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The relevance of Hegel's social thought to contemporary conservatism

Lookup NU author(s): Dr David Rose



Conservatism must, if it is to be intellectually relevant in the contemporary public cultural of a dominant liberalism, be able to offer a convincing role for the individual, moral conscience. Otherwise it is all too easy to dismiss conservative thought as another form of the irrationalism or shallow relativism of postmodern rejections of liberal politics. It is the contention of this paper that Hegel’s social and political thought, and above all his concept of Sittlichkeit (moral fabric), can form the groundwork of such a social theory. Many contemporary discussions of Hegel’s political and social philosophy attempt to relocate his thought comfortably into the liberal tradition in order to evade the earlier accepted view of his work as political quietism and philosophical a-liberalism. By doing so, an alternative to the supposed binary opposition between liberalism and conservatism is unfortunately closed off and the essay will seek to reopen this “third” possibility. It is true for Hegel that individual subjects attain their freedom through fulfilling the roles and duties of their social station and he shares with Burke a distrust of radical, individual thinking and its revolutionary consequences as well as proposing an account of reason that is historically situated. It is the explicit social origin of reasons which has led to the diverse interpretations of Hegel’s account of the state. On the one hand, he is accused of political quietism, in which the subject is free when he fulfils his social role, ruling out any possibility of protest in terms of a moral conscience since to protest is to obviously fail to fulfil one’s role. On the other hand, the moral conscience is held to be a fundamental and necessary attribute of the rational state and, if it is absent, then neither the individual nor the state is fully free. Yet, this supposed opposition (which is mostly resolved by ignoring the conservative elements of his thought and caricaturing his worst excesses, such as the thinking on women’s roles) negates a very compelling account of rational conservatism. Hegel’s concept of Sittlichkeit is precisely the possibility of the moral conscience in an historically determined context. He offers a rational conservatism that is denied by the liberal caricature of conservative thinking. The current essay wishes to return to Hegel’s social thought and unashamedly relocate it in conservative political thinking and to use it to show that conservatism need not be quietist and eschew the use of rational, social critique.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Rose DE

Editor(s): Ozsel, D.

Publication type: Book Chapter

Publication status: Published

Book Title: Reflections of Conservatism

Year: 2011

Volume: 1

Pages: 107-123

Number of Volumes: 1

Publisher: Cambridge Scholars Press

Place Published: Cambridge, UK

Library holdings: Search Newcastle University Library for this item

ISBN: 9781443833554


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