Reading Hegel’s An Introduction to a Philosophy of History

2 07 2012

I spent some recent bit of vacation (re)reading through portions of G. W. F. Hegel’s Introduction to a Philosophy of History (Hackett edition, translated by Leo Rauch). In part, that’s just because thinking about Marx puts me in mind of Hegel, but I also wanted to revisit this little book with the fresh eyes; the last time I really read Hegel was almost a decade ago. What follows is mostly a record of my responses to it, in a rough sort of order. I might revisit it more carefully later, but then I might not.

The opening section on the kinds of history really stands out. The typology holds up well and comparing his discussion of the types and distribution of historical work being done to the types of historical work done today is a bit startling. Reading that, I see how a chunk of criticisms leveled at Hegel’s way of doing history, mine included, are misplaced. While I’m hardly about to sign up for the Hegelian decoder ring and German Idealism secret society membership badge, I have to modulate my distance from him.

Not only that, but in reading Hegel’s account of his own time and the distribution of the types of historical work being done, it’s not too hard to see how much that distribution has shifted since his time. Much of what bothered me about Hegel’s work loses its force when it is placed alongside the distribution of historical labor he presumed and endorsed as a context for his own work.

It’s clear from the outset that Hegel sees his philosophy of history as a quite narrow application of historical effort. It is not intended to replace or supplant other forms of historical discourse. Rather, it is dependent upon them for its operation. Hegel’s project is not to replace history with an abstraction, but to enrich philosophic discourse with historical concreteness.

His reasoning is quite good here. If we take reason to be the understanding of things that exist and we take history to be the account of things that have existed, then one of the best ways to educate reason is through an examination of what has existed, i.e., history. The philosophy of history is nothing more (or less) than the identification of orderly patterns in history that have an application outside their immediate context.

I still find myself brought up short when Hegel turns to the state and makes it the central element of his historical work. After thirty or so pages detailing the role of individuals and of individual agency, his assertion of the state’s primacy seems sudden and disconnected from the intermediary elements that join person to state. I’m willing to grant him some leeway, knowing that a fuller account of this process can be found in the Phenomenology of Spirit, but the way in which it informs his thinking remains alien to me. It becomes the master-key to rationality.

I can understand why it preoccupies him. It is this form which is most intensely shaping the Europe of his time. As such, it is from this form that he most hopes to extract new forms which he will be able to contribute to reason’s education and it is this form to which he hopes to bequeath his philosophic project. Nonetheless, his emphasis distorts his project, pushing his science toward a theology. Rather than treat the state as one form among many, he treats it as the form par excellance.

To some extent, this is a mistake which he himself warns philosophers against making. By turning the philosophy of history toward the nation-state, he turned it toward a form that had not yet come to fruition within his own time and so had not yet passed into the twilight to which philosophic eyes are suited. Hegel saw the nation state far too partially to speak clearly about it. He was able to realize that it was significant, that it was something new on the stage of world history, but he could not determine properly its trajectory. So, while he saw properly it had world historical implication, he was unable to see the scale of them, to realize that it was the modern European state that would first define a global network of power, or to appreciate the concrete mechanisms through which that would be undertaken. It will be more than a century, with Adorno, before this error would begin to find correction.

While jarring, the compressed transition from individual to state provides us with a clear idea of how Hegel goes astray, the assumptions he incorporates into his philosophical thinking that blunt it. While he favors a notion of human worth that is shared by all, he blithely asserts that some better realize the source of this worth and so are worth more than others. While he favors an account of ethics that makes it binding for all, he simultaneously grants to these more-worthies great leeway in carrying out ethical demands.

The toxicity of this tendency in Hegel’s though shouldn’t be too hard for most to see. The great are permitted to break the law of the land for the sake of a higher rule that they make manifest, while the lesser are held to close account because they must live the law of their time, not make it. The freedom of these great people transfers, at least partially, to the states that they lead. While perhaps an honest account of the attitude European state of his time, which depended on the exploitation of a global periphery, it handily overlooks the profound dependency of these states on global networks of economic exploitation. That exploitation becomes just one worthwhile cost to manifest a new dimension of the universal in world history.

As an aside, this little book also neatly dispels the silly myth that Hegel thought he was living at the pinnacle or end of history. He sees world history having a future beyond his time, one that would yield up forms and lessons for future philosophers of history. He describes, for example, the Americas as the land of the future and even hesitantly speculated as to the shape of that future history of the Americas. His account of the Americas is worth attending to on another point–he sees in the Americas a form of social organization that has not yet achieved the level of the state as it is manifest in Europe. Somewhat foolishly, he postulates that America, most especially the United States, will have to become a proper state before it will be of world historical significance.

As far as I can see, the United States never became a state in the fashion envisioned by Hegel. Quite the contrary, it developed according to an alternative logic, one that would define a new social form of world historical significance. Organized in a far more disparate and decentralized fashion, fueled by oil and coal, it grew more quickly than was possible for a European state, even in the face of near disasters like the American Civil War.

While it must await the decline of the European state, it does not pass through it. This changes significantly the angle of vision with which we should approach philosophic history. Rather than looking for a clear line of development through a single succession of forms, we need to look at a global ecology of forms, each with their own succession of forms, with each of those successions shaped by their interactions with other forms. In turn, that ecology of societies must be inscribed into an actual ecology of nonhuman forms (e.g., the ecological basis for fossil fuels). In other words, the philosophy of history is swallowed back up again by philosophy more broadly. The sort of universality that Hegel hopes to produce from history, can be produced by study of forms traditionally excluded from history, including biology and geology.

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