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In this broad discussion of the "course of world history," Hegel has been primarily discussing the beginnings of history (defining the point at which history begins). Now, he says, he will move on to consider the course of world history as it proceeds from that beginning. World history, he writes, "presents the development of consciousness, the development of Spirit's consciousness of its freedom, and the actualization that is produced by that consciousness."
The concept on which history runs is dialectical in nature (though Hegel does not use that term here): it "posits determinations in itself, then negates them, and thereby gains...an affirmative, richer, and more concrete determination." The abstract details of this process, however, are a matter for pure philosophical logic to address. Each stage in the process has its own "distinct differentiation of Spirit," which is the particular principle of a given people (their Volksgeist, or "spirit of the people").
It remains for historical study to show, from the details of a given society on up, that there is such a "distinct particularity" for each people. This pursuit requires prior (a priori) knowledge of the Idea, in the sense that the physical laws of the planets deduced by Kepler required that he first know the rules of geometry. Hegel rejects the view, held by "empirical" historians, that such a priori knowledge compromises historical accuracy. Philosophy doesn't use the same categories as science, but instead allows us to see the "essential." If particular historical details would seem to counter Hegel's arguments about the progress of history, this is due simply to a lack of understanding of his conceptual theory. In fact, as with "monstrosities" in nature, any minor exceptions to Hegel's theory simply prove the rule.
Exceptions to the "progress" model can be found anywhere, if we are only looking on the level of fickle, subjective morality--Homer's principles can be found in ancient Hindu texts, and civilized morals can be found in savages. For Hegel, such comparisons are specious notations of similarity in form (rather than in actual conceptual content); they are "bare formalism" without any "concrete principle." World history deals with a higher ethical level than subjective morality.
Some figures in world history may also present exceptions to historical progress, but they too fall into the formalism trap. They exercise their "formal right" to deny progress but, precisely because they deny Spirit in doing so, their actions have no real content. World-historical individuals, on the other hand, often have dubious personal morals even as they advance the development of Spirit. History has nothing to do with moral judgments on such figures or on their actions; it is concerned only with the "actions of the Spirit of peoples." Philosophic history cannot concern itself with formalism, which breaks everything down into parts and analyses the similarities and differences between those parts. Philosophy must instead pursue "thought about thought," seeking and explicating "free universality."
General culture, which contains a great deal of differentiated content, is a prerequisite for the emergence of philosophy. But culture itself is nothing other than the capacity to lend universality to such differentiated content, melding the two so that all formal distinctions are bound to a universal content. The forms that culture brings about (law, religion, etc.) are actually "forms of universality," not entirely separate pieces of formal content.
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