zeigeist: hegel’s phenomenological history making

Notoriously complicated and oblique in content and form, G.F Hegel’s work on the topic of history is one that inspires much philosophical and historical curiosity. Indeed, many elements of the Hegelian phenomenological theory of history point to various conclusions on the nature of history itself, yet unlike many other models of historical interpretation it devotes itself entirely to the study of human consciousness as the sole indicator of human historical activity. As this paper elucidates, Hegel’s marriage between philosophy and history is an inexorable one; as human beings are capable of rational and retrospective thought we create an irresistible and infinite series of syntheses from the past into the present. For the most part, the assumption of moral progress, or change is expected as the typical historical outcome, yet as Hegel’s phenomenological view of history explores, the notion of human progress is but a myth: rather than evolution, human beings throughout history merely change, and create paradigmatic shifts in collective consciousness which cannot be measured by moral or any other human tools of progress.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While the study of human history may be largely viewed as an interpretive, subjective arena of study, Hegel asserts that the phenomenological reality of world history is an empirical-type reality, and the phenomenological apparatus is but the “continuum with historical consciousness,”an actuality that can be affirmed by logic. The axiom of history encompasses the development, then subsequent realization of the Spirit’s consciousness of freedom. According to Hegel, “freedom develops itself into a world and leads us directly to the phenomenon of history,” which is the fundamental relation between human consciousness and the historical realization of it as a phenomenon which transcends and lives with the Idea, or the truly essential. A philosophical approach to history is crucial in our understanding of human beings, as it emphasizes the dialectic within which forgetting, recollecting and subjugation together synthesize the totality of historical thoughts from the past into the present.

In other words, the phenomenological goal is to universally synthesize all aspects of human consciousness, regardless of their historical time and place, and to achieve a dialectical reconciliation with an ultimate form of self-consciousness and actuality.

One of Hegel’s central issues in The Phenomenology is the notion of human progress as evidenced by the process of understanding history. According to the doctrine of inevitable progress, many analyses of Hegel’s work falsely point to the conceivability of history as a strictly purposive movement forward. However, and as George Dennis O’Brien points out, the direction is dialectical and circular: “the spirit of a People is a natural individual; as such it blossoms forth, is strong, declines and dies… in the realm of the spirit there is essential change and progress.”

 This passage elucidates the distinction between natural change and the human world which is made intelligible by the dialectical process of history; for Hegel, history cannot be understood as the progress of a natural species but rather the intellectual movements within the historical process itself.

Similarly, in Van der Dussen’s analysis of Collingwood’s approach to history, Collingwood’s philosophy of history bears some dialectical resemblance with Hegel’s view of the world spirit, and the notion of moral progress. Dussen writes that “history is concerned not with ‘events’ but with ‘processes’; that ‘processes’ are things which do not begin and end but turn into one another.”

 In this way, many of the problems of history arise from the misconception that there is some form of idealism in the past which is attainable, but in actuality the past is not an objective reality – rather it is an intrinsic relation to the historian. This notion is furthered by Collingwood and Hegel’s shared idea that moral progress cannot be appropriately fleshed out by historical thought as it pertains to an idealistic, ethical outlook on human nature. Dussen notes the similarity between Hegel and Collingwood on this matter and writes that “societal progress is associated with institutional progress… Part of our moral life consists of coping with problems arising not out of our animal nature but out of our social institutions, and these are historical things, which create moral problems only in so far as they are already the expression of moral ideals.”

 Rather than looking to history as a documentation of human moral evolution, Hegel and Collingwood’s theory of history as a process illustrates the point of contingency in relation to matters of morality; as new ideas of morality replace the old it is impossible to pass judgement on the common consciousness and belief system which held the old beliefs in place. 

Futhermore, the Collingwoodian view of memory supports Hegel’s dialectical philosophy of world history as he argues that history has an implicitly synthetical structure consisting in memory, freedom, and knowledge. While many historical textbooks may focus on specific events, dates, or places of historical interest, Hegel’s view of history as an organic, dialectical synthesis of the past and present is a far more convincing model of our pluralistic universe. Collingwood shares this view of the synthesis of human intellect, as Dussen points out that an historical series is much like Hegel’s dialectic: “For mind in general… this accumulation is called experience; for consciousness, it is called memory; for a social unity, it is called tradition; for knowledge, it is called history.”

 One should note that the use of the word ‘mind’ is interchangeable with ‘spirit’ – a concept which both writers allude to heavily in the discussion of historical process and progress. In other words, the historical process of accumulating world spirit and past ideas is fundamental in our pursuit of understanding our present historical stage, as the present is dialectically contingent on the ideas and past historical memory. Van der Dussen illustrates this point very clearly by making the philosophical links between Collingwood’s views on human progress as an unattainable ideal notion through history with Hegel’s conception of the dialectic as a medium of recollecting past knowledge in order to further our understanding of the present.

According to Hegel, this may be established through a collective synthesis of iconoclastic, revolutionary or widespread dogmas which typify historical epochs. As O’Brien succinctly writes: “the passion which moves history is a passion to possess the freedom of others…. sprit – self-consciousness – reason.”

 Since history is highly reflexive, individual, and dependent on self-consciousness, Hegel believes that this can be realized as zeigeist, or the spirit of the time. Zeitgeist is essentially an anthropomorphic construction of a world historical individual: culture heroes who impress their passion, individuality and ideas upon a society. According to Hegel, only these people possess the passion to inspire historical revolution and change, and eventually influence the structure of the State, which is the object of world history. Hegel describes how the historical world individual fits into the dialectic of the historical process which in turn clarifies the object of history itself. The interest of Reason in its absolute form, compounded by passion and self-reflexivity altogether create the organic totality which is the sum of zeigeist: “the product of the world historical individual is in turn something uniquely individual: a people… the aim of history, the end of historical making is the spiritual individual… the definite object of world history proper.”

 Thus while a clear understanding of contemporary views of human nature are imperative within the historical dialectic which Hegel puts forth, it does not necessitate some conception of progress of moral evaluation as part of the historical process in turn. Rather than witnessing the historical process as some evolutionary transformation, Hegel’s dialectic posits a view of this process as one which is based on human understanding and cyclical-type shifts in collective thought.

John H. Nota disagrees very strongly with this assertion, and claims that Hegel’s view of history is based on a purely rational conception of human progress. While the general form of the dialectic is thesis-antithesis-synthesis, Nota claims that the world spirit can only be realized within this dialectic if and only if “strife” exists. He explains that zeigeist reacts to a “preman,” or some form of adversity, and only this conflict can substantiate the dialectic in order to realize the “being-in-and-for-itself of the spirit in complete freedom.”

 While Nota clearly explains the historical process and mechanisms of the historical dialectic, the claim that strife is a necessary condition is unnecessary. While the master-slave dialectic has been appropriated by Marxist, materialistic interpretations, Hegel’s historical dialectic differs because it is based on the process, not the actuality of historical knowledge. In other words, it is the being-in-and-for-itself of the spirit which actualizes history, not an actual historical event.

Similarly, Hegel’s notion of the historical world individual indifferently refers to the the Idea which is determined as freedom, or the Idea of freedom. Joseph McCarney invokes a similar idea in relation to the mechanics of the historical dialectic, but asserts that the same strife which perpetuates the machine of history. Using an analogous metaphor of building a house, McCarney discusses the scope of cunning of reason which the world historical individual embodies. He writes that the historical dialectic of reason, passion and change is the same active process of house-building, in that the cunning of reason in relation to the Idea of freedom is to create “as much darkness as light,”

 which suggests the notion of an independent, purposive, and transcendent subject in relation to history. Such is the role of freedom, according to Hegel, as it is the freedom of the world historical individual who relates the Idea and passions which in turn influences and modifies the spirit of the people. 

However, one should note that Hegel’s conception of freedom is far more complicated and vast in scope, particularly in relation to the topic of world history. At a causal level, Hegel’s notion of freedom in relation to history is falsely construed; if history is non-empirical and deterministic according to the inevitable forces of the dialect, then it logically follows that freedom is not purely metaphysical either. While physical laws may necessarily exist, the history of human beings is restricted to an epistemological, strictly mind-related study. On the other hand, Hegel’s interest in the dialectic and the role of the zeitgeist is arguably the negation of such supposed freedom: “the great events, the major social changes… they are caused and indeed necessitated; they are the effects of vast impersonal forces in the face of which the individual is powerless.”

 While Hegel’s conception of freedom ostensibly offers an alternative solution to the problems of human beings existing in an universe governed by necessary laws, there is a contradiction within this very notion of freedom and its relation to the world historical individual, as it appears as if these fluxes for historical change are inevitable socializing forces. 

Daniel Berthold-Bond makes a similar complaint, and asserts that Hegel’s dialectic necessarily lends itself to a cosmological, eschatological end of the world. This is realized by his interpretation of the dialectic as a self-referential model of progress, where the end of one age signifies the beginning of another epoch in world history. He sets up this argument by establishing what he considers to be a significant point of ambiguity within Hegel’s notion of the end product of the dialectic. While Hegel alludes to a grand scheme of self-realization, self-actualization and the reconciliation of the world’s spirit through the synthesis of the past and the present, Berthold-Bond notes that this idea suggests a final end, a conclusion or completion in history. He describes how Christian times are emblematic of this relation between the dialectic and its end, and claims that the meaning of world history becomes fulfilled against itself, embodied by Jesus himself. The following passage reveals Berthold-Bond’s position entirely, and is worth quoting at length:

“…there is no historical hope for man, but that the redemption and salvation of man will occur at the End of history, or “beyond history” – that Hegel’s vision of the consummation of the Christian telos departs. For Hegel, God’s revelation is intrinsically historical. Hence “the history of the world,… the process of development and realization of spirit, is the true theodicy, the justification of God in history… He is manifest and revealed in the course of human history.”

 

In his phenomenology, Hegel refers to the Idea of history as some realm of truth whereby the spirit of history is self-recognized within its own dialectical existence, yet Berthold-Bond interprets this as a moment in time “where spirit has fulfilled its eschatological design: the realization of its freedom and the attainment of its complete knowledge of itself.”

 It is worth noting that this Christian perspective of the Hegelian historical dialectic does bear considerable resemblance with the reconciliation of history with its absolute self- knowledge, the overcoming of alienation, and the general concept of attaining an ideal.

However, while Berthold-Bond aptly points out an ambiguity central to Hegel’s historical doctrine, one should note the very obvious problem in his interpretation of Hegel’s ‘end.’ The  religious perspective is not compatible with the Hegelian concept that history eventually reconciles with the Idea, whose end goal is not directed at a reconciliation with God, but something more anthropocentric and secular, and divinely intellectual. The self-realization of the historical dialectic and its existential significance is quite a departure from Berthold-Bond’s eschatological interpretation: he views the Idea as the end of human civilization, where the realization of God dismantles the entirety of our hopeless history of the world. In other words, he assimilates the concept of zeitgeist as a consummation of the infinite end of knowledge of the world with some type of prophesied armageddon. This is quite different from the Hegelian view of knowledge, as he claims that “Without Thought [history] has no objectivity; thought is its fundamental definition. The highest point of a people’s development is the rational consciousness of its life.”

 From a phenomenological perspective, Berthold-Bond’s  interpretation is but a mere misunderstanding; Hegel has no visions of the end of the world, but rather a view of history which eventually attains a level of self-comprehension powerful enough to sum up the truth of the world’s spirit. 

Thus, the ultimate goal of history irrevocably points to the development of human consciousness, but not in a progressional or evolutionary way. Michael Forster supports this assertion in his study of Hegel’s reason in history, pushing the notion that different shapes or species of consciousness that contain distinctive “interdependent conceptions and concepts of self, objectivity, representation” emerge from the activity of the dialect and becomes characteristic of a particular period of human history. While philosophy may gravitate towards an epistemological or metaphysical analysis of the reasons why  beliefs, values, and our general understanding of the universe changes in time, history is the literal representation and source of explanation for these changing forms. As Hegel’s phenomenological view of history suggests, historicity itself is a grand, threefold process of dialectical activity whereby an understanding of world history can only be accomplished through the sensitivity of historical self-consciousness. Consciousness, self-consciousness and reason as primary elements of the historical dialect are not a progressive succession, rather they are atemporal and exist within all historical epochs but as different modes of zeitgeist. Since history is evidential of these changes in the species of consciousness, Forster convincingly states that history and philosophy share the same “cognitive talents” which are crucial in our understanding of our perpetually dialectical shifts in consciousness.

Another alternative interpretation of the primal elements of the triadic dialectic that is put forth advocates the hermeneutical aspect of Hegel’s philosophy. Gallagher writes that “human consciousness consistently forgets what it has learned on the basis of its historical experience,”

 insisting that forgetfulness, oblivion and recollection is the actual realized triadic historical process.  In his phenomenology, Hegel often actualizes the synthesis of two opposites within dialectical structures, emphasizing the overturning and defeat of the two which perpetually seek to maintain this cyclical, eternal motion. It is interesting to note that from the hermeneutical perspective, the word being (sein) is embedded within German word for consciousness (bewubtsein), indicating the dialectically inherent relationship between the subject and object of language which is the only means to historical communication, and the process of becoming throughout historical self-consciousness. Hegel writes that the goal of history is the same goal of self-realizing consciousness: “finally, when consciousness itself grasps its own essence, it will signify the nature of absolutely knowledge itself.”

 This, he claims, is the result of language and the intrinsic temporality and slipperiness it possesses. Zeigeist moves in this way as well – as the shape of consciousness adapts there is a need to cogitate, conceptualize, re-cognize – and so forth. 

Thus it is clear that the relationship between philosophy and history as a means to analyzing the course of human consciousness is by no means a simple one. As posited by Hegel’s phenomenological account of consciousness and its historical nature, the triad that synthesizes consciousness, self-consciousness and reason is the same apparatus that universalizes the totality of historical thoughts from the past within the present. This is but one outlook on the philosophy of history, and while it is advantageous in universalizing the totality of history through syntheses which induction fails to grasp at, it is an interested place to further the discussion of the relation between the nature of history and the philosophical process. 

Works Cited:

 

 

Barnard, F.M. Reason and Re-Enactment in History and Politics: Themes and Voices of Modernity. Québec: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006.

Forster, Michael N. Hegel’s Idea of a Phenomenology of Spirit. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Fulbrook, Mary. Historical Theory. London: Routledge, 2002.

Gallagher, Shaun. Hegel, History and Interpretation. New York: State University of New York Press, 1997.

Hegel, G.W.F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A.V. Miller. Oxford University Press, 1977.

Hegel, G.W.F. Reason in History: A General Introduction to the Philosophy of History. Translator, Robert S. Hartman. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1997.

Inwood, Michael. Hegel. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

McCarney, Joseph. Routledge Philosophy GuideBook to Hegel on History. London: Routledge Press, 2000.

Nota, John H. Phenomenology and History. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1967.

 

O’Brien, George Dennis. Hegel on Reason and History: A Contemporary Interpretation. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1975.

Berthold-Bond, Daniel. “Hegel’s Eschatological Vision: Does History Have a Future?” History and Theory. Vol. 26. (February 1988): pp. 14-29

Van der Dussen, W.Jan. “Collingwood and the Idea of Progress” History and Theory. Vol 29. (1990): pp. 21-41

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