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.