Historical Antecedents II- Hegel, Marx, Rousseau and the Romantics

Hegel and Marx portraits

Portrait of German philosopher George Wilhelm Friederich Hegel (top, 1770-1831) and Karl Marx, (1818-1883), German political philosopher, author of Das Kapital. © Bettmann/CORBIS

This deeply ingrained Western belief in the forward movement of history became a significant theme in the intellectual history of modern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries.


The German philosopher Hegel (1770-1831) in his Philosophy of History, described history as moving forward though distinct stages leading to greater levels of freedom and cultural development. His views were not based solely on studying the past but were also profoundly affected by both the French and American Revolutions which occurred during his lifetime.


Hegel’s philosophy of a progressive dialectical logic in history subsequently became a cornerstone of Karl Marx’s (1818-1883) philosophy of dialectical materialism in which he argued that a dialectical process of class struggle was inexorably pushing history forward towards a classless communist society in which humanity would be freed of all oppression and alienation.


Earlier, the Swiss writer and philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) emerged as one of many European writers and thinkers who was skeptical about equating historical development with human well being and “progress”. Like other Romantics, Rousseau looked to the origins of human culture rather than its end point for his vision of human potential. Writing at a time of increasing European contact with less developed and more “primitive” cultures in America, Africa, and Asia, the Romantics saw parallels between the natural goodness of the uncorrupted infant and preliterate cultures that appeared to live in greater harmony with nature than Europeans at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.


Thus, in striking contrast to the traditional Judeo-Christian view of original sin, Rousseau argued that children are born good and that whatever defects they subsequently develop can be attributed to the developmentally distorting and toxic influences of society. This Romantic vision of both the innocent infant and “Noble Savage” represented a skeptical reaction to the notion of “progress” and an interest in recovering a state of lost innocence and purity through a return to all things “natural”. It also lead to a heightened interest in the owner of education and pedagogy to undo or perhaps correct for the corrosive influences of normal socialization and schooling by encouraging the child’s natural curiosity and trusting innate processes of learning and growth.