quote (to explain).

“World history is the progress of the consciousness of freedom.” (Hegel)

Exact quote

“World history is the progress of the consciousness of freedom - a progress which we have to recognise in its necessity.” (From the introduction to the “Lecture on the Philosophy of World History”)1

A similar formulation is found still a little later in the introduction:

“World history represents […][the] development of the principle, whose content is the consciousness of freedom.”2

What is the place of world history within Hegel’s system? [KF)

cf. also the parallel of teleology to the division of mind

The world history is part (conclusion) of the objective spirit (but not the conclusion of the whole system, after that still comes the Absolute Spirit).

See also: Subdivision of the spirit

World history as realisation of human purposes

The purpose/will of humans realises itself in the world (nature and other humans), takes this thereby as means for its purposes.

The world history is thereby the history of these realisations of their purposes.

An immanent measure of the world history results therefore at the purposes (and means) of the people.

Since the purposes partly contradict each other, partly stand in a hierarchy to each other, it depends individually, as well as socially, to order them.

The highest human purpose is freedom

The supreme purpose pursued is freedom, understood in a comprehensive sense: both in the popular sense of a non-obstruction of one’s own purposes by the purposes of others, as well as in the sense of the expansion of one’s own possibilities through more means (and making oneself the mean of one’s own purposes, see for example the last sections of Hegelian anthropology), as well as finally a becoming aware of the content of freedom, with which the area of what Hegel called “absolute spirit” (art, religion, philosophy) is concerned.


What is progress? (KF)

It is interesting to note that nowadays we like to talk about progress, steps forward (German: “Fortschritt”), but often, to stay in the picture, we have lost the sense of the direction in which these steps forwards is being made. So what is the standard for talking about progress?

Hegel, as we see from the quotations above, also uses the word progress, but still prefers the word development. “Fortschritt” (=“Progress”) occurs 61 times in the 20 volume Suhrkamp “Theorie Werksausgabe” (TWA) of Hegel’s works, “Entwicklung” (=“development”) 417 times. A progress would be, if something (here, for example, the world or human history) develops according to its essence/purpose.

Hegel writes about this

“The principle of development contains the further, that an inner determination/destiny […] brings itself to existence.”3

And further:

“Development is […] the bringing forth of a purpose of definite content. This purpose we have established from the beginning; it is the spirit, according to its essence, the concept of freedom.”4

Progress as development of means

The progress of human history is therefore to be measured by the extent to which more freedom is gained in it, both on the side of the means (here there can hardly be any doubt that mankind has made progress with the development of “technology” in the broadest (= means, also includes body techniques, etc.) sense, for example, by passing on what has been achieved in each case and expanding knowledge, especially after this itself has come to consciousness and is pursued as its own goal (approximately since the Renaissance and intensified since the Enlightenment and then the scientific-technological revolution of the 19th century)

Progress as development of the consciousness about the pursued purposes

But more important than the development of the means (which are always only means for an end) is the development in the consciousness of the ends, what constitutes in particular the content of these ends and ultimately the content of what freedom means.

Here, too, there was undeniable progress in the consciousness of mankind with the development of art, religion and philosophy, although, of course, from an Asian point of view, one can say that some things were already discovered, for example, in Buddhism, which only later became established in the “West.”

Side note about the different religions (KF)

With Hegel, it is mainly from the perspective for us, the “West,” the “Christian Occident,” simply because that was the dominant culture/civilisation of world history in his time, and still today. About the relation of the different religions to Christianity (also with regard to a “not abolished” in Christianity) writes for the today’s state of knowledge Hans Küng in his series “Christianity,” “Judaism,” “Buddhism,” “Hinduism” etc. very interesting for today’s level of knowledge.

As far as the religions are concerned, Hegel’s system does not culminate in religion, but in philosophy, because only philosophy is so purely interested in the truth that it can unprejudicedly abolish the true in all religions - which is far from having been achieved yet


Question: “So a regression in this development is not possible?”

Yes, why not? After all, world history is full of them. Hegel’s account of progress within world history is full of minor and major regressions, both within a country and especially in the periods when one culture “supersedes” another.

For example, Hegel states. " There are in the history of the world several great periods which have passed, ’without the development seeming to have continued, in which, on the contrary, the whole immense profit of education has been destroyed and after which, unfortunately, it had to be started again from the beginning, in order, with some help, of saved debris of those treasures, with renewed immense expenditure of forces and time, of crime and suffering, to reach again one of the long ago won regions of that education."5

It is important to realise in what way and by what means there is progress (see above). Then one knows also about the limits of this progress.

Since purposes are subject to a hierarchy and can (and usually do) include lower, more local purposes (such as those of freedom at the expense of others in the sense of group egoism, freedom in the sense of arbitrariness and anti-rational purposes, etc.), progress tends to occur “on the long run.”

Question: “Consciousness of freedom? So it’s not about concrete freedom, but about the philosophical view of freedom?”

Why would “concrete” and “philosophical” freedom contradict each other?

A reflection of what one does and what one wants takes place all the time anyway (everybody thinks about what he wants all the time and talks about it with others, it is the subject of most psychological therapies, of guides for scheduling etc., but also of think tanks, guides and staff departments of companies and governments etc. etc.).

Without knowing what one wants, what the content of one’s own purposes is (and what freedom means in this context), one does not get far, one cannot realise them (just as knowledge alone is of course not sufficient, for this there is the sphere of the Objective Mind).

In the sphere of the Absolute Spirit (art, religion, philosophy), however, these purposes and the content of freedom are made again extra, explicitly to the topic, also by the reflection on what this means and thereby also with view beyond the “short-attended more immediate proving in the just given,” with the possibility to exceed existing limits of the view (by the adaptation/focusing on the “realistic,” given).

This realisation has then naturally again repercussions on the “subjective mind” (e.g. an individual, who lets the teachings of Buddhism become clear to him, probably acts differently than another one) and on the “objective mind” (because of course one also wants to put into practice what is recognised to be right).

Question: “So world history is a matter for philosophers?”

The philosophical treatment of world history (in a “philosophy of world history”) is of course a matter of the philosophers, that is already a tautology.

That, conversely, the “concrete” world history as actions of states, etc., is not only (nor primarily) the business of philosophers is indisputable (even Hegel does not claim otherwise).

Question: “Why freedom as a central value?”

Just organise your purposes and you will see that they are always about freedom, freedom to pursue my other purposes in the sense of absence of obstacles, freedom to pursue them in the sense of positive possibility, means to that end, freedom in the sense of harmony of inner (by myself) and outer (by others) purposes pursued, etc.

(see also Hegel’s remarks on the Subjective Spirit, especially on the “practical spirit” and also the corresponding remarks in his underlying conceptual logic).

Question: “Why not social justice or the quality of social organisation as a central value?”

And what would you measure these by? Doesn’t social justice, etc., also follow from the well-understood, comprehensive idea of freedom?

Question: “Why not politics that wants/prepares to write world history as a central value?”

Of course I can measure a policy by the extent to which it is/leads to progress in terms of freedom.

And of course a politician or a state can explicitly set this as its goal. But this is always based only on the respective partial understanding of freedom. At the latest from the historical perspective we see the respective lack of it.

  1. My (KF) translation from the original German Hegel text: “Die Weltgeschichte ist der Fortschritt im Bewußtsein der Freiheit - ein Fortschritt, den wir in seiner Notwendigkeit zu erkennen haben.” (Suhrkamp TWA Vol. 12, p.31) Sibree translates the quote like this: “The History of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of Freedom; a progress whose development according to the necessity of its nature, it is our business to investigate.” (Sibree 2001, p.33)↩︎

  2. My (KF) translation from the original German Hegel text: “Die Weltgeschichte stellt […][die] Entwicklung des Prinzips, dessen Gehalt das Bewußtsein der Freiheit ist, dar.” (Suhrkamp TWA Vol. 12, p.76) This quote is not translated literaly by Sibree.↩︎

  3. My (KF) translation from the original German Hegel text: “Das Prinzip der Entwicklung enthält das Weitere, daß eine innere Bestimmung, eine an sich vorhandene Voraussetzung zugrunde liege, die sich zur Existenz bringe.” (Suhrkamp TWA vol. 12, p.74) This quote is not translated literaly by Sibree.↩︎

  4. My (KF) translation from the original German Hegel text: “Die Entwicklung ist […] das Hervorbringen eines Zwecks von bestimmtem Inhalte. Diesen Zweck haben wir von Anfang an festgestellt; es ist der Geist, und zwar nach seinem Wesen, dem Begriff der Freiheit.” Again, Sibree’s translation is so free that it is hard to locate the quote. Ironicaly, the quote which comes closest is not from the translates Hegel text itself but from the translator’s forword: “The goal of this contention is, as already indicated, the selfrealization, the complete development of spirit, whose proper nature is freedom” Sibree 2001, p.10↩︎

  5. My (KF) translation from the original German Hegel text: “Es gibt in der Weltgeschichte mehrere große Perioden, die vorübergegangen sind, ohne daß die Entwicklung sich fortgesetzt zu haben scheint, in welchen vielmehr der ganze ungeheure Gewinn der Bildung vernichtet worden und nach welchen unglücklicherweise wieder von vorne angefangen werden musste, um mit einiger Beihilfe, etwa von geretteten Trümmern jener Schätze, mit erneuertem unermeßlichen Aufwand von Kräften und Zeit, von Verbrechen und von Leiden, wieder eine der längst gewonnenen Regionen jener Bildung zu erreichen.“ (Suhrkamp TWA vol. 12, p.75-76) Sibree translates the quote like this: “There are many considerable periods in History in which this development seems to have been intermitted; in which, we might rather say, the whole enormous gain of previous culture appears to have been entirely lost; after which, unhappily, a new commencement has been necessary, made in the hope of recovering — by the assistance of some remains saved from the wreck of a former civilization, and by dint of a renewed incalculable expenditure of strength and time — one of the regions which had been an ancient possession of that civilization.” Sibree 2001, p.72↩︎