HPD – Hegelian Interviews: Ludwig Siep

We are happy to continue with the series Hegelian Interviews, started on the occasion of hegelpd’s fifth birthday and specifically designed for our blog. Professor Ludwig Siep answers some questions about his philosophical education, the critical potentialities of the concept of “recognition” in ethics and politics, the present relevance and limits of Hegel’s practical philosophy, and the ethical and bioethical challenges that arise in the contemporary world.

Ludwig Siep is Professor Emeritus at the University of Münster and Seniorprofessor at the Exzellenzcluster “Religion und Politik” at the same university. His work mainly concerns classical German philosophy, history of practical philosophy (ethics, political and social philosophy) and applied ethics (bioethics and medical ethics).

Amongst his many publications in renowned academic journals and volumes, we would like to remind some of his books: Hegels Fichtekritik und die Wissenschaftslehre von 1804 (1970), Anerkennung als Prinzip der praktischen Philosophie (2nd edn, 2014), Praktische Philosophie im Deutschen Idealismus (1992), Der Weg der Phänomenologie des Geistes (5th edn, 2018), Konkrete Ethik. Grundlagen der Natur- und Kulturethik (2004), Aktualität und Grenzen der praktischen Philosophie Hegels (2010) and Der Staat als irdischer Gott. Genesis und Relevanz einer Hegelschen Idee (2015). He is also the editor of G.W.F. Hegel: Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts (4th edn, 2017).

We sincerely thank Professor Siep for having accepted to answer our questions.

The interview is by Giulia Bernard and Armando Manchisi.



Your philosophical work has its roots in Germany at the time that a strong separation between analytical and continental philosophy was still running in the academic world. To start this conversation, we would like to ask you what impact did the philosophical trends ruling in that context have on your formation as an Hegelian scholar. To what extent, on the other hand, the confrontation with American scholars, for example the guests of the famous Münsteraner Vorlesungen, influenced your philosophical work?

As a student in Cologne and Freiburg I studied German philosophy with teachers who had a strong interest in Heidegger and were far from analytical philosophy: Karl-Heinz Volkmann-Schluck and Werner Marx. The latter, however, knew the Anglo-Saxon Academia from his emigration times at the New School in New York. In the 70ties, he invited famous analytical philosophers such as Gilbert Ryle or Peter Strawson to Freiburg. A more systematic exchange was started at about the same time by Dieter Henrich. As president of the International Hegel-Society he invited speakers like Quine and Davidson to the Stuttgart conferences. After finishing my Habilitationsschrift on recognition in Hegel in 1976 (published 1979) I spent a term as visiting assistant professor in Princeton, invited by Walter Kaufmann. There I had personal exchanges with Richard Rorty, Thomas Nagel (visiting his seminar) and Thomas Scanlon as well. I was especially interested in the work of John Rawls and published a paper on his theory of justice after my return to Freiburg. Later I had many personal and scientific exchanges with the great “mediators” between German classical philosophy and Anglo-Saxon pragmatist or analytical philosophy – such as Robert Pippin, Raymond Geuss, Terry Pinkard, John McDowell etc. Thanks to the Münsteraner Vorlesungen, initiated by our post-doctoral researchers, these opportunities continue to this day. I am not a “convert” to analytical philosophy, but the impact of these encounters can be seen, as reviewers have noted, in my writings both on classical German philosophy and on contemporary ethics.


On the occasion of the anniversary of Italy’s Liberation from Nazi-Fascism, last 25th April we were pleased to publish on our blog your contribution Formen des Widerstandsrechts bei Kant, Fichte, Hegel und den Frühkonstitutionalisten, dedicated to the “right to resist”. In this text you argue that the account of the sovereignty developed by classical German philosophers makes it difficult (if not impossible) to define a space, where the citizens could perform their right to withstand a repressive state. Already in your 1979 monograph though, Anerkennung als Prinzip der praktischen Philosophie, you identified a fundamental asymmetry affecting Hegel’s conception of recognition, according to which the state can sometimes violate citizens’ freedom in order to guarantee its own survival and those same rights that, in fact, it is infringing. We would then like to ask you which tools can the reflection on the issue of recognition provide to discuss the challenging problem of resistance.

I was very happy with your publication of the text on this occasion. However, it is crucial to see that the right to resist which in the 20th century (and today!) has been claimed even by fascists against the democratic state, is based on the defense of basic human rights. That state sovereignty is justified and limited by the protection of human rights, has been worked out in a long tradition. In the modern age it goes back to John Locke and the bills and declarations of rights in the English, American and French revolutions. In my view, the crucial German reception of this tradition is to be found less in Kant or Hegel than in Fichte and – closer to the modern development – the “Early Constitutionalists” (Rotteck, Welcker, Mohl etc.). Robert von Mohl, Hegel’s Stuttgart compatriot publishing since the late 1820ties, was one of the fathers of the German tradition of “Rechtsstaat”. He justified that citizens are obliged to obedience only as long as the state remains within a constitution guaranteeing basic rights (“bloß verfassungsmäßiger Gehorsam”). Despite their emphasis on individual rights, Kant and Hegel – in my interpretation of their philosophies of right – do not support a constitutional right to resistance. In my book on recognition I traced back the ultimate priority of the state’s rights over those of its citizens to an inconsequent “execution” of Hegel’s own concept of recognition. The conceptual symmetry between affirmation and negation – including self-negation – is carried out only on lower levels of recognition, both between individuals and between individuals and groups or institutions. On the highest level of constitutional right there is a lack of the state’s self-negation or self-limitation (which Hegel still deems necessary in some late texts of the Jena period). Whereas for Hegel state sovereignty is the manifestation of the “nothingness” of the rights of its citizens in emergency cases (Philosophy of Right, § 323), today state sovereignty has to be restricted by the “responsibility to protect” – as the UN proclaimed it – these rights. Among them, the right of resistance is the ultimate limit of sovereignty that a respectable state has to recognize. In light of the post-Hegelian history, modern political philosophy has to go beyond his thinking. In my view, contemporary philosophy has to solve problems of theory and social praxis inspired by some of the ideas of classical authors – but should regard them neither as prophets nor “church fathers”.


One of the contexts in which recognition and its challenges seem to be crucial is provided by the conjunction, never guaranteed, between the right of the modern, secular state and the pluralism of religious beliefs. This arduous balance finds an explicit thematization in Hegel’s practical philosophy and constitutes one of the issues of primary interest of the Cluster of Excellence “Religion and Politics” in Münster, where you are Senior Principal Investigator. To refer to the title of your book Aktualität und Grenzen der Praktischen Philosophie Hegels, we would like to ask you to what extent can Hegel’s perspective on such a sensitive question be still relevant today? And what are the limits that weigh on his conception?

Joining the interdisciplinary group of researchers on “Religion and Politics” I focused my own research for some years on the relation between state and religion. In postwar Germany it was a widely accepted doctrine that the “deification” of the secular state (“Staatsvergottung”) was a principal reason for the totalitarian state – and Hegel was often claimed to be among the main historical sources. In my book published 2015 (Der Staat als irdischer Gott) I analyze the relation between state and religion in modern age philosophy from Hobbes through Locke, Rousseau, Kant and Fichte focusing on Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. It was an attempt to do more “philosophy in context”, especially that of legal history, than in my earlier writings. Hegel is certainly neither the philosopher of the Prussian state – comparatively liberal in his Berlin times – nor a predecessor of modern totalitarianism. Individual rights, freedom of conscience and the autonomy of professional and religious communities play an important role in his philosophy of right. However, the Hegelian state has a higher dignity and importance than the modern liberal state. To be safe against being relativized by religious claims, it must be of intrinsic value and an independent source of meaning for its citizens. To belong to a state is the individual’s highest right and duty (PR § 258). It is, like the church, worth one’s life – not only in defensive wars – and grants participation in institutional immortality (my reading of § 324). However, the state and the absolute spirit of religion are manifestations of the same idea and therefore support each other. Especially in his late Berlin years Hegel took the task of philosophy to prove the conformance between religion in its most advanced form – namely Protestant Christianity – and such a state. In consequence the legal equality between all religions and between believers and non-believers, of which the modern secular state is the guarantee, is not fully realized in Hegel’s conception of state.


Your book Konkrete Ethik is a pivotal step in your philosophical work. It represents a holistic attempt to reflect on the value of nature and culture. To what extent can this text be understood in continuity with your endeavor to define the limits and the contemporary relevance of Hegel’s practical philosophy? And to what degree, instead, does it exceed a strict Hegelian perspective?

In my book on recognition (“as principle of practical philosophy”) I attempted to contribute to the renewal of practical philosophy undertaken in the 70ties by the leading German philosophical schools, the Frankfurt school as well as Gadamer’s in Heidelberg and Ritter’s in Münster (and elsewhere).  Later (already in Duisburg and then in Münster) I got involved in the development of applied ethics as well – both for personal reasons (my wife is a natural scientist) and institutional ones (Münster hosted one of the first German ethic committees for clinical research). Regarding medical and bioethics, I found the leading positions of contemporary ethics, namely deontology and consequentialism, insufficient. Especially after I joined advisory committees regarding new technologies (for instance Nano-technology and Stem-cell research) I felt the need for a comprehensive basis for questions regarding biodiversity, enhancement, cultural pluralism etc. Although this was not a direct application of my Hegel research, I was looking for a holistic approach both regarding the object of ethics – the world of nature and culture as whole – and regarding its method. Instead of starting from a priori principles I analyzed the historical semantics of basic conceptions of “good” and “ought” as well as the content of encompassing ideas of a good world such as cosmos, creation and their aftermath in modern global conventions – for instance regarding diversity, or world natural and cultural heritage. This lead me to question the anthropocentric framework. Such an historical-hermeneutic method is “Hegelian” in a broad sense. The same holds for the attempt to differentiate or “concretize” the framework of a universally approvable (“good”) state of the world to gain criteria for applied ethics. However, in Hegel’s own works methodical holism demands a systematic completeness and logical necessity. Such a strong idea of system, in my view, it is not able to capture the openness of experience and learning processes regarding the sciences as well as the change of cultural frameworks and values. And despite his revaluation of nature against Kant and Fichte, nature in Hegel’s system remains basically only a means for spirit’s self-understanding and self-emancipation (I tried to show this in my commentary on the Logic of the Idea in Kommentar zu Hegels Wissenschaft der Logik, ed. by M. Quante and N. Mooren, 2018).


A key aspect of Konkrete Ethik seems to be decisive in facing the challenges of a world in continuous transformation: the conceptual couple ethics of nature/ethics of culture. In this regard, we would like to ask you how the limits you point out in the current notion of “recognition” lead us to rethink those contemporary challenges, where a radical asymmetry is at stake. What is the alternative needed for properly thinking the recognition in the dialogue between different cultures? To what extent, on the other hand, could a critical discussion of our technical relationship with nature be fostered by a different conception of what is meant to be “natural” or “animal”? 

Regarding the relation between different cultures, I still regard “mutual recognition” relevant as a guiding principle. Today, however, one has to distinguish other forms and levels of recognition than those developed by Fichte or Hegel. Depending on pluralism within states or between states, some forms are legally enforceable such as nonviolence, nondiscrimination and some basic forms of solidarity (for instance by tax laws). Others are voluntary but worth encouraging and supporting, like mutual curiosity, exchange and friendly alliances. Remaining problems are the recognition of group customs versus that of the basic rights of their members.

Regarding recognition as a relation to extra-human nature, I am more skeptical. Precisely because of its required symmetry, I used to consider recognition inadequate for an appropriate attitude towards natural beings and processes – “natural” in the sense of not intentionally produced or controllable by humans. Animals and plants are not to be held responsible and not able to commit themselves to obliging rules. In the last years, however, attempts have been made to conceive of the right attitude of mankind to nature in terms of asymmetric recognition in a positive sense (for instance by Dieter Sturma). The important point, in my view, is to require and justify a limitation – not of course a complete renouncement – of human domination of nature. This demands a sort of self-negation and an affirmation of “otherness” which is indeed characteristic of recognition. In accordance with evolutionary theory – but not to be derived from it – today the moral point of view of the impartial benevolent observer demands the inclusion of the interests of non-human beings. To produce and to support the rule of human rationality is not the “ultimate purpose” (Kant) of natural evolution. The highest or encompassing good has to include favorable conditions for the flourishing and well-being of non-human beings.


One element that is becoming increasingly compelling in our daily lives to the point of acquiring a global pervasiveness is undoubtedly technology. What challenges do you consider to be especially at stake for ethics in such a context? How can your reflections on the subject of medical ethics and bioethics help to deal with some of them?

I think that philosophical reflection on the development of technology is one of the crucial tasks of our age. It has to go beyond the ethics of artificial intelligence or robots which are certainly deserving, but sometimes a bit of “ancilla technologiae”. The development of technology seems like an irresistible automatic process itself. However, it is propelled both by deep-seated habits of thinking and by strong forces and interests. Some of them are undoubtedly justified, like health interests or the opening of new possibilities regarding communication and information. But the technical perspective of improvement is mainly guided by the comfortable use of instruments. Philosophy may exhibit, instead, that neither man nor nature are “machines to be improved”. What is “better” regarding both depends on the meaning of “good”. The meaning of a good human life and a good state of nature does not depend solely on market-preferences of individuals. If society is not simply to adapt to the consequences of technical developments, a public debate is necessary regarding the goals worth pursuing. Philosophical “input” in this debate is increasingly demanded, but traditional ethics is either too formal or too casuistic to meet these demands. We have to work on reflective equilibria between ethical considerations regarding particular fields and problems – as in medical ethics or media ethics – and a comprehensive framework regarding the good for nature and culture.


Finally, we would like to ask you to list at least five books or contributions on Classical German Philosophy that have been crucial to your education.

Regarding the most influential contributions for my own studies of classical German philosophy and my attempts at its transformation, I would like to distinguish between pivotal papers (a), books unlocking difficult texts (b), and perspectives for a systematic continuation of the classical tradition (c).


Dieter Henrich, “Fichtes ursprüngliche Einsicht”, and “Autonome Negation”;

Jürgen Habermas, “Arbeit und Interaktion”;

Werner Marx, “Die Bestimmung der Philosophie im Deutschen Idealismus”.


Hans-Friedrich Fulda, Das Problem einer Einleitung in Hegels Wissenschaft der Logik;

Klaus Düsing, Das Problem der Subjektivität in Hegels Logik;

Jean Hyppolite, Genèse et Structure de la “Phénoménologie de l’Esprit” de Hegel.


Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere;

John McDowell, Mind and World.


Previous Hegelian Interviews:

Francesca Menegoni

Rocío Zambrana

Paul Redding

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