Hegel’s Introduction to the Philosophy of History is very much a product of its times, the more so for the overarching context of "Reason" in which he interprets history. It is not a work that Hegel lived to see published. The massive text we have today is a reconstruction of a series of lectures Hegel gave at the University of Berlin in the 1820s. His students, colleagues, and friends were shocked at his sudden death during a cholera epidemic in 1831, and, feeling that he had still had many contributions to make, set about organizing and publishing his lectures. This project resulted in the posthumous publication not only of the Introduction to the Philosophy of History, but also of the Philosophy of Art, the Philosophy of Religion, and History of Philosophy.

Born in 1770, Hegel lived through a number of major socio-political upheavals: the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars, and the aftermath of those wars—in which Europe began to be restructured according to early nationalist principles. Hegel followed all these events with great interest and in great detail, from his days as a seminary student in the late 1780s through his various appointments in school philosophy departments and on to his days as the foremost intellectual of his time. Introduction to the Philosophy of History, like his first major work, the Phenomenology of Spirit, strives to show how these major historical upheavals, with their apparent chaos and widespread human suffering, fit together in a rational progression toward true human freedom.

The Introduction to the Philosophy of History does not go into much specific historical detail, since Hegel is laying the groundwork for that pursuit, insisting on iron-clad basics like the idea that Reason rules history. He does, however, make a few brief references to contemporary intellectual projects and theories from which he wants to distance himself. Chief among these is a loose school of formalism, which was becoming increasingly popular in Germany. Formalism, for Hegel, includes those theories that seek to universalize certain elements of culture across the globe and across time. The most common approach such theories were taking was to posit an originary, united human culture and to argue that our contemporary culture consists of the separated fragments of this original whole.

Thus, Hegel dismisses the "state of nature" arguments of his contemporary, Friedrich von Schlegel, and disparages similar schools of thought that seek to link Greek culture with ancient Indian culture or contemporary western ethics with Confucian morality. (Sanskrit had been "discovered" only twenty years prior to these lectures, and much new work was being done on Indian philosophy). Hegel is careful to distinguish his own theory (which involves a series of truly unique cultural stages) from this "catholic" (which is to say, universal) theory about common human culture. This universalizing of culture, he says, proceeds only on the basis of similarities in the form of culture, and ignores cultural content (which is what really makes cultures distinct).

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