NOTE: It must be emphatically noted that translating Hegel is notoriously difficult. Translations take a wide range of approaches to Hegel’s conceptual vocabulary (which depends partly on a certain overlapping of terms)—some translate each German word as one English word, and some vary the translation of each term according to its changing context and emphasis. In addition, many translators capitalize words like "Spirit" or "Reason" to show when Hegel is referring to absolute, large-scale concepts and when he is not (in German, all nouns are always capitalized). The translation used for this SparkNotes guide is by Leo Rauch (see Suggestions for Further Reading), who borrows tactics from various translations and comes up with a solid, contemporary version. Nevertheless, be prepared for some degree of confusion if you are working with another translation.


Hegel opens his lectures on the philosophy of history by giving brief accounts of three distinct types of written history. These are:

1. Original history
2. Reflective history
3. Philosophic history

Original history consists of an account of actions, events, and situations lived through and witnessed (for the most part) by the historian. Other primary sources are used, but as "ingredients only"—the account depends fundamentally on the historian's own witnessing of the times. Hegel cites Thucydides and Herodotus as examples. He also describes this type of recorded history as "history whose spirit [the historian] shared in," and notes that the primary task of "original history" is to create an internal, "mental representation" of external events.

Hegel then notes some qualifications or limits to the category of original history. It excludes "legends, folksongs, [and] traditions," because these are "obscure modes of memory, proper to the mentality of pre-literate peoples." Original history must deal instead with the "observed and observable reality" of a people who are self-aware and unique (who "knew what they were and what they wanted").

Further, original history "cannot be of great external scope"; it is a limited viewpoint, a "portrait of the time." The original historian does not offer a great deal of theory about or reflection on the events and situations he or she recounts—"he lives within the spirit of the times and cannot as yet transcend them." For Hegel, the spirit in which the original historian is writing is the same as the spirit of the times he or she is writing about: "the spirit of the author and of the actions he tells of, are one and the same."

Hegel notes that speeches recorded in historical accounts may seem to be a special case here, since they would seem to be reflections on the times rather than mere accounts of the times. But public speeches are in fact "effective actions in their very essence," just as much as a war or an election. For this reason, they are not removed reflections on history but "integral components of history" recorded by the original historian, who shares the cultural consciousness of the speaker.

We can distinguish three very rough stages of original history. In antiquity, it was primarily statesmen who wrote history. In the middle ages, monks were the historians (Hegel calls their works "naive chronicles"). In Hegel's own time, "all this has changed...[our culture] immediately converts all events into reports for intellectual representation." These contemporary original histories aim for breadth and accuracy, seeking to portray things precisely and simply so that we can then interpret them in other forms of writing. Hegel writes that only people "of high social standing" can execute this kind of history: "only from a superior position can one truly see things for what they are and see everything."

The second method for writing history, reflective history, is "history whose presentation goes beyond the present in spirit and does not refer to the historian's own time." Unlike the original historian, the reflective historian is not a participant in the events and spirit of the times of which he gives an account. Reflective history is divided by Hegel into four sub-types:

2.A. Universal history
2.B. Pragmatic history
2.C. Critical history
2.D. Specialized history

Universal reflective history aims to give an account of the whole history of a people or even of the world. But, since this is reflective history, the spirit that unites all these events in a written history is foreign to the time of the events—it is rather the spirit of the historian's own time. In the case of broad world histories, particular events must be condensed into very brief statements, and it is almost as though the author's own thought is the main feature (the "mightiest epitomist") of the text.

Pragmatic reflective history has a theory or ideology behind it. The events recounted are "connected into one pattern in their universal and inner meaning" by the historian, and the account actually consists more of reflections on history than simply of history itself. Hegel makes a side-note here about the idea that history should provide us with moral lessons (a function which would be found primarily in pragmatic history). He thinks this idea is wrong, and that if history can be said to have "taught" us anything it is that "nations and governments have never learned anything from history." This is largely a matter of the unreality of the past in relation to the present: "In the press of world events, there is no help to be had from general principles ... for a pale memory has no force against the vitality and freedom of the present."

Critical reflective history is a kind of research into historical accounts, a history of history that tests the accuracy of given accounts and perhaps poses alternative accounts. Hegel dislikes this kind of history, which "extorts" new things to say from existing accounts. He points out that this is a cheaper way to achieve "reality" in history, because it puts subjective notions in place of facts and calls these notions reality.

The final type of reflective history, the "specialized," focuses on one thread in history, such as "the history of art, of law, or of religion." At the same time, it represents a transitional stage to philosophic history because it takes a "universal viewpoint." The very focus taken (e.g., the history of law) represents a choice on the part of the historian to make a universal concept the guiding rationale for his history. If the specialized history is good, the author will give an accurate account of the fundamental "Idea" (the "inner guiding soul") that guided the events and actions discussed.

If the Idea guides the history of nations as they pursue law, art, or religion, the "Spirit" is what guides history as a whole. It is this larger process that is the focus of the third category of history, philosophic history. We think constantly, Hegel notes, but most history (even reflective history) would seem to emphasize events over thought in the end. Philosophic history, however, prioritizes thought before history, bringing pure philosophical ideas to bear on events. The thoughts that organize the "raw material" of historical events into philosophic history come first and can stand alone—they are a priori.


Hegel sets out these three main divisions of recorded history in order to clear the decks for his own method of "philosophic" history. That concept receives very little clarification in this introduction to the Introduction, but what is said about it depends heavily on the notion of Spirit that Hegel has already begun to build.

Spirit is Hegel's best-known and probably most difficult concept. The basic idea is that all of human history is guided by a rational process of self-recognition, in which human participants are guided to greater and greater self- awareness and freedom by a rational force that transcends them (Hegel will emphasize that we need not think of Spirit as God). The only interest of this force, Spirit, is to realize its own principle of true freedom. It does this by unfolding as human history, where the consciousness of freedom is the driving force. Each type of history that Hegel addresses here participates in this Spirit-guided process to some extent, and so each allows Hegel to set up some of the groundwork for his idea of Spirit.

We first encounter this idea in the context of original history, in which the spirit of the historian's writing is identical to the "spirit" of the times covered. (If the translator has used a small "s" for spirit here and a capital one elsewhere, it's because Hegel is referring to the "spirit of the times" rather than Spirit as a whole, transcendent force). A fundamental feature of the operation of Spirit in history is that its nature is self-reflective. Human history progresses as humans become increasingly self-aware, and as they correspondingly become aware of their freedom (through the state). The stages of this progress seem to correspond roughly to the types of history Hegel sets out. Thus, original history seems to be the most basic with regard to Spirit, since it has little or no capacity to reflect on the spirit of the timesit is of the times, and therefore cannot transcend them.

Reflective history, then, takes us up a level to the point where the historian is capable of reflection on earlier times. The most advanced method of reflective history is specialized history, since it splits history along conceptual, thematic, and therefore universal lines (by choosing to focus on law, religion, etc). By bringing this universal viewpoint to bear, specialized reflective history comes closest to Hegel's own project (philosophic history), in which universal principles truly come first. Philosophic history taps directly into the Spirit that guides world history, because this Spirit is essentially a force of Reason. Philosophy (particularly in pure logic) comes to know the characteristics of Spirit first, then looks for them in the events of history. The characteristics of Spirit that it comes to know are, roughly, that Spirit seeks only to realize its own nature, which is freedom.

Thus, Hegel is already marking the rough outlines of what he means by Spirit, and is setting up his historical method (philosophic history) as the best one for understanding this guiding force in history (because philosophy knows it beforehand). We should note that this already gives Hegel a justification problem: he can only argue that he is right about Spirit based on 1) the logical analysis of Reason itself; or 2) the detailed study of history. There's no time for the former proof, and the detailed proof must come later (remember, this whole text is an introduction). Thus, Hegel says, for now we must simply have "faith" that history is rational.

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