abstractions that don’t motivate and hence don’t explain actions. They link up with “passions and interests” in very concrete ways.


It is when life on earth becomes self-conscious life in its human form that Hegel’s own conception of Geist – mind or spirit, depending on the translator – comes into view.


This focus on the link between concept and action has been given a renewed twist in the writings of some recent Hegelian scholars who have looked for the link between Hegel and pragmatism to be found in terms of Hegel’s own concept of “life.” Building on, extending and transforming some older work on Hegel, several younger philosophers – Karen Ng (Hegel's Concept of Life: Self-Consciousness, Freedom, Logic), Thomas Khurana (Das Leben der Freiheit: Form und Wirklichkeit der Autonomie, soon to be translated into English), Dean Moyar (Hegel’s Value: Justice as the Living Good), and Andreja Novakovic (Hegel on Second Nature in Ethical Life) – have recently made the case that Hegel picked up on the idea of life as self-maintenance to give a unified shape to the more abstract and dualistic distinction of explanation and justification. It is when life on earth becomes self-conscious life in its human form that Hegel’s own conception of Geist – mind or spirit, depending on the translator – comes into view. Geist is a specific type of unity of self-conscious lives. It is not merely the sum of various individuals. You don’t just add up individuals as if they were all just separate little individual data points and arrive at Geist. On the other hand, Geist is also not some super-entity swallowing everything else into itself and thereby obliterating the individuality of the individuals within it. Instead, it is the non-additive collection of self-conscious individuals whose individuality emerges only in terms of their being those individuals within that collective life. Or, as Hegel puts it, Geist is the unity that shapes the individuals contained within it, but it does not exist without those individuals, and the role of self-consciousness in all this makes, according to Hegel, all the difference in the world.

related-video-image SUGGESTED VIEWING How philosophy got lost With

An analogy that might help to make this more intuitive would be that of the relation between a language and its speakers. English is a language that shows itself in the individual speech acts of its speakers, and each of us English speakers manifests the entire language as we use it in on our day to day lives. Each of us is carrying around, as it were, the entire language with us as we make our way through daily life. To use Hegel’s own rather inimitable vocabulary, if the language is a “universal,” we, as its individual speakers, are ourselves also “the universal.” Without the speakers, the language could not exist; without the language, we could not be its speakers. Each is bound together as an “I” that is a “We,” and a “We” that is an “I” (as Hegel defines Geist). An abstract language (“English”) is not fully real unless it is lived and developed by its speakers. It is no accident that Hegel himself stated in a couple of different places in his 1807 Phenomenology of Spirit that language in fact was the very existence of Geist: if no language, then no Geist; if no Geist, then no language.

Hegel’s conception of Geist– neither additive nor subsumptive, not just a heap of atomized individuals nor a state swallowing and abolishing individuality – led him to develop his version of an idealist conception of world history. The very nature of self-conscious life is always to be beyond itself, to be striving to determine what it would be best to be and to make sense of what it is doing. Ultimately, that means that self-conscious life strives for a kind of self-determination, a comprehension of itself as existing only in the self-conscious apprehension of itself as an I that is a We, and a We that is an I. In other words, a conception of not just a species with individual exemplars, but a species that lives in its social practices where the practices themselves are a form that unites the people who bear that form. Hegel calls that form, variously, a form of life, a shape or Gestalt of consciousness, even a shape of a whole world (as a kind of culture or civilization). Those forms of life as ensembles of social practices, held together by various shared commitments and meanings, are articulated in the materiality of its technologies, the institutions of its political lives, and in the art, religion and philosophy. Like the languages we speak, those deep meanings and commitments show themselves in our activities, and they are all implicated in our collective self-consciousness.

The history of the world was the history of the ways that these different forms of self-conscious life developed. And they developed by gradually uncovering the ways that their own deep commitments to doing things were at odds with themselves, which in turn had led them into a more and more uninhabitable world of their own making. Their shared life, their living in the light of what ultimately mattered to them, had turned out to be ultimately contradictory. As the realization of this set in among its members, that form of life began to lose their allegiance and started breaking down. In that setting, the people living in the rubble of the breakdown had to pick up the parts that still worked, discard the parts that did not and put together a new form of life. (Hegel called that an Aufhebung – an activity of both cancelling and preserving.) The new form in turn developed itself up to its own limits and at those limits where the contradictions became more glaring and unconcealed, broke down again. The history of the world was the history of whole ways of life breaking down in this way and being succeeded by others. But this was not a cyclical process – that of kingdoms come, kingdoms go – it was a more linear and progressive affair as Geist – self-conscious life, humanity – learned from its failures and improved on its past.

This historical learning process did not always go smoothly. Progress almost never proceeded without bumps in the road, and in too many cases it did so in darkly comical and sometimes violently sinister ways. But, so Hegel argued, all in all it did mark progress. We were getting better at collectively shaping our shared lives in terms of what ultimately matters, and what we had learned by the modern period was that what had turned out to matter to us absolutely in the course of history was the idea of freedom itself. Freedom not just as an abstract ideal but as what Hegel called (again in his own inimitable way) the “Idea”, as the unity of the concept of freedom and what was required to put that concept into practice – the concrete, material shape of specific arrangements of property rights, moral commitments, family life, social and economic organization and a political life conceived around the idea of a universal equality of freedom among all people.

Judith Butler Hegel for our Times SUGGESTED READING Hegel for our Times By Judith Butler

For both Hegel and the pragmatists, one had to determine what to do with the concepts at stake in world history. For some of the pragmatists, Hegel had turned to be a great philosopher but not much of a prophet. Thus, some of them – most notably John Dewey – tried to give Hegel’s idealist philosophy of history a more down to earth and “naturalized” feel. What history as a learning process really did with its ideas is create what Dewey called “permanent deposits” – conceptions of life and the world that once laid down and articulated proved very resistant to being cast aside. Modern science was one such problem-solving “permanent deposit.” In the practical realm, in the 19th and 20th century, one had the idea of democracy as just such a “permanent deposit.” Updating and correcting Hegel, Dewey called democracy a “way of life” – not just a matter of suffrage and voting, nor just a matter of unicameral versus bicameral legislatures. Democracy concerned itself with much the same kinds of things Hegel thought – laws, morals, family life, economic organization and political association, and as Dewey wrote in 1919 in a short piece, “Philosophy and Democracy,” democracy had to do with “a conviction about moral values, a sense for the better kind of life to be led.”

However, whereas in 1820 Hegel had thought history was pointing toward a kind of British constitutional monarchy staffed by ultra-efficient Prussian bureaucrats, for the twentieth century pragmatists, history was pointing at democracy as a way of life, even if it’s not where history sometimes seems to be going. Updated by modern pragmatism, democracy is thus a Hegelian Idea demanding its own actualization.

Or at least that’s the theory. But, as Hegelians and Pragmatists both say, what we have to do now is see if it can be put into practice.


In partnership with the Essentia Foundation

Latest Releases
Join the conversation