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Q&A With Thomas A. Lewis: 'He Was Already Turned On His Side'
Thomas (Tal) A. Lewis has been Assistant Professor of Christian Studies at Harvard Divinity School since 2003. His book Freedom and Tradition in Hegel: Reconsidering Anthropology, Ethics, and Religion was published in 2005 by University of Notre Dame Press. Wendy McDowell spoke with Lewis about his interests in Hegel and Hegel's ideas on tradition and development as they relate to concepts of freedom.
What do you mean by philosophical anthropology, and why is it important to your study of Hegel?
A: In many contemporary discussions of ethics, people talk about theories of human beings, or theories of the self. For me, the language of philosophical anthropology—and specifically the term anthropology—is about a way to refer as broadly as I can to conceptions of what we think human beings are. What, for instance, are the roles of feelings, of cognition, of self-consciousness, the body and the will? The phrase "theories of the self" has specific connotations and seems too specific. So I use anthropology in a more etymologically literal sense, as a theory of what human beings are—which is very different from the contemporary discipline of anthropology.
The term is important in my work, because it is a place where my interests in contemporary ethical discussions and the scholarship on Hegel converge in interesting ways. Much recent work in ethics has focused on virtue and human flourishing rather than simply on deontology and accounts of duty (often inspired by Kant). This recent theory has drawn attention to how we understand what human beings are and what the good is for human beings, often building on conceptions that trace back to Aristotle.
That's one of the reasons my attention has been drawn to the centrality of anthropology in Hegel. Within Hegel scholarship, there is, on the one hand, an acknowledgment that Hegel's anthropology is extremely important, that his whole notion of spirit is very much about what human beings are. On the other hand, some of the most explicit treatments of anthropology, particularly the discussion of subjective spirit from his Encyclopaedia, have hardly been talked about at all in the secondary scholarship. Some of that has to do with what materials have been available. My book draws on lectures first published in 1994 that expand upon that section of Hegel's system and give us a much more concrete account of what he thinks human beings are. One of the things that is interesting about Hegel's lectures is that he's more accessible there. His thinking becomes much more concrete, whereas he wrote the Encyclopaedia in a very condensed format meant to be commented upon in lectures.
You argue that the lectures that became available in 1994 make a difference in reading Hegel with regard to the practical versus the theoretical.
Right. When people think of Hegel, and especially Hegel compared with Marx, Hegel is seen as the one who privileges theory and doesn't really care about practice. It's all about ideas and "idealism" in some narrow sense. But one of the things that I've always found fascinating about Hegel is the way in which he brings together a concern with theoretical reflection and cognition with a deep and enduring concern for institutions, ethical practices, and ways of life. One of the things that I found particularly helpful about the lectures, the Vorlesungen über die Philosophie des Geistes, is the way in which they bring out that dynamic relationship much more clearly—the way in which our way of life informs our thinking and reflection, and vice versa. So though Hegel is often juxtaposed with Marx—and Marx is seen as standing Hegel on his head—part of what I'm saying in the book is that Hegel's original view was actually much more complicated than that. He was already on his side, so to speak.
Can you explain how Hegel understands the interaction between thought and reflection?
In the fourth chapter, I focus on the way he understands that interplay. He suggests we have a kind of impulse, say an insight or an intuition about freedom, and that we try to actualize that impulse in institutions and ways of being. Then, as a result of that actualization, we often revise what we originally thought. The result is a virtuous circle in which an impulse is acted upon, revised, and acted upon again—with this process continuing indefinitely.
On the one hand, you wanted to take a more systematic approach than some scholars have taken around these topics. At the same time, you take a thematic approach in concentrating on freedom, since that brings out some of your concerns with Hegel. Why is each of those methods important for your study?
Many of the questions that led me to Hegel are contemporary questions: questions about the nature of freedom, the role of community in making us who we are, and so forth. Hegel seemed to be such an important source for so many of the people whose ideas I found helpful on these issues. So I was initially led to Hegel because I was thinking about what he can teach us that's relevant today. However, some people who take that approach, whether to Hegel or any other figure, can end up playing rather fast and loose with the material. The more time I spent with Hegel, the more rewarding I found it to be, and the more I felt that with someone who is this insightful, it was worth trying to see how he put it all together. Why did he think it needed to be systematically done? So even though I continued to be concerned about what Hegel means for today, I came to think that if you dive in only a little bit, you're not going to get nearly as much out of Hegel for contemporary purposes as you would through immersing yourself in the material, and in Hegel's time period, at a much deeper level.
Your choice of the thematic concern of freedom was not only because it was important to you, but also because there is a lot of it in Hegel's work.
It's not arbitrary or a stretch. Part of the reason that Hegel is so interesting today is that he stands at a point in Western intellectual and social history where these questions about freedom are so prominent. Digesting, or coming to terms, with the French Revolution and its consequences, and what that meant for what modern society should look like, is absolutely central to Hegel's project. And so the kinds of questions about freedom and tradition, what it is that we inherit as well as what capacities we have for critiquing that inheritance, are Hegel's own concerns, just as those concerns are very much with us today.
You note that his was also a time that there were more challenges to all kinds of authority than ever before, including religious authority.
The social mores were changing at that time in a way that was very profound. Faith was being challenged by the Enlightenment and the beginning of biblical criticism. Napoleon swept back and forth across Germany. So at every level, you have challenges to authority.
You note that scholars have tended to read Hegel in one of two different ways. Either scholars read him as supporting the status quo, or they try to redeem certain parts of him and propose a more liberal Hegel. But you come down someplace else beyond either of these readings.
On one hand, I am definitely sympathetic to those who are trying to dispel the myth of Hegel as the Prussian reactionary. I see Hegel as presenting much deeper challenges to the status quo than he's often seen as presenting. So I agree with those scholars, but at the same time, part of what I do is to note the places where I don't think that Hegel has gone nearly far enough. There are places where his own anthropology should lead him to much more substantially challenge various kinds of stratification within society. Among these areas are gender, issues of class, and other kinds of social differentiation that Hegel raises questions about, but he doesn't go far enough on them. So I argue for a Hegelian critique of Hegel on some of these concrete issues.
A lot of your study has to do with Hegel's ideas of tradition versus the development that each human being goes through that may allow him or her to challenge tradition.
Hegel's anthropology sets out a three-stage trajectory of development that is central to what it means to be a human being. The first stage is a process of habituation, during which we largely uncritically and unconsciously take on the norms and patterns of our society. Hegel uses this for everything from standing upright to how one dresses when one goes to church. I always think of it in terms of the issue of personal space, like when you're on a bus in a foreign country and you suddenly realize that other people stand much closer than what you're used to. So that first level or stage of habituation involves those kinds of learned behaviors that we take for granted. We're usually not conscious of them unless they're challenged.
The next stage is about our ability to call into question what we took on unconsciously. This includes a critical questioning of the first stage, so we ask, "Why do I have to dress up in order to go to church? Why do I have to behave in this way rather than this other way?" Hegel doesn't think that we can question all of these habits at once, but he thinks this capacity to question is important, because one of the key points Hegel makes with regard to habituation is that it is both free and un-free. Habit frees us from being overwhelmed by every physical sensation around us, like the feel of a chair, the sense of your clothing against your skin. So we are able to ride a bicycle and think at the same time. But it's un-free precisely because it's mechanical, it's not something that we consciously choose. In the second level, we have the ability to step back from our habits and reflect upon them, which is the basis for our freedom from them.
The third level is the level at which Hegel thinks it is—ideally—possible to find the kinds of habits that one has to be rational and justifiable, that is, not just arbitrary. When this is possible, we realize that there is meaning and sense in those habits that we were taught as children or that we acquired over time. So we will say, "There was a good reason for doing things that way," and we will continue to do what we did before, but with a very different consciousness about it. For Hegel, that's crucial to freedom. But it's only possible in societies with certain kinds of habits. If we're in a situation where our action is shaped by habits or compulsions that we don't find justifiable, we're in a profound sense un-free. We need to come to a point where we can reconcile ourselves to the habits that we actually have as offering us the capacity for self-actualization and flourishing.
With regard to the broader issue of tradition and modernity, or tradition and freedom, what I try to emphasize is the way in which I think Hegel wants to reconcile those. He wants to say that inheriting traditions is absolutely essential, since we only develop critical capacities on the basis of having appropriated some traditions uncritically. Part of what that means, for instance, is that education involves developing language skills, some of which happens through rote memorization and learning how grammar works. It's not a matter of making it up for yourself. It's only on the basis of doing that foundational work that we can then come to innovate in the language. If one thinks about great writers who expand the language and play with its norms, they only do that because they know the norms and the rules very well. So he addresses that kind of relationship writ large, where we need certain basic tools in order to overcome them.
In terms of the title of my book, freedom and tradition, it's precisely about how Hegel develops a more expansive conception of freedom that gives an essential role to tradition.
What about religious traditions and habits?
One of the things that I find so fascinating about Hegel's conception of religion is just how expansive it is. Religion is dealt with as a separate sphere in some of his system, and yet he's also very explicit that the kinds of traditions, attitudes toward others, and attitudes toward the absolute that are passed on by religious traditions play a fundamental role in various social and political institutions. That is, what we think about human freedom is largely shaped by our religious inheritance, and that, then, plays a role in whether we find social arrangements just or unjust. One could think about debates about slavery, for instance, and the role of religious beliefs in the abolitionist movement. Hegel sees that kind of political impact happening in his time. He thinks that churches and religious institutions in general play an absolutely central role in inculcating the kinds of habits and ways of life that make up our social and political practices.
In terms of Hegel's idea of the three stages of development, is it possible to reach that third stage if the prevailing order you're living in is not rational? How does Hegel deal with that question?
I think he deals with it remarkably little. One understandable reason why he deals with it so little is that he thinks if our institutions aren't good enough to provide us with a critical perspective and critical skills, then we most likely won't even have the moment where we say, "I look around me, and this seems very bad." In order to get to that critical moment to begin with, you had to have at least a decent education. For instance, it's only because we were instilled with a certain sense of democratic participation that we might be more alarmed when we see democracy eroding.
At the same time, I don't think he does enough to think about what we should do when we experience those kinds of conflicts, whether it feels like we are going backwards and the political institutions are becoming less free, or we are just dealing with aspects of society that we find inadequate even if we're standing still. I think he does give us some tools to identify what we need, what I identify in one chapter as "mid-level norms" that give us a sense of what requirements freedom would need to satisfy. These mid-level norms describe what we would need to be able to instill habits that we could find rational and justifiable. But in the epilogue, I talk briefly about a tragic side to this vision. Habits don't change easily, and we can often see situations where we've been deeply shaped by habits and attitudes that we find objectionable as we reflect on them. One thinks about the ways in which various forms of discrimination are deep within people's psyches. We find them objectionable, and yet finding them so doesn't make them instantly go away. There's an internal division that can be created between how we think we should think about these things and how we may respond in a given situation. Hegel's distinction between habit and reflection gives us language for talking about that, and suggests that this means it's important to shape our schools well, but he also says that's going to be hard. There aren't easy solutions because those parts of our characters can sometimes be deeply formed. He sets the bar for freedom extremely high, and in that sense, there may be ways or areas in which we're just not going to be able to be free.
For me, personally, one of the reasons that I don't find Hegel's vision so depressing is that it still gives us a sense of the direction in which to aim. Even though it has a tragic side, it doesn't need to make us complacent or pacify us.
Hegel had some deeply formed prejudices of his own, which you point out. You argue that Hegel's hierarchical scheme of development holds out the "higher" development for certain individuals and groups and not others.
Hegel sets that skeletal structure out in a fairly abstract way, and it seems to apply to all human beings. What's striking in some of his political discussions, then, is the way in which various groups are excluded from the higher levels of development. He excludes women, in particular, but also, he includes only a smaller subset of the population that's involved in jobs and activities where Hegel thinks they really achieve a high level of freedom. Not all work does it. Hegel thinks it needs to be work that directly concerns the good of the whole society. These are largely officials of the state who are concerned with the functioning of the state as a whole, and for Hegel, that also includes professors and teachers, who are also state employees and part of that project.
That's one place where Hegel shows he does have a deep and genuine concern with practice, because he thinks that what you spend your time doing all day shapes your attitude and mentality and concerns. If you are in a job that's principally focused on increasing the bottom line of your own company, Hegel doesn't think that schools your mind and your intuitions to be concerned about the good of the society as a whole.
That sounds more like Marx.
Yes, but whereas Marx says that what we need is a society where people have the opportunity for different kinds of work, so that they have full development for themselves, Hegel, at times, seems to want to say, "well, unfortunately not everyone can do the kind of work that reaps these kinds of rewards." This is one of the places where he builds in a real societal hierarchy that I see as at odds with his anthropology.
Isn't it more complex than simply what people do for a living? For instance, I immediately think about African American history, where churches provided a space for reflective and other kinds of work no matter what people were forced to do for work during the week.
Yes. I think it is very complicated. On the one hand, I think Hegel makes a good case for policies like access to education. On the other hand, he can also be seen as saying, if you don't have that access, then you're excluded from this kind of development. That attitude can fail to recognize situations like the ones you're talking about, where other institutions provide the space for that development.
I was interested in the way that you read Hegel against himself at times. How common is that methodology in the field?
Part of my motivation for doing that was that I wanted to take Hegel's own systematic claims seriously. I think one response when one finds things one doesn't like in Hegel is to just ignore them and say, "I'll pick and choose." A great deal of excellent work on Hegel has done that, I don't mean to disparage it, but I wanted to get enough into Hegel to see whether Hegel himself offers reasons for rejecting some of what I find problematic in his thought. This way of reading Hegel is done, but probably less so than the picking and choosing—or just railing against Hegel. There's plenty of that!
Part of my motivation was trying to figure out this thinker in whom I find so much that is so powerful, while finding other aspects of his thought so objectionable. I was trying to wrestle with that in a way that was intellectually honest for me.
What are the things that are powerful for you in Hegel? Why study Hegel as opposed to another thinker?
For many of the reasons we've already talked about, particularly the concerns about freedom and the role of community in making us who we are. As an undergraduate and during the early part of graduate school, I was very influenced by some of the communitarian discussions, and yet I also felt that they didn't do nearly enough for individual freedom. I felt that Hegel's way of reconciling or developing a conception of freedom that incorporated a role for tradition did a much better job of taking traditions and communities seriously, and yet not falling into a repressive model. That was one of the key factors. The dialectical and dynamic interrelationship between theory and practice was another of the other things that drove my interest in Hegel from early on. Hegel is also a particularly interesting figure because he is wrestling with so many of the problems that have come to define our era, that are often associated with modernity. Even in what some would see as a postmodern age, I think many of those social questions are still basic for us, including questions about how rational our social order can be and what a community needs to share to function well politically. These are precisely the questions that were at the forefront for Hegel and his generation and have continued to be for much of modern Western society. Discussions about identity, for instance, are very much about belonging and what makes us who we are.
Yet you do say that Hegel is limited in his thinking about religious traditions because of his time and place, thinking mostly in terms of German Lutheranism.
Hegel's claims about the culmination of history are some of the most significant challenges to appropriating Hegel today. The issue of how to deal with that limited view is very significant, though I find it less of a problem to discard that part of Hegel than a lot of people do. I think that what drives Hegel doesn't need to lead him to this particular view of history. A lot of the issues that I focused on here, the anthropology and the account of freedom, don't need to develop in a single line. There's a development, and that development is going to continue.
Meaning that development can also take place in a pluralistic society?
One of the things that will come out more in my next work on Hegel is the way that Hegel is already dealing with certain kinds of pluralism, to a very different degree than today, but competing notions of tradition, or competing traditions, are already an issue in his time period. Part of that is religious—Protestant-Catholic conflicts, for instance—but another part is the social upheaval that was taking place during Hegel's time. Germany was not a country. There were various lands that were loosely grouped as part of the Holy Roman Empire at one point, but were constantly being repartitioned with Napoleon's actions. Much of the struggle then had to do with competing visions. Are you going to have an absolutist monarchy, or are you going to have more democratic or constitutional systems? So it wasn't as if tradition was some monolithic entity to be inherited in that time period, either. Hegel was already dealing with development taking place in a pluralistic society, and I think that aspect of his thought can be built upon.
You include that well-known quote that "to cite Hegel is to misunderstand him," and I know that some people may read this who have never read Hegel, and only know him in terms of how he's been used, or misused, by others. What would you say to them?
Hegel gets misread very often and very easily. One of the things about Hegel that's so fascinating is that he tries to weave together so many intellectual traditions that came before him. The metaphor I think of for Hegel is a kind of tapestry that tries to weave together Enlightenment as well as anti-Enlightenment figures, early Christians and Reformers, as well as more classical ideas from Aristotle and Plato. It's what makes Hegel very exciting, to see how he thinks these strands can all be brought together. But it means that it's very easy to read one paragraph, or even much more than a paragraph, which only amounts to one or two of these strands, and that on its own gives a very different picture than you get if you concentrate on how he wants to weave all of those things together.
His effort to try to bond different ideas means that so much is in flux, and sometimes all you can really say is, "Hegel says it seems that . . . ," because often what he says is undermined or qualified in the next stage of his thought. Often his rhetorical strategy with regard to other thinkers is, "What you're saying is absolutely right. But what that really means is . . . x, y, and z." So if you quote him saying, "that's absolutely right," then you only get a partial picture. Saying "to cite Hegel is to misinterpret him" means that if you take a piece out of his system, you can't really see what's going on. It's like if you take a river and you try to take one piece of water out of the middle of it. It doesn't have the same significance or meaning as it does as part of the river as a whole.
Hegel is one of those people whom so many people feel that they have to deal with, and who gets read in diametrically opposed ways, whether it's as the antithesis to postmodernism or the key figure in the beginning of postmodernism. It's frustrating in some ways, certainly, if you think about this person whose writing is almost 200 years old and yet there is not a basic agreement regarding what his project is about, much less the details. That level of disagreement is one of the things that's most challenging about reading Hegel, but it also makes it exciting to keep working on him.
Your field is "philosophy of religion," but of course, Hegel has been claimed by religion scholars and by philosophy scholars, and they've sometimes battled over who should be able to claim him. What do you think about that history?
I want to read Hegel from both sides of that line. People approach Hegel with very different sets of concerns and interests, some of them more theological and some of them not very theological at all. That is one of the ways that the interpretations of Hegel divide, though it's not necessarily the decisive one, because you have huge differences on either side of that. One of the things I find interesting about Hegel, particularly as someone who thinks about religion and these other philosophical and political issues, is that he's writing at a time when those fields haven't diverged to the extent that they have today. That connection, to me, is part of what is rich about his work. Part of what I seek to do in this book, and certainly in my next work on Hegel, is to take seriously that this is Hegel's account of what he thinks Christianity is. It's not simply a matter of explaining it away, or of undermining it by saying, "its really about these kinds of philosophical issues and not theological issues." For Hegel, the philosophical is a kind of validation of Christianity, not to its detriment but to its credit.
At the same time, in thinking about his account of the relationship between religion and philosophy, he does set up a hierarchy where philosophy achieves things that religion does not. That doesn't make religion in any way superfluous or obsolete, though he has been read in that way. I think that's a mistake and doesn't take Hegel's own project seriously enough.
However, a lot of great work is being done by philosophers on Hegel today who aren't necessarily as concerned with his religious thought, and I want to take that work into account, as well, to inform my reading and interpretation of his philosophy of religion.
Who are some of the other thinkers who use Hegel as a source that have been important to you?
Alasdair Macintyre is a particularly interesting figure because he spent a lot of time on Hegel early on and edited an important collection of essays on Hegel. Once he made his own turn to After Virtue, Hegel almost completely disappears from his discussion in a way that I think is both misleading and interesting. Much of Macintyre's criticism of modernity is already in Hegel, but what Hegel represents is an alternative conception of modernity, an alternative way of dealing with precisely the problems that Macintyre is worried about. Macintyre seems to say, "well, modernity fails, so let's return to figures like Aristotle and Aquinas," whereas Hegel says, "yes, this version of modernity is bound to fail, but there are other possibilities within modernity itself." I don't think Macintyre takes those other possibilities on in his work, and they're worth exploring.
Some of the other people whose work initially got me interested in Hegel were Charles Taylor and figures like him who have been engaged in the discussions around communitarianism. They tend to have Hegel in the background. There's also the wonderful line from Foucault to the effect that, as much as one tries to escape Hegel, typically one finds him standing there waiting at the end of the journey. I find that emblematic of Hegel's influence. More generally, Hegel is background for Marxism, and for existentialism, particularly through Kierkegaard.
He has certainly been one of the most influential figures for the last 200 years of philosophy and philosophy of religion in the West.
Who are some of the other Hegel scholars important to your discussion?
The past 25 or 30 years have seen a renaissance of interest in Hegel. Allen Wood, Charles Taylor, and Shlomo Avineri have been three who've played a real role in undermining the "Hegel as a totalitarian" view. More recently, I think the work of Robert Pippin and Terry Pinkard has been very important in giving a more post-Kantian reading of Hegel, that is, seeing Hegel not as a return to a pre-Kantian vision, but as someone who takes Kant seriously and seeks to go beyond him. It is more post-metaphysical than a return to metaphysics. Fred Neuhouser's more recent book on Hegel's ethical and political thought is very good, and has opened up a lot of productive discussions. Hegel is difficult, and he's been easy to dismiss, as in, "well, we should read him but he's ultimately a conservative totalitarian, so it's not worth getting into him." It's becoming more obvious what you miss if you do that.
So how do you respond at a dinner party when you tell someone you're studying Hegel and they say, "Oh, Hegel, he's that conservative totalitarian!"
I think it's important not to soft-pedal the problematic aspects of what Hegel does. At the same time, he's deeply concerned with modern issues about freedom, about education, that are not the least bit totalitarian. There are certainly plenty of things I disagree with, but it's precisely Hegel's effort to articulate a vision of a free society that I appreciate. One of the things I find so interesting about his articulation is that he doesn't think that freedom is simply everyone getting to do whatever they want, but rather it requires certain kinds of institutions that support it and the cultivation of certain habits and attitudes. I think this is something we are seeing the need for today, through the absence of it.
One of the things I find helpful in Charles Taylor's reading of Hegel is that he says, "Even if we don't always like Hegel's answers, he's asking some of the crucial questions for us." I think some of his answers are pretty good, but I also think that simply asking the right questions is absolutely vital.
There are also more specific replies as far as the totalitarian charge goes. He's often seen as glorifying the state. He thinks that government is very important, it's not a free market vision of everything. But his conception of the state includes not only the institutions of government, but also the broader patterns of behavior, attitudes toward elections, and other kinds of habits that are central to having a good, functioning state. A state is not just a set of laws. It involves the people, not just the laws.
One of the most interesting things I found in reading your book was to think of Hegel vis-à-vis the French Revolution, and how that relates to the charge of him being totalitarian.
Hegel was concerned with what he saw as the problems and failure of the French Revolution, including the Terror—the point when virtually any leader who began to stand out from others was guillotined. At the same time, he thought that the French Revolution was bringing about a new era of history and that it wasn't something to undo. It was important and fundamental to the society and world in which he lived.
Thinking of smaller anecdotes, it is interesting that throughout his life Hegel continued to toast Bastille Day. Doing that at a time of political repression, when powerful forces in Prussia were focused on strengthening the monarchy and going back to a more traditional and conservative vision, was a controversial thing to do. Within the specific dynamics of Prussia at that time, that kind of support for the Revolution shows that Hegel was much more allied with the reformers than with those he saw as the reactionaries or the nationalists. It was a rational vision of reform that he thought Napoleon had played a role in, and he saw that going forward.
He's often seen as a mouthpiece for the Prussian government at that time, but it's a much messier picture. The political picture was much more complicated than is often presented, and there were concerns about censorship. His students were being arrested as possible subversives. In fact, the ministry refused to appoint the person he wanted as a teaching assistant, because he was considered a political subversive. Hegel himself was worried about being arrested at some points, but was never actually arrested.
You note that Hegel is also important in terms of how we think about liberalism, a term which is very much up for grabs in contemporary discussions.
It's a complicated question, because that term gets used so differently by different people and in different contexts. The place where people tend to worry about whether Hegel is a liberal is in the discussions about whether one wants a constitutional, perhaps democratic, system of government versus one in which the monarchy plays a much more central role. That vision of liberalism also gets associated sometimes with free market liberalism, which can get associated with Republicans today. But the definitions of liberal and the way they function are very confusing in a lot of our contemporary discussions. Neoliberal economics are associated with Republicans and conservatives whereas being socially liberal is associated with Democrats. Liberalism seems very oddly dispersed, and there is an incoherence of political alliances.
How do I put Hegel into that? I think that Hegel is very concerned with many of the kinds of freedoms we associate with liberalism very broadly today, that is, concerns about autonomy and individual freedom. Whereas he's often thought of rejecting those, to the contrary they're central to his project. But Hegel is much more attentive than certain liberals have been to the kinds of institutions that are necessary to support that. If you care about that kind of autonomy and reflexivity, you don't just throw everybody out there to do their own thing. A society that supports and sustains autonomy and freedom needs institutions like schools that develop those capacities, it needs political systems that enable people to have a voice, it needs other ways in which autonomy can be expressed. He is thinking about the kinds of structures, whether familial, economic, or political, that are extremely important for that kind of freedom. That's very different from an "anything goes" vision, whether libertarian or otherwise.
That one can care about both freedom and the traditions that support freedom, and believe that not only are both important, but rather, they need each other, is helpful to our current struggles and discussions.
What about Hegel's views of women? You have a long discussion in your book about this.
His views are extremely problematic. Hegel largely limits women's roles to the family and largely excludes women from precisely the kinds of capacities for critical reflection that are central to his vision. It's one of the things I wrestle with, because it is where you see Hegel at his worst. It would be easy to say, well, he lived in different times and dismiss it for that reason. But at the time, there were a number of women who were rejecting traditional models of femininity and who wanted to participate in intellectual discussions, who were exhibiting other freedoms that Hegel thought were important for men—and Hegel thought it was terrible. So it wasn't simply a matter of there being no alternative visions, he saw the alternatives and he didn't like them. There's a passage from Seyla Benhabib in which she says that, with regard to women, Hegel saw the future and he didn't like it. The more you read of Hegel's life, the more you see of that. Again, it's something to be faced squarely, but then we can ask if we can take other things that are powerful in Hegel's work without that. I think we can. You can take a lot of Hegel's anthropology, the three stages or dimensions of development, without accepting his views on women. In fact, that anthropology helps us to argue against his view of women on "Hegelian" grounds.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on another book that also deals largely with Hegel. Whereas this one deals much more with questions of anthropology and particularly their impact on his ethical and political thought, the next book focuses more centrally on the philosophy of religion and tries to locate what Hegel is doing with religion within the broader context of late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century thinking about what religion is. Coming back to one of my earlier comments, Hegel is writing at a time when religion isn't necessarily a discreet category clearly separated from politics or morality, and I think that what can seem to us a messier vision is in some ways a much more helpful vision. It helps to conceptualize religion in a way that is very closely connected to politics, in that the kinds of religious attitudes that people are brought up with are going to deeply shape their political inclinations. At the same time, Hegel doesn't think that religion is a "conversation stopper," to use Richard Rorty's phrase. That is, it can also be critiqued, faith is not simply a given. In that way, his thinking about religion is directly relevant to the contemporary context. Those are some of the issues at the heart of my next project.
I initially came to Hegel because of thinking about these important issues of community, through people like Charles Taylor. So I started reading Hegel and got fascinated. But the more I think about where he's situated in time and place, and the kinds of developments going on then, political and otherwise, it points me to the way in which spheres of life have come to be divided. Today, religion is frequently seen as a fairly separate area, so that, at least pre-9/11, not many people in universities paid a great deal of attention to religion. I think going back to Hegel, and to others in his time period for whom religion was such a central topic, is extremely helpful and instructive, especially since it often feels like we don't have very good analytical tools for thinking and talking about religion. There, as well, Hegel is a resource.