Author ORCID Identifier

Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation


Arts and Sciences



First Advisor

Dr. James D. Breazeale


This dissertation project focuses on G.W.F. Hegel’s early philosophical writings, though primarily on the Natural Law essay (1802/3), and how, through those writings, Hegel positions himself in relation to other thinkers, such as Fichte. Broadly, the modern period saw with it the rise of accounts of what is called natural law. Philosophers prior to Hegel argued that the proper account of natural law must be rooted in some kind of universal framework: either the basis of law must be the shared empirical facts of human nature (empiricism), or the basis of law must be found in the universal demands on what it means to be a rational being (a priorism). Hegel’s essay presents a compelling argument for why such accounts for natural law are inadequate.

The first part of this dissertation engages in the exegetical project of understanding Hegel’s critique of prior philosophical methods for generating accounts of natural law. Through an engagement with Fichte’s philosophical works related to the sciences of morality and legality, I recapitulate Hegel’s critique of key elements within Fichte’s philosophical system. These critiques focus on what Hegel argues are the problematic aspects of a philosophical system that is rooted in merely the concept of the Absolute, a one-sided articulation of reality that gives undue primacy to the subjective aspect of human life. I argue that these critiques frame the important philosophical insights that Hegel brings to bear on his account of natural law. Next, I provide an account of why Hegel thinks that the philosophical programs of empiricism and a priorism fail to capture the heart of what it means to think about law within a community.

The second part of this dissertation provides an account of Hegel’s conception of absolute ethical life and its ramifications on our thinking about communal life. Beginning with Hegel’s conception of freedom, I explore Hegel’s argument for why a domain of meaning that is prior to individual reveals itself in both positive and negative ways. Furthermore, I show that this argument sets the stage for articulating the impossibility of a system of laws that address the real demands of freedom. Hegel’s argument for why the underlying logic of ethical life is on a path towards a point of indifference provides a compelling answer to the question of how we should understand the relationship between law and the community. One main conclusion of the Natural Law essay is that the basic mode of communal life is grounded in an ongoing tension between the positive content of the community and its institutions and the negative power of the individual to either participate or deny the claims of the community. I articulate why, given the logic of ethical life, the basic mode of participating in communal life involves participating in the birth, life, and death of laws, where the truth of this cycle is in the growth and maintenance of the community through its own tragic self-consumption. Furthermore, I argue that the Natural Law essay provides a framework for incorporating the empirical into an account of natural law through history. Finally, I close by offering some insights from Hegel’s account that are relevant to our current dialogues about what it means to live in a community, specifically that his account of natural law places a demand on how we should engage in dialogues within a historical perspective.

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