Hegel’s Philosophy of History

Wilkins, Burleigh T. Hegel’s Philosophy of History. Ithaca, 1974.


How Contingency is “Sublated” in Necessity

It has frequently been argued that Hegel’s fear of contingency was so great that he sought either to explain it away as mere appearance or to explain it in terms of its contribution to some higher necessity. Characterizing teleologists in general, Isaiah Berlin has written, “For the teleological thinker all apparent disorder, gratuitous suffering, unintelligible concatenations of random events are due not to the nature of things but to our failure to discover their purpose.” While this is an apt generalization which fits many teleologists, it does not, I shall argue, apply to Hegel: on my interpretation, Hegel believed that some “apparent disorders,” some “inexplicable disasters,” et cetera will remain very much with us, resisting the efforts of the philosopher or the philosophical historian either to explain them away as mere appearance or to explain then as means toward the realization of some higher goal, end, or purpose. For example, we might have to conclude that the disorders caused by Hitler were not apparent but all too real and also that we cannot discover their “purpose.” Our “failure to discover their purpose” may be due not to any real failure on our part but rather to the nature of things, or in other words the “failure” of the most subtle dialectical reasoning to discern how this disorder has contributed to the growth of human freedom may be due to the fact that no contribution was made, that here the results were entirely and forever negative. Hegel, I believe, wished to say: (1) that we use the categories of contingency and necessity in interpreting the world around us, (2) that there actually are instances of both categories in the world around us, and (3) that not every instance of contingency in the world around us can be explained in terms of its contribution to some higher necessity. Of the species man, for example, Hegel would want to say that it is necessarily rational and yet resist saying of every particular man either that he is rational or that his actions even when irrational or nonrational must in every case serve some higher (rational) purpose or end.