Prologue to an Aristotelian End of History: Chapter 1, 'The End of History'

© 2015 Ultimate Philosopher
(a C.R. Cathcart project)

1: The End of History

The very idea

The Wikipedia entry under “End of history” states the core concept as follows: “The end of history is a political and philosophical concept that supposes that a particular political, economic, or social system may develop that would constitute the end-point of humanity's sociocultural evolution and the final form of human government.”

I will apply this concept in a very robust sense, beyond merely the political component and applying the “sociocultural” part in a thorough and all-encompassing fashion.  As the title of this essay suggests, the “cultural” indicated here is enriched by (a certain vision of) philosophical, ethical, and intellectual preconditions for the “ideal society,” the fundamental preconditions being those for a society in which an unbreached rationality is the sociocultural norm.  Given human sociocultural history to date, this ideal – were it to be universally accepted to begin with, as it quite uncontroversially should be, as this essay will demonstrate – is a lot easier said than done.  But first, some clearing up of the basic concept (“end of history”) is in order.

The idea of an end of history is most (in)famously associated with the philosophies of Hegel and Marx, the idea being more fully elaborated upon in the latter.  Starting with Hegel, the chief conception of his difficult and elaborate system seems to be the idea of history as an unfolding of (self-)consciousness, to reach its “end” or fullest realization in an absolute and universal Spirit.  To get into the details of the particulars of the Hegelian vision would be largely beside the point for our purposes; the essence of the idea is that humanity has a historical “aim,” a potentiality as it were, which can be discovered and actualized over the course of time.  History has (had) a direction, a point A (an origin) and a point B (the end) whereby what was radically incomplete at A becomes radically complete and whole at B.

    (For Hegel, this progression follows a Logical structure that is prior to it, i.e., already in place from the outset, which dictates the objective and natural sequence for this historical unfolding – a detail I mention to distinguish Hegel’s particular idea of historical progression from those of others; in the Hegelian scheme, the progression of world history can in some way be reduced to logical categories that are independent of, prior to, history, i.e., that the course of history follows from some kind of necessary logical progression, starting with the very most basic logical categories such as “being,” “nothing,” and “becoming.”  I am not prepared to go that far in this essay, as far as I am willing and prepared to go.  And even if it is in some way a misstatement of Hegel himself, we have a most intriguing idea to work with which a leading end-of-history thesis might resemble in outline.)
Hegel’s end-of-history thesis has a fundamentally spiritual character, where humanity’s end-state is identified and understood in terms of the full realization of spiritual nature or potential.  His version of human history is of a distinctively theistic sort. (It is perhaps panentheistic – in which God and the world are coexistent, coeternal, and where realization of the potentialities contained in one redound upon the other; under “process panentheism” this occurs through the processes of nature; in one or more leading versions of panentheism, God suffers alongside creatures, generating what appears to be a self-consistent solution to “the problem of evil or suffering”). Through history humans coming to full self-consciousness also become one with God (along with an expressive unity with self, others, and nature, a key theme emphasized in philosopher Charles Taylor’s landmark work on Hegel).

    It is thought by some interpreters that as far as the sociopolitical realm is concerned, Hegel saw the end of history, the fullest realization of Spirit, in the German state of his time.  After Hegel’s death in 1831, it fell upon Hegelians and post-Hegelian students of mid-19th-century Germany to make sense of Hegel’s grand theme as it applied to then-contemporary society.  One feature of the German state of the time is its authoritarianism, its having not adopted and implemented the classical-liberal ideas then in reign in the Anglophone world.  This surely presented a challenge to post-Hegelians to figure out what the end of history would really look like.
The most prodigious of these post-Hegelian German thinkers is Karl Marx, father of communist thought and (to this day) the most prominent critic of capitalism.

    (Sidenote: if it should raise some kind of cognitive red flag that, nearly 150 years after the publication of Vol. 1 of Capital he remains the most prominent of capitalism’s critics – as in, has the anticapitalist case not made much progress since then? – then by the same token it might also raise a red flag for an observant reader that the “end of history” I’m proposing in this essay stems in large part from the work of a Greek philosopher dead these past 2,300 years.  We’ll get to all that, as it applies in the cases of both Aristotle and Marx, in due course.)

    In the well-known version of Marx’s end-of-history narrative, history follows (“in the ultimate analysis,” as authors Marx and Engels were careful to qualify it) a material progression.  Marx was an atheist and philosophic materialist.  There is a commonsense claim, something Aristotelian-sounding, that the natural world is metaphysically primary with respect to humans, that what is in our consciousness is dependent upon that, that the mind, its logic and its categories of understanding have the exclusive role of mapping the world-territory rather than having an originative role in generating the territory itself (a role assigned in Hegel to the logical structures of the developing and unfolding Spirit through the course of history, to which the progression of the natural world becomes a subordinate, derivative phenomenon).  The Marxians adopt this commonsense claim within the context of their adoption of an entire theoretical system in which the natural world always and everywhere has the metaphysical primacy which all other phenomena (including human history and culture) depend.  It is in this way that Marx claimed to have stood Hegel on his head.

    So what is the Marxian end of history?  Given that the material world is primary, and the driver of human history or historical change, the end of history would have to be something dependent upon the material world as it determines human society.  Moreover, it would have to involve a condition in which humankind has progressed from a state of relative incompleteness (the point A) to one of full completeness or realization (point B).  To answer the immediate question: the end of history would be a communist paradise.  The narrative here is superficially compelling but nearly completely abandoned at this point.  Its key features bear review, however.

    Karl Marx was first and foremost (and said so himself) a political economist, and questions of political economy dominated in his day.  As the modern West was industrializing, the upheaval of societal institutions occurred.  The big question here is one of cause and effect.  Which was the causal primary – industrialization, or the upheaval of social institutions?  (Did the ideas of John Locke regarding the individual, the right of property, and the nature and role of government play a part in the upheaval even prior to the Industrial Revolution that came in the century after he wrote?)  Marx’s answer is that the history of all human institutions theretofore was, in addition to being a history of class struggles, the result of material factors, namely, the mode of economic production that was dominant at a given period in history.  In the early state of human economic production, something like our point A, there was a primitive communism.  Let’s say that early (prehistoric) human hunter-gatherer societies approximated this condition.  Something about this initial condition was upset, and the result was the long record of strife that we know as human history.  Subsequent periods of economic development led to their own production relations, property and ownership relations (this included at various periods humans owned as slaves), class relations (a dominant group and a subordinate one – a hierarchical social structure), political relations (which were in the final analysis an expression of class relations), and cultural products (many of which had to do with explaining and justifying the human conditions current at the time, e.g., the “naturalness” of a master-slave relation).

    The dominant economic system approaching a condition of maturity in Marx’s time was the capitalistic mode of production, i.e., private ownership and control of capital (capital being the human-created means of production, which covers a wide range of creations within a category differentiated from the other basic categories of production, natural resources and labor-power).  Marx saw capitalism as an advance upon previous systems of production, particularly in terms of the material abundance made available to consumers compared to previous eras (as in, e.g., feudalism, the system dominant for much of the European middle ages).  This abundance was both the main datum in favor of capitalism as well as the source of its eventual downfall and dissolution.  The main reason for this was captured in such Marxian terms of art as “alienation,” “commodity fetishism” and “false consciousness,” signifying closely related concepts for what Marx saw as conditions afflicting the great mass of humanity in capitalist society – not the capitalists, the owners of the tools of production, but the laboring classes, i.e., the proletariat.  In the England of Marx’s middle years, the laboring classes experienced, in addition to long working hours and meager pay, a profound sense of alienation (from self, from others, or even from nature), stemming from the divide between the laborer’s own (animated) efforts and the (non-animated, calcified) end-products available to the consumer.  Not only did the capitalists step into the process of production in such a way as to take a cut (i.e., Marxian exploitation), and to hire laborers to do their (the owners’, not the workers’) bidding, but the process itself turned capital into an alien force, a juggernaut that took on a life of its own and dominated social life.  (Perhaps one should say that the process revealed capital to be this all-reaching dominant force, in capitalist society, that is.)  This means that the end-product, the commodity, took on a life of its own, taken out of the direct or immediate control of the laborers; the conditions of capitalist production made the production and consumption of commodities the driving force in social relations – hence, “commodity fetishism,” as over and against the human values of brotherhood and self-expression-within-a-community.

    After alienation and commodity fetishism there is false consciousness, or the undue mental internalization of the external social order.  In capitalist society, for instance, false consciousness takes the form of regarding the private ownership of capital as a given, a not-seriously-questioned background assumption of daily life.  And where humans’ material conditions are the primary underlying cause (again, “in the final analysis”) of the entire human condition, the prevailing ideas in capitalist society will naturally be ideas friendly to capitalism; literature promoting the cause of the proletariat, in such conditions, would be regarded (by political officials or a wider group of intellectuals they might consult) as subversive of “the” social order, as something alien and other (in its own right) to what “is right” for the conditions of thriving human life.  The Marxian analysis seeks to turn this on its head, seeing the then-current capitalist conditions of the time as the alienating factor, as that which prevented the full development and expression of human potentialities.  Whereas the apologists of the capitalist social order see capitalism as “the” social system for human beings, as being a settled, stable set of institutions as far into the future as the mental eye could see, Marx and his devotees viewed capitalism as only a temporary stage in the course of history, with its own internal set of problems that are irresolvable within and given the terms of the system as such: the capitalistic mode of production is inherently such that it gives rise to alienation and related problems; the relation of production between capitalist and laborer can only be hierarchical, hegemonic, oppositional, and conflicted, alienating the parties from one another and preventing true full expression of the human nature of all concerned.  (For Marx the human essence is realized in work - non-alienated work that is - where creator and creation are appropriately united to one another, where the creator can exercise full control over the end-product.  The capitalist is, in this conceptual model, alienated from this proper creator/creation unity; only the details differ from those of the laborer.)  For humanity’s true consciousness and full self-expression to be realized, there must be a fundamental change in the material conditions framing society, i.e., capitalism would have to be superseded by something better.

    In the Marxian historical scheme, only after capitalism is supplanted by socialistic and/or communistic modes of production (where eventually the state – an organization by means of which social hierarchies are enforced – withers away) could humanity reach an end of history.  That is to say, historical progress has demonstrated that humanity’s course is “toward” a condition of full human development, and that this could be reached after the tumult of the last remaining class struggle (between capitalists and proletariat), after the material abundance generated by capitalism can be appropriated by the proletariat (the social class now conscious of its place in history thanks to the revelatory writings of Marx and his followers) and used for further human development (in the form of ample leisure time for artists, scientists, and other creators, say, rather than  in the form of ever-more commodity production).  No longer would individualistic private property serve as a mechanism dividing humans from one another; the form of social organization proper to human beings would reflect humans’ need for development as individuals as well as social beings.

    Setting aside the details of all this, the focus here is on the concept of an end of history, of which the likes of Hegel and Marx are originators.  The essence of the idea is that the future has in store for humanity a set of sociocultural institutions that prove capable of withstanding the trials and tribulations of historical experience and practice, that are stable and enduring throughout subsequent human practice, and which best serve the aim of promoting humans’ full realization of their heretofore-underdeveloped capacities.  I do believe that we as a species are headed in the direction of such a state of affairs; I agree with the essential idea of an end of history.  How to get there from here is the subject of this essay.

Not “end of days”

The concept of the end of history should not be confused with the notions of the “end of days,” the End Times, the Apocalypse, the eschaton, or related notions.  These notions are typically formed in the context of a supernaturalistic narrative in which the world or nature itself approaches a cataclysmic event, probably wiping out most of the world’s population, probably leading to an otherworldly Kingdom of righteousness in which the good and just live in harmony with one another.  Something like that, anyway.  In the Christian story, this usually involves a Second Coming of Jesus, a day of judgment, perhaps terrifying world-scale natural disasters.  The story we will consider here is not significantly like that one, but there are ways in which the ideas of an end of history and of the end times could be easily confused.  Let’s briefly set aside any such misconceptions.

First, it’s been noted among critics of Marx (Kolakowski, the leading critic of Marxism, for one) that his end-of-history conception shares key similarities to the Christian end-times story.  The same might be said for Hegel.  If there’s an end of history, then the beginning (point A, as stipulated earlier) must be one in which humans fall well short of their potential, alienated from expressive fullness with self, others, nature, or God.  The end-point (point B) marks a completion, a condition in which humans have figured out the way to be in full flourishing-mode, beyond which they cannot develop further.  The intervening period we call human history, observed to be a kind of progression characterized by strife, conflict, resolutions (in some cases, revolutions), new strife, higher resolutions, etc.  We observe over the period of human history progress in the areas of technology most obviously, in terms of learning (university systems), political systems (liberal democracy vs. dictatorships), social mores (freedom and social status for women and former slaves), and many other areas.  The Christian story isn’t fundamentally in terms of these worldly indicators of progress.  The only progress involved in the course of human history would be the discovery of the need and necessity for humans to be saved through Jesus Christ; for this to happen, Scripture had to be written, Jesus had to be incarnated, and humankind had to receive Jesus’s message and act upon it to the best of its abilities.  In Christian theology, humans in their earlier stages of existence, (prehistoric and historic) were closer to the Point A, akin to Adam and Eve before and just after the Fall.  The development of history from there on is conceived primarily, fundamentally in spiritual terms, with the Abrahamic God awaiting us at Point B.

Marx conceives of this development primarily, fundamentally along naturalistic-materialistic lines.  From a pre- or early-historical condition of lack, material and spiritual deprivation, undevelopment, crudeness, ignorance, and so forth, the end of history comes when humans can achieve completeness (or something approximating it) to the extent as is most realistic for them to do so.  Presumably this all takes place (can only take place) in the natural, material world; awaiting humanity at the end of history is not a supernatural destination.  The ideal social system here would be a worldly one.  And, yet, there are lingering suspicions among Marx’s critics that his vision of the end of history bears too much similarity to theological end-times stories to escape sharp notice.  One critic, Murray N. Rothbard, titled a critical essay, “Karl Marx: Communist as Religious Eschatologist” (which discussed not so much Marx but earlier theorists and practitioners who blended communist-style ideas with end-times-style reasoning, often with bloody results).  So this comparison goes, Marx’s “eschatology” refers to a great overthrow of the capitalist system, to be followed by a system of righteousness, justice, harmony, etc.  For this scenario to have an eschatological flavor, the overthrow or advancement upon the capitalist order would have to be cataclysmic, so disrupting and such a departure from the previous course of history that it could not fail to be regarded as cataclysmic.  This might happen, say, if the capitalistic system had to undergo a series of giant spasmodic crises near the end-point, in effect forcing everyone to realize that the system has to be replaced.  Economic crises of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries have been, to those deeply influenced by Marx, signposts pointing to the eventual downfall or replacement of the system; supposedly we are nearing the inevitable.  Perhaps ecological crises – a new focus of critics of capitalism – would spell either the downfall of capitalism as we know it or of the entire ecosystem (sacrificed in the name of capitalism); the latter would indeed spell something more like an end-times than an end of history, since the latter by definition refers to a (mature) state of human institutional development which would be wiped out in toto by a catastrophic-enough ecosystem collapse.  That such a collapse is a possibility within Marxism means that an end of history is neither entirely inevitable after all, nor that such a development would pave the way to an otherworldly Kingdom; humanity would simply be gone at that point, tragically.  A theological end-times idea, on the other hand, could allow for such a collapse to be the precursor to the otherworldly Kingdom.  This makes for a rather big and obvious difference between Marxism and Christianity along the supposed eschatology dimension.

Nonetheless, the similarities have caught many a scholar’s eye: the basic point of agreement appears to be that humanity is in a fallen state, alienated from expressive unity with self, nature, others, perhaps God, and that the course of history is toward a condition in which there is expressive wholeness and completeness humanity-wide.  In Christianity, it is the wages of sin that have to be overcome in order for the righteous to withstand the apocalypse in good enough shape to take part in the otherworldly Kingdom.  In Marxism, it’s the economic-productive shortcomings in the human condition that must be overcome in order for an earthly paradise to emerge after capitalism’s downfall.  These (and surely other) similarities speak to a shared ideal going beyond the differences: given the current, at-best mixed human condition, humans have been aspiring and hoping for something better and fulfilling, be it in this world (or its future) or in an afterlife.  This similarity in aspiration is at least as intriguing as the distinct ways in which the aspiration receives expression, be they this-worldly or otherworldly: there is something better than what we have here and now, that this something can be discovered and learned, and that it is within our power individually or together to make strides in that direction.  Short of being hardened by cynicism, humans are typically receptive to this aspirational ideal, even if they aren’t all agreed on what it means exactly or how to bring it about.

Not “technological singularity”

The concept of a technological singularity, in wide usage in the years following Ray Kurzweil’s 2005 book, The Singularity is Near, bears almost unmistakably the marks of an end-of-history theory.  According to the Wikipedia entry, “The technological singularity is the hypothesis that accelerating progress in technologies will cause a runaway effect wherein artificial intelligence (AI) will exceed human intellectual capacity and control, thus radically changing civilization in an event called "the singularity".  Supposedly this radical transformation of human civilization will occur within the next few decades to perhaps one hundred years.  It would signify an “end” to all human technological progress, as any progress beyond that point would be the result of the decisions made by artificial intelligence.  (This assumes, of course, that an ecosystem collapse didn’t happen first.  We’ll get to that in due course.)  Humans would, supposedly, be in the same position as children with respect to their parents: the AI would be in a position cognitively superior to ours, thereby making humans unable to determine what the AI would do after AI has taken over decision-making.  
 (This creates a technological-historical “event horizon” that we know is there but cannot see beyond.)  In brief, the technological singularity is defined in terms of the initial appearance of functioning superintelligent AI.  In a big way that event will constitute the “end” of something in human history, a massive and dramatic transition-point after which life as we know it will not be the same.

    (This has generated some concerns: will the AI outwit us enough to assume a life of its own with humans reduced to a lower, subservient, or inessential status?  If so, we have to assume that it would be within the power of this super-smart machine, in time, to generate a computer “simulation” in which the lesser-status humans are unwitting participants.  Indeed, by the logic of it, we might well be within such a simulation now.  (See Nick Bostrom. “The Simulation Argument.”)  Some recent sci-fi films have explored this idea, though in the rather crude and unsophisticated way characteristic of all too much of the sci-fi film genre.  Unless we have reason to believe that this AI would be benevolent enough not to place us in a computer simulation even if it’s intelligent enough to do this to us, then we should suppose that this AI is not equipped with moral along with intellectual expertise.  We should wonder how we suppose an AI would be equipped this way by humans.)

    There might even be a reflection of “end-times” thinking involved here that surely some eager eschatologists could pick up on: how else to characterize this superintelligence than as “godlike”?  Sure, it would be the creation of humans and not the other way around, but the technological singularity would serve as some kind of cataclysmic event, and if the superintelligence is programmed appropriately it would carry out its activities in morally upstanding ways.  In an interview upon the release of his 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick spoke of how a species reaching full technological maturity might well lead to “an intriguing scientific definition of God.”  As “end of…” scenarios go, this looks like a middle ground between the worldly “end of history” and the otherworldly “end times.”  Note that there is still a human-aspirational concept at its center: God, the highest, the most perfect, the most grand, beyond our present capacity to imagine.  And this “God” as scientifically defined would have to act as we would expect God to act if it is to fulfill such aspirations: not just extra-knowing and extra-powerful, but extra-benevolent (or better yet, benevolent beyond our present capacity to imagine).  Kurzweil speaks in terms of “the universe waking up,” and perhaps both these visionary thinker-creators – Kubrick and Kurzweil – converge in their conception of what this ultimate scientifically-definable super-being would be like.  The “God” concept tends to pop up in these sorts of ultimate-level speculations.

    In any event, this essay isn’t concerned with the technological singularity – or even with Hegel or Marx or End Times talk per se – but with how these concepts are suggestive or perhaps instructive in constructing our own end-of-history conception.  The technological singularity has to do with the mature development of our technology.  The end-of-history idea has to do with the mature development of humanity or human culture.  Take the way the liberal arts are grouped into three major areas: sciences, social sciences, and the humanities.  Technological development is dependent upon development in the sciences; human development is dependent upon development in the humanities (first and foremost) and the social sciences.  Our main focus in this essay is on the humanities portion inasmuch as it relates to the development of human culture, and in that sense I would use the terms “end of history” and “cultural singularity” interchangeably.  (If one had to make a 1:1 correspondence between the three main branches of the liberal arts and the human phenomena they pertain to, one might say that the sciences line up with technology, the humanities with culture, and the social sciences with commerce.)  Since we are talking of the best sort of political institutions (or, more broadly, sociocultural paradigms) for humans, as part of a comprehensive end-of-history program, the social sciences are also very much relevant to this study, but the issues we’ll deal with here are primarily cultural, and in this regard the humanities (which groups together philosophy, religion, and art) are front-and-center.

Why “End of history”?

As the case of the Wikipedia entry on “End of history” shows, the idea has been around some time, and this essay employs this concept which is already in current usage.  Recently, Francis Fukuyama wrote The End of History and the Last Man (1992), in which he advanced the thesis that liberal democracy of the modern western world was the political system most suited to human affairs, suggesting it would be only a matter of time before all peoples came to the same realization.  This essay goes beyond the merely political to demonstrate that an (Aristotelian) all-encompassing way of life, starting with the cognitive and the ethical at the individual level, can serve as the way of life most suited to human beings.  As to the question why the phrase “end of history” is even used, as applied to the concept discussed here, a good guess is that it has to do with there being a problem which comes to an end when a solution is had.  It doesn’t mean that there will be no more recordable human events once the solution is reached; it does mean that the strife and conflict which have characterized history will no longer be driving forces of historical change, and that once a fundamental and comprehensive solution for solving major human problems is settled upon, no longer would there be essential changes or progressions in the building and maintaining of human institutions.  Finally, the phrase “the end of history” tends to convey something huge, important and drastic to come in the course of human events, and the subject of this essay qualifies on that count.

Why “Prologue”?

This essay, Prologue to an Aristotelian End of History, is distinct from (or more than merely) an outline or proposal for an Aristotelian end of history.  Rather, it makes a rather startling claim: that an Aristotelian end of history is almost surely realizable, and perhaps soon.  In this regard it’s similar to Kurzweil’s singularity book; Kurzweil is without any doubt that the historical technological trends he identifies in his book will lead in the (relatively) near future to the creation of artificial superintelligence.  I’m claiming to do something comparable here – to demonstrate that an Aristotelian end of history is perhaps inevitable.  The main reason I think this to be so is grounded upon the strength of the case – theoretical, practical, historical – to be made for an Aristotelian worldview, a case that – once understood by its readers – should lead to a full, widespread adoption and implementation of the Aristotelian ideal.  In other words, this essay is to be taken as an opening statement, a challenge to be taken up that would, in time, lead to an Aristotelian end of history (or something like it).  To that task we now turn.