On Giving Hegel His Due: The "End of History" and the Hegelian Roots of Postmodern Thought

By Surber, Jere O'Neill | Philosophy Today, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

On Giving Hegel His Due: The "End of History" and the Hegelian Roots of Postmodern Thought


Surber, Jere O'Neill, Philosophy Today


It has been Hegel's ironic fate to have been, at once, both greatly overestimated and seriously underestimated. On the one hand, the figure of Hegel has been fantastically inflated into something like an Oedipal "father" whose children must slay him at any cost in order to attain their own distinctive voices.' On the other hand, especially with respect to his claim to have "ended the history of the Concept," he has been either ignored or accused of irresponsible hyperbole.2 The view I wish to outline in this essay is contrarian on both counts, seeking rather to "give Hegel his due," which means both no more and no less than he deserves. In this essay, I will suggest, on the one hand, that Hegel's principal historical contribution was to have accomplished no more than bringing to completion the project, first suggested by Kant, of offering a full systematic account of the fundamental determinations of Reason. On the other hand, I will claim that this resulted in no less than a fundamental and far-reaching change of trajectory in the history of philosophy. Put in other terms, I will suggest that Hegel's philosophy both ended the pre-Hegelian tradition's project of conceptually unifying "given" differences and oppositions and, at the same time, commenced the post-Hegelian project of "saving differences" in the face of overarching unities or totalities. Central to my argument will be the claim that, like Kant, Hegel viewed the philosophical Reason of the tradition preceding him (hence traditional philosophy itself) as limited, and that he assumed, also like Kant, that it is only when these limits are demonstrated and acknowledged that new "post-traditional" projects can begin to be defined. Put once more, I will suggest that philosophy after Hegel becomes capable of confronting its "others" (or that which is "different" from philosophy itself) only when it has acknowledged its own intrinsic limitations, when the "history of the Concept" has, indeed, been acknowledged as having ended-that is, when Hegel has finally been given his due.3

My argument will unfold in the following manner.

I will begin by suggesting that Hegel's claim about "ending the history of the Concept" must be taken in full seriousness, but only on an understanding of this claim that acknowledges its own limited scope. More specifically, I will attempt to show that, as Hegel himself insisted, this claim must always be understood in connection with the project of the Science of Logic and not the broader "system."

I will then consider how the "completion of Reason" entailed a radical change in trajectory or redirection of the fundamental tasks of philosophy, a change that we might gloss as that from constructing conceptual unities to saving and exploring differences.

As evidence for this change, I will offer a brief characterization of post-Hegelian philosophy. I will also suggest why the simultaneous "over-" and "under-estimating" of Hegel's accomplishment typical of so much post-Hegelian philosophy has served as a major hindrance both to delineating its projects and making significant headway with them.

I will conclude by sketching, on the basis of Hegel's own thought, how the fundamental projects of post-Hegelian philosophy can emerge in forms that do not require the dissociation from the tradition (and Hegel) insisted upon by the "obsessive anti-Hegelianism" so characteristic of most post-Hegelian thought.

The Completion of Reason in Hegel's Philosophy

For subscribers to the line of thought that might be called "obsessive anti-Hegelianism," it might come as a surprise that, at least as concerns philosophy, the idea of an "end of history" was first suggested by that most humble apostle of the limited capacities of Reason, Immanuel Kant. In the remarkable and almost universally ignored final paragraph of the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant proposes that, with a little help from the friends of the Critical philosophy, it may be "possible to achieve before the end of the present century what many centuries have not been able to accomplish; namely, to secure for human reason complete satisfaction in regard to that with which it has all along so eagerly occupied itself, though hitherto in vain. …

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