‘Civil Society’ between Hobbes and Hegel

The philosophers who contributed most seminally to thinking about civil society in the early modern period, from Hobbes to Hegel, were acutely sensitive to the individual’s concern for approval and esteem from their neighbours. Interest in this deeply-embedded characteristic of human nature was intimately connected to the emergent conceptualisation of society as, to some extent, a self-regulating domain of order and stability. Such a vision of society was underpinned by the insight that the individual possessed the capacity to learn within, and to be moulded in profound and insensible ways by, their community and its apparatuses of socialisation. Even those philosophers who are often interpreted as conceiving of the individual as an independent, self-contained and instrumentally rational agent, such as Hobbes and Locke, acknowledged the extent to which processes of socialisation indelibly shape the subject’s sense of self. Seen from this perspective, Rousseau’s concept of amour propre and Hegel’s notion of a struggle for self-consciousness represent just two, particularly powerful and imaginative ways of exploring how the individual’s desires and reflective capacities develop through an engagement (and comparison) between their ‘self’ and other ‘selves’ in social contexts. If we are to grasp early modern thinking about civil society aright, this widely-shared insight – and the complex series of questions it raised for the design of political and social institutions in modern, commercial societies which respected both the universally-shared rights of citizens and recognised the particularities of the individual – needs to be placed centre-stage. This research stream aims to reconstruct historically the concerted debates on these questions in the period between Hobbes and Hegel, and thereby to recover both the continuities and the deep fissures within early modern thinking about civil society.