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Hegel Philosophy of History

Hegel and his dialectic
Thesis - Antithesis - Synthesis


In presenting this page we wish to thank David Burrell for consent to use material from his "A Historian Looks at Hegel Philosophically: A Critical Examination of Hegelian Dialectic, Determinism, and Contingency" ( Term paper, College of the Holy Cross, April 1991 ).


Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel introduced a system for understanding the history of philosophy and the world itself, often called a "dialectic": a progression in which each successive movement emerges as a solution to the contradictions inherent in the preceding movement. To specifically apply this model of Hegel's view of world history, it represents the manner in which the Spirit - for Hegel a total reality that is an inherent unity of a mental or spiritual nature - develops gradually into its purest form, ultimately attaining unto its own essential freedom. To Hegel, "world history is thus the unfolding of Spirit in time, as nature is the unfolding of the Idea in space."

To quote Hegel himself in his Introduction to the Philosophy of History:-
Spirit does not toss itself about in the external play of chance occurrences; on the contrary, it is that which determines history absolutely, and it stands firm against the chance occurrences which it dominates and exploits for its own purpose."
Although Hegel's dialectic often appears broken up for convenience into three moments called thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, these terms were not original to or much used by Hegel himself. This classification was in fact developed earlier by Fichte in his loosely analogous account of the relation between the individual subject and the world.

Without the active opposition of an antithesis working through the dialectic, Hegel asserts, existence is simply an empty task. "Periods of happiness are empty pages in history, for they are the periods of harmony, times when the antithesis is missing." What is left to life is simply habit, "activity without opposition." This then raises a crucial question: how can it be possible to have an end to history? If history ends in the ultimate realization of the Spirit, then all opposition apparently has been negated. Not only has the past already been completed, but the future is foreclosed to any further developments. What is left to life when the final synthesis has been achieved and nothing stands in opposition of the immediate present?

Schools of thought influenced by Hegel tend see history as progressive, but also as a possibly painfully arrived at outcome of a dialectic in which factors working in opposite directions are over time reconciled. History was best seen as directed by a zeitgeist, or Spirit of the Age, and traces of the zeitgest could be seen by looking backward.

Hegel has a rather notable disciple in Karl Marx who adapted Hegels Dialectic away from being related to the unfolding of Spirit and towards Marx's own Materialist Conception of History where the economic factors of human society and the associated social relations would critically determine the unfolding of human history and could only, for Marx, (Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and their millions of sometime ideological followers) result in the establishment of Socialism - hence the self-regarding term Scientific Socialism.