Hegel and Philosophy of Law and interpretation

Hegel ’s philosophy starts with the criticism of Savigny and his philosophy of volksgeist. Savigny and his followers did not think about how the volksgeist, or the spirit of the people, is formed. Hence this theory of Savigny appeared to be incomplete and paved the way for a naturalist theory.

Variations in the course of historical development materialize with the realisation of an ideal. If there is an unchanging ideal in the root of all, then all systems disregarding evolutionary variations ought to have certain common features and it is found that they, in fact, do.

Hegel was one such philosopher who had an interpretation of law with such an ideal in mind. He used the method of dialectic interpretation so as to achieve this ideal which, we later find out, is the state.

The Philosophy

Hegel distinguished between nature and positive law. He proceeds to distinguish between philosophy of law concerning rationality of law and the study of law itself. Legal philosophy being rational, should conceive law in a rational way. Philosophy is concerned with reality only as long as it is rational. Hegel hence states that “That which is rational is real and that which is real is rational”.

Hegel sought to explain history on an abstract evolutionary plane ((For a critique of the inevitability of historical development, see Popper The Open Society and its Enemies, especially vol II. See also The poverty of Historicism)). Hegel saw it unfolding as a process of action and reaction between opposites, i.e.; dialectics.

The Dialectic Interpretation

The dialectic interpretation method is what Hegel uses to explain his philosophy. The dialectic interpretation involves thesis, antithesis and synthesis.

An idea or a proposition is a thesis. Any concept against this idea or thesis is the antithesis. The unification of the thesis and the antithesis under one idea or concept is the synthesis of the both.

For example;

Consider a half open door. “The door is half open”, is a statement which can considered thesis. “The door is half closed”, is a statement which can be considered as the antithesis of the given statement. The synthesis of the both can be the statement “The door is 45° from the closed position.

This interpretation is what Hegel uses to attain his ideal. He starts off with a concept, synthesises it with its antithesis. This obtained synthesis becomes the next thesis and this process goes on till it reaches its objective.

Hegel considers an idea to be the thesis. Idea outside itself, that is, nature, is its antithesis. The synthesis is the spirit, which can be considered to be the volksgeist of Savigny. Spirit is of two types, subjective spirit, which deals with thought and consciousness and objective spirit, which deals with legal and social institutions. The synthesis of these both is the absolute spirit.

Law comes into the category of objective spirit. Legal and social institutions exist to realize freedom. They exist so as to give freedom to the society. Freedom and will are complementary. The idea of freedom has a three-fold tier of operation.

First is the freedom of the individual in relation to himself, which brings about the concept of property. If a person imposes his will on a thing and the thing becomes his property, it is his will what to do or what not to do with that thing. No one else can interfere in this matter.

Second is the perception of freedom with others, in conformity with common will of all, which brings about the idea of contract. When two or more people have their will imposed on a thing, such a thing belongs to all of them. No one person can use the thing according to his individual will with impunity.

The third is the concept of wrong doing. When the individual freedom opposes the common will, this causes wrong doing.

This brings about the concept of morality. Morality hence restricts freedom and hence is its antithesis. The synthesis between the two is social ethics. Social ethics starts at the level of family. When a member of a family becomes independent from the said family, he is the part of the society. So with family as the thesis and society as the antithesis, the synthesis turns out as the state.

In the state, Hegel found the highest achievement of human endeavour. To be a member of the state was, to him, the supreme objective. The individual is the product of his culture and age, which are realised only through the state.

Law and state are thus concrete manifestations of the national spirit, which together with others are in turn a manifestation of a world spirit.


Flow Chart


Hegel’s philosophy starts with an objective in mind and he succeeds in reaching that objective through the method of dialectic interpretation.