History’s Complexity and the Impossibility of Completion, Research Time, 09/08/2013

Finally finishing Hegel’s Philosophy of History occasions some reflections on the book as a whole. But the problem with a book like this, and like most enormously complex philosophy books that turn out to be still worth reading nearly two hundred years after their original publication, is that all the possible thoughts one can have about them can’t be summed up in a single blog post. So I’m not about to vanish down that path of madness.

I can offer some final thoughts on what I consider the inevitable futility of Hegel’s project. Philosophy of History tells a story of humanity’s development of successively higher forms of reason, an update of his first reputation-making book, The Phenomenology of Spirit. It’s something of an improvement on the earlier work, because The Phenomenology of Spirit displayed the different steps of developing Hegel’s conception of reason with its historical illustrations in non-chronological order. In The Phenomenology of Spirit, the French Revolution of 1789 embodies a form of reason that is fairly basic, the revolutionary terror far from the conclusion of history in reason’s highest form, the Protestantism of 1800s German Duchies. Philosophy of History restores the French Revolution to the exalted place it served in the genesis of Hegel’s own political sensibility: the practical embodiment of the highest form of reason, appropriating its concept from the purely theoretical articulation in the philosophy of the German Enlightenment, specifically the philosophy of Kant and Hegel himself, which was made possible by the material conditions of the Protestant religion in the Prussian state. 

At this point, you might notice a discrepancy in this account, which is the first sign of my major problem (at least at first brush) with Hegel’s project of historical philosophy. The French Revolution was in 1789. Kant’s political and moral philosophies, which describe the concept of morality as the self-legislation of the individual, did run concurrently with the lead-up to that revolution. Hegel considers his own philosophy as the owl of Minerva, the grand summation and philosophical systematization of all that has come before. This is why Hegel considers Philosophy of History to be the complete history of reason’s worldly development, at least up to the publication of Philosophy of History.

But the French Revolution was also inspired by the American Revolution of 1776. And the American Revolution was driven by the philosophical ideas that emerged from the English and Scottish Enlightenment. Hegel, in Philosophy of History, never mentions the American Revolution as having any importance to the world-historical development of reason. North America is dismissed, even in the colonial form that descends from Europe and so is more closely connected with Hegel’s Euro-centric conception of reason. England is dismissed as a generally thoughtless country, with no philosophical or theological development going on of note. The real world-historical action for him from the late 1700s to his time is the relationship of Germany and France. 

Hegel in a portrait painted in 1831, the last year
of his life, which graces the cover of my copy of
Philosophy of History. His death would be
messily material, as he was a casualty of Berlin's
cholera epidemic.
He doesn’t even bother distinguishing England and Scotland, which, if we’re talking about the Enlightenment, embody related, yet very different approaches. He ignores the philosophical contributions of the American revolutionaries. There is no mention of the epoch-making Federalist Papers, any of the works of American revolutionary thinkers and writers, or the transformations of transplanted European societies by the political and ecological problems of the North American continent. Of course, Hegel could not have dealt with the conceptual investigations of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, because that book was published in 1835. Hegel died in 1831. 

But the goal of Philosophy of History, and I think Hegel’s thought more generally, was completist. Everything in human history that was worth counting was counted, or so Hegel thought. Perhaps we can say that all had not yet been counted because of our extra two hundred years to get a better hold on history. Yet in a world as vast and complicated as the one we’re part of, the goal of a genuinely master narrative of history is impossible to achieve. Hegel had a master narrative: the development of the world-spirit, reason, into its highest form of a fully self-conscious subjectivity, articulated harmoniously into a society through the unity of communities into the institution of a state. 

Those historical events, developments, and interpretations of various social structures that could fit this narrative can all be found throughout Hegel’s Philosophy of History. Those that can’t, are not. As far as Hegel is concerned, they don’t matter at all precisely because they don’t fit his master narrative of world-spirit’s development. As far as they’re concerned, Hegel doesn’t matter at all because he never gave them time of day anyway once he realized they didn’t fit his master narrative. 

Because master narratives aren’t how you understand history. They’re how you erase and forget the histories you don’t like. You understand history by investigating what traces are there to be found, what cultural memories can be remembered. Hegel’s master narrative speaks to the world, but good history listens.

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