Hegel Update 2: What Have I Done?

After spending an hour or two reading Phenomenology of Spirit over the last couple days, on top of maybe 2-3 hours I’d already devoted to it since my last Hegel post, I noticed I gotten all the way to page 17 of Hegel’s preface. This means I’ve spent maybe 4 hours reading the table of contents and 17 pages of preface. I’ve been reading each paragraph, sometimes each sentence, sometimes each phrase, at least 2 or 3 times, trying to tease out whatever it is Hegel thinks he’s saying. The gauntlet has been thrown down, and I have picked it up: Aristotle says it is the sign of a man with a cultured mind that he can entertain ideas he does not accept. All right, game on!

On first (and second, and third) pass, much of Hegel comes off like that Time Cube dude, or maybe super-double secret Rosicrucian mysteries – you are simply told to believe certain rather esoteric things on the sole basis of Hegel having done the Hard Thinking ™ and discovered them to be true. Normally, I would assume this is just a feature of a preface, and assume he goes into detail, maybe gives examples of what he means, in the body of the work. My prior experiences reading Hegel, however, strongly suggest that won’t be the case. Nope, like Newton dismissing criticisms that his Principia was needlessly hard to understand with the statement that he didn’t want *stupid* people to understand it, Hegel assumes that his reader would know, without any hints, exactly whose philosophical positions he’s disputing – Kant’s, I would assume, except that I recognize very little Kant in Hegel’s descriptions of the issues – I doubt Kant would recognize himself in them, either. So, who is he talking about? Would it kill him to just go ahead and *say* who it is? Maybe even restate the proposition in a form its author would recognize?

There are two issues slowing me down the most: Terms of Art, and lack of examples or specificity. Hegel (or his translator, but I expect it’s Hegel) puts a number of key words and phrases italics, many of which are terms of art predating Hegel by centuries, some of which seem to be new: Substance, Subject, Absolute, Negativity, Content, Object, Concrete, Notion, and a dozen more. Standard terms of the philosopher’s art, such as Substance and Subject and Object, are used in ways that at least suggest that Hegel means something subtly or not so subtly different by them than what every philosopher up to Hegel meant. This causes the reader to constantly need to recalibrate his vocabulary: what does he mean, exactly, here?

Even more difficult, recall that in his Logic, Hegel rejects the Law of Non-contradiction for real philosophers like himself. (it’s OK as a crutch for little people.) The most immediate result of this move is that Hegel cannot make arguments in the traditional sense – you are simply invited to agree with him. How could he make arguments when he’s kicked the legs out from under any effort to construct a syllogism? But more insidious and more difficult, this rejection of the Law of Non–contradiction makes definitions themselves impossible: how would it be possible to state that “A means A and not B”? Nope, based on Hegel’s premises (there goes that pesky logic again!) it would necessarily be impossible for as much as a single word to represent one thing and definitely not represent another. Cat means cat *and* dog.

This state of no definitions leads inexorably to Babel. Yet, yanking myself back to a state of cultured mind, it could be said that perhaps the difficulty here is precisely that language is a poor or flawed medium for the expression of the truths Hegel want to point out. Perhaps as we move from the concrete individual cat to the universal absolute Cat we shall see that it both is and is not, in itself, also Dog. Hegel does in fact assert that the plebeian scientist studying cats is ultimately delayed or deceived by the multitude of concrete individual cats from seeing the unity of truth in which all individual subjects are suspended in an absolute unity of Spirit knowing Itself in and for Itself. Within that suspension, cats can truly be said to be dogs while at the same time recognized as cats in each cat’s concrete individuality.

Ya know?

There has been exactly 2 times so far that he has deigned to give examples of what he’s talking about, and both those examples are wrong, in that they don’t show what he thinks they show, but rather contradict it. He mentions, as evidence that all knowledge gained by an individual is a participation in the Spirit’s knowing Itself in and for Itself, the philosophical equivalent of embryonic recapitulation: that one can see the history of the progress of the Spirit’s developing self-consciousness in the way children learn culture. Any culture or child in particular? He also mentions zoology as being parallel, somehow, with the Spirit’s developing self-consciousness – I’ll take that one up later.

So, here’s the deal: properly dealing with this work, so that I am both fair and thorough, would require a 500+ page work.

I may not live that long. Further, while I’m pretty much a stone master of Kant’s Prolegomena, (as much as a dude with no German can be) I admit to giving short shrift to his other works (mostly because I’m lazy, but also because the Prolegomena is so  hopelessly wrong that I despaired of anything of value being built upon it). Fichte and the minor German philosophers contemporary with Hegel I know hardly at all, with the exception of Fichte’s Addresses to the German People. Clearly, then, insofar as Hegel is discussing issues that crowd raises, I’m likely to miss it.

However, I refuse to read the summaries and textbooks. Given the history of Hegel’s followers, who quickly fell into utterly antagonistic camps, it strikes me as unlikely that they would be of much help.

So, where are we? I will continue to read this work over the rest of 2015 – it will clearly take that long – and try as much as possible to fill in the holes in my knowledge of the other German philosophers. I’m trying to give Hegel a fair reading, but I’m not going to pretend things that are wrong or stupid are not wrong or stupid. Politics and religion serve as cautionary tales against thinking that having lots of enthusiastic followers, even really smart followers, means the ideas themselves are not wrong or stupid.

I’ll post updates as warranted.


Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

3 thoughts on “Hegel Update 2: What Have I Done?”

  1. The Preface is notoriously obscure even for Hegel — it’s a common joke that he wrote it in order not to clarify the rest of the book — so if you can get through that it gets more manageable. Although your point about how he likes to make the reader guess who or what he’s talking about, so that you have to figure out yourself that what he is doing is giving an argument in ethics exactly parallel to an argument Kant gives in metaphysics for a conclusion Kant rejects (or whatever he’s doing), is always the case. He’s definitely the Riddler in the Rogue’s Gallery of philosophy.

    I think you’re right that you can get at least little distance with Hegel by taking him to be constantly pointing out that this or that way of talking about a subject is always leaving something important out.

    1. “notoriously obscure even for Hegel” – now, there’s a phrase to make a reader’s blood run cold.

      What is your take on the statement one translator made: that if you think you’ve captured what Hegel is saying in a clear concise manner, you’re wrong?

      1. I think there’s probably something to it in something like this sense: saying something in a clear, concise manner suggests that you’ve captured the idea all at once. But Hegel thinks, more or less, that ideas are in motion, in the process of shifting as you think of them, and whether he is right or not he is at least trying to do things in those terms. So Hegel is not generally intending to say things that could be captured and formulated all at once. With Hegel, we are in a sense always looking backward: once we’ve definitely formulated something, it’s already begun moving on, so we (and our formulation) need to move on, too.

        Of course, all the heavy work in that description is done by metaphor, but that’s what one gets from trying to put Hegel in a nutshell!

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