Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Hegelianism in Merleau-Ponty's Philosophy of History

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Hegelianism in Merleau-Ponty's Philosophy of History

Article excerpt

Hegel's mediated understanding of history is vital for the development of Merleau-Ponty's theory of history. From Hegel, Merleau-Ponty takes the views that history has a rational structure, and that history's structure is supported by human coexistence. In Part 1, I will show the Hegelianism behind Merleau-Ponty's view of history.

Although his philosophy of history is where Merleau-Ponty owes Hegel his greatest debt, it is also where Merleau-Ponty goes furthest in mocking him. He attacks Hegel in the classic style, accusing him of idealism, of rationalism, of hubris, of messianism. In Part 2, I will explicate three criticisms Merleau-Ponty levels against Hegel's view of history, concerning (a) the reification of reason and its status as an "absolute" operating above actual history, (b) Hegel's method or perspective on actual history, and (c) the teleology or necessity of the rational course of history. These criticisms are not just arguments against Hegel, but ways in which Merleau-Ponty articulates his own view of history.

Hegelianism in Merleau-Ponty's Conception of History.

Merleau-Ponty and Hegel both argue against abstract views of history, which they both define as views that give history a power or force outside of the individuals and that make determinations about individuals on a universal basis without any historical consciousness. In other words, views that make history a supernatural force or entity (and thus make human beings into the playthings of this force), and views that claim that history is the mere sum of actions by historical individuals, are inadequate to the task of comprehending actual history. What must be understood is how history can be the bearer of its own meaning while at the same time be the field of action by world-historical individuals. For instance, both the structure of history supporting dictatorships in general, and the specific appearance on the scene of history of a Napoleon or a Stalin, must be comprehended.

Merleau-Ponty follows Hegel in adopting a teleological view of history as a means of making this comprehension possible. That history has a coherent meaning implies, in the first place, that history has a rationally developing structure, a claim which Hegel put in succinct terms:

What is rational is actual and what is actual is rational. On this conviction the plain man like the philosopher takes his stand, and from it philosophy starts in its study of the universe of spirit as well as the universe of nature. (PhR, 10)1

If the actual were not rational, then the world would have no meaning, and nothing in the world would call for any action; we would live in chaos. This kind of indetermination is inconceivable: to believe that there is no rationality in the world is to be skeptical. Since the world is rational, at least in this sense, Hegel claims the task of philosophy, and in this case the task of the Philosophy of Right, is to give an account of the immanent rationality of the state and history. Thus it is a description of the appearance of rationality in the form it takes in the state. The infinite wealth of the forms of history and the state-the infinite forms of the rationality of the world-are not the proper object of philosophy, which is concerned with rationality itself.

Merleau-Ponty agrees that if history and the world in general had no structure that subtended our freedom, then history would have no meaning, no direction, and "no event would seem to take shape in it, and anything might emerge from anything else" (PhP, 449). Freedom would have no meaning either, since freedom means something only against its background, only where it can be perceived to exist:

Which means that we confer upon history its significance, but not without its putting that significance forward itself. The Sinngebung is not merely centrifugal, which is why the subject of history is not the individuals .... We are not asserting that history from end to end has only one meaning, any more than has an individual life. …

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