Temporality in Hegel

Just something I’ve bee occupied with…

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been thinking about the next stage in my senior thesis, dealing with the Hegelian philosophy of history as a way of supporting my claim that all history is ultimately an ideal narrative formulated from the point of view of an individual consciousness. This consciousness would find itself always temporally situated in the present, and would assign a teleological pattern to the historical past by being the grounding point from which the past could be evaluated. As I envisioned it, Hegel’s philosophy of history could be re-interpreted in this light as the inner, or subjective, projection of reason onto the imagined past as it was known a posteriori. This would be contrary to the common understanding of Hegelian history as the deterministic march of Spirit through the world, which possessed an a priori plan for itself.

Now it seems that I have misinterpreted some of Hegel’s claims. It is true that Hegel’s philosophy is fundamentally ideal, in the sense that it is focused on the role that the mind plays in interacting with the world. However, to consider Hegelian history as the product of a subjective consciousness now seems to imply that Hegel himself was a subjective idealist in the sense of Bishop Berkeley. Berkeley thought that all experienced reality was in some sense a perception of mind and was therefore inseparable from it. As he wrote, ‘esse es percipi.’ While re-reading Collingwood’s The Idea of History I noticed a passage in which he states that Hegel never thought the mind was all that existed; instead, Collingwood interprets Hegel as far more of a Platonist than I originally thought, with the claim that there are independent ideas which shape our understanding of the world. For if these ideas depended on our minds to exist, there would be the chance that they would simply never occur to us, and therefore the world would be completely unintelligible.

Furthermore, my understanding of Hegel’s epistemology assumed something similar to a Kantian transcendental ego which experienced time as an inner perception and therefore itself was a relatively ‘stable’ point to look at history from. I question whether this is so, because Hegel’s idea of consciousness is shaped by interacting with the world it finds itself in, making it somehow already situated within time and space. In The Life of the Mind Hannah Arendt pointed to a tension in Hegel’s philosophy of history between the mind’s constant striving to grasp itself in its completeness in the present moment, as a sort of atemporal completion, and the will’s desire to negate the present and therefore bring about the future. It seems to me that this tension between present and future makes any non-Kantian but idealist interpretation of consciousness difficult to formulate.

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