Hegel’s Critique of Liberalism and Social Contract
Theories in the Jena Lectures

by Ashraf Mansour


Hegel’s political writings contain a significant critique of Liberalism and Social Contract Theories that many scholars have stressed. Though attention has been focused on his major political work, The Philosophy of Right, his Jena lectures (System of Ethical Life, and First Philosophy of Spirit) which did not gain the same attention as his Philosophy of Right, form the origin of all his later political and social theories. My intention in this study is to show that it also reveals the major themes of his critique of Liberalism and Social Contract theories. Those two early works proves that Hegel makes a different account of the nature of human association, rights, contracts, abstract and general will, property, freedom, the individual, in short, all the central concepts of Liberalism and Social Contract theories. His unique theories and ideas about those concepts proves his departure from all Liberal and Social Contract accounts of them.

Human Nature

Against the tradition of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, Hegel does not begin by studying Human Nature as a prologue to his political philosophy; he never deduced political theories from an a priori concept of Human Nature. Social Contract theory’s account of Human Nature reveals an individualistic attitude that results in atomism in their political theories. On the other hand, Hegel begins his System of Ethical Life with an account of self-awareness, feeling, desire or need, which leads to the concept of tool, labour, and the intersubjective satisfaction of needs. Those accounts leads to his concept of civil society as a system of needs and the satisfaction of them.

The State of Nature

Hegel’s First Philosophy of Spirit reveals his departure from the idea of the state of nature in contract theories. Those theories build all associations, including human rights, civil society and the state, on assumptions about the state of nature. On the other hand, Hegel begins by studying the origin of consciousness and self-consciousness, which substitutes the idea of the state of nature. Hegel moves from his account of self-consciousness to the concepts of language or speech, the tool, possession, the family, and the people. Note that he begins in The Philosophy of Right with possession, and that shows the significance of the preceding concepts to his political theory.

Furthermore, he does not deduce political organizations and sovereignty immediately from his above mentioned concepts in the same manner of deducing politics from the state of nature, but shows that the state is the combination and the synthesis of them in a dialectical manner. The difference between his studies in the Jena lectures and the Social Contract account of the state of nature embodies Hegel’s significance to all the subsequent critique of Liberalism, from Marx to Communitarianism.

Almost all philosophers who wrote about the state of nature wrote at the same time about, and made assumptions about, desire, soul, body, mind, self preservation, instrumentality; in short, their account of the state of nature mingled with their visions of cognition, which proves the strong connection between the theory of knowledge and political theory in their work. Hegel’s political theory also reveals this strong connection between it an his theory of knowledge. Hegel was aware of this connection, and that is why his political ideas in the Jena Lectures are preceded by and combined with parts of his theory of knowledge. Furthermore, his critique of Kant’s philosophy in his early writings is both a critique of Kant’s epistemology and political theory: his theories on Will, Contract, Freedom, and Law.

The Individual

The Jena Lectures have another significance concerning the Individual. Liberal theory begins by a well-matured rational individual, and deduce all its ideas about rights, freedom, contract, political association and law from this a priori concept of the individual. On the other hand, Hegel does not begin by such a concept of the individual, but by an evolutionary account of Spirit and consciousness. Although Hegel begins his Political theory in The Philosophy of Right by Abstract Will, he did not do so in the Jena lectures. There he begins by describing an evolutionary course which results in Consciousness gaining Reason, Will and Rights. Furthermore, Self-Consciousness as Reason and Will is the end of a dialectical process in the Phenomenology of Mind, a process which begins by self-certainty, perception, and understanding, an epistemological process that has a social counterpart in the struggle for recognition in the chapters on Lordship and Bondage, Freedom and the Unhappy Consciousness, which all have their origin in the Jena lectures.

One can regard Hegel’s ideas in the Jena lectures about the abstract character of work and his critique of civil society in the names of the system of needs and relative ethical life as a critique of Liberalism and Contract theories. Hegel also speaks of the conflict between the individual and the universal, or subject and object, and we can regard his account of absolute ethical life and the State as a solution of those dualisms, and a substitution to liberal political theories.


In opposition to Liberalism and Contract theories, Hegel does not regard rights as originating from an a priori eternal human nature which have the same characteristics in all societies and all times. Human beings have rights as a result of a historical and social struggle, which he calls the struggle for recognition. This view of the nature of rights finds its complete exposition in The Phenomenology of Mind, but its origin lies in the Jena lectures.

If we take the right to property as an example, the difference between Hegel’s and Locke’s accounts becomes clear. The right to property in Hegel concerns Man as a Will, a Spirit, a Self-Conscious being. On the other hand, Man has property right in Locke because of his biological organic nature. Whereas Locke concentrated on the problem of possessing, enjoying, and distributing property, Hegel concentrated on the productive activity of the subject, which was prophetic to Marx. The subject in Locke confronts nature in a dominating, instrumental manner, taking from it what satisfies its biological needs, but in Hegel both subject and object, or man and nature constitute each other in a dialectical process. Hegel shows that human being makes the things of the outer world parts of his own world by way of labour, and thereby raising Man above his biological nature.


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