Hegel and Heidegger on History

The Great Books tradition of pedagogy is traditionally based on a Hegelian philosophy of history.  Hegel thinks that history develops and progresses.  That’s to say, the history of world cultures proceeds from those that have a poorer self-understanding to those that have a better self-understanding, progressively working themselves towards a notion of freedom and a notion of the human being that is clearer, more rational, and more correct.  That is why someone like Francis Fukuyama, writing from a Hegelian perspective, could claim that with the fall of the Berlin Wall history had finally come to an end.  (See his influential book The End of History and the Last Man.)  To read the Great Books with this understanding of history is to read Homer, for instance, as a primitive – admirable for having understood more than his predecessors but simplistic and mistaken compared to us.

Our book is based on something more like a Heideggerean philosophy of history.  Heidegger thought that the transition from one epoch of history to the next was nothing like a matter of progress and development.  It was certainly not, as Hegel believed, a working out of the contradictions inherent in the spirit of the age.  Rather, the movement from one epoch to another was more like a Kuhnian paradigm shift.  What had been central to the understanding of being in a culture was now, through the working of a poet or a great work of art, moved to the margins.   A whole different organizing principle takes effect.  This movement from one epoch to the next, on Heidegger’s view, is nothing like a rational process, and there is therefore nothing like the same kind of clear sense in which the later epoch is ranked as better than, or a development over, the previous.  No doubt some things will seem to be, and maybe even are, better.  But in general the epochs are irreconcilable with one another:  practices that earlier played a central organizing role in the culture are covered over and hidden now; a new range of practices organizes the culture.  In this Heideggerean version of history it is quite possible for a culture to lose touch with important and revealing practices from the past.  To read the Great Works then, on such a view, is to try to get back in touch with the revealing practices that earlier cultures had but we have covered over.  Homer becomes not a primitive, but a prophet.

Here’s where I need your help.  I’m teaching a graduate seminar this semester that will lay out some of this philosophical background in the context of the readings covered in the book.  The goal is both to develop a General Education course (like Bert’s Philosophy 6) and to prepare graduate students to teach it.  So what are the texts from Hegel and Heidegger that most clearly present this aspect of their philosophies of history?  Naturally, Hegel’s Philosophy of History is one, though if anyone has ideas about how to excerpt it I’d be grateful.  But are there other readable texts from Hegel?  And how about Heidegger?  “The Origin of the Work of Art” is important, but it doesn’t do too much to give his sense of the various epochs.  I was thinking of Basic Concepts in Philosophy, but maybe there are better places.  Any help you can offer would be great.  And any insight into how better to think about this distinction in the philosophy of history would be terrific.

About Sean D. Kelly

Sean Dorrance Kelly is the Teresa G. and Ferdinand F. Martignetti Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University. He is also Faculty Dean at Dunster House, one of the twelve undergraduate Houses at Harvard. He served for six years as chair of Harvard's Department of Philosophy. Kelly earned an Sc.B. in Mathematics and Computer Science and an M.S. in Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences from Brown University in 1989. After three years as a Ph.D. student in Logic and Methodology of Science, he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of California at Berkeley in 1998. Before arriving at Harvard in 2006, Kelly taught at Stanford and Princeton, and he was a Visiting Professor at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. Sean Kelly's work focuses on various aspects of the philosophical, phenomenological, and cognitive neuroscientific nature of human experience. He is a world authority on 20th century European Philosophy, specializing in the work of Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. He has also done influential work in philosophy of mind and philosophy of perception. Kelly has published articles in numerous journals and anthologies and he has received fellowships or awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEH, the NSF and the James S. McDonnell Foundation, among others. Fun fact: He appeared on The Colbert Show in 2011 to talk about All Things Shining. Sean Kelly lives at Dunster House with his wife, the Harvard Philosopher Cheryl Kelly Chen, and their two boys, Benjamin and Nathaniel.
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12 Responses to Hegel and Heidegger on History

  1. Joe Rouse says:

    In developing this important contrast between Hegel’s and Heidegger’s understanding of history, it is important not to over-simplify the contrast. Hegel’s account of successive “formations of consciousness” is not so fundamentally different from Heidegger’s account of different understandings of being (although obviously, Hegel does not understand it in those terms). Hegel does not think the process itself is a rational process in the sense of the transitions being brought about by reasoning. He only thinks that, in retrospect, we can comprehend what happened as making conceptually articulated sense that we can understand rationally, but from within that historical process, it often looks as if one way of living/thinking/encountering the world was simply supplanted by another. Nor did Hegel think this was a straightforward story of progress, in the way your description of how Hegel would have regarded Homer suggests. After all, many of the earliest, most inadequate formations of consciousness (inadequate from the standpoint of Absolute Spirit) only appeared in history as “free contingent happening” (Phenomenology, par. 807) in the modern era (think of the empiricisms of chapters one and two, or the broadly Kantian and Newtonian understanding of ch. 3), and some insights gained at one point in the process get lost sight of before re-appearing in new guise later in the account. Meanwhile, the understanding of ourselves and the world as Spirit (“when [Reason’s] certainty of being all reality has been raised to truth, and it is conscious of itself as its own world, and of the world as itself” par. 438) clearly comes into history with the emergence of the Greek polis, if not before. Hegel is very far from thinking of the Greek world as “primitive,” but instead his crucial point is that it is not “modern.” You cannot read Hegel’s account of the ethical world of the polis against his account of the simplistic and alienated conceptions of faith and enlightenment that were prominent in the 18th C and think of him as conceiving the former as more “primitive.” The modern world brings with it new problems and contradictions (recall his central description of the modern world as “self-alienated Spirit”) that can only be resolved in part by learning how to accommodate adequately (and more reflectively, of course) aspects of human life and the world that came out more prominently earlier.
    On the other side, Heidegger is very far from seeing the transition from one understanding of being to another as something that has no place for reason or reasoning. He just thinks that the normative force of reason cannot be understood rationally (Steve Crowell’s and Rebecca Kukla’s work on Heidegger on conscience is really important here), and he is interested in how our modes of involvement in the world (which are also a closing off or concealing) enable things to show themselves as something at all on a ground that does not and cannot show itself.
    It seems to me the most important difference between Hegel and Heidegger here thus concerns the significance of finitude. For Hegel, what brings about the collapse of various formations of consciousness is their finitude, i.e., their dependence upon something outside their self-comprehension, and the realization of this dependence IS their collapse and transition into another understanding (even though it usually does not show itself in this way “for consciousness”). Absolute Spirit is the achievement of an understanding of ourselves and the world that is not dependent upon anything beyond itself. For Heidegger, by contrast, finitude is the condition of any and all understanding of being. In this respect, “Origin of the Artwork” and “Age of the World Picture” (with further discussion of Heidegger on truth, either from Being and Time or “On the Essence of Truth”) seem to be the most crucial texts. But I would argue that to UNDERSTAND this contrast, you also need to read “On the Essence of Ground” in order to foreground the differences in Hegel’s and Heidegger’s conceptions of reason and its role in history. For the graduate students, at least, there is also no substitute for reading key sections of the Phenomenology of Spirit. I think that some of its key passages can also be taught to undergrads with sufficient commentary and preparation. But if the graduate students don’t have a thorough understanding of the Phenomenology, they are not going to be in a position to teach this comparison in a serious way. I in fact think that Being and Time is much more closely engaged with the Phenomenology than most readers have thought, but that’s a long story.

    • Thanks so much for this interesting and provocative post, Joe. Things are always more complicated than the simple picture suggests, and I’m sure you’re right to emphasize the complications. I’ll be away from the computer for a few hours, but would be delighted to hear what others have to say about Joe’s account.

    • Before I take off, let me try a quick question for Joe. You drawn an interesting distinction on Hegel’s behalf:

      Hegel does not think the process [of history] itself is a rational process in the sense of the transitions being brought about by reasoning. He only thinks that, in retrospect, we can comprehend what happened as making conceptually articulated sense that we can understand rationally

      But isn’t this distinction between what is and what we can make rational sense of their being off limits for Hegel? Maybe you’re placing heavy emphasis on the idea of the transitions being brought about by reasoning. I agree that it is not reasoning that is doing the work. But aren’t the transitions rational ones nevertheless? Or have I got it all wrong?

      • Joe Rouse says:

        Yes, the transitions are rational. The question is what it means to claim that. For Hegel, what it means is that these transitions have a coherent place in a narrative comprehension of the gradual unfolding of reason in history, from a particular historical and conceptual standpoint (that of Absolute Spirit). The “rational” thereby incorporates an extraordinary range of phenomena that would not, understood in isolation, seem to involve reasoning or rationality at all. One can read this claim as an overly rationalistic conception of ourselves and the world, but to defend that claim, one has to acknowledge the transformed conception of “reason.” After all, “Reason” is itself a very long chapter in the Phenomenology, and it presents a sequence of formations of consciousness each of which conceives reason in opposition to other non-rational elements. Each of these thereby turn out to be inadequate. So any interpretation of Hegel as rationalist must avoid (unless a relevant argument is given in support) attributing to him any of the inadequate conceptions of reason that show up in chapters 5 and 6 of the Phenomenology. That is a minimal touchstone for any interpretation of what it means when Hegel claims that history is rationally comprehensible.

  2. Matt Boyle says:

    Thanks for the invitation to read this, Sean. The blog looks great.

    About excerpting Hegel. The long (a little less than 100 pp.) Introduction to his _Philosophy of History_ is often taught as an overview of his thinking about this topic. It is pretty self-standing — though of course it’s interesting to look at the detailed discussion of the different eras. Hackett has a nice inexpensive edition of just the Introduction, plus some related bits from the _Philosophy of Right_.

    Like Joe Rouse, I think your sketch of the contrast between Hegelian and Heideggerian approaches to history somewhat exaggerates the sense in which Hegel thinks of the course of history as rational development. Certainly he does think something like this, in some sense. He thinks that different forms of human culture in some sense embody different conceptions of self, world, community, etc., that the inherent tensions or conflicts in one such conception can be a source of instability in a given life-form, and that a certain other form can embody the resolution that a given conflict necessitates. In that sense, the movement from one form of culture to the next may be “rational”, where that means something like “intelligible as a step toward the realization of a more satisfactory understanding of self, world, community, etc.” But the parties who bring about the downfall of the one form and the rise of the next need not be themselves guided by a conception of this intelligibility, so in that sense, as J. R. says, the development need not be “brought about by reasoning.”

    Also I think Hegel is quite open to the idea that a culture can lose touch with important things from the past, and that a major reason for studying the ancients is to recover things that have been covered over. There’s a sense in which Hegel (like Heidegger?) thinks that the story of our philosophical history is a story of expulsion from the garden, and that our salvation can only occur through first finding our way back (thinkingly) to certain ancient ideas (or practices maybe, though the emphasis on ideas as the primary thing is certainly characteristic of Hegel). Certainly his tremendous esteem for Aristotle suggests this. Here’s something he says at the beginning of the third volume of his Encyclopedia:

    “The books of Aristotle on the soul … [are] by far the most admirable, perhaps even the sole, work of philosophical value on this topic. The main aim of a philosophy of mind can only be to reintroduce unity of idea and principle into the theory of mind, and so to reinterpret the lesson of those Aristotelian books” (§378).

    Hegel does seem to think that our fall from philosophical grace was in some sense necessary, and that our task as philosophers is not *merely* to find our way back to these old thoughts but to take up the matters that the ancients took up in a deeper way than they did, one that incorporates the lessons of the history that lies between us and them. But at this level of generality, anyway, would Heidegger frame things so differently?

  3. Thanks to both Joe and Matt for clarifying some important issues in Hegel’s philosophy of history, and for some suggestions about readings too. Both of them know a lot more about Hegel than I do, so I’m grateful for their contributions. Indeed, I was just listening to Matt’s lecture on the fall from philosophical innocence in the Encyclopedia Logic as I walked in to the office this morning, so I’m delighted to see him invoke it here!

    In my (partial) defense, let me say that I wasn’t suggesting the progress of history is rational, on Hegel’s view, in the sense that it is “brought about by reasoning”, nor certainly in the sense that “the parties who bring about the downfall of the one form and the rise of the next” are “guided by a conception of this intelligibility”. Hegel’s discussion of the French Revolution in accordance with the Idea of Right, for example, at the end of the Philosophy of History, is certainly not predicated on the notion that Robespierre himself was a paradigm of rationality throughout the Reign of Terror. Still, I grant that it is difficult to get clear about what it means to say that the transitions of history are rational, for Hegel, and that I certainly haven’t done it justice here.

    That said, I am skeptical that Hegel and Heidegger are as similar as both Matt and Joe suggest. I’m not able to be very articulate about this, and I would love some help from others. (Iain? Mark? Taylor? Anyone?) My skepticism is founded on the intuition that there is a fundamental distinction between Hegel’s notion of synthesis and Heidegger’s notion of gathering. Whatever Ereignis is, in Heidegger, it must be different from the “realization of a more satisfactory understanding of self, world, community, etc.”. I’d love to get clearer on this if possible…

  4. Bert has been reading the blog with interest, but has yet to master the intricacies of posting and commenting. He asked me to put up the following comment on his behalf.


    I just read your Hegel and Heidegger on History blog. It’s perfect for the first session of Phil. 6 and from here to the course Podcast.

    I have one small disagreement it may open out into an interesting issue. I don’t think Homer is a prophet. That’s a Hebrew job. Homer doesn’t speak for the gods and make moral judgments, although some one called a prophet (What is the Greek? Seer, maybe) does warn the suitors of impeding disaster.

    So what is Homer if not a prophet? He is sensitive to the background understanding of being and lets it shine. Homer calls himself a singer (Greek?). I guess Heidegger would call him an artist, or better yet a poet.


    I take the correction. Poet is the word Heidegger would use for Homer, and since the alliteration still works – he is not a primitive but a poet – I am happy to change it. The job of the poet is to stand bareheaded under God’s lightning bolts and wrap them up as a gift for the people, as Holderlin says. That is, the poet cultivates a sensitivity to saving marginal practices in the culture and creates the mood for resonating with them through his works of art. Somehow I imagine that Hegel has no place for such a role in history, and that this is an important clue to the distinction between Hegel and Heidegger. Perhaps a close reading of the distinction between Hegel’s account of Antigone and Heidegger’s would be revealing here. Anyone have a view?

  5. Iain Thomson says:

    Very interesting. I’m coming around to the view that Heidegger is closer to Hegel than he usually admits, but, at the very least, they still have drastically different visions of what history *should* like from here. Heidegger would not be happy with the idea of reconciling ourselves to an “unending modernity” (a la Pippin), because that’d be to acquiesce to the nihilism of the age. (So Heidegger’s Hegel is closer to Fukuyama’s, with its Nietzschean denigration of history’s “last men,” than Pippin’s, with its celebration of the liberal-democratic political institutions that increasingly reflect the most satisfying means of reaching intersubjective agreement. Heidegger wants a genuine postmodernity rather than an unending modernity.)

    On the issue Bert raises, I think “singer” and “poet” are both right. I recently came across this (pretty wild) passage from Heidegger, which seems to speak to this point:

    “To experience the essence of philosophy means that we enter into the relationship of philosophy to poetry. Philosophy is thinking in the element of thought. Poetry is singing in the element of song. (The first line of the oldest ‘poetizing’ of the West names singing: ‘Sing of wrath, oh goddess…”) The thought of the thinker is in the element of the word. The word is the hint and the ringing of stillness. Stillness is the gathering of being into returning to its truth.”

    That ringing of stillness is what Hebrew prophets hear (the famous “still, small voice” is more literally “the ringing stillness,” I am told), so perhaps Heidegger here wants a view of “poetry” broad enough to include both Greeks poets and Hebrews prophets, but reserves “singer” for the Greek poets? (He also here presents Hoelderlin as a “thinking poet,” someone who straddles the divide.) This is from around 1940: Heidegger, “Das Wesen der Philosophie,” Jahresgabe der Martin-Heidegger-Gesellschaft (1987), 21-30. There’s a translation in Maly, Heidegger’s Possibility (UTP: 2008), 147-54.

  6. Iain Thomson says:

    Sorry, dropped a sentence from that quotation: it should also say “The song of the singer is in the element of the word” right before “The word is the hint and the ringing of stillness.” The point being that thinking and poetry share the element of the word, and so both seek to gather being and return it to its truth (as he puts it).

  7. Cathy Gnatek says:

    Have you seen Gillespie’s book “Heidegger, Hegel and the Ground of History”? A group of us studying Heidegger (have been through all of Dreyfus’s online courses) as well as Wolfgang Giegerich (a Jungian psychologist who grounds his work in Hegel’s thought) are very interested in the intersection of Hegel and Heidegger’s thoughts on history and read your posts with some interest. I am curious if you’ve read Gillespie’s work and have any thoughts on it (I just ordered a copy of his book, haven’t read it yet).

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  9. mcdonald928 says:

    Joe here has given a great response and defense of Hegel’s view. I might add that, despite Heidegger’s poetic brilliance, I’ve found he does not provide a satisfactory alternative to Hegel’s project (still under-appreciated in the Anglo world) to give historical content to modern reason. Heidegger’s attempt to shift philosophy away from reason is understandable in light of modern alienation, but I don’t see it overcoming the outcome of Western history: the calculating mass consumer society. Heidegger may provide thinkers a way of retaining the experience of elevation above the masses, but this certainly does not fit with the attempt by confused ‘post-modern’ Leftists to appropriate him into a political critique in the cause of a universal project.

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