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A HISTORIAN LOOKS AT HEGEL PHILOSOPHICALLY:

CRITICAL EXAMINATION OF HEGELIAN DIALECTIC, DETERMINISM, AND CONTINGENCY

The philosophy of history espoused by George Frederick Hegel, philosopher and historian, has often been viewed as largely teleological. It has often been speculated that this philosophical presumption arose from the historical context of Hegel's life, whether negatively through his fear of the French Terror or positively from his dedication to the Romantic thesis that Reason shapes the universe. Nonetheless, Hegel's commitment to the dialectical progression of time and to the triumphant end of history is taken to be a largely deterministic and ahistorical philosophy. Such a reading, I would argue, would be a mistaken.

Hegel as a determinist

It is not difficult to see how this interpretation of Hegel arose. In Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel openly espouses determinism by stating that "world history exhibits nothing other than the plan of providence." He further develops this belief in his Introduction to the Philosophy of History, explaining that "in the pure light of this divine Idea... the illusion that the world is a mad or foolish happening disappears." Indeed, at no point in his writings does Hegel appear willing to place conditions upon these dogmatic statements. He is consistent in his assertion that history follows a specific path, one predetermined by the purposeful movement of Spirit through time:

Spirit does not toss itself about in the external play of chance occurrences; on the contrary, it is that which determines history absolutely, and it stands firm against the chance occurrences which it dominates and exploits for its own purpose.

Any reasonable analysis of such statements could only result in a single conclusion: Hegel views the course of history as a fixed, immutable fact.

Despite these seemingly self-evident statements of absolute determinism, however, Hegel clearly recognized that contingency continued to exist in the world. He concurred that "chance occurrences" were indeed a part of history, but did not see them as an active or even particularly noteworthy element. They simply were not significant in terms of what really mattered: the meaning of history itself.

To some extent, this confusion can be traced to the fundamental differences between philosophy and history. Whereas philosophy deals primarily with universal rules and meanings, history generally applies itself to definite periods of change or unrest. Philosophy sees all things as essentially the same; history engages events as particular products of their time and space. And Hegel, a philosopher of history, is caught in the middle of this gap.

Hegel's task becomes even more difficult by the question of where to search for this "truth." As a philosopher of history, Hegel concerns are primarily focused upon the finding basic truths regarding the nature of reality. Because he seeks metaphysical "first principles" of nature, his results cannot judged through outside sources or objective facts, but only through individual reflection and inspiration. In contrast, the philosopher of history is expected to rely almost wholly upon facts, and to avoid the contamination of "bias." Conclusions about the historical meaning follow not from preconceived notions, but from facts and connections discovered from historical events alone. The chasm separating these two approaches could hardly be more dramatic.

In arriving at his conclusions, Hegel acted much more the philosopher than the historian. His theory, though grounded in historical facts, was based upon deductive and not inductive reasoning. The Hegelian model thus opens itself to criticism as a preconceived (and therefore uninformed) assessment of world historical events. But to what extent does this criticism damage Hegel as a philosopher of history? If we accept the metaphysical "first principles" he advances (which cannot themselves be disproven by "facts"), his theory certainly does not need to encompass all historical phenomena to be valid. The question then arises: how closely must a philosophy of history mirror the scope of world events to be acceptable -- or useful?

The answer Hegel gives is that facts are important to theory, but only to a limited extent. As he asserts in Phenomenology, "the individual has the right to demand that science should at least provide him with the ladder" to any philosophical perspective. In other words, the objective facts should at least underlay the theory, offering empirical evidence of its possible validity. Hegel recognizes the significance of historical events, but only insofar as they provide evidence to confirm the underlying philosophy.

Hegel's concept of "sense-certainty" is also useful in addressing this point. Just as our senses provide us with a very basic level of reality, so too do facts in history offer meaningful insights regarding the purpose of existence. In neither case, however, are these facts omnipotent or infallible. In the experience of our sense of sight, for instance, we sometimes discover that our sensory perceptions deceive us about reality, such as in a heat-induced mirage. Though disconcerting, such events do not cause us to worry about whether our eyes can ever perceive reality, but simply force us to recognize a limitation to our sense-certainty. Hegel suggests the same response for philosophical quandaries. If the facts of history sometimes fail to match the theory, we should not abandon the concept altogether. Rather, we should ask whether it generally apprehends reality at a most basic level. If it does, superficial or anecdotal evidence to the contrary should not be debilitating.

The facts of history, then, do matter to Hegel, but only insofar as they do not wholly invalidate his system.

The Hegelian dialectic

The system embodied within Hegel's philosophy of history is essentially that of a dialectical progression. To give a brief outline, this model begins with an existing element, or thesis, with contradictions inherent to its structure. These contradictions unwittingly create the thesis' direct opposite, or antithesis, bringing about a period of conflict between the two. The new element, or synthesis, that emerges from this conflict then discovers its own internal contradictions, and starts the process anew. The reason the Hegelian dialectic is termed "progressive" is because each new thesis represents an advance over the previous thesis, continually until an endpoint (or final goal) is reached. To specifically apply this model Hegel's view of world history, it represents the manner in which the Spirit develops gradually into its purest form, ultimately recognizing its own essential freedom. To Hegel, "world history is thus the unfolding of Spirit in time, as nature is the unfolding of the Idea in space." The dialectical process thus virtually defines the meaning of history for Hegel.

Without the active opposition of an antithesis working through the dialectic, Hegel asserts, existence is simply an empty task. "Periods of happiness are empty pages in history, for they are the periods of harmony, times when the antithesis is missing." What is left to life is simply habit, "activity without opposition." This then raises a crucial question: how can it be possible to have an end to history? If history ends in the ultimate realization of the Spirit, then all opposition apparently has been negated. Not only has the past already been completed, but the future is foreclosed to any further developments. What is left to life when the final synthesis has been achieved and nothing stands in opposition of the immediate present?

Let us approach this question from the opposite vantagepoint. Rather than asking whether Hegelian history could possibly come to an end, let us assume that it could not come to an end. The dialectic would then be forever working itself out in a cycle of progressive steps towards the goal, yet never quite reaching perfection. Why could this not be Hegel's intent?

First, if the dialectic were continuous, the end goal of Reason could never be achieved, and the entire process of history would lapse into what Hegel would call a "bad infinity." History would become meaningless. And second, the very idea of Reason (which presupposes an order to the universe) would be lost. As Hegel himself notes, "the definition of Reason in itself coincides with the final goal of the world." Logically analyzed, Hegel's concept of Reason cannot exist within meaninglessness, and so the whole of the Hegelian enterprise would have to be abandoned.

It appears that the only way in which Hegel's philosophy might be salvaged would be through the conception of a "provisional" end to history. Reason might be seen as "achieved" in history through the realization of Freedom in some central facets of life, such as religion, art, and philosophy. The movement of history might then continue in auxiliary forms. For instance, although international states will have achieved their fundamental standing in the world, continued antagonisms between states might provide the essential life-preserving principle of opposition (i.e., dialectical rivalry). Perhaps also the existence of contingency would fuel life: through "aberrations" in the modern state (which certainly would continue), the dialectic might constantly struggle to perfect itself.

Both of these scenarios, admittedly, still appear problematic, as they accommodate an "end" to history in a somewhat subjective or parochial fashion. Nonetheless, they provide an answer which would best satisfy the Hegelian system. Moreover, they point out the essential facet of Hegel that often is overlooked: namely, that Hegel himself made distinctions about what the meaning of the term "history" or an "end" to history could be. "History" to Hegel was not all-determinate or all-encompassing; as discussed earlier, Hegel recognized that not all historical events or facts would be identifiable through the dialectic. Indeed, as we shall see, contingency is a necessary component of Hegel's world-view, for without contingency, the Absolute could not continue the self-realization of Freedom.

Emil Fackenheim is most insistent and most persuasive in The Religious Dimension in Hegel's Thought on this issue. He points out that the philosophy of the Absolute in Hegel does not necessarily involve the absorption of all of reality within the one Idea. Indeed, it is only in the victory of the Absolute over its antithesis (contingency) that an affirmation could be complete. Whence does this contingency arise? From the Absolute itself. Necessity (which is defined by the Absolute), "consists in its containing its negation, contingency, within itself." Or, stated in a bit more arcane but complete form: "it is therefore necessity itself which determines itself as contingency -- in its being repels itself from itself, and in this very repulsion has only returned into itself, and in this return, as its being, has repelled itself from itself." Thus the antithesis, which is contingency, must be "overreached," but can never be abolished else the dialectic be destroyed. As Fackenheim argues, "the entire Hegelian philosophy, far from denying the contingent, on the contrary seeks to demonstrate its inescapability." Contingency must exist for absolute freedom to realize itself.

Since Hegel's philosophy is a Christian one, it is interesting to note that this structure has a religious parallel. For just as the central miracle of Christianity was that God actually descended to earth, merging His divine nature with that of a human, so too does Hegel's philosophy insist upon the union of infinite with the Finite. This necessary relationship of absolute and particular underlies both Christianity and the Hegelian concept of history. Hegel's philosophy, thoroughly imbued with Christian references and ideals, therefore remains consistent in both form and content.

The role of contingency

Given this new understanding of Hegel, then, where is the general reader left in trying to apprehend the meaning of world history? History is fundamentally the striving of Spirit for its own freedom, Reason is consistently manifesting itself in the course of development, and the process is essentially a dialectical progression towards an end goal. Is this not deterministic? Accepting Hegelian boundaries, can we not approach the course of world history with foreknowledge or will contingency continue to confound such iron-clad predictability?

In order to soften the impact of Hegel's statements, some interpretations have suggested that references to "necessary" events in history could be inferred as "rationally necessary." This would presumably reduce Hegel's argument from one of determinism to hopeful idealism. However, since Hegel states that "the rational, like the substantial, is necessary," no qualitative difference exists between the terms "necessary" and "rationally necessary." In addition, we have already proven that for either contingency or necessity to exist, the other must also exist. Any attempt to dilute the Hegelian meaning of "necessity" therefore will not help us to encompass the contingency often seen in world events.

To understand the relative importance of contingency versus determinism in Hegel's philosophy, it is most important to note the distinction he makes between world history and particular history. "What world history has to record," he writes in his Introduction to the Philosophy of History, "are the actions of the Spirit of peoples. The individual configurations assumed by Spirit in external reality could be left to limited histories." Carefully analyzed in the context of Hegel's work, it becomes clear that Hegel views long-term history as the meaningful area for study of Spirit's activity, whereas "limited histories" merely reflect the "external reality" that Spirit assumes.

This recognition uncloaks much of the historical misunderstanding of Hegelian philosophy. Hegel is not a determinist, though he does believe that world historical events represent the necessary unfolding of the Spirit through time. Hegel is not a contingency historian, though he believes that chance occurrences do in fact happen in particular (or limited) historical events. Like most historian-philosophers, Hegel sees both as co-existing (just as the absolute and the particular must both co-exist).

The same point can be made through an analogy regarding rationality. Although many philosophers, historians, or laypeople might assert that the world is essentially rational, it is not necessarily true that all of the people in the world are necessarily rational. And further, not each and every action of the people in the world will be rational. In fact, we would not expect such a scenario to be true. Why then is it that we expect Hegel's philosophy to provide a world system which is absolutely rational? Just like people, world history may be eminently rational at a very fundamental level, and yet not necessarily appear so in all cases and all events.

Surveying the Hegelian system, then, one is tempted to ask: what makes Hegel different from other philosophers of history? Hegel, like the historians he so harshly criticizes, would like to create a bold new conception of history, and yet at the penultimate moment, backs down in the recognition of contingency and a dual-tiered concept of history. The distinction Hegel receives is more related to the power of his presentation and his rather infrequent references to contingency. Regardless of his disdain for "particular history" and its inexplicable events, these clearly are a necessary component of his system. Indeed, we have shown that without their presence, Hegelian terms such as Reason, the Absolute, and dialectical progression would have no meaning whatsoever. Thus, Hegel is a contingency historian quite to the core, and yet this fact remains one of the best kept secrets in the history of the philosophy of history.



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Copyright David Burrell, 1991. All rights reserved.
For further information, please contact Dave Burrell.