Hegel — life, history, system
Casting Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) in his historical setting is not a generic enterprise, one that can be undertaken in the same way with just about any philosopher. For Hegel more than others, the times in which he found himself were of essential relevance to his philosophical project. They provided him first and foremost with the questions that came to preoccupy him. In this respect it would be true to say that Hegel was trying to think through the implications of modernity, and that his thinking as a whole was dedicated to this task.1 But they also provided him with the answers to these questions, answers that became available at a certain moment in history. In a telling passage, Hegel concedes that philosophy is beholden to its own historical advantage, which may place limits on its normative aspirations, but nevertheless puts it in a privileged position to understand: "When philosophy paints its grey in grey, then a shape of life has grown old, and with grey on grey it cannot be rejuvenated [verjüngern], but only understood; the owl of Minerva begins her flight only with the onset of dusk" (HW 7:28). To the extent that philosophy reflects on a solidified shape of life, it is able to make sense of the lessons gleaned through historical experience. More specifically, Hegel is suggesting that what it means to be free is something we can learn at a certain moment in our own development — and no earlier. In other words, it is only once freedom has become actual that we can know what freedom would even be, because only then has our conception of it proven to stand the test of time, instead of entangling itself in self-contradiction, as previous conceptions have done.
Novakovic, A. (2014)., Hegel — life, history, system, in M. C. Altman (ed.), The Palgrave handbook of German idealism, Dordrecht, Springer, pp. 541-555.
This document is unfortunately not available for download at the moment.