Friday, January 12, 2007

World-Historical

Scott McLemee recently had an interesting discussion of Hegel in his Inside Higher Ed column; he followed it up with a post at Cliopatria asking:

Might GWB be playing a world-historical role even if his stated plans turn out to be as disasterous as they've been so far? Could his actual significance in the grand scheme of things be as catalyst for the complete destruction of U.S. power in the region?


I'm not a Hegel expert by any measure at all, but this set me thinking about Hegel's discussion of world-historical persons in Hegel's philosophy of heroes. What Hegel would say, I don't know, but I think a Hegelian could very well answer Yes (Maybe) to the first question, but would answer No to the second question.

It's tricky navigating Hegel's philosophy of history because we are always in danger of reading into it things that are not there, or that may only be ambiguously suggested. So I'm not going to claim to have an exact description of the world-historical role in Hegel's account. And, again, everything I say here should be taken with a grain of salt. But I am going to suggest a way of looking at it that at least gets us in the vicinity of what Hegel means when he is talking about world-historical persons.

We might, if we had simply thought about it before looking at the actual course of history, have thought that the world would be a pretty balanced place -- very stable, in equilibrium. But that's not the way history actually works. There is an imbalance to it, an asymmetry, a faultline running through all history. This faultline, which makes perfect equilibrium impossible, drives progress; it is what gives history direction. World-historical persons are people who happen to fall on this faultline; they unbalance the world. If human beings were able to achieve complete complacency, progress would grind to a halt and the stagnation of equilibrium would set in. We would be stuck at a given level. What world-historical persons do is throw us off balance. They break complacencies; they take the boundaries that we think are secure and step outside of them, and get away with it. This forces us to expand our horizons to take into account this ability to step outside the box.

Progress in Hegel's understanding of history is always progress in consciousness; this is what led Marx to make one of the most effective and scathing criticisms of Hegel's philosophy of history, that it treats all history as the history of philosophy -- what's called history of religion is the history of our philosophical awareness of religion; what's called history of government is the history of our philosophical awareness of government; what's called history of culture is the history of our philosophical awareness of culture. It's very idea-oriented, and a lot of the strangeness of Hegel's view of history goes away when you understand this. Within its limits, in fact, it begins making a strange sort of sense; it's not particularly teleological, and the whole appeal to providence is very ambivalently introduced -- it's pretty much introduced as a concession to Hegel's audience, making it easier to grasp his point. So it's not particularly providentialist, either. Rather, it is very much about the blasting away of human assumptions about reality. There's a faultline in history; our assumptions break upon it; we are forced to rethink the world; and our new thought necessarily both includes the prior stages and goes beyond them. That, allowing for a certain amount of approximation and stylization, is Hegel's account of history.

So I think the Hegelian could answer Yes to McLemee's first question, if he sees Bush as forcing a break-down in our common wisdom, our assumptions about the way the world works. If Bush does that on a massive scale, he is a world-historical figure; this status is not a moral status (it does not indicate approval or disapproval -- two people in the twentieth century who clearly qualify for world-historical status are Gandhi and Hitler, because they forced, in very different ways, massive changes in the way we understand the world), and it is not a status of rationality or excellence. It is a label that indicates an ability to crumple our worldview by force of will, and the sort of success relevant to being a world-historical figure is not success in the ordinary sense, but success in this destabilization. The Idea of Reason continually intrudes into the world (we are necessarily forced to rethink our understanding of the world on ever-larger scales); but to do so it has to use cunning, and clothe itself in things inferior to it (the forced rethinking generally occurs not from people aiming at such a shift but from people along the faultline of history pursuing their own passions and interests); this means that the entrance of Reason into the world (the greater self-understanding of the human race) is necessarily accompanied by Unreason (people suffer and things go wrong on a massive scale). [This, incidentally, is the Hegelian version of the problem of evil. It is also the beginning of the Hegelian response: because this is all a matter of necessity (in some sense of the term) there is really nothing to do in the face of the massive suffering of humanity but stand in shocked astonishment at the overwhelming and ruthless sweep of progress in human self-understanding. (There is more to it, of course, and I am stating it in a deliberately crudely way; but this is where the Hegelian begins to develop the response.)]

But for the same reason, I think the sort of role McLemee posits in the second question is just not Hegelian enough. What possible shift in philosophical awareness could be brought about merely by collapse of U.S. power in the region, even if it does so? It's just not the kind of historical explanation the Hegelian finds interesting. The only collapse the Hegelian is interested in is the collapse of the sort of complacency that would impede progress in our understanding of ourselves if it were not removed.

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