Hegel Contra Rorty

hegel rorty

Hegel and the Limitations of Liberal Irony


Hegel’s name appears again and again in Richard Rorty’s texts. As Tom Rockmore has pointed out, Hegel is a constant point of reference for him.[1] Hegel is cited as an important influence on Rorty’s earliest conception of how philosophy might be conducted, and how it might relate to his desire to change the world, and not merely interpret it. The fullest expression of this debt comes in the following well-known passage from an autobiographical piece from 1992:

I have spent 40 years looking for a coherent and convincing way of formulating my worries about what, if anything, philosophy is good for. My starting point was the discovery of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, a book which I read as saying: granted that philosophy is just a matter of out-redescribing the last philosopher, the cunning of reason can make use even of this sort of competition. It can use it to weave the conceptual fabric of a freer, better, more just society. If philosophy can be, at best, only what Hegel called ‘its time held in thought’, still, that might be enough. For by thus holding one’s time, one might do what Marx wanted done – change the world. So even if there were no such thing as ‘understanding the world’ in the Platonic sense – an understanding from a position outside of time and history – perhaps there was still a social use for my talents, and for the study of philosophy. [2]

It’s an interesting passage for a number of reasons. First, Rorty makes makes a characteristic move: that of characterising Hegel as a forerunner of the position that Rorty himself advocates: the Phenomenology is read as saying that philosophy is ‘just a matter of out-redescribing the last philosopher’. He is also saying here that ‘holding one’s own time in thought’ might achieve the Marxian goal of changing the world, although how the redescription or the holding of one’s time in thought might do this is not explained. In succeeding paragraphs, Rorty places The Phenomenology of Spirit along with Remembrance of Things Past as seeming to him once as the ‘two greatest achievements of the species I belonged’. For the young Rorty, Proust’s achievement was

As astonishing as Hegel’s ability to throw himself successively into empiricism, Greek tragedy, Stoicism, Christianity and Newtonian physics, and to emerge from each ready and eager for something completely different. It was the cheerful commitment to irreducible temporality which Hegel and Proust shared – the specifically anti platonic element in their work –that seemed so wonderful. They both seemed able to weave everything they encountered into a narrative without asking that that narrative have a moral, and without asking how that narrative would appear under the aspect of eternity.

Rorty goes on to declare that Dewey later came to seem to him to be ‘a philosopher whom had learned all that Hegel had to teach’, combining a rejection of certainty and eternity with an engagement with Darwin that had the effect of ‘immunizing himself against pantheism’. The passage displays a paradoxical desire to change the world through description, and it prizes Hegel for what Rorty saw as his anti Platonist historicism. Rorty enlists Hegel into an ‘anti Platonism,’ a rejection of timeless certainty and the acceptance of the flow of time in order to ‘stop trying for eternity, and just be a child of his time’. For Rorty, only a deflated, naturalised Hegel will do, one that ‘emphasizes Hegel’s historicism rather than his idealism,’ a version of Hegel that can be combined with Darwin, and which stands as an important precursor for Dewey and pragmatism.[3] Indeed, ‘Once one starts to look for pragmatism in Hegel one finds quite a bit to go on’,

The more one pursues the theme of embodiment in Hegel – explores what Taylor calls the “anti dualist” implications of the “expressivist” line of thought that Hegel took over from Herder – the more one wants to brush aside the ontology of Absolute Idealism and the insistence that the real is the rational. One finds oneself trying to wean Hegel away from the Idea, just as Hegel (and later Pierce) tried to wean Kant from the thing-in-itself. To succeed in doing so would be to get Hegel to stop talking about human communities as expressions of something greater than themselves – stages in the realisation of some purpose greater they themselves could envisage. Then one could just see such communities “expressivistically,” in terms of their own local needs. But this shift would lead Hegel, and us, to describe our own community and our own philosophical views in terms of parochial, temporary, contingent needs.[4]

Dewey’s ‘Hegel-Darwin’ synthesis that Rorty recommends offers a ‘relativist and materialist version of teleology rather than an absolute and idealist one’. The ‘real is the rational’ gets understood here as a ‘regulative, heuristic principle’:

A historian should be able to tell her community how it is now in a position to be, intellectually and morally, better than predecessor communities thanks to its knowledge of the struggles of those predecessors. As the saying goes, we know more than our ancestors because they are what we know; what we most want to know is how to avoid their mistakes. [5]

Rorty identifies Hegel’s conception of the work of philosophy as a historicist anti-Platonism, a kind of pragmatism avant la lettre, which will later be naturalised by Dewey and Darwin. Hegel’s idealism gets scanted here, as does his account of the way in which philosophy (as distinct from, say, literature), can aid us in understanding the past through a kind of retrospective grasp, thus helping us to prepare for the future. Rorty marshals Hegel to his cause in a way that is characteristic: Hegel is filleted for the things Rorty finds useful, while the rest is thrown back. But while Hegel has often been recast to fit the needs of his readers, when Rorty comes to develop his ideas on liberalism and the possibilities for radical renewal in America from about 1990 onwards, the failure to engage with Hegel on these points in any substantial way arguably represents a missed opportunity. Even a Hegel with the objectionable idealism removed can be viewed as more than the ‘cheerful commitment to irreducible temporality’ that Rorty prizes, and more, too, than a project of out-redescribing previous philosophers.

Given this early impact on Rorty by Hegel, it might seem surprising that nowhere does Rorty devote any sustained attention to what Hegel wrote. This is true of Hegel’s historicism and idealism, and goes doubly for Hegel’s conception of the state, ethical life, law etc in Elements of The Philosophy of Right. Hegel is thus regularly credited for his influence, but is never discussed at length or in any serious way. This is regrettable, since a closer consideration of what Hegel has to say might have led to a more complex account of the challenges facing progressive thought in the west, and in particular the USA at the turn of the 21st Century. A reading of the Hegel of the Elements of The Philosophy of Right, in particular, might have led him to consider the ways in which Hegel conceives of the modern state as subject to internal contradiction and change, of what, concretely, it might mean to be subject to ‘irreducible temporality’.

From ‘Trotsky and the Wild Orchids’, through Contingency, Irony and Solidarity right up to Achieving Our Country and beyond, Hegel appears in brief references, but the account of him, and of Dewey’s Darwinian succession, never varies much. A kind of weightless Hegel emerges, a forerunner or ‘vanishing mediator’, significant mainly as a necessary link in the chain that leads to Dewey, pragmatism and ultimately to the philosophical redescribing of Rorty. And when Rorty turns to political and social matters, it is Dewey’s left liberalism, along with JS Mill and Thoreau, and even Whitman, that are the key thinkers, rather than Hegel or Marx.

The Philosophy of Right

The Elements of the Philosophy of Right is a rich and suggestive text, containing insights and questions that a recent contemporary like Rorty might well have profited from, if he had examined it carefully. It is a troubling text for liberals, including the kind of liberal ironist Rorty wanted to be, not because it is an anti liberal text in the sense of being opposed to the values liberals hold dear (dignity of the individual, freedom of conscience, rights and so on) but rather because its author regards the insights of liberals as limited. As Allen Wood comments, Hegel is liberalism’s ‘deepest and most troubling critic.’[6] The  liberal outlook, with its emphasis on the freedom of the individual, involves a conception of the neutral state, whose function is  to prevent harm coming to its members through the exercise of those freedoms. For Hegel, on the other hand, genuine freedom implies an orientation on the part of citizens to those institutions that ground the freedom of the individual in an objective order – an ethical life that requires more of the state than the role of external guarantor of negative freedom. Individuals need to understand themselves as having a place in that order, as the site in which they may truly actualise their freedom. The freedom of moderns is not conceived abstractly, but rather as situated at a point in history in which a certain self-understanding is possible, one that can recognise and reflectively endorse works of the ‘spirit’ embodied in a way of life, a set of institutions and an ethical life, one that is a necessary condition for freedom: ‘the habit of the ethical appears as second nature’ .[7]

JS Mill

JS Mill

There is much here that a liberal like Rorty might have found quite congenial, as well as much else that might have led him to reconsider his conception of what he called a ‘contingent community’, for while it is true that there are parallels between the liberalism of Rorty’s much admired Mill and the Hegel of the Philosophy of Right (for instance, their shared conception that freedom is valuable not merely for itself but for what other essential human goods can be achieved with it) there is a much richer account of human freedom as the process of finding oneself in another than in On Liberty.[8] For Hegel, freedom is instantiated in a set of specific practices, institutions and self-understandings, and it is in his much fuller appreciation of the ethical as ‘second nature’ that Hegel most differs from the Mill of On Liberty.

Beyond this, the text has intimations of the profound, perhaps insoluble, problems that any liberal state, based on a market economy, face. These problems can be seen as arising not accidentally or contingently, but necessarily from the features of the state that Hegel describes. On this account, states and institutions are prone to change, and this change arises from the kinds of contradictions generated by the working of the very civil society that makes them distinctive: the accumulation of wealth in a capitalist economy also generating inequality and poverty.[9] Rorty is aware of the inequality, but whether his relative optimism would have been tempered by a more considered grasp of the working of that economy is hard to say.[10] Even if one rejects the idea that history has any kind of goal or higher meaning, as Rorty did in his reading of Hegel, this does not mean that all change amounts just to the ways in which people redescribe the world. Process, change, may not have ‘iron laws’, yet a certain logic to that change can surely be appraised, and it is here we might find the ‘relativist and materialist version of teleology’, the ‘real as the rational’ as ‘heuristic principle’.

Rorty’s Politics

kant_hegel books
While there is no explicitly worked out ‘Rortian political philosophy’ it is possible to discern a set of ongoing commitments and concerns. The view of the political that emerges is one in which a certain conception of liberalism is advocated and a line of thought or argument is revisited across a number of texts. There is a certain conception of the kind of society most likely to enable its citizens to achieve their various projects and conceptions of the good; a rather general view of what the USA might be if it lived up to certain ideals as expressed in the writings of its more liberal and progressive thinkers and a vigorous polemic against, for Rorty, misguided approaches to progressive politics at the end of the 20thc century. In what follows we shall attempt to draw together these aspects of Rorty on politics, before considering it in relation to the Hegel that Rorty admires, rejects – and more often ignores.
Rorty advances the image of the ‘liberal ironist’, citing Judith Shklar’s definition of liberals as ‘the people who think that cruelty is the worst thing we do’. As for ‘ironist’:

I use “ironist” to name the sort of person who faces up to the contingency of his or her own most central beliefs and desires – someone sufficiently historicist and nominalist to have abandoned the idea that those central beliefs and desires refer back to something beyond the reach of time and chance. Liberal ironists are people who include among these ungroundable desires their own hope that suffering will be diminished, that the humiliation of human being by other human beings may cease.[11]

For Rorty there can be ‘ no non-circular backup for the belief that cruelty is horrible’ and no way to answer the question of when to pursue one’s own personal projects of self-creation rather than struggle against injustice. Not only can there be no theory that can pull together, justify or explain the myriad aspects of life, but theory itself, and particularly philosophy, should take a step back in a ‘general turn against theory and toward narrative’ in the task of trying to increase sensitivity to human suffering.[12]

Chartists, Kennington, London 1848

Chartists, Kennington, London 1848

The kind of ‘postmodern bourgeois liberalism’ that Rorty presents here and elsewhere, stresses the importance of liberalism as delivering maximum individual freedom, allowing a crucial and welcome division between personal goals of authenticity and self-perfection and the public sphere. But this version of liberalism is one that is oddly shorn of many of the features or problems normally associated with this approach – e.g. the neutral state, social contract, rights, relationship to markets and equality. Particularly evident is a lack of interest in how liberalism developed, its social and economic roots, the ethos it encourages, its prospects and the reasons why it has become both dominant and challenged in modernity. For Rorty, liberalism is the only game in town, trumping alternatives and rivals, as:

Contemporary liberal society already contains the institutions for its own improvement… Indeed, my hunch is that Western social and political thought may have had the last conceptual revolution that it needs. J.S. Mill’s suggestion that governments devote themselves to optimizing the balance between leaving people’s private lives alone and preventing suffering seems to me pretty much the last word.[13]

Unsurprisingly, then, since there will be nothing beyond liberalism, its radical critics are of little interest. The most prominent critic of liberal society, Marx, is dismissed: [14]

[…]Marx. …explained the injustices produced by nineteenth century capitalism better than anyone else. But we regret that he mixed up sharp-eyed economic and political analysis with a lot of windy Hegelisms. We think it a pity that the best political economist of the nineteenth century happened to major in philosophy and never quite got over it. Like Sidney Hook, we suspect that Dewey filtered out everything that was worth saving in Hegel, and that all Marx adds to Dewey, Weber and other philosophers of social democracy are some pungent details about exactly how the rich manage to keep the poor impotent, and some helpful hints for debunking the hypocrisy of defenders of the status quo. [15]

For Rorty, Marx, like Hegel, must undergo a severe reduction in size in order to be of any continuing relevance, and in Marx’s case almost nothing is left.

Delacroix: Liberty Leading the People

Delacroix: Liberty Leading the People

Rorty’s Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America, (1998), argues for a left-liberal, social democratic and ‘progressive’ political engagement in turn of the century America. According to Rorty, the tradition of progressive leftist activism and thought has become disastrously disfigured since about the time of the Vietnam War. The kind of reformist and progressive left that existed until about 1964 drew its inspiration from its vision of what America might be if it lived up to the ideals of its founders, and visions of its greatest statesmen (like Lincoln) and poets (like Whitman). This Left, for Rorty, had a kind of optimism about being an American citizen that has vanished from what he calls the ‘academic left’. The latter, despite doing some valuable work in exposing the cruelty and injustices in much of American culture (e.g. homophobia, sexism), has retreated into a combination of victim studies, obscurantism and apocalyptic pessimism about the future of the USA. To ‘achieve our country’, Rorty urges, is to rediscover a certain pride in America, one that should see the American left as ‘the party of hope’, since ‘our national character is still in the making’.[16]

Protest in Iran

Protest in Iran

Hegel, Marx and Dewey make brief appearances, and are presented in the familiar way. Here, though, the aim is mainly a polemical one, and the target is the academic left. The vision is a recognisably liberal one, but with the accent on progressive politics. Rorty sees the increasing inequality in America as something the left should have paid attention to, and acted against. Its failure to do this stemmed in part from its pessimism, and from its absorption in victim studies and ‘Theory’. There is a cultural left, but not much else, and Rorty argues that the cultural left needs to connect with what remains of the reformist left and the labour unions in order to tackle the consequences of globalisation, talking ‘much more about money, even at the cost of talking less about stigma’:

I have two suggestions about how to effect this transition. The first is that the Left should put a moratorium on theory. It should try to kick its philosophy habit. The second is that the Left should try to mobilize what remains of our pride in being Americans. It should ask the public to consider how the country of Lincoln and Whitman might be achieved. [17]

Rorty’s politics then, are avowedly liberal and progressive, and take their inspiration mainly from a national tradition of left social democratic or left liberal reformism, rather than from any socialist, let alone Marxist or communitarian thinking. For Rorty, the naturalised and historicist Hegel helps act as a bridge to a social outlook informed by Deweyan pragmatism. Although he accepts that there need be no essential link between the pragmatist outlook he generally espouses, he argues for a liberalism that would allow the liberal ironist to suggest to others that this would be the kind of society they might prefer to live in.

Rorty’s Hegel is, as we have already observed, a kind of remnant, with all the bits removed apart from the ‘historicism’. In remodelling Hegel to serve his purposes Rorty has only done to Hegel what has been done many times before. So rather than question the way Hegel has been interpreted by Rorty, it might be more useful to consider Rorty’s politics from a perspective informed by the Hegel Rorty seems not to have read, the Hegel of the Elements of the Philosophy of Right. In doing this we begin to see more clearly some of the weaknesses in Rorty’s conception of progressive political engagement as essentially theory-light and liberal-reformist.

Hegel Beyond Rorty

Rorty makes very frequent reference to the well-known passages at the end of the preface to Elements of the Philosophy of Right in which Hegel writes that philosophy is ‘its time held in thought’. It is a passage that seems to encapsulate everything Rorty values in Hegel, the view of him as the great re-describer, looking backward in order to narrativise the transition to modernity as the outcome of the struggles, insights, mistakes and misconceptions of the past. I want to suggest, though, that the passages also tell us something about the way in which Hegel and Rorty differ in their approach to history and the role of philosophy.

Paul Klee: Angelus Novus

Paul Klee: Angelus Novus

The passages near the end of the preface that Rorty returns to so many times are:

As far as the individual is concerned, each individual is in any case, a child of his time; thus philosophy too is its own time comprehended in thoughts. It is just as foolish to imagine that any philosophy can transcend its contemporary world as that an individual can overleap his own time or leap over Rhodes.[18]

And a little later:

As the thought of the world, it appears only at a time when actuality has gone through its formative process and gained its completed state. This lesson of the concept is necessarily also apparent from history, namely that it is only when actuality has reached maturity that that the ideal appears opposite the real and reconstructs this real world, which it has grasped in its substance, in the shape of an intellectual realm. When philosophy paints its grey in grey, a shape of life has grown old, and it cannot be rejuvenated, but only recognised, by the grey in grey of philosophy; the owl of Minerva begins its flight only with the onset of dusk. [19]

Rather than contest Rorty’s interpretation of these well known passages with one supposedly closer to what Hegel ‘really meant’, I want to suggest that, in a spirit that Rorty might recognise, that a different reading to his might have enriched his understanding of the forces that shape our present, although at the cost of dampening his hopes for a return to left social democracy in America at the turn of the century. In any case, I want to suggest that the reading I propose better illuminates the situation we find ourselves in now. The problem with Rorty’s approach, I believe, is that his avoidance of any close engagement with Hegel’s texts and his generally anti theoretical stance leaves arguments in texts like Achieving Our Country floating, as it were, above the processes that work to change society. Instead, he falls back on exhortation and the cultural reappropriation of texts in American Literature. The result is that while Rorty can register the existence of social problems like inequality and poverty, he has nothing much to say about why they are getting worse, if they are, and what the deeper structures of the economy and society might have to do with that. A more careful look at Hegel might have helped him there, as well as an engagement with some of the other ‘progressive’ readings of Hegel – including Hegel’s most talented reader, Marx.

The Owl of Minerva

The Owl of Minerva

Rorty, as we have seen, interprets the first passage as a statement of Hegel’s historicist outlook, which involves the philosopher’s ability to inform the present how to avoid the mistakes of the past.[20] But if we consider the passage in its place at the end of the preface, we can surely see that it may not imply the kind of optimistically ‘useful’ reading of the past that Rorty wants. For Hegel’s remarks, must, to be consistent, apply to the description of the state that he is about to present to us. Far from a straightforwardly normative account of the (then) modern state, the very fact that Hegel can reflect on the meaning of philosophy’s role in this way must mean that night is falling on the state that he will go on to describe.[21] One of the problems with Rorty’s version of Hegel is that it gestures to the ‘historicism’ but then fails to follow through with any genuinely historically informed account of liberal society in, say the period between 1989 and 1999. This is because Rorty limits his interest to an image he has fashioned of Hegel as pragmatist avant la lettre. The problem, however, is that in emphasising this aspect to the exclusion of everything else, Rorty misses what, as a left-progressive, he might be expected to be interested in: the forces that were changing the liberal-bourgeois west, and that would come to threaten the very liberalism he espoused. Rorty’s tendency is to see Hegel and others as having set the scene for a properly historicised and naturalised account of, say, the prospects for the USA after the fall of the Berlin Wall, one in which liberal irony, aware of the hubris of communism, makes its peace with the markets and sets about the unglamorous but necessary task of reaffirming the best instincts of the reforming left in America before Vietnam divided the reformist from the academic left.


It is as if History, with a capital ‘H’, has come to an end, and all that will follow is the piecemeal business of improving the conditions of life for the American people. Rorty was not alone in this view. Francis Fukuyama is perhaps the most celebrated proponent of the ‘End of History’ thesis, which dates from the time of the fall of the Wall.[22]  In the original essay ‘The End of History?’ Fukuyama – writing in what he conceived as following a broadly Hegelian spirit – famously claimed that the bourgeois liberal state was, in effect, the final form of human political history. The outlook expressed by Fukuyama is surely not far from Rorty. The problem, of course, was that history, far from having stopped, was already preparing the surprises of 9/11 and the banking crash of 2008. Arguably, a more genuinely Hegelian approach would have been to examine the various forces that were already beginning to change political and economic landscape in the 1990s, and that would create the kind of existential threats to liberal-progressive America that, as we shall see, Rorty began to belatedly recognise after 2000. Hegel’s text is a rather more complex than a celebration of how, at last, we arrive at the rational state. He shows it as riven by contradictions that, whether or not we can say he recognised them as such, threaten its stability.

Hegel need not be understood as presenting the rational state of c1821 as finished form. It is possible to read the Elements of the Philosophy of Right as showing that that the kind of state described was incubating problems it might not be able to resolve without a radical transformation. Even if this was not Hegel’s explicit view, it is surely there in the text, if a ‘left progressive’ wants to find it. The most obvious problem of this kind is that of the clash of right represented by the poverty created by the working of modern civil society, and its effect, the generation of what he calls ‘the rabble’.

uprising daumier
Hegel’s treatment of the problem in the Elements of the Philosophy of Right, and in his unpublished lectures is interesting, and has generated a good deal of comment. [23] He is aware that the kind of society he is describing – essentially, a nascent capitalist one – will tend to create a class of people who will tend to be deprived of the benefits of the society in which they live. They will be in it, but feel excluded from it. Hegel points out that the very processes that allow the accumulation of wealth also tend to disadvantage others – and not necessarily through any fault of their own. This tends to create the problem of a class of disadvantaged people:

When a large mass of people sinks below the level of a certain standard of living – which automatically regulates itself at the level necessary for a member of the society in question – that feeling of right, integrity [Rechtlichkeit], and honour which comes from supporting oneself by one’s activity is lost. This leads to the creation of a rabble, which in turn makes it easier for disproportionate wealth to be concentrated in a few hands.[25]

Although Hegel offers a few clues as to how their condition might be alleviated, he does not show how the problem of this rabble – the class of people who are excluded from the benefits of the society they are nominally a part – can be resolved. Although he says that poverty does not of itself create a rabble: ‘poverty in itself does not reduce people to a rabble’, he is clear that poverty leads to the ‘the inward disposition associated with poverty, by inward rebellion against the rich, against society, the government, etc.’ and he concludes the addition to S 244 with the important observation that:

No one can assert a right against nature, but within the conditions of society hardship at once assumes the form of a wrong inflicted on this or that class. The important question of how poverty can be remedied is one which agitates and torments modern societies especially. [26]

Although Hegel is able to suggest public works and colonisation as ways of aiding or sloughing off an excess population of hungry people, these can be seen as palliatives rather than solutions. This is because poverty is not some accidental or contingent feature of the modern state as presented by Hegel, but is a necessary effect. As he remarks in his lectures of 1819-20: ‘the emergence of poverty is in general a consequence of civil society, and on the whole it arises necessarily out of it’ and he continues a little later:

In civil society it is not only natural distress against which the poor man has to struggle. The poor man is opposed not only by nature, a mere being, but also by my will. [..] Self-consciousness appears driven to the point where it no longer has any rights, where freedom has no existence. In this position, where the existence of freedom becomes something wholly contingent, inner indignation is necessary. Because the individual’s freedom has no existence, the recognition of universal freedom disappears. From this condition arises that shamelessness we find in the rabble. A rabble develops chiefly in a developed civil society.  [27]

It is clear that for Hegel, poverty, and the rabble mentality that develops, are necessary developments. This is why it is so disturbing. And since no real remedy can be found, it also constitutes a crisis for Hegel’s presentation of the rational state.[28] Arguably, the text that is most relevant here is in the section on morality, in the discussion of the ‘right of distress’.[29] Here Hegel indicates what is in effect a clash of rights – that of the destitutes’ right to life against the abstract right of society:

Life, as the totality of ends, has a right in opposition to abstract right […] If someone whose life is in danger were not allowed to take measures to save himself, he would be destined to forfeit all his rights; and since he would be deprived of life, his entire freedom would be negated. [30]

If the person who is deprived of bread is not allowed to steal, then he is deprived of everything – his life and thus his right to have rights. The existence of this poverty, and of the ‘right of distress’ implies a fundamental clash of rights at the heart of society, one that does not admit of an obvious resolution: ‘in the face of this loss of right, right as such disappears’. [31] To deny the poor man his right to a decent life is to stigmatise him as not having the right to have rights, to bare life below ‘a certain standard of living’. We can link this observation to the problem of the poor: a class of people sinking below the level of a decent life through no fault of their own. Here we have not a minor problem that can be easily reformed out of existence, but something basic in the kind of society that Hegel is outlining: the fundamental opposition, or contradiction between a society that in accumulating wealth tends to create a class of the dispossessed and the rights of those peoples to a life that recognises them not as rabble but as full and equal citizens. The step from this to Marx’s conception of the proletariat is not hard to take, as Frank Ruda has recently pointed out.[32]

Sybil of Cumae -Michaelangelo

Sybil of Cumae -Michaelangelo

The point here is not to argue that Rorty failed by not taking this kind of argument to heart and then drawing appropriately radical conclusions. Rorty, of course, might have read the passage, not as an awful warning of the end times of bourgeois order, but as an argument for more state spending on welfare programmes, as others have. [33] But even if one takes that line, it is clear that the kinds of pressures on bourgeois society described by Hegel as endemic to that kind of system do not get serious attention by Rorty. It is not as if the problem of inequality and poverty has gone away since the publication of the Elements of the Philosophy of Right. And although the issue of inequality and dispossession have become more acute since 2008 they were present in the America of Reagan and Clinton. Rorty, of course, is aware of this, and he devotes some eloquent pages in Achieving Our Country to this very point.[34]  Rorty comments on the growing gap between rich and poor, but characterises it mainly in terms of the growth of selfishness, and the tendency of the lucky post war generation to entrench themselves at the expense of any genuine social mobility for generations that follow them. What he does not do is ask any very searching questions about the causes of this attitude of ‘selfishness’.

The Elements of the Philosophy of Right surely points towards something problematic about the ethos generated by a market society in which the state’s only role is restricted to preventing harm, and where individuals pursue ‘experiments in living’ in the manner described by JS Mill. Hegel’s conception of ethos and ‘ethical substance’ involves  an orientation toward the common good that transcends the getting and spending by individuals in civil society. While the modern state is conceived as promoting individual, subjective freedom, that state is also more than the aggregation of individual wills and more than the external regulative agency which prevents harm to individuals and alleviates suffering. For Hegel, the individual achieves a kind of self-actualisation through promoting a common good:

The state is the actuality of concrete freedom. But concrete freedom requires that personal individuality and its particular interests should reach their full development and gain recognition of their right for itself (within the system of the family and of civil society), and also that they should, on the one hand, pass over of their own accord into the interest of the universal, and on the other, knowingly and willingly acknowledge this universal interest even as their own substantial spirit, and actively pursue it as their ultimate end.[35]

This implies a consideration of freedom and ethos that goes beyond the ‘liberal ironist’ version of freedom in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. One could still counter this with the thought that Rorty’s invocation of the pride in America is exactly the kind of commitment to a universal that Hegel seems to think true freedom in the rational state entails: after all, Hegel clearly values patriotism on the part of the citizen as an orientation to the common good of the community. [36] But as Rorty himself observes selfishness and inequality growing in the USA of the 1990s it seems as if something might be seriously amiss with the citizens’ patriotism or devotion to the common good.[37]

A society which has no ‘Hegelian’ conception of the common good embedded in its ‘ethical substance’ will find it increasingly difficult to motivate people to help the less well off despite exhortations to generosity, the better angels of our nature and the classics of American literature. Invoking patriotism may prove futile, if that patriotism is fixated on a romantic narrative of great men and stirring speeches, rather than the unglamorous business of expressing social solidarity in everyday life, which is surely closer to Hegel’s real conception of the duties of the patriotic citizen. This ethos is rather difficult to encourage in a highly competitive and individualist society, in which private goods are emphasised at the expense of a broader conception of a public realm and a common good.[38]

Richard Rorty

Richard Rorty

The growing selfishness and inequality that Rorty perceives in American society in Achieving Our Country can be grasped through a patient mapping of the actual changes in the economy and society.[39]  They can be viewed as a result of the erosion of the ethical life, or ethical substance (Sittlichkeit) that Hegel insists is essential to avoid atomism:

According to the principle of atomicity, each cares merely for himself, and does not concern himself about anything in common […] This principle gives such a person over to contingency. Our standpoint of reflection, this spirit of atomicity, this spirit of finding your honour in your individuality and not in what is common – this is destructive.[40]

Unlike Hegel and Marx, Rorty does not see growing inequality and poverty as a systemic problem. For the Rorty of the 1990s in particular, markets are here to stay, and the liberal state’s role is to optimise ‘the balance between leaving people’s private lives alone and preventing suffering’. I want to suggest here that the larger problem with his approach is not that he takes a reformist rather than radical interpretation of these issues, but that he takes no kind of interest in them at all, except as surface phenomena. He presents Hegel as ‘historicist’, but then evinces no interest in what Hegel has to say about the inner working and contradictions of the developing, historical phenomenon that is capitalist modernity. This matches his lack of interest in those features of western modernity that make it historical, and dynamic, and which did not experience an End of History in 1989. Rorty emphasises the selfishness he sees behind the growing gap between rich and poor, and his prescription is for those people who want to do something against this to return to the leftist campaigning traditions of the post war, pre Vietnam era, and if they are intellectuals, to put all theorising into the deep freeze. From this point of view, theory is unnecessary. Hence he is left making abstract claims about that society, something one might have expected a student of Hegel to avoid.

Hegel at the lectern

Hegel at the lectern

After the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 and the subsequent ‘war on terror’ Richard Rorty’s vision of America darkened:

Still, I cannot help thinking that democratic institutions, in my country at least, have become pretty fragile. I am half (though only half) persuaded by the claim Chalmers Johnson makes in The Sorrows of Empire that ‘the United States is probably lost to militarism.’ Johnson produces a lot of evidence to show that the ‘iron triangle’ (the defense contractors, the Pentagon, and the armed services committees of Congress) has already acquired so much power that the best an American president can do is to negotiate with the Pentagon, rather than to give it orders. The military and the security agencies are not yet as powerful in the EU countries as they have become in the US, but they may suddenly see the chance, and the need, to seize powers they had not previously claimed – powers that will allow them to become the de facto rulers of their countries. Any such efforts would be cheered on by the military-industrial complex in Washington.  [41]

This seems quite a long way from the USA or the west, as presented in Rorty’s earlier, more optimistic moments. It almost seems as if by this point Rorty’s faith in America has been dampened. He notes that the democratic institutions of the state have been weakened, and links this to the ‘security state’ developing after the 2001 attacks. Again, Hegel might have been a help to Rorty, for perhaps one last insight. For Elements of the Philosophy of Right closes not with the state as peaceful, self-contained entity but with war, in which the modern state confronts an external Other:

In existence this negative relation of the state to itself thus appears as the relation of another to another, as if the negative were something external. The existence of this negative relation therefore assumes the shape of an event, of an involvement with contingent occurrences coming from without. Nevertheless, this negative relation is the state’s own highest moment – its actual infinity as the ideality of everything finite within it. It is that aspect whereby the substance, as the state’s absolute power over everything individual and particular, over life, property, and the latter’s, and over the wider circles within it, gives the nullity of such things its existence and makes it present to the consciousness.  [42]

The internal affairs of the state cannot be divorced from its fate as a state among states, and from its external relations generally: they are mutually conditioning. The kind of state discussed by Hegel in the Elements of the Philosophy of Right is something quite other than a stable and reformist liberal democracy, at peace with itself and hard at work abolishing the avoidable suffering of inequality and exclusion. It has its internal contradictions: the accumulation of wealth alongside the immiseration of the poor, the creation of a rich and a poor rabble, the tendency of a capitalist order to erode the very ethical life on which social solidarity must depend. And it has the necessary confrontation with the contingencies presented by an external other – war, in the shape of antagonists whether in the form of rival states or, we might add, terrorist organisations. Rorty noted the way in which the internal affairs of the state reflect its the international relations (acts of terror from abroad helping to militarise and generalize a ‘security state’ within). But the internal problems (atomicity, inequality etc) themselves reflect the place of the state in the dynamic World Market. And Hegel’s sense of history includes the idea that that state is subject to change and decline at the ‘world historical’ level:

The particular history of a world historical nation contains, on the one hand, the development of its principle from its latent childhood phase until it blossoms out in free ethical self consciousness and makes its mark in universal history, and on the other, the period of its decline and fall – for these denote the emergence within it of a higher principle which is simply the negative of its own. This signifies the transition to the higher principle and hence the transition of world history to another nation.  [43]

A closer reading of Hegel’s Elements of the Philosophy of Right might have assisted Rorty to a more developed and informed sense of the meaning of ‘historicism’, as well as to the chances of achieving a just society under the kind of economic and political system Rorty was in during the 1990s and 2000s. Whether it would have prepared him, or us, from what followed is another matter.

Hegel Colour


[1]T. Rockmore: ‘Rorty, Hegel and Rorty’s Hegel’ in Pragmatism Today, at http://www.pragmatismtoday.eu/summer2011/Rockmore.pdf   (Accessed 21/05/14)
[2]“Trotsky and the Wild Orchids” in Richard Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope, p 11.
[3]Rorty, R ‘Dewey Between Hegel and Darwin’, in Truth and Progress, p 302.
[4]Ibid., pp 302-303.
[5]Ibid., p 305.
[6]Wood, AW, ‘Editor’s Introduction’ to Elements of the Philosophy of Right, xi.
[7]Hegel, GWF, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, S 151, p 195
[8]See Mill JS, On Liberty, passim, but especially chapter 3: ‘On Liberty as a Constituent Part of Well Being’. Mill stresses the importance of the freedom of the individual as against the tyranny of majorities and customs.
[9] See, for instance, Elements of the Philosophy of Right SS 243-4, p 266, where Hegel makes it clear that accumulation of wealth and the growth of poverty are necessarily linked.
[10]Rorty was explicitly unwilling to read Marx, for instance. See Rorty R, ‘A Spectre is Haunting the Intellectuals: Derrida on Marx’ in Philosophy and Social Hope, p 211.
[11]Rorty, R Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, P XV
[12] ibid., XVI
[13] ibid., P63
[14] Despite, as he admits, not having read much of him: ‘There is a lot of Marx I have not read and am not ambitious to read.’ (‘A Spectre is Haunting the Intellectuals: Derrida on Marx’ in Philosophy and Social Hope, P 211.)
[15] Ibid., P 211.
[16] Rorty, R: Achieving Our Country, pp 106-7.
[17] Ibid., pp 91-2.
[18] Hegel, GWF, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, translated by H.B. Nisbet, edited by Allen W. Wood, Cambridge 1991, p 21.
[19] Ibid., P 23.
[20] But Tom Rockmore remarks that ‘Hegel’s interest, on the contrary, lies in calling attention to the historical element in conceptual claims, which depend on the historical moment in which they occur. If Hegel is right, we cannot go beyond the historical moment in which we are always situated.’ Rockmore T, op. cit. (unpaginated)
[21] Slavoj Žižek makes this point in his discussion of Robert Pippin’s view of Hegel. See Žižek, S, Absolute Recoil, Verso, P. 41
[22] Fukuyama’s original essay ‘The End of History?’ was published in The National Interest in 1989, and later expanded in the book The End of History and the Last Man (1992)
[23]See, in particular, Frank Ruda’s work on the subject, which informs much of what I have to say on the topic: Ruda, F Hegel’s Rabble, passim, as well as Žižek’s discussion in Absolute Recoil – pp 42-45.
[24] See section 243 of the Elements of the Philosophy of Right, p 266.
[25] Ibid., Section 244, p 266.
[26] Ibid., S. 244.
[27] Cited in Elements of the Philosophy of Right, notes. P 453.
[28] According to Frank Ruda, it makes the irruption into Hegel’s presentation of the state of a ‘peculiar logic of politics’, a problem Hegel can see but not resolve or contain. See Ruda, op. cit., p 4 and also pp 167-168.
[29] The connection between Hegel’s remarks on poverty and the rabble and the problem of the ‘right of necessity’ (or ‘distress’) is remarked on by Allen Wood in Hegel’s Ethical Theory pp 250-255, and by RR Williams pp 242-249; The connection is also made by Costas Douzinas, in his ‘Right to Revolution?’ a contribution to the Hegel conference at Birkbeck, May 10-12 2013 (also cited by Slavoj Žižek, op. cit., p. 42.]
[30] Hegel GWF, Elements of the Philosophy of Right S 127, p 155, addition.
[31] Hegel GWF, Vorlesungen uber Rechtsphilosophie 17, S63 as cited in Williams RR, p 249.
[32] See Ruda op. cit., passim but expecially ‘Coda,’ pp 169-179
[33] For instance Kotkavirta J: ‘Happiness and Welfare in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’ in Right, Morality, Ethical Life: Studies in GWF Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. SoPhi 1997. For a more historically informed and sophisticated consideration –and rejection – of claims that Hegel was some kind of liberal see Losurdo, D: Hegel and the Freedom of Moderns, passim, but especially chapter 4, pp 71-96
[34] See for instance Rorty R: Achieving Our Country, pp 83-90.
[35] Elements of the Philosophy of Right S 280, p 282
[36] See Elements of the Philosophy of Right, S 268
[37] Why this might be so was captured quite well in GA Cohen’s critique of Rawl’s ‘Difference Principle’ – the idea that an unequal society can be justified if its higher productivity leads to the distribution of wealth to its poorest people that would be greater than would be obtained in a fully egalitarian one. For Rawls presentation of the Difference Principle see A Theory of Justice; for Cohen’s criticisms of it see: If You’re An Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich? Harvard 2000.
[38] See Hegel’s remarks in Elements of the Philosophy of Right S 268, pp 288-289, where he explicitly rejects the idea of the extraordinary deed in favour of the habitual and normal volitions of the ordinary person.
[39] See, for example, Streeck W, Buying Time: the Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism, Verso 2014.
[40] Vorlesungen uber Rechtsphilosophie 17 142-143, cited in Elements of the Philosophy of Right, p 455.
[41] Rorty, R: ‘Post Democracy’ in The London Review of Books, pp 10-11, 1st April 2004. Website archive accessed 23/11/14
[42] Elements of the Philosophy of Right, S323, p 360.
[43] Ibid., S 347, P 374.


Cohen, GA If You’re An Egalitarian, How Come Your’re So Rich? Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press 2000

Hegel GWF Elements of the Philosophy of Right translated by H.B. Nisbet, edited by Allen W. Wood, Cambridge , Cambridge University Press 1991

Kokavirta K (ed) Right, Morality, Ethical Life: Studies in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right Jyväskylä: Jyväskylä University Printing House 1997

Losurdo D: Hegel and the Freedom of Moderns Durham and London: Duke University Press 2004

Rawls J A Theory of Justice Oxford: Oxford University Press 1971, rev ed. 1999

Rockmore T: Website: http://www.pragmatismtoday.eu/summer2011/Rockmore.pdf (Accessed 21/05/14)

Rorty, R:
Contingency, Irony and Solidarity Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1989
Essays on Heideggger and Others Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1991
Truth and Progress Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1998
Philosophy and Social Hope London: Penguin Books 1998
Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1998
– ‘Post Democracy’ in The London Review of Books, pp 10-11, 1st April 2004
Ruda, F: Hegel’s Rabble: An Investigation Into Hegel’s Philosophy of Right London: Bloomsbury 2011

Streeck W Buying Time: the Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism London and New York: Verso 2014

Williams RR: Hegel’s Ethics of Recognition Berkeley and Los Angeles: California: University of California Press 1997

Wallace RM Hegel’s Philosophy of Reality, Freedom and God Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2005

Wood AW Hegel’s Ethical Thought Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1990

Žižek S Absolute Recoil: Towards a New Foundation of Dialectical Materialism London and New York: Verso 2014

About Chris Horner

teaches, studies and writes about philosophy and many other things. He is the co-uthor (with Emrys Westacott) of the CUP book 'Thinking Through Philosophy'. He has studied at the University of Sheffield, UEA, Goldsmiths and Roehampton University and has a PhD, the subject of which was Hannah Arendt and Kant's theory of reflective judgment. He has a strong interest in politics, history, literature, the visual arts and music.
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