Ferguson and Hegel on the Idea of Civil Society
The notion of civil society was an issue of particular importance within eighteenth and nineteenth century political thought. Multiple accounts of the supposed state of nature and records of colonial expansion demonstrated an interest in how political institutions not only took shape, but survived. The Scottish philosopher Adam Ferguson (1723–1816) was one of the first of his time to reject a state-of-nature-based account of the development of political institutions. Ferguson’s methodology was roughly empirical: to understand how and why governments arose is to simply observe human interactions historically. In his Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767), Ferguson sketched what he saw as the foundations for civic life. He argued that economic activity was primarily a social phenomenon (an idea which Marx would later adopt), and that the cultivation of virtue was necessary for the citizen.
In particular, Ferguson’s notion of economic activity in civil society as fundamentally social in nature was influential on a number of thinkers, but specifically Hegel and Marx. Ferguson was the first to publish on the idea (although whether he himself got the idea from Smith’s lectures is disputed1) that the division of labor was the key to a nation’s strength and growth. However, Ferguson was also cautious of the consequences that could arise from this process. His warnings about the negative effects of increased production on society were noted by Marx in Capital vol. 1.2 Ferguson’s conception of civil society, and, ultimately, of history, as both
[1 See, for example, Waszek, pp. 214–219
2 Capital, vol. 1, p. 394]
economic and ethical offer much in the way of comparison to Hegel’s political thought. Our purposes, then, shall be to examine the ways in which Hegel not only potentially drew influence from Ferguson, but the ways in which Hegel redefined the Scottish account
of civil society.
First, Ferguson’s thoughts on the division of labor will be examined in order to elucidate his concerns about its effects on society. In light of these concerns, Hegel’s thought on the ‘system of needs’ will be examined and contrasted with Ferguson’s thoughts on economic progress. Next, similarities between Ferguson’s and Hegel’s political thought (for example, on the notion of citizenship) will be explored. Finally, the role of virtue will be discussed as the separation point between each thinker’s views on civil society. In these respects, situating Hegel within the Scottish Enlightenment notion of civil society helps to clarify Hegel’s own understanding of civil society, and why he thought it inferior to the state.
In all cases of similarity, I do not wish in any way to contend that Hegel is unoriginal or merely drawing from Ferguson. Rather, while some issues (as others have argued)3 in Ferguson were likely inspirations for Hegel (such as Ferguson’s discussion of the social effects of the division of labor), other points of comparison serve to highlight each philosopher’s distinct views. Specifically, Ferguson’s focus on the market as primarily a social phenomenon is perhaps best considered in contrast to Hegel, rather than to his British contemporaries. Further, it may be argued that Ferguson’s construction of civil society leaves unfinished the necessary unity of the
[3 See, for example, Oz-Salzberger, Translating the Enlightenment, and Waszek, The Scottish Enlightenment and Hegel’s Account of ‘Civil Society’.]
private and public interests made complete in Hegel’s conception of the state. Towards this end, I contend that Hegel’s contributions to political thought provide a sort of completion of Ferguson’s own understanding of the necessity of virtue for civic life.
Hegel’s knowledge of Scottish Enlightenment philosophers, and in particular his knowledge of the works of Adam Ferguson, has been well documented by Norbet Waszek and Fania Oz-Salzberger.4 However, a few remarks can be made about this relationship. Important for the dissemination of Scottish philosophy in Germany in the nineteenth century was the philosopher Christian Garve (1742–1798) who, according to Waszek, “did more than anyone else to spread the fame of the Scottish Enlightenment in Germany.”5 Garve was the first German translator of Ferguson’s Institutes of Moral Philosophy and of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and was deeply interested himself in the Scottish philosophy of his time, especially the works of Ferguson, Hume, Hutcheson, Reid, and Smith. According to Waszek, there are a number of instances of documented evidence of Hegel’s reading of Garve’s commentary and translations.6 A translation by Christian Friedrich Jünger of Ferguson’s Essay also appeared in German in 1768, just one year after its original English publication, and Hegel’s specific knowledge of Ferguson is attested to by his biographer, Karl Rosenkranz.7 Indeed Fania Oz-Salzburger notes “it was Ferguson’s Essay in its German translation which helped to make the notion of ‘bürgerliche
5 Waszek, p. 60
6 Waszek, p. 103
7 Rosenkranz, p.14]
Gesellschaft’ fashionable in German scholarly circles.”8 In addition, Waszek cites Hegel’s broader familiarity with Scottish philosophy as well as Hegel’s familiarity with several journals which popularized Scottish thought in Germany.
Of all of Ferguson’s ideas, it was his account of civil society which had the most profound effect on German thinkers. Specifically, Ferguson’s discussion of the social effects of the division of labor paved the way for later thinkers such as Marx and Durkheim. Compared with Adam Smith’s more economic consideration of the effects of specialization, Ferguson’s account is much more detailed in terms of both the negative and positive effects on society and the market. While Ferguson indeed recognizes the economic benefits that the division of labor brings, he also acknowledges some of the negative impacts on society as well. Like Smith, Ferguson attributes economic growth and progress to the development of specialization:
“By the separation of arts and professions, the sources of wealth are laid open; every species of material is wrought up to the greatest perfection, and every commodity is produced in the greatest abundance.”9
While the economic impact of specialization was of course not noted only by Ferguson, it is his remarks on the social effects of this process which separated him from his contemporaries: “But apart from these considerations, the separation of professions, while it seems to promise improvement of skill, and is actually the cause why the productions of every art become more perfect as commerce advances; yet in its termination, and ultimate effects, serves, in some measure, to break the bands of society, to substitute form in place of ingenuity, and to
[8 Oz-Salzberger (2006), p. xix
9 ECS, p. 173]
withdraw individuals from the common scene of occupation, on which the sentiments of the heart, and the mind, are most happily employed.”10
Thus, while the advancement of production and commerce bring with them increased economic gain, the mechanization of the individual serves to break his ties to his neighbors.
In this and similar passages, Ferguson’s discussion of the division of labor seems to include a notion of alienation not unlike that found in Marx. The constant production of goods by the worker never meant to enjoy them dulls and him. In particular, specialization reduces the individual to a mere ‘cog’ in a mechanistic process of production. “Manufactures, accordingly, prosper most, where the mind is least consulted, and where the workshop may . . . be considered as an engine, the parts of which are men.”11 Reason, Ferguson also notes, is unnecessary to the process of manufacture and in many cases may upset the very operation—production requires the individual to act as a component of the well-oiled machine.
Further, as individuals begin to distinguish themselves by their specific role in the economy, “society is made to consist of parts of which none is animated with the spirit of society itself.”12 Ferguson even attributes this effect to the fall of the Athenian state, where, in Ferguson’s estimation, the “business of the state, as well as of war . . . became the objects of separate professions . . . and men ceased to be citizens . . . in proportion as they came to be distinguished by the profession of these, and other
[10 ECS, p. 206
11 ECS, p. 174
12 ECS, p. 207]
separate crafts.”13 In such a case, man is alienated even from his species, as Ferguson (drawing of course on Aristotle) sees the social nature of man (especially in his capacity for friendship) at the heart of political society.
While Ferguson recognizes the problems the division of labor may have on workers, interestingly enough, he reserves much criticism for the effects that the process has on the upper classes. The increasing wealth and, ultimately, stratification, of society makes the nobility lazy, foolish, and ignorant. With increased wealth and comfort, the nobleman renounces his nobility by ignoring the cares of those less privileged. Boredom overcomes the rich “who become the first victims of that wretched insignificance, into which the members of every state, by the tendency of their weaknesses, and their vices, are in haste to plunge themselves.”14
In Hegel’s philosophy the division of labor is a direct result of the system of needs, the cornerstone of civil society. He, too, recognizes the wealth that can come to a society when manufacturing is divided into specialized parts, and thus the success of the market-based economy is found in its efficiency, not in the generation of profit.
Because of the interdependence necessitated by specialization, people are drawn together: “[In] their work and the satisfaction of their needs, subjective self-seeking turns into a contribution to the satisfaction of the needs of everyone else. . . . with the result that each man in earning, producing, and enjoying on his own account is eo ipso
[13 ECS, p. 207
14 ECS, p. 246]
producing and earning for the enjoyment of everyone else.”15 This conscious progression towards the universal advances into ethical life.
However, it is with respect to the deleterious effects of the division of labor that we most see Ferguson and Hegel in agreement. First, both are concerned with the mechanization of the individual and of society as a whole. Hegel, in fact, even thought that because the “abstraction of one man’s production from another’s makes work more and more mechanical,” that man would one day be able to “step aside and install machines in his place.”16 Whereas labor before stood “as the mediator between man’s need and its satisfaction . . . [it] becomes ‘mechanical’ and severely limits man’s capacity for freedom until he ‘steps aside’ from such a process.”17 As in Ferguson, Hegel sees the increased fragmentation of labor paralleled in the fragmentation of society. The individual becomes focused on himself, his work, all the while participating in a system wherein he no longer has any claim on his production.
“Great wealth . . . produces on the one side in ideal universality, on the other side in real universality, mechanically. . . . The original character of the business class, namely, its being capable of an organic absolute intuition and respect for something divine, even though posited outside it, disappears, and the bestiality of contempt for all higher things enters. . . .The absolute bond of the people, namely the ethical principle, has vanished, and the people is dissolved.”18
[15 PR 199, p. 67
16 PR 199, p. 67
17 Fraser, p. 82
18 System of Ethical Life, Sec. I, II.B.a]
For both Ferguson and Hegel this ‘dissolution of bonds’ is not merely interpersonal but rather (and especially) civic. Increased production leads to increased luxury, which in turn generates a greater stratification between the poor and the wealthy. Ferguson speaks of a breakdown in ‘national spirit’ where mechanization takes over19 and Hegel is troubled by the dependence created by increasing needs.20
The issue of needs itself is at the heart of Hegel’s notion of civil society. Unlike his predecessors (especially the Scottish political theorists), Hegel was unique in separating civil society from the state. He defined civil society as primarily economic and membership in the state as ethical. Civil society is primarily an economic institution since it concerns itself with the production and consumption of goods aimed at meeting the needs of its members. Individuals are primarily self-interested and are directed toward meeting their particular needs. Nonetheless, the multiplication of needs drives man into communion with others. The tension between the self-interested individual who meets his needs via interaction with others is never unified within civil society. As such, civil society is a system of dependence and necessity. The individual remains subject to his own personal needs and those necessitated by nature.
The productive success of the market, however, creates increasing needs which individuals seek to meet. This in turn leads to increased stratification among the members of civil society, and inequality is inevitable. Specifically, the poor are at risk
because of their inability to meet their needs and as such they become dependent on other people and circumstances and hence, according to Hegel, unfree.
[19 See ECS, Part V, Sec. III, “Of Relaxations in the National Spirit incident to Polished Nations.
20 See PR, 195]
Nonetheless, civil society plays a vital role in the development of freedom. The productive process itself frees man from the subjugation of nature. Here too man becomes recognized as an individual, specifically through the establishment of private property. Because of the nature of specialized work, individuals are freed from the immediate demands of nature and desire. The fulfillment of individual needs, Hegel argues, seems at first glance arbitrary. Yet still “the universal asserts itself in the bearing which this satisfaction has on the needs of others and their free arbitrary wills.”21 Thus the process is economic and presupposes the ethical nature of the state.
The fulfillment of needs is a process grounded in deliberate societal interaction.
“[I]ndividuals can attain their ends only in so far as they themselves determine their
knowing, willing, and acting in a universal way and make themselves links in this
chain of social connections.”22
While the first moment of civil society is found in the system of needs, the second moment, the administration of justice, arises because of the necessity of protecting private property. For Hegel, property is another way in which the individual relates to society, and, ultimately, the universal. As property owners, men become bearers of legal rights and obligations. Further, property allows the individual to see himself as an objective being with a free will. According to Hegel, if “emphasis is placed on my needs, then the possession of property appears as a means to their satisfaction, but the true position is that, from the standpoint of freedom, property is
[21 PR, 189
22 PR, 186]
the first embodiment of freedom and so is in itself a substantive end.”23 As a result, man identifies property as “this” or “mine” and as such his own will is directed towards the wills of others.24 Property thus enables the mutual recognition necessary for ethical life.
A similar notion is found in Ferguson. Through private property, man sees himself objectively: “He apprehends a relation between his person and his property, which renders what he calls his own in a manner a part of himself, a constituent of his rank, his condition, and his character. . . .”25 Indeed, like Hegel, Ferguson recognizes property as a matter of progress, since “it requires, among other particulars, which are the effects of time, some method of defining possession.”26
In general, too, Hegel shares the idea of an “interdependent system of selfinterested individuals” with the Scots,27 and both Hegel and Ferguson consider human needs as one of the ways in which man is distinct from the animals. Whereas the needs of animals are bound by their biological constitution, the needs of humans are boundless. As Waszek points out, indeed, Hegel’s notion is constructed strikingly similarly to Ferguson’s formulation in his Institutes of Moral Philosophy. Hegel describes animal needs as “restricted in scope”28 while Ferguson calls them “fixed and determinate choice[s] of external objects and pursuits.”29 Both describe how animals are limited to specific diets, dwellings, and climates while men are unrestricted in this
[23 PR, 45
24 See PR, 46A
25 ECS, p. 17
26 ECS, p. 81
27 Waszek, p. 147
28 PR, 55
29 Institutes of Moral Philosophy, p. 17]
manner.30 The multiplicity of both wants and means to satisfy them is one of the defining features of man. Man as situated in civil society is generally unrestricted by his desires and while he overcomes his biological impulses, he submits himself to new demands dictated by the generation of property via the market. These needs, as both Hegel and the Scots acknowledged, are ‘insatiable.’31 Further, as more needs emerge so too do refinements. Fashions, “fancies,”32 and “comforts”33 begin to drive the expansion of wants and means to fulfill them. As a result of this process, satisfaction becomes unachievable because of the limitless possibilities for “needs, means, and [their] enjoyments.”34 Thus “dependence and want increase ad infinitum.”35
Nonetheless, the necessities of life are not fixed in any kind of natural condition of man. Both Ferguson and Hegel reject ‘state of nature’ explanations (as will be discussed later) and both are in agreement that necessities are relative to time and place.36
[30 Waszek, p. 149
31 See, for example, PR, 191A and Theory of Moral Sentiments, p. 264
32 See, for example, ECS Part VI, Sec. 2 IMS, Part I, Ch. 2, Sec. XII
33 PR, 191A
34 PR, 195
35 PR, 195
36 Ferguson calls the “necessary of life” a “vague and relative term” and Hegel describes the necessary
aspect of needs as having “no determined scope.” (Waszek, p. 155)]