Hegel's Social Ethics

Religion, Conflict, and Rituals of Reconciliation

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Molly B. Farneth
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , August
     184 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Molly Farneth’s recent monograph, Hegel’s Social Ethics: Religion, Conflict, and Rituals of Recognition, deploys a “post-Kantian” reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit as a critical and constructive tool in addressing social conflict. Sacramentally-inflected practices of recognition, Farneth argues, affirm the irreducibly agonistic character of pluralistic democracy while also pointing the way to the possibility of consensus and democratically authorized social change.

Farneth makes clear in the very first lines of her preface that this “is a book for people who care about Hegel and people who don’t” (Farneth, ix). The book is neatly structured along just such lines. The first five chapters will be of interest to those “who care about Hegel,” offering an account of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit focused on the concept of “recognition,” as well as practices of “confession” and “forgiveness.” The next two chapters will be of interest to many who otherwise might not care about Hegel. There Farneth deploys the critical apparatus she develops in the first five chapters to show the way in which Hegel’s concept of recognition might be used to deal with intractable oppositions of “culture wars” by generating a form of democratic authority which more left-leaning approaches to mitigating social conflict seem to lack, on Farneth’s account. To successfully write a book which manages to be of relevance both to those interested in Hegel and those who are not is surely no small feat. Hegel is widely regarded as one of the most (if not the most) abstruse and difficult writers in the whole of the philosophical canon, and it is not always clear what he means, let alone what to “do” with him. Luckily for her readers, Farneth displays an impressive command of the material and provides eminently clear expositions of major theoretical and practical issues which frame Hegel’s Phenomenology.

Farneth neatly situates herself within contemporary debates on the metaphysical significance of Hegel’s system, engaging critically with commentators on Hegel including Alexandre Kojève, Robert Pippin, Paul Redding, Fredrick Beiser, and others. Farneth makes her allegiances clear: she favors the deflationary, “post-Kantian” reading, and it is this metaphysically anti-realist Hegelianism that Farneth brings to bear in contemporary debates in theology, religious studies, and democratic theory. However, such debates are not the focus of the work. The deflationary reading is a starting-point for deploying Hegelian thought, rather than its own interpretive task. It should also be noted that while Farneth espouses a “post-Kantian” view of Hegel, her insights as to the value of Hegelian concepts in assessing and addressing social conflict need not stand or fall with the historical accuracy of such assessments. Despite certain points of contention, those who insist upon a more robustly metaphysical understanding of Hegel’s thought will find much of value in Farneth’s analyses.

The major task of the book is to employ the epistemological insights of the “post-Kantian” school of Hegel interpretation toward contemporary social and political problems, centrally the reality of social conflict in pluralistic societies, and the need to navigate and adjudicate such claims without recourse to violence or question-begging. If Robert Pippin awakened Anglo-American readers to the epistemological side of Hegelian dialectic, Farneth aims to draw our gaze back toward challenges of social conflict which Hegel’s philosophy, understood in this way, can address. This leads Farneth to explore the way in which Hegelian recognition is instantiated in and developed through religious and quasi-religious rituals and practices. Farneth finds in Hegel’s dialectic of confession and forgiveness a kenotic interpretation of sacramental theology that outlines the concrete social practice of recognition: acceptance of mutually reinforcing relations of accountability and authority. This last point dovetails with Farneth’s strident rejection of the triumphalist Hegel championed in the influential reading of Alexandre Kojève. According to Farneth, Hegelian recognition and reconciliation does not lead to a final, stable synthesis in which such conflicts cease. Rather, opting for an “open” view of history, Farneth argues that certain forms of social conflict are ineradicable, and it is through rituals which confer and sustain relationships of recognition that social bonds strained by such conflicting normative claims can be continually renewed. As a matter of working through these conflicts, the right kind of rituals provide a sacramental touchstone: they both signify and actualize recognition and reconciliation. Such recognition-conferring gestures form the conceptual core of the book, and serve as a launching pad for Farneth’s deployment of Hegelian concepts with respect to contemporary social conflict in the final two chapters where she addresses contemporary theological and political issues—specifically the “culture wars” and the generation of democratic authority.

One question that occurred to this reviewer while reading Hegel’s Social Ethics was whether or not Farneth believes a non-Hegelian model of recognition can effectively generate democratic authority. Presumably the answer is no, since Farneth is eager to present Hegelian recognitive gestures as offering an alternative to the lack of democratic authority in the bureaucratic solutions of liberal elitism, the ineffectual horizontalism of the Occupy movement, and the intellectual vanguardism of radical movements such as Leninism. If there is no other plausible model for generating democratic authority, does this perhaps suggest that Farneth’s interpretation of Hegelian historicity is not quite as “open” as the author claims? A second question would be to what extent the conflicts recognition can assuage are grounded in material conditions. Might a redistributive model of sacramentality might also be necessary, as a compliment to the recognitive one on offer here, especially where the material situation (lack of education, starvation, captivity, etc.) precludes or limits the possibility of recognition in the strict sense?

In summary, Farneth’s book is a model of clarity and scholarly rigor. Hegel’s Social Ethics should be of interest to a wide range of readers, drawing together as it does themes and problems in German idealism, sacramental theology, religious studies, postliberal theology, and political theory. Anyone concerned with issues of conflict and conflict resolution in contemporary democratic societies will find much to appreciate within its pages.

About the Reviewer(s): 

W. Ezekiel Goggin is a doctoral candidate in the Philosophy of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
January 25, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Molly Farneth is assistant professor of religion at Haverford College.


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