In Lectures on the History of Philosophy (Hegel, 1994 edition), Hegel argued that as reason rules the world, world history progresses in a rational manner. World history represents rational and inevitable progress of the world spirit, according to his philosophy. For Hegel, reason, that is, the world spirit, is different from reason as narrowly defined (reason as referred to by empiricists, such as David Hume), which is rational thinking intended to achieve goals set by emotions, and is an ideal that is common to humankind that transcends the individual spirit. Hegel asserts that the very nature of the world spirit is freedom and that realizing freedom is the goal of history.
World history may therefore be understood as a complex process of the spirit progressing toward realizing its very nature, i.e. freedom. To put it very roughly, in ancient China, the emperor alone enjoyed freedom. Later, in ancient Greece, although citizens achieved freedom, slaves and foreigners were denied freedom. However, in the modern Europe during Hegel's lifetime, freedom spread through the whole population. From the Hegelian point of view, world history represents the process of freedom being realized in this way.
In this context, Hegel advocated the "cunning of reason" theory, which is similar to Adam Smith's theory of "the invisible hand." Individuals who appear on the stage of world history, driven by desires and passions, selfishly pursue their own "particular interests," while the "realization of the universal ideal" (the realization of freedom by the world spirit) is nowhere in their mind. Nevertheless, those individuals' actions unwittingly contribute to the realization of freedom, which is the goal of reason. "As worldly particulars (author's note: interests) compete with each other, some of them decline…The sight of the universal ideal sitting idly to watch passion-driven actions and remaining indifferent to the damage and injury inflicted to what contributes to its own realization deserves to be called the cunning of reason."
Although individuals' actions based on particular interests may not bring well-being to themselves, those actions help to move history forward and realize the progress of reason (the realization of freedom), according to Hegel's thinking. This idea is similar to the worldview under the market economy concept of Adam Smith and Bernard Mandeville, which maintains that individuals' selfish actions promote the public interests of society. As a result of the arguments made by Smith and Mandeville, the idea spread that the economic act of pursuing profits is not mean, given that it contributes to the public interests of society, and this elevated the status of economics. Hegel's "cunning of reason" theory, which maintains that selfish actions of individuals pursuing their own particular interests contribute to the progress of the world spirit (the realization of freedom) also works to justify individuals' pursuit of their own particular interests from a society-wide viewpoint. The Hegelian history of philosophy implies that individuals' selfish actions driven by desires and passions are meaningful for the whole society as they contribute to the progress of reason. Under the Hegelian philosophy, what justifies the goals of life (virtue) for individuals is not the modest system of justice comprised of two principles of justice that John Rawls advocated, but a grand ideology that equates reason with the world spirit. We may say that this is a kind of modern religion that worships reason.
Worship of the progress of reason, typical of continental European thought, is absent from the Anglo-Saxon empirical philosophy. Under the philosophy of David Hume and Adam Smith, reason is merely a means to an end. As the role of reason is to devise how to most efficiently achieve goals set by desires and emotions, the idea that reason is an end in itself is alien to their line of thinking. Human desires and emotions have a firm existence (subject to human beings' biological nature) as something that precedes social systems of justice. That is the fundamental premise of the Anglo-Saxon philosophy. The Anglo-Saxon philosophy does not recognize the need to justify individuals' desires and emotions as forces that unwittingly contribute to the goal of reason. That premise was inherited by Rawls' political philosophy and by the critique of Rawls by Michael Sandel and other philosophers. However, we doubt the premise, and in that sense, we find significance in the Hegelian philosophy. The Hegelian philosophy's proposition that goodness for individuals is justifiable by the ultimate goal (the progress of reason) withstands Critique 2 (See Part 4).
- Critique 1: A critique from the position that societal justice should be based on the virtues of individuals.
- Critique 2: A critique from the position that virtue of individuals should also be based on societal justice.
However, the continental European progressive view of history, including the Hegelian philosophy, was shaken violently in the 20th century. The politics of many countries were driven by totalitarian movements, including Nazism and communism, which were pathological manifestations of reason, and this situation dealt a devastating blow to the naïve worship of the progress of human reason.