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The Biggest Picture
by Grant Bartley
Happy 250th birthday to one of history’s great Romantic artists! People don’t usually think of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel as a Romantic Hero, but he’s the philosophical equivalent of Beethoven – born the same year – and his philosophical preoccupations were just as Romantic and Heroic as Beethoven’s musical ones.
Hegel’s philosophy is ‘Romantic’ because it’s about penetrating into the deepest nature of Nature and seeking a revelation of ultimate truth through the natural world – which is precisely what the Romantic cultural movement was all about. And it’s heroic because the question Hegel asked himself was, “What’s the fundamental nature of everything?” You can’t get more intellectually ambitious than that.
This issue we’re focusing on Hegel’s favourite topic, the meaning of human history – surely a topic of fundamental profundity. Hegel’s theory of history is an example of what historians call ‘universal history’ – human history understood as a totality. Such attempts to explain the whole of history go way back in, er… history: at least as far as ancient Greeks such as Empedocles and Herodotus. They popularised a cyclical view of it, with human civilisation repeatedly progressing to a golden age before succumbing to catastrophe, falling back to primitive barbarism, and starting all over again.
You’ve most likely read of Karl Marx’s big history, as encapsulated in the words of The Communist Manifesto (1848): “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” But there’s even universal history in the Bible: Daniel interprets the dream of King Nebuchadnezzar as foretelling future events from the golden age of Nebuchadnezzar himself, through an age of silver – later equated with the Hellenisation of the known world by Alexander the Great – through to a promised Messiah. (Incidentally, Alexander the Great was inspired to conquer the world after his personal tutor Aristotle persuaded him of the superiority of Greece’s reason-based culture. Who says philosophy’s not practical?) Another religious version of universal history is found in St Augustine’s The City of God (5th Century AD), which attempted to explain the fall of Rome in terms of the fulfilment of God’s purpose. But I want to give a special Philosophy Now shout-out to Isaac Asimov, whose Foundation novels were based on the idea that if the human population is large enough, the flow of history can be analysed statistically, and hence predicted – like weather forecasting on a grand scale, except more accurate. Although he was writing sci fi, in dreaming about analysing the flow of social and cultural change via mathematical equations, arguably Asimov was closer in Spirit to sharing Hegel’s desire to understand the forces shaping human history than anybody since him – Marx included. But Hegel did have a direct influence on Marx: we could say Marx set Hegel’s historical process in concrete.
The big picture Hegel painted could be summarised: History is the world debating with itself concerning its own nature; or perhaps Through the process of history, consciousness defines itself into being. In any case, for Hegel, history progresses as if through the opposing forces of an intellectual argument. Hegel’s ‘dialectical’ idea of how thinking so develops, says that societies’ cultures first grow from one extreme to the other. Each meeting of opposites brings about what he called an overcoming culture, which combines the two extremes. This combined culture then provokes the generation of a new culture in opposition to it; leading eventually to a further synthesis between these last two cultures: and so on, and so on… Until the fulfilment of the process – which to some Hegelians, means life in total freedom.
For a plausible modern example of this historical dialectic in action, consider the ‘liberal/establishment exchange’ of our recent past. Starting in the 1960s, young people reacted hard against the social constraints of previous generations, to create a much more liberal sexuality and politics. Someone might say that this was, in a Hegelian manner, an essential reaction to social conservatism. Our modern Hegelian might then claim that the synthesis in modern times of these two extremes has been the liberals becoming the Establishment. Our Hegelian might also go on to predict (and I think she’d be correct) that some reaction against this contemporary culture of ‘establishment radical individualism’ will develop. You can place your own bets as to what that reaction might be like – as embodied in an imminent generation of angry teens, say!
First up in our Hegel section we have Matt Qvortrup to introduce Hegel in his cultural context. Then Jack Fox-Williams gives us a fast run-down of one view of Hegel’s take on history. Modern applications of the theory follow, with Michael Squire demonstrating Hegel’s thorough impact on art history. Slavoj Žižek then argues against the view that Hegel is a prophet of freedom. On the way, as happily controversial as ever, Žižek carves into the hot potatoes of social media kangaroo courts, radical forgiveness, and what it means to apply new meanings to old pasts, as Hegel does. We’ve also included a brief insight into Immanuel Kant’s theory of history, courtesy of Terrence Thomson, so that you can taste an alternative universal tale.
I admire Hegel for his philosophical ambition, without thinking he completely achieved it. He was asking some of the right philosophical questions, which are also some of the most difficult that our world has to offer. Successful or not, his attempts to tackle them provide answers more profound than the ‘insights’ of many thinkers supposed to be interested in the deepest questions. Dive in.