Hegel’s historicism: the mystical unfolding of history

François Gérard, La bataille d’Austerlitz, 2 decembre 1805, oil on canvas, 1810, Galerie des Batailles, Versailles

François Gérard, La bataille d’Austerlitz, 2 decembre 1805, oil on canvas, 1810, Galerie des Batailles, Versailles

…these lectures constitute the very first comprehensive history of philosophy that treats philosophy itself as undergoing genuinely historical development. …They depict philosophy as an integral intellectual activity that, despite its apparent diversity of contents and methods, has a distinctive unity and telos emergent precisely from its successive historical forms and schools. Hegel situates the varied philosophers and movements of the past within this progression, as at once conservers of previous insights and also critics and innovators. Thus the whole has movement and direction; the process is going somewhere specific. Philosophical thinking is historically produced and conditioned; it is an organic development over time, and the grasp of its history is itself a philosophical activity. It is easy to forget that Hegel’s immediate predecessors, as historians of philosophy, treated the philosophical past mainly as a catalogue of ‘timeless’ systems, or else as a temporal sequence of largely unrelated positions. It is a tribute to the power of Hegel’s innovative perspective on this history that we (non-Hegelians included) have come to take so many of its elements for granted.

…Central to his thought is the theme of spirit engaged in self-realisation through the processes of historical change. These lectures give a concrete account of the historical pilgrimage of absolute spirit, in its highest expression as philosophical thought. …

…these lectures are indispensable for a proper understanding and appreciation of the new consciousness of human life, culture, and intellect, as clearly historical in nature, an understanding that profoundly altered the nineteenth-century mind. They are indispensable because they are a principal cause of that very transformation. Although its earlier and simpler expressions appeared in the thought of Vico, Herder, and others, the new historical consciousness entered the European mind in full force through Hegel’s thought, especially through these lectures, and also those on the philosophy of history. Chiefly because of them, subsequent intellectual life of the nineteenth-century and beyond can be seen largely as the continuing effort to come to terms with this new historical consciousness.

From the Editorial Introduction by Robert.F.Brown in G.W.F.Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy 1825-6 Volume I: Introduction and Oriental Philosophy, Together With the Introductions from the Other Series of These Lectures, Trans. Robert F. Brown and J.M. Stewart, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2009, 2-3

‘To grasp history philosophically…will be to grasp it from the perspective of world-history itself, and this provides the transition to absolute spirit, as world history will (be) understood in terms of the manifestation of what from a religious perspective is called “God”, or from a philosophical perspective, “reason”.’

Paul Redding, ‘Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy