Hegel and his dialectic
A Philosophy of History
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
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.