The German philosopher Georg Hegel famously said, “The only thing that we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.” This is a worrying thought because there is so much that went wrong when we look at world history. As we are often told, history repeats itself. – Ashwin Sanghi, Times of India, 2019
Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba came upon this specimen of Profound Thought this morning (25 July 2021). He found it during a trek through the dreaded Outer Party social media site. This is something YFNA dares daily, seeking knowledge about the doings in his field of work and among those who would add his name to the ranks of the unemployed, if their Great Idea should advance their company’s fortunes and bankrupt the one YFNA works for.
A few seconds into a websearch on Professor Dr. Hegel’s alleged saying sufficed to show that it is, and has long been, A Meme. Usually to emphasize the point that Homo sapiens is persistently and irredeemably stupid and ignorant, and therefore unworthy of the name that Linnaeus, the First Taxonomist, bestowed upon it. George Bernard Shaw apparently endorsed it – indeed, some memes attribute the ‘cannot learn from history’ quote directly to Shaw. Aldous Huxley echoed it.
And John Brunner, writing as “pop sociologist Chad C. Mulligan” in his sci-fi dystopian novel Stand on Zanzibar, clearly considered Hegel to be an optimist.
Now, somewhere on this blog’s pages, somebody (Dame Amoeba, the Dudes, Screwtape III, somebody) has surely mentioned that YFNA is a Contrarian. One who is wont to ask uncomfortable, dangerous questions.
Like, did Georg Hegel really say that?
There are, after all, the uncomfortable facts that the saying attributed to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel is presented in English – but Hegel was German (technically, born in the Duchy of Württenberg, spent much of his career in the Prussian capital of Berlin; Germany as the unified state it now is would come into being 40 years after Hegel’s death), and used that language in his professional speaking and writing. Despite the fact that the German language, especially before its 19th century standardization, is well known as “awful“, and Hegel’s use of it has been described as “”the ugliest prose style” in its history. As a scholar, Hegel would have had a working knowledge of English, but, as he apparently did not travel much outside of German-speaking territories during his life, he would have had little occasion to use it, much less craft A Meme with it.
That Hegel actually said the German that has been translated as “we learn nothing from history” is not in dispute. For the words are part of the Introduction to his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, presented at the University of Berlin near the end of Hegel’s life, and recreated from Hegel’s own notes and those taken by his students.
(In 1986, YFNA traveled to Münster in what was then West Germany, and spent three weeks working in the lab of a coopetitor. This person, who rose to the rank of Professor at a major German university (a far more significant achievement than gaining the rank of Professor in these Untied States signifies), told of a professor from the days of his youth who would lecture, on his appointed days, for four hours straight, and expect verbatim accounts of his words on the ensuing exams. This is the tradition that allowed an accurate rendition of Hegel’s lectures from student notes. YFNA’s host had a dim view of his visitor’s grasp of his field, and the grasp that his visitor’s mentors in the USA had – a view that, in the ensuing years, has been shown to be absolutely correct, thoroughly justified, and applicable to the entire “education” enterprise in these Untied States.)
Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba has not located, online, a copy of any German text of Hegel’s Vorlesungen Über die Philosophie der Weltgeschichte, and any such would be of doubtful use to him, Google Translate notwithstanding. What is available online is a representation of one of the English translations of the work that is considered least flawed by experts.
So what did Hegel really say?
Rulers, Statesmen, Nations, are wont to be emphatically commended to the teaching which experience offers in history. But what experience and history teach is this: that peoples and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.
Aha! Wordier than the meme, and no implication that this lesson is the only one to be learned from history. The gist is there, though. Right?
But wait, there’s more …
Each period is involved in such peculiar circumstances, exhibits a condition of things so strictly idiosyncratic, that its conduct must be regulated by considerations connected with itself, and itself alone. Amid the pressure of great events, a general principle gives no help. It is useless to revert to similar circumstances in the Past. The pallid shades of memory struggle in vain with the life and freedom of the Present. Looked at in this light, nothing can be shallower than the oft-repeated appeal to Greek and Roman examples during the French Revolution. Nothing is more diverse than the genius of those nations and that of our times.
In the stadium LED light of Context (really, there oughta be a law against this sort of thing messing with our preconceived notions – like, f’rinstance, the uselessness of vaccines and masks against COVID-19) …
[Ahem] In the stadium LED light of Context, Hegel’s alleged blanket condemnation of humanity vanishes, replaced by a bald, and far more compassionate, statement that history does not repeat itself, that the circumstances at the Present moment of time are too complex, too fast-moving, and too poorly understood by participants, to allow any meaningful application of “the lessons of the past”.
Indeed, this part of Hegel’s Introduction to his lectures on the philosophy of history is concerned with what Hegel termed “Pragmatical Reflective History”, in which a would-be historian tries to make sense of the Past by imposing on it the viewpoints of the historian’s Present, thereby making the dead Past alive to the historian, and all those who accept the historian’s viewpoint.
The historian of this style, YFNA infers, is akin to the 21st century reader of Conan Doyle’s 19th/20th century Sherlock Holmes stories, who observes two males living together and automatically (and erroneously) interprets Holmes and Watson as gay lovers.
Hegel’s text is dismissive of this sort of historian, and the distortions that arise from this class of history:
The materials are patent to every writer: each is likely enough to believe himself capable of arranging and manipulating them; and we may expect that each will insist upon his own spirit as that of the age in question. Disgusted by such reflective histories, readers have often returned with pleasure to a narrative adopting no particular point of view.
Hegel denies to those who quote him, and interpret the quote as a condemnation, the privilege of hubris, of thinking that they Know What To Do, in historical and current events; of thinking that they can win the current war by mindlessly repeating the tricks that worked during the war previous to the one being fought. Hegel accuses the peoples and governments who haven’t learned from history, not of a fatal stupidity, but of a fatal, and inevitable, lack of clairvoyance.
Over the years, students and colleagues in the USA to whom YFNA has related the tale of the German Professor who insisted on verbatim reporting of lecture content have responded pretty much all in the same way. “Mindless busywork!”
The student charged with accurately reporting the whole text of a lecture from personal notes must be an efficient recorder and an efficient interpreter. Such students are forced, on pain of dismissal (words to strike fear into any US university’s fee-dependent administration), to gain and maintain an attention span; are forced to absorb and interpret the whole body of a work, and place all of its snippets in the appropriate context. The burden on the lecturer, to prepare a coherent text, and ensure that it is delivered coherently, cannot be neglected.
The university student in the Untied States, who insists on 15 Powerpoint bullet points that will be on the test, and all that’s on the test, “or I write you up as unfair on Rate My Professors”, defeats, with the willing collaboration of those fee-dependent administrators and those lecturers freed of the need to produce lengthy, coherent copy, the entire purpose of university education. Which is, to assimilate and master a whole body of work.
Not just the snippets that they find to be easy. Or that glibly confirm prejudices.
Snippets that, all too easily, turn into memes proliferating by the millions on social media, containing quotes taken out of context, meaning nothing like what the authors originally intended. If indeed the alleged authors had anything to do with the quotations attributed to them. Snippets that become more real than the works from which they were extracted, convincing entire networks of people that snippets are all that are needed, no further analysis required.
And then things fall down, and the surviving university degree holders wonder why.