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Book Chapter

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SUNY Press




In the Introduction to the Philosophy of Right, Hegel told us that freedom “constitutes the substance and determination of right. . . .”1 He also said that right is the existence of free will. At the same time, he takes care to remind us that this conception of right, since Rousseau, has ordinarily been understood as having its basis in the will of particular individuals, that is, of single persons. Hegel rejects this notion. Freedom, and thus right, have their substantial basis in spirit.2

We must view right, I suggest, much as Hegel thinks we should view a state’s constitution, that is, not as established by a particular document, say, a declaration of rights or a bill of rights, but as the expression and development of the spirit of a people, a development that took place bit by bit over a long period of time. Rights, like laws, carry “the authority of millennia . . . [t]he whole of mankind has labored upon them. . . .”3 As Wood puts it, Hegel gives us “an ethical theory which identifies the human good with the self-actualization of the human spirit.”4

Moreover, like the constitutions of states, rights are based on recognition. As Williams puts it, “Owing to their freedom, human beings may be capable of rights, but these rights remain mere possibilities unless they become actual in the medium of recognition, and in this sense recognition is the foundation of right.”5 Indeed, we have seen that for Hegel it is philosophy’s task to recognize the Idea of right and to actualize it.6

And so it is not at all surprising to find that property, the first right taken up in “Part One: Abstract Right,” is made actual through recognition, nor that all of this must be understood as occurring within spirit. This whole section would be radically misunderstood, then, if we were to imagine Hegel as proceeding like a Hobbes, a Locke, or a Rousseau. While Hegel does begin with an individual will, he nevertheless believes that it is spirit as a whole that is fundamental. But he abstracts from the totality of spirit. He starts with a will that has been stripped of all that—an abstract will and its abstract rights. This may look like Hobbes or Locke, but what Hegel wants to do here, as I argued in chapter 1,7 is show us that these simple abstractions necessarily presuppose the complex totality of spirit for their possibility.

Thus it would be a serious mistake to see the first, earlier, abstract steps of the argument as the basis, the ground, from which we deduce and thus justify later steps. Rather, for Hegel, we move from earlier, simpler steps to the more complex presuppositions necessary for the possibility of those earlier and simpler steps—and thus ultimately we move toward the whole of spirit. In other words, we do not from property deduce civil society or the state, as, say, for Locke. Rather we come to see that property presupposes the family, civil society, and the state, and is shaped by and within them. Only within these higher, more complex, and more concrete realities, does property achieve the appropriately configured existence of its moments.8

It also follows from this, for Hegel, that there can be no social contract argument to the effect that we can justify the state beginning with property or contract.9 Moreover, it cannot follow, because we take up a right to property at the start, that we have, as for Locke, an absolute right to property prior to and independent of the state, with which the state can therefore have no right to tamper.10 Our right to property will be shown to presuppose, depend upon, and derive from the higher reality of the state within which it will be appropriately configured.

Wood argues that Hegel is being antireductionist here. Higher spheres of right, like the state, cannot be analyzed into lower ones like property and contract.11 Williams, following Ilting, suggests that in Abstract Right Hegel adopts a methodological individualism as a methodological fiction—and that, indeed, the heading “abstract right” is intended to indicate this.12

And so to begin to argue that ultimately we must presuppose the totality of spirit, we start at the opposite pole with a simple abstraction. We start with an abstracted individual will—that is, with a person. Put most simply, a person is a being with the general capacity to possess rights—and thus is the core concept of abstract right.13 A person, Hegel says, is a subject that knows itself as free.14 In chapter 1, we set out four levels of freedom as Beisichselbstsein in einem Andern, being with oneself in another. The person exists at the first level, where we have a consciousness that can abstract from everything external and turn into itself. Within itself it faces no obstacles or obstructions—nothing other.15 It is alone with itself and free. At the same time there remains an “external world immediately confronting it.”16 To assert its freedom, therefore, it must overcome what it confronts as external. To give itself reality as a person, it must count the object confronting it as null and void. It must posit the object as its own.17 Abstract right is this sort of being with oneself in another, the simplest manifestation of which is possession or property.18

The person must give itself an external sphere of freedom.19 It must be free in the world—a world that is not an other. The world must be its own. Thus I have a right to put my will into things and make them mine. Humans have an absolute right to appropriate all things.20

Chapter of

Hegel and Right: A Study of the Philosophy of Right


Published in Hegel and Right: A Study of the Philosophy of Right, Philip Kain, Author. State University of New York Press, 2018. Available at

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