Infinite Autonomy

Infinite Autonomy: The Divided Individual in the Political Thought of G. W. F. Hegel and Friedrich Nietzsche

Jeffrey Church
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    Infinite Autonomy
    Book Description:

    G. W. F. Hegel and Friedrich Nietzsche are often considered the philosophical antipodes of the nineteenth century. In Infinite Autonomy, Jeffrey Church draws on the thinking of both Hegel and Nietzsche to assess the modern Western defense of individuality—to consider whether we were right to reject the ancient model of community above the individual. The theoretical and practical implications of this project are important, because the proper defense of the individual allows for the survival of modern liberal institutions in the face of non-Western critics who value communal goals at the expense of individual rights. By drawing from Hegelian and Nietzschean ideas of autonomy, Church finds a third way for the individual—what he calls the “historical individual,” which goes beyond the disagreements of the ancients and the moderns while nonetheless incorporating their distinctive contributions.

    eISBN: 978-0-271-05915-0
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xx)
    (pp. 1-7)

    Within each modern liberal regime, there are considerable disagreements about every manner of policy issue, every step in foreign affairs, every vision of the nation’s future. Yet one feature of modern life is shared by even the bitterest political rivals—a moral and political commitment to the value of the individual. This commitment is quite striking and relatively new. No longer does political order have the aim of glorifying or appeasing the gods, nor of expanding the authority and might of the empire, nor of reinforcing and transmitting ancestral traditions and practices. Rather, liberal states have as their ultimate end...

  6. 1 Three Concepts of Individuality
    (pp. 8-24)

    Individuality is in many ways the foundational modern concept. Consider by way of illustration the derivative character of individuality in “premodern” societies, which are founded and sustained based on appeals to supraindividual entities or ideals, such as tradition, nature, or God.¹ In premodern societies, individuals’ social function and duties, their political rights and responsibilities, their honors and their shame, their personal identities and sense of place in the universe, are all established by their role or station within tradition or nature or the “Great Chain of Being.” For the premoderns, “community” precedes “individuality” in at least three senses. First, premodern...

  7. 2 Hegel’s Defense of Individuality
    (pp. 25-55)

    Hegel may seem to be a strange choice as a champion of individuality. He does, after all, liken the state to a “substance” and individuals to its “accidents” (PR 145Z). Leading a proper ethical life, Hegel argues, “consists in fulfilling the duties imposed upon [an individual] by his social station,” and the “worth of individuals is measured by the extent to which they reflect and represent the national spirit” (PHI 80). Further, only a professional elite civil service is competent to oversee the universal concerns of the state and thereby maintain the existing rational social structure.¹ The task of political...

  8. 3 Hegel on the Ethical Individual
    (pp. 56-83)

    In the last chapter, we saw that, in contrast to the traditional understanding of Hegel, our Hegel is a defender of a robust form of individualism, both in terms of an individual’s right to follow only those laws he has given himself (his autonomous authority) and in terms of our respect for each individual’s uniqueness of character (the unity of his character as aim). Individuality is good and ought to be defended, Hegel argues, because it is the necessary, immanent aim of the distinctively human subjectivity. It is, for Hegel, the “good life” of a human being. Succesfully leading an...

  9. 4 Hegel on the Modern Political Individual
    (pp. 84-110)

    Hegel offers a refreshingly unusual defense of individuality on the basis of what fulfills human subjectivity, or rather, what perfects the distinctively human. Neither the whimsical particularisms of an individual nor the ascetic rationalism of the moralist fulfills human subjectivity, but rather only the individual life, which is shaped by and shapes a modern ethical-political community, can be the best life for human beings. Hegel’s two-part argument, then, is that the individual subjective conscience is the only rational end of communities, and that individuals can only achieve a good life through ethical participation. Yet such a harmony between individuality and...

  10. 5 Nietzsche’s Defense of Individuality
    (pp. 111-139)

    Perhaps the most pervasive theme across Nietzsche’s corpus is the problem and promise of individuality. In Nietzsche, unlike Hegel, one need not read too far before encountering his celebration of the individual and his tremendous fears of modern liberal democracy’s tendency to squelch such individuality. However, even though this theme permeates Nietzsche’s works, few have attempted to understand what Nietzsche means by individuality, and what his argument is for why individuality is good. Many readers have seen Nietzsche’s celebration of individuality as a blind preference, as an atavistic longing for a bygone aristocratic era, or as the only desperate option...

  11. 6 Nietzsche on the Redemptive Individual
    (pp. 140-169)

    In the previous chapter, I articulated and defended Nietzsche’s view of individuality, while also bringing out how much Nietzsche’s view shares in common with Hegel’s. Though this self-narrating individual may seem to be a radically solitary character, emerging out of his own effort and discipline, Nietzsche claims that there are certain historical and political conditions that produce individuals. Nietzsche speaks again and again of various communities providing the right or wrong kinds of conditions for the cultivation of higher forms of humanity (see, e.g., BGE 211–12). We will explore several of these conditions in this chapter and the next....

  12. 7 Nietzsche on the Antipolitical Individual
    (pp. 170-198)

    In the previous chapter, we saw that for Nietzsche human beings become individuals through ethical activity, through the redemption of community. The task of this chapter is to investigate the historical and political conditions for the right kinds of individuals and communities. Initially, the prospects of healthy individuality and community in the modern age seem dim. Nietzsche is an outspoken critic of modern liberal democracy, which, in Nietzsche’s mind, diminishes human ambition and freedom by “unbending the bow,” the tension constitutive of the human being that fuels our progress and creativity (BGE P). Diminishing the tension within the human heart...

    (pp. 199-210)

    This book has been an effort to articulate and defend the strand of modern individuality developed by the German philosophers Hegel and Nietzsche. This task is important for a number of reasons. First, Western liberalism is at bottom justiied by the value of individuality, and every liberal state professes to defend individuality. Yet this liberal ideal of individuality stands in tension today with defenders of what I have called a “premodern” understanding of religious and communal authority—namely, that community is the source of individual identity, the sovereign authority over individuals, and sets the aim towards which individuals ought to...

  14. NOTES
    (pp. 211-248)
    (pp. 249-258)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 259-270)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 271-271)