Hegel and the Sphinx: The Riddle of World History

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By Nicholas Germana

Professor Germana’s essay “The Creuzerstreit and Hegel’s Philosophy of History” is in the most recent Journal of the History of Ideas.

In his July 2002 article in JHI, on “Greek Origins and Organic Metaphors: Ideals of Cultural Autonomy in Neohumanist Germany from Winckelmann to Curtius,” Brian Vick effectively demonstrates the importance of the debate over Greek origins in German scholarship in the late 18th century.  The article sheds light on the intensity of the dispute between German classicists and up-and-coming Sprachwissenschaftler who placed increasing importance on the historical precedence and significance of Oriental languages, especially Sanskrit.  The problem for classicists came from mounting evidence that Sanskrit was an older relative of more modern European languages, including Greek, and some thinkers (most notably Herder and Friedrich Schlegel) proclaimed it to be the mother-tongue, the Ursprache of all human languages.  Friedrich Creuzer built on the work of these Sprachwissenschaftler (and that of his Heidelberg colleague Joseph Görres), claiming that the Oriental heritage of Greek culture included not just the language but also the central mythological and religious content of Greek culture (and, by implication, German culture as well).

Hegel Bust Bochum Archive
Bust of Hegel at the Hegel Archives in Bochum

Hegel was among the thinkers who most vehemently rejected Romantic claims about the historical significance of Oriental cultures, an opposition that has been well-documented at this point.  The scholarship of Sir William Jones and other (primarily English) philologists forced Hegel to accept the claims of historical priority, however reluctantly. Unlike the Romantics, however, Hegel rejected the idea that Sanskrit’s historical precedence conferred upon it any special status or gave it any right to share in the glorious efflorescence of Greek culture.  The clearly gendered language that Hegel uses to describe India (invariably feminine) and Greece (masculine in unmistakably Winckelmannian terms) is striking. Following what had become a convention of the day, he associates Indian culture with flowers, and in his lectures on the philosophy of history he likens the seductive charm of this “Flower-life” to the beauty of women following childbirth or during the magical transportations of dreamful sleep.

Hegel’s formulation here appears straight-forwardly Orientalist in the Saidian sense – the Orient is sexualized in terms that subject it to the male gaze, the categories of domineering masculine reason, and subjugation to European power.  A closer look, however, reveals something more interesting about the place and significance of these ideas in Hegel’s system. Hegel’s statement in the Philosophy of Right (1821) that men are like animals while women correspond to plants suggests that his claims about the femininity of Indian culture constituted more than the chauvinism of Hegel’s day, but were, in fact, of systematic importance (§168A).  Hegel’s ideas about human nature and biology are most thoroughly articulated in the Philosophy of Nature (first edition, 1818), and it is in this work that Hegel expounds upon the biological basis of the presumed differences between men sexes.  Women’s biology, for Hegel, is a product of their essential nature, a gendered embodiment of Spirit (this is the vitalism of his Naturphilosophie). While men are active and objectified in the world through their anatomy, women are passive and their being is directed inward toward the unarticulated immediacy of feeling.  While women find the realization of their essential nature in the family, men use the family as the spiritual foundation from which they can venture forth into the world (this relationship forms the core of Simone de Beauvoir’s existentialist critique of modern society in The Second Sex).  The feminine is the basis of historical development and the achievement of male rational autonomy, but remains static and is excluded from this development.

Hegel’s thinking about the essential differences between the sexes and between human cultures was hardly without precedent.  It can clearly be traced back to Kant’s account of the teleological development of human cultures and the historical achievement of rational autonomy (Germana 2017).  Jon Stewart’s article, “Hegel, Creuzer, and the Rise of Orientalism” (Owl of Minerva, Nos. 1-2, 2013-2014) cautions, however, that this narrative is not so simple as it might appear.  Stewart’s interest is primarily in Hegel’s philosophy of religion, and he rightly points out that Hegel’s endorsement of Creuzer’s theories regarding the transmission of mythological and religious symbols from India to Greece brings Indian thought into the rich history of the development of Spirit in human cultures, rather than setting it aside as ahistorical and insignificant.  He is also right to point out that Hegel was one of the most vocal advocates of the need for modern Europeans to engage in deeper and more meaningful study of the belief systems of the ancient Orient. For the historian of ideas, however, a powerful question remains: How could Hegel embrace Friedrich Creuzer without embracing the Catholic romantic orientalism of Friedrich Schlegel (about whom Hegel’s comments are unequivocally negative)?

An answer to this question can be found in the gendered language of Hegel’s descriptions of Indian and Greek cultures.  There is a hitherto unrecognized, but critical difference between Creuzer’s and Hegel’s accounts – the Neoplatonism of the former, and the Aristotelianism of the latter.  Hegel’s thoroughly Aristotelian understanding of the teleological, organic development of Spirit through human cultures was able to make use of Creuzer’s model of historical development to arrive at very different conclusions.  In the preface to the Phenomenology, Hegel dismisses “conventional opinion” that gets caught up in the question of which philosophical system is “right” and which is “wrong,” arguing instead that the “diversity of philosophical systems” present “the progressive unfolding of truth” (§ 2).  From this perspective, Oriental religious ideas also have the “instinct of reason” as their basis, and they have a critical role to play in the teleological development of Spirit toward complete realization and “absolute knowing.” In the Phenomenology, Hegel reverts time and again to organic metaphors to describe the principle underlying this development.  Two of the most famous of these metaphors are, in fact, taken directly from Aristotle – the bud that “disappears in the bursting-forth of the blossom” (§2, from On the Generation of Animals) and the embryo that contains the full potential of humanity, but which can only make “itself into what it is in itself” through the cultivation of reason (§21, from On the Soul).

In my JHI article, I draw out the implications of Hegel’s Aristotelianism, arguing that in line with Aristotelian views on reproduction India provides the inert material, to which the Greeks contribute the efficient cause that actualizes being and awakens its final cause, the development of Spirit toward complete self-realization in human freedom.  Unlike Creuzer, who granted India a privileged status as the progenitor of later world religions, Hegel posited a static subordinate stage of world-historical development whose real significance was limited to its “merely material” contribution to the growth of Spirit in the West.

This conclusion leads in a surprising new direction – toward a reevaluation of Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature, its relation to his philosophy of history, and its place within his system as a whole.  Of all of his major works (published in his lifetime and after), the Philosophy of Nature is seen as the most problematic; as Terry Pinkard notes, the work “fell into complete disrepute immediately after his death and has rarely been looked at since by anybody other than dedicated Hegel scholars” (2000, 562-63).  Hegel’s views on science – his opposition to Newtonianism and his organic vitalism – have not stood the test of time in anything like the way that his ideas on society, history, morality, and culture have. These ideas have lived on and been fruitfully developed by other thinkers throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature, in contrast, is an end rather than a beginning in European thought.

However, Hegel’s Naturphilosophie may actually provide a key to the development of his philosophy of history.  Like inorganic and organic being, human cultures present the objectification and actualization of Spirit as it is “concretely instantiated,” to use Allison Stone’s apt description from Petrified Intelligence (SUNY Press, 2005, xiii). While other contemporary thinkers, such as Herder and Schelling, used floral metaphors to describe Indian culture, what if Hegel meant it not metaphorically but literally? If we map the philosophy of history over the Philosophy of Nature with Indian culture in the place of “The Plant Nature” (§§343-349), what do we find?  Moving “backwards” through less-developed “ontological structures” (again borrowing from Stone, xiii), we find ourselves in the realm that corresponds to Africa, on the one hand, and inorganic being on the other.  (China marks a special case, and Hegel’s thinking on China developed after the narrative structure of the philosophy of history was in place.) Africa, in Hegel’s system, is characterized by totemism and fetishism that never really manage to escape the bonds of merely material existence.  Africa is essentially inert.

Moving forward into “The Animal Organism,” we find Egypt.  In his lectures on the philosophy of history, Hegel makes much of the Egyptian deification of animals, which he holds to be a considerable progression over the worship of inanimate celestial bodies.  Animal being possesses the spark of vitality and subjectivity that is only hinted at in plant life. In a remarkable passage in the philosophy of history lectures, Hegel tarries over the ideas embodied in the Sphinx, with its human head emerging from an animal body.  Finally, in the Greeks we possess human nature and in Hegel’s system we are led to the third volume of the Encyclopedia, the Philosophy of Mind.

There is certainly no precise correspondence between the stages of development articulated in the Philosophy of Nature and the lectures on the philosophy of history.  Hegel’s thought developed considerably as he delivered and refined his various lecture series throughout the 1820s, as well as the revisions he made to the Encyclopedia just before his death.  There is, however, enough of a correspondence to suggest a compelling research project.  Allison Stone and Sally Sedgewick (“Remarks on history, contingency, and necessity in Hegel’s Science of Logic,” in Hegel on Philosophy in History, Cambridge University Press, 2019) have raised compellingly similar questions about how far we should read necessity into Hegel’s philosophy of nature and philosophy of history, respectively.  We might most profitably engage these questions by bringing the inquiries together.

Nicholas A. Germana is a Professor of History at Keene State College in New Hampshire.  His second book, The Anxiety of Autonomy and the Aesthetics of German Orientalism, was published by Camden House in 2017.  He is currently working on a study of the Newtonian influence on Kant’s Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime.

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