Hegel has a famous phrase in the preface of the Philosophy of Right: “Only with the falling dusk does the owl of Minerva start its flight.” (Die Eule der Minerva beginnt erst mit der einbrechenden Dämmerung ihren Flug.) The idea is that a historical era can only really be comprehended when it is complete: “Philosophy, as the thought of the world, does not appear until reality has completed its formative process, and made itself ready.” Only then is Minerva or Athena, the Roman and Greek goddess of wisdom personified as an owl, able to fly.
It’s a powerful image, but seems strange put up against Hegel’s own life and practice. Hegel famously finished his most celebrated work, the Phenomenology of Spirit, “in the middle of the night before the Battle of Jena” – just as Napoleon was moving in and conquering the town of Jena where Hegel lived. Hegel gave the manuscript to a courier who rushed across French battle lines to bring it to the publisher. That hardly seems like the dusk of a historical era – more like its noontime, the bright light of day. How could Hegel be doing philosophy then?
I had the chance to ask this question at a lunch discussion following last year’s meeting of the Hegel Society of America. The answer that made the most sense to me was that Hegel viewed the Phenomenology as a sort of prelude: laying the groundwork for his real philosophical project, which would be completed in later works like the Philosophy of Right. It’s easy to miss such a point since the Phenomenology has been the work most celebrated by later Hegel scholars, especially Marxists; I might count it as his greatest work myself. But Hegel disagreed with that assessment. For him, the philosophical good stuff happened not while Napoleon conquered, but decades later once the dust had settled.
I’ve been thinking about this question a lot in the past few years, because for the first time in my lifetime, it feels like this is an epochal period of history. That might seem like a strange claim since I do remember the fall of Communism circa 1989 – but that seemed to take place with a whimper and not a bang. For one thing, it didn’t have a direct effect on any place I’d ever lived. But more importantly, it was greeted with a sense of calm and certitude: now we know what the new world order – George Bush’s own phrase at the time – is going to look like. We have, it was said, reached the end of history.
Fast forward 30 years, and even Francis Fukuyama doesn’t believe that we’re at the end of history anymore. The world is transforming in ways that are at best exciting, and at worst terrifying. The UK voted to leave the European Union with no plan or agreement and is flailing around to find one; within five years the idea that gender has nothing to do with biology has gone from a fringe idea to being so mainstream that self-professed philosophers demand the withdrawal of articles that question it; China is returning to a cult of personality not seen since Mao; the US President abandoned the country’s staunch allies on an arbitrary whim; he tied foreign aid to a foreign power’s help to damage his political opponents, and this action is likely to go completely unpunished; an avowed socialist is one of the strongest candidates for the future American presidency; Nazis and anarchists are organizing in large groups online and in the streets; an alcoholic Canadian mayor is caught smoking crack on camera yet remains so popular that after his death his brother becomes the premier of Canada’s largest province; and all of this at a time when human actions are irrevocably damaging the global climate in ways that have already led to floods and mass extinctions and will likely lead to many more. I don’t see any Fukuyamas making confident predictions of where this world is moving now. Because none of us really know.
It is in that light that Hegel’s quote is resonating with me these days. Also in the Philosophy of Right preface, Hegel had declared that “philosophy is its own time comprehended in thought”. And it does not seem like these days we can comprehend our own age in thought. We don’t know what it means because we don’t know where it is going. Seven years ago, when the fever around massive online open courses reached its height, I remember myself saying “ten years from now we could be looking back on MOOCs as a fad that fizzled – or we could be seeing universities shut down and replaced by them.” Now that edX’s own founder has declared MOOCs dead, we know which one of these happened, but we didn’t then; we can write the early story of MOOCs now but we could not at the time. And that story now seems writ large for the world as a whole. What awaits us in the 2020s and beyond? A steady global move to soft fascism? A 180-degree reaction moving to global socialism? A repudiation of the current mood that takes us in relief back to the warm seas of the Obama years? A devastating series of global wars? We don’t know. In hindsight it will look obvious, but that doesn’t matter when we don’t have that hindsight.
The owl of Minerva, it would seem, is sleeping soundly in the bright midday sun. I think Hegel would caution us that now is not the time when philosophy can be done well. Yet Hegel did write the Phenomenology during Napoleon’s ride, and many of us think it’s his best work, even if he himself did not. It’s tempting to think that perhaps wisdom is not an owl after all.
Hegel’s greatest follower, Karl Marx, had none of his hero’s compunctions about doing philosophy while the fur was still flying. But Marx’s example might provide us with a cautionary tale. He was convinced he knew which way the world was going, and he was wrong, just as Jesus had been. Philosophers are no better than anybody else at predicting the future, and we do ourselves no favours by trying to claim we know what’s coming. But then that’s not what philosophers are there here for. During times of unpredictable upheaval, Hegel and Marx both wrote great works that remain helpful to us now, in our understanding a world that to them was the unforeseeable future. Perhaps the same can be done in the chaotic era that is our own.