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Functionalism and Feminism in Hegel’s Political Thought

Functionalism and Feminism in
Hegal’s Political Thought
Susan Easton

‘Political philosophy, according to Moller Okin in Women in
Western Political Thought, consists of ‘writings by men, for
men, and about men’ . Although the frequent references
to the generic term ‘mankind’ by political philosophers
might suggest a concern with ‘the human race as a whole’,
she argues that ‘we do not need to look far into their writings to realise that such an assumption is unfounded’ .

Instead a sharp distinction is drawn between men and
women with women’s destiny being perceived as biologically
determined which leads to ‘the prescription of a code of
morality and conception of rights for women distinctly different from those that have been prescribed for men’ .

This distinction, she claims, underpins the history of political thought:

Philosophers who, in laying the foundations for
their political theories, have asked ‘What are
men like?’ ‘What is man’s potential?’ have frequently, in turning to the female sex, asked
‘What are women for?’.

In answering this qJestion, they have seen biological differences between men and women as ‘entailing all the other,
conventional and institutional differences in sex role which
the family, especial1y in its most patriarchal forms, has
required’ .

Hegel’s commitment to such a ‘functionalist’ or reductionist view of the family as a necessary and natural institution, argues Mol1er Okin, is expressed in his treatment of
the male head of the family as its only political representative and the fact that he ‘disposed of the female half of
the human race’ . Women are denied any distinct identity in his political thought and are cut off from public
life. Moreover, his view of marr iage as resulting from ‘the
free surrender by both sexes of their personality’ is overoptimistic, she notes, since the surrender of the man’s personality is ‘more symbolic than real’ . The significance
and pervasiveness of the reductionist view should not be
underestimated~ she concludes, since ‘the continuing oppression of women is ideologically supported by the survival of
(unctionalist modes of thought’ .

A similar interpretation of Hegel is offered by Elshtain
in Public Man, Private Woman, where she points out that
‘like the inhabitants of Orwel1’s Animal Farm, ••• the inhab~itants of Hegel’s conceptual universe are ethically signifi~

cant but some are more Significant than others’ .

Excluded from the public sphere, women are ‘defined by
the family: the family is a woman’s beginning and her end’.

For the man, ‘the family is that ethical relationship which
serves as the basis of al1 others including citizenship’ (10)
and he alone can become a real citizen. For Hegel, women
are confined to the level of the household while’ the public
world remains the ‘locus of human action’:

Although there is no public-private split in
Hegel’s account in the sense of a radical separation of one sphere from the other, the public and
the private are differentiated and ordered as
higher and lower •••• The reciprocal, if asymmetrical, relationship between spheres requires connecting links or mediations. These are provided
by males in their roles as brothers, husbands,
fathers and property-owners.

Hegel’s political theory is rooted in teleological assumptions regarding male and female nature, which he distinguishes in terms of ‘the analogue of form and matter
whereby the male provides the human form during mating
and the female serves as a vessel within which the malecreated homunculus incubates’ . She concedes that
‘within the constraints of his presumptions on male and
female natures, Hegel positions women as near to the universal as his perspective allows’ , but inevitably, given
this starting-point, he denies women any intrinsic value or
significance within the family, in contrast to the value
placed on the lives of men as citizens . Without their
slender connection to the universal through. males, they
would possess no ethical significance. Elshtain is critical of
Hegel not simply for excluding women from the universal
but also because he is indifferent to ‘the realities of economic power and the manner in which a predatory civil
society vitiates the possibilities for a just public order’



Although reductionism undoubtedly persists in patriarchal laws and attitudes, it is questionable whether it may
be justifiably attributed to Hegel. While his discussion of
marriage and the family in the Philosophy of Right does
provide some grounds for such an interpretation, his analysis of tragedy and the master-slave dialectic in the Phenomenology and his anthropological work in the Lectureson

the Philosophy of World History offer a chalJenge to,
rather than an endorsement of, reductionism.

GrQunds for a feminist interpretation may be found, firstly,
in Hegel’s understanding of Antigone. Although Hegel sees
Antigone as guided by love, this does not mean, for Hegel,
that she is governed by subjective emotions, but rather
that she rationaJJy analyses the consequences of her
actions in relation to ethical principles and acts in ful1
knowledge of those consequences. In doing so, she moves
beyond contingency towards the universal. The hal1mark of

important that
consciousness recognises its guilt: ‘Because of our
sufferings we acknowledge we have erred’ , says
Antigone, and for Hegel this acknowledgement signifies
‘the return to the ethical frame of mind, which knows that
nothing counts but right’ . The only ethical decision
Antigone can take is to disobey Creon and bury her
brother, but her actions are marked not by subjectivity but
by a highly rational appreciation of the effects of her
action. Hegel points out that the ‘ethical consciousness is
more complete, its guilt purer, if it knows beforehand the
law and the power which it opposes, if it takes them to be
sheer violence and wrong, to be a contingency in the
ethical life, and wittingly, like Antigone, commits the
crime’ . It is significant that when Hegel defines
tragedy he focuses on tragic heroines with the capacity
and desire for self-reflection. Instead of reducing woman’s
nature to mere particularism, as the reductionist
interpretation suggests, he stresses the way in which she
moves beyond contingency. What we find in tragedy ‘are
self-conscious human beings, who know their own rights and
purposes, the power and the wiJJ belonging to their specific
nature, and who know how to state them’ . They do
not express merely the external aspects of their lives but
‘make the very inner being external, they prove the righteousness of their action, and the “pathos” controlling them
is soberly asserted and definitely expressed in its universal
individuality, free from all accident of circumstance, and
the particular peculiarities of personalities’ . Love, as
represented by Antigone, is not devalued to subjectivity
but rather signifies its opposite for Hegel: love constitutes
redemption, redemption from the subjectivity of individualism of the self and of the society. In the Phenomenology he
argues that in returning to ‘the ethical frame of mind’, the
agent ‘surrenders his character and the reality of his
self…. His being lies in belonging to his ethical law, as his
substance’ . The ethical bonds of love incorporate individuals into the wider unity of the family and destroy their
individuality. They also protect the individuals from the
contingency and inevitability of death through a network
of ethical ties which transcend the particularity of existence. In his discussion of Hegel’s work on tragedy, Bradley
refers to the ‘strange double impression which is produced
by the hero’S death. He dies, and our hearts die with him;
and yet his death matters nothing to us, or we even exult.

He is dead; and he has no more to do with death than the
power which killed him and with which he is one’ . But
this is not so strange when we recall that for Hegel the
‘blood-relationship ••• supplements the abstract natural process by adding to it the process of consciousness, by inter=rupting the work of nature, and rescuing the blood-relation
from destruction’ . He adds:


The family keeps away from the dead this dishonour ing of him by the desires of unconscious
organic agencies and by abstract elements, puts
its own action in place of theirs, and weds the
relative to the bosom of the earth, the elemental
individuality that passes not away. Thereby the·
family makes the dead a member of a community
which prevails over and holds under control the
particular material elements and the lower living
creatures, which sought to have their way with

the dead and destroy him.

This is epitomised for Hegel by Antigone who, in burying
her brother, protects him from death and dishonour and
rescues him from subjectivity. Hegel finds Antigone particularly compel1ing as he sees the relationship between
nrother and sister as the purest ethical relationship, being
based on common blood but marked by an absence of sexual

Love is also redemptive in shielding the individual from
the positivity of society. In his early theological writings,
Hegel had defended Mary Magdalene for refusing to succumb to the expectations of her society but ‘through sin’

experiencing love and developing consciousness. He poses
the question:

Would anyone say it had been better for Mary to
have yielded to the fate of the Jewish life, to
have passed away as an automaton of her time,
righteous and ordinary, without sin and without
love? Without sin, because the era of her people
was one of those in which the beautiful heart
could not live without sin, but in this as in any
era, could return through love to the most
beautiful consciousness.

Hegel saw love in his early work, as Lukacs notes, as ‘the
highest point of existence; it alone can overcome alJ that
is dead and positive in the world’ . When analysing
Antigone, Hegel can therefore perceive the justification for
Creon’s desire to maintain the authority of the state, but
at the same time he recognises the ethical superiority of
Antigone and the way of life she upholds. The tragedy can
be understood, as Lukacs says, in terms of a conflict
i1etween primitive, tribal society, represented by Antigone,
and the emerging forces which would lead to its demise:

What is striking about Hegel’s view of the
Antigone is the way in which the two poles of
the contradiction are maintained in a tense unity:

on the one hand, there is the recognition that
tribal society stands higher morally and-humanly
than the class societies that succeed it; and that
the collapse of tribal society was brought about
by the release of base and evil human impulses.

On the other hand, there is the equally powerful
conviction that this colJapse was inevitable and
that it signified a definite historical advance.

In Hegel’s essay on Natural Law, for example, tragedy is
analysed in terms of the conflict between man and citizen,
‘a collision of spirit with itself’ . Hegel recognises that
‘the beautiful solution achieved by the civilization of antiquity had to perish’ and that this is compensated to’

some extent by the progressive nature of the gestating new
order. But he also realises, as Lukacs points out, that:

••• the type of man produced by this material
advance in and through capitalism is the practical negation of everything great, significant and
sublime that humanity had created in the course
of its history up to them. The contradiction of
two necessarily connected phenomena, the indissoluble bond between progress and the debasement of mankind, the purchase of progress at the
cost of that debasement – that is the heart of
the ‘tragedy in the realm of the ethical’.

Consequently, Hegel sees tragedy disappearing with the
development of modern society predicated on individualism,
being replaced by romantic art concerned with the ‘boundless subjectivity’ of passion rather than the clash of ethical
principles. His sympathy for the protagonists in . Antigone
had rested on the fact that both Antigone and Creon, in
following one ethical principle, brought about the destruction of another, and for Hegel, as Bradley observes, ‘the
more nearly the contending forces approach each other in
goodness, the more tragic is the conflict’ .

We can see, then, that while Antigone’s choices are
governed by love, Hegel does not perceive love as mere

subjectivity but rather sees subjectivity as alien to tragedy. His focus on the ethical bonds of love in Antigone
does not suggest a reductionist view of women: drawing
attention to the ‘feminine’ quality of love does not in itself
entail a reductionist position provided it is clear that this
quality is not biologically based. It is significant that in
defying the patriarchal authority of the state, Antigone’s
actions are determined by an authentic relation of love
rather than sexual or economic motives or by blind obedience to authority.

Hegel’s perception of love as ethical rather than subjective is also evident in his critique of accounts of the
marriage bond which explain marriage in terms of purely
physical ties or in contractual terms. In the Phenomen~, for example, he analyses the family in terms of the
universality of the ethical bond:

••• in order that this relationship may be ethical,
neither the individual who does an act nor he to
whom the act refers must show any trace of contingency such as obtains in rendering some particular help or service. The content of the ethical
act must be substantial in character, or must be
entire and universal ••••

For Hegel, the value of marriage is precisely that it compels its members to transcend their individuality, in a relation whose ethical aspects constrain the contingency of
physical impulse. As he notes, in the Philosophy of Right,
in marriage ‘the sensuous moment, the one proper to physical life, is put into its ethical place as something only consequential and accid.ental’ . In this way the sexual
union is transformed into a union at the level of mind or
self-consciousness: in renouncing their individuality, the
partners attain self-consciousness. Unlike his predecessors,
Hegel is not concerned to drive a wedge between passion
.IDd reason but to designate the limits of passion within an
objective ethical framework. Contrasting the ‘ethico-Iegal’

love, on which he believes marriage should be based, with
‘the transient, fickle and purely subjective aspects of love’

, he is highly critical of those who focus solely on

But those works of modern art, dramatic and
other, in which the love of the sexes is the main
interest, are pervaded by a chill despite the heat
of passion they portray, for they associate the
passion with accident throughout and represent
the entire dramatic interest as if it rested solely
. .’ on the characters as these individuals: what rests
on them may indeed be of infinite importance to
them, but it is of none whatever in itself.

This contingency can only be transcended, as he comments
in his Philosophy of Mind, when the ‘bodily conjunction is a
sequel to the moral attachment’ .

Hegel also challenges the Kantian view of marriage
which sees it as a contract between two individual atoms:

‘On this view,’ says Hegel, ‘the parties are bound by a contract of mutual caprice, and marriage is thus degraded to
the level of a contract for reciprocal use’ . Although
marriage may begin at the level of contract, it moves beyond this for, in a contractual relationship, the parties are
related to each other as individual atoms, while in a genuinely ethical bond, this particularity is transcended. Any
attempt to subordinate marriage to some other end,
whether contract or sexuality, is ruled out by Hegel. He
consequently objects to arranged marriages which indicate
‘scant respect’ for women and marriages based on wealth
or political gain. For Hegel, the distinguishing feature of
the family is that it lies outside the realm of possessive
individualism and thus provides a counter to the fragmenting forces of civil society as it forces individuals to move
beyond subjectivity. The family, says Hegel, is ‘the first
precondition of the state’ and it is only within the
state that we find ‘the self-conscious ethical substance,
the unification of the family prinCiple with that of civil
society’ :

The same unity, which is in the family as a feel4

ing of love, is its essence, recelvmg however, at
the same time, through the second principle of
conscious and spontaneously active volition the
form of conscious universality.

What is of value in Hegel’s understanding of the family is
that it rests on a social theory which supersedes the
atomistic models of liberalism.


In his analysis of Antigone, Hegel offers a picture of
women as rational rather than governed simply by subjective feelings. It is therefore difficult to dismiss him as a
reductionist. On the contrary, his work reveals an awareness of the cultural mediation of gender roles which presents a challenge to reductionist theories. In his Lectures on
the Philosophy of World History, for example, he identifies
a range of patterns of behaviour, including a state of
women in the Congo ruled over by a woman who renounced
the love of her son, pounding him in a mortar and smearing
herself with his blood . The women survived by plundering and eating human flesh. Prisoners of war were used
as slaves or husbands, and male offspring were murdered,
often together with their fathers. Hegel’s aversion to these
‘A omen, however, seems to be due less to a fear of women
in control, than to the lack of respect for humanity which
he sees as characteristic of primitive societies. Lying
between the full participation of women in public life in
the Congo, and the privatisation of Western cultures, is the
tribe in Dahomey which Hegel describes as engaging in a
communal way of life. Here, he observes, women fight
alongside the king and .children are brought up communally,
distributed among the villages at birth and sold by the king
when of marriageable age. Each man has to take the
woman he is given and when presenting himself for marriage, the suitor is first given a mother to maintain, and
only subsequently, if his behaviour is satisfactory, is he
then given a wife. While Hegel’s discussion of these
examples may rely more on travellers’ tales than scientific
research, nonetheless his awareness of these variat’ions
does highlight the difficulty of attributing to him a reductionist standpoint.

The treatment of women in different cultures and its
effects is also considered by Hegel in his historical writings. The repression of women’s imagination in the medieval
period and its consequences in ‘the ghastliness of witch:’

craft’ , for example, is contrasted with the Bacchanalian festivities in which Greek women were able to give full
expression to their imagination:

On the one hand witches, on the other maenads;
in the one case the object of phantasy is a devilish grimace (Frazze), in the other a beautiful
vine-bedecked God; in the one socialised satisfaction of envy, of the desire for revenge and
hat, in the other nothing but purposeless pleasure
often verging on raging madness; in the one progress from individual attacks of insanity to total
and enduring derangement of the mind; in the
other withdrawal into ordinary life; in the first
case the age did not consider this displaced madness as an illness but a blasphemous outrage
which could be atoned only with the funeral
pyre, in the second the need of many female
phantasies and temperaments was something holy,
the outbreak of which gave (occasion for) holidays, something which was sanctioned by the
state and thereby given the possibility of being

Hegel also draws attention to the links between particular family types and the forms of the state. Monogamy,
for example, he sees as a corollary of Christian states,
‘since this is the only form in which both partners can
receive their full rights’ , although he points out that
the relationship between children and parents can include

slavery and allow children free property ownership. The
patriarchal family, where the ‘head of the family ••• is the
will of the whole; he acts in the interests of the common
!’)urposes, cares for the individuals, directs their activity
towards the common end, educates them, and ensures that
they remain in harmony with the universal end’ <45), is
seen as characteristic of Oriental cultures. Tracing the
uneven development of individualism through ancient society, he shows how the state gradually takes on an abstract
existence, apart from the head of the family. Attitudes
towards sexuality in different cultures are also contrasted
<46). In Jewish culture, for example, he notes that sex is
spoken of freely, while in Oriential cultures, women are
seen as separate from society. They cannot be likened to
objects, so there cannot be a relation of lordship and bondage between men and women but only one of seclusion.

Their physical separation embodies this image and consequently it constitutes a dishonour to talk of women. Hegel’s
historicisation of gender roles is therefore difficult to
reconcile with the reductionist interpretation of his work.


In seeking to explain and to transcend the subordination of
women in advanced industrial societies, we may in fact find
in Hegel’s work, specifically in his account of ~he masterslave dialectic, insights into relationships of domination and
exploitation. While it has been argued by Lloyd in ‘Masters,
Slaves and Others’ that the application of this dialectic to
the position of women by de Beauvoir entails negative consequences for women in devaluing their biological existence, she does nevertheless concede that the limitations of
de Beauvoir’s approach are largely due to a reliance on the
Sartrean interpretation of the master-slave relation <47).

It will therefore be argued here that Hegel’s account of
the master-slave dialectic sheds light on the power of ideo-logies by pointing to the extent to which the slave may
accept his slavery. Consciousness and labour, as preconditions of the transformation of these social relationships,
also play a central role in Hegel’s political thought but are
equally essential dimensions of feminist political theory.

In his account of lordship and bondage in the Phenomenology, Hegel sees the slave as representing the birth of
self-consciousness insofar as he is engaged in purposive
activity and his existence is grounded in fear and subordination. It could be argued that an analogy may be drawn
here between women and slaves insofar as women, like the
slaves of ancient society, constitute a service class, whose
function is to provide domestic and other services to the
members of the household. Their labour is unpaid and has
low status and they live within the households of the dominant group, cut off both physically and politically from full
participation in the public life of the society. Even when
working outside the home, they are segregated into occupations reflecting their marginal status and service functions.

~ithin the family, they are limited to satisfying the needs
and desires of others. On the Hegelian model, however,
their position contains a greater possibility of freedom than
that of the men who are dependent upon them for recognition. The slave has the possibility of confronting freedom
through fear and service, while the master’s relation to the
world is mediated by, and contained in, the desire for the
object, but this satisfaction of desire is seen by Hegel as
evanescent. The master remains trapped within his own
egotism: experiencing neither fear nor labour, he perceives
in the slave only his immediate will and receives from him
the formal recognition of an unfree consciousness. But for
the slave, the experience of fear according to Hegel is the
first moment of freedom. Fear, combined with service or
labour, constitutes the necessary precondition for the development of self-consciousness: ‘Without the formative activity shaping the thing, fear remains inward and mute, and
consciousness does not become objective for itself’ <48). In
serving the master, the slave loses his 'individual self-will'

and goes beyond the immediacy of appetite. His divestment
of self and ‘fear of the lord’ mark, for Hegel, the beginning


of knowledge and the movement to universal self-consciousness. Freedom is attained ‘solely by risking life’ <49) when
consciousness, which has 'tottered and shaken', is combined
with struggle. The fear and service of slavery contain, for
Hegel, the possibility of freedom beyond subjectivity. Selfconsciousness passes through the slave rather than the
master, dependent on the slave for recognition and trapped
by desires which lack substance and objectivity <50).

The importance of work for Hegel is that in labour the
worker moves beyond immediate instinctual life, fJees the
darkness of nature and becomes truly human. Hegel does
not idealise work but, while acknowledging its endless
drudgery, says that in working upon an object the worker
externalises his self-consciousness and makes it permanent:

‘precisely in labour where there seemed to be merely some
outsider’S mind and ideas involved, the bondsman becomes
aware through this re-discovery of himself by himself, of
having and being a “mind of his own'” . In fashioning
the object the worker ‘makes himself into a thing’ by
expressing the objective laws of work as independent of
individual desires. By placing labour between his desires
and their fulfilment, he moves away from nature towards

It is precisely this dimension of slavery as potential
consciousness which eats away at the heart of the masterslave relation and the system of slavery consequent upon
it, ultimately leading to its demise. But in stressing potential rather than actual consciousness, Hegel attributes responsibility for slavery to the slave rather than the master;
‘To adhere to man’s absolute freedom’, he says, ‘is eo ipso
to condemn slavery. Yet if a man is a slave, his own will is
responsible for his slavery, just as it is its will which is
responsible if a people is subjugated’ <52). Hegel applies
this argument specifically to the history of nations but his
account of the responsibility for slavery could also be seen
as relevant to the history of women's exploitation. There is
no 'absolute injustice' in slaves remaining slaves, argues
Hegel, for if they do not risk their lives to gain freedom,
their slavery is deserved: 'he who has not th~ courage to
risk his life to win freedom, that man deserves to be a
slave' <53). He points out that slavery as a system of
social relationships could not survive unless the slave
accepted and was at home in his slavery.

A further justification of slavery for Hegel lies in the
fact that slavery may be appropriate to a particular phase
of social development and in that sense ‘just’: ‘Slavery and
tyranny,’ he says, ‘are, therefore in the history of nations
a necessary stage and hence relatively justified’ <54).

Referring to the slaves’ hostility to the efforts of English
reformers to abolish slavery, he argues that slavery is
accepted as natural’ by the slaves. It is the typical legal
relationship of a society in which a low value is placed on
human life and this evaluation of human life is internalised
by the slaves themselves, even if slavery is seen as an
absolute injustice by Western reformers. It is entirely consistent, for Hegel, with the state of nature characteristic
of primitive societies. If a man can sell his wife, parents
and children into slavery, this demonstrates a contempt for
life in general as well as his own and signifies an absence
of morality. Taking a broader historical perspective, Hegel
sees slavery as part of the transition from the state of
nature to a genuinely ethical existence. It arises in a world
where ‘a wrong is still right’ <55), where wrong has some
validity and constitutes a necessary moment in the progression towards a higher stage of development. Only when
society reaches maturity may it realise its freedom and
eliminate slavery. Where a society is undeveloped we
should expect to find slavery, says Hegel. Even in Greece
this 'relative injustice' may be found, since in that culture
freedom was not based on the idea of a rational self-consciousness <56). Only when self-consciousness apprehends
itself, through thought, as human does it free itself from
contingency and move into the realm of morality and ethical life. Rational reflection is what distinguishes the
slave's unfreedom from freedom, and thus it was the Greek
slaves resisting their slavery, and not the citizens, who
grasped this and sought to attain their 'eternal human

rights’ .

If we consider the implications of Hegel’s analysis of
slavery for an understanding of social change, and, specifically, changes in the position of women, his standpoint
may seem at first sight to be rather pes~imistic. He attributes responsibility for slavery to the slave and seems to
suggest that the slave enjoys his slavery. He also treats
~lavery as appropriate to particular forms of life, as a necessary stage in social development and therefore inevitable
Both arguments may appear to be antithetical to the likelihood of a radical change in women’s lives, yet both can be
taken to mean the opposite in the following ways. Precisely
because Hegel attributes slavery to the will of an individual or people, he opens up the possibility of a dramatic
change in social relationships through the power of rational
reflection. Recent work within feminism has examined the
ways in which women may embrace patriarchal ideas or
ideologies of domesticity and resist change . Attention
has also been paid to the low self-esteem in which many
women hold themselves, placing a low value on their own
needs and on their lives generally. Yet in neither case does
this preclude the possibility of change which lies at the
foundation of the master-slave relation. Secondly, Hegel’s
account of slavery is an historical account which presupposes the potentiality for changes in relationships of
domination and subordination, given certain changes in the
way of life in which these relationships are grounded.

Hegel’s acknowledgement of the slave’S identification
with his slavery is combined with an awareness of the tensions inherent in any relation of oppression. The dominance
of the master over the slave and the slave’S acquiescence
are neither stable nor eternal. Rather, the relation is one
of constant struggle in which the master’s authority, from
the beginning, may be negated. This may be illustrated by
Hegel’s observations on slavery in certain African cultures
in his Lectures on the Philosophy of World History. A system of despotism based on force, patriarchal authority and
an arbitrary will is inherently weak, says Hegel, for the
despot is always in danger of being challenged by his subjects: ‘thus even such despotism as this is not completely
blind; the peoples of Africa are not just slaves but assert
their own will too’ . Slavery, as a system of social
relations, can never be secure for ‘the sword really hangs
above the despot’s head day and night’ and, like his subjects, the despot is vulnerable to the lack of respect for
human life .

The movement towards self-consciousness is built into
the master-slave relation and incorporates the possibility of
freedom for the master as well as the slave. The emancipation of the slave furthers the interest of the master since,
as Hegel notes .. in the Phenomenology, only when the slave
realises his freedom does the master move beyond immediacy. This idea is applied specifically to colonial relations
in the Philosophy of Right where he points out that ‘Colonial independence proves to be of the greatest advantage
to the mother country, just as the emancipation of the
slaves turns out to the greatest advantage of the owners’


Hegel’s arguments concerning responsibility for
slavery and its appropriateness do not therefore entail a
static model of the master-slave relation. Rather, he offers
a dynamic model which sees that relationship as characterised by a fundamental tension which may ultimately tear it
apart. Applying Hegel’s analysis to the behaviour of women,
we find that the acceptance of patriarchal ideologies is
matched by examples of women’s resistance to their exploitation . In struggling against their subordination women
at the same time precipitate a qualitative improvement in
social relations for men who are also constrained by those

Furthermore, Hegel is optimistic that when the slaves
begin to resist, the system of slavery will perish: ‘if a nation does not merely imagine that it wants to be free but
actually has the energy to will its freedom,’ he says, ‘then
no human power can hold it back in the servitude of a
merely passive obedience to authority’ . One can infer
from this that the very fact of struggling together is as
important for women as the formal freedoms thereby ob6

tained and is inseparable from them, since collective resistance ensures the growth of consciousness. Because freedom
constitutes the human essence for Hegel, he emphasises
that the slave has an absolute right to free himself and
essential to this transition to freedom is rational selfconsciousness. While attributing slavery to the will of the
slave,· Hegel nonetheless envisages a complete reversal of
the master-slave relation given the will for· change and
consciousness of the potential for freedom:

••• it is only as thinking intelligence that the will
is genuinely a will and free. The slave does not
know his essence, his infinity, his freedom; he
does not know himself as human in essence; and
he lacks this knowledge of himself because he
does not think himself. This self-consciousness
which apprehends itself through thinking as
essentially human, and thereby frees itself from
the contingent and the false, is the principle of
right, morality and all ethical life.

He contrasts this reflective self-consciousness with appeals
to ‘feeling, enthusiasm, the heart and the breast’, which
are absorbed in ‘instinctive desire’ and ‘particularity’ .

For freedom to be obtained, the slave has to move beyond
his own individuality, as well as that of the master, to
grasp ‘the absolutely rational in its universality which is
independent of the particularity of the subjects’ .

Hegel’s identification of the freedom of the slave with
reflective self-consciousness, and of the need to move
beyond feelings to reason, points clearly to the importance
of rational reflection for women as a means of transforming their position. For Hegel, the slave is closer to rationality than the master imprisoned by sensation and desire and
it could be argued that women, because of their subordination, are forced to move beyond the immediacy of desire
into the realm of rational reflection while men, on the
other hand, are tied to the sensual world, using the gratifica tion of physical needs and control of reproduction as a
means of oppression .

Moreover, while Hegel gives an historical analysis of
slavery, this does not commit him to a total relativism
which would rule out criticism of particular forms of life.

While attracted to the liberal ideals of the French Revolution, for example, Hegel recognised the limitations of the
emerging bourgeois society as well as the shortcomings of
the liberal theories used to understand and justify the new
order. Like Marx and Engels, he was well aware that the
progressive aspects of liberal capitalism were accompanied
by greed, egotism and self-interest, which would lead to
the ‘creation of a rabble of paupers’ . He notes that
‘At the same time, this brings with it, at the other end of
the social scale, conditions which greatly facilitate the
concentration of disproportionate wealth in a few hands’

. Hegel did not allow his acknowledgement of the progressive aspects of liberal capitalism to become an apologia
for that society. Instead he saw poverty and class conflict
as inevitable features of that mode of production. It is
therefore difficult to accept Elshtain’s argument that Hegel
ignores the ‘realities of economic power’ . While
Elshtain postulates that individualism ‘may arguably be the
only means available to the woman to attain an identity
other than a thoroughly privatised one’ , Hegel draws
‘attention to the pathological effects ofa social structure
governed by the pursuit of self-interest. Although Hegel did
not develop his understanding of the labour-process into a
full-blown critique of the division of labour of the kind
1arx and Engels subsequently were to elaborate, nonetheless such a critique is implicit in his teleology. The connections he drew between freedom and necessity, consciousness and labour, constituted a significant advance on
earlier theories and bequeathed to feminist theory a firm
foundation on which to construct an investigation into the
development of the division of labour and ways of
transcending it.

By showing how slavery is ‘natural’ or appropriate to
particular stages of development, for example, Hegel points
to the necessity of a fundamental change in social relation-

ships if slavery is to be eliminated. The implication here
for women is that radical improvements in their position
will not be achieved by piecemeal changes. What is needed
is a transformation of the social structure which generates
inequalities and leads to their privatisation. Nor will these
inequalities be removed by an appeal to moral principles
since their subordination is linked to the needs of capital
for a reserve army and its own reproduction. Hegel’s comments on the ‘relative justification’ of slavery anticipated
Marx’s argument in the Critique of the Gotha Programme
that ‘Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and the cultural development conditioned by
it’ . Marx’s observations on justice have led some commentators to argue that the extraction of surplus value
cannot be seen as unjust since it is an essential feature of
capitalism and the labourer freely exchanges his labourpower for wages . ‘Exploitation’ is thus a ‘natural’

feature of capitalist society appropriate to that stage of
development and should not be seen in moral terms. It follows from this that it is mistaken to see Marxism as a
moral theory aimed at removing injustice: the ‘injustices’ it
analyses are a necessary part of that mode of production

and will not be dissolved by a moral critique but only by a
radical change in the economic and social structure. Similarly it could be argued that the subordination of women
will be overcome only by a challenge to the division of
labour which forms the heart of the system of oppressive
social relations and the source of slavery.

Hegel’s quasi-relativist view of morality does not preclude the possibility of advancement, however, since he
suggests that the move away from slavery towards freedom,
although dependent on consciousness, is nevertheless inevi table and reflects the growth of reason in the world. His
analysis of slavery consequently provides a rich source of
concepts for feminist theory. His political thought is of
particular interest insofar as it offers an understanding of
freedom and enslavement from a standpoint which transcends individualism. If we take into account his insights
into slavery together with his anthropological writings and
his study of Antigone, it is difficult to sustain a reductionist interpretation of his work.

Susan M. Easton



S. Moller Okin, Women in Western Political Thought, London, Virago,
1980, p.5.

Ibid., p. 5.

Ibid., p. 9.

Ibid., p. 10.

Ibid., p. 9.

Ibid., p. 197.

Ibid., p. 341.

Ibid., p. 293.

r-Bethke Elshtain, Public Man, Private Woman, Oxford, Martin
Robertson, 1981, p. 174.

Ibid., p. 174.

Ibid., p. 176.

Ibid., p. 175.

Ibid., p. 177.

Elshtain’s dissatisfaction with Hegel’s treatment of women extends to
the work of Simone de Beauvoir who employs Hegelian concepts in
analysing women’s oppression. Pointing to similarities between the
work of de Beauvoir and Firestone, Elshtain notes that women, for de
Beauvoir, can achieve transcendence only by rejecting their female
identities. Similarly, Genevieve Lloyd in her critique of de Beauvoir
argues that we should ‘expect some oddities in any attempt to apply
the relations of recognition between Hegelian selves and others to
understanding the condition of women. And some of the puzzling features of de Beauvoir’s analysis ••• do seem to derive from the underlying maleness of the original Hegelian confrontation of consciousness’

(G. Lloyd, ‘Masters, Slaves and Others’, Radical Philosophy 34
(Summer 1983), p. 5.

Eishtain, op.cit., p. J 79.

Sophoc1es, Ant~one, 926.

G.W.F. Hegel,he Phenomenolog of Mind, London, Allen and Unwin,
1966, trans. J. Baillie, p. 491 (PG.

Ibid., p. 491.

Ibid., p. 737.

Ibid., p. 737.

Ibid., p. 491.

.A.C. Bradley, ‘Hegel’s Theory of Tragedy’, appendix to A. and H.

Paolucci, Hegel on Tragedy, New York, Harper and Row, 1962, p. 385.

Hegel, ~ p. 471.

Ibid., p. 472.

G.W.F. Hegel, Early Theological Writings, TGbingen, 1907, ed. H. Nohl,

G. Lukacs, The Young Hegel, London, Merlin Press, 1975, p. 121.

Ibid., p. 412.

Ibid., p. 403.

Ibid., p. 404.

Ibid., p. 408.

A.C. Bradley, op.cit., p. 384.

Hegel, ~ p. 469.

G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1952,
trans. T.M. Knox, 164 (PR).

Ibid., p. 161 addition.

Ibid., p. 162.


36 G. W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Mind, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1971,
trans. W. Wallace and A.V. Miller, 519 (PM). Hegel’s attempt to draw
together passion and reason lies in marked contrast to de Beauvoir’s
radical distinction between immanence and transcendence. As both
Lloyd and Elshtain have pointed out, transcendence for de Beauvoir
and Sartre entails a denial of women’s biological lives: ‘It is as if the
female body is an intrinsic obstacle to transcendence, making woman
“a prey of the species'” (Lloyd, op.cit., p.8).

~7 Hegel, fg, 161 Addition.

38 Ibid., p. 201 Addition.

39 Hegel, fM, 535.

40 Ibid., p. 535.

41 G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History (introduction), Cambridge University Press, 1975, trans. H.B. Nisbet, appendix
on Africa, pp. 173-190 (LPWH).

42 G.W.F. Hegel, ‘Fragments of Historical Studies’, Clio, 1977, Vol. 7,
No. 1, p. 123.

43 Ibid., p. 123.

44 Hegel, LPWH, p. 113.

45 Ibid., p. 198.

46 Hegel, ‘Fragments of Historical Studies’, pp. 117-18.

47 Lloyd, op.cit.,
48 Hegel, PG, p. 239.

49 Ibid., p. 233.

50 Here may be found a further contrast be-tween the Hegelian and the
Sartrean model, employed by de Beauvoir, in which, as Lloyd notes,
‘the benefits of having staked one’s life and lived through the fear of
death accrue entirely to the Master’, while the slave ‘remains immersed in life’ (Lloyd, op.cit., p. 6).

51 Hegel, PG., p. 239. This externalisation through labour is, as Lloyd
correctVpoints out, missing from the Sartrean understanding of the
master-slave dialectic and thus from de Beauvoir’s analysis of
women’s subordination. But in surrendering this dimension of the dialectic, we are arguably losing what is of most value in Hegel’s work
and also most pertinent to a feminist reading of Hegel.

52 Hegel, fg, 57 Addition.

53 Hegel, fM, 435 Zusatz.

54 Ibid., p. 435 Zusatz.

55 Hegel, fg, 57 Ac;ldition.

.56 Hegel, fM, 433 Zusatz.

57 Ibid., p. 433 Zusatz.

58 See, for example, A. Dworkin, Right-Wing Women, the politics of
domesticated females, London, Women’s Press, 1983.

59 Hegel, LPWH, p. 187.

60 Ibid., p. 187.

61 Hegel, fg, 248 Addition.

62 The tensions inherent in this relationship are expressed in, for example, the film A Question of Silence.

63 Hegel, fM, 435 Zusatz.

64 Hegel, fg, 21.

65 Ibid., p. 21.

66 Hegel, fM, 435 Zusatz.

67 This point is illustrated by the film The Draughtsman’s Contract,




where the male protagonists, governed by sensuality, are drawn into
the plot devised by women who, although formally occupying a
marginal position in the culture, are able through design to control
their actions.

Hegel, ~ 244.

Ibid., p. 244.

T.Bethke Elshtain, op.cit., p. 179.

Ibid., p. 181.

~Marx, ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’, Basic Writings on
Politics and Philosophy, London, Pelican, 1963, ed •.L.S. Feuer, p. 160.

See, for example, A. Wood, Karl Marx (London, Routledge and Kegan
Paul, 1981); M. Cohen, T. Nagel and T. Scanlon (eds.) Marx, Justice
and History (Princeton, University Press, 1980); S.M. Easton, Humanist
Marxism and Witt ensteinian Social Philoso h (Manchester, University Press, 1983.

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