05. Hegel and the Cunning of History
Introduction to the Hegelian World
Plato believed that human reason could explain the world, individual morality and social life. Descartes also believed in reason, but severely restricted its ability to explain phenomena. Scientific reason could explain the laws of the physical universe, but could explain the nature of external objects. Hume destroyed the foundation of scientific knowledge by showing us that cause and effect did not relate to anything in physical nature, but was a psychological trick of the mind.
Intellectual thought, therefore, moved from a faith in reason to an extreme skepticism about the ability of reason to explain anything. Hume argued that there was not much that anyone could say with certainty; the best strategy for the human being was to enjoy life and try not to ask to many questions. Humean philosophy elevated the agreeable companion over the scientist and philosopher.
After Hume, it may have seemed that system building was dead. This turned out not to be the case, partly because the British empirical tradition never took a firm hold on the continental consciousness, and partly because new systems were built on the supposedly fragile foundation of the human mind. Continental thinkers argued that the human mind created its own reality; logical categories were not simply a way of understanding the world, they were the only genuine laws of the universe. It was even possible to think that individual minds were linked to a universal mind that operated and realized itself in human history. Enter Hegel.
If you were to hire a movie producer to film Hegelian philosophy, you would have to get someone like Cecil. B DeMille. So grand is the scope, so extensive the panorama, so comprehensive is the subject matter, that Hegel’s philosophy comes on like a tidal wave that never lets up. Hegel sets out to explain all of human life, all of history, and the meaning of the past that allows us to predict the future.
Hegelianism in a Nutshell
Hegel’s foundation is the realization that all of our reality, past and present, is a mental production. Our individual minds are limited, but history is the product of all minds over time. The universal mind moving through history is God’s mind. God moves through history with one goal – to realize himself and his essence. God’s essence is an Idea and the content of that idea is Freedom.
You will recall that the enlightened philosophes believed in progress, reason and nature. But their ideas of reason and progress seem puny in comparison with Hegel’s vision. Hegel argued that the Enlightenment was fundamentally flawed because it associated progress with individual freedom and happiness. Historical progress was only tangentially related to economic growth and the rule of law, Hegel argued. It was about the evolution of Ideas. While individuals might believe in these ideas or ideals, they were embodied in social culture. Every significant society embodies a particular idea. The historical role of society was to nurture that idea at a particular time in history. Sometimes that idea would be associated with a great hero, an individual who best personified the ideal of his time and used the force of his will to bring that idea to fulfillment. Caesar and Napoleon are examples of these world historical figures who put living flesh on ideas.
But it was the Idea that moulded history, not the men who helped move it forward. Men and women were merely the vehicles through which ideas expressed and realized themselves. The Idea was Freedom. It evolved from ancient times and, like a Cecil B. DeMille spectacle, it used a cast of millions to flesh itself out. Whereas a few heroic individuals were significant in the sense that they realized their particular stage in evolution and pushed the Idea forward, the great mass of people were hired extras in the spectacle of history. In fact, Hegel referred to the majority of people as victims on the slaughter bench of history, as various sub-ideas fought it out in the historical arena and contributed to the development of the one really big Idea – absolute Freedom.
It gets worse before it gets better. Hegel is one of those writers who are difficult to appreciate until you grasp the big picture. His writings really do resemble a historical spectacle full of sub plots, twists and turns, flashbacks and a cast of stars supported by thousands of extras. Fortunately, Hegel doesn’t write like Hume. He doesn’t expect us to get it in lock-step fashion. He’s more than willing to repeat scenes and use different camera angles to get across his fundamental idea. This is a good thing, because some of his language is tortuous and his Teutonic sentences appear very convoluted to English (and presumably other) ears.
Hegel uses the terms Idea, God and Freedom as synonyms. The important think to know about Hegel’s God is that He is pure thought. He is the Idea that drives universal history. His essence is absolute freedom. All history is nothing more or less that the story of the Idea actualizing itself through mankind. Our world, therefore, is not merely created by God; it’s an extension of God. God is using the world and human history as the vehicle for self-reflection. Men and women, as thinking beings, are not merely created in God’s likeness, but are extensions of the Divine mind. Thought is the only thing that matters. God’s thought in history is the only thing that counts. Most phenomena and the vast majority of historical facts are chimeral; they are insignificant dross. The only thing that is significant is the Idea. The rich tapestry of history is woven by a divine master, whose design can only be appreciated when it is complete. “The owl of Minerva,” writes Hegel, “flies only at dusk.”
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
"Hegel and the Cunning of History" by John Dwyer
Working on a opposition research paper for my community and stumbled on this very well presented academic paper that explains Hegel quite nicely if you ask me.