Gidon Halbfinger, Columbia University
Near the close of the preface to his Philosophy of Right, the famed German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel writes, “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of dusk.” Both poetic and cryptic in classic Hegelian fashion, this sentence, seemingly but a small imaginative flourish, encapsulates what is perhaps the most foundational and impactful tenet of Hegel’s philosophy of history. Hegel’s assertion here, that true historical understanding can only be found in hindsight, seems both obvious and innocuous. Yet its reverberations continue to echo across the craggy, mountainous plain of history, shaping our perception of that terrain irrevocably, should we choose to trust Hegel’s insight.
Hegel’s thought in Philosophy of Right is often maligned as apologetic. Rather than critique the social and political institutions of his day, Hegel defends them, arguing that they represent the instantiation and perpetuation of true, absolute freedom. He fails, for instance, to criticize the patriarchal family, in fact arguing that men are to women as animals are to plants (that is, that men are built to act while women make wonderful window-dressing). Not only does Hegel defend the German family, economy, government, educational system, and social norms of his time (with a few tweaks for ideological self-consistency); he upholds it as the proper instantiation of right, freedom, and autonomy in the world.
If we accept Hegel’s insight into history, though, we ought to be unsurprised by this apology. In fact, we ought to be caught off guard – and even made suspicious – by the few prescriptive claims Hegel does make upon his society. Hegel claims wisdom takes wing with dusk; knowledge of the meaning and purpose of an era can come only at the close of that epoch. Hegel’s project, then, is a eulogy: Robbed of the ability to make moral claims on the future by his inability to understand it, he must instead seek goodness in the dying past. Hegel, for the most part, doesn’t argue that we ought to change our social institutions, because he believes he has no rational grounds for describing the system we ought to adopt instead.
The claim, if we take it seriously, has profound implications. To say that all philosophy, and indeed all knowledge, has only the past and present as its object means that we can make no claims upon the future – and that entering a new moment of history makes all that we thought we knew about the world and its greatest questions irredeemably obsolete.
Yet, despite its disastrous epistemic consequences, the claim is immediately compelling. The objects of all philosophical understanding are, by necessity, only those things which we have experienced. Indeed, the idea that we can achieve new understanding of freedom and virtue without historical catalysts seems altogether naïve, requiring too much faith in human creativity and the Godlike ability to create something from nothing. Unless we accept that a universal, immutable natural law can be rationally deduced from those principles we already know, how can we accept any theory that makes universal moral claims? And does history not scream at us that those moral systems we assume transcend eras, which we believe to be deduced flawlessly from unquestionable axioms, unfailingly crumble with time? Already, many see Hegel’s emphasis on the nation-state as outmoded and dangerous. Even those who take a more conservative stance on nationalism see his condemnation of women in the political sphere as plainly oppressive and archaic. We defend Hegel, like the countless other philosophers who fall short of modern moral sensibilities, as a ‘product of his time’ – and perhaps what distinguishes Hegel from those others is simply his ability to recognize that fact before he, too, was swept away by the sands of time.
At the same time, however, there is reason to be skeptical of Hegel’s claim. The mere fact that no thinker who has claimed his system of values, virtues, freedom, and ethics to be universally valid has been met with enduring consensus does not mean that the project is impossible, just that it’s a lofty goal which has not yet been met. Furthermore, the fact that modern society frowns upon the moral tenets of a particular philosopher does not on its own invalidate those tenets. More importantly, though, even as comprehensive philosophies of right fail to stand the test of time fully intact, elements persist. Subscribing fully to the idea that true understanding comes only with hindsight means believing that those still-current moral tenets of the Talmud, of Aquinas, and of Locke are the result of an epistemically-unsound happy accident which makes them seem applicable in our own era, or that they remain true only because those thinkers’ eras, sublated by the historical dialectic, are quietly undergirding our own. Both options deny any philosophical achievement to any of these texts beyond an exceptional understanding and interpretation of the past. It is this praise that Hegel gives to Plato’s Republic – because for Hegel any higher praise, any notion of sound, enduring ideas, is blasphemous.
We have proven time and again that we do make moral claims upon the future. The Bible enshrines the sacredness of human life, and even the most left-wing Hegelian would not dare argue that murder might become laudable in the future. But where does such certainty come from? If all our knowledge comes from ideas and events that have already been played out, how can we make claims about what is yet to come? Can I tell my child truthfully that murder is and always will be wrong, never knowing what future events might shape her thought and understanding in a way that I could never imagine?
The idea that future events and ideas might shape our understanding is not anathema to the notion of enduring principles of right and freedom. What is poisonous, however, is that idea combined with another that undergirds Hegel’s thought: the notion that, over time, our moral ideas necessarily progress.
My children’s experiences may well vary from my own, and my grandchildren’s from theirs. Those experiences will likely lead us to different conclusions on a host of issues, and none of us will be able to predict the experiences – and therefore moral inclinations – of the next generation. But what makes our own experiences and conclusions more worthy than those of our antecedents, and less correct than those of our successors? One might argue that we accumulate knowledge over time, and that more knowledge will necessarily lead to more advanced and therefore better answers to the questions of ethics that Hegel thinks are impossible to answer without historical contingence.
But over time, we do not simply accumulate knowledge. We forget as well. As we move closer to understanding, we move further from tradition. Leo Strauss, for one, understood this, and rejected the notion of moral progress outright. Strauss argues that there is no reason whatsoever to believe in moral progress, and that continual large-scale manifestations of obvious evil in the world (for Strauss, the obvious example is the Holocaust) provide ample evidence to disbelieve the notion that humanity is becoming gradually more good. Yet, even as humanity perhaps does not act more morally over time, our collective conscience certainly develops: One need to look only at historical arc of philosophical justifications for slavery to see that modernity brings new willingness to condemn what was once considered perfectly ethical.
But while few today would jump at an invitation to defend slavery from a moral standpoint, it’s difficult to articulate a notion of why those who engaged in the repugnant enterprise ought to have refrained, given the moral philosophy of their time. Any condemnation of slave-owners in the centuries before contemporary moral philosophy must appeal to enduring moral principles that ought to have been self-evident to those slave-holders. After all, how can we hold people responsible for moral principles that they could not possibly have been aware of? Yet Hegel argues that very thing, that the discovery of newer, better moral principles is historically contingent. Accepting Hegel’s argument, then, doesn’t simply force us to accept the moral dictates of the future; it also forces us to condone many of the atrocities of the past.
It is impossible to confidently settle the veracity of Hegel’s sweeping claim. If the owl of Minerva flies in daylight, its flight is cloaked in controversy: It has never been possible to establish a universally recognized, timeless system of ethics, because the criteria for the validity of such a system are the subject of unending debate. Yet neither can we argue that it is impossible for morality to transcend history – there, too, we lack the tools to make certain statements.
While Hegel’s historicist intuition might have epistemic validity, then, it is far from proven – and understanding the full implications of Hegel’s argument ought to be an important precondition to accepting it. Is Hegel’s nod to hindsight compelling enough to merit abandoning our authority to critique the past and our claim upon the mores of the future? There are no clear answers. But the question is one we must grapple with, and soon – before the owl of Minerva takes flight, leaving our own inquiry buried in the golden dust of sunset.
 See, for example, Strauss’ essay Progress or Return?, from Jewish Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity: Essays and Lectures in Modern Jewish Thought, ed. Kenneth Hart Green, SUNY Press (Albany, 1997), 87-136 (and page 96 in particular).