Hegel and History

What does philosophy have to do with history? Well, one might argue philosophy is necessary for any interpretation of history to be possible. How can we interpret the raw data of history without a framework for the interpretation of data? How are we to discern what constitutes data in the first place? Is history merely a succession of events, “one thing after another,” or is it a progression? If it is a progression, is it one of peoples, thoughts, ideas, or…?

Hegel argued, rather weirdly, that World History was a progression of the Idea of the World Spirit, the process of God coming to know himself via his expression of himself through the development of history.

Regardless of what one believes about Hegel’s ideas, he had some interesting things to say about the field of history itself. Difficulties arise when we attempt to “learn” form history–to learn moral lessons, or to discern patterns. This is the realm of history, but it is also the realm of philosophy. The very transmission of history involves narration, selection, rationality.

When we have to deal with the Past, and occupy ourselves with a remote world, a Present rises into being for the mind – produced by its own activity, as the reward of its labor. The occurrences are, indeed, various; but the idea which pervades them – their deeper import and connection – is one. This takes the occurrence out of the category of the Past and makes it virtually Present. Pragmatical (didactic) reflections, though in their nature decidedly abstract, are truly and indefeasibly of the Present, and quicken the annals of the dead Past with the life of to-day. Whether, indeed, such reflections are truly interesting and enlivening, depends on the writer’s own spirit. Moral reflections must here be specially noticed – the moral teaching expected from history; which latter has not infrequently been treated with a direct view to the former. It may be allowed that examples of virtue elevate the soul, and are applicable in the moral instruction of children for impressing excellence upon their minds. But the destinies of peoples and states, their interests, relations, and the complicated tissue of their affairs, present quite another field. Rulers, Statesmen, Nations, are wont to be emphatically commended to the teaching which experience offers in history. But what experience and history teach is this – that peoples and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it. Each period is involved in such peculiar circumstances, exhibits a condition of things so strictly idiosyncratic, that its conduct must be regulated by considerations connected with itself, and itself alone. Amid the pressure of great events, a general principle gives no help. It is useless to revert to similar circumstances in the Past. The pallid shades of memory struggle in vain with the life and freedom of the Present. Looked at in this light, nothing can be shallower than the oft-repeated appeal to Greek and Roman examples during the French Revolution. Nothing is more diverse than the genius of those nations and that of our times.

Among us, the so-called “higher criticism,” which reigns supreme in the domain of philology, has also taken possession of our historical literature. This “higher criticism” has been the pretext for introducing all the anti-historical monstrosities that a vain imagination could suggest. Here we have the other method of making the past a living reality; putting subjective fancies in the place of historical data; fancies whose merit is measured by their boldness, that is, the scantiness of the particulars on which they are based, and the peremptoriness with which they contravene the best established facts of history. The last species of Reflective History announces its fragmentary character on the very face of it. It adopts an abstract position; yet, since it takes general points of view (e.g., as the History of Art, of Law, of Religion), it forms a transition to the Philosophical History of the World. In our time this form of the history of ideas has been more developed and brought into notice. Such branches of national life stand in close relation to the entire complex of a people’s annals; and the question of chief importance in relation to our subject is, whether the connection of the whole is exhibited in its truth and reality, or referred to merely external relations. In the latter case, these important phenomena (Art, Law, Religion, etc.) appear as purely accidental national peculiarities. It must be remarked that, when Reflective History has advanced to the adoption of general points of view, if the position taken is a true one, these are found to constitute – not a merely external thread, a superficial series – but are the inward guiding soul of the occurrences and actions that occupy a nation’s annals.

Even the ordinary, the “impartial” historiographer, who believes and professes that he maintains a simply receptive attitude; surrendering himself only to the data supplied him – is by no means passive as regards the exercise of his thinking powers. He brings his categories with him, and sees the phenomena presented to his mental vision, exclusively through these media. And, especially in all that pretends to the name of science, it is indispensable that Reason should not sleep – that reflection should be in full play. To him who looks upon the world rationally, the world in its turn presents a rational aspect. The relation is mutual.

From the introduction to Hegel’s Philosophy of History

https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/hi/introduction-lectures.htm