One of the central problems in the history of moral and
political philosophy since antiquity has been to explain how human
society and its civil institutions came into being. In attempting
to solve this problem philosophers developed the idea of natural
law, which for many centuries was used to describe the system of
fundamental, rational principles presumed universally to govern
human behavior in society. By the eighteenth century the doctrine
of natural law had engendered the related doctrine of natural
rights, which gained reinforcement most famously in the American
and French revolutions. According to this view, human society arose
through the association of individuals who might have chosen to
live alone in scattered isolation and who, in coming together, were
regarded as entering into a social contract. In this important
early essay, first published in English in this definitive
translation in 1975 and now returned to print, Hegel utterly
rejects the notion that society is purposely formed by voluntary
association. Indeed, he goes further than this, asserting in effect
that the laws brought about in various countries in response to
force, accident, and deliberation are far more fundamental than any
law of nature supposed to be valid always and everywhere. In
expounding his view Hegel not only dispenses with the empiricist
explanations of Hobbes, Hume, and others but also, at the heart of
this work, offers an extended critique of the so-called formalist
positions of Kant and Fichte.
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