When philosophy paints its grey in grey, a shape of life has grown old, and it cannot be rejuvenated, but only recognized, by the grey in grey of philosophy; The owl of Minerva begins its flight only with the onset of dusk.
By ‘the grey in grey of philosophy’ Hegel meant the theoretical comprehension of a ‘shape of life’, and this is, he is suggesting, only possible after the event. It is only when a historical phenomenon has worked itself out that it will cease to be a dynamic and changing reality; only then can the philosopher be confident that it will not assume a new form and escape the conceptual net that has been laid for it. The ‘owl of Minerva’—the symbol of theoretical comprehension—is able to take flight only when dusk is already falling on the shape of life it seeks to understand.
One implication of this passage is that the quest for knowledge of any complex and vital historical reality must always run the risk of prematurity. We arrive at a conceptual understanding of a phenomenon on the basis of what it has been; but if it continues to exist, it may well undergo transmutations which will take it beyond the scope of the theory which we have so carefully and lovingly constructed. Capitalism, for example, has assumed forms in the late twentieth century which were not provided for in the best nineteenth- and early twentieth-century accounts, those of Marx and Weber. Another—and perhaps more surprising—implication is that the claim to have constructed an adequate concept of a phenomenon assumes that no new forms of it are on the historical agenda, and that its future existence will only involve repetition of what has already been. When the philosopher proposes a theory of a historical phenomenon, he or she is implicitly claiming that it has just about run its course.