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. The 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.