Talking About Hegel

I am very happy about the fact that so many people on the Internet are discussing Hegel’s philosophy. Some of them are even doing it here on the site. It is the more remarkable if you consider that Hegel’s philosophy is without a doubt the most difficult philosophy within history.

I do think therefore  that Hegel can be easily misrepresented, especially when the focus seems to be on the understanding of the nature of his “position.”  Most of us who have been trained as philosophers, are used to approaching any philosophy that is older than 10 years with the mindset of the historian.  We compare positions, evaluates influences and describe the overall structure of the philosophical outlook of a thinker in the past.

The four paragraphs that open the preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit seemed to be intended as an antidote to precisely that approach.  Indeed Hegel distinguishes between a true philosophical exposition and the kind of introductory analyses that are normally its surrogate.  So what are we supposed not to do?

1. explaining the end the author had in mind

2. explaining the circumstances which gave rise to the work

3. explaining the relation in which the writer takes it to stand to other treatises on the same subject

And the reason for that is quite simply that

…this cannot be accepted as the form and manner in which to expound philosophical truth.

Especially harmful to the understanding of philosophy is the habit of constructing a position, something like “ontological idealism”, or “absolute skepticism” in an attempt to discuss these abbreviations instead of doing the labor on the particulars of a philosophical system.  The philosophical dialogue would then be determined by the attempt to fix a position as being either true or false, depending on the weight of the arguments.  The agreement between one’s own preferred position –  the abstract version of a philosophical system  – would then be the real topic.

This is what Hegel had to say about that:

The more the ordinary mind takes the opposition between true and false to be fixed, the more is it accustomed to expect either agreement or contradiction with a given philosophical system, and only to see reason for the one or the other in any explanatory statement concerning such a system.

Although I’m glad that Hegel is discussed so much on the Internet, I find it hard to join in the fun because of the way the context for such a debate is constructed. Just take a look at the following examples, taken at random from one of the Hegel lists on the Internet.

No, Hegel was not talking about Descartes. He was clearly talking about
Fichte. The phrase ‘recent times’ gives that away.

Here the author is trying to establish the historical reference, but does that clarify anything? The only possible result of this analysis would be to establish the historical link between Hegel and one of his predecessors.

The symptom always totalizes its past according to its new Imaginary constructions. This ‘backward’ glance can also be seen in the Phenomenology, which comprehends truth as it rewrites the sense of the past as constructive moments of each successive comprehension.

In this example the author is summarizing the results of his reading of Hegel.  At best he succeeds in finding a terminology that bears some remote likeness to Hegel’s.  At the same time he succeeded in mystifying the meaning of Hegel’s philosophy by the attempt yet again to ignore the particulars.  In other words, after reading Hegel for more than 30 years I still have no idea what this guy is saying.  Let me try.  Is he saying that

Hegel’s understanding of truth in the phenomenology involves a reinterpretation of the meaning of the past, so that it now becomes an element in a construction where comprehensions succeed one another?

Now how does that help our understanding?  Another example:

Thomas’s view of the immanent trinity has this same structure that Hegel expresses in a philosophical way in his section on Schein.

In this example someone is making a general  comparison between a theological “view” and a whole section of Hegel’s logic. Possibly the comparison does make some sense or it might if you write a 200 page dissertation about it.  But what does it mean in the way it is expressed here?  The problem is that the sentence quoted above may reflect a genuine find, but expressed like this, it has to remain meaningless for everyone else but the author.  And that means it is the expression of a private opinion, not the exposition of truth.  A final example.

Hegel wishes to revert back to the Aristotelian sense of the self moving Subject.

This I think is the worst because it attributes to Hegel the kind of moving between positions that is actually characteristic of the author.  Does Hegel anywhere wants to revert back to a position? And by the way is it true?  Does Aristotle speak about a self moving subject, in any comparable sense to Hegel’s exposition of the Spirit?  I’m not saying definitely that he is not, in the first place because that would entail fixing a position.  But in the second place, what if we grant the truth of this statement?  It might be an interesting utterance in a philosophical conversation, demonstrating a mastery of the topic, but does it truly clarify anything?

And of course, one might be tempted in teaching to speak about “what Hegel wants” – I find myself doing it too – but that of course is just an abbreviation we use to put something in a wider context. If we take the language of what Hegel wants or wishes for too seriously, Hegel’s thinking is presented as a fixed position of which we can discuss the merits. Something that goes obviously against Hegel’s own self understanding as a philosopher.

I believe that the only way to do philosophy proper, is by a careful reading of the major sources that define our contemporary context.  Philosophy after all is the systematic attempt to conceptually understand  the whole of reality from the necessary perspective of my own concrete existence. My contemporary culture is the necessary context that I have to work with. And one of the most important sources for understanding my own context is the philosophy of Hegel.  Just as it provides a necessary schooling in a rigorous philosophical method.  And I believe that the first and foremost lesson we need to take from Hegel is that this reading of the classics should not be driven by historic interest, or by the attempt to reconstruct various positions and their “arguments.”

To read Hegel  implies the attempt to allow the text to be transparent to the subject matter of which it is the exposition.  The proper attitude in our reading, is the active engagement in a dialogue, not about the text as such, but about the topic it discusses.  The discipline of the dialogue should prevent us from any free flight of the imagination and therefore prevent us from spitting out mere opinions about the absolute, the spirit and other Hegelian buzzwords. In the careful examinination of the exposition the aim should be to become thinkers ourselves and to move beyond the stage where historical curiosity would lead us to a mere external rapport to mystifying yet intoxicating sentences.

1 Comment

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One response to “Talking About Hegel

  1. Graeme

    Well said. I particularly agree on the clarity part. Quite often I find people writing about Hegel, myself included, to utilize his jargon in a manner less than clear.

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