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Philosophy of History and The Scientific Method
The Philosophy of History by Hegel - Short Essay
One of the things I like about philosophy is that it can be applied to almost any subject. Because philosophy simply means sitting down to consider how we think about things that we sometimes take for granted.
This means that we can create philosophy on almost any subject, such as astronomy, for example. We could start by thinking about why we think of astronomy in the way we do. Why do we think of astronomy as the study of celestial bodies? Why do we use specific methods and approaches to evaluate these phenomena?
We all know that history is the study of past events, and we may also know that history is a linear process that moves from past to the present. But why is this the case? Why do we have to view history in a linear way? Why do we consider history as “progress”? Is it because we perceive time as linear?
Hegel asked these questions to himself and used philosophy to reinvent the way history is studied. He claimed that history is the progress of human consciousness towards greater self-awareness and freedom, which he referred to as the “Absolute Idea,” and that history enables us to see the underlying principles that govern human affairs. Briefly, history is simply humanity’s struggle to understand themselves through actions.
One of the central concepts in Hegel’s philosophy of history is the dialectical process, which he believed is the engine driving historical progression.
Few contemporary thinkers to Hegel tried to simplify Hegel’s dialectic by explaining it as the contradiction of ideas that start as a thesis, then an antithesis that contradicts that thesis and then after a synthesis that emerges as a conclusion to those first two ideas, leading to “spiritual awakening.” The problem is that this simplification takes away Hegel’s transcendental perspective.
The complexity is that Hegel’s dialectic is not simply the opposition of an idea that then creates a synthesis and so on. The complexity is that the three ideas are always there, the thesis it’s always already its own thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.
I’ll quote Stephen’s Houlgate and his study of Hegel’s Philosophy of History to explain this in more detail:
To say that spirit exists would at first seem to imply that it is a completed entity (etwas Fertiges). On the contrary, it is by nature active, and activity is its essence; it is its own product, and is therefore its own beginning and its own end. Its freedom does not consist in static being (in einem mhenden Sein), but in a constant negation of all that threatens to destroy (aufheben) freedom. The business of spirit is to produce itself, to make itself its own object, and to gain knowledge of itself; in this way, it exists for itself. (Nisbet, p. 48; Lasson, v. 1, pp. 32-33) (World History as the Progress of Consciousness: An Interpretation of Hegel’s Philosophy of History)
As said before, for Hegel, history is the struggle to achieve self-awareness, which means that consciousness is not fixed, but rather develops its own self, it becomes. Consciousness is progressive; it moves “forward” in order to comprehend itself. The Absolute idea is thus developed, but it already exists, because consciousness exists, but must be self-discovered through history, and it must become self-aware.
According to Hegel, the Absolute Idea is the highest form of human knowledge because it encompasses all of reality and reconciles all contradictions within a unified whole, and it can only be accomplished through reason. He believed that the development of human history was driven by the desire to understand and realize this Absolute Idea, and that this process of development would eventually lead to its full realization. For Hegel, reason is the driving force behind historical development, and believed that the human mind is capable of comprehending and understanding the laws that govern the universe.
This is why, according to Hegel, history progresses not as an endless line towards an ideal destination, but rather by the way internal contradictions manifest themselves not in their opposite but within the unity of their form. In other words, humanity does not progress; rather, it “unfolds,” and the Absolute Idea is always there, as previously stated.
Humans need to externalize their consciousness on the objective world, which then translates to what we produce. History for Hegel is then the process of becoming self-aware and it is objectively projected into forms of social organization, systems, and so on. And everything that negates the freedom or self-awareness of the consciousness, eventually becomes a negation and transforms itself, and history is then the lens in which we can understand this.
Hegel claimed that cultural development is an important aspect of historical progress, and that different cultures and civilizations contribute to the development of human consciousness in unique and valuable ways.
He saw cultural conflicts and interactions as driving historical development, resulting in the emergence of new cultural conclusions. For him, we can only understand history as a reinterpretation process, in which the meaning of past events is constantly re-evaluated and re-interpreted in light of new perspectives. This is why, for Hegel, it was important to study history as a way to see our own collective consciousness evolving over time; we must write, read, and re-evaluate it in order to preserve and develop our own consciousness.
Hegel believed that reason would triumph over superstition, irrationality, and tyranny and that humans need to develop their consciousness to the point where they can truly understand what they are doing, know it as they are doing it, and do it even when they are not consciously thinking about it. This contradicts our current false consciousness ideology, which is the “I know exactly what I'm doing (makes no sense), but I still do it”.
Many people, like the philosopher Karl Popper, believed Hegel was authoritarian or was responsible for the rise of totalitarianism and the Holocaust. Popper's main criticism of Hegel was that his philosophy was marked by a historical determinism that led to the idea that history was moving towards a specific end, as well as a unity of thought, in which people would inevitably think and act in the same way. Popper argued that this deterministic view of history led to the belief that the end justifies the means, and that this belief was a key factor in the rise of totalitarianism.
Many people disagree with Popper and claim that he misunderstood Hegel; they believe that it is unjust to blame Hegel for what happened years after his death, that we should view his dialectical process as something that it’s still evolving, and that Hegel would certainly disagree with the terror caused by the Holocaust, because it was not driven by reason, but by pure tyranny. I couldn’t agree more.
But, going back to Hegel, now that we understand the core idea of his book, we can talk about some of the examples he uses to explain his dialectical process.
We can start with the city of the Greeks, which began as a thesis, or a self-sufficient community with a shared way of life. Over time, the city grew and expanded, leading to its own negation in the form of an empire. The conflict between the city and the empire eventually led to a synthesis, which was the Hellenistic era, characterized by a blend of Greek and Eastern cultures.
Another example is the Roman Empire, which can be read as a dialectic between freedom and authority. The Roman Republic began as a thesis, characterized by freedom and self-government. Over time, the Republic gave way to the Empire, which was characterized by authoritarianism and centralization of power. The conflict between freedom and authority eventually led to a synthesis, which was the emergence of medieval feudalism.
One very astonishing example is the Renaissance. The Middle Ages were characterized by a focus on religion and the afterlife, while the modern era emphasized reason and the present world. The Renaissance marked a transition between these two eras. Artists and thinkers rediscovered classical Greek and Roman culture and began to experiment with new forms of expression. The conflict between the medieval and modern eras eventually led to a synthesis, which was modernity.
The Protestant Reformation, which I have discussed in some book overviews, is one of the many examples in the book that I believe is essential to highlight. Historically, the Catholic Church became corrupt and authoritarian, resulting in a backlash against its authority. As a result of this reaction, Protestantism emerged, calling the Church’s monopoly on religious authority into question and establishing a new synthesis of modern individualism and religious tolerance.
The last example he gives is the French Revolution. From a Hegelian perspective, this event represented a negation of the old order and the emergence of new forms of social and political organization. It marked a transition from feudalism to modernity and a triumph of reason over tradition, politically speaking.
Our current world is full of issues and contradictions, and I recognize that reaching conclusions is difficult. Hegel offers a transcendental view of how humanity functions. If we could all agree that history, rather than progressing, unfolds. In my humble opinion, we could all start sitting down and listening to each other more.
Some of the issues we face today include the conflict between nationalism and globalization. Capitalism pushed us forward to become more united, but it also brought us challenges.
Globalization caused interconnectedness between people, businesses, and countries around the world. It was driven by technology and information, and has led to the growth of multinational corporations, international trade, and global cultural exchange, diversity of ideas and so on.
Nationalism, which was there before globalization, is the ideology that emphasizes the importance of national identity and independence. It has been fueled by concerns over economic inequality, cultural, gender identity, and immigration; and has led to the rise of populism and nationalist governments in many countries. Remember, make America great again.
From Hegel’s view, globalization and nationalism can be seen as opposing forces that are constantly in tension with one another. Globalization represents a negation of traditional national boundaries and the emergence of a more interconnected world, while nationalism represents a negation of globalization and a reaffirmation of the importance of national identity and tradition.
The problem with the dialectical process, in my opinion, is that it assumes the existence of an underlying idea in the first place. This may run contrary to people’s beliefs, and our human expectations of progress. Science, on the other hand, is something on which most people agree and see as trustworthy, since it is based on observation, experimentation, data analysis and logical conclusions. With this in mind, I believe that if we try to adapt the dialectical process to work more like a scientific method, we would be able to arrive at more logical conclusions and agreements.
Let’s start by outlining why I think this.
When we believe something, we update our beliefs as we receive new information. If I say that I believe tortillas should be eaten straight from the fridge, I will continue to do so. The only thing that would make me reconsider this belief is if someone I see as reliable came to me and told me something different. In this case, let’s say we find a Mexican that claims that tortillas should be heated before eating. In this way, we would update this belief based on this new convincing information. As we can see, we do not change from one thing to another; instead, we simply update our previous information.
The scientific method works exactly the same way. A good example is the earth's shape, which was first perceived as flat, then as a sphere, and finally as a more oval-shaped object with mountains and depressions. All of these propositions have been revised in light of new empirical evidence and information. Similar to the dialectical process, we first have an idea, discard previous information in favor of newer, more accurate, and more convincing ideas or systems. This is how dialectics, or history in particular, should be viewed: as an “experiment” in which "truth” is revealed; what doesn't seem to work is rejected, and what works is readjusted or taken.
However, things can get difficult. With our tortilla example, things were straight forward, but what if we have a core belief? A belief that shapes our worldview and that explains how everything “should be.”
If we are rational enough, we will update our belief based on strong new information, as we did with the tortilla example. However, this does not happen when something contradicts our ideology or core beliefs.
Psychologists refer to this as cognitive dissonance, and it occurs when we have two types of information that have an inconsistency between each other. Our natural tendency is to dismiss the new information and fall into fallacies or even conspiracy theories in order to confirm what we already believe to be true, until we achieve mental consonance, or in other words, until we feel comfortable. It is as if our mind is trying to protect itself from disease.
Because history is more concerned with abstract, complex ideas and conflicts than science, which bases its methodology on empirical data, the dialectical process as a scientific technique can be challenging to defend. However, as Slavoj Žižek claims, ideas and systems have symptoms as well; capitalism, for example, has contradictions, or antagonists as he refers to them, that can only be addressed by looking at evidence, and reasoning on the line of causation of these issues. This is exactly what Hegel emphasizes, that we should look at the past through the lens of the present.
Karl Marx did something similar in that he reinvented Hegel’s dialectics and argued that they were overly idealistic. He claimed that we should examine our social systems and economic factors rather than notions and ideas, which ultimately gave rise to his dialectical materialism. Hegel’s theory on why history can only be understood in the context of fresh evidence is clear here. Marx’s method works by first looking at current relationships in a system, then moving to the past to see the preconditions of the current state of affairs, which eventually unfold into the present. Then, from the past to the present, we project the preconditions as contradictions. Then we proceed to the future, resolving the contradictions into a near future and then a far future. Finally, we return to the present and use the future resolutions as points to analyze the present, which has already been amplified back in time and is now seen as the totality that contains all of the prerequisites for future resolutions. In other words, we end up seeing the present with all its contradictions that eventually lead to a resolution. This is how he came up with his “utopia” of socialism, followed by communism. Capitalism gives birth to the system. (If you are interested on reading more about Marx’s dialectics and how they differ from Hegel’s click here)
For Hegel, as for Marx, the present, past, and future are always present. When we think about it, it’s similar to thinking about the scientific concept of time, where time and space are one and the totality is always present and interconnected, but it’s so vast and immense that we can’t perceive it.
The dialectical process assumes an underlying idea or truth, and our core beliefs act as a barrier to this assumption, causing people to fight to death before updating their beliefs with new information. But, if we consider dialectics through the scientific lens, we might be able to agree that this is indeed the case. Science does exactly that—it reveals and unfolds reality so that we can fully comprehend it.
This text does not provide absolute solutions or answers, it just tries to ask the right questions.
S. H. (n.d.). World History as the Progress of Consciousness An Interpretation of Hegel’s Philosophy of History. Philosophy Documentation Center. https://www.pdcnet.org/collection/show?id=owl_1990_0022_0001_0069_0080&file_type=pdfhttps://philpapers.org/rec/HOUWHA-3
J. C. K. C. (n.d.). Cognitive Dissonance. Science Direct.
(n.d.). Scientific Method. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Archive. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2021/entries/scientific-method/
(1837). Philosophy of History. Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich.
(1989). The Sublime Object of Ideology. Slavoj Zizek.
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