Of all the philosophers immortalized by membership in the western canon, Hegel appears to be the one who’s philosophy is best embodied by the popular notion that humanity can be described as the universe examining itself. How this idea became part of the pop cultural landscape is, potentially, a fruitful topic for a later discussion. What is clear, however, is that this idea probably didn’t enter popular discourse through the work of Hegel himself, which can be both dense and frustrating, and when it comes to his notion of God, sometimes even ambiguous.
As the editor Allen Wood of the Cambridge edition of Hegel’s Elements of the Philosophy of Right puts it: “The difficulty and obscurity of Hegel’s writings posed problems for them [critics], just as they have for subsequent readers.”
– Allen Wood, editor. “Editor’s Introduction,” Hegel: Elements of the Philosophy of Right (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991), ix.
Despite the difficulties, I have found much to be fascinated with in Hegel, from his concept of the universe actualizing itself through history to his analysis of Socratic irony. The suggestion that Socrates was indeed a corrupter of Athenian youth, his irreverent take on the mores of the city-state poisoning them against authority and promoting the individual at the expense of the communal, first revealed to me the originality of Hegel’s approach.
I originally fell in with Hegel, not through a study of pure philosophy, but instead through my interest in history. Desiring to make a study of the philosophical bases and justifications behind the discipline of history, I began, naïvely as it turns out, with Hegel. Hegel is famous, in part, for his work on the philosophy of history and his view that history is animated by the Worldsoul or the Geist. This notion mixes a teleological and metaphysical component into the study of history which contemporary academic historians find troubling. One difficulty is that it appears to suggest a transcendental consciousness driving history, a notion in direct conflict with modern scientism and academic orthodoxy, and suggestive of religious eschatology. Another perceived flaw in Hegel’s theories is that, from the contemporary view, they adhere to a paradigm of social progress that denies, by definition, the relativistic equality of value placed on all life and lifestyles, all cultures past and present, a notion in direct conflict with modern anthropological ideology.
Where Hegel sees freedom of the individual to be truly himself as the mark of societal progress, the contemporary academic sees a stifling conventionalism rooted in Eurocentric notions from a bygone era. Lynn Hunt, in her book History, Why it Matters complains,
“The German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel inaugurated a long history of denigrating the East or Orient in his lectures on the meaning of world history in the 1820s: “The East knew and to the present day knows that only One is Free; the Greek and Roman world that some are free; the German World knows that All are free.””
– Lynn Hunt. History, Why it Matters (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2018), 58.
I make no defense of any cultural insensitivity perceived or imagined, though I do believe that the trope of Oriental despotism clearly precedes Hegel by some many hundreds of generations, and is not, as Hunt would have it, a Hegelian invention. The point that Hegel is making is one that is not dependent on any one culture or ethnicity, rather, his critique depends upon the style and manner of governance itself.
Despotism and absolutism are the governments that inhibit the actualization of the individual, and it is these qualities, not their geographical locations, that Hegel deplores. The progressive awareness is that in a despotism only the despot is free to be himself. The ancient solution was democracy and republicanism, which resulted in partial freedom. His dismissal of the East as indicative of despotic forms of governance is wrong, and something that we can recognize as a form of casual elitism and culture bias, but it has little to do with the actual point that the philosopher was making, despite its flawed cultural assumptions.
Whatever the objective truth value of Hegel’s notion concerning a worldsoul or Geist working for a solution to self realization in the historical sphere, it can, at least, provide a useful framework for looking at historical events. Since history is indeed in the past, it is perhaps not entirely unhelpful to look at them from a teleological perspective. Hegel’s ideas, therefore, should not be dismissed out of hand. Instead, it may be that we can accept the Hegelian challenge as historians, and, when examining our subject, look for the ways in which historical problems have resulted in apparent solutions through the actions of the many over time.
The core component of Hegel’s philosophy is that history follows laws and that these laws are the rational reflections of the Geist at work, attempting to express itself through history in its own terms. Whatever the nature of this Mind—it may be that it is a will in the same way that gravity seems to will to bring matter together—the conclusion is that it is subject to being understood. It is rational and explainable. History moves with purpose towards an ideal state. It may never reach that state, or, once that state is realized it may begin to seek out a new telos, another end to be desired. What we do know is that history, according to Hegel, follows a rational trajectory towards an attainable objective. By knowing the object we can know the trajectory and thus the direction of history.
Certainly, Hegel is one of the fixtures in the sub-field of philosophy of history and deserves to be read both cautiously and seriously. On the other hand, in order to accomplish this requires a more complete picture of Hegel’s metaphysical philosophy, a survey beyond the scope of my original intent. In other words, I now find myself locked into an unintended relationship with a cantankerous German philosopher from the early 19th century, delving into notions of dialectic and ontology in order to better grasp his view on the trajectory of human events. I expect this will become, then, an ongoing concern. Nonetheless, I do think it worthwhile to summarize my findings to date.
First on the agenda must be to establish what kind of force is meant by the Geist or Worldsoul or God in the philosopher’s lexicon. Clearly there are several possibilities and before we can decide on Hegel’s view of history, we must try and understand his conception of what sort of thing it is that animates it. For Hegel, history is the expression of a trans-human consciousness expressing its will through historical events as enacted by lesser but fundamentally dissimilar human wills taken in the aggregate. It is this aspect, with its pseudo-religious terminology, that I believe offends many historians.
Despite this language, however, my suspicion is that Hegel’s notion of the Worldsoul is far less a reflection of the personal god of protestantism, though perhaps informed by such, and something closer to an impersonal principle or set of principles which expresses itself as the aggregate of many consciousnesses interacting, a sort of multi-mind unnoticed and beyond the conventional awareness of casual observers of historical events. This is what M. C. Lemon refers to as the immanentist interpretation:
which construes ‘God’ as synonymous with the known principles inherent in Existence. The analogy of a spontaneously evolved system may help. Such a system (e.g. the ecological system) is not designed by anyone, yet the interconnections between its parts can be explained (via cause and effect).
– M. C. Lemon. Philosophy of History: A Guide for Students (London: Routledge, 2003,) 204.
The key, in my opinion, must be in this consciousness’ relationship to the material world. If the Geist arises out of human minds acting in concert, then man creates god and not visa versa. Otherwise, if the Geist can impose its will upon the material matrix of the universe without the intervention of the human, then we have a more traditional version of spirits relationship to matter and we are veering towards what Lemon refers to as the pantheist vision, where God is synonymous with the universe.
There is, perhaps, a third possibility to my thinking, however, which is more in the Platonic register than either of the other two, though this is speculative on my part. In this case we might consider consciousness itself to be the substance of spirit, which through the powers of the will, interacts with the material realm, though it is not properly a part of this realm. This interaction is weak at the physical level and grows stronger as more complex forms of life develop, allowing the will of the Geist to be more perfectly realized though the use of more receptive vehicles, namely mankind.
This is only the beginning of my relationship with Hegel. I began at the end of the story and now feel compelled to fill in the lacunae. This essay is not to be considered an end unto itself. Nor should it be considered an accurate portrayal or summary of Hegel’s philosophy. Rather this is part of an ongoing study into Hegel’s philosophy and reflects only my initial reactions to it. Parts of this essay must be considered merely speculative with regards to Hegel’s true beliefs, which I am still in the process of parsing. All opinions within it are my own, and subject to revision.
— Wm. J. M. —
Post Scriptum: One article that I would like to recommend to interested readers is one that appeared recently in Aeon digital magazine, written by Georgetown professor and Hegel biographer Terry Pinkard. This article, entitled The Spirit of History, went a long way towards reanimating my own spirit of interest in the Hegelian world view, and went a long way towards simplifying some of Hegel’s more difficult conceptions for this novice reader of his works.