Individual as Subject of History and World-Historical Individuals

The Portrait of Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel by Jakob Schlesinger (1831). Source: Wikipedia

G. W. F. Hegel, a German philosopher who lived between late-18th and early-19th century, has affected Western Philosophy with his major contribution of the system of thought, the Dialectic. If we read Hegelian philosophy and the Dialectic, we can understand that he was successful to connect different ideas, which can be exemplified as German Romanticism and Kantian Philosophy. In the parts of this essay, we respectively answer these questions: What are the Hegelian understandings of “individual as subject” and “world-historical individuals” and who can be exemplified as world-historical individuals?

Individual as Subject of History To understand “individual as subject (of history)”, we should clarify what is Hegelian individual. In the third chapter of his book, The Reason in History, Hegel (1953) articulated that man (or we can call it individual) is the antithesis of the natural world, the former is under the realm of Spirit and the latter is under the realm of Nature. The Spirit (der Geist, as Hegel uses) what drives life in history as a force, as a soul. The idea of spirit originates from German Romanticism, according to that feelings and emotions are essential forces which drive our ”self”. The Spirit, according to Hegel (1953), is the direct opposite of the Matter. The Matter has gravity, due to that possession, it has ‘tendency toward a central point; it is essentially composite, consisting of parts that exclude each other’ and by doing so, the matter ‘seeks its unity and thereby its own abolition; it seeks its opposite.’ (p. 22) On the other hand, the Spirit consists its centre in itself, it does not consist unity outside of itself. the Spirit ‘is Being-within-itself’, which is a ‘self-contained existence.’(p. 23) Because of that, the one is free when he/she is within itself, which is a consciousness of self. In that point, Hegel describes the World History as ‘the progress of the consciousness of freedom-a progress whose necessity we have to investigate.’(p. 24) That progress is an actualisation process, the actualisation of the Freedom and the only purpose of the Spirit. Through that process, individual has needs, instincts and passions, and as Hegel says we use ‘these vast congeries of volitions, interests, and activities constitute the tools and means of the World Spirit for attaining its purpose’ (p. 31) Therefore, we can say that the Self, in other word the Individual, is the subject which tries to actualise/realise freedom.

World-historical Individuals Christopher Berry explains (1981) that Hegelian world history as a drama, which is played out by States. He also concludes that Hegelian individual is not distinct from his State and it has constitutive role on his identity. Hegel articulates it as such:

The historical men, world-historical individuals, are those who grasp just such a higher universal, make it their own purpose, and realize this purpose in accordance with the higher law of the spirit. “

(1953, p. 39)

These historical individuals are generally called as heroes. Their source of action is hidden within their inner spirit. This spirit ‘still hidden beneath the surface but already knocking against the outer world as against a shell’ and later ‘to burst forth and break the shell into pieces’. (1953, p. 40) That makes them political men, who can think intensively what is needed in that particular time. Hegel gives several examples of that kind of individuals, one of them is the Caesar, who was the dictator of the Roman Empire. He fought to preserve his honour, safety and position within the framework of legal constitution, and one day, he became sole ruler of Roman Republic and transforms it to the Empire. Other examples given by Hegel are Alexander and Napoleon. According to Berry (1981), all of these three cited by Hegel, because their lives were spent in hardships with the aim of achieving their purpose, and that did not bring happiness. They work on to actualise their Spirit (Geist) and when they were succeeded in that, they become world-historical individuals. This qualities also applies to the Kemal Ataturk, who was the founding president of Turkish Republic. He has an purpose and he spent his whole life on that purpose. He participated in lots of wars, he witnessed variety of bad situations; which made his life probably not “happy”. Therefore, he became a political leader and apply his thought, aim, purpose with application of modernisation process.


Berry, C. J. (1981). Hegel on the World-historical. History of European Ideas, 2(2), 155–162.

Hegel, G. W. F., & Hartman, R. S. (1953). Reason in history a general introduction to the philosophy of history. Liberal Arts Pr.