The body of spirit: Hegel's concept of flesh and its normative implications

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This paper attempts to show that an expansive normative vision can be drawn from Hegel's texts, one whose scope significantly exceeds the anthropocentric model presented in the ‘objective spirit’ parts of his system. This expansion of normativity is linked to an expansive vision of relationality underpinning Hegel's model of ‘concrete freedom’. In order to put into sharper relief the links between expansive relationality and normativity, the late thinking of Maurice Merleau-Ponty is mobilized as a heuristic contrasting point. In the ‘subjective spirit’ sections of the Encyclopaedia are found insights that anticipate key features of Merleau-Ponty's notion of ‘flesh’. Locating these insights allows us to detect the underlying thread this paper seeks to mine. Hegel's own ‘theory of flesh’ culminates in the notion of ‘constitutive attachments’, the idea that the content of subjectivity is made up of all the bonds linking the human subject to her surrounding worlds and objects. Since freedom for Hegel is ‘being with’, and since normative demands arise from the different ways in which freedom is concretely realized, it would seem that Hegel's relational conception of subjectivity should lead to an equally expansive conception of normativity. Against the objection that Hegel denied any normative status to non-human beings, the paper points to passages in his work, notably his account of aesthetic judgement and natural beauty, which appear to suggest the opposite.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)39-56
Number of pages18
JournalHegel Bulletin
Issue number1
Early online date12 Oct 2020
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2021


  • Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, 1770-1831
  • Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, 1908-1961. Phénoménologie de la perception
  • Nature
  • Flesh


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