Hegel, The First Corporatist

Updated: May 3

Pp 152-154 Knox, T. M. (1975). Hegel's Philosophy of right. London: Oxford University Press.


The agricultural estate, in view of the substantiality of its natural and family life, has within itself, in immediate form, the concrete universal in which it lives. The Universal estate, by definition, has the universal for itself as its basis and as the end of its activity. The intermediate estate, i.e. the estate of trade and industry, is essentially concerned with the particular, and the corporation is therefore especially characteristic of it.


The work performed by civil society is divided into different branches according to its particular nature. Since the inherent likeness of such particulars, as the quality common to them all, comes into existence in the association, the selfish end which pursues its own particular interest comprehends and expresses itself at the same time as a universal end; and the member of civil society, in accordance with his particular skill, is a member of a corporation whose universal end is therefore wholly concrete, and no wider in scope than the end inherent in the trade which is the corporation's proper business and interest.


By this definition, the corporation has the right, under the supervision of the public authority, to look after its own interests within its enclosed sphere, to admit members in accordance with their objective qualification of skill and rectitude and in numbers determined by the universal context, to protect its members against particular contingencies, and to educate others so as to make them eligible for membership. In short, it has the right to assume the role of a second family for its members, a role which must remain more indeterminate in the case of civil society in general, which is more remote from individuals and their particular requirements.

The tradesman is distinct from the day labourer, as he is from someone who is prepared to perform an occasional contingent service. The former, who is - or wishes to become a master, is a member of an association not for occasional contingent gain, but for the whole range and universality of his particular livelihood. Privileges, in the sense of rights of a branch of civil society which constitutes a corporation, are distinct from privileges proper in the etymological sense, I in that the latter are contingent exceptions to the universal law, whereas the former are no more than legally fixed determinations which lie in the particular nature of an essential branch of society itself.


In the corporation, the family not only has its firm basis in that its livelihood is guaranteed - i.e. it has secure resources - on condition of its [possessing a certain] capability, but the two [i.e. livelihood and capability] are also recognized, so that the member of a corporation has no need to demonstrate his competence and his regular income and means of support - i.e. the fact that he is somebody - by any further external evidence. In this way, it is also recognized that he belongs to a whole which is itself a member of society in general, and that he has an interest in, and endeavours to promote, the less selfish end of this whole. Thus, he has his honour in his estate.

As a guarantor of resources, the institution of the corporation corresponds to the introduction of agriculture and private property in another sphere. When complaints are made about that luxury and love of extravagance of the professional classes which is associated with the creation of a rabble, we must not overlook, in addition to the other causes [of this phenomenon] (e.g. the increasingly mechanical nature of work), its ethical basis as implied in what has been said above. If the individual is not a member of a legally recognized corporation (and it is only through legal recognition that a community becomes a corporation), he is without the honour of belonging to an estate, his isolation reduces him to the selfish aspect of his trade, and his livelihood and satisfaction lack stability. He will accordingly try to gain recognition through the external manifestations of success in his trade, and these are without limit, because it is impossible for him to live in a way appropriate to his estate if his estate does not exist; for a community can exist in civil society only if it is legally constituted and recognized. Hence, no way of life of a more general kind appropriate to such an estate can be devised. - Within the corporation, the help which poverty receives loses its contingent and unjustly humiliating character, and wealth, in fulfilling the duty it owes to its association, loses the ability to provoke arrogance in its possessor and envy in others; rectitude also receives the true recognition and honour which are due to it.


In the corporation, the so-called natural right to practise one's skill and thereby earn what there is to earn is limited only to the extent that, in this context, the skill is rationally determined. That is, it is freed from personal opinion and contingency, from its danger to oneself and others, and is recognized, guaranteed, and at the same time raised to a conscious activity for a common end.


The family is the first ethical root of the state; the corporation is the second, and it is based in civil society. The former contains the moments of subjective particularity and objective universality in substantial unity; but in the latter, these moments, which in civil society are at first divided into the internally reflected particularity of need and satisfaction and abstract legal universality, are inwardly united in such a way that particular welfare is present as a right and is actualized within this union.

Remark: The sanctity of marriage and the honour attaching to the corporation are the two moments round which the disorganization of civil society revolves.

When the corporations were abolished in recent times, it was with the intention that the individual should look after himself. But even if we accept this, the corporation does not affect the individual's obligation to earn his living. In our modem states, the citizens have only a limited share in the universal business of the state; but it is necessary to provide ethical man with a universal activity in addition to his private end. This universal [activity], which the modern state does not always offer him, can be found in the corporation. We saw earlier that, in providing for himself, the individual in civil society is also acting for others. But this unconscious necessity is not enough; only in the corporation does it become a knowing and thinking part of ethical life. The corporation, of course, must come under the higher supervision of the state, for it would otherwise become ossified and set in its ways, and decline into a miserable guild system. But the corporation in and for itself is not an enclosed guild; it is rather a means of giving the isolated trade an ethical status, and of admitting it to a circle in which it gains strength and honour.


The end of the corporation, which is limited and finite, has its truth in the end which is universal in and for itself and in the absolute actuality of this end. So likewise do the separation and relative identity which were present in the external organization of the police. The sphere of civil society thus passes over into the state.

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