Teleology, Hegel, and King

A critique of teleology is well-worn and is articulated particularly clearly by Thomas Trautmann and Dipesh Chakrabarty. Both contrast the “theory-deadness” of the Orient with the the centered dominance of Europe. This can be glossed as a teleology: theory is the telos. This is what Hegel is saying, too, in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History:

That world history is governed by an ultimate design, that it is a rational process – whose rationality is not that of a particular subject, but a divine and absolute reason – this is a proposition whose truth we must assume; its proof lies in the study of world history itself, which is the image and enactment of reason.

In other words, world history is

the rational and necessary evolution of the world spirit. This spirit [is] the substance of history; its nature is always one and the same; and it discloses this nature in the existence of the world. … World history travels from east to west; for Europe is the absolute end of history, just as Asia is the beginning.

In a very simple sense, reading Hegel is weird. The idea of progress is so unfashionable that it is hard to take Hegel seriously. Surely he doesn’t mean a world-spirit in a metaphysical sense. Surely he doesn’t really mean to put Europe above everything else (and thus provide an easy justification for colonial violence). This immediate reaction, once tempered by the considerations outlined earlier, becomes a question: what can we recuperate from Hegel?

Well, perhaps teleology is salvageable. I think the easiest way to demonstrate this is by looking to thinkers in recent memory who acknowledge some points of critique but ultimately endorse a clear vision of progress. One such model is provided by Steven Pinker, the psychologist and popular author. He has written many books (most recently Enlightenment Now) that contrast “morose cultural pessimists” invested in “declinism” and “progressophobia” with a vision of a world that is the best it has ever been. He surveys an impressive range of data to conclude that “the Enlightenment has worked” — that is, “the refining of reason to understand the world” (science) has been successfully harnessed to the end “goal of maximizing human flourishing.” Pinker was himself critiqued in a recent article by Anthony Gottlieb in The New York Review of Books. Pinker is not wrong in identifying real improvements in people’s lives, Gottlieb argues; but he misidentifies the reason for this progress. Improvements have not come about through blind faith in the Enlightenment. Instead, according to Gottlieb, activists who constructively critique the Enlightenment are responsible for many of our achievements. To borrow from Horkheimer and Adorno in the Dialectic of Enlightenment, “enlightenment [ought] to reflect on itself if humanity is not to be totally betrayed” in order to “prepare a positive concept of enlightenment which liberates it from its entanglement in blind domination.” I largely agree with Gottlieb; while Pinker is appealing at first as a way to recuperate teleology, his model does not adequately account for critique.

I think a better model for recuperating teleology can be found by looking to Martin Luther King, Jr. Hegel indelibly influenced his thought; in a 1956 interview King said that Hegel was his favorite philosopher. Even King’s famous aphorism that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” is deeply indebted to Hegel. Hegel’s dialectics (particularly of the master and the slave) were just as if not more influential for King than his teleology: he wrote in Stride Toward Freedom that dialectics helped him see that “growth comes through struggle.”1 I don’t think it would be an overstatement to say that the Hegel seminars at Boston University were crucial for King’s intellectual development. Hegel laid the groundwork for King’s activism and leadership. This is an alternative genealogy of teleology, one where it is important not only for European domination but also for the struggles to resist it. Is reading King, then, one way to recuperate teleology from Hegel?


  1. John Ansbro, Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Making of a Mind (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1982), 122 ff.

Leave a Reply