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Home arrow Sociology arrow Hegel, Love and Forgiveness: Positive Recognition in German Idealism


In this chapter, I discuss the possibility of love as another ethical model of positive recognition. I make reference to Hegel’s discussions of love and partnership from his early and late works, from the early Jena manuscripts to the Philosophy of Right. I also take account of the small amount of recent scholarship on Hegel and love. One central question here is whether the model of loving partnership required for positive recognition would in fact undermine the autonomy that is desirable for a number of reasons, not least ethical personhood and the possibility of freedom. Another key consideration is whether the love involved in this idea of positive recognition would have to be instantiated in an exclusive, loving partnership, or whether such interactions could take place on a wider scale, including the idea of love as caritas.

From Pre-Jena to the Philosophy of Right: Hegel on Love and Recognition

Hegel’s writings on love spread out throughout his work, from the pre-Jena Early Theological Writings to the Philosophy ofRight. Sometimes love as partnership takes centre stage, and sometimes it is a more general love as caritas. A full examination of Hegel’s views on love is obviously well beyond the scope of this chapter and work in general. What I offer here are some suggestions of how love as ethical partnership could be an example of positive recognition in the sense that I have outlined it over the previous five chapters. The main focus is therefore on love as close partnership in the way one observes it in a marriage or similar relationship, although I also argue that love can be the basis of other ethical partnerships. One central question is also the extent to which the concept of the self as outlined over the course of this work underlies and shapes the idea of love as positive recognition.

Over the past decade or so, there has been a great deal of interest in Hegel’s Early Theological Writings. To a great extent, this has co-incided with a resurgence of interest in the topic of recognition as a potential positive ethical phenomenon. The thought or hope behind this is often, as Peter Wake puts it: read parts of Hegel’s later systematic works through the earlier ones with the hope of capturing a spirit of engagement and openness to future events that is too often concealed behind the still-lingering image of Hegel’s work as a triumphalist philosophy of historical progress, a totalitarian theory of the Absolute, and the last stand of the onto-theological tradition.1

This image of Hegel’s later works is misleading (as indeed Wake implies), but nonetheless the impulse is easy to understand. What we can observe in this early Hegel is a shifting and changing approach to the ethical, to theology and to the concept of the self, particularly the social self. Hegel moves from a much more autonomous view of the self in the early essay Positivity of the Christian Religion (1795), to a view much more like his later one, and much more like what is being proposed here, in the better-known Spirit of Christianity and its Fate (1796). Richard Kroner, in an introduction to T.M. Knox’s translation of the Early Theological Writings, incisively remarks that there seems to be a century between the writers of these two pieces, that the writer of the first seemed to be a contemporary of ‘Moses Mendelssohn, Lessing, Sulzer or Kant, whilst the author of the second was evidently a contemporary of Jacobi, Herder, Schleiermacher, Fichte, Schelling and Hoelderlin’.2 In the Spirit of Christianity, Hegel has moved on from the purely Enlightenment way of reasoning and reached the kind of post-Kantian idealist position which he would represent in the Phenomenology and beyond, and a key part of this is a move away from the autonomy of the self that ones finds in a (somewhat caricatured) Kant. The fact that his comments on love that have most in common with his later statements on the same emerge in precisely this period is surely no co-incidence.

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