This paper aims to study two opposite views of the concept of history, namely; historical idealism versus historical realism. In definition, I regard historical idealism as having a normative and single universal form of society, whereas historical realism leans toward judgement or assessment of society according to its situational contexts.
The paper is separated into four parts. Firstly, as the background of my discussion, in part (1) I will focus on the progressive reading of history by G. W. F. Hegel, and specifically I am concentrating on the Preface of “Philosophy of Right”, as the main text.
As an aside, I am sure Hegel’s concept of history can also be read differently considering the breath and depth of his other texts however, this paper specifically requires me to highlight Hegel’s concept of historical discontinuity.
In this version, Hegel seems to describe history in a linear version based on a rationalistic program. To my mind, Hegel’s quotation of “what is rational is real; and what is real is rational” clearly symbolizes the rationalistic orientation and interestingly too, contains its normative aspect of history. As a result, this teleological determinism portrays the concept of history by Hegel in a closed history and totally encompassing the past/present/future.
In part (2) I will focus on Raymond Geuss’s work on “Realism” as the first counterpoint to Hegal’s view of historical continuity. Geuss argues that society has its historical contexts and that each and every society should be understood in its specific environment, especially in relation to politics. For this reason, I see Geuss indirectly questions the Hegelian concept of historical continuity.
In order to directly grasp the strong contrasting view to Hegel’s historical idealism, in part (3) I have introduced Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History”. Unlike Hegel, Benjamin views history in a non-linear progress and discontinuity. Although Benjamin believes in the concept of a classless society, it seems to be located in the past as a negative utopian concept. Indeed, Benjamin de-legitimatizes the concept of normative in history, and this move eventually leads Benjamin to make a close connection between the past and present.
In the final part of the paper, (4) I would like to suggest that it is inconclusive to imagine society merely through an historical development of rationality. From this point of view, I would articulate an historical approach by looking at the possibility of detachment between historical event and historical time. The idea of detachment does not only allow us to contemplate both historical patterns –continuity and discontinuity– but it also grants us a space to allow us to understand our own complex modern society.
Hegel on Historical Continuity
It is a good idea to begin the discussion of history by looking at Hegel’s famous double dictum, “what is real is rational and what is rational is real”. This phrase has been widely discussed amongst philosophers and provokes various responses and many different interpretations but for the purpose of this paper, I intentionally read this double dictum in the context of a progressive reading and that means I refrain from discussing the conservative reading (Popper 1966) and neutral reading (Stern 2006).
In the progressive reading, this double dictum is read as “ought to”, meaning that what is rational has to be considered as real. In this framework, Hegel believes that society will be gradually led by reason.
In Hegel’s concept of history, we could simplify that reason is synonymously linked to philosophy. For Hegel, by taking philosophy as its main mechanism of social development, society has the capacity to be self-creating in order to realize itself. Accoding to Hegel (2005: xx), this means that “reason as the substantive essence of social order and nature.” Equally, for Hegel, history is an irreversible process. From this interpretation of “endless iteration” of reason, I think that the concept of history is represented in linear motion of history. In fact, this tendency can be easily found in the second last paragraph of the Preface:
“Philosophy, as the thought of the world, does not appear until reality has completed its formative process, and made itself ready. History thus corroborates the teaching of the conception that only in the maturity of reality does the ideal appear as counter part to the real, apprehends the real world in its substance, and shapes it into an intellectual kingdom.”
If we accept this view we can easily understand Hegel’s notion of history in the context of a normative aspiration of society. The double dictum itself by all means is a kind of normative outlook in an Hegelian sense. However, I believe this normative outlook must be understood in that genuine society is structured by reason. In this scope, the social historical involves reason as its medium of development.
To avoid any misunderstanding, I do agree with Hardimon (1994: 75) that the double dictum does not only maintain normativity in an absolute sense, but also stresses that sense in its current social reality. In this case, existing social reality ought to reflect the stage of its historicity. Accordingly, “What was special about the essence of Hegel’s social world was that it was as it ought to be both relative to its stage in world history and absolutely.”
In fact, when Hegel (2005: xxi) enumerates that “when philosophy paints its grey in grey, a shape of life has grown old”, it thus provides us a kind of telos orientation in historical continuity. That is why, Hegel continues to say that “philosophy, at any rate, always comes too late” to tell the world what it should be. If I understand him correctly, therefore, Hegel’s concept of history is expressed to be idealistic in regard to its normative aspiration. Given this interpretation, there is no wonder that Hegel’s historical idealism is also known as absolute idealism.
Nevertheless, unfortunately, there are some implications when considering Hegel’s theories.
Firstly this double dictum seems to project society with a kind of rationalistic manifesto. In this context, society is historically designed in line with the process of civilization. Otherwise, anything outside of the form of reason may well be perceived as uncivilized. Therefore, reason has been the spirit and the inner essence of society in the evolution of civilization.
Secondly, I believe this rationalistic program narrows down social development in a closed history. For Hegel, every stage in society is a synthesis, a combination of separate complex elements wrought together from the previous stage. Therefore, it seems Hegel endeavours to make a closed connection between the previous, the current, and the next. Of course, we may say that the future in Hegel’s model is still open, but the openness of the future history is bound-up with an on-going development of reason. In this case, I tend to believe that Hegel’s concept of history sequentially combines past/present/future. That is why, according to Pensky (2004: 188-189), “Time for Hegel is equated with history, and history is fully disclosed”. This closure, Pensky sums up as “a narrative drama of self-creation.” In other words, historically speaking, the double dictum itself is an outcome from an historical process in which the rational has become the real, and the real has become the rational. And the final upshot offers us some hope for society.
If Hegel correctly defined our historical development, it means that the “maturity of reality” is progressing in our society. For instance, it is famously well-known that Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man is spirited in this Hegelian sense. Although the thesis could still be debatable, but it is undoubtedly true that his book is inspired by Hegelian’s historical idealism which highly regards reason as the central orientation of society. All in all, Hegel’s concept of history provides us with an optimistic view for the future of world history.
Geuss on Historical Contexts
In part (1), I have attempted to explain how Hegel locates history in the context of continuity and normativity and these perspectives assume that history is progressed by the development of reason. That said, I would add that history, for Hegel, is accumulative by time and reason. Yet, this Hegelian interpretation of history is surely ‘rational’ enough, but perhaps too restrictive as its application may be a limit to certain societies.
In part (2), I wish to clarify that Hegel’s concept of history is flawed when looking at the historical experience of non-liberal or non-western society. Geuss has some arguments in defending historical realism, especially in regard to politics. Here, Geuss develops the claim that history should not be universally equated to all societies. In fact, every society is supposed to has its historical contexts. A telling detail here is that history is fragmented through the particular time (period) and place (society). Therefore, Geuss (2008: 22) likely attempts to replace the historical idealism with “the realist approach to political philosophy”. In doing so, I shall lay out three arguments by Geuss on why we need such historical realism in the context of political philosophy. I argue, these three arguments emphasize how history cannot be totally viewed as rational, accumulative and universal.
In the first place, for Geuss, society must not be merely understood in the context of reason. It is of paramount importance to note that certain societies have different perceptions on how to deal with matters of differential choice. To speak of the matter, therefore, we need to let go of the idea that reason is the only way of capturing the social reality. Guess contends that a society is dependent on how their social structures are constructed, perceived and designed in the foundation of that certain society and this is true especially in relation to the concept of political authority. Accordingly, there are actually many forms of political power, depending on time and place. As Geuss (2008: 27) mentions:
“It is probably a mistake to treat “power” as if it referred to a single, uniform substance or relation where it was found. It makes more sense to distinguish a variety of qualitatively distinct kinds of powers.”
Following this assertion, Guess expounds that the substantive understanding of politics does not parallel with a single universal form. Of course, it is true that the medium of reason can be true in one form for one society, and not true for another. So with this in mind, it is perhaps safer to say that society would be better understood by analysis of its “existing social and political institution” rather than to view it solely on the historical development of rationality. In brief, Geuss seems to suggest that reason and society both can be separated in certain social historical contexts and there is no a single universal form which fits into all social models of civilized society.
In the second place, Geuss proposes that history does not gradually accumulate. Geuss (2008: 14) argues that politics is usually based on non-recurrent situations and historically differentiated society. In a similar vein, certain societies have “their own specific context” on how to organise its “forms of action together”. Therefore it is problematic if we attempt to simplify society into a single universal form. In my understanding, if we set history as merely accumulative, thus the history of society cannot be an irreversible process. The flaw of this perspective is that any mistake in the historical phenomenon can be interpreted as futile, wasteful and has no purpose. This shortcoming, as Geuss argues, fails to address the complexity of various forms of society. From the outset, Geuss (2008: 31) pins down that the history of society may be better to be viewed through a “number of phenomena having to do with order, sequence, priority and the temporality or historicality of collective action.” Given that, it is no surprise that Geuss highlights politics as an art for choosing the right moment in the historical development of a society. In order to consider this timely situation and the importance of timing in political action, therefore, I suggest it would be advisable to look at history in a non-gradual stage or non-cumulative effect. To put it another way, history must now be understood in various forms; sequence or non-sequence.
Thirdly, as further discussion from the previous point, I am inclined to say that it is too much of a generalisation to universally conceive society as having the same form for all societies; modern and non-modern. As Geuss understands that every concept of society is hinged on a particular time and place. Still, in politics, besides a matter of differential choice and a form of actions together as sketched above, Geuss (2008: 34) perceives that politics can be used for “collective forms of legitimizing violence”. Given this fact, there are many indirect ways in addressing the legitimization of violence. They vary from one society to another. But the question is: how can we relate this variation in the context of history? The answer requires an example. In modern times, for example, take the concept of the state, democracy, freedom etc., they are undoubtedly concentrated on force as the ultima ratio in legitimizing violence. But Geuss then again argues that every society has its “sense of locatedness.” So, it is almost trivial to see society merely based on enforcing the law. This brings Geuss (2008: 35) to conclude that:
“The legimatory mechanisms available in a given society change from one historical period to another.”
In reality, I suggest that there is no compelling reason to stick on a single universal form of legitimizing violence, in which to be historically imprinted to every society. Essentially, if we wish to avoid such mistakes we need to keep in mind that history must be particularly contextualized according to a certain time and place. As a result, history is not universal as we seem to believe.
Benjamin on Historical Discontinuity
In order to get a stronger sense of objectivity to the progressive nature of history, Benjamin provides us with another, alternative historical realism. In his proposal, Benjamin’s concept of history emphasizes the discontinuity of history when he sets up history as the struggle to preserve the ideal of the past. Furthermore Benjamin (2007: 254) insists that “only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past.” In essence, Benjamin refuses to see history in the progressive reading. For Benjamin (2007: 261):
“The concept of the historical progress of mankind cannot be sundered from the concepts of its progression through a homogeneous, empty time. A critique of the concept of such a progression must be the basis of any criticism of the concept of progress itself.”
Similarly, Benjamin’s concept of history can be viewed as discrete, or according to Trentin (2013: 1030) as a “topological hub in which various temporalities coexist”. The striking point by breaking historical continuity will allow the moment of action to interrupt society. Therefore, the true meaning of Benjamin’s concept of history is located at a particular point in time, meaning between the present and the past. I am fully aware that it is not the first time Benjamin rejects the progressive linear motion of history. In fact, his earliest writing, The Life of Students, Benjamin (1996: 37) notes this tendency by advocating:
“A particular condition in which history appears to be concentrated in a single focal point, like those that have traditionally been found in the utopian images of the philosophers.”
By applying the concept of historical discontinuity, Benjamin has blurred the link between normativity and history. Since Benjamin (2007: 257) appreciates the “state of emergency”, thus history can now be interpreted as negative utopian, or the archaic image of the prehistory. This turning point will allow us to observe such an anomaly in an historical event without throwing out everything from the past. In political reality, therefore, the struggle for making interruption over interruption has haunted the status-quo. Another hint how Benjamin de-legitimizes the concept of normativity is referring to another central idea with the idea of classless society. Here, Benjamin relates the idea of happiness as something that belongs to the past. As Benjamin (2007: 253-254) indicates, “Reflection shows us that our image of happiness is thoroughly coloured by the time to which the course of our own existence has assigned us.” This summary provides us with Benjamin’s imaginative construct about the negative utopian of society: a classless society without domination.
There are some consequences since Benjamin looks at history in discontinuity flow. First of all, Benjamin stresses the need for action by making interruption in society. For Benjamin, the moment of action is essentially political and connected to the past as a source or motivation in its struggle from domination. Therefore, this reminds us of kairos, which Benjamin (2007: 255) pronounces:
“The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again”.
Another consequence, Benjamin considers that there is a “secret agreement” between the past and the present. If my understanding is correct, the past is the background of narrative for the possibility of the present. With this intention, Benjamin takes the past as remembrance, while the present is a redemptive action. The light of this presence also means that every present action is the moment for remembering the past. As Pensky (2004: 180) voices, “the ‘past’ and ‘present’ are constantly locked in a complex interplay in which what is past and what is present are negotiated through material struggles.”
Next, Benjamin’s historical discontinuity can also be interpreted as open history. He does not only open the future for various possibilities based on the present action, but he also opens the past by redemption. To get more sense on this point, Loewy (2005: 115) admits:
“It is not just the future and the present that remain open in the Benjamian interpretation of historical materialism, but also the past. In this case, the opening-up of the past and the opening-up of the future are intimately linked.”
And last but not least, I am convinced that Benjamin’s historical discontinuity, or historical realism, proposes such pessimism. Since Benjamin mentions that the present struggle is to overcome domination, it can be interpreted that society is burdened with a task for redemption. In this sense, Benjamin’s negative utopian in a classless society needs a precise moment of action for us to taste the happiness of the past.
It is clear that in every part of the discussion, I have directly and indirectly outlined the consequences of history with regard to historical idealism or historical realism. Therefore, let me finish this paper by highlighting three crucial points.:
First and foremost, it is not totally wrong to view society in relation to reason, as Hegel perceives it. By looking at this perspective, Hegel favours the unknown future over the past. Yet, I believe it is more appropriate to assume that reason is just one of the forms of the historical development of society. By allowing ourselves to view society differentially, we may see that history has many forms, as Geuss suggested. This strategy, in turn, also allows us to describe our complex society in a more comprehensive way.
Secondly, in a certain sense, I have a strong affinity with Benjamin who proposes the moment of action and discreteness of history. This view enables us to appreciate the moment of action which I think can give advantage to event over time. Following this line of reasoning, I suggest that the dimension of time between the past, present and future could be questioned as well. It seems the distinction is going to be paradoxical in regard to our predictable everyday life or to our future world. In our so-called ‘post-modern’ society, we basically can ‘buy’ our future. For instance, the concept of future has been, slowly but surely, replaced by the concept of risk, which we can expect in our future. A further sense here that the future is structured in advance through the present action: One can think of ecological disasters, healthcare insurance, Gallup Polls, virtual communications to name but a few. In fact, our fast-paced society has saved our thinking and action time by guaranteeing our present actions. With our obsession with ‘going fast’ and ‘saving time’, the future has lost its unique sense of originality. The future can now be labelled as the “future past”. Likewise the “past future”, where the past is apparently matched with the predicted future.
As result, the dimension of the past/present/future may be insufficient to explain our current social reality. I am a great admirer of Reinhart Koselleck’s Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, which suggests that past and future are likely the modes of possibility.
Koselleck prefers to view historical time based on the quality of experience, temporality, periodization or the layers of time. Again, it is not too difficult to accept these terminologies if we can accept Benjamin’s discreteness of history. However, the price of the acceptance has to be paid by the detachment between event and time. What is highly regarded right now is not “when does it happen”, but “what does happen” or “how did it come to that?” In short, we can say that experience and history both begin with the event.
If my theoretical construction holds so far, and this shall lead to my final point, I think it would be plausible to see history as a kind of methodological approach. Here I view the concept of history which can be either continuity or discontinuity. However, the way we experience history is neither with a sense of optimism nor pessimism. Since we are not concerned with time, the quality of event has become much more significant in our everyday life. In fact, we can also look at the relentlessness of event as in sequentially continuous or discretely discontinuous. But the dramatic departure is that the future no longer comes to surprise us because the predictable future is no longer really new; while the past is no longer to be regretted because we can still reach the recorded past.
All of this happens just because our broad present time is now more expansive due to our present modern innovations and actions. With the cult of speed ‘slowness’ has simply become the enemy of our present-day but ironically it could also be our vital panacea for our everyday lives, in the future.
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Benjamin, Walter. 1996. Selected Writings. Volume 4, Howard Finland & Michael W. Jennings (eds.). Cambridge: Harvard UP
Geuss, Raymond. 2008. Philosophy and Real History. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press
Hardimon, Michael O. 1994. Hegel’s Social Philosophy: The Project of Reconciliation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hegel, G. W. F. 2005. Philosophy of Right, trans. S. W. Dyde. New York: Dover Publications
Loewy, Micheal. 2005. Fire Alarm: Reading Walter Benjamin’s ‘On the Concept of History’, Trans. Chris Turner. New York: Verso.
Pensky, Max. 2004. ‘Method and Time: Benjamin’s Dialectical Images’, in David S. Ferris (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Walter Benjamin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 177-198
Popper, Karl. 1966. The Open Society and Its Enemies: The High Tide of Prophecy: Hegel, Marx, and the Aftermath (Volume 2). London: Routledge
Stern, Robert. 2006. ‘Hegel’s Doppelsatz: A Neutral Reading’, Journal of the History of Philosophy 44(2): 235-266
Trentin, Filippo. 2013. ”Organizing Pessimism’: Enigmatic Correlations between Walter Benjamin and Pier Paolo Pasolini’, The Modern Language Review 108(4): 1021-1041