Cover image for Infinite Autonomy: The Divided Individual in the Political Thought of G. W. F. Hegel and Friedrich Nietzsche By Jeffrey Church

Infinite Autonomy

The Divided Individual in the Political Thought of G. W. F. Hegel and Friedrich Nietzsche

Jeffrey Church


$67.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-05075-1

$32.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-05076-8

296 pages
6" × 9"

Infinite Autonomy

The Divided Individual in the Political Thought of G. W. F. Hegel and Friedrich Nietzsche

Jeffrey Church

“Hegel and Nietzsche have commonly been viewed as philosophical opposites. In his important new book, Jeffrey Church convincingly shows that these two thinkers in fact share a common conception of the ‘historical individual’ that successfully reconciles individuality and community and serves as a powerful rejoinder to critiques of individuality in our own time. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in nineteenth-century political philosophy or a sophisticated defense of the central liberal value of individuality.”


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G. W. F. Hegel and Friedrich Nietzsche are often considered the philosophical antipodes of the nineteenth century. In Infinite Autonomy, Jeffrey Church draws on the thinking of both Hegel and Nietzsche to assess the modern Western defense of individuality—to consider whether we were right to reject the ancient model of community above the individual. The theoretical and practical implications of this project are important, because the proper defense of the individual allows for the survival of modern liberal institutions in the face of non-Western critics who value communal goals at the expense of individual rights. By drawing from Hegelian and Nietzschean ideas of autonomy, Church finds a third way for the individual—what he calls the “historical individual,” which goes beyond the disagreements of the ancients and the moderns while nonetheless incorporating their distinctive contributions.
“Hegel and Nietzsche have commonly been viewed as philosophical opposites. In his important new book, Jeffrey Church convincingly shows that these two thinkers in fact share a common conception of the ‘historical individual’ that successfully reconciles individuality and community and serves as a powerful rejoinder to critiques of individuality in our own time. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in nineteenth-century political philosophy or a sophisticated defense of the central liberal value of individuality.”
“In a measured yet fascinating way, Jeffrey Church draws upon Hegel and Nietzsche to develop a compelling notion of the ‘historical individual.’ He begins to open up a theoretical path toward a notion of individuality that is less fraught with contradiction than the liberal notion of the self, and toward a notion of community that is less anti-individualistic than most communitarian visions. This book will thus pose a significant challenge to liberals and communitarians alike, but it is likely to appeal to thoughtful readers in all camps.”
“Jeffrey Church’s Infinite Autonomy is a major contribution to understanding a central question in modern political philosophy: What is the individual? Church undertakes two important inquiries. He shows that Hegel and Nietzsche are much closer in their accounts of individuality than has been supposed, as both thinkers regard individuality not as a natural fact but as the ethical goal of realizing an autonomous, self-determining character in communal life. He also shows that their concept of ‘historical individuality’ offers an alternative to contemporary liberal views of individuality and premodern and postmodern attacks on individuality. Church’s remarkable study, beautifully written and extensively researched, enlarges the debate about one of the foundational concepts of modernity and is indispensable reading for all who think seriously about such concepts.”
“Church offers a highly knowledgeable, thoroughly documented, and indeed exhaustive exploration of the theme of individuality in the work of both Hegel and Nietzsche, along with some side attention to the contributions of Rousseau and Kant.”

Jeffrey Church is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Houston.



List of Abbreviations


1 Three Concepts of Individuality

1.1 The Natural Individual

1.2 The Formal Individual

1.3 Rousseau and the Historical Individual

2 Hegel’s Defense of Individuality

2.1 The Distinctively Human Subject and the Good Life

2.2 The Autonomy of the Laboring Subject

2.3 The “Infinite Worth” of Individual Character

3 Hegel on the Ethical Individual

3.1 The Origin of Community

3.2 The Nature of Community

3.3 Politics as the Highest Ethical Community

4 Hegel on the Modern Political Individual

4.1 The Ancient Versus the Modern State

4.2 Expansion of Desire in Modern Commercial Society

4.3 Estates and Corporations as Ethical-Political Communities

5 Nietzsche’s Defense of Individuality

5.1 The Problem of Individuation in Nietzsche

5.2 The Will to Power and the Development of the Distinctively Human

5.3 Individuality as a Narrative Unity

6 Nietzsche on the Redemptive Individual

6.1 The Tension in the Bow and Human Community

6.2 Silenus’ Truth

6.3 The Aesthetic Justification of Existence

6.4 The Individual’s Redemption

6.5 Eros and Eris of Community

7 Nietzsche on the Antipolitical Individual

7.1 Historical Development of State and Culture in Modernity

7.2 On the Nature and Function of the Modern State

7.3 The Possibilities of Modern Culture






Within each modern liberal regime, there are considerable disagreements about every manner of policy issue, every step in foreign affairs, every vision of the nation’s future. Yet one feature of modern life is shared by even the bitterest political rivals—a moral and political commitment to the value of the individual. This commitment is quite striking and relatively new. No longer does political order have the aim of glorifying or appeasing the gods, nor of expanding the authority and might of the empire, nor of reinforcing and transmitting ancestral traditions and practices. Rather, liberal states have as their ultimate end the protection and promotion of individuality, individual identity, dignity, and rights. For instance, the German Grundgesetz asserts that “inviolable and inalienable human rights” are the “basis of every community” and that to “respect and protect” human dignity “shall be the duty of all state authority.” The French Constitution upholds the “attachment to the Rights of Man,” while the American Declaration of Independence declares “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” All these foundational political documents enshrine in law liberalism’s commitment to individual equality and liberty, our desire to lead our own lives, to pursue happiness in our own way, to associate and exchange with whomever we want, to assert our own voice in public and think for ourselves—rather than finding ourselves subject to the will of another, our life planned by another and our identity scripted by some authority, our voice stifled and our own thoughts suppressed.

At the same time, just as our foundational documents profess support for individualism, the very notion of liberal individuality—along with what kind of social and political order is entailed by such a notion—has become a matter of great dispute in the contemporary world. The standard liberal understanding of the individual as a self-sovereign, rights-bearing person has been challenged from many theoretical and political perspectives. The communitarian movement has criticized the liberal “unencumbered self” as too abstract and “atomistic,” as encouraging an individualistic self-image divorced from those communities in which our personalities are shaped and achieve fulfillment. Conservatives argue that the ideal of the “autonomous” individual gradually erodes those traditional sources of morality that transcend and bring harmony to individual wills. On the left, progressives hold that classical liberal individualism obscures the social and economic conditions required to enjoy individual rights, thereby perpetuating the structural inequalities of class, race, and gender. Multiculturalists worry that the individualist ethos of liberalism undermines attachment to traditional cultures and engenders the anomie of a deracinated self. For postmodernists, the self-sovereign individual is an illusory goal, as identity is always already constituted through differentiating oneself from another, and these identities are constantly being renegotiated through engagement with many different others. Hence the attempt to endow individuals with self-sovereign control is undesirable as it involves a domination of this endless process of identity negotiation. Finally, outside of the academy, perhaps the most pervasive criticism is the religious or traditionalist critique of the very notion of Western individuality. According to such a criticism, the dedication to individualism is decadent, corrupt, or immoral in that it dissolves traditional customs and encourages the flouting of divinely ordained commands.

In reaction to both non-Western and Western critics of individuality, this book offers a defense of the individual. My strategy will not, however, be to respond directly to these critics, since many critics rely on quite different conceptions of the “individual.” In order to get at the heart of the matter, I return to the basic question, what is individuality? Indeed, as Lukes (1973) has detailed, this vague term has at least seven different meanings, from political to economic to methodological individualism, all of which are lumped together in one ambiguous term within both critiques and defenses of individuality, leading to a great deal of confusion and talking past one another. However, this book does not aim to cover the same ground that Lukes does. Rather than offering an analytic survey of the different meanings of individualism, in this book I adopt a historical approach to this notion. I trace the philosophical development of this concept in its three different stages in the modern age. Since the meanings of “the individual” we contemporaries employ derive ultimately from historical philosophical disagreements, such a historical perspective can provide us with the needed philosophical context for assessing contemporary critiques. At the same time, I do not aim just to articulate the historical development of individuality in the modern age, but also to defend individuality of a certain sort, which I call “the historical individual.”

In chapter 1, then, I sketch the historical development of this concept in what I argue are its three modern incarnations—the “natural,” “formal,” and “historical” individual. All three of these models of individuality have the same goal—the liberation of the individual—and each corrects the mistakes or one-sidedness of its predecessors. The “natural” individual, found in the empiricism and classical liberal thought of Locke, Hume, and other early moderns, supplanted the authority and aims of traditional or premodern, Christian society. However, in rooting individual freedom in naturally given desires, the defenders of this model fail to liberate the individual from nature. The “formal” individual of the rationalists Kant and Fichte frees itself from this natural desire by transforming its will in accordance with a universal moral law discerned by reason. However, the abstractness and generality of the moral law saps individuals of their concrete distinctness from one another and hence enchains them to a rigid and austere general will.

I introduce the “historical” individual, developed by G. W. F. Hegel and Friedrich Nietzsche, briefly in chapter 1, but the remainder of the book is devoted to explicating and defending it. The “historical” individual begins with the argument that individuality is not something given to all human beings, a set of natural capacities or a self that lingers like a phantom behind appearances. Rather, individuality only comes to be through certain historical practices that cultivate capacities and traits for individual independence and respect for individual uniqueness. Individuality is then not just a legal unit, but also a goal to be achieved by both community and individuals. This goal always involves different degrees of realization, depending on the structure and character of the community. In other words, the “historical individual” doctrine is first and foremost an ethical view, a view about what makes for the good life of human beings, and that is to foster a certain kind of individual character and actions suitable to the dignity of human beings. In particular, as we will see, this individual character must combine independence, autonomy, and personal uniqueness with a dedication to historically established public or common purposes. In developing personal traits of independence and autonomy, the individual liberates himself from nature, whereas by actively participating in a (certain kind of) historical community, the individual frees himself from a slavish attachment to society. The promise of the historical individual, then, is that since individuals are thoroughly formed by the historical communities in which they live, individual and community need not be opposed ideals as they have been in the history of political philosophy. On the contrary, so long as we structure community in the right way, individuality and community can be mutually reinforcing. With this understanding of individual and community, Hegel’s and Nietzsche’s aim is to retrieve the ancient dedication to communal excellence and human perfection on modern individualist grounds.

In eliciting this shared notion of individuality, this book contributes also to the historical scholarship on Hegel and Nietzsche. Indeed, many have considered these two thinkers to represent the opposing poles of nineteenth-century philosophy. According to the traditional story, in the early part of the nineteenth century, the arch-rationalist Hegel conceived of his titanic philosophical system, which holds that a cosmic “spirit” closely resembling the Christian god achieves fulfillment and satisfies human striving in the modern state. In the later part of the century, Nietzsche waged war against Hegel and the Hegelians on nearly every count—he declared most of German philosophy to be the excrescence of an oppressive Christian morality, upheld an intractably antisystematic philosophy and writing style, and argued that those putative victories of reason actually indicate a wholesale decline in the quality of human life into a regularized, homogenized herd-like thinking. At the turn of the twentieth century in Europe, practical men found themselves with two options, either the rational collectivism of the Hegelian strand or the irrational individualism of the Nietzschean strand.

Yet my argument in this book is that Hegel and Nietzsche share the important foundational notion and aim of defending “historical individuality.” I develop their similarities in a way unexplored in the literature by showing how this basic premise is developed in broadly similar ways by both thinkers. My aim is to challenge the traditional account portraying a radical opposition between these two thinkers, and indeed convince the reader that their agreements are a good deal more prevalent and interesting than their disagreements. Accordingly, I have structured my discussion of the two German thinkers in order to bring out as clearly as possible the considerable degree of convergence in their thought.

Chapters 2 and 5 concern Hegel’s and Nietzsche’s defenses of the historical individual. For both, I argue, individuality is good because it is the good life for human beings. They arrive at this notion of the human good by eliciting the fundamental structure of what is distinctively human, our free subjectivity, by tracing the emergence of the human out of nature. They then make the case that this subjectivity has a necessary, immanent aim. This aim is that human subjects should realize themselves in the world. To do so, human subjects must autonomously craft a unified, independent individual character not compelled by the outbursts of natural passions or the dominance of tradition or custom. Individuality, in other words, is not something given to human beings, but a goal implicit in the very notion of the distinctively human subject, a goal to be achieved in order to lead a full human life, yet an aim that one is always on the way to achieving, a task achievable by degrees.

In chapters 3 and 6, I make the case that for Hegel and Nietzsche, subjects cannot become individuals through selfish or solitary activity, nor through independent, countercultural activity as in J. S. Mill’s “experiments in living.” Rather, individuality only comes to be through ethical participation in communal purposes. The reason is this: human beings are the products of our biological and social history. There is no kernel or substratum of my “real self,” but rather my self comes to be only in my interactions with others. In order to free ourselves from nature and society, to carve out a space for our own uniqueness and freedom, we must make those interactions constitutive of our identity “our own.” To do so, we must participate in the constitution of communal meaning, thereby investing what is common with my own subjectivity. We then submit ourselves to the pursuit of common purposes, and in so doing we follow our own will as the general will. For Hegel, the community in question is the (properly structured) modern state, whereas for Nietzsche, this community is culture.

Finally, chapters 4 and 7 take up Hegel’s and Nietzsche’s views of modern politics, since the modern state plays an important role in grounding the harmony between individuality and community and hence fostering the good life for human beings—that is, at least, for Hegel. Hegel’s view is that we lead a good life by participating in modern politics since the modern state protects individual diversity while also rooting these differences in a common identity. The modern state’s “mediating institutions” are the main mechanism for ensuring this harmony. By contrast, for Nietzsche, the modern state homogenizes individual distinctiveness. Only through individual participation in a culture that exists far from political influence can the individual lead an independent life. Private, classical education that resists the abstract rationalization of the modern state can provide, for Nietzsche, the mechanism to bring individuality and cultural community into harmony.

As we can see, although Hegel and Nietzsche share a kinship on this basic premise, they are something like evil twins, developing this premise in opposing directions. Their familial difficulties originate in Rousseau, who articulated the idea of the historical individual in an inchoate form—Rousseau argued that it was not nature, but human history and society that are responsible for the successes and failures, virtues and vices, booms and busts of human civilization. Yet we also find in Rousseau the origin of the disagreement between Hegel and Nietzsche. For Rousseau, there were only two models for the good life of an individual in human society: the opposed ideals of citizen and the solitary dreamer. Hegel and Nietzsche adopted Rousseau’s basic premise and thereby saw the difficulties involved in the notion of the historical individual. Yet in trying to remedy these difficulties, each grasped one of these imperfectly reconcilable strands of Rousseau’s thought. For Hegel, who developed the “citizen” model of individuality, the historical individual can only achieve liberation and the good life through participating in the modern state. For Nietzsche, transforming the “solitary dreamer” model, the historical individual is enslaved by the modern state and can only find freedom and the good life outside of its boundaries in culture.

This divergence, as we will see, came from competing assessments of the rationality of the historical human subject. For Hegel, human subjectivity can come to create a rational human world through history, while for Nietzsche, history and human institutions will always be imperfectly rational, always suffused with incompletely rational irruptions of individual creativity and psychological malaise. These contradictory assessments shape and are shaped by differing views of the nature and character of politics. Hegel is optimistic about the capacity of the political state to be at once an ethical community, while Nietzsche sees the political state to be the sphere of selfish, material desire masquerading as spiritual fulfillment.

Neither of these possibilities is thoroughly satisfactory, I argue ultimately. Hegel uncovers our fundamental desire to lead ethical lives in communities with other human beings, our drive to find meaning and fulfillment in such communities. Yet Hegel fails to grasp that these communities can suppress the cultivation of difference and individual uniqueness. Hegel underestimates the individual desire for separation from and transformation of community, that individuals desire solitude or the transcendence of parochial states. Nietzsche develops this strand of individual longing, the desire to lead a unique, self-determined life, one wholly different from that of friends and compatriots and from the parochial “common good” that often forces each of us to give up something essential about ourselves. Yet Nietzsche fails to understand that modern human beings desire a rational, ethical community to afford them a sense of belonging and solidarity and a place for sharing a notion of the good life. My argument, then, is that the concept of individuality as represented in exemplary form by Hegel and Nietzsche is not without serious problems. Their inability to ground this concept indicates that the notion suffers from a deep internal wound that is, I argue, irreconcilable in theory. In sum, even if the historical individual improves upon its predecessors in redeeming and liberating individuality, we still must be aware of its internal tensions and limitations.

Finally, the reader will notice that I employ the third-person masculine pronouns to describe the individual. In doing so, I am making no political or philosophical statement. Rather, Hegel and Nietzsche argued that individuality was the privilege of men, not women. Accordingly, as I was writing, it seemed rather strange to describe Nietzsche’s “sovereign individual,” for instance, as a “she.” This issue is a complicated one, beyond the scope of this book, yet one I think Hegel and Nietzsche are wrong about—I think we have seen that in the contemporary world men as well as women are able to achieve individuality equally. Yet regardless of whether they were right or wrong on this matter, I defer to their views and pronouns in interpreting them.