I work at the intersection of ethics, moral psychology and political philosophy, with a specific interest in the psychological and ethical ramifications of the modern liberal order. My aim is to use philosophy in order to gain a critical perspective on current crises of this order—from the complexities of sex and intimacy in the #MeToo era, through the proliferation of depression and anxiety, to the rise of authoritarian populism. Drawing on Kant, Hegel and other post-Kantian figures, I seek to articulate the extent to which the liberalism—premised on the notion of a self-possessed and assertive individual—informs such problems and yet also provides resources for alleviating them.
Hilma af Klint, The Swan (1914)
Hilma af Klint, The Swan (1914)
Love and Self-Love: The Philosophical Foundations of Modern Intimacy
Most recently, my work centers a neglected aspect of German philosophy at the turn of the 19thcentury: its epoch-making redefinition of the sexual relationship. Some thinkers—from Christian Wolf through Kant to Fichte—extend the legalistic model of the state and the market to the intimate sphere, making sex contingent on a special sort of contract. In contrast, romantically inclined thinkers such as Friedrich Schleiermacher, Friedrich Schlegel and Dorothea Schlegel posit the sexual relationship as a decisive alternative to the state and the market, celebrating sexual love as an ethical, political, and even metaphysical route to redemptive self-fulfillment. This debate retains a surprising relevance to current day conversations: While the “romantic” outlook has reemerged in the post-1960s counterculture (and articulated philosophically by Herbert Marcuse and Third Wave “sex positive” feminists), Kant and Fichte anticipate the stress on consent-based sexual autonomy in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
This research program has already produced two publications. In “Love Is Only Between Living Beings Who Are Equal in Power”, published in the European Journal of Philosophy, I develop a conception of love as a unique sort of recognition, which is realized only given proper (yet limited) intervention of the state in facilitating married life. In another paper, “Hegel on Shame and Sexual Recognition”, published in the British Journal for the History of Philosophy, I articulate Hegel’s sensitive account of the shame-inducing impact of market economic activity. I also point to an unlikely affinity with contemporary feminist critiques of sexual consent. Like Linda Martín Alcoff, for example, Hegel is worried that quasi-contractual consent is at odds with the logic and phenomenology of sexual and intimate interactions. A third paper (currently in progress) articulates Hegel’s alternative to the contrast Kant draws between self-love and love.
Hegel’s Political Psychology: A Critique of Liberal Modernity
My work on intimacy and the moral psychology of love and shame contributes to a larger project, which revolves around what I call political psychology. It is premised on two ideas. First, psychological configurations (and pathologies) are political in the sense that they are thoroughly shaped by historically variable social, economic, and even religious conditions. Hegel argues that emotions such as loneliness, shame, joy, and fear of death take different forms depending on their historical settings; thus, for instance, shame will manifest differently depending on whether it arises in ancient India or Greece, the Roman Empire, or modern capitalist societies. The second, related idea is that if social and political conditions are so determinative of psychological life, then one of the most important aims of a good (“rational”) political order is to support the psychological wellbeing of its subjects. Such wellbeing is in fact an integral part of Hegel’s ideal of individual freedom, which can only be realized when the broader political conditions are well-ordered. Moreover, it can serve as a criterion for assessing and critiquing political orders that fall short of this ideal, especially our own.
My first book, Hegel’s Political Psychology: A critique of Liberal Modernity, will offer a fresh outlook on the trajectory of 19thcentury philosophy. Hegel is celebrated for his systematic institutional analysis of modern society, laying the foundations for Marx and the tradition of critical theory. However, the book will highlight the extent to which he also prefigures another major continental tradition—running from Kierkegaard through Nietzsche to 20th century existentialism and phenomenology. The concept of political psychology, lying at the intersection of the psychological and the social, the affective and the institutional, offers new insight into both traditions and shows how critical theory and existentialism can be brought together in a philosophically promising manner.
This program builds directly on my dissertation, Personal Freedom and Its Discontents: Hegel on the Ethical Basis of Modern Skepticism (Columbia, October 2017). For a brief summary click here.
I am co-organizing a related conference (with my colleague Thimo Heisenberg) titled Hegel’s Legacy: First Nature in Social Philosophy, October 2020.
Abstract. While recent years have seen an enhanced interest in Hegel's conception of "second nature", we believe that there are reasons to go beyond the widespread fascination with this Aristotelian concept. A key idea that we wish to explore in the conference is that the goodness or rationality of second nature—including its remaining “alive”, as it were—depends on the extent to which it retains sufficient grounding in first nature: in our biological desires and drives. Indeed, it seems that on Hegel’s view, modern Sittlichkeit owes its supreme rationality, goodness and freedom to the fact that it incorporates and gives outlet to human properties that are rooted in first nature. Any habituated second nature that suppresses such first nature properties risks ethical corruption and ossification (as was the fate of ancient Sittlichkeit, on Hegel’s diagnosis).
Our conference, hence, aims at a reevaluation of the role that first nature plays in Hegel’s social theory. Since such a reevaluation always should go beyond the confines of historically-focused Hegel scholarship, we explicitly also want to probe his views for their contemporary significance: indeed, his commitment to first nature as a norm—for evaluating, critiquing and designing social institutions—seems highly pertinent to social theory today (and finds echoes in authors such as Marcuse or Fromm). A wide range of present day ethical problems with a “material substrate” can, or so it appears, be understood in terms of failing the norm of sufficient grounding in first nature—e.g., the proliferation of depression and anxiety in developed societies, the decline in sexual intimacy in the United States, even the environmental crisis.
Confirmed Contributors: Eva Bockenheimer (Siegen), Frederica Gregoratto (St. Gallen), Axel Honneth (Frankfurt/Columbia), Frederick Neuhouser (Barnard), Andreja Novakovic (Berkeley), Angelica Nuzzo (CUNY), Johannes-Georg Schülein (Bochum), Italo Testa (Parma).