‘Hegel, the End of History, and the Future’ reviewed by Tom Bunyard


Hegel, the End of History, and the Future

Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2014. 270pp., £64.99 / $103 hb
ISBN 9781107063020

Reviewed by Tom Bunyard

About the reviewer

Tom Bunyard works at the University of Brighton and is currently writing a book on the theoretical …

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Eric Michael Dale’s Hegel, the End of History, and the Future is an impressive, extensively researched and well written book. It sets out to refute the popular notion that Hegel announced an ‘end of history’ in his philosophy, and it presents an original reading of Hegel’s work that foregrounds the openness of his understanding of history. The book is composed of two parts, the first of which is chiefly concerned with the genealogy and intellectual history of the end of history myth. Dale demonstrates there that the latter owes more to Hegel’s commentators than to Hegel himself, and states that it is ‘traceable to very clear non-Hegelian [i.e. secondary] sources’ (109). Yet whilst he certainly highlights the importance of Alexandre Kojève in this respect, who is often taken to be the primary culprit, Dale argues that the roots of this idea are in fact older. In his view, and as he indicates in the book’s first part, it is in fact ‘Friedrich Engels and Friedrich Nietzsche’ who constitute ‘the double sources for the “end of history” in Hegel’ (28).

Dale is able to present difficult ideas simply and clearly, and he puts this ability to good use throughout part one. His evident desire to explain and clarify the claims of the writers under discussion can, however, sit rather oddly alongside other aspects of his book. Dale seems to have envisaged his primary readership as able to read not only German words but also Greek text, and often leaves these words and phrases untranslated. In addition, the great space that he devotes to intellectual-historical exposition can, at times, come close to occluding his own arguments. Dale not only explains Nietzsche’s ideas, but also their debts to Schopenhauer, together with the ways in which that line of influence was inflected by Buckhardt and Hartmann. Likewise, when treating Engels’ claim that the nature of the Hegelian system necessitated history’s conclusion, Dale discusses the context of post-Hegelian philosophy, and also treats Schelling at length. Similarly, when Dale turns to Hegel’s own views on history in the book’s second part, he does so by working through both Herder and Fichte. This information is useful and informative, and it would be a mistake to criticise the book for its inclusion. I couldn’t help but think, however, that a little pruning may have given Dale’s arguments more room to breathe.

Those arguments are given greater voice in the book’s second part, where Dale offers a corrective to the end of history myth, and tries ‘to show just what Hegel is doing in his philosophy of history’ (7). Dale does not, however, advance an account of Hegel per se, but rather endeavours to read ‘Hegel contra Hegel’ (5): to present a reading that deliberately draws out and underscores the aspects of Hegel’s thought that point towards an open future, and which thus works against Hegel’s own propensity towards conclusion and finality. This is also a reading that signals connections and resonances with the work of a host of other philosophers. Particular emphasis is placed on the Aristotelian themes that Dale discerns in Hegel’s thought (hence his penchant for Greek text), as the book is at pains to distinguish Hegel’s philosophy from any Platonic notion of transcendence (3, 6, and passim). Hegelian reason, he argues, is wholly immanent within human history, and should not be understood as some kind of supervening force. These contentions inform the manner in which Dale characterises his own approach. He acknowledges that his account differs from the current interest in ‘non-metaphysical’ readings of Hegel, but he also distinguishes it from what he describes as ‘the traditional metaphysical Hegel’: a Hegel of ‘spirit monism and transcendent inevitabilities’ (6). He therefore describes his interpretation as presenting an ‘anti-metaphysical metaphysical Hegel’ (6), and contends that such an interpretation is inherently opposed to the classical notion of an end of history. This is because the latter, in Dale’s view, is reliant upon the assumption that there is a ‘transcendent idea which manifests itself within the course of human history’ (4).

Dale is particularly good, when making these claims, at stressing the sense in which Spirit cannot be understood as some kind of transcendent cosmic puppet-master. Spirit, he writes, is not ‘the game-master who moves the pieces on the board, but the motion of the pieces themselves’ (17); and because there is no ‘transcendent idea’ that would end that motion through its complete instantiation, history, when seen in these terms, becomes a process that cannot end. Humanity does not slowly make itself into something that it always had to be a priori, thereby reaching an appointed goal (20; a position that Dale associates with Fichte (139)); instead, it continually makes itself. This allows Dale to claim that history does not have an end, but rather a succession of ends; or perhaps more accurately (and this, as Dale acknowledges, brings his reading close to that of Žižek (212)), history is composed of a succession of beginnings.

Both Badiou and Heidegger are added to the mix here. For Dale, history is populated by moments, or rather ‘events’, each of which is ‘a crossroads’ (21): a juncture at which sense is made of the past, and at which new orientations towards future possibilities are pursued. This means that the telos of Spirit is not pre-determined, but rather emerges from these events as a ‘call’ towards Spirit’s own futural instantiations (19). Because all such orientations are towards the actualisation of reason within the world, Dale is able to contend that history’s goal is always already here. The ‘Hegelian end’, he writes, is continually ‘proleptically realised’ (4), because at the conclusion of each moment of history, the conduct of the present and the legacy of the past define a new path towards an open future. For Dale, therefore, all of these historical moments (or events) are themselves ends, or ‘moments of culmination’ (224). They are all instantiations of the ‘Hegelian end’ which can only ever be ‘the culmination of the now’, and never ‘the foreclosure of the next’ (4). On this reading, therefore, reason’s full actualisation within the world can never occur at a single, conclusive end in time, but is instead immanent, albeit in perpetually nascent form, within each moment of Spiritual action and thought (10). This then means that Hegel’s owl of Minerva does not take to the skies just once. Instead, for Dale, it ‘must launch into many flights’, spreading its wings every time that the fulfilment of a historical epoch’s telos necessitates the emergence of a new form of life (220).

This is an attractive way of reading Hegel, and it may be particularly appealing to readers of this website who are interested in the similarly open-ended notions of praxis that can be found in the early works of Engels and the young Marx. This is not a connection that Dale pursues to any great extent, despite his lengthy discussions of Engels. In fact, his few comments on Marx seem quite questionable. Dale casts Marx and Engels as ‘system builders’ (77): a charge that could perhaps be levelled at the later Engels, but surely not Marx. In addition, Dale indicates, when discussing Kojève, that Marx’s final thesis on Feuerbach constitutes the announcement of an impending historical conclusion (103). This seems to stem from his understanding of Engels’ famous assertion that those theses contained ‘the brilliant germ’ of ‘the new world outlook’: an outlook that Dale takes to be a final, finished perspective on a history that would soon close with the advent of communism (according to Dale, ‘Hegel cannot have ended history; that honour rightly belongs to Marx, and to Engels’ (74)). Such claims jar with Marx’s call for what he once referred to as the end of pre-history (Marx 2009, 161; cf. Marx 1991, 182) – a condition in which humanity might self-consciously create its own future – and indeed with Marx and Engels’ early identification of communism with on-going, collective, transformative praxis (e.g. ‘Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established… We call communism the real movement that abolishes the present state of things’ (Marx and Engels 2007, 56-7)). Such Marxian material is not, however, the chief focus or source of this study, and Dale’s book is all the more interesting for having arrived at comparable positions by a very different route. To an extent, this is also true for his criticisms of Hegel, which actually seem quite close to those that he ascribes to Engels.

We can begin to approach these criticisms by returning to Dale’s indications that the actualisation of reason within the world does not involve the slow actualisation of a fixed, a priori plan. History is not the slow march of progress towards the instantiation of a pre-ordained rational state qua the kingdom of heaven on earth. Instead, in his view, it entails the overcoming of contingency by rational necessity (contingency is understood here as that which is determined by something other than itself; rational necessity means that which is part of the self-determination of reason (10)). The actualisation of reason in history, therefore, is a process through which the contingent and the given are ordered, internalised and shaped by the operation of Spirit. Understood in this manner, Hegelian reason is inherently future-oriented, because it emerges, at each instance within history, from the sense that is made of the past and the possibilities offered by each present moment. It is, therefore, a process through which ‘the power of what may be overcomes the power of what mutely is’ (215): a process through which the past is, in effect, justified, or at least rationalised, in the light of further moves towards actualising reason within the world. This notion of justification, or rationalisation, allows Dale to hold true to Hegel’s description of his philosophy of history as a ‘theodicy’. History is being continually ordered into an immanent, self-justifying theodic ‘plan’ that writes itself as it goes along; and if that sounds implicitly totalitarian, it will come as some relief to learn that in Dale’s view, any such theodicy cannot hope to succeed. The horrors of the past simply exceed any such justification (232).

In fact, and as Dale makes clear at the very outset of his book, Hegel’s philosophy of history is taken to be a failure. This is because the contingent – which Dale associates with negativity, disruption and historical evil – can never be fully and finally subsumed within the necessary. Hegel’s philosophy, Dale claims, is characterised by a constant tension between ‘the dialektische’ (which Dale associates with ‘a natural process of conflict’) and ‘the spekulative’ (7). Hegel is said to have attempted to ‘eliminate the contingency of dialectical history’ by advancing ‘a speculative vision of totality’ (7), but such an enterprise was always doomed to failure, simply because any such ‘elimination’ of the contingent would erase Spirit’s very conditions of existence: ‘because spirit proceeds and develops dialectically,’ it ‘requires the contradictions of history in order to be what it is. Therefore, against Hegel’s best insights, those contradictions cannot be dialectically overcome’ (7). Yet for Dale, if Hegel fails, he does so magnificently, and in a manner that renders his philosophy all the more interesting and fruitful. This is because the very nature of this failure entails that Hegel’s work contains the elements of a philosophy of history that resists any final closure (hence Dale’s interest in reading ‘Hegel contra Hegel’). Therefore, Dale’s position bears at least some resemblance to the view that he attributes to Engels: for he too indicates that Hegel’s philosophy is possessed of a totalising ambition that cannot hope to accommodate the dialectical negativity that it seeks to enclose (58). Indeed, and despite its novelty, Dale’s interpretation of Hegel stands close to the many writers within the continental tradition who have all contended, in various ways, that dialectical negativity might somehow exceed the bounds of Hegel’s drive towards completion (e.g. Adorno, Breton, Bataille, Debord, Korsch, etc.).

Yet however attractive it may be, Dale’s reading does seem to pose problems, or at least to raise questions. As I noted earlier, he pursues his open-ended Hegel by rejecting ‘the traditional metaphysical Hegel’ of ‘spirit monism and ‘transcendent inevitabilities’. Yet presumably one could argue that a ‘traditional metaphysical Hegel’ is also decidedly open to the future, and that such a Hegel might in fact be rather more able to accommodate contingency. Hegel, if viewed as such a metaphysician, can be understood as having attempted to set out the necessary, stable, fixed conditions of an endless and open process: namely, that of being per se. The Hegelian absolute – the rational structure of being, which Hegel’s philosophy purports to access – continually generates and resolves negative difference from within its own stable unity. It encompasses the contingency and division to which it gives rise, and it constantly resolves such division back into itself. This process does not grind to a halt when Spirit recognises itself within it: instead, Spirit attains a deeper awareness of the rational structure of its own self-determinate existence, and thus of its freedom.

This pertains to another, perhaps more substantial concern. Dale is so adamant in his resistance towards any notion of final conclusion that he seems to undermine Hegel’s indications that human history had reached what can at least be described as a condition of fruition, or of maturity: a condition wherein the development of human thought and social practice have enabled a true comprehension of what reason, history and freedom are, and of what it would mean to actualise freedom within the world. At several points throughout the book, Dale comes close to signalling this issue, but tends to immediately qualify it having done so, typically stressing that there is no conclusion in Hegel, just moments of conclusion. Yet does the absence – or at least the down-playing – of any such claim to have accessed a fundamental truth invite a degree of relativism? Dale’s owl of Minerva might well take flight repeatedly throughout the course of the future, but if it becomes untethered from any such moment of mature self-consciousness, it can, presumably, only hope to achieve a series of contextually specific perspectives on history, all of which would seem to be as valid as each other. Dale is right when he indicates that for Hegel, a philosopher cannot be a prophet (2, 54), but even so, it seems hard to deny that Hegel thought that he had grasped something fundamental, true and unchanging about the rational nature of being. Without that level of insight, his philosophy of history would appear too close to the limited, contextual perspectives that Dale finds in the work of Herder (115).

Despite these concerns, Dale’s book remains an interesting, impressive and detailed study. It is a serious scholarly work, and it will be of use to those engaged with the intellectual history of Hegelian thought. Furthermore, it also offers an engaging and provocative contribution towards the contemporary assessment of Hegel’s philosophy of history.

19 January 2017

References

  • Marx, Karl 1991 Capital Volume 3, trans. David Fernbach (London: Penguin).
  • Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich 2007 The German Ideology: Part One, with Selections from Parts Two and Three ed. Christopher Arthur, trans. C. Dutt, W. Lough and C.P. Magill (London: Lawrence and Wishart).
  • Marx, Karl 2009 Later Political Writings ed. and trans. Terrell Carver (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

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