So this saga with Hegel continues. I just finished reading the chapter of Philosophy of History where he says things about ancient Egyptians that would be unambiguously racist if they weren’t couched in this elaborate conception of social development. Instead, they’re uncomfortable generalizations based on archaeology and analysis of religious beliefs that can’t shake that disconcerting feeling that there is more beyond what Hegel writes of them. You know, because there is.
But with regard to the conception of time and history, there is another intriguing idea in Hegel’s disconcerting treatment of Egyptian society. One focus in his account of their religious beliefs (in the Pharaonic period) is that they were the first to arrive at the idea of the soul’s immortality. Bending a complex truth, of course. But still fascinating. Hegel’s idea is that the spirit of the world progresses here, because humans have their first inkling that their individual existence has a greater significance that what simply appears to it in daily life. Hegel transforms the idea that the soul continues to exist after death into a juvenile intuition that the significance of your actions while alive continues to have effects in the development of the greater arc of human history.
|Edward Said, who gave us|
a very good book called
Throughout Philosophy of History, Hegel rails against what he calls superstition. And here, I can see the content to that beyond his gruff dismissals of Asian cultures as believing in ghosts, ancestor worship, and other stereotyping characterizations of philosophically and theologically complex religious and thought traditions stretching back hundreds of years. Hegel’s view of Asian cultures (and especially his dismissal of African cultures as inescapably animalistic which I find repulsive and revulsive) is typical of the perspective that today we call orientalism.
He essentializes complex people (Romans and Greeks and Germans get the same treatment, but the economic and culturally destructive forces of colonialism make such treatment worse when applied to non-Europeans). But in doing so, he articulates this idea that civilizations tend to get better at understanding human history as an ongoing process that can progress and in which we are embedded by our own nature. The central element of his conception of progress appears to be developing the ability to think of your own locality as integrated into a global movement that envelopes the entire world, and which can continue temporally until the extinction of humanity.
Yet Hegel conceives of this temporal, contingent, worldly process as the constitution of an absolute universality. But it’s an inherently material universality, articulated in human existence itself. The material world and the concept of universality become indistinguishable. This sounds like an endpoint of telos, the culmination of a movement in its perfection. But if this perfect state of human spirit on Earth is ever achieved, it faces one inescapable problem.
Life goes on. And things will change. And to paraphrase science-fiction author Dave Stone (who has worked mostly in Doctor Who novels and Judge Dredd comics), they always do. It’s what they’re there for.