Hegel on Means and Ends
Andy Blunden August 2016

The way Hegel approaches the problem of means and ends is very different from the way it is normally posed. Means and ends are a central theme in the subject-object relation in which the subject can be conceived of as a social movement and the object as an existing social formation. The social movement is characterised by some concept which it wishes to realise and thereby change the social formation of which it is a part. The subject-object relation is thus the generative process of a social formation.

A social formation is the residue of very many such social movements which have been objectified in the past, so that the existing social formation can be conceived of as a concrete concept with the various concepts which make up its life its particular forms of activity. For example, if the social formation in question were Science, the various sciences and the various concepts within each science are what make up the social formation, science. Each such concept has arisen from past problems or discoveries which have eventually changed the whole body of science in the process of being integrated into science as a whole. The subject then is a new concept which at first has no place in the existing social formation and stands in contradiction to it, like a new idea or discovery which contradicts science as it stands, or a political idea which challenges the existing society. Hegel’s approach is to describe the process whereby this new idea establishes itself in the social formation; the social formation is changed, but in the process, the subject, the new idea, is itself changed.

‘Means’ in this context is a form of activity (or combination of such forms of activity) which are already a part of the existing formation, including other subjects which may also be in opposition as well as aspects of the status quo. In this sense, the object (existing society) is the means. Thus the process is one in which the object changes itself, and from the standpoint of the object, the subject is the means. Hegel does not subsume the means under the subject as one of its moments; on the contrary, the means which the subject has at hand are forms of activity already to be found in the existing formation.

The overall process is one in which the subject tries to realise itself; the existing object is the means, and the result is not the End which was foreshadowed in the new concept, but the Realized End, which differs, perhaps unexpectedly, from the original End which motivated the subject. The End turns into the Realized End, and the object is now the Realized End, and this changed object is now what the subject utilizes as the means to a reformulated End. The Realized End is the objectification of the Subject, and the process continues until there is no difference between subject and object.

But Hegel describes in more detail a number of stages of development of the Subject-Object relation in terms of different configurations of means and ends, in which the means is to be understood as existing forms of practice and the ends is to be understood as the self-consciousness of one form of practice trying to objectify itself. The relation of means and ends is fundamentally symmetrical. Existing forms of practice are also trying to objectify themselves in the new form of practice, to domesticate it within their own sphere of activity. So we can look at these relations as interactions between projects or as relations between concepts within a discourse.

The first stage Hegel calls Mechanism. Here the various subjects (forms of practice, social movements, theories, ...) relate to each other only externally; they resist the effects of others on themselves and endeavour to maintain themselves as self-sufficient forms of activity. A multicultural society at this stage appears as an ‘ethnic mosaic’, with ghettoes trying so far as possible to maintain and reproduce themselves as self-sufficient cultural communities, resisting integration into the mainstream. The subjects do not see the foreign subjects as being potentially means to their own ends, but simply as alien.

The higher stage of Mechanism Hegel likens to the Solar system; the subject sees the various other subjects as able to meet their needs in this or that respect and develop particular relations with each of the other subjects. As this relation becomes generalised a network of relations of mutual instrumentality develops. Each still sees the other from a purely self-centred point of view, but nonetheless, they are no longer simply foreigners to one another.

The second stage Hegel calls Chemism. Here the various subjects establish mutual affinities allowing them to make common cause with one another. This inevitably leads to changes in the subject to the extent that they find other subjects pursuing common ends, and each is a means to the other’s ends. This situation resembles a multicultural society in the form of an ‘ethnic melting pot’.

Only in the third stage, which Hegel calls Teleology or Organism, does the means end dialectic reach the fully developed form. The modern scientific idea which best captures Hegel’s idea here is ‘ecosystem’ – the idea of a creature which has evolved to occupy an ecological niche, which at the same time has been shaped by the activity of the creature and its reciprocal relations with all the other creatures living in the larger ecosystem. Thus the means are not just some method which is to be seen as a subordinate part of the activity of a subject, but rather the totality of other subjects which together make realization of the subject’s End a reality. This eventually requires a total transformation of both subject and object.

The relevant passages of Hegel are to be found in the Logic in the section on the Object in the Shorter Logic and the section on the Object and the section on the Idea of the Good in the Science of Logic.

Hegel has posed the problem of means and ends at this very general level, but the issues raised by the way this question is usually posed – can one fight for peace if one uses violence, etc., needs to be addressed.

There are two maxims which express opposite one-sided characterisations of the means-end relation. (1) The means justifies the end, and (2) The journey is all, the destination is nothing. Both are clearly wrong. The means must be adequate to the end, to the proximate end, and ultimately to the welfare of the community as a whole. However the means used are always part of the object which is to be changed, and what is right there is right for the purpose of changing it. (See the section on Morality in The Philosophy of Right). The concrete idea which is the result of the efforts of the original, abstract ideal to actualize itself in the real world is superior, Hegel says, “for it possesses not only the worth of the universal but also of the out-and-out actual” (1816, p. 818-19).

So much for movements aimed at reforming a social formation in some way, but when it comes to the overthrow and founding of states, Hegel is not so precious. The people who carry out such acts he describes as heroes and heroes always do wrong in the terms of the existing society and are, he says, condemned by the society which they create. Only world history may judge them.