The Thorn of History: Unintended Consequences and Speculative Philosophy of History

Most, if not all, readers of this journal will be familiar with Hegel's notion of “the Cunning of Reason,” which refers to the idea that the unintended consequences of human action should bring about the self-realization of the Mind or the Spirit. What Hegel left to his reader's imagination was the question of how order could arise from the chaos of unintended consequences. Nevertheless, Hegel's notion of the unintended consequences of human action is a most fruitful one. In this article, I argue that unintended consequences are “the stuff” from which history is made and that a speculative philosophy of history can be built from them too. This argument infers a speculative philosophy of history from historical writing and not a variant of historical writing from a speculative philosophy of history, as is normally the case. Finally, I discuss how global warming and the impending climate catastrophe can be said to be the prototypical unintended consequences of human action, or to speak with Saddam Hussein, “the mother of all” unintended consequences. This article ends, therefore, with a discussion of how the notion of unintended consequences may contribute to a better understanding of what the Anthropocene must mean for our historical consciousness and for how we locate ourselves in the evolution of history since the dawn of humanity down to the present, in which dark clouds gather over our collective future.