‘Free will is the unencumbered ability of an agent to do what she wants.’


I will expound Hegel’s idea on free will by dividing this essay into three parts, the first of which will be dedicated to the exemplification of Hegel’s critique of the empiricists’ view on freedom. I will argue that free will, as according to Hegel, is not merely ‘the unencumbered ability of an agent to do what she wants’—a view that he dismisses as the ‘superficial’, or ‘delusional’ everyday notion of freedom[1]. I shall endeavour to show, contrasting with his account of Kant in the second, that Hegel considers free will as ‘rational self-determination’.


Before furthering our explication, it is worth noting that Hegel does not draw a sharp distinction between physical freedom and freedom of the will. Instead, he considers the concept of ‘freedom’ as a single notion, with both the physical and psychological aspects considered. It would therefore be worthwhile to introduce in the first place the empiricists’ view on freedom as a whole (without distinguishing between physical freedom and freedom of the will), for that is the point whence Hegel expounds his idea on free will. I shall begin my explication by introducing Locke’s theory of liberty.

Locke believes that changes of any kind originate from a simple idea called Power, which can be divided into two categories—passive and active[2]. Human beings are endowed in the mind with both ‘passive’ and ‘active’ powers, i.e., passive in the form of perception, understanding and desires; active in the form of the will, and from both active and passive powers of the mind, liberty, which is a mode of power, is derived and realized through human actions.

Other renowned empiricists like Hume[3] and Hobbes[4] hold similar views towards human nature and freedom, only differ from that of Locke in terms of their deterministic attitudes. It is all very well to suggest that freedom is the absence of physical impediments and interferences[5], and, with the Lockean ‘subjunctive proviso’[6] (‘I do what I want to do and, had I wanted to do something else instead, I would have done that’) which seemingly solved the happy-slave-in-the-citadel paradox, the negative notion of freedom would seem flawless. What Hegel opposes is the fact that the empiricists do not recognise that the notion of unfreedom is twofold (Locke wrote: ‘This Question carries the absurdity of it so manifestly in it self, that one might thereby sufficiently be convinced, that Liberty concerns not the Will[7]): the physical side that which covers the external restraints of one’s liberty; and, the psychological side that which covers the mental (or inner) aspect.

Hegel is, as a matter of fact, well aware of the psychological aspect of unfreedom, i.e., bodily drives and impulses, and regards the effect of which to be an impediment to one’s freedom; he opposes the view that one should be viewed as free insofar as she acts on whatever she desires, because it follows that the will is but a faculty that is dependent to one’s contingent desires.

Hegel is not contented with the empiricists’ view that ‘whatever true must be in the actual world and present to sensation’[8], for he gathers that the empiricists’ theory will inevitably confine themselves to the belief that one’s decision to act can only be made based on his bodily impulses and desires—the empiricists ascribe decision-making process to only the ‘the given’, i.e., what they experienced and perceived, not based on the ‘supersensible’[9]. The empiricists’ account of freedom is, as a matter of fact, not compatible with the obvious fact that bodily inclinations and impulses are beyond one’s control, insofar as they can only be triggered, not initiated. They are, to use Locke’s terminologies, ‘passive’ not ‘active’. It is therefore quite reasonable to consider them as entities external to the will, instead of being part of it. That being granted, bodily inclinations, then, shall have every justification to be considered as external impediments, tantamount to the physical ones.

Responding to the question of freedom and bodily drives, Hegel gathers that the only way out of the labyrinth would be to ascribe freedom to rationality, which would allow the will to stand above its contingent desires—a belief that is similar to that of Kant’s[10]. Yet Hegel is aware of the difficulties in ascribing freedom to reason, for it is hard to conceive of a position which, on the one hand, lies beyond the sphere of one’s intuitive knowledge (transcends experience and contingent desires), and on the other, does not prohibit judgments and decisions having positive content. He wrote:—

‘The theoretical reason…is identified by Kant with the negative faculty of the infinite; and as it has no positive content of its own, it is restricted to the function of detecting the finitude of experiential knowledge.’[11]

Troubled by the fact that bodily inclinations inexorably undermine free will, Kant also realises there stands in front of him an epistemic challenge that pure reason, which meant to transcend over experience, cannot produce transcendent imperatives, for it is nothing but an empty idea without any positive content of its own:—

Knowledge, which as such is speculative, can have no other object than that supplied by experience; if we transcend the limits thus imposed, the synthesis which seeks, independently of experience, new species of knowledge, lacks that substratum of intuition upon which alone it can be exercised.’[12]

Kant instead attributes free will to practical reason, which, he gathers, can provide agents with transcendent imperatives according to which one would be able to act freely, in line with objective morality, on the ground that it is capable of deriving actions from laws, with which we are all endowed a priori:—

‘Whether what is willed be an object of mere sensibility (the pleasant) or of pure reason (the good), reason will not give way to any ground which is empirically given. Reason does not here follow the order of things as they present themselves in appearance, but frames for itself with perfect spontaneity an order of its own according to ideas, to which it adapts the empirical conditions, and according to which it declares actions to be necessary, even though they have never taken place, and perhaps never will take place.’[13]

Despite that Kant has endeavoured to justify himself the postulation of men having a priori knowledge of universal and necessary truths with the ‘Thou shalt not lie’ exemplification (‘there must be such a philosophy is already obvious from the common Idea of duty and from the laws of morality’[14]) and on the grounds of mathematics and natural science[15], Hegel is not satisfied with Kant’s explication of practical and pure reason in the discussion of free will. For Hegel discerns that what premised Kant’s refutation of the exercise of pure reason to produce transcendent imperatives can be applied to his explication of practical reason as well:—

‘The free self-determination which Kant denied to the speculative, he has expressly vindicated for the practical reason…But a recognition of the existence of this power [of modifying itself in “universal modes”, i.e., by thought] is not enough and does not avail to tell us what are the contents of the will or practical reason.’[16]

Hegel believes that Kant erred in treating practical and pure reason differently, because practical reason, like pure reason, provides nothing to the making of moral laws but ‘the same abstract identity’. ‘Practical Reason’, Hegel wrote, ‘never shakes of the formalism which is represented as the climax of Theoretical Reason’[17], for it does not involve any contradiction in the exercise of a priori discernment:—

‘The capacity of an action to be envisaged as a universal maxim…does not contain any principle apart from formal identity and that absence of contradiction already referred to—The fact that no property is present is in itself no more contradictory than is the non-existence of this or that individual people…or the complete absence of human life. But if it is already established and presupposed that property and human life should exist and be respected, then it is a contradiction to commit theft or murder; a contradiction must be a contradiction with something, that is, with a content which is already fundamentally present as an established principle.’[18]

Another challenge posed to Kant by Hegel was that of dualism: Kant failed to address the possibility of a linkage between the empirical and supersensible worlds:—

‘[H]is mistake was to stop at the purely negative point of view, and to limit the unconditionality of Reason to an abstract self-sameness without any shade of distinction. It degrades Reason to a finite and conditioned thing, to identify it with a mere stepping beyond the finite and conditioned range of understanding. The real infinite, far from being a mere transcendence of the finite, always involves the absorption of the finite into its own fuller nature.’[19]

So far I have expounded Hegel’s critique of the empiricists’ and Kant’s theories of free will; it consists of three aspects: first, the empiricists are wrong to consider whomever acts in accordance with her ‘immediate will’ (or ‘natural will’[20]) is free; second, he gathers that Kant is mistaken in treating practical and pure reason differently, because practical reason, like pure reason, does not provide transcendental moral imperatives but merely an ‘abstract identity’[21]; and, third, Kant has failed to answer to the charge of dualism—the ‘Kantian I’ and bodily impulses are too sharply distinct from each other as to be able to viably interact: this results merely in replacing obedience to ‘external commands’ with that of inner positive commands of ‘duty’ that is alien to one’s experience[22] (a.k.a. ‘reflective will’[23]). The ‘real infinite’, Hegel gathers, does not merely transcend the ‘finite’, but sublimated within itself.

Hegel sees freedom as a conception of ‘rational self-determination’, to be achieved through the employment of the ‘rational will’[24], i.e., the undertaking of ‘comprehension of the truth’, so that a ‘rational form’ of sensory intake can be deduced and ‘thereby appear justified to free thinking’[25], instead of ‘stopping at what is given’, be it external commands, Kantian ‘reflective will’, or bodily desires. ‘Rational will’ is a dialectic process which is capable of differentiating between what is alienating and what truly belongs to oneself, through identifying ‘contradictions’. Through realising his true self with ‘free thinking’, which ‘starts out from itself and thereby demands to know itself as united in its innermost being with the truth,’[26] an agent is said to be ‘by himself in an other’. Free will, or freedom (Hegel does not differentiate the two notions sharply), hence, to Hegel, is not ‘the unencumbered ability of an agent to do what she wants,’ insofar as ‘unencumbered ability’ is considered as the absence of physical impediments and ‘to do what one wants’ is regarded as adherence to the ‘immediate’ or ‘natural’ will, which Hegel rejects on the grounds that the ‘immediate will’ is but something ‘alien and objective’[27].

[1] Georg W. F. Hegel, Elements Of The Philosophy Of Right, ed. Allen W. Wood; trans. H. B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 49 (§15).

[2] John Locke, An Essay concerning Human Understanding (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 233-287 (Book II, Ch. XXI).

[3] David Hume, Hume’s Enquiries (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 81-103.

[4] Thomas Hobbes, John Bramhall and V. C Chappell, Hobbes and Bramhall on Liberty and Necessity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 20-21 (§11).

[5] Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” in Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), 118-172.

[6] Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book II, Ch. XXI, §27.

[7] Locke, Essay, 247 (Book II, Ch. XXI, §25).

[8] Georg W. F. Hegel, Logic, trans. William Wallace (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), 61 (§38).

[9] Loc. cit.

[10] Michael J. Inwood, Hegel (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983), 473.

[11] Hegel, Logic, 87 (§54)

[12] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith (London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1973), 427.

[13] Op. cit., 473.

[14] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. H. J. Paton (London: Routledge, 2005), 57.

[15] Kant, First Critique, 52-55.

[16] Hegel, Logic, 87 (§54).

[17] Hegel, Logic, 87 (§54).

[18] Hegel, Philosophy Of Right, 162-163 (§135).

[19] Hegel, Logic, 73 (§45).

[20] Alan Patten, Hegel’s Idea of Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 64.

[21] Hegel, Logic, 87 (§54).

[22] Georg W. F. Hegel, Early Theological Writings, trans., T. M. Knox and R. Kroner (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1948), 211 (footnote §34).

[23] Patten, ibid.

[24] Hegel, Early Theological Writings, 211

[25] Hegel, Philosophy Of Right, 11.

[26] Loc. cit.

[27] Hegel, Early Theological Writings, 211



Berlin, Isaiah, “Two Concepts of Liberty.” In Four Essays on Liberty. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Hegel, Georg W. F. Elements Of The Philosophy Of Right. Edited by Allen W. Wood ; translated by H. B. Nisbet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Hegel, Georg W. F. Logic. Translated by William Wallace. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978.

Hegel, Georg W. F. Early Theological Writings. Translated by T. M. Knox and R. Kroner. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1948.

Hobbes, Thomas, John Bramhall. Hobbes and Bramhall on Liberty and Necessity. Edited by V. C. Chappell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Hume, David. Hume’s Enquiries. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.

Inwood, Michael J. Hegel. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Norman Kemp Smith. London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1973.

Kant, Immanuel, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by H. J. Paton. London: Routledge, 2005.

Locke, John. An Essay concerning Human Understanding. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.

Patten, Alan. Hegel’s Idea of Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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