Narration, Bildung, and the Work of Mourning in Hegel’s Philosophy of History

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Book Chapter

Department or Administrative Unit

Philosophy and Religious Studies

Publication Date



The philosophy of history has long been a marginalized area in philosophy due in large part to the desire of many historians to establish their discipline’s legitimacy as a social science (on the credentials of empirical methods) and the perceived irrelevance of philosophy in such an endeavor. Beginning with Leopold von Ranke’s nineteenth-century critique, Hegel frequently is held up as the paradigm case of these failings of the philosophy of history and all the sins of idealism are projected onto his philosophical approach to history — sins that center on the imposition of a narrative or set of abstract ideas upon the concrete events of history. Despite this reputation, Hegel himself criticizes the historians who impose “a priori fictions” in their research (LPW 29 [VPW 31]), and he affirms that “the sole end of history is to comprehend clearly what is and what has been, the events and deeds of the past. It gains in veracity the more strictly it confines itself to what is given... and the more exclusively it seeks to discover what actually happened” (LPW 26 [VPW 27]). However, he also claims that the philosophy of history is “the application of thought to history,” history viewed through a philosophical lens, which forces history “to conform to its preconceived notions and constructs history a priori” (LPW 25 [VPW 25]). This chapter will examine how Hegel navigates between these two familiar and contradictory positions, and how he presents a philosophy of history that both enacts and recounts the unstable process by which our thought creates what we are.


This book chapter was originally published in The Palgrave Handbook of German Idealism. The full-text article from the publisher can be found here.

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© Cynthia D. Coe 2014