One early criticism of Kant’s ethics was that it was overly “formal.” Hegel and other post-Kantian philosophers argued that Kant abstracted reasoning too much from the real human contexts in which reasoning occurs. Hegel in particular emphasized that our reasoning occurs as part of a broader historical development and within social and institutional contexts. Thinkers of the present always build on the understandings of those who came before them. Furthermore, they also reason within the context of social institutions that have emerged over time. Such social institutions have an influence on what and how we think. Hegel thus considerably broadens the context of the analysis of rationality. It is not merely that the rationality of individual subjects needs to be considered. So does the rationality of the human institutions against the backdrop of which individual reasoning occurs, sentiment (Gesinnung) is developed and so on. There is much more to Hegel’s criticism of Kant’s formalism. However, for now this will due for our purposes.
Despite the strong criticism of many thinkers coming after Hegel of Hegel’s own mystical and possibly determinist understanding of history, many post-Hegelian philosophers, like the discourse ethicists who I will later emphasize, share Hegel’s rejection of Kant’s largely subjectivist understanding of reason. We reason, not in a vacuum, but always against a backdrop of social pre-understandings and sensibilities. Kant was wrong to think that we, as possessors of rationality, could simply individually examine our own conscience and come to an adequate understanding of what is rational, or what law should be universalizable, or even of what treating someone with dignity requires.
Proof of Kant’s own inadequacy in reasoning on moral issues is not hard to find. Despite arguing that the maxims that each individual should accept to guide her behavior should be universalizable and that the principles good for one should be good for all, he still goes on to argue that women are different from men, so different principles would apply to them. Kant’s views on the role of women in society reflect the nearly universally accepted prejudices of 18th century Europe. Kant thought women had a proper role in what has become known as the private sphere, the household. Dominated more by emotion than reason, women were not suited for life in the public sphere. They would not manage the intellectual objectivity needed for science or politics. Consequently, they should not be trained at university for science or for politics. They have a role to fulfill in the home.
Regardless of where one stands on the question of whether there are any tendential differences between women and men based on differing estrogen or testostrone levels, et cetera, we today rightly condemn Kant’s view that these differences are so great that men and women should only have the kinds of social roles that he indicates they should have. Kant reasoned about women in society against the backdrop of unexamined social values in which sexism was all-pervasive. Yet he did not see the way in which that social backdrop influenced his reasoning. Turning inward to honestly examine his conscience, Kant thus had glaring oversights.
Hegel’s own thought was more atuned to the social and historical conditions of our reasoning. As Hegel famously said: “As for the individual, everyone is a son of his time; so philosophy is also its time apprehended in thoughts. It is just as foolish to fancy that any philosophy can transcend its present world, as that an individual could leap out of his time or jump over Rhodes” (PR xxviii-xxix). Recognizing this insight, however, did not allow Hegel to leap out of his time. When it comes to the question of the right role for women in society, Hegel largely follows the formalistic moralist, Kant. A recognition of that social and historical contexts matter is not enough to tell us which one’s matter. Even philosophers who discover that thought cannot transcend its present world will not necessarily see all the ways that their own thought remans trapped in the prejudices of its own time.