Historical teleology: The Grand Illusion

The sixteen essays in this volume treat a broad array of topics related to the idea of teleology in history. The majority are not concerned with evaluating or even analyzing arguments for or against the teleological view of history. Their purpose is more to display the wide variety of teleological views. In their introduction, the editors speak of the Enlightenment origins of the teleological view of history, but the volume “seeks to explore that enlightened project … across its fragmentation and multiplication in the nineteenth century” (13). In fact, they believe that “the very idea that a single, however powerful, conception of time could function as the unifying principle of all modern historicity is cast in doubt. Our volume intends to expand on this doubt” (14). Thus, in addition to discussions of Kant, Hegel, Marx, Darwin, and so on, we learn about the Canudos revolt in Brazil, the Taiping rebellion in China, missionary writings in colonial India, John Brown, Scholem on Zionism, and much more. But this often fascinating profusion of microhistorical research suffers from considerable conceptual confusion. Terms like teleology, eschatology, providence, and messianism are not adequately distinguished. In my essay I point out that the teleological view of history does not date from the Enlightenment but is part of the religious tradition of the West. Many nineteenth- and twentieth-century versions discussed here simply continue or adapt these religious views. The puzzling question is why those modern thinkers who question or reject the idea of divine providence continue to think in teleological terms about history. This question, which could have served as an organizing principle for these essays, is for the most part not even addressed.