An anecdote on the myth that Hegel is impossible without background.

One of the most annoying points I encounter repeatedly when it comes to engaging Hegel for a newcomer is the repetition that Hegel is very, VERY, difficult. So difficult, in fact, that if you have not had at least four years of your life dealing with learning at least the continental movement from Hume to Kant to Fichte to Schelling to… ever increasing background qualifications, you have no hope in properly understanding anything Hegel has to say. That’s not even counting the difficulty of learning Hegel’s terminology itself and the obscure logic of dialectics. So… just hold on until you’ve made it through undergrad, there is no shame in admitting that Hegel is too hard for you.

This is from personal anecdote, but I find that in my experience the difficulty of Hegel is vastly overplayed. Yes, it is true that you will miss an immense amount of subtlety in the Phenomenology of Spirit and the later works’ arguments and the texts’ conversation with the philosophies of Hegel’s past and present, but just because one misses subtlety does not mean one is left with an unintelligible experience in which nothing great is learned. As Hegel himself says in the Phenomenology, to paraphrase: to demand that we know before we know is just a bit silly. To think that making mistakes is bad and invalidates any insights you may gain by misunderstanding is likewise silly. Depending on who you ask, some Hegelians claim that others have made quite a name for themselves due to their misreadings and the results thereof (Kojeve, anyone?).

When I began to read Hegel directly my only background in studying philosophy formally was virtually at the level of a summary text of the history of western philosophy covering snippets in the typical analytic fashion, I had just gotten past the philosophy 101 level classes. Most of the actual development in thought which led me to Hegel came from my own private philosophical readings that were for the most part utterly unrelated to the readings in my philosophy classes.

As I had been going through basic philosophy classes I had read Marx’s Capital Vol.1 as a challenge to engage with unpopular ideas and see their merits and failures for myself. I found Marx quite clear, and since I had at the time already arrived (due to quantum mechanics pop science) at process metaphysics speculations, I found Marx’s emphasis on processes and developments a welcome change from the philosophies I had encountered in my classes. It is through Marx that I encountered Hegel, and through random snippets of Hegel I truly encountered Kant as an epistemologist and ontologist, something far more fascinating to me than his ethics (at the time). In my attempt to understand Marx rigorously and philosophically I read many summary accounts of the silly idealism of Hegel, accounts which warned that it was an utter waste of time to engage with for someone focused on more practical matters of social existence, but over the couple of years I focused on comprehending Marxism one problem arose constantly: dialectics. It seemed like no one at all was capable of making intelligible this mysterious logic which was used by both Marx and Hegel, and which many claimed was the backbone to everything in their systems. Many of the accounts of it were so vague as to be useless, and I must admit that for some time I myself parroted these vague notions which in retrospect were nothing but word salad. In eventual frustration with the failure of Marxists and Marx himself in making intelligible what seemed most important, the logic which justified the argument’s development and validity in Capital, I finally decided to read about Hegel from the point of view of Hegelians. While I had been trying to penetrate the depths of Marxism I had quite a lot of times read snippets of Hegel, and I liked what I had encountered, so it wasn’t that big of a change for me.

When I finally began reading the Phenomenology of Spirit I did so without any guide. I had read a few overview articles, and I read Findlay’s introduction to the Miller translation, but they were mostly unintelligible and of no help. However, once I began the famous Preface I had moments of experiencing the sudden flashes of insight which reading Capital had first dazzled me with. Despite the difficulty and denseness of the Preface, and of not seeing how the discussions going on were related, Hegel made points at many moments which were epiphanies for me. I did not at the time understand the meaning of “dialectical”, Spirit, the Concept, the Idea, etc., and Hegel did not offer definitions, yet I also noticed they were not so unintelligible or even necessary for grasping the general gist of what went on. The unique idealist terminology remained unclear to me for the good part of half a year, yet my desire to make sense of Hegel compelled me to think these terms were not what most accounts had led me to believe. Hegel struck me as too intelligent to be so foolish as to think all of reality was mental in a Berkelyan or in a (simplistic) Platonic sense. What Hegel seemed to refer to in these terms, the Concept, the Idea, etc. seemed very different to anything I had ever known by them, yet I could not at the time understand them.

In reading the first section of the Phenomenology, Consciousness, I made my first major grasps of what Hegel was doing. This section’s three chapters made apparent to me that whatever Hegel was doing in the Phenomenology it seemed to have to do with meta-epistemology. I took this point and began searching for secondary literature on it, and here I encountered Westphal’s reading of Hegel. In attempting to understand the meta-epistemological view dialectics began to take the form of a process of investigation that had something to do with critiquing the inner coherence of conceptual schemes such as epistemology and ontology. The second insight I gained from reading Hegel directly was the point that epistemology and ontology were not distinct beginning standpoints, but two standpoints that each assumed the other and always came together. An epistemology assumes an ontology, and ontology assumes an epistemology.

At the door of the Master/Slave dialectic, however, I gave up on the Phenomenology. It wasn’t because I found it boring, or that it was too hard. I had made it through the third chapter, the infamous Force and the Understanding, and felt I had understood at least the general form of the argument if not the details, yet I stopped because I found reading Hegel too exciting. I wanted to talk about the ideas I discovered in the text with someone, to discuss interpretations, and I was frustrated by the lack of anyone else to engage the topic with in a timely and lively manner. My reading of the Phenomenology being indefinitely postponed, however, did not end my study of Hegel in general.

These two first insights gained from directly reading the Phenomenology ended up providing my entry path towards grasping Hegel more broadly. As I read more on those topics I began to find papers which led me further to new connections. From meta-epistemology and further overviews of the Phenomenology and Hegel’s system as a whole I began to think of Hegel as a meta-philosopher due to his overview of what seemed like all general points of view on topics, and by this point I had settled into the comprehension that whatever dialectics was it was something that didn’t have a general form and had more to do with a critique of inner coherence of concepts and thought structures. Searching for meta-philosophical readings of Hegel led me to the work of James Kreines, whose articles turned my focus away from the Phenomenology towards the Science of Logic. I had known the connection of the Science of Logic‘s concepts to ontology, but Kreines’ work led to a greater interest in the Logic‘s role and function in Hegel’s system as a whole. The connection between logic as such and the world, a notion I had already held as necessary for philosophizing for some years, became far more interesting and central. I read more on this, but without touching the Logic itself my understanding was limited to abstract papers and making general connections with little else. Where I had gaps I would study backwards to get at least the bare arguments necessary to understand a point, and often I read beyond what I had to.

I have continued to read Hegel (some Science of Logic, some Enclyclopedia), and most of what has kept me from a complete study of any of the works has been the overwhelming excitement they cause, and my own learning-by-explaining style. I’ve found that I think better and pay far closer attention when I read with the aim of discussing and attempting to clarify and explain what I read to someone else. I may not be a very wide or deep reader of philosophy or even Hegel, still, I can understand most Hegelese I encounter these days, especially the beginning developments of the particular sciences that are built up. When I can open up a work by Hegel and find myself following a conceptual development once I have situated myself in the context of the discussion… that’s quite something for someone who lacks the training of 4 years of Descartes to Schelling.

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3 thoughts on “An anecdote on the myth that Hegel is impossible without background.

  1. “It is through Marx that I encountered Hegel…”. I see we both had the very same root on studying Hegel’s Philosophy. I agree that it is only through developing Hegel’s, that Marx’s system is understandable which implies the whole history of philosophy at the same time. However, in our current time, the global self embracing and organizing world as a unity, the development of science and development of productive forces, gives us, as human beings the great opportunity to understand organically our world from a truly rational point of view. Here, it is when the greatness of Hegelian and Marxian system come to our rescue. I am a computer scientist, and see how transcendent the Hegel’s Logic is for this discipline, developed critically from the dialectical materialism point of view.

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