The Rise of Rational Historicism

18 Mar

I was trying to study for my Modernity & Postmodernity class but really didn’t know how to go about it. So, I just wrote up a bunch of stuff I thought would be relevant for the exam as a sort of review. I start with Rousseau and end with a blurb on Hegel.  It is admittedly very long. Reading it will win my affection and some extra life points. (Really, my affection = life points.) Also, it is completely un-edited. And I don’t intend to do so. Here it is:


We have traced the roots of Rational Historicism from Rousseau to Hegel. Rousseau, while not an historicist, asked the fundamental questions which led to the work Kant and Hegel – which lead to Kant’s proto philosophy of history and then to Hegel’s full blown philosophy of history.

Rousseau’s central, essential contribution, to historicism was his notion of the perfectibility of man.

Man’s perfectibility does not mean man can become perfect. Rather, it means that man has potential talents, abilities, etc. that can be developed but were not present at the inception of the species. Man qua man isn’t a great mathematician, has no real notion of a systematic mathematics. Man qua man couldn’t construct ladders or build houses. Absolute circumstance un-locked man’s various potentials and thus he improved over time. BUT this was not a necessary progress – man did not have to learn how to sail, did not have to create the concept of money. Nothing in history, the passage of time, necessitated man pull himself out of even his most primitive state.

Furthermore, with the increase of man’s various powers man seems to have become more wicked. That is not to say that man’s nature has changed but that his various creations have either enervated his innate physical strengths or given him a disguise under which he may hide his greed and desire for self-aggrandizement. Both of these wickedness’ were not even originally present, but only became passions once men began to live with one another. But the less man has developed different codes of conduct, elaborate fashions, etc. the fewer guises he possessed to hide those passions born of society.

With the increase of enlightenment man experienced an increase in moral corruption. He separated, permanently, intellectual progress and moral progress.

In the end, Rousseau’s critique takes nature away from man, that is, man can no longer find meaning in nature. The enlightenment killed the possibility of him finding it in revelation; Rousseau killed the possibility of him finding it in enlightenment.

Wait, in what way does Rousseau take nature away? From what has been said it would seem that he only destroyed the notion that the growth of enlightenment corrupted men and their society with one another – that the growth of enlightenment is the source of moral (read: spiritual) inequality. (As opposed to physical inequality. “Why, your muscles and natural talents are quite less then mine.”)

The way Rousseau places enlightenment on trial is by showing man’s incapacity to appropriate meaning from nature. Through accepting the most fundamental hypothesis of the Enlightenment – that nature is a careless mechanical process – he shows that all the fellows (Hobbes and Locke) who based their theories of govt on that nature missed the mark.

DETOUR – Locke

Civil government is founded upon the Social Compact which is a compact between men for the protection of the Natural Rights. Men, through the light of reason (read: definitely not revelation) may discover that each man is in the possession of a certain set of rights. There are some things that no man will Ever Relinquish willingly and we will call those inalienable, ergo, those are the rights civil society must protect. The other pleasures of absolute freedom (murdering your neighbor in his sleep and taking all his shit) men must now forego in order to live together. Life, Liberty and Property being protected, humankind will thrive. I figured all of this out through simply looking at the nature of man and using Sovereign Reason. Eat it Maimonides, Aquinas, Jesus and all you other mother… (Wait! Locke was an Englishman. He would never have spoken like an American inner city youth.) Cheers!


By showing that Locke’s “natural man” was really just a dude in the wilderness who had all the affections of civilized man (greed, pride, desire for honor, AMOUR PROPRE!!) Rousseau brings into question whether we can look to nature to uncover codes of conduct for man and society. In fact, by positing a very minimalistic, innocent and naïve natural man, Rousseau comes up with different ways of thinking about man, ways much nearer to the ancients but not exact. These differences, though, are not relevant to the course.

SO, man has no place to find meaning. His nature is cloudy and indiscernible. Furthermore, all the principles Enlightenment thinkers drew from nature only made man more enlightened and more powerful. Fundamentally, if natural man is apolitical and primitive any meaning drawn from nature must also be primitive, amoral and apolitical. Nature tells us to eat, relax, make babies and avoid dying. It doesn’t teach us virtue or the basic morality of natural rights. Locke “makes men philosophers before he makes them men.”

Also, our rationality doesn’t separate us from the animals. Our freedom is our characteristic trait, the possibility of acting arbitrarily.

ENTER KANT – “I like morality. I also like enlightenment.”

Kant grants the “facts” to Rousseau. Revelation and Nature are insufficient grounds for the establishment of a human telos. But he is unwilling to relinquish either enlightenment or moral development. What does he do? Provides a synthesis, which happily yields a purer morality founded upon an increase in enlightenment.

We begin in the beginning with Kant, in the Garden of Eden. Here, man does not so much rebel from God as today’s Christians portray it but rather falls from a state of perfect innocence. (See Maimonides for good refutation of Kant’s nonsense)

Kant picks up on Rousseau’s notion of perfectibility, of freedom, as the distinguishing mark between men and beasts. This freedom first asserts itself in the Garden. Man learns he can act upon his own volition. BUT man is still intended to grow into a moral animal. The only problem is that man’s MORAL VOCATION is in conflict with nature. That is, nature not only provides no meaning to man it actually impedes his moral development.

So, if Kant accepts that revelation and nature are insufficient where does man find his meaning? Well, if we keep in mind that nature is an impediment to man’s ultimate vocation – the realization of his true meaning – nature must be conquered. Wait? Isn’t that what enlightenment was doing? Haven’t we, through time, been gaining more and more power over the whims of nature? Why yes we have, in fact, it seems almost like history is the story of a slow enlightenment of man. As history has progressed man has acquired new knowledge and has created new ways of alleviating the hardships first brought on by the fall. (Tiresome manual labor, painful child-birth, scarcity of food, dominating males, etc.)

So, why does it matter that history is propelling man in his mastery over the ills of nature? Nature is an impediment to our moral development, to our moral vocation. Nature hides our meaning. (This is kind of true for Kant, but in the end nature and man’s meaning are reconciled. But I don’t really understand how this works; I hope it isn’t central to any part of the test.)

To act morally man must act from his freedom, from his innate autonomy. That means that any external impetus to moral action degrades the quality of that action. “I helped the old lady across the street because I think she is smoking hot” is not as pure as “I helped the old lady across the street because it was my duty to do so, I willed that such an action occur and treated her as an end in herself rather than a means.” This example turns out to be a faulty one because this is an imperfect manifestation of the categorical imperative. Why? Because you cannot will that all people at all times help the old lady across the street. (For various reasons, this simply isn’t a necessary action – you are not necessarily duty bound.) A better example would be: “I told the truth to her because if I lied I would make lying a moral possibility for all people at all times.”

What does this have to do with overcoming nature exactly?

Subject to nature, man often acts in moral or heroic ways because he must or it is simply his best option. Essentially, our subjection to nature makes us incapable of acting as autonomous, completely free, individuals who will our own actions. Just like a slave told to take out the garbage does not act out of benevolence so to do men who act virtuously because it is in their interest to do so. This also applies to Revelation, that is, you are actions aren’t purely moral when you act out of piety or fear of God.

The upshot is this: our innate freedom and our ability to will become consistent. That’s right, as things stand in our imperfect historical position, many times the actions of others or even our own actions will impair our ability to will in the future.  (Have you ever seen I Love Lucy? Where Lucy gets trapped in one lie after another? Yea, it’s kind of like that. If you follow the categorical imperative that won’t happen. BUT you can’t follow it in the hopes of that happening because that is a reason apart from the simple duty to act rightly.)

Kant comes up with what he call “Unsocial Sociability,” which is really not a far cry from Rousseau’s Amour Propre (or Smith’s invisible hand). Essentially, men live together but at the same time always want to be better than one another, are always competing. Through immoral passions (greed, desire for dominance, honor, etc.) men have developed their faculties and pushed the progression of history. The question is, whether man is pushing himself or whether there is a meaning to his development. For Kant there must be meaning or else Rousseau could still be correct. The progress cannot end here because here is a place full of the depraved men Rousseau spoke of. We must be moving toward our highest Moral Vocation or else the enlightenment has done nothing but corrupt our morals. Therefore history must be teleological, we must be able to find absolute meaning somewhere.

One of Kant’s big hang-ups is that he can’t prove that history is actually teleological. What he does is say that you cannot disprove this hypothesis and furthermore, he can give you lots of reasons why it’s plausible. Finally, it’s simply salutary for society that we think this way.

ENTER HEGEL “I can totally prove that.”

Seriously, Hegel doesn’t really impress me. Essentially he makes a convoluted system of phrases and sweeping generalizations of history and claims to have proven that history is a rational progression.

This is what the course calls Rational Historicism.

For the first time we are totally sure that everyone who came before Hegel was purely a product of their time and culture. Furthermore, human nature changes from time to time and place to place. For instance, the Greeks hadn’t developed a conscience – their right and wrong were completely determined by the unreflective acceptance of their Polis’ conception of existence.

Why I still like reading Hegel: He has lots of cool ideas and often times his insights are oftentimes very impressive. He can also be a highly entertaining – and good – writer. For some reason most of his writing is boring and convoluted but every once and again a gem peeks through.


Tune in later for ENTER NIETZSCHE “You are all f-ing stupid, especially you Kant and Hegel. Especially you.”

(This is where we lose the “Rational” in Rational Historicism and are left floating through meaningless time living meaningless lives.)


Cole Simmons


One Response to “The Rise of Rational Historicism”

  1. Cole April 29, 2011 at 2:37 pm #

    BTW – I totally nailed this exam.

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