Issue #52 May 2022

Hegel’s 1803 Ethics: Empiricism and the State of Nature

Maurice Heaton - Untitled - (1977)

I have recently read Hegel’s 1803 essay, On the Scientific Ways of Treating Natural Law, on its Place in Practical Philosophy, and its Relation to the Positive Sciences of Right, and it should come as no surprise that more than half of the text is not immediately about the concept of natural law at all. It is in fact a systematic treatise concerning the immanent relation of epistemology to morality. Outside of the Philosophy of Right one could as no great stretch dare to say this is Hegel’s treatise on morality—the only drawback is that Hegel’s writing style is in places more obtuse than in his mature writings.  We can already discern that at this point Hegel has a strong notion of what it is that he is searching for philosophically. The dialectical style is present, the inversion of concepts is in operation, and the notion of the concrete universal and sublation are in play even if Hegel is himself not entirely conscious of how it all comes down together. A lot of the elaboration on the structure of the Concept and Idea is cognizant of its contradictory and negatively unifying structure; absolute negativity is mentioned here and there, but much of the attempts to elaborate this are necessarily obscure as Hegel, at least for most of the essay, cannot explain how or why these qualities are inherent to them, and how the finite and infinite are one as distinct. Nonetheless, the essay is remarkable for its clarity where it matters, and it offers yet another exemplary concrete execution of Hegel’s method on a topic of great interest to philosophers and laymen alike.

This is the first of a three part series of articles overviewing Hegel’s theory of natural law (ethics) in the 1803 essay, The Scientific Ways of Treating Natural Law, Its Place in Moral Philosophy, and Its Relation to the Positive Sciences of Law. First, we will consider empiricism and the chaotic war of all against all. Second, we will consider rationalism and Immanuel Kant’s moral law in particular. Third, we will consider perception and Fichte’s political theory of mutual compulsion and the general will, which is the negative form of ethical life that straddles the entry into the insight of perception proper without fully entering into the consequences of perception in the ethical domain. These three parts constitute and determine a negative dialectic which dissolves the appearance of the separateness of the epistemic and ethical principles in the form of natural individual will and universal moral duties. This expositional series only overviews one half of Hegel’s essay, the latter half not covered being Hegel’s ‘positive’ exposition of what is ethics proper, i.e. ethical life.


Knowing and Ethics

How does one go about developing a science of ethics? Hegel notes that any attempt to privilege any one of the various principles people have thought up for ethical foundations is arbitrary. Nonetheless, there is something even in the immediate concept of ethics that demands a kind of unity of the empirical with the rational. What is to be known about the ethical has a tie to what is to be known about empirical existence, for ethics arises and exists in that same empirical world.

“It is of course true that, since all things are interconnected, empirical existence and the condition of all sciences will express also the condition of the world. But the condition of natural law will do so in particular because natural law bears directly on the ethical, the mover of all things human; and, insofar as the science of ethics has an existence, it is under the necessity of being one with the empirical shape of the ethical, a shape equally necessary. And, as science, natural law must express that shape in the form of universality.”1placeholder

The question is at first about the science of ethics. What would we know and how would we know it without presupposing? The science of ethics, if it is not to presuppose its method, must include in the study of its object (ethics) the very way we are to know this object. The science must account for itself as the science of ethics. In order to not presuppose its object, however, the science must make no initial claims about what ethics is. Of course, if we give up all conception of what it is that we’re inquiring about we could not even talk about considering such a thing as ethics or how we know it. We do not begin from nowhere; we begin from the least assumptive claim available about ethics from what has historically been offered. In not making our beginning with our assumption of what ethics is, and instead taking what others have offered as a concept which lays out its own validation procedure, we release ourselves from the charge of presupposing our subject matter, for the subject matter comes to us as itself claiming no presupposition in its immediacy, and it also comes with a procedure of validation of claims. All that the proper Hegelian philosopher must do is to observe whether the concept lives up to its own standards. 

One should not worry here to run about trying to find out who or what philosophy Hegel is referring to while giving no name. The truth of the matter is that Hegel is often not, and cannot be, referring to anyone or any specific philosophy for the simple reason that what Hegel means by his concepts is not what anyone other than him means. While we will see shades of Hume and Hobbes in this investigation of empiricism and its ethics, it must be clear that whatever exposition or critique Hegel makes has little to nothing to do with what Hume or Hobbes explicitly make of their own positions. Hegel does not directly borrow concepts from anyone, he always defines things immanently to his own systematic endeavor, and insofar as it relates to other thinkers in history, its relation is a kind of conceptual ‘correction’ in which Hegel is clarifying a concept to what it can and does mean if we hold the concept’s feet to the fire of absolute critique. Such corrections, of course, are not always what the critiqued philosophers and their living students recognize as proper readings, let alone true corrections.

Natural law, or ethics, begins immediately with existence. Insofar as ethics exists, it exists in the empirical world and is one with its empirical shape. This shape in ethics, since it is a science and thus rational, is expressed in universal form. Empiricism is the knowing that grasps the existent world in its immediate sensuousness as a given plurality, and this epistemology raised to ethical form is the state of nature as the war of all against all. As raised to universal form in the ceaseless supplanting of a plurality of principles and things in empiricism, the existence of ethics attains a determinate relation of form over content in the form of supplanting remaining the same, and this is the epistemic form of rationalism. This new epistemology in turn is raised to ethical form as the deontological moral law or the categorical imperative, a form that is indifferent to content. The form is immediately not one with the content and appears as an external unity to the plurality. It must minimally be a concept of unity or relation, but if it is radically opposed to content it is merely the form of relation itself (pure identity), and it expels all relational content as opposite to it. The form then appears like the cognition of a baby, for whom the unity of mind does not explicitly unite the many qualities that come and go before its consciousness, grasping them only as a disconnected series of a sensuous plurality. The dialectic arises and completes its circuit. Empiricism and its state of nature rationally reveal their absolute content to be the form of rationalism, and rationalism and the moral law reveal their absolute form to be the content of empiricism, an endless plurality of opposing principles. This dialectic which is the unity of empiricism and rationalism is grasped as the concept of perception, which for its ethical content has ethical life.

Maurice Heaton - Untitled - (1977)

Empiricism: The War of All Against All

Pure empiricism,2placeholder in facing a plurality of objects in the world, cannot form a universally assented to determination which unites all others. For every standpoint we may point out as significant over others, there are other standpoints that claim such a status for the same arbitrary reason as the first, and thus any attempts to universalize any given particular sensuous content falls right back into particularization. As all these arbitrary standpoints have no necessary relation to and over each other there is a struggle over what determination rules over the others, what is essential, purposive, or unifying, but in having no necessary connection to each other they for that same reason fall apart into equal independents. Pure empiricism, however, outright rejects all unity as an illusion. Only particularity exists, there is no deeper or higher explanation bringing phenomena together under one reason, as such it is not a scientific standpoint at all.

The beginning of this science is not pure empiricism, but must at least be scientific empiricism.3placeholder This empiricism denies absolute unity, but it recognizes that it needs a unity in order to operate as a science at all. Empirical science absolutizes itself as a totality of the multiplicity, the completeness of the set of particulars, but the empirical scientific principle is universal only to the extent that it is consistent with the plurality. Scientific empiricism must have a minimal concept of unity, an object as determinately unified: a singular simple small mass of qualities which suffice for knowledge of the rest of empirical objects. From the infinity of empirical objects a simplex is arbitrarily picked out and absolutized into the essence or law of everything else, but for every principle chosen there are others who likewise choose another and oppose it to the first. A struggle over epistemically justified assertions of what is the object of scientific knowledge ensues—an epistemic anarchy in a wild landscape of competing sciences wherein nothing universally certain can be determined. 

The comprehended consequence of this arbitrary determination of the principle of knowledge is chaos in the physical world, for a myriad of simplexes abound, externally and indifferently bearing upon each other with no determinate inner relation or necessity. All things are like billiard balls moving hither and thither and coming into contact, except that not even the laws of mechanics rule their interaction, for that would be an overbearing unity upon the multiplex. In ethics this same chaos is the state of nature. In empirical psychology we find this chaos as potentiality and abstraction in cognition, for the merely potential and abstract are such things as are considered with no relations to others. We find the various theories of human nature, each picked out arbitrarily and coming to various conclusions, e.g. the noble savage or the violent savage, the creative aesthetic laborer or the selfish and greedy entrepreneur. We also find the lists of faculties of the mind, faculties which are particular to our species or kind of being, thus we find universal and certain knowledge to be undone as the very knower cancels out the objective universality and necessity of its own claims, and empiricism and all its consequents fall into a merely subjective standpoint which can be opposed by any other.


The State of Nature

In ethical thought, scientific empiricism leads to the abstraction from all that appears accidental and capricious to the state of law. What is left from this abstraction is the bare state of nature, or the essential potentialities of human being as natural; as a consequence the state and law fall away as accidents added to the essential simplex of human nature. Since empiricism essentially denies the reality of absolute unity, it can only conceive its concrete principle of knowledge or ethical existence to be one amongst many, a many which is itself not internally necessary to the many, but only empirically necessary. The choosing of a principle, therefore, as the explanation or determination of the infinite multiplicity brings about a struggle to annihilate a large portion of the many and their oppositions, but the victory of any principle is only partial, for the many are infinite and cannot be absolutely overcome. The absolute opposition of the many leads to the same consequence in two forms: first, the absolute war of all against all brings everything to nullity, absolute destruction in the clash of oppositions; second, the struggle to separate the many as independent beings also brings them to nullity in destroying their own conditions of existence within the many. Either the many mutually destroy themselves, or one destroys all others and thereby destroys itself as well. This is because if unity is accepted by empiricism, it is only beside the many and not immanent to them, so that the unity and the many are themselves in the form of the many, and if the many are eliminated the lone being or principle logically eliminates itself and no further progress is made. 

Given that this state of nature has the consequence of producing only the war of all against all, scientific empiricism, with its practical end being a social harmony opposite of this chaos, quickly shifts away from the state of nature as a merely passing moment meant to clear the way for the real intended and presupposed purpose. There are often appeals to the sociality of human potentiality and nature so that the arising of state and law may be explained, but these potentials are only arbitrarily picked out and assumed, and when potentials or faculties which predispose us to social cohesion are abandoned there is the appeal to brute history in the success of domination of the stronger over the weaker as the original social glue. Whichever strategy the empiricist pursues makes no difference to the logical consequence of what the state is. What appears in the immediacy of individuals and principles as chaos is only displaced from one domain to another, from individuals to states, with no genuine advance in explanation. Even if empiricism gave in and attempted to determine an absolute unity, such as the origin of the state in a mandate by God, this unity is merely formal and retains the disjointed unity with the plurality of all empirical objects. Here empiricism inverts itself into its opposite, rationalist formalism, except that it does not even try to justify its inconsistency in the manner that rationalism does.


From Empiricism to Rationalism

We see that the chaotic shift and supplanting of empiricism is unavoidable no matter what complexity it wishes to arbitrarily give itself. As the plurality is encountered it reveals the inconsistency of the principle, and the principle is abandoned and supplanted by another which is no less arbitrary or valid. There arises an endless series of supplanting principles and completeness is never achieved. Though the series is not complete, the form of the supplanting is consistent in the process of changing principles. A step is made by empirical thought when it shifts from focus on the plurality of its contents and begins to pay attention to its form, but when this form is purified and absolute this is rationalism or formalism.4placeholder

Formalism opposes itself to empiricism as a totality of consistency, not completeness. Formalism maintains consistency by ejecting all that contradicts the form in the empirical as inessential and untrue. Insofar as the form is a particular given, the form rejects empirical content that does not accord with it as untrue and inessential, but this repeats the opposition of the empirical principles, it is itself the form of a plurality of opposed principles, and falls back into particularity and a struggle of a priori principles ensues. The only way for formalism to maintain itself relevant and distinct from empiricism is to find in empirical content some link that maintains the reality of formalism without this formalism falling into an immediate plurality of formalisms. Such a maintained existence is in the formality of the movement from empirical content to empirical content, or principle to principle, but if formalism is this movement of content it becomes identical to empiricism since its concrete consequence is nothing but the process of empirical supplanting. What formalism reveals is that its only consistency is endless empirical supplanting. The dialectic is complete, but this must be validated in a deeper investigation of formalism or rationalism, and this shall be done in the second part of this series.

Antonio Wolf is a former philosophy student, and continuing autodidact. Currently he’s focusing on Hegel. He authors a blog, the Empyrean Trail, which tries to expound Hegel’s philosophy to make it accessible without watering it down.

Works Cited

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Scientific Ways of Treating Natural Law, Its Place in Moral Philosophy, and Its Relation to the Positive Sciences of Law, trans. T.M. Knox (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975).


Hegel, G.W.F., The Scientific Ways of Treating Natural Law, Its Place in Moral Philosophy, and Its Relation to the Positive Sciences of Law, trans. T M Knox (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975), p.58.


Hegel, G.W.F., The Scientific Ways of Treating Natural Law, Its Place in Moral Philosophy, and Its Relation to the Positive Sciences of Law, trans. T M Knox (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975), p.62.


Hegel, G.W.F., The Scientific Ways of Treating Natural Law, Its Place in Moral Philosophy, and Its Relation to the Positive Sciences of Law, trans. T M Knox (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975), p.63.


Hegel, G.W.F., The Scientific Ways of Treating Natural Law, Its Place in Moral Philosophy, and Its Relation to the Positive Sciences of Law, trans. T M Knox (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975), p.67.


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