Sunday, September 3, 2017

Molly Farneth's "Hegel's Social Ethics"

Molly Farneth is assistant professor of religion at Haverford College.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Hegel's Social Ethics: Religion, Conflict, and Rituals of Reconciliation, and reported the following:
Hegel’s Social Ethics considers G.W.F. Hegel’s account of the relationships and practices that communities ought to cultivate, and of what happens when those relationships and practices are absent or deformed. It offers, on the one hand, an interpretive argument about what Hegel’s social ethics involves and, on the other hand, a constructive argument about how it can inform the ethical conflicts that arise in diverse contemporary democracies.

The interpretive argument in the first half of the book is structured around key passages of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. It focuses on sections of Hegel’s chapter on “Spirit” – passages about the tragic conflicts depicted in Sophocles’ Antigone, about the culture war-style impasse between faith and the Enlightenment, and about the sacramental practices that reconcile the members of a confessing community. Through close readings of these passages, I argue that Hegel thinks that conflicts are always arising in communities – and that that’s a good thing as long as those conflicts, and people’s efforts to resolve them, take the right form. Social practices in which people confess their fallibility, and forgive one another for it (recognizing that we are all fallible), help to cultivate relationships of reciprocal recognition, in which each person honors herself and others as a locus of authority and of accountability.

The final chapters of the book argue for the relevance of Hegel’s account for contemporary democratic societies. Hegel’s work helps us to understand how the members of such societies might argue across difference in a context of reciprocal recognition and reconciliation. Our differences, and our conflicts, will always be with us. The question is how to approach them, and how to approach one another in the midst of them.

Page 99 marks the turning point in the book, the transition from the interpretive chapters to the constructive chapters of the book, in which I make the case for the applicability of Hegel’s social ethics to our own conflicts and conundrums. “As abstract as it was,” I write there, “Hegel’s philosophy was motivated by pressing social and political concerns. When Hegel wrote the Phenomenology of Spirit, the French revolution and the Reign of Terror were not-too-distant memories, and the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire was at hand. What would this bigger and more diverse polity look like? What authority would it have over citizens – and what authority would citizens have over it? What beliefs, practices, and institutions would citizens need to cultivate in order to sustain it? Similar questions are with us still.”

That takes us onto page 100, so I’ll stop there – except to add that those questions look more and more pressing to me with each passing day. And that given that those are the questions that motivated me in writing this book, the page 99 test is right on.
Learn more about Hegel's Social Ethics at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue