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?
Step one, HISTORICAL CONTEXT.
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.
Step two, SYSTEMATIC CONTEXT
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:
- Exposition of a concept – a descriptive definition of a particular “consciousness”
- Development of the inner contradiction
- Establishing the results by combining the exposition and the contradiction into a renewed concept
- Exposition of that renewed concept as the basis for a further development
- 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.
Step four: CHARTING THE FLOW OF THOUGHTS
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
Step five: WORD ANALYSIS
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.
Step six: APPLICATION
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.
Step seven: PHILOSOPHY POST-HEGEL
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.