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History, or at least the study of it, is in bad shape these days. Almost everyone agrees that knowing history is important, but in the United States, except at the most elite schools, the study of history is in freefall. Our age seems to share the skepticism voiced by the German philosopher G W F Hegel when he said that the only lesson history teaches us is that nobody ever learned anything from history. Yet the very same Hegel also argued that, although things do indeed always seem unprecedented, history does actually give us a clue as to our ultimate ends.

We are a peculiar species: what it is to be the creatures that we are is always a problem for us — in part because we make ourselves into the kinds of creatures that we are, and because we explore this in all the different ways we live out our lives, individually and collectively. The study of history involves not only telling stories or piling up facts. In its larger structure, it is the account of humanity experimentally seeking to understand itself in all the myriad ways in which it gives shape to itself in daily life, and also how historical change is intimately linked to changes in our basic self-understanding.

No one ever conceived of a more sophisticated and dynamic philosophical history than Hegel. His system is built around three fundamental ideas. First, the key to human agency is self-consciousness.

For people to be doing anything in any real human sense is to know what we are doing as we do it. This applies even when we are not explicitly thinking about what we are doing.

Without any further thought, you knew that you were not skydiving, taking a bath, gardening or doing the crossword. Instead, stuff is just happening. To be sure, sometimes we are only vaguely aware of what we are doing. However, even our often more distanced reflective self-consciousness is itself only a further realisation of the deeper and distinctly Hegelian self-relation: all consciousness is self-consciousness.

Each individual self-consciousness is fundamentally social. Without practitioners, there is no practice; without the practice, there are no practitioners. This is sometimes hard to see. Think of existentialism. Think of what totalitarians dream about. Think of the con artist.

Third, for humans, just as with any species, there are ways in which things can go better or worse for individuals within the species. Trees without the right soil do not flourish as the trees they could be; wolves without the right environmental range cannot become the wolves they could be.

Similarly, self-conscious humans build familial, social, cultural and political environments that make it possible to become new, different and better versions of ourselves. But what we can make of ourselves depends on where we are in history. Your great-great-grandparents never dreamed of being computer coders. Medieval villagers did not aspire to become middle-level managers in a global trash-collection firm.

It is better to say that we exemplify in better or worse ways what it is for us to really be us — for example, in friendship, chess-playing, vegetable-chopping or citizenship. The generality of the practice sets the terms in which I can flourish as any one of these things. As self-conscious social individuals, we reshape our lives, give new meanings to old things from sex and food to complicated table manners so that we acquire new sets of habits, round off the contours of our animal life in surprising ways, settle down, and then move on.

This is rarely an entirely peaceful process. We exist as individuals-with-social-identities in the social spaces that we mutually institute and keep in place. Some of those social relations are based on raw force, subjection and humiliation such as the relations between masters and slaves.

Warfare is common. History, Hegel said, looks like a vast slaughter-bench on which the lives and happiness of millions have been sacrificed. Entire civilisations and ways of life come to be and pass away, old ways of living vanish. Nothing seems stable. When these tensions become so great that such a way of living finally makes no sense to the participants, life rapidly becomes uninhabitable. Once it becomes uninhabitable, it breaks down, falls apart, and eventually gives way to another form of life.

The new form of life emerges as the people living in the cultural rubble of the breakdown pick up the pieces of what is still working, discard the parts that no longer work, and fashion something new out of that breakdown. All told, this aspect of history constitutes the changing shape of self-conscious life itself. As Geist moves through history, it takes on different shapes as it imagines itself in different ways and thus is, for those thinking about it, a moving target.

Was Geist getting better at anything? As a 19th-century European, Hegel found little to recommend in the civilisations of Asia, Africa and the Americas. Even if the emperor issues laws and enforces them, that is still rule by law, which is still personal rule, and not rule of law, which is impersonal. He alone freely issues laws, the rest must obey, and there is nothing higher by which to measure the edicts.

Hegel believed that only in the Ancient Greek world does humanity first move beyond the idea that only one person in the community can be free, and to the daring idea that a limited plurality of people — the adult males of the city — both can and ought to rule together.

They confront each other as equals possessing no inherent authority over each other. Moreover, for these Greeks, so Hegel thought, everybody knew where they stood in their social order and what they were supposed to do.

They also held that, if each exemplified the requirements of their own places in the order, the community would harmonise into a thing of beauty. This incorporation together of individual idiosyncrasy and community life seemed to be as good as it got: full and complete freedom of individuality as possible only in an egalitarian social and political order of free citizens. There was, however, a worm in the apple. The Greeks also took their freedom to mean independence. Although some Greeks found these iniquities disturbing, most simply took them as the unavoidable way of the world.

In the play, the sons and daughters of Oedipus find themselves in a volatile situation. Both die in the fight, and their uncle, Creon, steps in to administer. Creon forbids the burial rites for one of his nephews, but his niece Antigone defies him by secretly carrying out the rites.

She does so because it is her absolute requirement as a sister to do this, but also knowing full well that it is equally her absolute requirement to obey Creon especially so as a younger woman. Antigone is caught in a situation where right contradicts right.

She also has the absolute requirement not to make up her own mind about what she is required to do — it is her allotted station in life to take the requirements given to her — and the chorus will later condemn this as her unjustified attempt at autonomy. Antigone is caught up in the passion to achieve something normally forbidden to women: she wants freedom, which requires her to be recognised as an equal. But who would have the authority to recognise her?

Not a husband not in Ancient Greece. Not her children if she had any. Not her parents. Not her sister. Only her brothers could do that, and they are both dead. In her passion for freedom, Antigone tries to summon that recognition from her dead brother.

As those who know the play realise, it all ends badly. Nonetheless, through her defiance, Antigone represents what went wrong with the Greek ideal: the way it instituted a regime of equality for some men but denied it to others.

In doing so, Antigone also becomes the voice of the excluded, demanding inclusion and recognition as one of us, as an equal and thus as equally free. To the Ancient Greek audience, this created the unnerving sentiment that maybe their whole scheme made no sense. A s Ancient Rome rose to dominance over Greece, at first it seemed as if a way of life that made more sense had arrived to replace the incipient Greek failure, but Rome itself imploded.

In the late antique period, as Christianity became the imperial religion, the seed of a new idea appeared within the already moving target of self-conscious life: if people are all children of the one God, then we were all metaphorical brothers and sisters. Slavery and oppression might be the rule on Earth, but equality was the rule in the great beyond. Although the contradiction might not have even been fully apparent at first, the seed for its reckoning on the world stage had been planted.

The mixture of Roman culture, Roman law and, above all, the brute force of the Roman legions was replaced by an alienated world in which people felt obliged to live up to standards in which they had trouble seeing themselves. Such a world was always tottering between a fragile stability and a fear about its own senselessness.

From time to time, it slipped into utter madness. The lunacy of the Crusades was one example, and another was the collective panic over witchcraft that resulted in the judicial murder of hundreds of women.


Does Historiography Make Sense? Terry Pinkard on Hegel on Philosophical History

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Hegel: A Biography

Sign in Create an account. Syntax Advanced Search. About us. Editorial team. Terry Pinkard. Cambridge University press Terry Pinkard Georgetown University.


The spirit of history

Pinkard philosophy, Georgetown Univ. Hegel : A Biography. Terry Pinkard. One of the founders of modern philosophical thought Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel has gained the reputation of being one of the most abstruse and impenetrable of thinkers. This first major biography of Hegel in English offers not only a complete, up-to-date account of the life, but also an overview of the key philosophical concepts in Hegel's work in an accessible style. Terry Pinkard situates Hegel firmly in the historical context of his times.


This review will acknowledge the merits of the philosophical tradition Pinkard belongs to, but it will insist that his approach to, and his account of, modern history must be rethought in order for his own normative claim about modern freedoms to remain defensible. We are aware of our purposes as purposes, which enables us to raise the question of the adequacy of our purposes. Pinkard rightly points out that while this view of human subjectivity is metaphysical, it is also simultaneously historical and social. Throughout the book, Pinkard tirelessly insists that this view of history is a retrospective, and not a straightforwardly teleological one. It is one thing to clarify the need for a philosophical history however, and quite another to actually write one. The impasse and predictable resolution to which this tension leads can be best grasped by tracing the key arguments in chapters three to five of the book.

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