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  • “The Gorgon’s Head”Hegel on Law and Violence in the Frankfurt Fragments
  • María del Rosario Acosta López (bio)

Hegel, law, sovereignty, early writings, violence

The various fragments written by Hegel in his Frankfurt period and initially classified by Herman Nohl under the title of The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate can be read as one of Hegel’s first steps toward a philosophical approach to the relationships between law, community, and ethical life. One can find in Hegel’s account of the history of both Jewish and Christian religions in these fragments (the title given by Nohl does not do justice to the amount of space Hegel spends analyzing the former) what Jay Bernstein has more recently described as a “genealogy” of modern Western reason (see Bernstein 2003, 397). Indeed, Hegel seems to go back to the history of religion to trace the first historical appearances, and hence the first ethico-political manifestations, of a modern reflective rationality, which in Hegel’s view finds its most developed (and self-destructive) forms in the notions of state, sovereignty, and right that were both historically and conceptually founded on its grounds.1 By bringing into light what he describes as the “positivity” of both [End Page 29] Jewish and Christian commands and practices—and hence, what according to Hegel are Judaism’s and Christianity’s problematic interpretations of law and life—Hegel seems interested in showing the pervasive effects of the different accounts of legality lying at the core of the ethico-political institutions and practices of his own historical present.

Furthermore, one could say that, in these fragments, Hegel examines the question of the violence implicated already in Jewish and Christian versions of “positivity” and the relation between these forms of violence and their expression in modern conceptions of law and right.2 To each version of positivity, Hegel associates therefore a determinate form of life and an experience of being-in-common, both structured around a particular interpretation of the relationship between community and law, and both resulting in a very specific kind of violence that the latter (law) exercises over the former (life in common). In what follows, I will concentrate only on Hegel’s analysis of what he describes in the essay as the positivity of the Jewish religion. That is, according to Hegel, a spirit whose understanding of community and life is constitutively traversed and monopolized by a notion of legality that in its “infinite objectivity” and “absolute mastery” over and against everything under its power produces and reproduces only relations of domination.3

Hegel’s criticisms of the Jewish conception of law, however, vary in form and combine different questions that are not easy to keep separated because of the very nature of the fragments.4 Hegel seems to be experimenting every time with various aspects of the problem without any systematic order or structure that one could apply to the texts. Sometimes his criticisms seem to be directed against the pervasive effects of possible and alternative misinterpretations of the very idea of the law (what one could describe as “pathologies of legality”),5 sometimes against a prejuridical account of law and justice based on a notion of revenge that precedes—and hence does not result from—a juridical account of justice.6 There are even criticisms of a Kantian moral autonomous approach, which appear sometimes to be just an extension of previous arguments against the heteronomy of the Judaic law, even though it is clear that Hegel understands Kantian practical philosophy as another, much more complex form of positivity (and hence another more complex form of violence of legality).7 [End Page 30]

For the purpose of this paper, I will concentrate my attention exclusively on those arguments where Hegel seems to address his criticisms directly to the heart of the foundation of law and right. In some of his arguments, it is clear that Hegel wants to show the unavoidable violence at the core of the law and of the notion of sovereignty that is established by its command—an unavoidable violence, therefore, that lies not only at the center of law’s operation or application...


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