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Hegel and the End of History

In the first of his three-volume history, Civilization & Capitalism:15th-18th Century, Fernand Braudel observes:

Traditionally, Sir Walter Raleigh is supposed to have introduced the potato to England in 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada. This prosaic event, it could be argued, probably had more consequences in the long run than the clash of two fleets in the English Channel.1

It is difficult to judge which actions matter most when one is close to them in space and time. Braudel wrote with almost four hundred years of distance from the events of 1588, and it probably helped that he was French rather than English or Spanish.

What then are we to make of Hegel's claims in the Phenomenology, at least as presented by Alexandre Kojčve, that he, Hegel, is "a thinker endowed with an absolute Knowledge, because on the one hand, he lives in Napoleon's time and, on the other, is the only one to understand him"? 2 History has, in an important sense, come to an end with the writing of Hegel, for the unfolding of human freedom is the meaning of history, and since Napoleon represents the universalisation of this idea of human freedom there is now nothing more of substance to be known, merely details.

Hegel's attention was drawn to Napoleon not least because his cannons were firing within Hegel's earshot at Jena in 1806 but, as Susan Buck-Morss has noted,3 a better contemporary exemplar of slaves coming to a realisation of their subjectivity through labour, then overcoming their masters, and establishing a new state based on universal human freedom, took place not in Europe but in Haiti, under the leadership of Toussaint Louverture (whom Napoleon imprisoned) and Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Did Hegel intend to describe the Haitian rebellion in his account of the Master and Slave? Or did he mistake Napoleon for the harbinger of universal freedom simply because he was the military leader in Hegel's immediate vicinity?

It is worth noting that William Wordsworth, born in the same year as Hegel and like him an enthusiast in his youth for the ideals of the French Revolution, wrote and published a poem 4 to celebrate Louverture's achievements, prior to his death in a French prison cell. It is also worth noting that Marxist theorists mostly read Hegel's account of the Master and Slave as a metaphor for the class struggle in Europe, rather than as a literal account of a contemporary struggle for freedom in the lands the Europeans had colonised. Even today, the writings of Eric Williams and C.L.R. James remain marginal to the work of most contemporary "progressive" thinkers.

Hegel's claim that history ends with the present was defended by Robin Collingwood, who notes that historians (like everyone else) have no knowledge of the future. "History must end with the present because nothing else has happened".5 The future is a receptacle for our hopes and fears but not an object of knowledge. This does not imply the glorification of the present, not the denial of future progress. As Collingwood observes, "If Hegel in the practical politics of his later life was an unintelligent conservative, that was the fault of Hegel as a man; there is no reason to regard it as the fault of his philosophy of history". 6

Collingwood famously endorsed the view that all history is the history of thought, the re-enactment of the past in the historian's own mind. He is very Hegelian in this regard. Likewise, he also thought that our study of the past was primarily of value because of the way in which it helps us understand the present: "All history is an attempt to understand the present by reconstructing its determining conditions. It is clear this is an endless task, not because its conditions are a regress of efficient causes, which, however far back we trace them, sill hang in the air at the furthest extremity, but because the present is a concrete reality and therefore inexhaustible by analysis". 7

What then might we say about the end of history, or the end of the end of history? It makes sense, to distinguish natural history, comprised of events, from human history, comprised of actions; however, neither nature nor history take place in self-selected circumstances. The context in which changes occur in nature and history are established, not just by the dead weight of past generations, but also by the natural/material circumstances under which we live. This is a point of agreement between Marx and Braudel.

This is also the insight of Darwin, whose work provides the strongest reason for thinking that there will be no end to history. Writing in 1909, fifty years after the first publication of Origin of Species, John Dewey argued that Darwin's work had eliminated from science, philosophy, and history the concept of telos, the goal or final cause of all action, to which nature and humanity is subject. As "the new logic outlaws, flanks, dismisses … one type of problems and substitutes for it another type. Philosophy foreswears inquiry after absolute origins and absolute finalities in order to explore specific values and the specific conditions that generate them".8

It is not just that, as the facts change, so I change my mind; but also, that as the environment in which humanity makes history changes, so too the sort of history that we make will change. Over time, we might aspire to the best -- the most fitting -- solution to the problem of human freedom in the circumstances in which we find ourselves, but it would be foolish to claim that we had achieved a permanent solution to that problem, because these circumstances are certain to change in ways that we cannot foresee. Dewey was right when he asserted that there are some questions that we never answer, we just get over: "Old questions are solved by disappearing, evaporating, while new questions corresponding to the changed attitude of endeavour and preference take their place".9

Between Hegel and us lies Darwin. Hegel is right that history ends in the present, but Darwin is right that we should not expect the present to be the end.

End notes

1 Fernand Braudel, The Structures of Everyday Life: The Limits of the Possible, trans. Siân Reynolds, Fontana Press, 1985, p.169.

2 Alexandre Kojčve, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit, {ed.} Allan Bloom, trans. James H Nichols Jr., Cornell University Press, 1980, p.35.

3 Susan Buck-Morss, Hegel, Haiti and Universal History, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009.


5 Robin Collingwood, The Idea of History, {ed.} Jan van der Dussen, Oxford University Press, 1994, p.120.

6 Ibid, p.120.

7 Ibid, p.420.

8 John Dewey, The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy and other essays, Prometheus Books, 1997, p.13.

9 Ibid, p.19.

© Mark Hannam July 2021