- The Philosophy of World History by Hegel


The evident advances of science stimulated the philosophers of the period to found their theories on solid ground. Some like Bentham, Marx, and Engels based them on social transformation, others, like Fichte, Mill, and Ayer on an empirical approach to philosophy; others, like Hegel, on philosophical systematization.

A majority like Husserl, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Russell, Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Schopenhauer were in favour of a skeptical approach as a starting point. All were looking for certainties but most found themselves facing a question of identity .

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 -1831) lived through several political upheavals: The American Revolution, the French Revolution and the Naploeonic Wars. The Philosophy of World History purports to demonstrate that these historic disruptive changes make sense in a rational progression toward true human freedom. It is the groundwork for his basic concept that reason rules history.

The most significant political event of his time was the French Revolution. At first Hegel was an advocate but the destructive turn of the revolution saw him criticise its concept of freedom. Hegel grew suspicious of all efforts to invent a new world from scratch without taking into account the way the world already is. However much the world needs improvement, he argued, reform should take a more gradual course. He did express great admiration for Napoleon, however.

The significant philosophical event of the time was the “Pantheism Controversy.” A century earlier Spinoza had argued that there existed only one self-enclosed, self-determined, and self-sufficient substance and nothing else. This substance was identical with the world as we know it, but it was also identical with God. Spinozism was accused by his contemporaries of being a form of atheism, and more importantly, of excluding any space for human freedom. This intellectual event left a mark on the next generation, which saw as its task to reconcile Spinoza with Kant, who was then regarded as a champion of freedom. Hegel understood his own project as the solution to this problem: he described it as an effort to unify “substance” and “subject”, and its freedom.

"The History of the World is nothing but the development of the Idea of Freedom."

The Philosophy of World History was originally composed for lectures at the University of Berlin in 1822, 1828, and 1830. The text was first published in 1837, after Hegel's death from cholera in 1831. It presents world history in terms of the Hegelian philosophy to show that history follows the dictates of reason and that the natural progress of history is due to the workings of Absolute Spirit.

The History explains the universe in a systematic way, everything being based on faith. In religion the truth is veiled but in philosophy it is revealed so that humans can know the infinite and see all things in God. The Hegelian system depicts the universe as a cycle in which the Absolute Spirit knows itself as a spirit by its own thought, by nature. Finite spirits are united with the Absolute Spirit through expressions in religion, art and philosophy. Hegel's philosophy of history is very much a product of its times, the more so given the context of "Reason" in which he interprets history.

Howecer, Hegel does not accept all contemporary visions. He rejected existing arguments based on the 'state of nature' which link Greek with ancient Indian cultures or western ethics and Confucian morality. He asserts that this concept of common universal human culture is founded on form and ignores cultural content, which he believes is what makes cultures different.


According to Hegel there are three kinds of written history:

I. Original history

II. Reflective history

III. Philosophic history.

I. Original history 

This is an account of actions, events, and situations lived and personally witnessed by the historian. Other primary sources are used, but only as ingredients. Thucydides and Herodotus are his examples. He notes that the primary task of original history is to create a mental representation of external events.

The author also asserts that there are limits to the category of original history. It excludes "legends, folksongs, [and] traditions," because these are "obscure modes of memory, proper to the mentality of pre-literate peoples." Original history must deal instead with the observed and observable reality of a people who are self-aware and unique, who knew what they were and what they wanted.

Moreover, original history has a limited scope as a portrait of the times. It does not offer a theory about its own content and does not seek to transcend it's own times. The spirit of this historian coincides with the period written about.

The author contends that speeches recorded in historical accounts may be classed as reflections. But He counters that speeches are part of the historical action just like wars. They are integral parts of history set down by the historian who shares the speaker's cultural consciousness.

There are roughly three stages of original history: in antiquity it was written by statesmen; in the Middle Ages monks were the chroniclers; Hegel's contemporary historians aim for breadth and accuracy, seeking precision. They are people of high social standing.

II. Reflective history

This method for writing is "history whose presentation goes beyond the present in spirit and does not refer to the historian's own time." The reflective historian is not a participant in the events and spirit of the times of which he gives an account. Reflective history is divided by Hegel into four sub-types:

A. Universal history

B. Pragmatic history

C. Critical history

D. Specialized history

- Universal reflective history aims to give an account of the whole history of a people or even of the world. But the spirit that unites all these events in a written history is foreign to the time of the events. It rather represents the spirit of the historian's own time. In the case of broad world histories, particular events must be condensed into very brief statements, and it is almost as though the author's own thought is the main feature of the text.

- Pragmatic reflective history has a theory or ideology behind it. The events recounted are "connected into one pattern in their universal and inner meaning" by the historian, and the account actually consists more of reflections on history than simply of history itself. Hegel makes a note here about the concept that history should provide us with moral lessons. He thinks this idea is wrong, and that if history can be said to have taught us anything it is that "nations and governments have never learned anything from history." This is largely a matter of the unreality of the past in relation to the present: "In the press of world events, there is no help to be had from general principles...for a pale memory has no force against the vitality and freedom of the present."

- Critical reflective history is research into historical accounts, a history of history that tests the accuracy of given accounts and perhaps poses alternative accounts. Hegel dislikes this kind of history which extracts new things to say from existing accounts. He points out that this is a cheaper way to achieve "reality" in history, because it puts subjective notions in place of facts and calls these notions reality.

- Specialised reflective history focuses on one thread like the history of art, law or religion. It is a transitional stage to philosophic history since it adopts a universal perspective, dependent on the focus chosen. The history of law, for example, makes this subject the guide for the historical content.

III. Philosophic history

Hegel asserts that it is the Spirit that guides history as a whole. This is the focus of philosophic history which prioritizes thought above historical events, bringing pure philosophical ideas to bear on them. The thoughts that organize the "raw material" of historical events into philosophic history come first and can stand alone: they are a priori.

Hegel views history as teleological, the idea that it conforms to some specific purpose or design. He compares this with the Christian notion of providence. Historical analysis, from the Christian perspective, reveals God’s governance of the world and world history is understood as the execution of His plan. A philosophical understanding of the progression of world history enables us to know this God and to comprehend the divine nature and purpose.

For Hegel, the purpose of history is the progress of the consciousness of freedom. Progress is rational in so far as it corresponds to this development. This rational development is the evolution of Geist (spirit/mind) attaining consciousness of itself, since the very nature of spirit is freedom. Hegel also refers to Geist as the ‘world spirit’, the spirit of the world as it unveils itself through human consciousness, as manifested through a society’s culture, particularly its art, religion and philosophy (Hegel calls this triad the expression of the ‘Absolute Spirit’). For Hegel, then, there is rational progress in history only in so far as there is progress of the self-consciousness of the spirit of the world through human culture in terms of the consciousness of freedom.

Hegel does not mean by ‘freedom’ merely the unrestricted ability to do whatever we like. Instead it is closer to Immanuel Kant’s idea, in which a free subject is someone who self-consciously makes choices in accordance with universal principles and moral laws, and who does not merely pursue personal desires. Hegel claims that if the individuals of a nation merely pursue their own gratification, this will lead to the eventual collapse of the nation.

The aim of world history is the development of the self-consciousness of spirit, which is the self-consciousness of freedom. The crucial point is that the world spirit does not have a conscious aim which it sets out to achieve; rather, the aim only becomes known through the spirit achieving its aim. So the purpose of history can only be understood retrospectively. That is to say, to understand historical development, one has to know the result in order to then trace back the factors which led to it. As Hegel explains, historical necessity then emerges through the historical contingency: the result gives its cause the appearance of necessity. The point is not that  history is predetermined for Hegel, but rather that the purpose of history can be realised retrospectively. What’s more, the realisation of this purpose is the purpose of the very process of history. Hegel not only intends to explain how the past has influenced the present, but also the influence the present has on our interpretation of the past. He points out that we can only analyse history retrospectively, from the standpoint of the present. So he does not think that his philosophy of history should be imposed on the facts. On the contrary, he stresses that we must examine the facts of history (or indeed the facts of any other matter) as they present themselves, that is, empirically and for their own sake. We can then derive our philosophy from these facts, without imposing any metaphysical preconceptions on them. This also means that, although Hegel sees reason in history, this reason can nonetheless only be completely understood philosophically when the goal of history is complete.

The author perceives world history to have developed according to a dialectical process. Hegelian dialectic is often described as: 'a thesis provokes its opposite idea – its antithesis – and together they give rise to an idea that combines elements of both – their synthesis', though he never expressed it in these terms. He called the main feature of the dialectic Aufhebung, a word with meanings including ‘to overcome’ or ‘cancel’ or ‘pick up' or 'preserve’. It’s often translated as ‘sublation’. Any imperfect idea, and in particular, any incomplete concept of freedom, contains within itself its own contradictions, and sublation is the process whereby these contradictions come to be unified in a higher principle. This same process repeats itself as history progresses in a spiral movement.

To describe the development of the consciousness of freedom, Hegel divides world history into three major cultures or epochs. In the tyrannical age, which Hegel thought was characterised by the pre-Greek ‘Oriental’ world, people know that only one person, the ruler or despot, is free. Then the Greeks and Romans know that the citizens are free. Finally, the Germanic peoples (Western Europe), through the influence of Christianity, know that all persons, or human beings as such, are free. For Hegel the concept of freedom itself has fundamentally changed throughout history. And if there has been development in the concept of freedom, there will also have been development in the nature of spirit, since spirit is characterised by freedom.

The author distinguishes this historical development into four particular stages. In the Oriental world, the people knew that only the ruler is free. Since the spirit of freedom was therefore immanent or manifested only within a single individual, whose freedom was realised by an accident of birth, this freedom is thus merely arbitrary. Moreover, people were unaware of the subjective freedom within themselves; and so Hegel considers this the ‘childhood’ period of the development of spirit.

The consciousness of subjective freedom first appeared in the Greek world; but even the Greeks did not realise that all human beings as such are free. The ethical life (or absolute spirit) of the Greeks was distinguished by an underlying satisfaction with convention. People lived in relative harmony with the norms and traditions of society. Yet still this was an inherently self-contradictory way of life, for people did not question the state’s customs, morals, rights and so on, and so they still lacked a sufficiently developed self-consciousness. In Greek society there was therefore an inherent tension between individual freedom and the universal principles of the state. Hegel compares this tension with adolescence. It took the figure of Socrates to encourage people to reflect on the accepted notions of ethics, and thus for the spirit to re-awaken itself.

In the subsequent period of the Roman Empire, subjective freedom was recognised in terms of the introduction of formal rights for citizens. But this notion of freedom was too abstract, above the concrete, everyday world of citizens. Hence, spirit was in a stage of self-alienation. True freedom only emerged with the rise of Christianity, when freedom was understood as the very essence of humanity. So Christianity is important for Hegel, since it is only through the figure of Jesus Christ that human beings find the essence of spirit within themselves and overcome their alienation from God (that is, from the world Spirit). For after Christ dies on the cross he is ‘sublated’ into the Holy (or divine) Spirit, which for Hegel means the community of believers.

Christianity was at the forefront of intellectual life throughout the Middle Ages. However, Hegel saw Medieval Christianity as an archetype of what he called the ‘unhappy consciousness’, due to what he perceived as the failure of the Church to mediate between individuals and God. It took a particular world-historical moment, namely the French Revolution, for spirit to become truly self-conscious; to escape ‘abstract’ freedom and realise ‘concrete’ freedom through the laws as they applied to the people.

So the world spirit has developed dialectically throughout history by a series of struggles with itself. Spirit can only overcome its stage of alienation from itself through realising this very alienation. Each stage was therefore entirely necessary in the development of spirit’s self-consciousness, but the necessity of each stage can only be understood retrospectively.

For Hegel, world history is driven by ‘world-historical individuals’; so-called ‘great men’ such as Socrates, Julius Caesar, or Napoleon. They alone are able to influence the tides of history and drive forward the self-consciousness of freedom. However much these world-historical individuals are inclined to pursue their own interests, they are unknowingly used by Spirit to move towards the realisation of its own self-consciousness. Hegel refers to this as the ‘cunning of reason’. He notes that any individual who actively supports a historically-prominent cause is not merely a self-interested party who seeks their own satisfaction; they must also be actively interested in the cause itself. And this cause, being a manifestation of a given stage in the progress of reason’s history, must result in overall progress towards the realisation of human freedom.

Hegel is using the word ‘history’ here with a particular meaning: the unfolding of reason in the progress of the consciousness of freedom. Hegel saw in liberalism - especially in the French liberal government in his own time - a tension between individual rights and social unity. It seems that Hegel himself rejected liberalism as an ideology, because he believed that it would lead people to selfishly put their individual interests above the universal principles which uphold the state; and so liberalism, at least in his own time, could not be a stable socio-economic and political system. Hegel believes that because history is contingent there are no foregone conclusions concerning the future. And these points surely demonstrate that Hegel did not believe that liberalism was the ‘end of history’, nor that in any conceivable way history ended at his particular historical moment. What Hegel means by an end to history is not that there are to be no further developments. Instead, the goal of history has been achieved: the world is now conscious of freedom, and the world spirit knows itself as the ultimate reality, what Hegel refers to as ‘absolute knowing’. The past is preserved in the present to the extent that it has shaped the present in the development of the self-consciousness of human freedom that we now have.


Historical Witnesses

Hegel dislikes the voracity of original history and even less reflective history, both of which he believes are diluted by the fact that they rely upon the interpretation of the individual. Original history is the basis of all other history that follows it, because it is the original account of the events as the eyewitnesses saw them.

Hegel asserts that reflective history is an even more subjective way of studying historical events. A reflective historian might look at the invasion of Country B one hundred years ago, and conclude that Country A was right to invade them because they are a despotic country that are a constant threat. This historian might well come from Country A, and his version of history is likely to be informed by his own country's propaganda regarding the relationship between the two countries. This is why Hegel feels that eyewitnesses are basically unreliable when it comes to the telling of history, and this unreliability is a theme throughout his lectures.

Divine Providence and Evil Acts

Hegel admits difficulty in aligning divine providence, God's will, with the concept of evil, and evil acts in history. He comes up with the theory that in order for good to prevail and progress to be made there must also be evil, and evil in history is actually creating a necessary unhappiness that in turn will cause positive change. This, according to Hegel, is the only reasonable explanation that allows us to believe in both a predestined plan, and the presence of evil acts throughout history.


Hegel sees the appreciation and understanding of freedom as something that only occurs when philosophy and historical knowledge are linked together. Freedom is also a sign of progress. He lectures that the ancient Oriental civilizations did not know that each individual man is free, and therefore they did not have freedom. Only the Greeks understood the concept of freedom of the individual, but like the Romans they also understood that whilst some are free, some are not. The Germans, according to Hegel, were the first to realize that all mankind is free, spiritually, and that there is a difference between spiritual and physical freedoms.


Probably inevitably given his heritage, Hegel thematically praises the European way of looking at history, and every other area of knowledge, crediting most philosophical developments to Germanic thinkers. He also has a very Eurocentric view of the world in that he relies on European writings and accounts of history to draw his own conclusions about world history.


"Spirit is the “nature” of individuals, their immediate substance, and its movement and necessity; it is as much the personal consciousness in their existence as it is their pure consciousness, their life, their actuality."

Much of Hegel's work is spent defining and characterizing Geist or spirit. The Geist is similar to the culture of people, and is constantly reworking itself to keep up with the changes of society, while at the same time striving to produce those changes through what Hegel called the "cunning of reason". In the lectures, Hegel claims that cultural awareness of Geist originated in ancient Judaism; he thus ties his history of Geist to a narrative of disenchantment and a decline in pagan polytheism. Another important theme of the text is the focus on world history, rather than regional or state history. Thinkers such as Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803) and Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814) had written on the concept and importance of world history and nationalism, and Hegel's philosophy continues this trend, while breaking away from an emphasis on nationalism and striving rather to grasp the full sweep of human cultural and intellectual history as a manifestation of spirit.


Hegel explicitly presents his lectures on the philosophy of history as a theodicy, or a reconciliation of divine providence with the evils of history. This leads Hegel to consider the events of history in terms of universal reason:

"That world history is governed by an ultimate design, that it is a rational process... this is a proposition whose truth we must assume; its proof lies in the study of world history itself, which is the image and enactment of reason."

The ultimate design of the world is such that Absolute Spirit, understood as God, comes to know itself and fully become itself in and through the triumphs and tragedies of history. Hegel is clear that history does not produce happiness and yet the aims of reason are accomplished:

"we must first of all know what the ultimate design of the world really is, and secondly, we must see that this design has been realized and that evil has not been able to maintain a position of equality beside it."

To see reason in history is to be able to account for the evil within it. He argued against the professional historians of the day such as Ranke. Hegel points out that the understanding and consequently writing of history always relies on a framework. Hegel chose to openly admit and explain his framework.


According to Hegel,

"World history... represents the development of the spirit's consciousness of its own freedom and of the consequent realization of this freedom."

This realization is seen by studying the various cultures that have developed over millennia, and trying to understand the way that freedom has worked itself out through them. Hegel's account of history begins with ancient cultures as he understood them. His account of the civilizations relied upon 19th century European scholarship, and contains an unavoidable Eurocentric bias. At the same time, the developmental nature of Hegel's philosophy meant that rather than simply deprecating ancient civilizations and non-European cultures, he saw them as necessary steps, though incomplete or underdeveloped, in the workings of absolute spirit. Hegel's lectures on the philosophy of history contain one of his most well-known and controversial claims about the notion of freedom:

"World history is the record of the spirit's efforts to attain knowledge of what it is in itself. The Orientals do not know that the spirit or man as such are free in themselves. And because they do not know that, they are not themselves free. They only know that One is free.... The consciousness of freedom first awoke among the Greeks, and they were accordingly free; but, like the Romans, they only knew that Some, and not all men as such, are free.... The Germanic nations, with the rise of Christianity, were the first to realize that All men are by nature free, and that freedom of spirit is his very essence."

In other words, Hegel maintains that the consciousness of freedom in history moves from despotism, to a sense that freedom is a privilege of a few, to a robust notion that humanity is free in and of itself. Hegel believes that the spirit of human freedom is best nurtured within a constitutional monarchy in which the monarch embodies the spirit and desires of the governed, and his reading of history locates the rise of such forms of government in the Germanic nations of, for example, the United Kingdom and Prussia after the Protestant Reformation.

Hegel follows a basic geographical metaphor throughout his philosophy of history: "World history travels from east to west; for Europe is the absolute end of history, just as Asia is the beginning." When referring to the east, Hegel generally has in mind the historical cultures of Persia, though at times he does reference China and spends a great deal of space discussing India and Indian religions. However he also said that the view of history (including his own) should be open to change based on the empirical facts available.

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