Richard Rorty on Hegel’s philosophy of history


Hegel was the first philosopher to take time and finitude as seriously as any Hobbesian materialist, while at the same time taking the religious impulse as seriously as any Hebrew prophet or Christian saint. Spinoza had attempted such a synthesis by identifying God with Nature, but Spinoza still thought it desirable to see things under the aspect of eternity. Hegel rejoined that any view of human history under that aspect would be too thin and abstract to be of any religious use. He suggested that the meaning of human life is a function of how human history turns out, rather than of the relation of that history to something ahistorical…

…Hegel’s philosophy of history legitimized and underwrote Whitman’s hope to substitute his own nation-state for the Kingdom of God. For Hegel told a story about history as the growth of freedom, the gradual dawning of the idea that human beings are on their own, because there is nothing more to God than his march through the world-nothing more to the divine than the history of the human adventure. In a famous passage, Hegel pointed across the Atlantic to a place where as yet unimagined wonders might be worked: “America is the country of the future … the land of desire for all those who are weary of the historical arsenal of old Europe.”

Whitman probably never encountered this passage, but he knew in his bones that Hegel should have written that sentence. It was obvious to him that Hegel had written a prelude to the American saga. Hegel’s works , Whitman said, might “not inappropriately be this day collected and bound up under the conspicuous title: Speculations for the use of North America, and Democracy there.” 18 This is because Hegel thinks God remains incomplete until he enters time-until, in Christian terminology, he becomes incarnate and suffers on the Cross. Hegel uses the doctrine of Incarnation to turn Greek metaphysics on its head, and to argue that without God the Son, God the Father would remain a mere potentiality, a mere Idea. Without time and suffering , God is, in Hegel’s terms, a .. mere abstraction. “


  1. Rorty, Richard. Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-century America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1998. Print. 19-21.

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Filed under History, Notes on History, Philosophy, Politics

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