Note: this is a reformatted and very briefly edited version of a paper I wrote 2 years ago..it doesn't present my full opinion on Hegel at all, but it is a good summary of what is going on in his "Introduction to the Philosophy of History", as well as a little bit of side banter from myself and one frankdeluxe, who is a member of the band "The Young Hegelian-atones"
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich von Hegel
their live show is hot
"I am the End of History!"
i am the lizard queen!
Morality and Relativism in Hegel's
Introduction to the Philosophy of History
In Hegel’s Introduction to the Philosophy of History, morality is a rather tricky thing to get a hold of. It is both absolute and fleeting, subject to the same temporal deterioration that mankind is, yet eternal and immortal in the realm of the developing Spirit. How does Hegel’s dialectic view of morality affect mankind in the temporal world? How does he resolve this self-contradictory nature of morality? Either view of morality has dramatic implications for humanity. If absolute moral truths do exist, they would necessarily invalidate all other competing moralities. Conversely, if there are no solid, incorruptible moral values then, at the very least, we are entirely unable to judge the values of another culture using our own morality.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate this view of morality is to understand the process of history as Hegel sees it; to walk through his stages of history and see that morality does in fact change, that it unfolds, mutates and ‘progresses’ over the course of world history. What he sees as progression is the unfolding of the self-conscious Spirit, which rules and dictates the course of world history. He notes four separate epochs of history, which illustrate this steady mutation of morality.
The Stages of World History
or... How the Zeitgeist became an Onanist...
The Oriental World
The first such stage of Hegel
’s world history is the Oriental world. At this point, because the Spirit (Zeitgeist
)has not yet come to understand itself or its freedom, there is a morality based upon the idea that only one person (the despot) is, or can be, free. Practices and beliefs that would be unacceptable in other societies (current North Atlantic
democracies, among many others)such as enslavement and even the very basis of morality in the Oriental world (despotism) were seen in a completely different light at this time.(-"Let's roll over thousands of years of history and generalise the mindset of millions (billions?) of people!" How about we don't, Georg.*-)
There is no ethic of individuality in the Oriental world; all are subject to and look for definition in the despot. For people in this world “status is not in themselves but in that absolute being,” that is, the despot. Yet, Hegel
goes states that because ‘freedom’ in the Oriental world “is mere arbitrariness” (Hegel
21) even “this one person is therefore only a despot, not a free man” (Hegel
In comparison to contemporary Western morality, where it is taken for granted (by the majority) that all humanity is free, the Oriental world seems drastically different. The reason for this stark difference lies in Hegel
’s view of world history as an unfolding consciousness. He sees the Oriental world as the childhood of the Spirit’s consciousness. At this point the Spirit has yet to understand itself. This lack of understanding does not infer that there is no deeper level to be understood at this point, just that the Spirit has yet to realize itself, or, in other words, because a child does not understand that he is a human being, does not mean that he is not. Thus, the Oriental morality is inevitably one of self-conflict. It has yet to see its internal opposition, and without seeing it, it is unable to reconcile it. It eventually breaks down and splits into its components, one sterile, durable and endless, the other wild and violent. This savage
, violent section of the Oriental
world steadily moves it focus away from the more Eastern and unchanging component into central Asia. It is through this ce
component of the Oriental world that world history moves into its “the boyhood stage” (Hegel
95) and in the wild exploits of barbarian warriors and nomadic peoples we begin to see the “first hint of the principle of individuality” (Hegel
The Greek World
"I just can't stand the mechanism of Hegel; the process. It hurts the only human things in me" -R
Directly following on these hints of individuality of the boyhood phase of history comes the Greek world (keeping with Hegel’s view that history progresses from East to West), which is akin to the “adolescence” (Hegel 95) of world history. It is in this period that we begin to see some dramatic evolution of morality. No longer is the individual entirely subject to the despot; the people of Greece do not define themselves in a ruler, but come to understand themselves on their own terms. They become conscious of their freedom “and thanks to that consciousness they were free” (Hegel 21). This is reflected in their institutions; the Athenian polis could not have existed in the Oriental world. In this historical epoch, there is not yet a consciousness of morality, only a “spontaneously ethical life” (Hegel 95). The division of the Oriental world (between the durable and the wild) is reconciled in the Greek world, “but the union of these divided principles is only an immediate one and for that reason it is also the highest contradiction in itself” (Hegel 95). This is a world of free individuals, but they are free only in relation to themselves, they have not yet realized that true freedom (both in the world and in the self) is offered only in the state, which represents the divine idea on Earth. Hegel characterizes this stage of history as full of caprice, a carefree period in which only the self is indulged. The strictly individualistic character of the Greeks inevitably leads to their downfall. Bitter civil war rips apart the city-states. What the Oriental world lacked in individuality, it made up for in the its universal character, its endless and unchanging nature. This universality seems to have no place whatsoever in the free individuals of the Greek world.
The Roman World((3))
An attempt at the reconciliation of these two apparent opposites is made in the third stage of world history, the Roman world. This, Hegel considers as “the hard work of history’s manhood” (Hegel 96). That is, what was dreamed of in the adolescence of the Greek period has to be made concrete in the Roman period. The Roman’s is not a world of free individuals as Athens had been but one of the “common interest detached from that of individuals” (Hegel 96). What the Romans had attempted was to universalize the individual through the communal will. Or, as Hegel puts it:
the Roman world is no longer a world of individuals in the way that the Athenian polis was. Here there is no joy and cheer, but only hard and bitter work. The common interest is detached from that of individuals, although in working for it they gain an abstract formal universality for themselves (Hegel 96).
They realized that freedom was only available within the state, but failed to understand that their continual antagonism to the world would be their downfall; they sacrificed their happiness for universal freedom. For Hegel, freedom was to be found in the state, but individual interest must be reconciled with this collective freedom. That is, true freedom is found not only in the state but in the self as well. The Romans understood that there was a conflict between individuality and universality, but they could not reconcile the two. Eventually (through Caesar) individuality prevailed over a political system intended to cater to universality; and history moved on once again.
The Germa((4))nic (Christian) World
The fourth stage of history is that of the Germanic world, beginning in the medieval Christian world. This is the thoughtful old age of history, where the impulses of youthfulness are gone, and the hard work of adulthood has been completed. It is in this stage of history where Hegel believes that the Spirit truly comes to a self-understanding and very near a reconciliation of the universal with the individual. He also explains where the idea of freedom for all
first arose in religion, in the innermost region of Spirit. But to introduce this principle into worldly reality as well: that was a further task, requiring long effort and civilization to bring it into being"”(21)
The Christian religion as such is not the full development of the Germanic world, only in the Christian state does the realization of the Spirit occur in the world, and thus begins to reconcile the universal and individual. What the Romans had attempted to unite in the common will, the Christian state had accomplished. Within Christ (the union of man and God) there is an obvious reconciliation of these two apparently opposite concepts. Christ, as both individual and universal, man and divine, allows Christians to have an immediate relation with the universal as well as the immediacy of their individual experience. It is here where all become free, and the Spirit comes ever closer to reaching its totality, yet this perfection is not quite achieved in the Germanic world.
"I don't like Hegel" -Me
"Or Karl Marx!" -Hegel?
As we can see by the progressive motion of world history, morality seems to be dictated by the level of consciousness the Spirit has achieved in a certain place and time. Seeing the sweeping and evolutionary character of morality throughout history, one would likely come to the conclusion that it is limited to a particular time and place. Yet, Hegel states that morality is both absolute and particular:
although these values are infinite and eternal in their inner essence, their external expressions can take on limited forms, which in their natural interrelatedness subsist under the command of contingency. This is why they are transitory, and exposed to deterioration and damage (Hegel 39).
If morality is contingent, then certainly we cannot
judge previous times and cultures by our own moral values, as they could not possibly have achieved the same moral understanding we have because the world Spirit had not yet achieved the level of self-consciousness it currently has.
There is a strong sense of contradiction in the above passage
. On one hand, he states that moral and ethical values are infinite
and eternal, yet on the other hand, they take on limited forms where they are subject to the transient nature of temporal existence.
How can something contain its opposite? Perhaps the opposition is only an opposition when one looks at it from a particular point of view.
In a similar argument, Richard Rorty sees Hegel as:
interested in dissolving inherited problems rather than in solving them. In this view, substituting dialectic for demonstration as the method of philosophy… is not a discovery about the nature of a preexistent entity called ‘philosophy’ or ‘truth.’ It is changing the way we talk, and thereby changing what we want to do and what we think we are. (Rorty, can't remember the page...)
That is, Hegel
doesn’t solve anything in this passage, he merely looks at the problem from two different perspectives: one from within the temporal world (the point of view of the individual look
ing at history), the other
outside the temporal world (the point of view of the fully developed consciousness). He makes an apparent antithesis seem reconciled by explaining it from the larger perspective of world history
. He side steps the need for an objective ‘truth’ and makes it relative to where you are looking at a situation from.
"Freedom is only possible in a Christian state" D. Steffen, Hegelian
"Freedom is never possible, freedom is a word, and its always possible" -!
"Hegel's view of history is Hegel's view of history: a situated one, a contingent one" -cabin fever
We can then take this ‘relativity’ of antithesis’ and apply it to what Hegel says about morality in differing cultures, namely that:
the religiosity or the ethics in a limited mode of life- of a shepherd, say or of a peasant, limited in their concentrated inwardness to a few and altogether simple circumstances of life- has infinite value, the same value as the religiosity and ethics of a cultivated intellect (Hegel 39). That is, a philosophy where any and every culture is of equal value and no moral judgement is any more ‘correct’ than another judgement.
What are the implications of this cultural relativism?
One can no longer criticize the moral values of other cultures, because to do so would be to impose one’s own moral values upon a culture to which they do not apply. To evaluate and understand a culture’s moral views, you have to do so from within the culture.
This raises another interesting question: is it possible, then, to question one’s own culture if moral values are arbitrary and particular? Because to critique a particular morality, you must necessarily differ with it, in your very critique, you become separate and distinct from your own culture. That is, you necessarily have different moral value judgements than the very culture that you are critiquing. Hence, and any criticism you laid upon that culture would be entirely random and only as valuable as any other possible criticism. In effect, this relativism extends to the very foundation of truth, what is inherently true for one culture may be obviously false for another.
Can progress fit into a philosophy like this, where moral truth varies from culture to culture?
The idea of progress is based upon the fact that one stage/period of history is better or more advanced than an earlier stage. Obviously, deciding whether or not a certain period is better than another requires a judgment of value. Meaning that progress (like morality in general) is subject to the arbitrariness of relativism. How does Hegel resolve this apparent contradiction?
Again, Hegel dissolves an apparent antithesis by shifting perspective to that of the fully developed Spirit. When the Spirit finally realizes its own absolute freedom, all other stages of history are necessarily less than perfect. Only from this absolute perfection are value judgements able to be made. But, until morality escapes its limited forms in the real world, and achieves this realization of its inner essence in the Spirit, it will remain contingent, arbitrary and entirely relative.
The obvious question that the contingency of morality (until the Spirit achieves totality) makes one ask is this: when does the Spirit fully achieve its goal of self-consciousness? Hegel is ambiguous on this point, but hints at the endlessness of the development of the Spirit when he states that “the universal Spirit does not die a merely natural death at all. It dos not simply subside into the senility of habit” (Hegel 79). He again indicates that there may never truly be a total resolution, that “Spirit belongs to the dimension of eternity and has no actual length” (Hegel 98).
If there is no ‘actual’ end of history, mankind will never have a truly solid ground upon which to stand and make absolute moral judgements. There will always be this ambiguity, the subtlety of truth wherein no one can convincingly say that one set of morals is superior to another. If taken negatively this means that no one can ever be certain of their fundamental ethical principles; they will never be sure that there isn’t another way of looking at a problem. If taken in a positive light, you can say that no one culture can say that they are superior to another culture, there can be no moral excuse for genocide or persecution of another culture.
I can't take Spirit as anything more than words.
So, most of this paper is invalidated to me personally, but it is a nice idea
, G.W.F, Introduction to the Philosophy of History, trans. Leo Rauch
. (Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 1988).
, Richard, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity
. (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1989). ((This is a damn interesting book, if you are remotely interested in philosophy of any kind, I suggest you read it, you will either be offended
or agree with Rorty
on everything, either way you'll learn something!)
and history moves on
wait...its the end of history..right.......now!
Now that I look at this paper again...I can't believe the metaphors and characterisations that Hegel uses...I'm going to write another writeup on the use of metaphor in Hegel's "Introduction to the Philosophy of History" as soon as I can...'the hard work of history's manhood' PLEASE
*Addendum: Here is an excerpt from a conversation about the insertion marked with an asterisk (*) above:
frankdeluxe: maybe they're downvoting it because it's not "academically" formatted enough.
I think maybe you're too hasty in dissing Georg on some counts. like: I think his conception of world history can account for the "mindsets of billions of people" because his dialectic is supposed to be organic and involve the multiplicity of facets involved in it. So it's not saying that everyone's going for the big telos, it's saying that there are collisions
cabin fever: yeah but:
he is still saying there is a general tendency created by the mindset of billions of people
so...it’s the same thing more or less
frankdeluxe: these lives and opinions and conflicts that all go into world history.
as for the actual teleology of history and all that- I don't really believe or see a teleology, although I do believe there's dialectical processes at work in everything in one form or another.
but I'm just an undergrad :)
frankdeluxe: no, there's a general tendency created by the ACTIONS of billions of people, which is slightly different :)
it's a good writeup though. I mean, Hegel needs to be criticized. for one thing: we're always at the end of history, every second is the end of history. and if he were around right now, I think he'd be dropping his teleology like a hot potato
frankdeluxe: it's really the teleological bent that's the problem in my mind
cabin fever: ok
the actions then
whatever its still the same thing
frankdeluxe: yeah, I guess so. I think that history is that dialectic of every living person though, but like I said, I'm not inclined to believe that it has a direction or tendency toward anything.
I'm just into dialectic :)
frankdeluxe: and I'm inclined to believe in Spirit in sort of a Merleau-Pontian way....like the intersubjective whole...whether or not God is hiding in there is something else altogether, that's not for me to figure out!
cabin fever: hahahaha
My opinions on the matter (though frankdeluxe knows a lot more about Hegel than I do)
I think Hegel overgeneralizes, and no matter how 'organic' his Spirit is supposed to be, it cannot (it CANNOT) find a hidden telos to extract from the lives and experiences of the world's population. I don't believe many things, but I do believe that generalising history for one's own aggrandizement (or the aggrandizement of one's nation) is not only academically dangerous, it can be actually dangerous if taken up by the wrong people (see also: German Nationalism to 1945...). I also believe that history (the history of individual lives) cannot be abstracted into some sort of majestic process. We do not contribute to processes, we live.
History is a book
Side (center) note: I don't endorse the idea that Hegel is/was a proto-Nazi, I just think that his brand of nationalism can be perverted by, or lends easily to appropriation by, a number of different political aims...