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Journal of the History of Philosophy 44.2 (2006) 322-323
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Central to the purpose of this book is an examination of Hegel's conception of ethics. This examination is most welcome because between Hugh Reyburn's early The Ethical Theory of Hegel and Allen Wood's more recent Hegel's Ethical Thought (to name two works roughly at either end of the twentieth century), there has not been a great amount of attention given directly to the significance of ethics in Hegel's system. Much more attention has been given to Hegel's social and political philosophy as it emerges from the Philosophy of Right. Hegel's statements concerning the nature of philosophy in the preface to the Philosophy of Right, especially his famous metaphor of philosophy as the Owl of Minerva that takes flight only at dusk, have led to the standard view that Hegel is a conservative, holding that philosophical thought can only produce theory and cannot guide practice.
In contrast to this view, Professor Lewis wishes to show that Hegel's ethics "depends upon theory generating normative claims on practice" (134). To establish this connection between theory and practice, Lewis constructs Hegel's philosophical anthropology, employing the full range of Hegel's writings on subjective spirit. Anthropology here is understood as Hegel's complete account of the human self and the forms of its activity and development, not in the more limited sense Hegel uses the term in the Encyclopedia or in the modern sense of a field of social science. In explicating Hegel's anthropology, Lewis emphasizes the interplay between intelligence and will in human consciousness. Approached in this way, Hegel's anthropology gives a basis for his conception of human freedom. Self-consciousness is the key to morality, and morality requires that we can explicitly reflect on the norms of our behavior. Thus, "free spirit develops into a self-conscious, reflective ethical life, in which we recognize the existing norms of the world or tradition around us as just [End Page 322] and consciously will them" (135). Our ability to establish reflectively what is rational in the actuality of the norms present to the individual in tradition gives us the freedom of spirit necessary for the pursuit of ethical life. In this way, theory directs practice, and in turn, practice influences theory.
At this midpoint in Lewis's case, the reader anxiously wonders whether from this approach there may be hidden in Hegel a principle by which the individual may make ethical judgments that will result in willing specific actions. Is there within Hegel's free spirit and conception of right a principle comparable to Kant's categorical imperative, the "greatest good" of Utilitarianism, or Aristotle's mean? Is there in Hegel's account of the stages of spirit and forms of ethical life a principle that would claim to guide action, not just offer a basis from which to reflect critically on tradition or the state? Hegel, of course, has criticized the formalism and abstraction of such ethical principles, especially Kant's. Lewis suggests that in Hegel's Philosophy of Right there are what he calls "mid-level norms." An example of such a norm, he says, is "that all human beings should have opportunities to express or externalize each of the multiple elements essential to our human being" (184). He says he uses the term 'norms' to include "both rule-based ethical guides—associated with Kantianism, for instance—and those guides defined in terms of ends rather than rules—frequently associated with Aristotelianism" (228, n.44). Although Lewis claims we may speak of mid-level norms in Hegel's ethics, "mid-level norms do not by themselves produce detailed instructions for how to behave or how to organize a society" (184).
Starting from Lewis's interpretation of Hegel's anthropology, we may overcome the view that Hegel confines...