home | philosophers

Hegel and History

Hegel's idea of history moving by a progression of conflicting ideas through synthesis – thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis – is an overly simplistic claim that defies an empirical reading of history. It's unfortunate that Karl Marx grew up when Hegel was popular. He is said to have stood Hegel on his head in creating historical materialism in the place Hegel's belief in spirit. Marx didn't need Hegel's language. Neither did those struggling to be Marxist intellectuals.

Hegel theory is supposed to be a logic of development and contrary to Aristotle's logic about unchanging things. Pity the philosophy student who has to dig into this. I prefer the more apparent question concerning whether it can be said that there has been or is something progressing in the history as a result of collective experience.

Regarding history of a short duration, during the bloody Thirty Year's War between Protestants and Catholics resolution came only after the two sides grew tired of their warring. There was a political resolution of sorts among the princes of Europe: the Peace of Westphalia gave recognition to secular kingship as the legitimate and dominant form of government, and the sovereignty of Switzerland and the United Netherlands was recognized.

A permanent change to Europe was produced, but not the ideal change that was imagined by those participating in the treaty-making. The settlement spoke of a "Christian and universal peace and a perpetual, true and sincere amity." Obviously this didn't happen.

Eventually, Europe's Catholics and Protestants came to tolerate each other regarding these religious identities, while killing each other regarding other – largely nationalistic – identities.

There were conflicts in ideas as people were learning more by studying the world. Science developed and philosophers were becoming more sophisticated. Political theory was turning some Europeans into liberals. In Britain the idea of political constitutions and representative government developed. Resolution would continue to be delivered now and again, here and there, by way of violence. What was moving the world were people responding to technological and economic changes, individual interests and exploitations. A few people were trying to put these developments into a coherent, rational ideological whole. There were institutional changes, but change came as an outcome of thinking beyond anyone's theory or design.

As the philosopher Karl Popper claimed, we do not know exactly what the future holds because we do not know the choices that people are going to make.

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.