Hegel And The Social Sciences Research Paper

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  1. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831), born in Stuttgart, achieved his full fame in Berlin between 1818 and 1831 as a professor of philosophy. Much of his fame rests on the posthumously edited and published lectures on the philosophies of art, religion, and history, along with his epochal book of 1807, the Phenomenology of Spirit. However, despite Hegel’s immense influence on modern thought, he has remained one of the most controversial and difficult to interpret philosophers of the modern period. It is nonetheless widely agreed that Hegelian-inspired theories of society rest on certain fundamental theses: first, they give fundamental priority to the ‘totality’ of social life over more individualist accounts; second, such theories claim that we can only understand the kinds of demands social life makes in terms of its historical embeddedness; and, finally, such theories claim that there can be no value-free approach to history and society. There is, however, not nearly as much consensus as to what each of these general claims meant for Hegel or about what follows from them. In some interpretations, Hegel has been taken as an ominous figure, a kind of dark warning for modern academics to stay away from metaphysics; in other interpretations, Hegel is taken as one of the original theorists of European modernity and as an ongoing source of insight and inspiration.

Although part of the difficulty of interpreting Hegel has to do with his notoriously obscure style and his sometimes ferociously idiosyncratic jargon, much of the difficulty has to do with how one is to take his statements about the role of mentality (Geist, perhaps better rendered in English somewhat artificially as ‘mindedness’) in nature, society, and history (and often one’s interpretation of that depends how one understands Hegel’s ultimate stance toward religion). This is also tied into Hegel’s general holism, the thesis that the politics, art, religion, and economy of a society are so intimately related to each other that not just any concatenation of such practices and institutions is compatible with any others, and that the point of such practices and institutions is to provide the vehicles through which a way of life can collectively reflect on and become self-consciously aware of what ultimately matters to it. In Hegel’s own lifetime and afterwards, people took his holism more or less in one of two ways: either as a grandly metaphysical statement about an absolute reality (called Geist, mindedness) that assumes different forms in history and which progressively reveals itself to itself; or as a more normative account of agency that does not invoke that kind of metaphysical entity acting behind the scenes to explain things.

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To understand what is at stake in that debate, one must at least have some idea of the rather heated atmosphere present in German philosophy at the time in which Hegel came to prominence.

By the end of the eighteenth century, Kant’s critical philosophy had changed the very terms of debate in Germany, and while certainly not everybody became a Kantian, almost all aspiring philosophers in Germany felt that they had to come to terms with Kantian thought. Kant had, according to his own description of things, essentially demolished the longstanding feud between empiricists—those who believed that science was only a sophisticated and methodical purification of our more ordinary responses to the givens of experience—and rationalists—those who thought that Galilean and Newtonian physics showed that the mind was capable of mathematically articulating the structure of the universe independent of experience. Kant argued that there were no givens of experience at all, that our conscious experience of the world always involved an active and spontaneous ‘taking-up’ of that experience (a rationalist theme), although our activities of ‘taking-up’ experience depended for that experience for its empirical content (an empiricist theme). He also argued that in the moral realm, we are completely self-legislating; there are no givens within human nature or in the cosmos at large that can determine what may count as a moral principle for us. The reality of this radical human spontaneity and freedom was secured, so Kant had argued, by distinguishing between the way in which we necessarily had to describe and order our experience of the world and the way that the world existed in itself independent of any description we might give it. We could never know, in Kant’s famous phrase, the way things were in themselves, only the way in which they necessarily appear to us. Thus although we had to appear to ourselves as standing under deterministic natural causal laws, we also had to postulate for practical reasons the necessity of our freedom as we were ‘in ourselves,’ even though we could never theoretically demonstrate the existence or lack of existence of such radical freedom.

For Hegel’s generation, who had come to believe, however indistinctly, that they were leading unprecedented lives and for whom the French Revolution was the defining event, Kant’s philosophy of freedom and spontaneity had an electrifying effect. Kant’s immediate successors were also convinced that the outstanding problems with his own solution called for an effort to ‘complete’ the project he had begun. This took the forms of attempting to establish Kantianism on better foundations, or of focusing on the way in which Kant had (or should have) rejected all forms of ‘givenness’ in epistemology and morality, or of showing how Kant’s own dualisms were to be reconciled by showing them to be only mutually conflicting ‘appearances’ of some deeper underlying ‘absolute’ reality that itself was only to be apprehended through some non-discursive act of intellectual intuition. The latter turn was famously carried out by Hegel’s old friend, F. W. J. Schelling, who crafted an entire theory of nature and mind as modes of appearance of the ‘absolute,’ or as the way the absolute gradually realizes itself in history. (In part, much of the debate about Hegel’s philosophy has since centered on just how ‘Schellingian’ or ‘non-Schellingian’ his thought really was.)

In much of his writing prior to the 1807 Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel had worried about what shape a ‘modern’ way of life would take and in particular what role religion, especially a reinterpreted form of Christianity, might play in such a modern way of life. Throughout his development, however, he held fast to the post-Kantian notion that the modern, postrevolutionary world was something qualitatively new and demanded a ‘new sensibility’ appropriate to itself. To that end, Hegel’s 1807 Phenomenology was intended to demonstrate what would be required of ‘we moderns’ if we to conceive of our lives without any secure, ‘given’ foundations. In his Phenomenology, Hegel sarcastically characterized Schelling’s notion of the Absolute as ‘the night in which all cows are black,’ signaling his rejection of the idea of an absolute reality that is beyond all conventional descriptions and differentiations and which can only be grasped in some non-discursive mode. So Hegel argued, rejecting all ‘givens’ and affirming Kantian notions of spontaneity implied there could be no inherently privileged viewpoint without at the same time also implying that we were stuck with any kind of pure relativism about viewpoints.

In an early chapter in the Phenomenology (drawing on some themes taken from Fichte and Schelling), Hegel constructed an imaginary encounter between two agents, each thinking of himself as seeking only to satisfy the desires given to him by organic life. To the extent that each agent legitimates his own judgments about what is valid for him only in light of locating himself within the totality of ‘life’ and its demands, he demands of the other that the other recognize his point of view as authoritative, that he may do what he pleases to satisfy his own desires, even to use the other to get what he wants. In making that demand, though, each finds that it is not ‘life’ itself that is setting the terms of judgment but his own self-conceived project for his life, of his bestowing on his desires a prior claim to satisfaction over the desires of others. Each thus demands ‘recognition’ from the other of the authoritativeness of his own point of view—not merely that he has pressing desires but that he determines which desires and whose desires have a legitimacy to satisfaction. Those reciprocal and incompatible demands necessitate a struggle for such recognition, and to the extent that one of the parties decides that his own self-conception is more important than life itself and is willing to risk his life to secure the authoritativeness of his self-conception, it becomes a struggle to the death.

If in such a struggle for recognition, one of the combatants out of fear for his life submits to the other’s demand for recognition, he then enters into the relationship of servitude to that other, who now becomes the ‘master.’ The vassal then comes to judge the validity of his own desires, tastes, and plans in terms of how they fit into the master’s point of view. Or, as Hegel put it, the vassal’s own self-relation is now mediated through an ‘other.’ Through the discipline of his work for the master, the ‘vassal’ comes to distinguish more clearly between his own subjective point of view and a more impersonal, normative point of view represented by the master. The master’s point of view represents the ‘totality’ in terms of which the vassal must orient himself. However, as only a particular point of view whose sole claim to authority has to do with its ability to force itself on the vassal, it cannot ultimately sustain any normative allegiance to itself. As the vassal reflects on his status, he comes to understand the sheer contingency of the master’s hold on him, and the master comes to understand that the recognition he requires from the vassal is only compelled, not the free recognition he requires.

Self-consciousness in Hegel’s scheme thus only comes about through struggles over mutual recognition. To be self-conscious in Hegelian terms is thus not to have some inner sensation of oneself or merely to be consciously alive; it is rather to locate oneself and others (and similarly be located by others) in a complex ‘social space’ of norms, commitments, entitlements, and the like, and for both parties to act in light of that mutual self-locating and being located. This conception of self-consciousness as emerging only in mutual recognition and of its being the result of a struggle turned out to be one of Hegel’s most enduring and widely interpreted legacies. Although others had often made claims about the inherently social nature of man, Hegel was the first to make this claim about the very structure of reasoning and agency itself. Each agent needs the other not to help him satisfy some given desire but to be an agent at all. Agency is thus itself a reciprocally conferred social normative status, not a metaphysical fact about people: to be an agent is to be the kind of organic creature that binds himself to and is held by others to epistemic, practical, even religious and aesthetic responsibilities. We become agents, almost paradoxically, by treating each other as agents.

The rest of the Phenomenology presented a historical account of how various modes of sociality—of complex reciprocal holding of self and others to basic authoritative norms—have failed to be able to sustain themselves and became thereby unlivable, compelling their participants to come to recognize that they had over time failed to sustain their own status as agents and (without intending it) had come to require of themselves a different form of collective life. In such transitions, what had seemed like an ‘absolute’ point of view had turned out to be incoherently unlivable or to be only the point of view of some particular group, and its capacity to sustain allegiance to itself unraveled. In those terms, Hegel reinterpreted not only the great transition from the ancient to the modern world but also certain particular historical transitions such as that from ancient Greece to Rome or from the aristocratic society of the ancien regime to the moralistic society of postrevolutionary Europe. Each such transition came to be understood as part of the development of reason itself, of what counted as a basic norm and therefore what counted as agency itself. This was in Hegel’s account not the development of a latent capacity somehow already present within us but which was only gradually actualizing itself nor was it the result of any kind of natural law compelling such historical movement, as it were, from the outside; it had to do with the inherent difficulties involved in binding each other to certain types of norms and in the way in which we came to be required to hold ourselves to different norms—that is, in being certain types of agents—and in the specific ways being those types of agents had failed and quite unintentionally resulted in different collective ways of being agents.

In his own lifetime and until today, people have tended to read Hegel’s philosophy of history in the Phenomenology as a kind of story about how some appropriately grand absolute reality (identified with mindedness itself, Geist) gradually develops itself and actualizes its own potentiality by using various world historical individuals and nations as a way to follow its own destined path of maturation. However, Hegel himself argued that the sense of destiny in history had nothing to do with laws of history or any such grand metaphysical scheme but with the ways in which human agents can understand the kind of agents they concretely are only in light of the kinds of options that their history has opened up for them. The realization that that there is no grander show behind the curtain of appearance pulling the strings for us, either in the form of historical laws (metaphysical or material) or in the form of gradual actualizations of longstanding latent potentialities, is itself distinctly modern and, as an unsurpassable form of self-understanding, as marking perhaps the decisive event in human time, is itself absolute. It also represents, so Hegel thought, the human community coming to a more adequate collective self-consciousness about the kinds of norms to which it had committed itself and to which it had to keep faith; and, quite famously, Hegel held that art, religion, and philosophy are to be understood as historically embedded social practices whose underlying point has to do with the manner in which they embody a way of life’s concrete reflection on who they have come to be and on the matters that have come to be authoritatively valuable for them.

The different ways of taking Hegel’s thought also apply to the different interpretations given of his mature work in social and political philosophy, the 1820 Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Although the book was unfairly criticized both during and after Hegel’s lifetime as a mere ‘apology’ for Prussian absolutism, it was actually an attempt on Hegel’s part to articulate the rational form of the kind of reformed, modern European state that modern reformers like Baron von Stein, and later, Prince von Hardenberg, had tried to establish in Prussia. The core idea of the book is that what counts as ‘right’ in general is what is necessary for the realization of freedom.

Hegel thought of freedom, though, not as the exercise of some special form of causality (as Kant had done) but as a kind of ‘self-relation,’ as having one’s actions come from oneself (always though in terms of such self-relations being mediated by relation to likeminded others); and, quite radically, Hegel held that for ‘we moderns,’ freedom involves being held to norms that are rationally redeemable. The opposite of such freedom is to be pushed around by factors or considerations not really our own but stemming from something else that we cannot rationally redeem (for example, brute desires or mere social conventions). In Hegel’s almost paradoxical way of putting it, one can be an agent only by being recognized as an agent; the conditions of agency are the social conditions under which such agents can reciprocally hold themselves and each other to being certain kinds of agents.

For agents to be free, they must be able to practically reason about their activities, and that requires that they have some conception of some ‘good’ that they are seeking to actualize. Hegel wished to argue that all genuine practical reasoning has as its major premise some statement about what is ultimately good and best, and when an individual acts rationally, he acts on the basis of some (again, perhaps sometimes implicit) deliberation about what is necessary for him to achieve what is good and best for himself.

For ‘we moderns,’ that good must be that of ‘freedom,’ but stated so abstractly, it seems to offer little guidance for deliberation on what would be required to achieve such ‘freedom.’ To that end, Hegel argued, in the modern world, the realization of freedom must be articulated into three more determinate spheres, which he characterized as ‘abstract right,’ ‘morality,’ and ‘ethical life’ (Sittlichkeit). Each of them embodies a way in which very specific institutions and practices underwrite and sustain the ways in which our freedom is actualized in that each of them provides individuals with more concrete, specific first premises about ‘the good’ (freedom) on the basis of which they may then rationally deliberate what they are required to do.

If we are to have any concrete first principles for moral reasoning, therefore, we must grasp them not as specifications of some ‘master rule’ but as elements of a social practice, ways in which we prereflectively learn to orient and move ourselves around in the social world. Hegel called this sphere, ‘ethical life,’ Sittlichkeit. ‘Moral’ individuals exercising their ‘abstract rights’ to life, liberty, and property require a location in these kinds of social practices, which embody within themselves determinate conceptions of what is ‘ultimately best,’ namely, as the way in which individuals exercise their rights, manage their moral obligations, and come to be ‘at home’ in the social world by virtue of acquiring a kind of ‘ethical virtuosity’ in being brought up and socialized in these practices. Sittlichkeit thus provides us with determinate principles and a kind of practice-oriented ethical ‘know-how,’ and such institutions and practices form what Hegel called ‘concrete universals.’

There are three such institutionalizations of Sittlichkeit in the modern world, each serving to give individuals a concrete specification of these final goods upon which they can then rationally deliberate. These are the modern family, civil society, and the constitutional state. Together they form a social ‘whole’ in terms of which individuals orient themselves and which reconciles them to modern social life, gives them good grounds for believing that modern life really is, although imperfect and finite, nonetheless for the best.

Since the modern state appeals to neither God nor natural law for its legitimacy, it must appeal to some sense of what a ‘people’ collectively establish as rational. This drives political philosophy into a philosophy of history, which, so Hegel argued, demonstrates that from the vague intimations in the ancient eastern states that ‘one’ (the emperor, the pharaoh) is free, and from the Greco-Roman political conceptions that ‘some’ (aristocratic males) are free, history has culminated in the modern world’s recognition of the principle that ‘all’ are free. This, Hegel argued, is the meaning of world history, and Europe has been its penultimate staging ground. European culture, with its inherent sense of ‘negativity,’ self-doubt, and skeptical questioning, has by virtue of the kind of culture it is, propelled itself progressively to abandon those criteria, whose lack of rationality made itself manifest until in the modern period it has come to recognize, at least implicitly, that freedom has always been its collective goal, and that such freedom can only be vouched for in an institutional setup much like the one outlined in the Philosophy of Right. Freedom itself is thus reinterpreted as a kind of social norm, a historical achievement, not the better realization of a potency that, for example, the Greeks also possessed but failed to actualize. (In a completely empty sense of ‘potentiality,’ such capacities were, of course, always empirically present exactly in the sense that, for example, empirical science or abstract art has always been a human possibility. The kind of ‘potency’ that is being realized is more like that involved in a narrative than it is like an orthodox Aristotelian realization of a potentiality.)

After his death, in the rather tense atmosphere in Berlin in the 1830s and 1840s, there was a lot of pressure to interpret Hegel in either conservative or progressive terms. The ‘July Monarchy’ in France and the subsequent revolutionary upheavals in other parts of Europe (along with social unrest throughout Germany) made the ruling authorities anxious while raising the hopes of the reformers. There was a line of thought, especially popular among liberals, to the effect that a kind of historical law was at work that mandated countries to pass through a revolutionary upheaval, establishment of a republic, years of war, and then roughly fifty years later to settle into a constitutional monarchy (first in England, later in France); on that view, England represented the endpoint of modernity, France was almost there, and progress seemed to call for the establishment of constitutionalism in Germany by revolution if necessary; many of Hegel’s own students enthusiastically embraced this view of the ‘law’ of history (despite Hegel’s own rejection of such a view). His school thus split famously into ‘right’ and ‘left’ Hegelians. The ‘right’ Hegelians made Hegel into more of a Schellingian and had him espousing a view of history that basically endorsed the (non-constitutional) Prussian monarchy as metaphysically destined, as the only form of social organization compatible with the necessary structure of the cosmos. The ‘left’ Hegelians, led first by Hegel’s friend and follower, Eduard Gans, tended to stress the elements of work and recognition as accomplishing the necessary historical tasks. In the hands of later ‘left’ Hegelians, however, such as Ludwig Feuerbach, the question began to be raised as to whether it was necessary to have any kind of ‘absolute’ at all. If history was a matter of labor and recognition, and people’s labors were always socially and therefore materially mediated, then why could Hegelianism not be turned into something more like sociology, or into some form of empirical social theory?

The young Karl Marx, coming to maturity in this left-Hegelian atmosphere, transformed Hegel into a materialist thinker. (He was helped in this endeavor by the deservedly forgotten H. M. Chalybaus’s characterization of Hegel’s thought as following the strict scheme of thesis antithesis synthesis, a bowdlerization that has been applied ever since.) Eschewing all talk of the ‘absolute’ and of ‘mindedness,’ Marx read into Hegel a kind of evolutionary doctrine of the gradual realization of human capacities that were themselves historically mediated and were themselves the achievements of labor and struggle. The material conditions of life—both its organic demands for sustenance and its social demands for the organization of labor and distribution of wealth—set the terms in which people interact with each other. Hegel’s doctrine of the ‘struggle for recognition’ thus became shorn almost completely of its epistemological bearings and became a doctrine of materialist social reality and history. In the writings of the mature Marx, this was complemented by a theory of how human consciousness is itself socially mediated and is there fore dependent on the ways in which that society is structured, particularly in terms of the relevant forces of production in society and the patterns of ownership of the means of production. Famously, Marx also transformed Hegel’s philosophy of history into a set of dialectical laws to the effect that revolutions come about when the forces of production and the relations of production come into irrevocable conflict with each other. Hegel had argued that history was not best understood as a matter of divine providence, natural law, or even as the consequence of the decisions of great men, but rather as a kind of broad scale drama of people collectively trying to come to terms with the people they had come to be in terms of the norms to which they had collectively bound themselves; Marx transformed that into a broad scale story about the ways in which human societies are organized around key material matters such as the production of the necessities for organic and social life, and he held that these follow a law-like pattern in a manner analogous to natural events.

Like Hegel, though, Marx thought that one had to understand social and political phenomena as a whole, even if he ascribed more or less independent importance to the facts about ownership of the means of production; and like Hegel, he put great emphasis on how a given social formation understands itself—what it basically values and counts as authoritative for itself, even though there too he ascribed a more or less independent value to the economic organization of society in determining how such communities arrive at this kind of collective self-consciousness. Marx’s own ideas about the historical destiny of the proletariat, of course, went far beyond anything to be found in Hegel’s thought. (Later ‘Western’ Marxists such as Georg Lukacs tried to synthesize Marx’s and Hegel’s alternative understandings of historical development.)

Simultaneous with Marx’s materialistic development of Hegel’s thought, there were ongoing ‘liberal’ developments of Hegel’s views. Lorenz von Stein (whose impact on Marx is difficult to prove but who developed certain key ‘Marxist’ ideas before Marx had developed them himself) developed a kind of liberal post-Hegelian theory of society and history in the 1840s and 1850s through a series of historical writings on the social and political developments in France from 1789 to 1848. Stein argued that ‘society’ (Gesellschaft) had come to assume a prominent role in modernity such that one could best understand the way in which a people comes to reflect on itself not in terms of a ‘people’ or a ‘nation’ but in terms of the way in which the ‘social’ has in modernity separated itself from the ‘familial,’ the ‘political,’ and even from ‘religion’ to make itself central to modern life. The basic norm of freedom had historically generated a sense of individualism that, together with the emerging industrial revolution, made ‘social’ matters (and, more specifically, economic matters) absolutely central to modern forms of self-understanding. In particular, notions of ‘possession’ and ‘property’ assumed all the more importance in the self-understanding of such modern individuals; in 1842 Stein argued that a new social class, the ‘proletariat,’ had thus emerged within modern ‘society,’ and the tensions emerging between propertied owners and unpropertied proletarians was to be the central social issue of modern times; since the propertied classes and families would quite naturally seek to take over state power for themselves, it was crucial to construct Hegel’s notion of the political state around an idea of a socially oriented state that would secure the fair distribution of the basic goods of society for all its members. (Like Hegel, Stein also thought constitutional monarchy was consistent with such a state.) Retaining the Hegelian emphasis on the ‘totality’ and the ways in which collectivities understand themselves, Stein nonetheless transformed Hegelian idealism into a kind of quasi-empirical sociology and sociological theory of history; the dynamics of social change and contemporary social structures were to be understood historically in terms of the different modes of self-understanding at play in them; the crucial role of the economy in modern self-understandings was not a timeless natural law (as with Marx) but the result of the kind of self-understandings that modern individualism and industrial society had given rise to. (The next step, although Stein himself did not take it, was to transform Hegel’s notion of social practices of family, society, and state into a theory of social roles. Hegel’s own conception of agency as itself a reciprocally conferred normative status opened the way to understand social action in terms of the more theatrical notion of role-playing, since for Hegel there is no self ‘behind’ or ‘beyond’ the deeds that express the norms to which we mutually bind ourselves.) Hegel’s own more philosophical worries about how, if all knowledge is socially embedded, the thinker could be in a position to know that or to truthfully assert it were also absent in Stein’s transformation of Hegelianism into sociology.

In sum: for Hegel, mindedness, Geist, formed a sphere distinct from nature without itself being any kind of non-natural thing; indeed, Geist was, for Hegel, no thing at all but instead a socially mediated normative status. Hegel’s view, moreover, toward the incipient social sciences of his own time was, on the whole, positive; he seemed to think, for example, that Adam Smith and the other Scots had made economics into a science. There is no reason for a Hegelian to deny that there are many interesting causal facts or correlations about societies that can be discovered and established only by empirical investigation. (Thus, the post-Hegelian distinction between the ‘understanding’ appropriate to the human sciences vs. the ‘explanation’ appropriate to the natural sciences would be viewed by Hegelians as yet another inadequately dualistic approach.) However, Hegel’s key idealist notion—that we best understand societies by understanding how they collectively interpret themselves and the kinds of authoritative values to which they bind themselves and with how those acts of mutual binding must be understood historically—remains forever at odds with all doctrines that posit that some set of basic, natural facts fully determine how we are to understand the course of human events (such as the overall material geography of a place, as the vastly influential historian, Ferdinand Braudel, has argued). Such natural facts, while clearly forming the context in which such collective attempts at self-interpretation occur, cannot fully determine those interpretations. To understand those interpretations, we must understand why that way of life came to regard those specific norms and not others as binding for them, and to understand that, we must understand how such commitments emerged as necessary in light of the way in which past attempts at collective self-definition had proved themselves to be unlivable. Underlying that is the ‘Idea,’ as Hegel put it, of freedom, of humanity realizing its destiny in a way of life whose members could be at home in the social world they create, although of course never under the conditions chosen by themselves. For Hegel, all social science only made sense as a smaller part of a larger story about modernity’s coming to terms with the radical sociality of our own mindedness and with our very modern awareness of modernity’s decisive rupture in human time.


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