Kant wanted his philosophy to serve as a cosmopolitan science and a politics of self-determination through representative government and the market economy. But the intellectuals who succeeded him after 1789 were inclined to take his emphasis on the primacy of reason as a warrant to favor the primacy of thought itself, or spirit [Geist], over the material world. This tendency did not favor the empiricist philosophy that conquered Western Europe and North America. But in the mighty construction of thought and the world that flowed from the pen of Hegel, Kantian reason (fused with metaphysical spirit) becomes the author of the physical world itself, and through the historical actions of humanity – above all, through the creations of religion, philosophy, and art – realizes itself concretely in the world.
Hegel’s state exists to shield and promote humanity’s cultural inventions, and to structure human community so as to enable the individual to find identity through social bonds and achieve moral self-awareness. The state structures the nation. Though reality is driven forward, as is thought itself, by the endless clash and resolution of contradictions (or dialectical self-transcendence) – a process that generates much tragic conflict and destruction in history – Hegel preserved a Leibnizian (and quasi-Christian) serenity about the world’s meaningfulness, both in its present moment and in its trajectory.
One of Hegel’s conceptual building blocks, which had loomed small in Kant’s thinking, was the nation. As the communal, cultural-historical counterpart to rationalism’s individualist bias, this idea preoccupied such Enlightenment thinkers as Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau. In Germany, Kant’s friend and contemporary Johann Gottfried von Herder won a broad readership by expounding history as a drama of national cultures or “peoples” [Völker (singular: Volk)]. This contrasted with the conception of history, beloved by the western Enlightenment, as the progress of the universal human mind achieved by revolutionary individual thinkers, from Aristotle to Newton.
In Herder’s view, as in that of subsequent German Romanticism and historically framed nationalism, identity flowed from culture (or from one’s “people”). Nations were anthropological collectivities, traversing – in Herder’s view, at least – a centuries-long cycle of childhood, maturity, and senescence. Yet the trend, on a world-historical scale, was for modern nations to awaken to themselves through the kiss of consciousness bestowed on them by the intellectuals and artists whom the Volk brought forth in time’s fullness. Thus enlivened, the multifarious peoples would assume a political form appropriate to their individual genius (yet – providentially – also democratic and pacifist), and contribute to the sum of human self-realization through their cultural originality. Such a vision, in harmony with many Enlightenment ideas, inspired early German nationalism, even if the passions (and humiliations) of the Napoleonic wars infused in many of its apostles, such as Fichte, a warlike disposition foreign to the anti-absolutist, anti-militarist Herder.