Academic journal article International Social Science Review

Thinking the World: A Comment on Philosophy of History and Globalization Studies

Academic journal article International Social Science Review

Thinking the World: A Comment on Philosophy of History and Globalization Studies

Article excerpt

It may be that the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel initiated the practice of philosophy of history between 1822 and 1831 when, in his lectures collected under the title The Philosophy of History (1837), he wrote that "philosophic history" amounted to more-or-less the "thoughtful contemplation" of world history on a global scale. (1) In essence, Hegel imagined world history as a singular process. As first developed in The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), global development could be understood as the unfolding of "Spirit," which might be loosely understood as "mind" or "consciousness." This unfolding of "Spirit" happened dialectically; the mind engaged in constant self-reflection, and all concepts and human relations were fraught with inner tensions that demanded reconciliation. In The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel chronicled the development of the different stages of consciousness in the context of the singular mind. In The Philosophy of History, however, "Spirit" became a matter of global culture, or "World-Spirit"--groups of individuals and events interacting with themselves and others at a world-historical level. These interactions, asserted Hegel, could then be comprehended on a global level by the individual standing at the most recent point in "Spirit's" development--the most developed of whom represented the "thoughtful" mind. (2)

Hegel's style of questioning what drove change on a "meta" or "global" scale and how that change should be understood has met various fates. Although the notion of a singular "Spiritual" development in world history was challenged in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries-most notably by historian Jacob Buckhardt, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and sociologist Max Weber--the idea that a larger scale of human development was the ultimate object of the best historical thinking nonetheless remained a central theme for human scientists of the period. (3) Hegelian-style philosophy of history received its most serious challenges after the Second World War. First, as thinkers associated with the Frankfurt School for Social Research (e.g., German philosophers and sociologists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno) have effectively pointed out, the Second World War seemed to represent the Hegelian dream of world comprehension turned on its head. Rather than the achievement of Hegel's cognitive "Absolute," or fully rational intake of the world as a whole, Frankfurt School thinkers asserted that the task of world comprehension lent itself to a "negative dialectics." (4) This meant the ability of reason and "Spirit" to become absolutist or totalitarian. In other words, full investment in the concepts of "reason" and "Spirit" themselves to an overweening sense of historical destiny and moral rectitude could become the basis of fascism and oppression instead of historical "improvement" and "liberation." (5)

Similarly, although generally rejecting the specific vocabulary of "negative dialectics," Hegelian philosophy of history also suffered attacks from French post-structuralism and the discourses of European and American "postmodernism." Posing themselves firmly against models of universal contemplation, figures such as philosopher/historian Michael Foucault maintained that by the second half of the twentieth century the search for a subject which is "transcendental to the field of events or runs in its empty sameness throughout history" was over. (6) "Thoughtful contemplation" on a global scale, Foucault argued, should be replaced by the recognition of the violence, unpredictabilities, and disjunctures of the historical system. Foucault thus claimed the new vision of history to be concerned with what he termed the "regime of truth"--a connection between power and knowledge that included the production of history on a global scale as an artifact of "discourse" and the imagination, and the rejection of absolutes such as "Spirit," or even spin-off's such as Karl Marx's trans-historical "class," in determining social reality. …

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