So, apart from reading Hegel, I've also been reading commentaries on Hegel, including Fred Neuhouser's Foundations of Hegel's Social Theory: Actualizing Freedom, which I think is really rather good. Hegel, of course, has a reputation, much like Rousseau's, as being a kind of proto-totalitarian; states as organic wholes with lives above and beyond those of their members and all that kind of thing. Neuhouser, pretty persuasively so far as I'm concerned, describes a rather different Hegel, motivated by an almost Kantian worry about what it takes for a will to be self-determining and so free, one which both he and I think is also powerfully present in Rousseau. Obviously, there are some things that can't be wished away, and so he spends a fair bit of what I've read so far trying to both make sense of and make persuasive Hegel's apparent belief in a social whole with a life above and beyond those of its members, but he does a pretty good job: the thought seems to be that the social whole does have a life, but one which would be going wrong if it failed to secure individual freedom; the social whole is only universal in virtue of respecting particularity; it makes itself concrete in the different lives of its various members.
In general, then, what Neuhouser provides is a Hegel who is profoundly interested in the set of social conditions under which humans can be self-determining, and in two distinct senses. First, they need what we might call the objective conditions of agency: both the conditions that make them an agent, in the sense of someone with a reasonably stable sense of themselves, and the conditions that allow them to live that understanding of themselves out relatively unimpeded. Thus both the family, as the location of people's emotional formation, and the freedoms of civil society, where we encounter each other as fully autonomous agents, are required. Second, they need the what we might call the subjective conditions of agency: they must be at home in the world, see the set of institutions they live within as something that they are not alienated from, can be reconciled with. Those institutions cannot be persistently hostile to their sense of self, but rather must support it, by providing for its recognition, in some sense at least. Hegel and presumably Neuhouser - I've not got that far - with him thinks that there's something else on top of this that the provision of all these conditions provides, a kind of extra freedom of some sort, which pulls everything else together; a will which reproduces not only itself but the conditions of its existence. There might well be something to be said for that, too.
One of the things that Neuhouser has been hinting at so far - one of the earlier chapters is a more developed version of an article he wrote on Rousseau, in which he attributes something pretty similar to Hegel's view to Rousseau, but it's not just that (see here for other Rousseau-Hegel comparisons) - is that he thinks that Hegel's criticisms of social contract theory are misplaced, that Hegel and social contract theorists are both tied to a deep worry about whether or not peoples' wills can be made to align with the social system they live under, so that they can will the way in which the social system structures their world. I've said before that I think that the sensible bits of Hegel are in Kant, and there are interesting parallels, I think, between Hegel's two sorts of freedom and Rawls' two moral powers; the objective conditions of agency could be seen as the power to pursue a conception of the good, since both are concerned with personal freedom, and the subjective ones as the power for a sense of justice, as both deal with finding oneself at home in one's social world. At some point, I will get round to reading what Rawls has to say about Hegel - and Kant, it has to be said - in the posthumously published Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy, but I haven't yet. What exactly he does say may depend on when exactly in his career they were written, but given Rawls' turn towards Hegelian ideas about reconciliation and realistic utopias in his later career, it's possible they'll be quite sympathetic.
Here, I suppose the question is what's of interest here; the thought that Rawlsians, despite being disciples of the person who probably did the most to revive the discipline, are in important ways marginal to contemporary analytical moral and political philosophy - and caring about Hegel is certainly to make yourself marginal in important ways to that discourse - is hardly a novel one, from me at least. I hardly need repeat Bernard Williams' line about modern moral philosophy have found new and distinctive ways of being boring, or point out that hammers make everything look like nails. One thing it may tell us is that Rawlsians may well be in the wrong business, if they understand themselves as doing contemporary analytical moral and political philosophy; they, and me with them, could be better off with a self-understanding which placed them in a tradition in which Hegel is more central; one in which it is not an acceptable joke to make that Hegel makes no sense, but is funny if you read him aloud, imitating Darth Vader's voice (thanks for that, Chris). Critical theorists, here we come, I suppose.
Perhaps more pertinent is one of the other things I spent my time doing today. Apart from watching the morning's play in the Test match - well done Strauss; I thought we'd probably lose at the beginning of the day - I also attended a seminar in which one prominent political theorist presented a paper in which they argued, fairly powerfully, that it'll never be instantiated is no good objection to a political theory. Their point was that people are, amongst other things, not morally perfect, and so they may well fail to live up to the quite proper demands of a moral theory. That's quite sad enough, in a way; the thought that you can specify what the quite proper demands of a moral theory are without thinking about the fact that people are morally perfect, have their own lives to live, lives that are after all what gives moral demands their weight. It is not aware enough, I think, of the importance of the relationship between peoples' wills and the social system they live under: it's at least prima facie evidence that some moral demand does not pay proper respect to that relationship that it would, at least by good-willed people, not be consistently met. What was really sad though, was that one person at the seminar, either deliberately or not, made use of their institutional power and particular personality to dominate it. They probably spoke more than the presenter. That's to forget what it is for there to be other wills at all, never mind worry about how to align them with other peoples' or the structure of the social system they live under.