250 Years with Hegel: Philosophy of History and History of the World

[This is a summary of my Danish language article “Historiefilosofi og verdenshistorie: G.W.F. Hegel 1770-2020”, Historisk Tidsskrift 2021:1, pp. 151-200, available at https://tidsskrift.dk/historisktidsskrift/article/view/127110]

Jürgen Habermas recently declared that with G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) Western thought crossed the threshold to full modernity. Hegel solved the riddle of how to reconcile permanent ethical values with the immense variability and changing manifestations of human behaviour, culture, politics, and institutions. He introduced the concept of a self-evolving World Spirit based on the fundamental urge to achieve individual freedom within a just and well-ordered commonwealth of men and women. ‘World Spirit’ is a metaphor for the collective preservation and application of ideas to that effect and – particularly ­­– the ongoing conscious reflection on the process, i.e., philosophy. History – material and spiritual, of people and of elite – is the substance and result of the action. It is a totality and must be conceived of as such. Past and present events merge into one coherent and sufficient picture. Consequently, on the premises given by Hegel’s style of thought, mature insight is the tool of freedom and augurs the end of history as we know it.

The present article serves as a general introduction to Hegel’s philosophy of history, beginning with its reception. The approach is limited to the historical and political context, ignoring ontological and epistemological aspects. Philosophically, Marxism was a subset of Hegelianism, yet Marx’ own claim of a materialist turn, rejecting Hegel’s idealism while preserving his method, soon became a source of doubt and controversy. Marxian notions of purely techno-economic determination and denial of gradual societal evolution – as opposed to dialectics – were called into question. True innovation was first provided by Antonio Gramsci who strove to reintroduce national culture and institutions of civil society into political analysis. Among other Italian philosophers Benedetto Croce represented a politically liberal version of Hegelianism. In the Soviet Union, Stalinism distorted and abused the pre-World War I tradition but did not cause its complete disruption.

In mid-20th century Germany, the Frankfurt School to a large degree based its ‘critical theory’ on Hegelian patterns of thought, although abandoning any hope that the end of history, conditioned by clear insight and social emancipation, was due any time soon. In France, the most influential Hegelian, Alexandre Kojève, provided a platform for agents of mainstream politics and social engineering to incorporate society’s fundamental contradictions into a progressive reform process, including the welfare state and European integration, all under the guidance of an academically trained elite. Together with the Frankfurt School this marked a change of direction for Hegel-inspired political philosophy. Critical, yet constructive self-insight in established centres of governance substituted revolutionary Marxism.

Recent decades have witnessed an upturn for the politico-ethical dimensions of Hegelian philosophy, focusing, among other things, on the potential of dialectical historical thinking to further atonement and reconciliation, following the unjust suffering caused by war, exploitation, discrimination etc. that leave communities and nations divided and individuals wounded and mortified after the event.

The following section of the article is a short paraphrase of Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of History. The intention is to provide a clearer image of the substance of history according to Hegel than is usually given by the ultra-short introductions of textbooks dealing with historiography in general. One important element is the role of Christianity. First, the new faith helped disrupt the authoritarian and soulless Roman Empire. It then provided the foundations of modern Europe by combining an appealing liberating, even egalitarian ethos with a firm institutional base, including the congregation and ecclesiastical organization. Yet according to Hegel the liberating Christian endeavour was soon held back by feudal institutions which were counterproductive in and by themselves and stimulated greed and corruption within the ranks of the church. However, Reformation and stable monarchies of nation-states cleared the road for further progress. Even so, its proper achievement required a new political mindset authorizing the rule of law, an independent civil society, and free exchange of opinions, including the right to criticize authorities that ultimately relied on the will of a sovereign. But then again, this new mindset, that emerged as truly influential during the French revolution, turned out to be capable of producing terror and chaos as well, after which authority necessarily came in new demand. Hegel’s ideal was a well-ordered society with a high level of individual freedom, all based on Christian values and a strong but tolerant and liberal state. He saw the Prussian state of his time to represent best practice but remained aware of the inherent conflicts or dialectical tensions of the system. Paradoxical as it may sound, Hegel did not fail in his admiration of French republican ideals. 

Finally, the influence of the Hegelian model on historiography today is discussed by way of a few salient examples from the field of general economic history, political economy, and global history. Expressing classical modern values and faith in the idea of progress through systemic change, the model retains a solid yet contested position, opposed for instance by global historians who shun euro-centric versions of history. In this field of enquiry there is nevertheless an ongoing dialogue. However, one is also able to spot interventions where the whole set of issues raised by Hegel’s philosophy of history, indeed the entire train of classical Western thought on history and politics, is being ignored and forgotten in favour of dualistic denunciations of standpoints that are deemed offensive, measured against values defined within a framework of identity politics. This is illustrated by a recent debate in the journal Security Dialogue regarding possible racist tendencies within political science.