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Hegel’s Conservatism (and McGoohan’s Too)

Again on the subject of Hegel’s conservatism. I’m not really trying to convince anyone here, only to provide a verbal formulation for those who already suspect deep in their hearts that something about Hegel is deeply tradition-bound and backwards-looking. (Whatever his faults, Marx is not guilty on that charge.)

Jurgen Habermas to the rescue, then. He makes two points against Hegel in <b>The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity</b>. The first is that because Hegel cites the need for social and political institutions for human will to express itself, revolutionary movements that sufficiently reject the state don’t qualify as expressions of reason at all, and are therefore invalid. Habermas cites Hegel’s opposition to the English Reform Bill, but whatever Hegel’s political views at the time, I grant him some slack on this point. The notion of these institutions is sufficiently vague that I don’t see an open and shut case against revolution in Hegel’s writings on these grounds alone.

The second point is more damning though. Citing an early 1802 essay, Habermas says:

Hegel distinguishes two kinds of criticism. One is directed against the false positivities of the age; it understands itself as a maieutic of repressed life that pushes out of rigid forms: “If critique does not allow the work and the deed to be valid as the figure of the idea, still it will not deny the quest; thereby the properly scientific interest in stripping away the husk which keeps the inner striving from seeing the light of day.”…Hegel directs another kind of critique against the subjective idealism of Kant and Fichte. Of them it is true to say “that the idea of philosophy has been more clearly recognized, but that subjectivity has striven to guard itself against philosophy to the degree that it becomes necessary to save itself.” Here it is a question of discovering and laying bare a limited subjectivity which closes itself off to a better insight that has long since been objectively accessible. The Hegel of the Philosophy of Right regards critique as justified only in this second version.

Rephrasing: early Hegel is willing to grant the existence of minority and individual movements that strive to actualize repressed existence that the current system is currently suppressing. Later on, he rescinds this point. Hell, he contradicts it, implying that the subjective viewpoint is the object of criticism, and so the model of criticism is not the individual against the group but the group against the misled individual (or group of individuals that view themselves as subjective individuals in an objective world, Kant-style). The misled individual is not a symptom of the social order but merely a localized case of arrested development, to be corrected by the totality. Now doesn’t that sound ominous? Again, I don’t think it quite breaks down cleanly into government vs. individual, but Hegel does want to restrict criticism to those who are doing it thoughtfully and intelligently. Like philosophers.

From whence comes Marxism and left Hegelianism? From this, let’s go to The Prisoner. People everywhere quote “I am not a number, I am a free man!” as some defense of anarchist individualism, but Patrick McGoohan was and is a social and political conservative, and the ethos was far more Hayek than Marcuse. Remember this speech from the final, McGoohan-penned episode?

We have just witnessed two forms of revolt. The first: uncoordinated youth, rebelling against nothing it can define. The second: an established, successful secure member of the establishment turning upon and biting the hand that feeds him. Well, these attitudes are dangerous. They contribute nothing to our culture and are to be stamped out!

And then #6 gets effusively praised for his more thoughtful and consistent form of revolt. It’s arguable if these words are really McGoohan’s own beliefs, but they seem awfully congruent. Either way, it’s the same old manifestation of the elitism that Habermas trashes in Hegel. Revolt has to be done the right way, the polite way, and it must be done in good conscience, fully aware of the stakes of the battle. Otherwise, it’s just mindless violence. If you’re going to be that picky about the right form of revolt, all I can say is: don’t wait up.


  1. You’d really be better off reading a scholarly work on the subject of Hegel’s political views than Habermas. Like, perhaps, Shlomo Avinieri’s Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State? Page 210:

    Yet there is a far more profound reasion why Hegel welcomes the Reform Bill. Despite the fact that he is far from happy about some of the concrete changes the Bill is about to introduce, the very fact of reform is to Hegel a welcome sign that England is abandoning its traditional reliance on a customary, ‘positive’ law. From The German Constitution to the essay on Wurttemberg, we have seen Hegel’s opposition to ‘positive’ law on the ground that its sole legitimacy was its traditionalism. Everywhere else — first in France, later in Germany — Hegel perceived that these traditions had yielded their place to modern, conscious and rational legislation. England, with its Common Law tradition, remained the last bastion of this archaic, pre-modern and irrational system; and though there was much in the English political system which Hegel admired, the arbitrariness and historicity of its basic legal principles were always unacceptable to him.

    As for the subject of the legitimacy of revolution, I find what you have to say so thoroughly garbled I’m not quite sure what you’re saying. My jaw should drop at your citation of Patrick McGoohan?

  2. Hi Mr. W., haven’t visited for quite some time and I hope you are well.
    Apropos of nothing in particular bar Habermas, I have been looking for an old hymnbook online and found that he has recently published some interviews with Joseph Ratzinger (aka Pope Benedict), with the fetching title, The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion.
    So how about that.

  3. “It’s arguable if these words are really McGoohan’s own beliefs…” Indeed! My impression watching that episode, years ago, was that no endorsement was implied. The distinction between forms of rebellion seemed merely an attempt to flatter & manipulate #6, who flatly rejects the distinction by joining forces with the other two rebels.

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