Explaining our Commitment to Dignity through Hegel’s Philosophy of History

Ashli Anda (PhD Candidate in Philosophy)

On Tuesday August 31, 2021, Professor Mark Alznauer, philosophy professor at Northwestern, kicked off the 2021 Modern Critical Theory lecture series with his talk “Hegel’s Philosophy of History as Liberal Apologetics.” Quoted content is from Professor Alznauer's lecture unless noted otherwise.

In “Hegel’s Philosophy of History as Liberal Apologetics” Mark Alznauer investigated whether Hegel’s philosophy of history—or an Hegelian philosophy of history—can help address what Bernard Williams sees as contemporary liberalism’s “absence of a theory of error.” Alznauer began by discussing the nature of Williams’ challenge to contemporary liberalism and then offered ways that Hegel’s philosophical approach to world history can and cannot answer the challenge. Second, he looked at Terry Pinkard’s Does History Make Sense? Hegel on the Historical Shapes of Justice to check whether the liabilities of Hegel’s philosophy of history might be undone. Alznauer concluded that neither Hegel nor Hegelian accounts can satisfactorily answer the charge of Williams’ critique, but his method revealed otherwise neglected resources for devising a theory of error for contemporary liberalism.  

A black and white photo collage of Hegel, Williams, and Pinkard
Hegel, Williams, Pinkard

Contemporary liberalism develops an account of social justice that pays attention to societal structures and distribution grounded in the principle of reciprocity (for more on liberalism and its history, see the SEP entry on Liberalism). Further, and important for Alznauer’s lecture, is that a philosophical liberal is “committed to the view that our conviction of the wrongness of slavery is not just unhintergehbar (inevitable, un-get-aroundable) but correct and universal in something like the sense that scientific truths are correct and universal.” Bernard Williams’ critique of contemporary defenses of philosophical liberalism rests on skepticism over whether there is a justification for the historical divergence between ethics and politics. In other words, Williams thought “contemporary liberalism lacks a theory of error: a convincing explanation as to why everyone prior to the modern age failed to appreciate those facts about human rights that we now regard as basic, foundational truths of liberal morality and politics.”  

Participants of the lecture were invited to share in Williams’ critique of liberalism through a compelling question: In the pre-modern era, were human beings prevented from understanding the existence of dignity such that there was a total absence of an articulated view of slavery? To put the question differently, if the injustice of slavery is a universal truth, why did it take us so long to recognize it? Perhaps past peoples just didn’t have the right ideas yet—the relevant facts weren’t immediately available because theory-building and verification used to take so much longer. But Alznauer quickly pointed out that this reply is inadequate because Williams suspected that if we pay attention to the history of our dignity conviction, we find that the conviction wasn’t developed through “a process of discovery, but of a multitude of contingent causes,” and if that’s true, then the representation of modern moralism’s progress and scientific progress are asymmetric. “So, when Williams says that philosophical liberalism needs an adequate theory of error, what he is saying is that it needs a historical explanation of how we have come to believe in the dignity of all human beings that supports the view that this amounts to rational progress of the sort that we see in the domain of the sciences.” 

Alznauer then surveyed possible Hegelian responses to Williams and first pointed to Thomas Nagel’s suggestion that we need “…an account of moral reflection which admits of progress through necessary stages, which is of course what Hegel argues.” Next, Alznauer highlighted Martha Nussbaum’s claim that if genuine cognitive advances in moral reflection are possible, then Williams’ suspicion that the progress on slavery was merely contingent isn’t necessarily true. With these replies in tow, the investigation continued by turning to Hegel on world history. Hegel's theorizing of history is marked by the unfolding of ideas and a teleological conception of truth. In other words, we learn, and the truth of any matter is seen “in its full actualization, not in its origins.” Additionally, “the consciousness of freedom grows over time.” That is, we come to understand freedom not as a privilege but as constitutive of human nature and “for Hegel, religious consciousness plays a huge role in understanding human beings and slavery.”  

Hegel credits Christianity with “bringing about the insight that we are free as such,” and so, slavery as a practice is impossible to continue without violating human nature; Alznauer points out that “it is consistent with Hegel’s basic philosophical approach to history to claim that Christianity would show itself to be essentially incompatible with slavery only after its full development in history had completed itself.” Pairing this with Hegel’s understanding of modernity as secularized Christianity allows us to give an account of the rise of the modern moral outlook—an account “that is comprised of […] deeply controversial claims” and which implies “that Christianity is the only adequate basis for a modern, rational state.” As controversial as it is, the account does grant us an error theory. That is, the account explains that pre-modern people failed to recognize the wrongness of slavery because they didn’t have Christianity and the account denies that the shift in beliefs was contingent, instead showing that it happened thanks to a necessary, rational process. Consider, again, however, the implication of Christianity as the only basis for a rational state and factor in how Eurocentric and unverifiable the account is, and we must conclude that Hegel’s account is inadequate.   

The cover of "Does History Make Sense?" by Terry Pinkard

In the second part of Alznauer’s lecture, he argued that Terry Pinkard’s Does History Make Sense? offers us “the most fully worked-out [Hegelian] account that also provides the kind of error theory Williams thought liberalism desperately needed.” This account hinges on the universality of freedom, the logic of subjectivity, and tracking progress through the unity of reasons and passions (i.e., if a new social order better balances what we should do and what we want to do, then we should think of that order as having achieved a better form of political life). Pinkard writes that “the moral dimension emerges out of the ways in which various shapes of life provoked struggles for recognition. […] For subjects to come to see themselves and each other as ‘infinite ends’ required a struggle and demand that others recognize them as such…” (Pinkard, p. 149-150). Pinkard doesn’t think recognition is doomed to remain merely ideal but rather suggests that to become real, reciprocal recognition requires “proper institutional and practical context[s]" (Pinkard, p. 151).

Alznauer further argued that Pinkard’s “attempt to revive Hegel’s philosophy of history” importantly builds on work by Benedetto Croce, Alexandre Kojève, and Susan Buck-Morss.

Like Croce, Pinkard is deeply skeptical about the seeming determinism of Hegel’s philosophy, and he firmly rejects the end of history thesis [i.e., that history is a dialectical process with a beginning, a middle, and an end]. […] Pinkard agrees with Kojève that there is nonetheless a logic to history that explains the development of egalitarian forms of political life [and] like Buck-Morss, Pinkard thinks Hegel’s own account needs to be rescued from its cultural racism and explicit Eurocentrism. Rather than broaden Hegel’s account to encompass struggles for freedom outside Europe or at its periphery, as Buck-Morss attempts to do, he reduces its ambitions. Hegel posits that the first stage of history is characterized by the belief that “one is free” and typified by various forms of what he calls “oriental despotism,” and he thinks Africa lies entirely outside of history proper. Pinkard demotes all of this to a kind of orientalist fantasy, one that has no historical value. 

In offering a more “palatable Hegel,” Pinkard gives us an Hegelian account of the modern moral outlook and an error theory that doesn’t imply that pre-modern people are guilty of failing to appreciate a fact of life that they would have found if only they’d looked and thought hard enough. Pinkard’s view doesn’t include “dubious historical teleology or controversial claims about the historical efficacy and intrinsic rationality of the Christian religion.” In fact, Pinkard allows us to take a very Hegelian route around those issues thanks to his use of the logic of subjectivity. That is, it’s precisely because of a rational pressure to understand ourselves and human subjectivity in better ways that past peoples were pushed to see the end of slavery; and that same logic will push us to see the ends of other injustices, too.   

Alznauer concluded that William's challenge to liberalism persists because even the best Hegelian theory fails to provide a “legitimation of our modern moral outlook.” Perhaps, Alznauer suggested, we need an account that both justifies principles and explains why certain social structures prevent those principles from being carried out in consistent and good ways. That said, trying to answer Williams with an Hegelian account uncovered rich resources for thinking through dignity and freedom, social dynamics, and the pitfalls of inegalitarian structures.  

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