Will we live in a different world in 2022? Of course, this depends greatly on where we live. Ukrainians live in 2022 in a world that should feel both different and like a terrible repetition of what was once thought long ago. Or something you wished for in the past, only to confirm it in your darkest fears. In Western Europe, it is better to say: we live in a world that we feel is about to change. The old rules no longer matter, and the old beliefs no longer correspond to reality.
Hegel as a philosopher from the turning point
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel has this feeling Phenomenology of the soulWriting during the turning point in the Napoleonic Wars, he phrased it very gently: “By the way, it is not difficult to see that ours is a time of birth and transition to a new era. The soul has its presence and imagination with the previous world broken and about to plunge into the past.”
In such a situation the old forms of ‘being and representation’, as Hegel put it, stand out powerfully, precisely because their hold on our reality becomes more and more uncertain. It gets weird, like the furniture you’ve lived with for decades and that takes on new and disturbing forms at night. Hegel believes that in this contemplation of the past, one perceives the concepts and ideas of the era of transition more accurately. But I think the exact opposite could also be the case: that we say goodbye to notions and certainties that, if we’re being honest, we haven’t really dealt with. Who hid how our “being and our imagination” really works.
Is belief in progress obsolete?
Hegel is considered a notorious representative of a certain belief in progress. The belief in progress now – in the face of Russia’s brutal war of aggression in Ukraine, in the face of the dead of Bush and Kremenchug – seems especially outdated once again. Believing progress, as Germany restarts its just-closed coal-fired power plants, and the world slides en masse into a climate catastrophe that is now almost inevitable, almost sounds like a mockery. At the same time, Hegel is a brilliant thinker of historical continuity and discontinuity. This will prompt us to ask: What exactly is the concept of progress that has stymied Russia’s attack on Ukraine? And do we really have that concept?
Because belief in progress comes in many forms. With the naive belief in a linear course of world history we think we are done; We no longer believe in a “world spirit” that wanders from place to place and produces high cultures. On the contrary, we are all more blind to smaller narratives that seem more local.
For many years I taught a course entitled “Advances – Pros and Cons” at Stanford, California. My students, many aspiring programmers in the high-tech industry of Silicon Valley, have always said that they are skeptical about the idea of progress: too Eurocentric, implicitly racist, etc., which is perfectly justified. Only: When it came to high technologies, belief in progress, the sweet tale of the inevitable glorious future, and belief in the primacy of Silicon Valley were there again, with a purity that would have made Hegel blush.
Stunted growth and democratization?
The forms of belief in progress that must now be buried are those of sustainable growth and inevitable democratization. The idea, for example, if we trade with other countries, they will inevitably become like us. It is the modern version of what British historian Herbert Butterfield said in the 1930s Right-wing interpretation of history He said: The soul of the world itself wants liberation, the institutions and policies that characterize the present of the historian in question. For the right-wing historian, the past worked toward only one goal: the right-wing historian’s present.
But since Butterfield first described this form of historiography in 1931, postcolonial historians in particular have pointed out that it is unclear whether the British in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries really believed in this interpretation of history. Or at least he should have believed. Because the idea of a progressive Britain that had to steer other countries (and entire continents) toward the future that was its present, of course, was also a huge invitation to colonization and domination.
Does the story have a purpose?
It was a sobering story: one that encouraged some desirable moves and banished the self-doubt that should have arisen. One can convince oneself, contrary to all the evidence, that the peoples of Africa and India were not exploited, but rather that they were helped to accelerate the course of history – with constant threats of violence, of course, but still. It was a very useful imagination, and the people of Europe who took advantage of it would have believed it because it was so useful.
Because: How much faith in progress do we now think we have to say goodbye to has worked just like this? Did we really believe that subsidizing our consumption and our economies by tyrants would eventually mitigate their tyranny? Or do we just like to consume? And for twenty years, have politicians preferred cheap imports to necessary and sometimes unpopular changes at home? If we think this way, then the reprehensible idea of progress has returned: the signs of the times were clearly visible, and we ignored them. Sure, this is probably a variant of teleology, the idea that all developments are aimed at one goal, but nonetheless, teleology.
Back to the bad old days
For example, should teleology always mean growth, expansion, and improvement? Not right. Hegel thought of it from the perspective of freedom. Freedom means that a person is free with himself in the other. Constant expansion, constant self-empowerment, and constant self-leveling were the opposite for him. Freedom is a kind of surrender. With this idea of progress, the kind of help and support that Ukraine currently enjoys, firm but melancholy, far from triumphant, is perhaps perfectly compatible.
Above all, for us as addicts to narrative progression, moving away from the idea of progress is deeply politically problematic. Very quickly, the unexaggerated certainty that we know where we are going – the glorious and inescapable future – is replaced by the equally dubious certainty that we know where we are going, which is the past. Talking about a tipping point is certainly justified, but it’s shocking how quickly we can understand the New Age as a return to the very old and bad times.
Military alliances, howitzers, and preparations for ground wars that seemed outdated are certainly a sad part of this new reality. But the new reality will be so, and our reflection on it must not be exhausted. Those who are now victoriously calling for the return of coal or nuclear power or conscription may be reminded of the example of the United Kingdom, which is now discovering that you will not solve the problems of a new age by turning back in time fifty years fast. Or in Putin’s Russia, which is currently experiencing how misguided it is to think in terms of rotation and eternal repetition in a changing world.