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Hegel on History

Lawrence Evans rationally interprets Hegel’s rational interpretation of history.

We are often taught that history is nothing but the record of past events. Yet Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) thought that world history was not just a random sequence of happenings but progressed rationally, according to a specific purpose. This has led some to the mistaken belief that Hegel thought history followed some predetermined path, such that his philosophy could somehow reveal the future course of events. This misconception has often been accompanied by the accusation that Hegel sought to impose his own metaphysical scheme onto the historical facts, to conform them to his theory. I will argue that these are gravely mistaken views; and also that Hegel can be exonerated from the idea that he believed in ‘the end of history’, which is to say, the idea that history was fulfilled in his own particular historical moment.

How Hegel’s Theory of History Works

Hegel’s philosophy of history is most lucidly set out in his Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, given at the University of Berlin in 1822, 1828 and 1830. In his introduction to those lectures Hegel said that there is reason in history because ‘reason rules the world’; hence world history is the progress of reason.

What does Hegel mean by reason in history? He has in mind a ‘teleological’ account – the idea that history conforms to some specific purpose or design (this idea is also called ‘historicism’). He compares this with the Christian notion of providence. Historical analysis, from the Christian perspective, reveals God’s governance of the world and world history is understood as the execution of His plan. Hegel has a very idiosyncratic idea of God, which he calls Geist – meaning ‘spirit’ or ‘mind’. A philosophical understanding of the progression of world history enables us to know this God, to comprehend the nature and purpose of Geist.

For Hegel, the purpose or goal of history is the progress of the consciousness of freedom. Progress is rational in so far as it corresponds to this development. This rational development is the evolution of Geist attaining consciousness of itself, since the very nature of spirit is freedom. Hegel also refers to Geist as the ‘world spirit’, the spirit of the world as it unveils itself through human consciousness, as manifested through a society’s culture, particularly its art, religion and philosophy (Hegel calls this triad the expression of the ‘absolute Spirit’). As Hegel puts it in the Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), spirit is the “ethical life of a nation.” For Hegel, then, there is rational progress in history only in so far as there is progress of the self-consciousness of the spirit of the world through human culture in terms of the consciousness of freedom.

It is crucial however that Hegel does not mean by ‘freedom’ merely the unrestricted ability to do whatever we like: in the Philosophy of Right (1820) Hegel calls that type of freedom ‘negative freedom’ and says it’s an intellectually immature way to understand freedom. What Hegel means by freedom is instead closer to Immanuel Kant’s idea, in which a free subject is someone who self-consciously makes choices in accordance with universal principles and moral laws, and who does not merely pursue personal desires. Hegel claims that if the individuals of a nation merely pursue their own gratification, this will lead to the eventual collapse of the nation.

The aim of world history is the development of the self-consciousness of spirit, which is the self-consciousness of freedom. The crucial point – and this is the key Hegelian twist – is that the world spirit does not have a conscious aim which it sets out to achieve; rather, the aim only becomes known through the spirit achieving its aim. So the purpose of history can only be understood retrospectively. That is to say, to understand historical development, one has to know the result in order to then trace back the factors which led to it. As Hegel explains, historical necessity then emerges through the historical contingency; or as we might say, the result then gives its cause the appearance of necessity. For example, let’s say that I catch the 8.30 train to work. Assuming the train is on time (an unrealistic expectation, I know), and given that I do arrive at work on time, then it was necessary that I caught my train; but this does not mean that I was always going to catch the train… In the same way, the point is not that for Hegel history is predetermined, but rather that the purpose of history can be realised retrospectively. What’s more, the realisation of this purpose is the purpose of the very process of history!

We can also see from this that Hegel not only intends to explain how the past has influenced the present, but also the influence the present has on our interpretation of the past. Hegel points out that the task of philosophy is not to prophesy or make forecasts. Instead, philosophy always arrives too late. As he famously writes, “the owl of Minerva flies only at dusk.” In other words, philosophy (or ‘wisdom’, hence his reference to the Roman goddess of wisdom) can only analyse history retrospectively, from the standpoint of the present. So Hegel does not think that his philosophy of history should be imposed on the facts. On the contrary, he stresses that we must examine the facts of history (or indeed the facts of any other matter) as they present themselves, that is, empirically and for their own sake. We can then derive our philosophy (or wisdom) from these facts, without imposing any metaphysical preconceptions on them. This also means that although Hegel sees reason in history, this reason can nonetheless only be completely understood philosophically when the goal of history is complete.

Hegel perceives world history to have developed according to a dialectical process. Hegelian dialectic is often described this way: “a thesis provokes its opposite idea – its antithesis – and together they give rise to an idea that combines elements of both – their synthesis.” But Hegel never used that terminology, although it does convey some sense of what he had in mind. Hegel himself called the main feature of the dialectic Aufhebung, a word with meanings including ‘to overcome’ or ‘cancel’ or ‘pick up or preserve’. To try to render several of its meanings, as well as the technical connotation Hegel intended, it’s often translated as ‘sublation’. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines this as “to negate or eliminate (something) but preserve as a partial element in a synthesis.” Any imperfect idea, and in particular, any incomplete concept of freedom, contains within itself its own contradictions, and sublation is the process whereby these contradictions come to be unified in a higher principle. Thus in a Hegelian dialectical process there is a conflict between a concept and its external opposite which develops into an internal contradiction where the concept struggles with itself, and through this struggle the concept is overcome and simultaneously preserved in a unification with its contradiction at a higher level. Then the new concept produced in this way undergoes the same process again, and so on, so history progresses in a sort of spiral.

To understand this, though, it’s best to look at how Hegel discussed actual history.

What Hegel’s Theory of History Is

To describe the development of the consciousness of freedom, Hegel divides world history into three major cultures or epochs. In the tyrannical age, which Hegel thought was characterised by the pre-Greek ‘Oriental’ world, people know that only one person, the ruler or despot, is free. Then the Greeks and Romans know that some persons – the citizens – are free. Finally, the Germanic peoples (that is, Western Europe), through the influence of Christianity, know that all persons, or human beings as such, are free. It is crucial to understand that Hegel doesn’t merely want to show that the amount of freedom has increased over the course of history, but that the concept of freedom itself has fundamentally changed. And if there has been development in the concept of freedom, there will also have been development in the nature of spirit, since spirit is characterised by freedom.

In more detail, Hegel distinguishes this development into four particular stages. In the Oriental world, the people knew that only the ruler is free. Since the spirit of freedom was therefore immanent or manifested only within a single individual, whose freedom was realised by an accident of birth, this freedom is thus merely arbitrary. Moreover, people were unaware of the subjective freedom within themselves; and so Hegel considers this the ‘childhood’ period of the development of spirit.

The consciousness of subjective freedom first appeared in the Greek world; but even the Greeks did not realise that all human beings as such are free. The ethical life (or absolute spirit) of the Greeks was distinguished by an underlying satisfaction with convention. People lived in relative harmony with the norms and traditions of society. Yet still this was an inherently self-contradictory way of life, for people did not question the state’s customs, morals, rights and so on, and so they still lacked a sufficiently developed self-consciousness. In Greek society there was therefore an inherent tension between individual freedom and the universal principles of the state. Hegel compares this tension with adolescence. It took the figure of Socrates to encourage people to reflect on the accepted notions of ethics, and thus for the spirit to re-awaken itself.

In the subsequent period of the Roman Empire, subjective freedom was recognised in terms of the introduction of formal rights for citizens. But this notion of freedom was too abstract, above the concrete, everyday world of citizens. Hence, spirit was in a stage of self-alienation. True freedom only emerged with the rise of Christianity in the Germanic world, when freedom was understood as the very essence of humanity. So Christianity is important for Hegel, since it is only through the figure of Jesus Christ (whom Hegel calls the ‘God-man’) that human beings find the essence of spirit within themselves and overcome their alienation from God (that is, from the world spirit). For after Christ dies on the cross he is ‘sublated’ into the Holy (or divine) Spirit (which for Hegel means the community of believers, or ‘Christendom’ as we might call it).

Christianity was at the fore of intellectual life throughout the Middle Ages. However, Hegel saw Medieval Christianity as an archetype of what he called the ‘unhappy consciousness’, due to what he perceived as the failure of the Church to mediate between individuals and God. It took a particular world-historical moment, namely the French Revolution, for spirit to become truly self-conscious; to escape ‘abstract’ freedom and realise ‘concrete’ freedom through the laws as they applied to the people. Even near the end of his life Hegel remained jubilant about the French Revolution, describing it as “a glorious mental dawn.”

So the world spirit has developed dialectically throughout history by a series of struggles with itself. Spirit can only overcome its stage of alienation from itself through realising this very alienation. Each stage was therefore entirely necessary in the development of spirit’s self-consciousness, but the necessity of each stage can only be realised retrospectively.

The End of History

What drives the world spirit towards a full consciousness of freedom? And how do individuals become aware of the goal of history, that is, this fulfilled consciousness?

For Hegel, world history is driven by ‘world-historical individuals’; so-called ‘great men’ such as Socrates, Julius Caesar, or Napoleon. They alone are able to influence the tides of history and drive forward the self-consciousness of freedom. In a letter written to his friend Friedrich Niethammer in 1806, Hegel described Napoleon with adulation as ‘a world soul on horseback’. However much these world-historical individuals are inclined to pursue their own interests, they are unknowingly used by spirit to move towards the realisation of its own self-consciousness. Hegel refers to this as the ‘cunning of reason’.

A “world soul on horseback” by Jacques-Louis David, 1805

But how then can the pursuit of their own interests by world-historical individuals be a result of the working of reason in history and so aid the development of freedom? Hegel’s answer is ingenious. He notes that any individual who actively supports a historically-prominent cause is not merely a self-interested party who seeks their own satisfaction; they must also be actively interested in the cause itself. And this cause, being a manifestation of a given stage in the progress of reason’s history, must result in overall progress towards the realisation of human freedom.

Some – notably Francis Fukuyama – have taken Hegel to mean that, because the goal of history as the self-consciousness of human freedom had been achieved in his time, the world had reached ‘the end of history’.

We must be careful to keep in mind the way Hegel is using the word ‘history’ here – which is, of course, the unfolding of reason in the progress of the consciousness of freedom. For Fukuyama, this realisation of freedom actually occurred with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, signalling the end of Communism in Europe and the triumph of liberal democracy over all alternative systems of government. Fukuyama’s particular notion is then that liberal democracy is the final form of society embodying the self-consciousness of freedom. There is, however, nothing to suggest that Hegel would have endorsed anything like the particular kind of liberalism prevalent in modern society. Hegel saw in liberalism - especially in the French liberal government in his own time - a tension between individual rights and social unity. It seems that Hegel himself rejected liberalism as an ideology, because he believed that it would lead people to selfishly put their individual interests above the universal principles which uphold the state; and so liberalism, at least in his own time, could not be a stable socio-economic and political system. “This collision,” Hegel writes in the conclusion of his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, “this problem is that with which history is now occupied and whose solution it has to work out in the future.” It is also important to note that Hegel does not mean ‘the end of history’ in the sense that historical development finishes with his historical moment in Europe. Indeed, with regards to the actual content of world history, and the recent surge in his own time of American independence, Hegel insightfully remarks that “America is therefore the country of the future, and its world-historical importance has yet to be revealed in the ages which lie ahead…”

Hegel before history

The fact that Hegel mentions ‘the future’ in the specific context of world history in these last two quotes is of particular interest here, for it suggests that this was not merely a gesture but something systematic. Hegel does not pretend to have knowledge of what lies ahead; even if the consciousness of freedom is now fully manifested in the world, this does not mean that the future must therefore be already written. On the contrary, Hegel believes that because history is contingent there are no foregone conclusions concerning the future. And these points surely demonstrate that Hegel did not believe that liberalism was the ‘end of history’, nor that in any conceivable way history ended at his particular historical moment. What Hegel means by an end to history is not that there are to be no further developments: instead, the goal of history has been achieved: the world is now conscious of freedom, and the world spirit knows itself as the ultimate reality – what Hegel refers to as ‘absolute knowing’.

To conclude, I have tried to clear up some common misconceptions about Hegel’s philosophy of history, particularly about his idea of historical necessity. I have argued that for Hegel, history is not determined and closed, and thereby at an end, but is instead both contingent and radically open.

The past is preserved in the present to the extent that it has shaped the present in the development of the self-consciousness of human freedom that we now have. This understanding is the Hegelian legacy we need today.

© Lawrence Evans 2018

Lawrence Evans has a Master’s degree in philosophy from the London School of Economics, and is currently a research student in the philosophy department at University College London.

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