Hegel’s philosophy of history

Richard Bourke's latest study offers a powerful sense of why Hegel’s audiences were left spellbound by his analysis of ‘the successive missteps in the progress of moral life’.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Credit: GL Archive / Alamy Stock Photo
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Credit: GL Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Hegel’s World RevolutionsRichard Bourke, Princeton, £25

Anyone who has faced the prospect of lecturing to undergraduate students on The Philosophy of Right will know that conveying the sense of Hegel’s complex philosophy is no easy or straightforward task. This difficulty has been made worse by a series of mis-readings of his thought that have received near-canonical status. First among these was the post-First World War association of Hegel with the rise of German nationalism and the Prussian state and, later, with totalitarianism. If this view had currency in Britain – where the likes of Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore thought themselves easily able to dismiss Hegel’s system as philosophical hocus pocus – it flourished for decades across Europe and the United States. As Richard Bourke shows, the most flagrant of theses distortions came from the pen of Karl Popper in his The Open Society and Its Enemies, but there were many others who showed themselves only too eager to associate Hegel with the delusions of communism, irrationalism, romanticism and much else. The divisions between ‘left’ and ‘right’ Hegelianism, it was remarked, were only finally confronted at the battle of Stalingrad.

It is against this background and what he describes as ‘a sort of insurgency against Hegel’ that Bourke develops the never less than fascinating and erudite arguments of his latest volume. As he immediately points out, the minor place Hegel now occupies in university curricula stands in marked contrast to the pre-eminent position he held in the early part of the nineteenth century and beyond, when works such as the Phenomenology of Spirit and the Science of Logic were widely regarded as having transformed the nature of philosophy. There has, Bourke tells us, been no monograph on Hegel’s political thought since the 1970s. In part, this decline of status can be attributed to the demise of Marxism and the collapse of the Soviet bloc but, Bourke affirms, it also owes much to the rise of anti-humanist thought in France and its successful importation into the United States. The leading culprits here were Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze and Lyotard. In their hands, the core components of Hegelian philosophy were cast as superstitious legends and mystical delusions. Bourke cites Foucault’s claim in his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France that our ‘entire epoch’ was seeking to ‘escape from Hegel’.

In Bourke’s view, what was now derided in Hegel was no more than a parody and a caricature. This new mindset was also, he writes, a mode of thought ‘suffused with righteousness’, where freedom was redescribed as domination, justice regarded as a sham, and any appeal to standards denounced as ethnocentrism. As Bourke correctly reminds us, such views enjoy a prominent place in the academic commentary today. Nonetheless, for all their prominence, Bourke’s judgement is that such views are ‘belied by careful historical analysis’. Such an analysis, he writes in his opening page, ‘confirms that while liberal values have indeed been embroiled in power politics, they were not the cause of systematic oppression. The modern world is still replete with glaring cases of injustice, but nonetheless its history records a process of liberation’. Crucially, Bourke’s claim is that the first person who articulated such a view was none other than G.W.F.Hegel.

Hegel’s central insight, on this view, was that ‘the human being as such is free’ and thus that the achievement of modernity was the termination of our servile status. Hegel’s embrace of a set of values that first emerged in Europe, Bourke insists, was not a product of mere ‘idle prejudice’ or cultural chauvinism. Nor did Hegel assume that there was anything automatic about this process of transformation. Rather, during his own lifetime, Hegel saw that misunderstandings of the meaning of freedom had produced barbarous and terrifying outcomes and that the struggle to realise freedom would face many future challenges. Hegel also saw that the transformation of the modern world that he had discerned would bring its own dissatisfactions and discontents (most notably a distaste for the atomism associated with a liberal society). Yet that transformation – the process by which subjectivity comes to define the modern world – heralded a situation in which each person, by virtue of their humanity, would be free.

Here then is the starting point for the breathtaking intellectual tour de force that follows. As is made immediately clear, Bourke’s book has four primary dimensions. It is first of all ‘an exercise in elucidation’, an attempt, as Bourke writes, ‘to interpret Hegel’s thought in its time’. This necessarily involves a detailed discussion of Hegel’s engagement with and ultimate repudiation of Kant. Next, it seeks to delineate Hegel’s wider philosophy of history, focusing upon the central place within this philosophy of Hegel’s account of the world revolutions that provide Bourke with his title. How, in short, did Hegel believe that the epochal shifts that characterised the transition from the ancient to the modern world could be understood? Here there is much to be admired in the clarity of Bourke’s narrative. Reading it, one gets a powerful sense of why Hegel’s audiences were left spellbound by the brilliance of his all-encompassing vision of the course of human history and by his analysis of what Bourke describes as ‘the successive missteps in the progress of moral life’.

No misstep was arguably of greater importance and significance than the French Revolution, to which Bourke devotes a riveting chapter. Alexis de Tocqueville argued that Edmund Burke had misunderstood the French Revolution because he had lacked ‘historical distance’ and, therefore, could not see the universality and significance of the events that had unfolded before him. As Bourke’s summary shows, no such criticism could be levelled at Hegel. For Hegel, the resort to terror was no deviation from the Revolution’s original purpose but the result of a fanatical pursuit of absolute freedom. In Bourke’s paraphrase: ‘grounded on its own universality, consciousness assumed the right to determine the shape of public life for all’. Bourke’s broader point is that, for Hegel, the future did not lie in revolution but in the emergence of the constitutional state. ‘The essence of the modern state’, Bourke quotes Hegel as writing, ‘is that the universal should be linked with the complete freedom of particularity and the well-being of individuals’. Here, we might conclude, is an important truth that has been all too often forgotten.

This in turn opens up a discussion of Bourke’s third main topic of inquiry: the reception of Hegel’s ideas. This section of Bourke’s text alone merits the price of the entrance ticket. With consummate ease the reader is taken from the revival of the study of Hegel associated with Dilthey and Windelband, and on to Friedrich Meinecke, Ernst Cassirer, Jean Wahl, Georg Lukàcs, and many more of the key thinkers of the twentieth century. Heidegger, Popper (of course), Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and Hannah Arendt are among those who follow. Yet, the question which underlies this section of Bourke’s text discloses his fourth theme: what, if anything, might be the purpose of studying the great philosophers of the past and can their ideas be put to use in our own times? As Bourke succinctly expresses the problem: ‘political theory is a study of how values become superannuated’.

Some of this territory will be familiar to those who have followed recent developments in the history of political thought, but even here Bourke manages to bring a fresh perspective to many of the aspects of this debate (for example, the contestations within the Cambridge School associated with Quentin Skinner, John Dunn, et al). I take it to be Bourke’s central point that, for those interested in these issues, there is much that might be learned from engaging with Hegel. If, for Hegel, the task of philosophy was not to resuscitate outmoded forms of thought or to tell us how the world ought to be – there is, Bourke quotes Hegel as saying, ‘nothing so irrational as for us to have recourse for our constitutions to those of the Greeks and the Romans’ – he also tells us that philosophy cannot be divorced from history and, in Bourke’s words, that its function is diagnostic rather than prescriptive. As Bourke concludes: ‘we do not study Hegel to confound his circumstances with our own, but precisely to evaluate discrepancies between past and present’.

If one criticism might be raised, it is that greater effort might have been made in the conclusion to bring all these various themes together. This would no doubt appear very pedestrian, however, in a book of such unrelenting intellectual calibre and breadth.


Jeremy Jennings