7 Steps Toward Understanding Hegel

What are the requirements for understanding a historical text in a foreign language? more in particular: what are the seven basic steps toward an understanding of Hegel’s thought?


We need to have some understanding of the historical context of the book or passage we are reading. Let’s take the phenomenology as an example. To understand that particular book we need to have a general idea of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, the worldview of Hölderlin and the philosophy of the absolute by Schelling and Fichte, Hegel’s contemporaries.


we need to have an overall view of Hegel’s philosophy to determine what role Hegel assigned to this particular work, for instance how he conceived of the whole system of philosophy and in what sense the phenomenology is the necessary first stage of that system. The first and the second step can be performed with the aid of general introductions in the history of philosophy orgy introductions to the philosophy of Hegel.

Step three: GENRE

We need to ask: what is the character of the passage we want to analyze? In the work of Hegel, there is a distinction between the kind of analysis we find in the phenomenology or the science of logic and the reasoning we find in the preface and in essays like “faith and knowledge.” Within the phenomenology, for example, a text that develops the concept systematically is distinct from a text that tries to guide the reader and prepare him for the actual philosophical analysis. Within each chapter, there is further a distinction between elements of Hegel’s dialectic method. We usually find this structure:

  1. Exposition of a concept – a descriptive definition of a particular “consciousness”
  2. Development of the inner contradiction
  3. Establishing the results by combining the exposition and the contradiction into a renewed concept
  4. Exposition of that renewed concept as the basis for a further development
  5. A summary paragraph describing the “flow of the argument” within a passage, chapter or section.

After we have established the character of the paragraph, or section, we need to understand how it fits within the overall architecture of the book. Is it part of the first three sections where Hegel consciously apply the method he described in the introduction? Is it part of the closing sections of the book, in which Hegel expanded his phenomenology of consciousness into a phenomenology of spirit? What is the idea of “natural consciousness” doing within this paragraph or section – remember that the phenomenology is the development of natural consciousness under the scrutiny of philosophical consciousness as described in the introduction.


Within each paragraph, something is going on, something is moving from one statement to another. Hegel’s method requires that this movement is made explicit and that it’s necessity is demonstrated. In my approach to Hegel, I call these movements within the text by the simple name “argument”. Every paragraph has several arguments or steps in the movement of thought. To analyze a passage in Hegel we need to construct what I call the “flow of the arguments.” This step is aimed at understanding the inner logic of Hegel’s thought


Simultaneously we need to analyze significant words and phrases by using a Hegel dictionary or any kind of software that will give us a list of all places where this word or phrase is used. This step is aimed at understanding the language of Hegel’s thought.


Understanding a work of philosophy is different from understanding the work of art. For the latter, it is not necessary to be able to become an artist ourselves or to be able to reproduce the work that we are considering. This is not the case in philosophy. The sixth and final step, therefore, is to rephrase Hegel’s fault in our own language within our own philosophical context and determine its application. In most cases, we start with the attempt to bring Hegel’s thought to bear upon philosophical positions of our own present such as analytical philosophy, new metaphysics, and postmodern philosophy.


We need to understand that Hegel’s thought had a huge impact on 19th and 20th-century philosophy. Some understanding of the history of philosophy after the 1830s, and in particular neo-Hegelianism in Germany, Britain, the United States and Holland between 1840 and 1940 is often tremendous use in understanding the value of Hegel’s philosophy.

These seven steps are taken from the requirements of biblical exegesis. Some of those requirements do not fit with a philosophical text, but I believe these seven steps do. Not all of them are necessary to gain a first understanding of Hegel’s philosophy. I would encourage everyone to try step 1 to 5 as a basic method of understanding Hegel’s text. If you do not want to be completely dependent on someone who presents Hegel to you, if you want to understand Hegel beyond how he is perceived by some other school of thought, I think you need to get used to this sometimes painfully slow but in the end very productive method of approaching Hegel.



Doing Exegesis on Hegel

Hegel’s texts are notoriously difficult to read. That is both a matter of his German style and his attempt to render into language a complex train of thought that is deeply embedded in language itself. You get the feeling that it must be said like this and every word that is changed will destroy the truth; at the same as finding it quite impossible to achieve real clarity as to what is being said.

There is, of course, no surrogate for “re-thinking” Hegel. That is the necessary requirement for understanding him. In part that means putting it into your own words – not into an individual philosophical language, not by simply choosing modern jargon, but in language that is in line with contemporary thoughts and issues. Hegel is responding as much to his own era as we try to understand him from our own. A situation that Hegel himself would understand and agree with.

Re-thinking Hegel, however, can be quite difficult if we are unable to reconstruct the “flow of the argument” that his texts present to us. Now there is a discipline that deals with difficult texts from antiquity that might give us some aid in understanding Hegel. I know of one example of an attempt by a modern philosopher who happened to be a theologian as well, to use those literary techniques to approach a text by Hegel. (Ad Peperzak in a commentary on a passage of the Encyclopedia. I will try to find that text again.)  This method of exegesis that is applied to the Bible might be handy in understanding Hegel’s texts as well. I will try to describe that method in a next blog and then apply it to a passage from the Preface of the Phenomenology.

But for now, I just want to announce that we are going to read the Phenomenology with this exegetical method and try to discover the flow-of-the-argument in the text of Hegel.

Brief remarks on par. 27

Brief remarks on paragraph 27 of the preface.

It is this process by which science in general comes about, this gradual development of knowing, that is set forth here in the Phenomenology of Mind.

The phenomenology of mind is concerned with the establishment of science. All philosophy should be science, i.e. knowledge. As we have discussed in paragraph 25, what is known in philosophy cannot be presented as something immediately given. Science must be a system of knowledge, a dynamic development of its object. Science is not just knowing something, but essentially an knowledge of itself in its knowledge of something other than itself. The phenomenology is therefore the presupposition of philosophy as a science. It is the demonstration of what is contained in the immediacy of knowledge with which we have to start. We start with an immediate certainty, or, as to its object, we start with absolute being. In other words, we have to start with a type of knowledge that can claim to be absolute knowledge of the absolute object. Our ordinary consciousness, what Hegel calls natural consciousness, cannot become scientific at one stroke. It has to be shown to be wrong or insufficient. In that step-by-step demonstration the phenomenology will produce the adequate concept of knowledge, i.e. absolute consciousness or science.

Knowing, as it is found at the start, mind in its immediate and primitive stage, is without the essential nature of mind, is sense−consciousness.

So we start with knowledge as something given. We start with knowledge as it appears immediately to itself. As pure and simple being conscious of something. It is without mind, or rather without spirit.

To reach the stage of genuine knowledge, or produce the element where science is found−the pure conception of science itself−a long and laborious journey must be undertaken.

The form and shape of that laborious journey is developed in a more formal manner in the introduction. What is important now, is what Hegel explains in paragraph 28. The concrete and developed shape of the spirit is the result of different shapes that it produced and rejected. In a way the phenomenology is the historic reconstruction of a development that the spirit has already gone through. Natural consciousness contains the ultimate stage of the spirit in history, albeit in a mere immediate fashion. It is the removal of the form of immediacy that we aim for in the phenomenology. The results of the phenomenology, i.e. the concept of science or the shape of absolute consciousness is not something other than natural consciousness but simply its developed form. Only in that developed form can we say that we truly know what knowledge is. And only when we truly know what knowledge is, can we continue developing philosophical sciences.

This process towards science, as regards the content it will bring to light and the forms it will assume in the course of its progress, will not be what is primarily imagined by leading the unscientific consciousness up to the level of science: it will be something different, too, from establishing and laying the foundations of science; and anyway something else than the sort of ecstatic enthusiasm which starts straight off with absolute knowledge, as if shot out of a pistol, and makes short work of other points of view simply by explaining that it is to take no notice of them.

The phenomenology is not similar to the kind of introduction of science that we can find elsewhere. It is not about the axiomatic definitions that are the foundations of a particular natural science. And of course it’s certainly not similar to the type of philosophy that starts with a brief description of some kind of absolute intuition. As a philosophy, it is always in conversation with other points of view because they too are contained as elements or moments in the developed concept of knowledge. Every particular form of knowledge i.e. consciousness, contains the full and complete form of knowledge that is our goal. Only the fact that its expression is merely immediate or self-contradictory, or inadequate is a concern. There is no such thing as absolute error.

The Ontological Argument Revisited

The ontological argument – the argument from the definition “that which nothing greater can be conceived’ – wants to demonstrate that God is necessary from its abstract concept or definition. Kant argued that this position entails a ‘paralogism.’ An unjustified transition from the logical sphere to that of existence.

The problem seems to be even worse. The only way out of the logical order is that of a direct identification of the logical and the ontological. Only when a mental concept gives direct access to existence – in the sense of a direct intuition – can the argument be maintained. If however such a direct intuition is at all possible, the argument as such is no longer necessary. Then we would need to talk again about the implanted knowledge of God. The argument would lean on a presupposition that destroys its own necessity as an argument.

The argument also presupposes that for us Gods existence is only one of the many perfections of God and not identical to His essence and therefore His perfection as such. It reasons like there can be for us a transition from understanding Gods essence to affirming Gods existence. Therefore it presupposes that for us there is a distinction. Nevertheless, precisely the definition of God assumes also that Gods existence and His essence are in itself identical. If God is a being however that necessarily must be understood by us with a distinction between His existence and essence, in a way He is not perfect for us, since there is something that goes before the affirmation of His existence.

God is on that ground not an Infinite being, but finite, since for all finite things one must assume that the knowledge of their essence precedes the affirmation of their existence. If Gods perfection is the identity of His essence and His existence, it must necessarily be also for us. The ontological argument therefore strives to demonstrate the existence of God but its own structure refutes it. What it either proves or merely presupposes is a finite being, which contradicts the definition of what it tries to prove. It must be Gods essence that essence and existence are identical. But then there can be no reasoning that starts from an essence that is thought without existence to the same essence that is thought as existing also.

As I mentioned in my previous blog about Gods existence, the ontological argument would require the separate affirmation that ‘such a being’ actually exists in order to be valid. And precisely such an affirmation is the problem.

Gods Existence is Self-evident?

Then there is the marvelous argument by Anselm.

Whatever is self-evident must be affirmed, as soon as we understand what it means. The first principles are like that: identity, A=A e.g. is understood as valid as soon as we understand what it means.

Is the affirmation of God’s existence like that? If we define God like this:

that thing which nothing greater can be conceived

we must also affirm the existence of it. Why? Because obviously (?) that which exists both mentally and actually must be considered greater than something that only exists mentally. As soon as we understand the word ‘God’ by this definition, we must also affirm Gods existence. That must imply that the affirmation of Gods existence is self-evident and can not be contradicted.

But again we run into problems. First of all, not everyone will understand the word ‘God’ to mean exactly this. So even when we say to someone “God”, that doesn’t mean that our opponent has the same mental image as we do of the meaning of the word ‘God’.

Secondly, even when we accept that someone understands the word ‘God’ in exactly this manner, it does not follow that he will also accept that ‘God’ exists both actually and mentally. One can understand  the argument without accepting its conclusion.

And thirdly, only if we add the premise that such a being does actually exist, will the argument be upheld. That ‘that which nothing greater can be conceived” does exist, depends on the separate statement  – and further argument – that such a being exists, and not on the fact of the meaning of the word alone. If and only if this greatest being exists both mentally and actually can we say that the mere fact that we think the meaning of ‘God’ implies the existence of God. Those who deny the existence of God will not be swayed by this argument.