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Hegel’s Civil Society in the Philosophy of Right §260-271

January 19, 2011
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G.W.F. Hegel’s discussion of civil society in the Philosophy of Right offers an important key through which to understand the whole philosophical project Hegel was undertaking. Karl Marx in his Critique of the Philosophy of Right remarked that “The entire mystery of the Philosophy of Right and of Hegelian philosophy in general is contained in these paragraphs.”[i] Karl-Heinz Ilting, has a similar opinion, saying “Hegel could include this whole sphere in his political philosophy, only because he had discovered the productive power of labour as the foundation of civil society.” (Ilting, 1971: 107) By examining the critiques Marx had, as well as a critical view of Marx’s critiques will show the importance of civil society to Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.

In sections §260-271, Hegel discusses several topics, such as patriotism, or the role of religion or science in regards the state.[ii] The most important aspect of this section, however relates to Hegel’s dialectical relationship between the state and civil society. Hegel begins by mentioning that the state is the actuality of concrete freedom, but that concrete freedom requires personal individuality receive their own development and recognition. Hegel say that individuals must “pass over of their own accord into the interest of the universal, and, for another thing, they know and will the universal; they even recognise it as their own substantive mind; they take it as their end and aim and are active in its pursuit”(Hegel, 2003: 282) This means that for Hegel the state is the result of the dialectical relationship between the universal and the particular wills of individuals.

The relationship between the state and different spheres of civil society is by Hegel as being both “An external necessity and…..their immanent end.” (Hegel, 2003: 283)  Hegel advances this thought by discussing the idea of rights and duties. For Hegel duty and rights are a package deal, and are not something which can be separated apart from one another. Hegel says that “my obligation towards the substantial is at the same time the existence of my particular freedom; that is, duty and right are united within the state in one and the same relation.”(Hegel, 2003: 284) Hegel argues that a person must, by acting within the state, gain rights so that their individual, particular interests become united with the universal interest. Hegel does not believe that the particular interest must be totally subservient to the universal, but that “on the contrary, they should be harmonized with the universal so that both they themselves and the universal are preserved.”(Hegel, 2003: 285)

At this point, Hegel takes a turn towards the metaphysical in his discussion of the Idea and how it divides itself up into different spheres, family and civil society which Hegel says are the “ideal spheres of its concept.” (Hegel, 2003: 285) Hegel does on to say that these while these spheres represent a finite mode, the Idea “emerges from its ideality to become infinite and actual spirit for itself. In so doing, it allocates the material of its finite actually, ie individuals as a mass to these two spheres.”(Hegel, 2003: 285) In these spheres the particular and individual “have their immediate and reflective reality.”(Hegel, 2003: 286) However the universal still present through the power of the rational, which is Hegel referring to the family and corporations.[iii]

Hegel identifies that this mass of individuals embodies a dual moment. On the one hand they represent the extreme of individuality as well as the extreme of universality. Hegel says that they can “attain their right in both of these respects only in so far as they have actuality both as private and as substantial persons.”(Hegel 2003: 287) As individuals they earn their right through their family and civil society, and they discover their right in regards to universality by “discovering their essential self-consciousness in institutions as that universal aspect of their particular interests which has being in itself…..and by obtaining through these institutions an occupation and activity directed towards a universal end.”(Hegel 2003: 287)

It is the civil institutions together that form the constitution, which Hegel calls “developed and actualized rationality.”(Hegel 2003: 287) This is the firm foundation of the state. Hegel calls them the “pillars on which public freedom rests, for it is within them that particular freedom is realized and rational; hence the union of freedom and necessity is present in itself within these institutions.”(Hegel, 2003: 287) This substantial universality becomes its own object, and then becomes the shape of freedom.(Hegel, 2003: 288)

Hegel identifies that the “necessity in ideality” is the development of the Idea in two ways, which reflects the dialectical mode of thinking. As subjective substantiality, the important thing is the person’s individual disposition, whereas objective substantiality can be found in the “organism of the state, the political state proper and its constitution.”(Hegel, 2003: 288)

For Hegel, the political disposition can  formed by the various organisms of the state. Hegel says that “these different aspects are accordingly the various powers [within the state] with their corresponding tasks and functions through which the universal continually produces itself.”(Hegel, 2003: 290) Hegel calls this organism the political constitution. Hegel ends this section by saying that the political constitution is first, “the organization of the state and the process of its organic life with reference to itself.” (Hegel, 2003: 304) and secondly it is “the state in its individuality is an exclusive unit which accordingly has relations with others; it thereby turns its differentiation outwards and, in accordance with this determination, posits its existing differences within itself in their ideality.” (Hegel, 2003: 304)

The dialectical relationship is very important for the understanding of what Hegel say in how civil society was different from the state, due to its focus on the particular rather then the universal. Frederick Beiser easily sets up the Hegelian format for civil society. Beiser says that according to Hegel’s system that “civil society is subsumed under the category of ethical life. Ethical life consists in three fundamental moments: the family(immediate unity); civil society(difference); and the state (unity-in-difference)” (Beiser, 2005: 244) As Beiser says, this allows for Hegel to both preserve and limit the freedoms of civil society. It can be argued that this is because of the nature of Hegel’s project. Hegel is attempting to offer a liberal view of the modern state, while still critiquing liberalism. Renato Cristi says that “Hegel’s conception of civil society proves him to be both a liberal philosopher and critic of liberalism.” (Cristi, 2005: 93) Hegel’s liberalism can be seen in the way he protects the separate and particular interests of civil society. Cristi says that Hegel’s critiques of liberalism shows that he wants limits to the market, and that Hegel “postulates a sphere of human activity which must remain absolutely untouched by market forces.”(Cristi, 2005: 94) Beiser says this is because of the way that the market leaves a great mass of people in poverty who “were damned to work in unhealthy, insecure, and deadening conditions  in modern factories and mines.” (Beiser, 2005: 248)

Z. A. Pelczynski, who edited a work on Hegel and civil society says “the conceptual separation  of the state and civil society is one of the most original features of Hegel’s political and social philosophy.”(Pelczynski, 1984:1) One of Pelczynski’s, as well as Karl-Heinz Ilting, interests in this aspect of Hegel is the way it was used by, and influenced Karl Marx. Pelczynski says that Klaus Hartmann “shows how Hegel’s categories of civil society and the state can be reformulated to provide a conceptual framework which fit’s the modern democratic welfare state very well…..rather than through a Marxian or quasi-Marxian critique.”(Pelczynski. 1984:12)

Before discussing Ilting’s critique of Hegel’s civil society, it would be worth quickly looking at what Marx has to say in regards to Hegel’s civil society. Marx says that, what Hegel is really arguing for, is a “logical, pantheistic mysticism.” This has to due with the way that Hegel treats the Idea. Marx also offers rephrasing of what Hegel is arguing, which makes it easier to understand. For instance, here is Marx describing civil society, he says “The family and civil society are elements of the state. The material of the state is divided amongst them through circumstances, caprice, and personal choice of vocation. The citizens of the state are members of families and of civil society. “(Marx, 1843)

Karl-Heinz Ilting, disagrees with Marx’s characterization of Hegel however. Ilting says this difficulty can be cleared up by examining the dialectical structure of Hegel’s work.(Ilting, 1984: 212) Ilting is very critical in regards to the fine point of Hegel’s arguments. One example of a problem that Hegel finds, in in the way civil society and corporations interact. Ilting says “in Hegel’s account of civil society that the union of the particular with the universal, which is achieved in the corporation, is still incomplete because the aim of the corporation is restricted and finite.”(Ilting, 1984: 224). Ilting offers a couple reasons for his thesis that Hegel cannot offer any ‘proof’ of his argument. Ilting says that Hegel’s terminology is not suited for that kind of purpose. Ilting also says “his dialectical method as practised in the Philosophy of Right is unsuitable for the purpose.” (Ilting, 1984: 226) For Ilting, Hegel does not off the necessary proof for his argument.

Hegel’s concept of civil society focuses around the dialectical interaction between the particularity of civil society and the universality of the state. It is through the combination of the two that allows the modern state to have actual, concrete freedom. As Beiser, Cristi, and Ilting show, Hegel presents a liberal philosophy of the state and civil society which also critiques liberalism because of the way the market acts. Marx calls Hegel’s writing “logical, pantheistic mysticism” and Ilting, for the most part agrees. Hegel does not offer the right kind of evidence or support for his theory. Ilting says this has to do with the terminology Hegel uses, as well as his dialectical method.

Hegel is still a very interesting philosopher, who with close study can reveal many issues that still happen in our world today. There is many questions about Hegel, including a question, asked by current philosophers like Slavoj Zizek, if one can even be a Hegelian today.[iv]


[1] Marx, Karl. “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” Marxists Internet Archive 15 Dec. 2010. < >

Marx is  referring to § 263 to § 266 of the Philosophy of Right

[1] These topics are being glossed over so as to focus on the dialectical relationship between the state and civil society.

[1] See Hegel’s endnote on this topic on page 457 of our Hegel Philosophy of Right textbook.

[1] This Zizek essay can be found for free, from the publisher’s website here:

[i] Marx, Karl. “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” Marxists Internet Archive 15 Dec. 2010. < >

Marx is  referring to § 263 to § 266 of the Philosophy of Right

[ii] These topics are being glossed over so as to focus on the dialectical relationship between the state and civil society.

[iii] See Hegel’s endnote on this topic on page 457 of our Hegel Philosophy of Right textbook.

[iv] This Zizek essay can be found for free, from the publisher’s website here:

Works Cited

Beiser, Frederick (2005). Hegel. New York: Routledge.

Cristi, Renato (2005). Hegel on Freedom and Authority. Cardiff: University of Wales.

Hegel, G.W.F. (1991). Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Ed. Allen W. Wood. Trans. H.B, Nisbet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ilting, Karl-Heinz (1971). “The structure of Hegel’s Philosophy of RightHegel’s Political Philosophy: Problems and Perspectives. Ed Z. A. Pelczynski. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 90-110.

—–      (1984). “The Dialectic of civil society” The State and Civil Society: Studies in Hegel’s Political Philosophy. Ed Z. A. Pelczynski. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 211-226

Marx, Karl. “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” Marxists Internet Archive 15 Dec. 2010. <;

Pelczynski, Z. A. (1984) “The significance of Hegel’s separation of the state and civil society” The State and Civil Society: Studies in Hegel’s Political Philosophy. Ed Z. A. Pelczynski. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1-13.

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