Issue #54 July 2022

Hegel’s 1803 Ethics: Perception and the General Will

Paul Sérusier - Bretonnes, réunion dans le bois sacré (1891-1893)

The second part of this series concerned rationalism and the moral law as particularly exposed in Immanuel Kant’s philosophy. The conclusion of that inquiry was that the moral law fails its own aims: it neither is capable of judging moral contents, nor does its form specify anything distinct to its particulars, and so it shows itself to be no different to the endless series of particularities we find in empiricism and its war of all against all. Like rationalism’s perfection being found in Kant’s philosophy, perception’s partial ethical form has as its face Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s formal perfection of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s theory of the general will. With the completion of this critique Hegel begins to shift toward his own positive theory, but one must not mistake that the negative dialectic of {empiricism—rationalism}-perception allows ethics to dispense with such prior standpoints as untrue. The negative dialectic not only reveals the limitation of such perspectives, but also their validity within those limits.



Neither empiricism nor rationalist formalism have shown themselves as consistent absolutes—they contradict themselves and produce results opposite their claimed intent. The unity of the moral law is neither the unity which cancels particulars since it falls into particularity itself, nor is it the true unity of particulars which are to be found in perception and its positive ‘indifference’, i.e. its sublating of the particularity of empiricism and rationalism. Perception is the third to these two, the epistemic form corresponding to ethical life. The indifference of perception is its sublative or negative unity of both. It is indifferent because as their whole it is not different to them, not opposed to them or to their opposition. 

Perception, Hegel says, is the “indifference of the specifications that make up the whole;” it is not the fixing of particular content as separate and opposed, but their totality and objectification as a self-contained unity. The unity of the indifferent and the different does not, like in Kant, fall apart into possibility or actuality on one side or the other, but both sides are fully actual at once. Perception signals the overcoming of morality as such, for it is what can bring morality to supersede itself, to reveal itself as finite and contingent to something else, that something else being perception in which it arises as a reality. But morality is itself the rejection of such finitude and contingency, the empirically necessary, and so must judge itself to be immoral if it grasps perception as its truth. While perception can take sensuous contingent things of natural or psychological nature, such as pain, and raise them to unity and necessity within itself, canceling them as the particulars that they are while maintaining them as a unity and difference within the subject which perceives them in their necessity, the Understanding and its law of identity can only see and grasp contingent things in the world, and so only knows itself as contingent to those same contingencies around it. This knowledge is the ‘sentimentality and immorality of impotence,’ for impotence contradicts the will which ought to realize its end. 

Perception is a knowing capable of conceiving sensuous universals, the unity of particulars. Though Hegel does not go into great details here, what little elaboration there is here is in line with what we find in chapter 2 of the Phenomenology of Spirit, where perception is the unity of the broadest empirical particular abstraction and rationalist universal abstraction. Perception is an acknowledgment that knowing, even in its most radical abstraction, is always a specification of a particularity which is both conceptually universal and empirically individual. Every ‘here’ is specified as a particular ‘here’ among many, just as a grain of salt is specified in its unity as white, cubic, bitter, and so on. The difference between perception and empiricism/rationalism is that it does not have an obsession to break things into abstractions, that it does not know things as mere particulars without a whole of which they are parts.

When morality bears on relations between individuals, however, it must be preserved from the intrusion of formal unity and the possibility of other merely particular features, i.e. proper ethical thought in perception must guard against injecting strong distinctions of particularity as such. Hegel states something peculiar:

“The expression of that unity of perception, “a property of someone else entrusted to me is the property of someone else entrusted to me, and nothing else,” has a totally different meaning from the tautology, expressed in universal terms, of practical legislation: “Another’s property entrusted to me is another’s property entrusted to me.” For the latter sentence may equally well be confronted by this other: “What is not another’s property entrusted to me is not the property of the other;” this means that a specific feature elevated into the concept is thereby made ideal, and its opposite specific feature may be posited just as easily. On the other hand, the expression of perception contains a this, a living relation and absolute presentness, with which the possibility is itself absolutely linked, and whereby a possibility separated therefrom, or a “being other,” is absolutely annihilated, because in such a possible “being other” lies immorality.”

The first expression, the property of someone entrusted to me, is different to the second, another’s property entrusted to me. Hegel does not explain here, and likely cannot explain, what the distinction of these terms is. In the much later Science of Logic it is explicitly worked out that something (corresponding to someone) and other are distinct in that something is the sublation of otherness, and insofar as there is an other to something it is other to the first as other to it, so it too is a something. Perception, being a sublation, a supersession of the fragmented infinity of the Understanding, deals with someone, not an other. For perception someone is not tied to abstract statements or persons, but to our living and present mutual relations. This actually present and living relation is itself the ground of our possibility in such a way that merely ‘being other’ to someone is impossible, for here ‘being other’ in an independent sense is immoral since it would undermine and destroy each of us as someone.

The unity of perception is the ground of the unity and difference of ethics. It is the knowing proper to the properly ethical, for in both perception and ethical life there is an internal necessary unity between the universally necessary and the particularly contingent individuality. 


The General Will and State

Though Kant’s moral law fails to be proper to its own consequence, there is in Fichte’s own theory of right and law a refinement and further perfection of the theoretical form undergirding the moral law. Kant and Fichte both privilege the Absolute as the oneness of right and duty, where this unity is also essentially one with the thinking and willing subject. This essential relation, however, is precisely the cision point at which the oneness breaks into plurality. As the moral law is the essential unity, the willing subjects are the apparent plurality. Here is the necessity of the split of the domains of morality and legality. Morality concerns the unity of concepts and subjects, while legality concerns their disunity—essential unity and apparent plurality. In this split neither the unity nor plurality can be privileged as more or less real.

Fichte steps into perception and ethical life, unlike Kant, when he locates the moral standpoint in connection to the existent state and its people. But Fichte is only stepping half-way into ethical life. Hegel takes him to be the one who perfects Rousseau’s insights into political philosophy, particularly in laying out the nature of the state in the negative unity of the moral law and empirical existence, a unity that emphasizes the disunity. The theory of the interplay between the law, the state, and the people under the unity of the general will is of utmost importance. This thought therefore concerns a negative form of ethical life, its fragmented reality, rather than its fully positive (absolutely negative) form.


Fichte’s Dialectic of Compulsion

Pure self-consciousness (the universal moral law and absolute unity) is opposed to existent real consciousness (the individual subject). Fichte offers what he acknowledges to be a formal solution to this diremption of ethical life, and this formal negative unity is compulsion. Despite this formalism, Fichte manages to develop an immanent speculative argument out of this conceptual bind.

The task of compelling individual will to act in accord with the general will already presupposes the diremption of such wills. The individual will must be compelled by a system of ethical life, but such a system can neither have an infinite regress of compulsions nor can it have a sudden moment where the ideal immediately is the real, for such would transcend the concept of compulsion on which the system is set to be based. If compulsion is the absolute, though it is formal, then even the point in the system which compels the individual must itself be compelled to compel. The state, being the supreme will, is thus determined as two parts which mutually compel each other: the government and the governed.

In order that government and governed compel each other, they must have power. Power, however, is truly powerful in being in excess of its opposition, but if power between parts is unequal, then only one is under compulsion and not the other. In order for something to set a limit to something else, it must not be weaker, but at least of equal power to set and sustain the limit. Power must therefore be equal between government and governed so that they may compel each other reciprocally. But in an equilibrium of power all determining activity of the will is canceled, for to compel the other would require a moment of unequal power to determine it to do other than it is doing. In immediate opposition both powers oppose each other and lock into a tense equilibrium without motion. If, however, one believes that a mediation by a third or more factors in a circle of power can remedy this deadlock, it is futile, for as power from the government pushes on the governed, power from the governed pushes on the government. Inasmuch as one may imagine this as a perpetually moving cycle, one can just as well see that in truth it is a perpetual stillness. As the government and governed only act by compulsion and not by an internal power, the circle’s movement is immediately locked as power pushes insofar as it is pushed, but since it pushes and is pushed at once in equal measure, the differential of force necessary for movement never comes about. Pure immediate power, or might, therefore cannot be the concept of freedom or ethics, for its lack of real differentiation gives it no recourse to another  power outside it or within it which would grant to it the differential force which would allow it to move.

A distinction between actual power and potential power is therefore made in order to allow for the differentiation which will enable living motion. Actual power is one and is one with the government. Potential power is thereby imputed to the governed, the people. As actual power compels through state actions and institutions, potential power compels via the threat of dethroning actual power when it is judged to be usurped by a private will and no longer to be aligned with the general will. The act of potential power compelling actual power is in a public declaration of its invalidity, but this other power opposing the state cannot be validated by its own independent decision—this would be an insurrection. But since potential power, the governed as a people, is a mass of private wills which together alone do not constitute the general will, the justification of such a declaration against actual power in the state cannot be valid insofar as only one portion of the people make such declaration while another does not. The validation of this mass of private wills as representing the general will must therefore come from a second general will (the mass) against the first general will (the state), and it is this second general will which declares the unity of the mass of private wills as a community taking up the power which the first general will no longer holds legitimately.

Karl Völker - Bahnhof (1924-26)

If it is desired that the chaos of the direct confrontation of the mass of private wills and the state does not come about, but that there remain a vehicle of exercising this potential power which supervises and compels the actual power to remain in the confines of the general will, then an institution can be set up so power can be rested from the elements of the state which are illegitimate. Such an institution, however, would have to thereby have real power and not merely potential power, and in having such power would simply move the problem back one institutional step. Such a supervising institution and its members is only a particular institution against others, and its members are private wills like any others. Because other parts of the state hold real power, the supervisory council’s judgments, even if sound, face resistance from those it would rest power from. Such an institution would likewise be as open to corruption as any other, and its invalid judgments would be carried through so long as actual power to do so was in its hands. If, however, the supervisory council and the state supreme power agreed to bring such matters to the choice of the people—the mass of private wills—this would serve no fundamentally better option for the regulation and reality of the general will. Such a mass of people would only be a mass of private wills become a mob, and would in such a choice only enforce their own arbitrary private wills over matters which they would have no knowledge of nor any desire to place public interest over their own. The mob would thereby suffer the exact same problem of the fragmentation of both power and will such that a general will cannot be attained in anything but declaration and word. Any declaration would thereby come only from a portion of the whole of the people, and the general will would come about not by the truth of the general will itself, but by the compulsion of one particularity over others.

This dialectical dissolution of compulsion or externality, which has here been expressed in the totality of relationality in parts of the state, proves its inherent unreality in leading to its self-cancelation. Freedom, ethics, or natural law cannot, therefore, be conceived as such an externality as that which opposes the individual natural will to the general social will in a way that they cannot thereby ever be brought together from within, but always and forever by an external force of coercion. By its very concept, this presupposed distinction and opposition is unfree, for nothing is free which faces something external and alien to it.


The Positive Dialectic of Subjection

Coercion is to be grasped in the particularity of opposition, that obstinate negation which imposes limitation on the individual. What differentiates coercion from subjection is that what in coercion is imposed necessarily and absolutely on the individual, in subjection is self-imposed and non-absolute. In subjection the individual posits both +A and -A negatively, as negation of negation, and so posits a distinction yet immanent connection with both without reduction to either. To subject or to be subjected is not to be coerced and unfree, but rather to be free.

To put it in abstraction: in coercion an individual may choose to determine themselves as +A or -A, but in so determining themselves do so completely or absolutely, and in this commitment are bound to the consequences of +/-A in opposition to their choice. In subjection, however, the individual’s self-determination of +/-A is not absolute; the determination does not bound the individual in absolute particularity in which they are bound by necessity to the opposition of their determination. The free individual neither determines themself as +A or -A only, but as neither or both, and it is only in this way that they do not fall into the necessity of particularity which would bring them into a finite opposition with an alien other. The specific limitations of +/-A, therefore, are not absolute determinations, but only ideal (partial within the self), and the individual is not reduced to the particularity of their choices, but is the unification point of the +/-A—it is their infinity, and they are finites determined in it. For a free individual the opposite of their specific determination is internal and necessary and not an external contingently necessary reality; thus, a free private will would see the general will not as an alien compulsion, but as an internal difference which is a moment of itself and vice versa. In being their infinite universality, the individual retains the power of abstraction from both determinations and is free in relation to them insofar as neither finitude absolutely limits it. This infinity is the process of self-determination itself, wherein the +A and -A are mere moments that are overcome, and the process itself is a determination of its own over and distinct from these particular moments, that is, the totality or individuality stands as its own infinite being, as concept, against its particular determinations.

To be able to negate these particular determinations, which are themselves negations, can be perceived in the concept of death, for death is infinite negativity against all particular determinations, and the individual proves themself beyond all coercion by their ability to ‘die’ and release themselves from these particularities. Death is the absolute subjugator, for in it all particularities are dissolved and nullified, and the individual is revealed as being an independent entity of its own account, thereby revealing its infinity in its self-determination. In dying, or rather in choosing to die, the individual reveals their freedom as transcending all finitude and entering the infinite being which is their own being. Such a death, however, cannot be confused with finite or abstract death which merely annihilates the individual into mere nothingness. No, this death is death as absolutely negative, as death that dies even to itself—the death of death—and so returns as life through the absolute dying. There is freedom in subjection because subjection overcomes the finite position of the positive and negative determinations of the opposition, and cancels both in determining that they are not absolute, but particulars within the universal or individual which in dying also enacts the death of the particulars and also releases them from their finitude. This canceling is not an absolute othering or destruction of the +/-A, but an internalization which gives reality to the individual or infinite via the mutual distinction or negation of both—a death of death.


Law and Punishment

Where there is crime, there must be punishment. Retribution of crime subjugates the crime, and so is the truth of it. As a state of affairs brought about by a crime (+A) logically links to its opposite, -A, the realization of both would cancel both in the eyes of the Understanding. The crime alone posits only one side of the relation, and only with retribution can the freedom of the criminal, the victim, and the punisher be restored. The crime is +A, the punishment is -A, and only in bringing these together does coercion fall away while subjection is realized. If only one side is realized, both are coerced. The criminal is coerced by the immanent threat of punishment which opposes it externally, and the punisher is coerced by the crime as a negation of justice. In the subjection of the criminal in retribution the crime is canceled: retribution momentarily cancels the freedom of the criminal only to restore it in the same act, the punishment is also the forgiveness of the crime, and the criminal returns to society exonerated of their social debt. In the act of retribution both crime and punishment are canceled as absolutes, but are not thereby canceled into nothing. The individuals are revealed as not being reduced into the particularities of criminal and officer, and so their freedom is actualized in the distinction of the individual subjecting these particulars just as justice subjects crime and punishment.

Here we finish the negative dialectic which has torn down the failed concepts of ethics or natural law as generally understood. Fichte’s Rousseauan political theory is the final and highest point of the breakdown of the formalism of content vs form inherent to empiricism and rationalism alike, and here the distinction of the universal and individual has no more justification to be presupposed as incommensurable external opposites. Hegel’s investigation moves on from the negative standpoint of the logic of perception and ethical life in Fichte’s theory to the positive standpoint of Hegel’s own theory which is under the simple name of ethical life. What ethical life proper reveals is that morality cannot be an abstract ought indifferent to our actual living conditions, that a true morality arises from our real existent desires for concrete purposes, and that the issue is ultimately not that philosophy should tell us what we ought to desire and how, but what is rational in our desires and what is required to make our freedom consistent as a finite individuality of the infinite and universal. Unlike Kant, Hegel does not hold that moral feelings of pleasure should be indifferent to moral duty such that they can even make sense as opposed, nor should a proper morality demand that the world as it is be entirely thrown into the abyss to try our luck at something else, as if what is is completely irrational and without truth.

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, 1975, p.81.


Hegel, 1975, p.82.


Hegel, 1975, p.82.


Hegel, 1975, p.83.


Hegel, 1975, p.85.


Hegel, 1975, p.86-87.


Hegel, 1975, p.87.


Hegel, 1975, p.88.


Hegel, 1975, p.89.


Hegel, 1975, p.91.


Hegel, 1975, p.92.


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