Hegel and the Owl of Minerva

George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel is unarguably the premier heavy-weight philosopher of late modernity.  While there are many lesser known but equally important philosophers who led up to Hegel, and influenced Hegel (Hamann, Herder, Fichte, et al.) it is Hegel who is fondly – and rightly – remembered as the “Protestant Aquinas” and the great systematizer of philosophical schools and traditions.  All philosophy departments, and all philosophy students, have dedicated faculty just on Hegel and his interpreters, among whom include Karl Marx, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Friedrich Nietzsche.  Hegel’s greatest contribution to philosophy was the birth of the idea of History (Historicism), which is captured so eloquently and poetically in the preface to his Philosophy of Right.

In his preface to Philosophy of Right, Hegel captures the essence of his project by recoursing to the image of the Owl of Minerva,

Philosophy, as the thought of the world, does not appear until reality has completed its formative process, and made itself ready. History thus corroborates the teaching of the conception that only in the maturity of reality does the ideal appear as counterpart to the real, apprehends the real world in its substance, and shapes it into an intellectual kingdom. When philosophy paints its grey in grey, one form of life has become old, and by means of grey it cannot be rejuvenated, but only known. The owl of Minerva takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering.

In this simple, but dense, package, Hegel brings his three great threads of thought together: History, philosophy (as understanding truth about history), and mythology.  Before we unpack this telling passage, we need to know the story of philosophy up to Hegel’s time.

Philosophy was once the “Queen of the Sciences,” the Queen of all academic and intellectual disciplines.  After all, philosophy gave birth to just about everything, including science (through natural philosophy).  But philosophy, in being preoccupied with the pursuit of truth, had come to be tied to understanding truth through the exploration of metaphysics (first principles), ontology (the nature of being), epistemology (theories of understanding), aesthetics (study of beauty), and ethics/political philosophy.  From the time of Socrates until Francis Bacon, philosophy held top position in all universities and among the learned.  To be educated was to be educated in the traditions of philosophy and theology.  To be read was to have read the poetic epics, philosophical classics, and the theological classics.  All of this came shattering down with the publication of Machiavelli’s The Prince and Discourses on Livy, but especially Francis Bacon’s New Science.

Bacon openly disdained philosophy, at least in its traditional form.  Because philosophy was, above all, concerned with metaphysics, which suppositionally influenced ontology, epistemology, aesthetics, and ethics, part of the task of Francis Bacon was to liberate philosophy from metaphysics.  That is to say, liberate philosophy from itself (because metaphysics was the first branch of philosophy to emerge).  This was intentional on the part of Bacon because ontology, the study of being, was grafted into metaphysics – ontology is merely the sub-discipline of metaphysics that deals with the nature of being which is made possible only by establishing a foundation in metaphysics.  But so too were all the other cores of philosophy.  From metaphysics flowed all traditions of ontology, epistemology, aesthetics, and ethics – all related and grafted onto whatever metaphysics served as its roots.  Bacon’s New Science sought to free philosophy from metaphysics and open the possibility of a purely materialistic and mechanistic philosophy without any assumptions concerning metaphysics which mean the liberation of ontology, epistemology, aesthetics, and ethics from metaphysical dependency.

Of course, this was only made possible through the presumption that matter was all that there is.  Materialism becomes the metaphysics of dominance, but Bacon – who was later championed by Hobbes – needed to break away from metaphysical hylomorphism (which had been taken up by Catholicism in earnest) and idealism in order to advance the monistic metaphysics of pure materialism.  However, for Bacon, the main purpose of this assuming of materialistic physicalism was to allow the empirical study of nature without concerns over ideals like the soul, the immaterial, the transcendent, Logos, or anything like that.  By assuming a purely materialist metaphysic, one could derive a purely materialistic ontology and epistemology and be safely guarded in this materialism without nagging questions.  Philosophers are notorious for disagreement, and Bacon wanted to end such disagreements.  Can’t we all just get along?

(One should be aware of historical reasons for wanting this universality of agreement too, Bacon published the New Science in 1620 while Europe was embroiled in religious war, theological dispute, philosophical dispute, and imperial disputes in Americas.)

The result of the post-Baconian split in philosophy was that philosophy split into two roads: (1) empirical philosophy (philosophy becoming like the emerging discipline of science) which shed ontology, epistemology, aesthetics, and ethics, and (2) “reactionary” philosophy (a rejection of philosophy becoming like science and steadfastly remaining true to the traditions of philosophy itself) which sought to keep ontology, epistemology, aesthetics, and ethics tied first principles.  There was a back and forth between the “mechanical philosophers” (mostly the English empiricists and their French heirs, the “French Materialists”) against a whole array of opponents: Catholic philosophy (with its neo-platonic and hylomorphic unionism), the Cambridge Platonists (English Neo-Platonists), the English Idealists (Berkeley) and eventually the German Idealists, Romantics, Kantians, and post-Kantians (German “Continental” philosophy).  What all the opponents to the mechanical philosophers had in common – though all in their own unique ways – was a defense of transcendent reason and transcendent order (the Logos) against the anti-rationalist, anti-transcendent, and otherwise amoral philosophy implied by the very foundations of empiricism.  The post-Baconian empiricists had ruptured the phenomenological with the transcendent.

This is where Hegel enters the picture.  According to Hegel, the Owl of Minerva (and the Owl represents wisdom) takes flight just before dusk as the sun is setting.  This is the “end of history,” the setting of the sun in his image.  Hegel was seeking to restore the old dominance that philosophy had once held in intellectual society and felt, rightly so, that the loss (or debasement) of philosophy would have far reaching consequences.  The Owl represented the new flight of philosophy into the world, recapturing its former glory and prestige that had been disastrously dethroned by the empiricists which symbolized a revival of metaphysics, ontology, epistemology, aesthetics, and ethics – which is why Hegel’s works deal with all the topics.

For Hegel, the way to restore the rupture between the phenomenological and the transcendent was through an understanding of History.  History showed that there was a rupture between the two, but History also showed that the two were coming together.  Reason was becoming self-realized and made concrete in the world, encompassing and linking the phenomenological and the transcendent together: Hegel’s philosophy of History is one of convergence – the convergence of the transcendent becoming the phenomenological.  Only the wise philosopher (the Owl) at the end of history could look back upon the history of the world and see from dawn to high noon, to setting sun at night, and fully understand everything that had transpired to reach this moment.

The Owl takes flight only when the time is right for it to do so – in which case Hegel is a determinist because he is a historicist, that is History unfolds in deliberate and pre-determined epochs leading to that self-realization of reason (back) into the world.  The Owl, having waited for its time to rise, is also the one who is aware of all things that have transpired because the Owl is the philosopher.  The philosopher, observing and pondering all things that have been passed onto him and also what he can see before him, dwells in the light of the sun.  And just as the sun sets, which symbolizes the end of visible events, he takes flight because he has had the eureka moment!  Thus, with the “discovery of History,” we realize that while the past may have had some useful and partly true thinkers (those who were closest to the World Spirit in their time), none of the people who pondered events and questions from 5-6 AM, 6-8 AM, 8-12 AM, etc. ever arrived at the fullness of truth even if they had some truth.  Only the philosopher who has access of time from 5 AM to 9 PM with the setting of the sun possesses the fullness of the truth.  And Hegel had no illusions as to who that individual was.

While events will continue from 9 o’clock onward, it occurs in darkness because there is nothing else to learn.  Hegel’s “end of history” is not the end of the world.  It is simply the continuation of events but with nothing else to learn from them. And this is what people forget about Hegel.   He is not a utopian like Marx.  Hegel’s historicism does not exhaust itself into a utopia.  It does exhaust itself in the fullness of knowledge however.  Life goes on, war, death, famine, pestilence and all the rest still occur, but we have nothing else to learn.

Nietzsche, for instance, understood – correctly – that Hegel’s end of history meant the end of philosophy because philosophy is about truth and the totality of truth is made known to us at the end of history.  Since philosophy is about the pursuit of truth, and since Hegel now linked philosophy to History, philosophy gets absorbed by History and becomes the history of philosophy.  And only at the end of this history of philosophy does the light that the philosophers have been searching for come to pass because it is only at dusk when the Owl takes flight – looking back on all that was – can we finally know what the light of the metaphysic, ontology, epistemology, aesthetic, and ethic we were all chasing after was.  With this established we will begin looking at Hegel’s philosophy of history and enter the mind, and world, of the last great philosopher of the Western philosophical tradition.  If the scope of the history of Western philosophy is in the shadows of Plato, Aristotle, and St. Augustine, the last 200 years of Western philosophy is entirely in the shadow of Hegel.

For, as Hegel said, the “what is rational is actual and what is actual is rational” (sometimes translated as “the rational alone is real”).  What Hegel meant was the rational, that is transcendental idealism, is being made manifest (concrete) in the world.  This is the great movement of history: the union of the transcendental with the phenomenological.  This is what moves men’s passions and actions.  And it is the philosopher, the owl of Minerva, who seeing this unfold before him to completion, has the complete understanding of truth and how to act in accord with it in his life.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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