The Disappearance of the French Revolution in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit
34 Pages Posted: 1 Aug 2011 Last revised: 28 Aug 2011
Date Written: 2011
The French Revolution of 1789 is one of the central developments in the history of the concept and practice of political rights. Hegel recognized this, and so valued the Revolution that he claimed always to drink a toast to the storming of the Bastille on July 14th. Nonetheless, in both the Phenomenology of Spirit and the Philosophy of Right Hegel advances an enduring and influential attack upon the Revolution, one that, like that of Edmund Burke, links the Revolution’s accomplishments inextricably with the Reign of Terror of 1793 and 1794. In each Hegelian text, the Revolutionary conception of liberty is presented as being so one-sided and extreme as to be incompatible with a stable polity, and to produce, of necessity, only “a fury of destruction” (P 436/359 and PR §5A). The central line of thought here is relatively clear. The French Revolutionaries enacted a reductive, “abstract” conception of freedom as grasped by the Understanding or Verstand; this “negative freedom” (PR §5A) or “absolute freedom” (P 431/355ff) entails the absence of restriction. When made into a social policy, this can never produce a stable set of institutions, but instead only the destruction of any potential restriction - including, ultimately, those presented by the citizenry themselves. The Revolutionary government was thus destined to descend into the fury of the Terror. In the essay that follows, I do not wish to fundamentally challenge this picture of Hegel’s view. Instead, I will argue that Hegel’s elaboration of it in the Phenomenology in particular is more complicated and nuanced than it initially appears to be, and that attending to the textual details of the Phenomenology’s account allows one to see that Hegel is advancing a particular political diagnosis according which the first “victim” of the Revolution is the apparent agent of the Terror, the volonté générale or general will, a will that only “vanishes” in its own attempt to express itself in action, a vanishing that makes possible the factions, suspicion, guilt, and death of the Jacobins. In connection with this I will also propose that Hegel’s account of the Terror there needs to be read as a response to the immediately preceding account of Utility (die Nützlichkeit), and that when it is so read it shows one of its sides to be a critique of the attempt to “master” a world in which everything is considered as an object of use, a critique that bears comparison with Heidegger’s more famous reflections on the dangers of die Technik.
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation