Hegel's Concept of Action / Edition 1

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Michael Quante focuses on what Hegel has to say about such central concepts as action, person and will, and then brings these views to bear on contemporary debates in analytic philosophy. This book enables professional analytic philosophers and their students to understand the significance of Hegel's philosophy to contemporary theory of action. As such, it will contribute to the ever-increasing erosion of the barrier between the continental and analytic approaches to philosophy.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The book is clearly written, and Quante sets out his arguments in discrete steps, hence neither an expertise in neither Hegel nor analytic philosophy is essential for an appreciation of this book." - Patricia Calton, Rushford, Minnesota

"...a careful study of Quante's book would be extremely valuable for anyone who wanted to get clearer on Hegel's contribution to the theory of action..." —David Ciavatta, Northern Arizona University: Philosophy in Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521038232
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 7/26/2007
  • Series: Modern European Philosophy Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 216
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 8.98 (h) x 0.51 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Quante is Hochschuldozent in the Philosophisches Seminar des Westfalischen Wilhelms-Universität, Münster.

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Cambridge University Press
0521826934 - Hegel's Concept of Action - by Michael Quante


The volume of literature devoted to Hegel might lead one to suspect that the central concepts, theses, and insights of his philosophy have been exhaustively explicated. It is therefore surprising that there remain significant gaps in the scholarship, gaps in areas not only of historical interest, or on questions internal to the system, but rather concerning fundamental concepts of Hegel's philosophy itself. Just such a gap seems to me to exist with the concept of action. Although action is explicitly introduced in a prominent place in Hegel's system - namely, in the Morality chapter of the Elements of the Philosophy of Right 1 - there are hardly any contributions to the scholarship that investigate Hegel's action-theoretic premises and the insights underlying his concept of action. This is surprising for at least three reasons. First, the text of the Philosophy of Right shows that Hegel does not use his concept of action simply in the everyday sense; his aim is to unpack the concept philosophically. Second, action-theoretic problems have been thoroughly examined in the last forty years of analytic philosophy. Much progress has been made in the field that can help to explicate Hegel's thought.2 Further, this omission in the scholarship is amazing because Hegel's social philosophy, ethics, and critique of morality have always stood at the center of interest in his thought. But it is highly improbable that these parts of Hegel's philosophy are independent of his concept of action. That was at least - and on this point I concur - the opinion of the first commentator on Hegel's Morality chapter:

Before the content of moral action is developed, the nature of action itself has to be examined.3

Michelet, whose commentary on the Morality chapter of the Philosophy of Right has unjustly been almost forgotten, had at his disposal only the action-theoretic meditations of Aristotle as a point of reference (in addition, of course, to the logic internal to the system of Hegel's philosophy). I can, by contrast, draw on a much broader range of methods and philosophical positions.

Two Research Areas of Modern Action-Theory

In the debate about action-theoretic questions, a debate that has become increasingly prominent in recent years, two central problem areas can be identified: They are demarcated with the terms "justification of action" and "explanation of action." Philosophical problems raised by our praxis of justification of actions include the clarification of the concepts "attribution" or "intentionality," and the analysis of the description-dependence of actions. Problems that arise through our praxis of explanation of action are the status of descriptions of action (causal explanations or not?), the status of reasons (events?), and the connection of actions and bodily movements. Authors who primarily devote themselves to the research area of justification of action consider description-dependence to be especially central, whereas authors who want to analyze the status of the explanation of actions have focused on the event-character of actions. But both directions of inquiry are oriented by central problems in the analysis of action and in determining the conceptual framework with which we describe actions.

Hegel, as one might already suspect from the place where he chose to introduce the concept of action, dealt primarily with the problem of the justification of action. One finds in his philosophy of right, analyses of attribution and justification that are motivated by an interest in sorting out the difficulties of the description-dependence of actions with regard to their evaluation. This book will therefore deal predominantly with this research area.

The Theses and Claims of this Book

The book was written out of a strong thematic interest in action-theoretic questions, but is primarily intended to elucidate a central concept of Hegel's philosophy. I also follow a systematic concern in that I do not interpret Hegel's argumentation in an exclusively internal manner, but rather I critically examine its actual content and explanatory worth. As much as possible, I will support Hegel's position from a systematic perspective; where it does not appear tenable to me, I have not tried to defend it on internal grounds.

Two principal theses guide this investigation: (1) I maintain that one can uncover the consistency of the logical structure and argumentation of §§105-125 of the Philosophy of Right if one understands them as dealing with action-theoretic problems. Hegel's arguments in the Morality chapter of the Philosophy of Right have often been criticized both as opaque and as attempting to force together heterogeneous theoretical issues. This impression disappears when one understands his arguments as elements of a theory of action. (2) On the systematic side, I hold the thesis that Hegel succeeded in developing a theory of intentional action that foreshadows and unifies many insights of contemporary authors. Hegel analyzed - as today, for example, Castañeda does - the specific logical form of knowledge of action as a "first-person proposition," and thereby grasped an important characteristic of freely chosen intentions. He further distinguished - as, for example, Anscombe and Davidson do - the event-aspect from the description-aspect of actions. This allows Hegel to keep appropriately separate questions of event-causality and attribution. In addition, he succeeds in logically distinguishing and specifying different kinds of intentions (and the matter thereof). Hegel thereby anticipates the insights of Anscombe and Goldman, as well as approaches that are now being developed in a kind of action-theory that I will call action-plan theory (Goldman, Brand, or Bratman). It should be kept in mind that Hegel was in a position - by virtue of his philosophical concepts and method - to grasp the central insights of action theory and to integrate them into one approach. An important result for current philosophers, then, is that Hegel's action-theory contains elements that are often - with the exception of Castañeda - neglected today. A dialogue with Hegel's action-theory should therefore be systematically fruitful for contemporary approaches.

The theme of this book is limited to the question of Hegel's concept of action. There are several problem areas that border on this concept, but they cannot all be investigated here. Thus, for example, I will only sketch (in the concluding comments) the aspects of Hegel's dissolution of the mind-body problem that are relevant for action-theory. So too I can only interpret his theory of the will to the extent that it is immediately relevant to my central question. Likewise, I will not thematize questions in political philosophy and ethics: Action theory will be understood in this book as a discipline of theoretical philosophy. For that reason, I will almost completely leave out considerations arising from the context - namely, political philosophy - of Hegel's argument.4

On the Question of Hegel's System

Anyone who undertakes an analysis of Hegel's philosophy with a certain question in mind, and hence picks out a partial aspect of the theory, unavoidably faces the problem of coming to terms with the systematic character of Hegel's thought. Like perhaps no other philosopher, Hegel anchored his basic ideas in the System and its conceptual framework. His method of argumentation and presentation is also not detachable from his fundamental premises.5 For that reason, I will briefly explain how I deal in this book with this difficulty.

All the central concepts, and the justificatory strength of the dialectical argumentation on which Hegel relies, are derived from logic. Hartmann's sentence is thus still valid: "Without interpreting it [the logic/M. Quante] all study of Hegel is nonsense."6 Nonetheless, in this book I do not make Hegel's logic an object of investigation. I relate the conceptual framework of the Philosophy of Right to Hegel's logic in order to unfold the meaning internal to the system as accurately as possible.7 I will not, however, attempt to justify Hegel's speculative method, so I do not invoke it as an argumentative basis for Hegel's statements. I have instead constantly attempted to support Hegel's theses through arguments won from the phenomena and grounded in matters of fact. Only in the portrayal of Hegel's argumentative structure will his logic be used as a kind of "universal currency" of explanation. My systematic justification of Hegel's action-theory, on the other hand, does not rely on his System. This approach to Hegel's dialectical method offers the advantage that even a reader who has no confidence in Hegel's method can follow the content of the arguments of Hegel's action-theory.

A Guide for Reading the Text

Parts I and II are conceived so that they can be read independently of each other. Part I, in which I relate Hegel's arguments to action-theoretic problems, can serve as a commentary on §§104-113 of the Philosophy of Right. In Part II, the structure of Hegel's text is no longer used as the guide; there, systematic questions of action-theory stand at the forefront of the discussion. Even so, this part can also serve as a commentary on §§114-125.

Part Ⅰ deals with Hegel's theory of the subjective will, examining those aspects containing action-theoretic claims. I first specify the conceptual presuppositions from which Hegel starts (Chapter 1). I then analyze the specific form of the subjective end (Chapter 2). The intentionality of free and attributable action rests on this specific form of the subjective end. After a summary of the results of Part I (Chapter 3), I deal in Part II with Hegel's concept of action. First, I specify the general category of action-theory (Chapter 4), highlighting the relationship between causation and attribution and the various modes of description of an action. After the explication of the form of action, I investigate Hegel's statements relating to "that which is aimed at" [das Worumwillen] in human action (Chapter 5). With this analysis of the content of action, I thematize both the rationality of action and the relationship of action and morality. In the Conclusion, Part III, I summarize the results of my investigation and sketch an interpretation of Hegel's dissolution of the mind-body problem, one that is compatible with the interpretation of Hegel's action-theory presented here.

The central question of this investigation provides two interpretive advantages: First, it allows, by means of a special and philosophically central problem, a wide-ranging view of Hegel's philosophy. Second, it allows a reconstruction of his action-theory that is largely independent of his onto-theological and methodological premises. For that reason I agree with Taylor:

Of course, for any highly systematic body of thought like Hegel's we can reconstruct the whole from many perspectives. Each one gives us something, though some are more illuminating than others. I believe that looking at Hegel's thought from the angle of the underlying conception of action provides one of the more interesting perspectives on the whole.8

I am convinced, then, that looking at Hegel's action-theory is not only a "more interesting perspective" on his philosophy; rather, it reveals a systematically fertile part of Hegel's philosophy.

8 Cf. Taylor 1983, p. 1.



In §113 of the Philosophy of Right, Hegel introduces the concept of "action": He specifies action as "The expression of the will as subjective or moral " (R §113). He continues, "Only with the expression of the moral will do we come to action" (ibid. - Hegel's emphases). The first statement declares each expression of the subjective moral will to be an action; the statement provides a sufficient condition for an event's being an action. The second statement claims that only the expression of the subjective moral will is action. There is no action that is not the expression of the subjective or moral will. This second statement thus names a necessary condition for an event's being an action. It is clear from these two statements, taken together, that Hegel claims "expression of the moral or subjective will" to be the necessary and sufficient condition for an event belonging to the determination "action."

Hegel justifies this introduction of the concept of "action" by claiming that the action contains

The [previously] expounded determinations: (α) it must be known by me in its externality as mine; (β) its essential relation to the concept is one of obligation [Sollen]; and (γ) it has an essential relation to the will of others. (R §113)

This justification, which I will interpret in the course of this book, refers back to the conceptual development of the subjective will that Hegel "expounded" in §§104-112. The justification assumes that the determinations of the "subjective will" developed in those sections form the basis for the determinations that belong to action - and thus for those determinations that constitute the content of the concept of "action." In order to gain a more precise understanding of the three determinations of action given by Hegel in the quotation just given, an analysis of the conceptual development preceding this passage is necessary. In §113, in which Hegel introduces the concept of "action," he also clearly separates action from the relationships of will that have already been developed in the sphere of Abstract Right. He emphasizes that only now can we speak of actions, since even the "legal action (actio)" that had been thematized in the section "Coercion and Crime" contains "only some of the moments of moral action proper" (R §113). It also "contains" these moments, as Hegel himself emphasizes, only "in an external manner," because "that aspect of the action which makes it moral in the proper sense is therefore distinct from its legal side" (ibid.).1

Hegel's strategy provides the fundamental orientation for this book. The tight connection of "action" and "expression of the subjective or moral will" justifies beginning an investigation of Hegel's concept of action with an analysis of the "subjective will." Further, his own separation of action from the sphere of Abstract Right permits one to restrict the investigation to the Morality chapter. The structure of this chapter, the second part of the Philosophy of Right, guides the structure of the first part of my book, which is oriented directly by the structure of Hegel's text. In §§105-114, Hegel explicates the logical2 structure of the will, which then serves as the conceptual basis for the entire sphere of Morality. In other words, he explicates the speculative logical structure of Morality as a shape3 of the will. The thesis that I will defend in this investigation claims that the first two sections of the Morality chapter can be understood as explications of the different aspects and problems that mark out the phenomenon "action." The basis for all three sections of the Morality chapter is the shape of the "subjective will" that is explicated in §§105-112. Building on this, §113 introduces the concept "action," while in §114, Hegel grounds the further structure of the Morality chapter in that he gives the different dimensions of the concept of action.

If one looks closer at the argumentative structure and conceptual development of §§105-113, one discovers the following structure: In the first three paragraphs, the basic concepts of the shape of the subjective will are introduced. These concepts also provide the principle of the sphere of Morality and the logical basis for further conceptual development. The basic concepts introduced here are "subject" (in §105), "subjectivity" (in §106), and "self-determination" (in §107). Hegel subsequently characterizes the logical structure of the fundamental shape of the subjective will as "formal" (in §108), and then explicates its logical content (in §109). This formal character is the basis of the ambivalence of the development within the sphere of Morality, and serves as the most important feature of this shape of the will. It also provides the logical basis for the distinctiveness of the expressions of the subjective will (in §§110-112).

The structure of Chapter 1 of this investigation parallels Hegel's conceptual development. I will first analyze the transition from the sphere of Abstract Right to the sphere of Morality (Section 1.1), with the aim of bringing out the further logical developments through the determination of the difference between the two spheres. The concept of self-relationship will be introduced to explicate Hegel's theory. This concept, which is not taken from Hegelian philosophy, expresses the thesis that "will" in Hegel can be thought of in general as the self-relationship of a self-organizing, "self-determining" substance; the "shapes" of person and subject should also be understood as such self-relationships. In Section 1.2, I explicate the self-relationships "person" and "subject." These are the principles of "Abstract Right" and "Morality," respectively. I show that these principles find completion in their respective spheres in the further development of the will. Hegel's thesis is that "person" is the universal moment of the will; the particular moment is the relationship of the person to property.4 Here, in the unity of individuality, the universal and particular moments of the will are for the first time mediated in-themselves. This shape of the will is thus also a form of freedom being-in-itself.5 This freedom manifests itself in the relationship of a person to a thing (namely, as a "free" relationship), but it is not yet given for the relata themselves. In the "subject," on the other hand, the universal and particular moments of the will are internally mediated in a reflection-into-itself, so that individuality is posited for the will itself. On this level, freedom has become for-itself: I interpret this "for-itself " as the consciousness of freedom of the acting subject who understands his activity as the expression of free decision-making.6

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

Preface to the English edition; Abbreviations used in the text; Introduction; Part I. The Subjective Will: 1. Conceptual presuppositions: person and subject; 2. Intentionality: the form of subjective freedom; 3. Recapitulation; Part II. The Action: 4. The form of the action; 5. The content of the action; Part III. Concluding Remarks; References; Index.

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