Philosophy of History?

Hegel’s Philosophy of History lectures are written in an accessible, semi-popular style and are not without interest, but it is a huge mistake to take them as representative of his core views. “Philosophies of history” had actually been a common genre in late 18th century Germany, as witnessed by the title of Herder’s 1774 book Yet Another Philosophy of History. Works by now-forgotten authors typically took the form of valorizing the present in terms of the past. The triumphalist character commonly associated with Hegel’s philosophy of history in particular was actually a norm of the genre. In conjunction with the common, highly inflationary misunderstanding of Hegel’s “absolute knowledge”, this makes it easy to completely misunderstand what Hegel was getting at, as I did myself for many years.

Though sympathetic to various aspects of Hegel’s thought, Ricoeur in volume 3 of Time and Narrative associates Hegel’s view with insistence on an “impossible total mediation” (p. 202). Quite properly, Ricoeur says what we really want instead is an “open-ended, incomplete, imperfect mediation” (p. 207). “We must renounce consolation to attain reconciliation” (p. 197; emphasis in original). “The realization of freedom cannot be taken as the plot behind every plot” (p. 206). There is no “plot behind every plot” in history. I could not agree more. But careful reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology, Science of Logic, and other works actually refutes the very widespread idea that Hegel claimed to have achieved a total mediation. In fact, I would say it was Hegel who originally thematized mediation as inherently open-ended, incomplete, and imperfect.