Up and Up: Hegel, Progress, and Folk Culture

Sitting on a boulder flanked by acacias of the Kenyan savannah, I and a group of other research fellows watched the sun set as we discussed the topic of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Some of the fellows were denouncing the premise of the fair, which was held in honor of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the New World. They especially objected to the exhibition of cultures and countries that comprised many of the attractions. The arrival of chilly evening gusts accompanied one researcher’s complaint: “What’s disgusting is that the exhibits were arranged like white American and European society was the pinnacle of civilization and all other societies were developing up to it.” According to her, settings of exhibits started in Africa and moved through South America and Asia before finishing at the aptly-named White City, the fair’s architectural masterpiece.

Acknowledging the perversity of Victorian Social Darwinism is proper and easy. However, understanding our own possibly even more pernicious views of advancement and progress, which we often take for granted, proves difficult when we are accustomed to their place in policy and language. Phrases like “developing countries,” for instance, belie the assumption that Western economic, political, and cultural systems are the goal of all societies. After all, if a country is developing, it must be developing towards something, i.e. likeness to the West. Spending the summer in Kenya afforded me a chance to reflect on the approaches of NGOs and international organizations as well as witness the strikingly apparent force of westernization at work. Instead of jettisoning Social Darwinism, perhaps we have merely revised and repackaged it as progress, giving it the stamp of modernity that proclaims it free from the errors of the unenlightened past. Is the common view of progress mistaken, and if so, is progress itself possible? Diagnosing our view of progress involves understanding its source–different forms of Hegelian philosophy–and how this philosophy manifests.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 – 1831) wrote during a tumultuous period that included the French Revolution, to which among other events he hoped to give a unifying historical narrative. The German philosopher’s influence is physically visible as globalization and philosophically visible in our discussions about freedom and the state, which draw from his ideas about the world’s inevitable direction. One of Hegel’s chief ideas is that world events are the expression of the World Spirit (Geist), the force of good, reason and complete freedom. According to Hegel, “the final goal of the world is Spirit’s consciousness of its freedom, and hence also the actualization of that very freedom,” and he means individual “freedom” as the fulfilment of “subjective will” within the rational will of Spirit’s universal principles (versus a “negative concept of freedom” as being unrestricted by others). The world progresses by moving towards complete freedom, an unavoidable process occurring as the result of Spirit’s synthesis of opposing concepts (e.g. in Marx’s reading of Hegel, the proletariat revolts against the bourgeoisie, but the conflict results in a classless society, not domination of one over the other).

Hegel takes the State as the embodiment of the World Spirit, “the divine Idea as it exists on earth,” because in the State’s laws is found the ideals of freedom–since laws safeguard and provide the medium for expressing freedom–made complete. Those who establish states or whose actions are important to entire nations are “world-historical individuals” like Napoleon who achieve Spirit’s aims while seeking their own interests.

Analyzing the language of global leaders, administrators, and most peers reveals most of us are Hegelians, though we have modified Hegel’s ideas to fit our preferences. Reflecting the view that each new era benefits from progress and thus knows more, philosophical Liberals–most of us, who support ideals of secularism, democracy, and capitalism–today believe that we have developed knowledge of how to solve the world’s problems through those ideals and that the spread of those ideals everywhere is a matter of course. The end of history narrative, that liberal democracies will and should replace all other systems, guides our foreign policy, and we hear incessant calls to leaders of other countries that they ought to adopt more democratic practices or extend to their citizens the same civil liberties we have. For those proponents of Western democracy who claim, as President Obama does, that “the long arc of history bends towards justice,” (justice of course being the implementation of nice and respectable democratic principles), there can be no possibility of rational alternatives or opposition. Justice is based on reason, and reason, as with Hegel, is the guiding force that ensures the rightness of the triumphant system. We have congratulated ourselves as being on the “right side of history” from the Cold War to the Obergefell ruling.

Hope that the State will solve the world’s problems as the embodiment of reason is another theme adapted from Hegel; we expect to establish virtue in society and ensure human flourishing through legislation intended to eradicate racism, stop gun violence, fund research for the next technological panacea, or end poverty by buttressing the welfare state. Societal problems are considered problems of policy: each morally significant event, be it underperformance in schools or a mass shooting, precipitates calls for revised legislation. We take a quasi-governmental approach to aiding other nations as well, with the UN, USAID, and other heavily western-influenced organizations pushing population control, secular democracy, and sexual libertinism, acceptance of which is often tied to receiving funds or avoiding censure. On the ground level in Kenya, many of us visitors complained how “backwards” the country was in terms of disapproval of homosexual activity and expressed discomfort with the explicit role of Christianity in education and public life, dismayed that Kenya had not totally followed suit with the United States’ values of secularism and the Sexual Revolution.

In Hegelian manner, modern-day world-historical figures carry our hope while guiding and representing the goals towards which we aspire. College graduates dream of heading successful startups and following Mark Zuckerberg’s footsteps or gaining political power and changing the world through policy, perhaps establishing an organization like the Clinton Foundation. Lives devoted to accruing wealth as the next Rockefeller or Gates are justified by the thought that philanthropy and NGOs, and thus progress, require it.

Whether progress is mostly linear and whether it follows the form of Western democracy become tenuous with some self-reflection: to refute the former, one need not look at the rise of terror like ISIS but merely take stock at home, while the latter requires closer evaluation of its global effects. Age-old exploitation of the poor, now as food deserts, cheap employment of migrants, lotteries, private greed, etc.; destruction of the environment via fracking, monocropping, and climate change; and the sacrifice of our families and children on the altars of choice and convenience are enough to disabuse one of the notion that our era is morally superior to those past. While progress occurs on some fronts, we regress on others, and doubtless people of future times will denounce us for evils of which we are unaware as we do to those past. Even the search for knowledge falters, as academia today is a hodgepodge of competing contradictory epistemic systems, having abandoned any comprehensive unifying system grounded in objectivity.

Meanwhile, the hypocrisy of global Western liberalism is that it imposes uniformity while touting diversity. While the days of USAID and other groups colluding to control populations in “developing” nations–e.g. forced sterilization campaigns in 1970s India–are hopefully past, foreign workers are still trying to convince nationals that large families are bad with the UN even promoting abortion, contrary to the tradition that many children are a blessing. Limiting family size is supposedly the way to ensure there are enough resources and save the planet; never mind that the average American consumes energy and natural resources enough for dozens of Kenyans. Globalization, and with it urbanization, has decimated traditional pastoralist and farming lifestyles, with pastures left untended by youth who flock to the city only to be unemployed. Art such as music hardly reflects folk culture, with western-style hip-hop and pop dominating the radio. Rather than preserving diversity, global importation of Western culture drowns out folk culture with bombardments of advertisements and media, replacing it with a “culture industry”, to use Theodor Adorno’s phrase.

Real progress occurs in the development of individual and community virtue, which expresses itself in folk culture that emphasizes connection to the land, family, and community rather than Western culture industry’s drive for capital and dominance. Thankfully, examples of folk art achievements still exist, and so long as community exists, so will folk culture. For instance, the Maasai jumping dance conveys the Maasai values of adult responsibility and bravery. Art accompanies enjoyment and virtue as the young warriors jump to honor their position in the community as well as flirt with the girls. Similarly, in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, attachment to land and community are antidotes to the chaos of attempted world progress, represented by St. Petersburg. Instead of struggling with world affairs, Levin and the other characters are at home when trying to fulfill their personal duty towards their neighbors and the land.

Thinking the State will ensure a just citizenry, we have trusted in progress and hoped to become world-historical figures while neglecting personal virtue. How many hope to graduate Woody Woo and save the world without having heard of the cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice, not to mention faith, hope, and love? The Danish proto-existentialist Søren Kierkegaard criticized Hegelians for placing their hope in world forces at the cost of attending to their own souls and moral responsibility. According to Kierkegaard, “every generation begins anew” the tasks of faith and other virtues; the truth is not a political or philosophical system but a Way which realizes itself in the lives of its followers.

Knowledge of objective good has no bearing on individual existence if it does not translate to practice. Distress over world events should not compare with the fear and trembling of striving inadequately to express the Good in one’s life, for life is an examination of character, and no cheating by looking over at one’s neighbor is allowed.

Progress does happen then, not by the grand vision of the West but from our own development of virtue. Care for virtue as an individual becomes love of family and neighbor, the three of which form community and its folk culture, which improves bottom-up instead of from an abstract world force. Hegel is correct that the Good, which entails reason and freedom, will have its say in the world, but for us participation in that Good depends on our recognizing and following it. In terms of progressing towards a virtuous community, then, we in the “developed” world still have the real development ahead of us.


Brandon Joa is a junior from San Francisco, CA, concentrating in the Religion Department. He can be reached at bjoa@princeton.edu.

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