Hegel’s Understanding of History | Issue 140

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Hegel & History

Jack Fox-Williams outlines the basics of how history works for Hegel.

One of Hegel’s most interesting but misunderstood areas of enquiry concerns history, particularly his so-called ‘dialectical’ approach to understanding the development of human society. This article aims to provide a brief but useful outline of Hegel’s historical theory, and demonstrate its relevance to the modern age.

Hegel by Pinto
Image © Venantius J Pinto 2020. To see more art, please visit flickr.com/photos/venantius/albums

Hegel’s Classification of History

In his Introduction to Lectures on the Philosophy of World History (1837), Hegel argues that there are three ways of doing history.

The first of these is original history. Original history refers to first-hand accounts of events, actions and situations, collected or verified by the historian himself. It includes the historian’s own experiences as part of the history he’s recording. Hegel says that the purpose of original history is to create a ‘mental representation’ of phenomena. Contemporary historians aim to record recent and current events with precision and accuracy, explaining and summarising it simply.

However, as Duncan Forbes writes in his introduction to the Introduction, “the first, most primitive (that is logically primitive) kind of history, ‘original’ history, is barely history at all in so far as it represents an immediate unity between the historian’s consciousness; this sort of contemporary history is necessarily limited.” Forbes argues that it is impossible for the original historian to provide much theory on, or even reflect very comprehensively on, events he has only just witnessed. As Hegel notes, original history constitutes a ‘portrait of a time’ rather than an academic analysis of past events. Hegel cites Thucydides and Herodotus as prime examples of original historians, since their accounts constitute a “history whose spirit the historian has shared in.” Consequently, their accounts express “the maxims of their nation and their own personality, their consciousness of their political position and of their moral spiritual nature, and the principles which underlie their designs and conflict.” So by examining this sort of history, we can acquire a greater understanding of a culture’s customs, beliefs, and practices, and so penetrate into the essence of a specific period. Speeches recorded in historical accounts are uniquely valuable in this regard, since they embody a particular time and place; they constitute ‘effective actions in their very essence’, and provide us with a sense of history as it unfolded at the time. They cannot be regarded as disinterested reflections on the historical process, but as ‘integral components of history’ recorded by historians who embody the cultural consciousness of the speaker. As Hegel observes in his Introduction, “speeches are actions among human beings; indeed, they are extremely important momentous actions… Speeches on a national or international plane, issuing from nations themselves or from their sovereigns, are actions and, as such, are an essential object of history (and particularly of earlier history).”

According to Hegel, it is possible to distinguish three stages of original history. In antiquity, it was primarily statesmen (or their scribes) who recorded history. During the Middle Ages, monks assumed the role, since they had the time and education to record the world around them. Hegel observes that in his own time “all this has changed… Our culture immediately converts all events into reports for intellectual representation.”

A second type of history discussed by Hegel is reflective history. Unlike original history, reflective history is not limited to a particular timeframe. It transcends the present culture. It attempts to provide a summary of histories or historical events that have already occurred – in other words, records of a particular culture, country, or period.

Hegel separates reflective history into universal history, pragmatic history, critical history, and specialised history. Universal history aims to provide an entire history of, say, a people, or even of the world. In the case of world histories, significant events must be condensed into brief statements, and the author’s own opinions are integral to the account. Pragmatic history, on the other hand, has a theory or ideology behind it; events are “connected into one pattern in their universal and inner meaning.” The pragmatic account also has more to do with reflections on the historical process, and is not merely about reporting what occurred during a specific period.

Critical reflective history is based on research into the accuracy of historical accounts, and presents alternative explanations and narratives. Hegel is himself critical of this particular type of history, which apparently ‘extorts’ new discourse from existing accounts. He believes that this is a crude and futile way to achieve ‘reality’, that is, understanding, in history, since it replaces facts with subjective impressions and call these impressions reality.

The last type of reflective history that Hegel mentions is ‘specialised history’. Specialised history focuses on a specific historical topic, such as the history of art, law, or religion.

Hegel by Schlesinger
G.W.F. Hegel by Jakob Schlesinger, 1831

History & Reason

Hegel’s third way of doing history, philosophical history, prioritises thought above event-commentary, synthesising philosophical concepts and ideas with historical information. Hegel himself is doing this kind of activity when he famously argues that the process of human history is a process of self-recognition guided by ‘the principle of reason’.

For Hegel, nature is the embodiment of reason. In the same way that nature strives towards increasing complexity and harmony, so does the world spirit through the historical process. The Presocratic philosopher Anaxagoras (c.500-428 BC) was the first person to argue that nous (meaning reason, or maybe understanding in general) ultimately governs the world – not as an intelligence, but like a fundamental essence of being. Hegel stresses the importance of this distinction, using the solar system as an example. He writes:

“The motion of the solar system proceeds according to immutable laws; these laws are its reason. But neither the sun nor the planets which according to these laws rotate around it, have any consciousness of it. Thus, the thought that there is reason in nature, that nature is ruled by universal, unchangeable laws, does not surprise us; we are used to it and make very little of it…” (Reason in History).

Moreover, Hegel argues that evidence of reason is revealed through religious truth, which demonstrates that the world is governed not by chance but by a Providence. During profound moments of spiritual epiphany, we come to the realisation that a divine order presides over the world. Providence is wisdom endowed with an infinite power, which realises its own purpose, that is, the absolute, rational, final purpose of the world; reason is “thought determining itself in absolute freedom.” Hegel suggests that many stages of human history appear irrational and regressive because society is made up of individuals guided by passions, impulses and external forces. However, behind the seeming irregularity of human history lies a divine plan that is hidden from view and yet actualises itself through the historical process. As a result of the many conflicts, revolutions and revolts that society endures, humanity attains a greater glimpse of reason.

Hegel goes even further in the development of his argument and suggests that the realisation of reason in history also serves as a justification for belief in God. He acknowledges that history reveals the cruelty and sadism of human nature, but urges “recognition of the positive elements in which the negative element disappears as something subordinate and vanquished.” Through the consciousness of reason, we recognise that the ultimate purpose of the world is incrementally actualised through those occasional historical events which bring about positive transformation and change. In this sense, Hegel presents a highly progressive view of history, perceiving the development of human society as a dynamic process by which our rational faculties become ever more refined and cultivated. Although, there is evil in the world, reason ultimately triumphs.

History as a Manifestation of Spirit

Hegel’s providence is not the providence of the Judeo-Christian God. Rather, Hegel argues that universal history is itself the divine Spirit or Geist manifesting or working.

Hegel claims that “all will readily assent to the doctrine that Spirit, among other properties, is endowed with Freedom… Freedom is the soul truth of Spirit” (Introduction). For Hegel, history unfolds as the self-actualisation of Spirit, eventually resolving itself into the manifestation of true human liberty through the freest form of government. He further argues that self-consciousness is synonymous with the freedom of Spirit – freedom is self-consciousness – since self-consciousness depends on its own being to come into actuality, so must create itself in absolute freedom. And in regards to history, Hegel argues that universal history is the ultimate exhibition of Spirit “in the process of working out the knowledge of that which it is potentially” (Introduction). And that which it potentially is, in essence, is freedom. This is why the culmination of the process of history which is the Spirit’s developing knowledge of itself is a knowledge of absolute freedom, through the freest possible political state.

Hegel uses historical examples to demonstrate the process by which the freedom of Spirit becomes actualised through human history. First, he asserts that the origin of the state is not through a ‘social contract’ freely entered into by people, as philosophers such as Hobbes had argued. Rather, to be human means to inhabit a society with other human beings, following basic codes, laws, rules and norms. In other words, it is impossible that humanity existed in a pre-political condition, because politics is a fundamental part of our nature.

According to Hegel’s understanding, politics passes through three stages: from that of the family (or tribe) to civil society, to the state. The state is the ultimate manifestation of Spirit since its development marks an increasing human autonomy. As Hegel writes, “the freedom of nature… is not anything real; for the state is the first realisation of freedom” (Introduction). This is due to the fact that members of a state give up their individualism to support the freedom of the community as a whole, and for Hegel, true freedom is communal. We might explain this by saying that without the state, the rights of the individual would become paramount, compromising the greater good of humanity, and so the greater freedom of the Spirit.

Hegel states that original historical cultures, which he calls ‘Oriental’ cultures, including for instance ancient Persia and China, did not attain knowledge of Spirit since they believed that man is not ultimately free. He thought that the Oriental mind-set was instead towards tyranny: to think that people should be governed by a divine ruler or absolute king. This is freedom for only one person: the ruler! The Greeks were aware of freedom, and rejected tyranny for democracy, which is political freedom for the voting set. Their freedom was maintained under conditions of slavery – a fact that made “liberty on the one hand only an accidental, transient and limited growth; on the other hand, it constituted a rigorous thraldom of our common nature of the Human.” So according to Hegel, the German nations, under the influence of Christianity, were the first to come to the realisation that man possesses free will. And even while slavery still occurred under Christianity and subsequent political systems, the notion of individual freedom has become central to states, governments, and constitutions, first in the West, then elsewhere.

Hegel’s Dialectic

For Hegel, historical development proceeds not in a straight line “but in a spiral and leading upwards to growth and progress. This is where action follows reaction; from the opposition of action and reaction a harmony or synthesis results” (‘The Individual, The State and Political Freedom in Hegel’, Uchenna Osigwe, 2014). Whereas many other political thinkers have postulated that political history goes through absolute monarchy to despotism to democracy, Hegel believed that it goes from despotism to democracy, to constitutional monarchy, which combines the features of both despotism and democracy while transcending both. So Hegel uses a ‘dialectical’ approach to examine the course of human history. The dialectic is frequently described in terms of a thesis giving rise to its reaction, an antithesis, which contradicts or negates the thesis; and then the tension between the two is resolved by means of a synthesis of them. Then the synthesis becomes the new thesis… However, Hegel never used this specific terminology (which was originally ascribed to Kant).

The notion that history follows a dialectical pattern can be observed in a more modern context. Communist (socialist) ideologies were a reaction against capitalism, but failed to create sustainable social, political and economic systems, and resulted in the deaths of millions of people around the world. But after the end of the two World Wars, European nations adopted the liberal democratic system – a synthesis of socialism and capitalism. While the state is charged with the responsibility of governing certain aspects of society, such as the law or the military, and other key services, it also promotes business and free-trade. In terms of Hegel’s dialectic, the contradiction of views between socialism and capitalism resulted in a liberal democratic synthesis.

Francis Fukuyama, in his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man famously argued for the Hegelian concept of the end of History. According to Fukuyama, history has already reached its final stage, in which dialectical ideological conflict is finally eradicated and replaced by a single, universal ideology. Thus, when Communist regimes collapsed across Eastern Europe and those countries looked towards the West, this demonstrated the victory of liberalism.

European countries have not engaged in any major conflict with each other since the Second World War, and Europe has since flourished under the principles of liberal democracy, socially, economically and politically. In this sense, Hegel’s vision of history as a progressive development of political freedom is partially supported by recent historical events.

© Jack Fox-Williams 2020

Jack Fox-Williams graduated from Goldsmiths University with a BA (Hons) in History and History of Ideas, then took a Masters in Law at the Open University. He is currently a doctoral student at the University of Portsmouth and is writing a book on the works of Nietzsche.


Hegel’s Dialectic in a Coffee Cup

Hegel’s theory of dialectics constitutes the last great philosophical system. History is a process that includes everything and everyone, a process in which we all participate. Hegel’s fundamental idea is that history is not a matter of dates and battles and events, but of ‘logic’. It is about how ideas and beliefs interact and develop out of one another, because ideas rule everything else.

Since we are all part of this process, philosophers can think only within the confines of their own historical horizon. This means that philosophy itself is tied to history. To Hegel, philosophy is “its time grasped in thought”. We cannot step outside time, and there is no eternal realm of reason. History and thought emerge together! So, what we try to understand is a complex organic structure, and it is vital to grasp how its parts, which Hegel calls ‘categories’, are connected.

The link between the categories is called the ‘dialectic’. This is an objective order, inherent in the deep structure of things, and characterised by contradiction. Note that therefore to Hegel the dialectic is not simply a method that we apply to understand history. It is the way things actually work in the world. It is not something we make up but something we discover.

Hegel says the dialectic has a three-step structure. Let’s take the example of a historical development involving three categories, from A to B to C. Hegel calls A ‘the immediate’, a self-contained state of affairs. As soon as you spell out A, you must refer to its opposite, B, which is what Hegel calls the ‘first negative’. You realise that A is necessarily connected with its opposite. B is the negation of A, but it is also a modified A: it contains elements of its opposite. But that brings us to a third category, C, which he calls the ‘second negative’. Why? Well, in trying to spell out what B is you realise you must refer back to the previously modified A. C is therefore the negation of B. It constitutes a ‘simple calm unit’: You can imagine this process like dropping a piece of sugar into a glass of water. Once the sugar has dissolved, there is only a homogenous whole. It is inherent in the nature of categories that they contradict each other. Contradiction is characteristic of the nature of reality.

Hegel has a speculative word that describes what happens during a dialectic movement: ‘sublation’. It has three meanings all of which are important to the dialectic:

1. to lift up (every movement, A to B or B to C, means a progression to a higher, more sophisticated level);

2. to preserve (in B something of A is preserved, in C something of A and B is preserved);

3. to negate (B negates A, C negates B).

This sound technical, but Hegel thought sublation to be a normal part of the unfolding of historical events. Indeed, it doesn’t just describe the clashing of ideologies on a grand historical scale, but is a part of everyday human life. Let’s take a look at an example.

The immediate: You wake up and you think that coffee is the best drink in the world and definitely what you want now. Immediately! So you drink four cups with your breakfast.

First negative: Then you feel really sick. Your new position is that you will never drink coffee again.

Second negative: In reaction to the other two categories, a further category develops which preserves something of both of them, but represents a more sophisticated level. You decide that coffee is great in moderation and that you will only ever drink one cup of coffee a day in future.

Anja Steinbauer

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