Hegel On Intentions and Deeds

 by on February 10, 2017
Feb 102017

In an article on the social relations of contempt, philosopher Karen Stohr writes:

Privately expressed contempt may be cathartic. Publicly expressed contempt, however, is perilous. As Kant recognized, it threatens the foundations of our political community by denying the central moral idea on which that community is based — that everyone has a right to basic respect as a human being. Contemptuous political discourse, with its pernicious effects on mutual respect, should never have become mainstream. For the good of our country, we must make every effort to push it back into the shadows where it belongs.

Whatever one may think about contempt as a political strategy, whether it should be adopted or not, I disagree with Stohr’s contention that the effects of contempt come merely from the idealized social roles (empowered vs. disempowered) of those involved. For Stohr, it is a given, it is true a priori, that the disempowered cannot affect politics via contempt and that the empowered (just because they are empowered) “win” in every case of expression of contempt downward. This given is precisely the type of presupposition about politics that has earned philosophers contempt ever since they have tried to mold the political realm after the images of theoretical reason alone. Thus, I agree with Brian Leiter, who succinctly puts the problem thus: “Prof. Stohr’s characterization bears no relationship to what actually transpired in the court of public opinion.”

Leiter is also right to suggest that there is a certain thread of Kantianism running through this type of philosophical analysis of the political, though I am not so quick as him to dismiss Kant altogether.1 What I believe is at stake in Leiter’s critique and what to me is the fundamental error in Stohr’s analysis is a naive separation between intentions, an idealized and inner state of the individual, and deeds, the outer actualizing act before others. The former is supposed in this case to be the source of the “true meaning” of the concept in question (contempt), while the latter is, if not dismissed altogether, treated as an accidental casualty in the wake of the intention marching through politics. The problem here is that in politics–in the public realm where, as Arendt says, not isolated individuals but the world is at stake–it is precisely the latter, the deeds, that are the measure of meaning. So the philosopher misunderstands something essential about the political realm of human activity when looking for the meaning of a political encounter solely in the supposed intentions behind some act (e.g., of contempt), while ignoring what actually happens as a result of the contempt, the real effects on political opinion and institutions.

Here we enter into the territory of one of the key debates in post-Kantian Germany philosophy: the antagonism between the individual and the society, private and public freedom, the inner and the outer, the intention and the deed. And the definitive critique (before Marx, at least) of the Kantian-era prioritization of the intention is found in paragraphs 319-324 of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Several years ago I wrote an article for a Spanish-language magazine in which I told the story of Hegel’s critique of intentionality, and I would like to take this opportunity to translate here a section which bears on Stohr’s analysis of contempt, Leiter’s criticism, and the current political debate in general.


[Note: the following was originally written for a general public audience.]

In 1806, a German philosopher and professor in the town of Jena was finishing his magnum opus, so the story goes, just as Napoleon was engaging Prussian troops on the outskirts of town. This concurrence of events would be interpreted later by historians and philosophers as no mere coincidence but as an analogy for the revolution in ideas, political realities, and moral consciousness that was taking place at the time. The philosopher was Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and what his book more than anything attempted to show was the essential relation between our ideas and our cultural and ethical activities, and both to our social and political institutions. This essential relation Hegel called “spirit,” and his book, The Phenomenology of Spirit, was to mark the appearance of this new ethical-political consciousness in world history.

Hegel, like many of his time, was an admirer of the French Revolution and the new individual freedom and liberal principles that it sought to bring to national, political consciousness. But he was also aware of the harsh realities of the Terror that attempted to institute the gains of the Revolution through bloodshed. Was it necessary that the Revolution lead to the Terror? What is the meaning of freedom if it is won by violence? And what do these conflicts and relations say about human intellectual and cultural progress?

One of the ways in which these political questions were developed in his book was through thinking about the meaning of action itself. What does it mean to act, and what is the relation between a purpose or intention and the doing of a deed? Hegel saw a problem with the contemporary moral worldview that, influenced by Kant’s philosophy, prioritized the self-legislating power of the subject and the goodness of a person’s inner will, to the exclusion of political and social realities. He likened such a worldview to the pseudoscience of physiognomy, which attempts to divine the truth of a person’s character from their facial features. This science takes “the deed itself and the performance” to be unessential to the truth of character, while the essential aspect, the “presumed inner” being of a person, is to be found in “what is ‘meant’ or intended by the deed.” That is, an irresolvable separation is created between intention and action, between subjective and objective aspects, and the truth of the matter resides exclusively in the subject’s intention.

This pseudoscientific search for the “inner” person independent from his or her actions, Hegel argues, is representative of a larger cultural and moral worldview that places little importance on actions in order to build up a wall around the moral individual’s purity of heart. The consequence of such a view is a skepticism about both intention and deed, for the intention cut off from the deed is nothing at all, it exists and can be found nowhere, and so attempts to define, calculate, and safeguard the purity of intention are destined to fail. Further, Hegel says, this morality of intentions is in fact morally blind when it places more importance on the “presumed” character of a would-be criminal than on the actual crime being committed. “It is not the murderer, the thief, who is to be recognized” by this moral worldview, “but the capacity to be one.” Hegel saw the potentially disastrous consequences of such a view by imagining a world in which the worst deeds of human history could be justified after the fact by appeal to good intentions.

Against such a view, Hegel worked out an idea of ethical life in which both intention and deed, the perspectives of both individual and community, are combined to produce the truth of a set of circumstances. First, he recognized that “the true being of a man is rather his deed,” because it is in the doing that “the individual is actual.” “In the accomplished deed,” Hegel says, the indecision about intention and moral responsibility “is destroyed.” The action taken is “the fact itself,” and this brute reality of actions taken and deeds accomplished is “what settles the character of the deed.” Whether an act is undertaken with sincere intent or is merely a “fancied performance” is a matter of “mere conjecture” and “idle thinking,” and to deny the importance of the deed is to go against reason.2

Second, Hegel argues that any purpose that humans might have can only be raised to the level of truth, and thus of moral reality, through work, by bringing about an idea through action. But for work to have historical permanence and objective reality, there must exist social and political institutions that converge on the work and promote the same purposes of action. Thus moral intentionality must be accompanied by the building of an ethical order and set of communal circumstances that promote rather than hinder our purposes. Without such political and social work, the individual’s appeal to intention is morally empty.

To summarize, one cannot rely on what was “meant” or “intended” as a way to avoid moral responsibility for the consequences resulting from one’s action. And if circumstances are getting in the way of results, one must work to change those circumstances to bring about the desired reality, so that what one says is the intention becomes the fact that all can judge. In this way, Hegel introduced the idea of a moral reasoning that isn’t content with pampering the inner purity of the individual’s intention but puts in the hard work of changing the surrounding circumstances to mitigate unintended consequences. And he put the final touches on that idea just as the French Empire was bringing its ideals to Hegel’s doorstep.

This was the central problem of ethical life for Hegel, and it is the perennial challenge for the philosopher who would intervene in politics: how to bring historical and socially-constituted reason to bear on the real deeds and actions before us now. The worldview of moral intentions answered by giving up in the face of the problem, by retreating into the inner intention controlled by the individual as opposed to the outer world of circumstances that threaten any action with contingency. For Hegel, such a retreat was a sure way to encourage inaction in the face of real moral crimes and leave a society on the road to the status quo until all that’s left are apologies.

His idea was not that one must include all possible consequences of an action in a process of calculation in order to act only on those purposes that can be guaranteed. In fact, he thought that such an attempt at ideal moral calculation would inevitably lead to indecision and inaction—a moral agent frozen by the blinding realization that nothing can guarantee the purity of intention. In the realm of politics, the only sure thing is that the contingency of human action will resist total calculation of a decision in advance. But what one can do, Hegel would argue, is take history as a lesson, arrange the circumstances to end undesired consequences, and then to act in such a way as to avoid the type of stark disparity between intention and action that always attends great moral failures in history. Hegel reminds us that the principles with which we start can devolve into a melee of indiscriminate casualties if we don’t also take responsibility for the world of deeds in which we realize them. 

  1. I tend to agree with Arendt that, whatever one may think of Kant’s moral philosophy, there is in his thought on the whole an attempt to bridge the traditional enmity between philosophy and politics in a way that is not a mere idealizing of the political realm. []
  2. All quotes taken from Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, Translated by A.V. Miller, Oxford University Press: 1977, pp. 191-194. []

Leave a Reply

Be the First to Comment!

Notify of