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The Actual and the Rational

Hegel and Objective Spirit

One of Hegel’s most controversial and confounding claims is that “the real is rational and the rational is real.” In this book, one of the world’s leading scholars of Hegel, Jean-François Kervégan, offers a thorough analysis and explanation of that claim, along the way delivering a compelling account of modern social, political, and ethical life.

​Kervégan begins with Hegel’s term “objective spirit,” the public manifestation of our deepest commitments, the binding norms that shape our existence as subjects and agents. He examines objective spirit in three realms: the notion of right, the theory of society, and the state. In conversation with Tocqueville and other theorists of democracy, whether in the Anglophone world or in Europe, Kervégan shows how Hegel—often associated with grand metaphysical ideas—actually had a specific conception of civil society and the state. In Hegel’s view, public institutions represent the fulfillment of deep subjective needs—and in that sense, demonstrate that the real is the rational, because what surrounds us is the product of our collective mindedness. This groundbreaking analysis will guide the study of Hegel and nineteenth-century political thought for years to come.

Translated by Daniela Ginsburg and Martin Shuster

416 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2018

Philosophy: General Philosophy, Philosophy of Society, Political Philosophy


"This is a valuable discussion of Hegel's belief that 'the real is rational and the rational is real.' . . . Highly recommended."


"That it attempts to re-introduce Hegel's metaphysics into his account of social and political philosophy makes the book worth reading for contemporary, non-metaphysically inclined interpreters."

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

"Kervégan’s book is a powerful, deeply informed, and compellingly relevant reading of Hegel’s theory of objective spirit. Since it is the most philosophically ambitious and most compelling commentary on Hegel’s theory of 'objective spirit' yet published in any language, it deserves to be at the center of any contemporary discussion of this issue in Hegel.  That theory has been quite controversial since, for some, the mere fact that Hegel could propose a theory of “objective spirit” at all and not hold (as he did not) that such a social actuality was nothing but the effect or product of individual attitudes, beliefs, and acts of will was already to begin down a slippery slope that would lead inevitably to totalitarian excesses or at least a commitment to mystified metaphysical entities like Geist. Kervégan decisively refutes such a view, and shows in detail why such an anxiety is not justified."

Robert B. Pippin, University of Chicago

“Jean-Francois Kervégan’s The Actual and the Rational is hard to praise highly enough. It takes on both Hegel’s practical philosophy in the broadest sense as theory of action and practical reasoning and the stickier issues of historical and textual interpretation that surround Hegel’s work. Even for a Hegel scholar steeped in those texts and the secondary literature surrounding them, Kervégan’s treatment is refreshing and new.”

Terry Pinkard, Georgetown University

“Even though Hegel’s notion of ‘objective spirit’ was probably his most important contribution to the development of social thought and political philosophy, until today it never got the solid and differentiated interpretation it clearly deserves. With this new book by Jean-François Kervégan, both a philosopher and legal scholar, we finally have what was needed—a clearly written, well-argued, and farseeing reconstruction of what Hegel intended when understanding societal life as objectified spirit. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in finding out why Hegel is of importance for current debates within social, legal, and political philosophy.”

Axel Honneth, Columbia University

"This book unites the findings of decades of engagement with Hegel's ideas and other relevant literature from several linguistic backgrounds by probably the most impactful and widely read French scholar of Hegel's practical philosophy...critical, yet sympathetic, comprehensive, yet subtle engagement with Hegel's political philosophy."

Sebastian Stein | European Journal of Philosophy

Table of Contents

Preface: Hegel without Metaphysics?
Prologue: The Actual and the Rational

The Law: The Positivity of Abstraction
Preliminary: The Objectivity of Willing
1          Law: Its Concept and Actualizations
2          Between Nature and History: The Law
3          Contract: The Legal Conditions of the Social

The Vitality and Flaws of the Social
Preliminary: The Archeology of Society
4          “Citoyen” versus “Bourgeois”? The Quest for the “Spirit of the Whole”
5          The State of Law: Civil Society
6          “Ethicality Lost in Its Extremes”

The State and the Political
Preliminary: The Enduring Myth of the Philosopher of the Prussian State
7          Tocqueville-Hegel: A Silent Dialogue on Modernity
8          A Theory of Representation
9          Beyond Democracy

Figures of Subjectivity in Objective Spirit: Normativity and Institutions
Preliminary: Strong and Weak Institutionalism
10        The Truth of Morality
11        The Conditions of Political Subjectivity
12        Subjects, Norms, and Institutions: What Is an Ethical Life?
Epilogue: The Passion of the Concept
Translator’s Note

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