Reading Hegel: How Difficult It Is

Preface PhdG # 25
“ That the truth is only realized in the form of system, that substance is essentially subject, is expressed in the idea which represents the Absolute as Spirit (Geist) — the grandest conception of all, and one which is due to modern times and its religion.” – G.W.F. Hegel

I hegel, you hegel, we hegel. Many have hegeled. Many more are trying to hegel as well as they can.

There is a tendency among some students of Hegel to confuse understanding with the ability to speak Hegelese. Paraphrase replaces insight.  Abstract statements of principle become a surrogate for knowing how to apply the dialectic method from the inside.

You may think that I am about to attack these hegelians and pour scorn upon them for being bad scholars or students. But that is not my point.  It serves to emphasize where the real difficulty in studying Hegel lies.  It is very difficult to become a philosopher in your own right just by reading Hegel, because of the sheer power of his language. It can overwhelm you. It seems as if any successful attempt to understand Hegel presumes a particular philosophy that is already in place, that acts like a magnifying glass. Some of the best ways to understand Hegel are therefore also one-sided.  They reach the level of true philosophy, and yet they are deficient in presenting the whole of Hegel’s philosophy.  We have to accept that. We cannot be Hegel. Nor should we even try. Modern Hegel research therefore shows a peculiar inner division.  The historians manage to present the whole by simplifying Hegel’s philosophy – and you get a list of main principles and historical circumstances that do not reflect Hegel’s method –  and the philosophers always represent one particular emphasis fromn their own specific perspective, because it is nearly impossible to understand and cover the whole of Hegel.

It is a very good instinct that drives some of us – us students of Hegel – to try and avoid the historians’ Scylla and the philosophers’ Charybdis. The best thing possible obviously is to be able to represent, explain and understand the whole of Hegel’s philosophy the way he wanted to be understood. Unfortunately, most of these attempts turn out to be Hegelse gibberish.

Take this example.  The text quoted speaks about the program of the Phenomenology of Spirit. Substance should also be expressed as subject. Now what does this mean?  Let’s read for a moment the attempt to explain this by someone writing about Hegel on the Internet. (Of course, here it is also taken out of context, but the text is presented as a running commentary on the Preface to the Phenomenology, so I dare risk it.)

The phrase, ‘that substance is essentially subject,’ means that consciousness is the key to the development of a reality that is completely independent of all imperfect appearances of things and that this reality is Spirit itself. Consciousness controls all predication of the subject.

So ‘substance is subject’ means that consciousness is the key to … is that exactly what is meant by ‘subject? Consciousness is the ‘key to the development of a reality?’ The development of our understanding of reality maybe? Or the development of ‘reality?’ How does one do that? Or did he mean something like the development of reality from within itself? But still, what does that mean? And then:  That reality is ‘independent of all imperfect appearances of things? What does that mean? A reality that is perfect because it stands outside the appearance of things? The independent absolute therefore? But that is Spinoza, maybe…

And then finally: Consciousness controls all predication of the subject. What does that mean? Does it mean that we do not predicate anything about a subject matter, unless we do so consciously? Is that anywhere to be found in Hegel?

As a matter of fact Hegel explains fairly clearly that ‘substance’ is the ‘immediacy of and for consciousness’ and that subjectivity is the full expression of the absolute within and as every ‘appearance of the Spirit’ in the form of an inner development of these shapes of consciousness – as consciousness, i.e. as a specific mode of knowledge involving a subject, an object and a concept of knowledge – that has gone through the stage of ‘reflective’ thought. The logical form of the expression of the absolute is an intrinsic dimension of that absolute, which should ultimately be conceived of as expressing itself. This may not be Hegelese and obviously by saying it differently than Hegel himself, I introduce an extrinsic perspective. But I believe it is both clear and precise as to the ‘Sache’ that needs to be understood here.

The introduction of a ‘controlling consciousness’ that governs ‘all predication’ of the subject, changes the meaning of such words beyond recognition. The reality that is ‘independent from all imperfect appearances’ has a vaguely familiar ring to it, but it leads more to Spinoza than to Hegel who will never discuss the absolute in such Platonist terms.

The problem is that my critique of course needs a demonstration in my own reading of Hegel and for now it appears simply ‘besides’ the comments quoted here. In the fact that we claim to express Hegel, we are simply – immediately – equal. My claim to have understood Hegel better is just an appearing claim. But it does show that paraphrasing the text as if its meaning were obvious and assuming that your own Hegelian language is simply transparent to the meaning of the original is a mistake. However, if he cannot get away with that, neither can I.

Nevertheless I must say that if you imagine the amount of work necessary to produce this prose, it is very disconcerting how little help it offers us to understand an already difficult text. I will close with just one more example:

‘Spirit is alone reality. It is the inner being of the world’ sums it up as to what is real. We should not be mislead by this since Hegel is not a traditional or subjective idealist; that is, that reality is only in the mind. Hegel is not talking about what is in the mind only. Spirit (Geist) means more than just mind. We refer to truth also, a mixture of what is real and what is true-perhaps the true reality, which again takes the credence to a higher dimension of just ‘the real’ (wirklich). This is what Hegel means. His real is the ‘true reality.’

The truth is a mixture of the true and the real? His ‘real’ is the true reality? Spirit means more than mind? But what does ‘more’ mean? How can we ‘refer to truth also’ next to what? Is there anyone who understands this and finds it helpful in understanding Hegel?

But still, the attempt, in any form or shape is laudable.


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5 responses to “Reading Hegel: How Difficult It Is

  1. James Potter

    This is a long fragmented question that is trying to articulate a basic thought. When I consider science and everyday life I run into a sense of arbitrariness and even despairing considerations. Science tells us that life evolved by an unguided process. Everyday life tells me that clouds are lovely and twilight sends something in me into a dark but ineffable dream. Science does not give me a direct and meaningful sense of life and everyday life only has glimmers of dreams hope and mystery. Thus I consider perhaps what needs to be added to the mix is philosophy. Maybe Darwin does not seem bleak from the perspective of true thought and maybe philosophy will give dreams something splendid and wonderful that will transcend psychoanalysis and allow us to see the fullness promised in those dreams. But then I look at philosophy and see sentences too difficult to comprehend and I do not even know if what I am looking for can be found there. Then there is the thought that if reason were objective then what makes me so special that I think I can find these things in the thought of philosophers when so many great philosophers say that their is nothing to be found. And what do I want exactly? I suppose I want a world where facts conjoined with meaning and reason rather than being in opposition. Perhaps it is even a vulgar thing this wanting of meaningful facts about life and I do not know if that is what Hegel offers or if he offers a way to transcend the need of meaningful facts which are superstition and anti-theology. But that is what I am asking. If we can abstract the theory of evolution that is taught in text books from the rigorous observations that led to that way of thinking can there be a “doctrine” (forgive my use of this word) of Hegel that can be an alternative to the bleak thoughts of science? I watched a video of Peter Singer where he articulates a vision of history as an attainment of the idea of freedom. Singer doesn’t explain how Hegel came to think that way. Such a doctrine does seem more meaningful than than Darwin on the one hand but on the other hand without understanding it it seems as arbitrary as the claim of astrology that history is dictated by the relation of the Earth to the 12 constellations. For a fact to be meaningul in my opinion it must not merely have more promise than the sense of chaos it must have a connection to an overarching and believable sense of purpose and the particular view of Hegel that Singer articulated needs further explanations to have that sense of meaningfulness.

    Thus my question is there a doctrine of Hegel that can be abstracted from his work that could on deeper examination be truly meaningful in a coherent sense of the word or am I naively demanding of Hegel something that no decent philosopher promises to provide? Am I looking for a substitute science that replaces true religious faith?

  2. error234

    Reading what you write it seems to me that you could be a really great or a truly terrible philosopher. Because noone would be able to do Philosophy without the hopes you have expressed. But as a Philosopher you need to let your intuitions and hopes be guided by arguments and reason. So yes, I would say (almost) every Philosopher has the dream of finding something meaningfull, but at the same time he or she needs to be able to accept it, if the outcome of the inqury does not match the inicial hopes, or infact crushes them.
    So, if you can go looking for meaning in the full knowledge that you might find that there is none, do philosophy. (This is at least my way of doing it.) If you cannot accept that, why not walk some spiritual path instead? There is nothing wrong with faith, if that is how you feel about the world and it seems to me that you do. As you say, science cannot touch what is really meaningfull for human beings, so go take a look at faith with your heart, not with your head.
    Ps. You sound like a talented writer

  3. Hi James, you pose a question which has many facets and is therefore impossible to answer in full. I can only affirm what error234 has already said about the need to accept the outcome of any philosophical inquiry as it is – that is the necessary ‘ integrity’ that is required by truth itself, truth demands affirmation as such. Our desires and needs are transcended by our quest for truth, even though that quest is motivated strongly by such desires.
    Nevertheless I do believe that Hegel’s philosophy belongs to a tradition of thinking – let’s say ‘metaphysics’ – that does rise to the challenge of finding ‘meaning’ in and for life also in an existential way. Ultimately philosophy is a rigorous reflection on who and what I am. The theological element in such reflection has never been discarded by Hegel and rightfully so. There is ‘consolation’ in philosophical truth, and it is even possible – I believe that strongly – that philosophy by understanding its inner limits, can make room for answers that arise from religious experience or come forth from an historic faith. There is a depth to human life and even to the cosmos that is beyond the point of view of empiricism, which implies beyond the perspective of ‘natural sciences’.
    I think the relationship between science and philosophy should be viewed as a dialectical one. In sum: the results of science need to be accepted, but their inner limit needs to be acknowledged too. A ‘meaning of life’ that is simply distinct from and opposed to our scientific understanding of the material universe and human life however is a Platonic fantasy. Reversely, a world view that only consists of scientific theory, tends to obfuscate and ignore the ‘depth’ of the human spirit that asks questions and on that basis alone knows it already shares in some kind of answer. It is the answer to the meaning of life that evokes the question in the first place.

    Finally, I do agree with error234 that you write well. 🙂

  4. Joao V

    Hi, i’ve just signed in. (sorry in advance for my not so perfect command of the english language – my natural language is portuguese…)

    “But it does show that paraphrasing the text as if its meaning were obvious and assuming that your own Hegelian language is simply transparent to the meaning of the original is a mistake. However, if he cannot get away with that, neither can I.”

    Just to mention that as i am starting to dive on Hegel i find myself stuck, when i want to make a note on some passage of Hegel, in the “method” of “paraphrasing the text”. I think that happens for two main reasons, first it is very difficult to understand what he is saying, and second, due to the full sistematic nature of his filosophy, it is hard to move beyond paraphrase (?) without a suficiently broad, and determined, grasp of the whole system, as this implies, i think, also an understanding of the main conceptual positions in the history of filosophy up to Hegel (and maybe after Hegel, as well) . I don’t think Hegel’s system, from his point of view, pretended to be a alternative concept to all the others up to him, but a concept that includes that same history as a kind of path of wich Hegel’s filosophy is a necessary outcome. And in this sense not only does one need to have a broad and determined grasp of Hegel’s system but also, and by consequence, that same grasp of the history of filosophy up to him – the greeks (Paremenides, Heraclito Plato, Aristotle), Descartes, Espinoza, Kant and the german idealism to say the least.
    To move from paraphrase is in a way to place the terms of Hegel in a dialogue with tradition, to find the relations with that same tradition, to find the diferences from that tradition, and, from that, to find a “space”, a “field”, where you can divert from paraphrase into true explanation. In a way resonates with the hermeneutical principle where comprehension preceeds explanation.
    All this provided we get the semantics…

    Anyway, i’ve started with a reading of the “Ph. of Sp.” accompanied vis-à-vis with Kojève and i found it very usefull, although i have a suspicion that Kojève puts himself in a somewhat marxist stand (could this be so?).

    I then move to the encyclopedia, part III, but, because i felt stuck between the difficulty in understanding Hegel’s thinking and an understanding that hardly moves from paraphrase, i am taking a break from it and moved to Charles Taylor’s “Hegel”, from wich i pretend to go back to where i stoped in the encyclopedia. It was in the “spirit” of this break also that i came to this site.

    Thank you for your work, then.


  5. Joao V

    “Philosophy” instead of “Filosophy”.
    Thank you and appologies.

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