I Am Immortal, I Have Inside Me Blood (and World-Spirit) of Kings, Research Time, 21/07/2013

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.


  1. The last Hegel post made a good point about the contingency of Hegel's progress. Here, you switch to looking inside his actors and you note that they are both coarsely essentialized -- and yet, somewhat paradoxically, they are given a great deal of agency in realizing what are contingent possibilities. That seems like the basic tension in Hegel's thought to me: people matter, their ideas and the cultural structures within which these ideas exist matter, but most people are superstitious fools who he really doesn't see mattering very much at all. The tension is the awareness of culture as an enormously important and varied element in the fates of societies and a simultaneous tin ear to what culture is, how it is expressed, and how it relates to sub-societal structures like organizations. After you get through this reading of Hegel, it would be very interesting to see you tackle Weber's Economy and Society, since Weber works tirelessly to fill out these black boxes.

    1. It'd be interesting to see what Weber and the Weberians have to say about that tension. Because the project for which I'm reading Hegel is more on the nature of history and time, my next book in that project is Sartre's Critique of Dialectical Reason. Appropriate, seeing as how Hegel is the prime example of dialectical reason. I'm still not sure what tomorrow's Hegel post is going to cover, but his was the concept of temporality that I needed the key catch-up. The critical question for me is: What does each conception of temporality imply about human history and the place of the individual/community/singular in it?

  2. I'll add a link to the Weberian approach on this thread if I come across something of relevance.

    The issue of temporality is certainly overlooked by social scientists for the most part and fertile ground for an intervention. Hm.

    Durkheim basically advocated a relativistic Kantianism (in Elementary Forms) where the categories of understanding get baked in through early childhood socialization rather than are given in utero as Kant would have it (although Kant could probably be convinced that the specific manifestations of time are more open for socializing than he himself would assume). Norbert Elias probably has the most to say on temporality in the sense of how perception of time relates to human life across epochs.

    Anyway, the Sartre follow-up will definitely offer plenty of food for thought. A recurring issue you've raised/ we've discussed here implicitly is the difference between dialectical processes and the notion of progress/ teleology -- which bleeds into the contingency-necessity discussion but is also separate. Clearly this was an issue that Sartre dealt with on the surface very much in terms of stressing the contingency of human actions, which I assume was in a way meant to break with a sort of soft notion of necessity advanced by Kierkegaard (rather than Hegel's notion, but you've pointed out that too is "softer" than we often assume).

    Cool to see how more and more of your ideas are getting folding in together.

  3. "the difference between dialectical processes and the notion of progress/ teleology"

    You've anticipated Monday's post again.