The end of history

I am currently re-writing the introduction to my thesis on the end of history. Here is what I have so far:

Sixteen years ago, at the height of the disintegration of Eastern European communism, Francis Fukuyama published his controversial book The End of History and the Last Man, reviving a certain approach to historical reflection that most scholars had considered closed shut for decades. The central thesis in that idiosyncratic blend of empirical data and philosophical speculation was that all signs pointed to there being a progressive course in human history, one which led to the twin ideologies of liberal democracy and capitalism as the last stage in man’s socio-political development. All its flaws aside, the book essentially characterizes the predominant zeitgeist of its time – the political optimism that many had felt through the relatively peaceful years of the 1990s. The end of the Cold War, the scientific advancements in new fields such as nanotechnology and genetic engineering, and the spread of global capital to previously isolated markets all seemed to prove Fukuyama’s argument that democracy and liberalism had clearly won the ideological struggle of the twentieth century; history was truly supposed to have ended with the mutual recognition and market freedom ensured by these systems.

While the most serious challenge to Fukuyama’s argument has come from actual events in the global politics of recent years, the more important achievement of his work was on the theoretical level, namely that it utilized the previously discredited notion of history having a progressive and teleological meaning. This strand of thinking, called ‘speculative’ history by some, although mostly just referred to as the vaguely defined discipline ‘philosophy of history,’ had actually been a quite regular assumption in the development of Western thought. From its origin in Christian eschatology’s appropriation of Aristotelian notions of causality in the medieval period, through the European Enlightenment and the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century, and culminating in the Marxist theories of historical materialism in the early twentieth century, the notion of historical progress has pervaded the way in which history had been considered.

Not long after, historical speculation was swept away by historical reality. When in 1945 Europe began its recovery from a second conflict of unprecedented violence in thirty years those who survived struggled to make sense of how the legacy of the Enlightenment, with its faith in reason and progress, had culminated in concentration camps and totalitarianism. When Theodor Adorno claimed that “to still write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric,” he made a general statement not only about the collapse of culture but also of all Western values, to which the idea of progress was central. Since then, the notion of history as teleological and having an end has become a taboo among scholars and intellectuals. A small part of this can be attributed to the arguments leveled against such methods of thinking in the 1950s by well-known philosophers like Hannah Arendt and Karl Popper, whose criticisms of the Nazi and Soviet regimes mistook the symptom for the cause by emphasizing their origins in certain historicist tendencies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As a result, the idea of a meaningful process of history took on an oppressive theme and by the end of the war, Hegel and Marx – arguably the two most influential thinkers for Europe’s consciousness until then – were almost completely discredited in Anglo-American philosophy and political theory. Meanwhile, their followers on the continent made efforts to dissociate themselves from the particular strands of their thinking that emphasized historical teleology and a possible goal for history.


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