Sprouting a Dragon Seed: How I Learned to Read Hegel

When Hegel died, his fame and reach was so great and the offense he had caused to the king of Prussia in his passages in the Philosophy of Right concerning the role of the king was so felt that this same king ordered Schelling to Berlin in haste with the explicit order to kill “the dragon seed of Hegelian pantheism.” Kill it he did… or rather, it seemed to have died all on its own, as the only living practitioner of its arcane dialectic disappeared without leaving a single follower who had grasped its essence.

As Hegelianism quickly receded, the only thing it seemed to have managed of positive note was a negative triumph in its failure’s signaling of the end of grand systematic philosophy. However, like all great philosophies that have touched a ground of truth, the dragon seed was destined to spring to life again one day, so long as its memory remained—even if this memory was for a while nothing but a name for ridicule. In all the time since Hegel died, one problem has constantly arisen: how does one penetrate the shell of this seed and engage its life power so that we may see the living dialectic of ye olde philosophical fables? How do we read Hegel and finally move beyond reading about Hegel?

A Blind Dive Into a Raging Sea

In June 2016, after a few years of circling around the dragon seed and attempting a stab at it in January 2015 with reading the Phenomenology of Spirit, I came to be acquainted with a group of seemingly equally curious and foolish fellow travelers in the world of philosophy. Among this group was my good friend Hyperion, at the time a fellow Hegelian Marxist. Being that Summer is a time where university students and people with jobs that go with the school season both have nothing much to do, we had the time and for the moment the surge of interest to read and discuss philosophical works we thought might be interesting.

First we took a stab at Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, but found out that 1) people in general won’t read large chunks of text for fun outside of mandated reading for classes and 2) that the Prolegomena frankly is an awful piece to introduce anyone to Kant if what you want to offer is something convincing. With that failure, however, I offered another title to read and another method for ensuring the group actually read it. I proposed that we attempt to read the Science of Logic because 1) I had an intellectual itch regarding it after a year of reading about and around the epistemology and metaphilosophical perspectives on Hegel which made it more interesting than the Phenomenology of Spirit to me, and 2) I was aware of the claims that it was a ‘groundless’ work which technically should not require any background. I was interested in testing this claim of groundlessness, and a reading group of novices to discuss things with was a big motivator as well as a near perfect experimental condition. The method for the group I proposed was a live reading session where one or many of the members read the work paragraph by paragraph aloud over microphone while the rest listened; comments would be made and questions asked on a per paragraph basis as the members of the group saw fit.

The result was a world of difference to the attempt with Kant, for everyone involved never had an excuse to not have read it, and going paragraph by paragraph with philosophical enthusiasts—especially those who truly had no background in Hegel or philosophy general at all—made for some very good discussion by forcing those of us who were ‘leading’ the reading to actually think and translate what we read into more normal language. Anyway, how did we do?

Taking It Literally: Reading Language Riddles in the Logic

Hegel’s introduction essays for the Science of Logic ask of the reader something simple in some elaborate arguments. Hegel basically asks us to stop assuming we know anything. I dutifully accepted this demand and forsook my right to define things as I felt or pleased outside of what the text allowed. On this basis, I committed myself to a blank literal reading of the text along with my ragtag group of philosophical comrades in arm.

While not something easy to do, or that anyone else but one of my friends in the group really tried to do, it was attempted nonetheless. So, how does one read a text literally? Well, it’s like thinking with riddles. Take for example the following famous one: a plane crashed and every single person died, but there were survivors. How is that possible? The answer is quite simple: those that survived were couples. This might seem to be quite a stupid way to read a philosophical text, but bear in mind that this isn’t just any philosophical text. This is a text claiming to begin from no background whatsoever. Not only that, it is written in what in the very first two paragraphs strikes one as a riddle of language.

In the very beginning of the Science of Logic Hegel says:

Being, pure beingwithout further determination. In its indeterminate immediacy it is equal only to itself and also not unequal with respect to another; it has no difference within it, nor any outwardly. . . . There is nothing to be intuited in it, if one can speak here of intuiting; or, it is only this pure empty intuiting itself. Being, the indeterminate immediate is in fact nothing, and neither more nor less than nothing.

The immediately obvious way to read this for me was to consider this in the content-form relation, in which the content of Being was Nothing as an absence of content or form within the form. Nothing, in turn, is in the very moment we think it and is in the form of Being. —This eventually turned out to be not fully true of what Hegel meant, for I was thinking of it along lines closer to Heidegger’s Being as no-thing, but nonetheless, it was an intelligible beginning which satisfied me in the first reading. The problem arose in this reading, and Hegel leads one through it, with thinking these two concepts are not only opposed, but clearly different. Being and Nothing are indistinguishable at this beginning. It is according to this problem that I first understood these movements, under the impression that this problem was one of the logical drivers of the investigation; after all, why would we be moving onward in investigation if we had no question? Two terms—different, yet identical. How could we differentiate them? The problem, as I saw it, was in providing the capacity to establish a standing difference.

When crossing into Becoming, the first major breakthrough in grasping the method occurred. Prior to engaging the reading I had already known and seen the circular movement of dialectical terms referring to one another and becoming one another as one thought them, but here it became clear to me that the movement of sublation and transcendence towards a new concept was tied to a relation of movement with the dialectic we engage. Becoming was gotten to by standing back and seeing the relation of Being and Nothing in their movement. Being that we were to treat each concept of the Logic as if it were the Absolute, when Hegel returns to the moment of Becoming, I saw there a thinking grasping at everything at its disposal. Becoming provided an answer to the question of differentiation of Being and Nothing, and it did so by re-conceptualizing them through itself; thus, we got the moments of Becoming as Ceasing/Coming-to-be as the distinguishing directionality of the concepts. This, however, again failed to provide a real distinction.

In the transition from Becoming to Existence (Determinate Being), Hegel made what at first was an intellectually hellish transition. Here I first noticed that something was going on with this absolute logic: self-operation. We could re-determine Being and Nothing through Becoming, but when that was done, we had failed to solve the problem. Where else could Becoming go? What else could be determined with this lone concept? Hegel did the unexpected: it would itself become. Those in the group could attest to how baffled I was by this since I came up with four different interpretations of this movement in just a few days. Even when we made it into chapter two, I continued to return to this transition trying to wrap my head around it on my own. The difficulty was not in understanding the general idea of what Becoming did to itself—that is actually quite easy to grasp externally, even if not immanently at first—but in what the result was. The difficulty is that I had been attempting to picture this concept—something completely impossible. The standing unity of Becoming’s result was at first a return to Nothing and Being as one concept—the empty void that is. I then formulated the “frozen Becoming” image, such that ceaseless change itself does not change. Then it was the self-dissolution via contradiction of Becoming’s enduring. Finally, I settled on something explained by Dr. Daniel-Pascal Zorn in a comment on one of my explanation/question posts in a Hegel study group: Becoming becomes into Being and Nothing since it is its function to transition into them.

What I struggled with was grasping how Being and Nothing returned as a stable unity in the end, and in truth, I would not end up grasping this in a personal satisfaction for about another year after I had left this attempt alone and returned to re-read the Logic with a second group of initiates. Moving on to chapter two, the struggle was real. Only once in my life had something grasped my intellectual imagination and given it the beating the four pages going from Existence to Something did, and that prior time, it had only been a light beating in comparison. For five days, I read and reread the passages endlessly, made and trashed diagrams of the movements, and elatedly thought I solved the movement only to doubt myself a few hours later and repeat the challenge again. It wasn’t until I looked at another translation of the Logic that I realized I had misunderstood the concept of reality in quality due to the translator’s obtuse phrasing at the end of the section. After that was clear, I redeveloped the logical diagrams going from Becoming to the end of quality and was at last satisfied to move on. A year later, in the second reading, I realized that I had missed an immense amount of subtlety.

In the middle of chapter two of the Logic, the reading group fell apart, and Hyperion and I decided it to take a break from it all. It had merely been a month long experience, and yet in that month something amazing had happened: we had figured out the fundamental trick to reading Hegel. Though we were wrong about our interpretation, we were wrong in the best way anyone could ever be wrong: we had simply not been right enough. Looking back, what Hyperion and I (for we’ve continued our readings together) developed was not a wholesale refutation of our past mistakes, but a deepening concretization of the insights we had gained from the first reading. Having tackled the beast’s head and admittedly failed to conquer it, we had nonetheless come to learn what is to date the most valuable lesson of all: that though the dragon’s flames singe and sting, to suffer them for a moment makes one realize that, in fact, they are the water which gives life to the dragon seed. Like the Sequoia seed which only germinates in the presence of flame, the dragon seed of Hegelianism is the concept, and only the fiery struggle of actually thinking the concept can give it life.

In less than two months later a reading group for the Phenomenology of Spirit was set up, and as Hyperion as well as my multiple blogs can attest, the experience of reading was like that of having learned to ride a bicycle… except we were riding up a mountain. Just because one knows what to do does not mean doing it is anything easy.

C’est la vie.

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3 thoughts on “Sprouting a Dragon Seed: How I Learned to Read Hegel

    1. To *start* comprehending Hegel in abstraction, almost none. The Logic is quite solid on its own, but you’ll be quickly getting lost in the remarks which note other philosophers as a negative distinction Hegel is holding himself against.

      To comprehend Hegel it is the case that knowing more about anything is going to make Hegel’s work deeper. The more history of philosophy you know, the deeper Hegel hits. I personally read the history of philosophy backwards as I find it necessary or interesting to look things up.

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