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Monday, July 2, 2018

On Hegel’s Historicism

Portrait of Hegel
G.W.F. Hegel’s philosophical thought is imbued with deep historicism—he believed that the central objective of philosophy is to find an explanation for its own purpose, principles and problems in a historical context, and to discover the meaning and direction of history. Frederick C. Beiser, in his essay, “Hegel’s Historicism,” (Chapter 9; The Cambridge Companion to Hegel, Edited by Frederick C. Beiser) says that Hegel’s historicist thought has engineered a revolution in history of philosophy. Here’s an excerpt:
Hegel's historicism amounted to nothing less than a revolution in the history of philosophy. It implied that philosophy is possible only if it is historical, only if the philosopher is aware of the origins, context, and development of his doctrines. Hegel thus threw into question the revolution with which Descartes began modern philosophy. It is not possible to create a presuppositionless system of philosophy a la Descartes, Hegel believes, by abstracting from the past and by simply relying upon one's individual reason. For if Descartes were a completely self-sufficient, self-enclosed mind, transcending the realm of history, he would not have been able to produce his philosophy. The aims of his system, and the ideas he defended in it, were typical products of the culture of seventeenth-century France. So if philosophy is to be truly presuppositionless, Hegel maintains, then it must not abstract from, but incorporate history within itself.
But Hegel’s historicist revolution does not represent a radical break with the past. Beiser points out that several philosophers have posited about history’s critical role in facilitating a better understanding of human institutions and actives. Therefore the historicist doctrine must be seen as in itself being a product of history.
In his Spirit of the Laws (1749) Montesquieu saw the constitution of a nation as the product of its history, as the result of its changing economic, geographic, and climactic circumstances, and the evolving traditions, religion, and character of its people. In his Inquiry concerning the Principles of Political Economy (1767), James Steuart developed an evolutionary theory of the development of society, explaining how mankind grew from primitive simplicity to complicated refinement through the pressure of economic factors. In his Ideas for a Philosophy of History of Humanity (1784-88), Herder explained how such human activities as philosophy, religion, and literature are the product of the history of a people, the characteristic form of their national culture. And in his System of Transcendental Idealism (1799), Schelling explained how the intellectual intuition of the "I am," the first principle of philosophy, was the product of the ego's history.
According to Beiser, The distinctive thing about Hegel’s work is that he made historicism a self-conscious and general method of philosophy, one that can be used to reveal and neutralize the inherent pretenses and illusions of philosophy. “This self-reflective, self-critical element is not found in the historicism of Hegel's predecessors or contemporaries. Hegel made historicism the self-critical method of philosophy because he believed that philosophy stood in the same need of historical explanation as politics, religion, or literature.”

Hegel’s historical criticism was made necessary because history of philosophy has been mired in, what Beiser calls, “a deep-seated and widespread illusion of a-historicity.”
There have been many forms of such a-historicity, and all of them became in one form or another the subject of Hegelian criticism, (a) The belief that certain laws, beliefs, or values are universal, eternal, or natural when they are in fact the product of, and only appropriate to, a specific culture, (b) The doctrine that certain ideas or principles are innate, the inherent elements of a pure a priori reason, although they are learned from experience, the product of a cultural tradition, (c) The claim that certain institutions and forms of activity have a supernatural origin (for example language, religion, and the state) when they in fact originate from all-too-human sources, (d) The reification of certain activities and values, as if they were entities existing independent of human consciousness, when they are in fact the product of its subconscious activity, (e) The belief that certain intuitions and feelings are the product of innate genius, although they are the result of education, (f) The attempt to create a presuppositionless philosophy by abstracting from all past philosophy and by relying upon individual reason alone.
In his Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, Hegel says: "The question at issue is therefore the ultimate end of mankind, the end which the spirit sets itself in the world." The ultimate end of history, according to him, is freedom. But this does not mean that man is born free or that he exists in some kind of state of nature as a free being—it only signifies that the purpose or end of man is to realize his freedom. There are both conservative and progressive implications of Hegel’s historicism. 

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