Hegel, Hegel, Hegel… Dialectics, Logic, Nature, Spirit, and bagels—the works.
Where does one begin with Hegel? It seems there just isn’t anywhere—not within Hegel’s direct works anyway. Called by some a philosopher’s philosopher, Hegel is portrayed by many as something only the seasoned philosopher can approach. Seasoned you must Be… or was it that seasoned you must Become?
First, it must be made clear that you have to have a basic general background in philosophy. You don’t have to know too many names, no complete systems, etc., but you absolutely have to know the basic positions in epistemology, ontology, ethics, and you better know your classical syllogism. This is knowledge of the level you generally get in your basic 101 classes. It’s basic, but that does not mean it’s easy knowledge. If you don’t know any of that, head right over to our friendly Stanford Online Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and check out a couple lectures or ten from the many professors who now upload them to youtube (shout out to Dr. Sadler, a great lecturer with a massive library of content)! Take your time, mull over the issues for a couple weeks. This isn’t stuff you ‘get’ by listening to a one hour summary lecture or a five minute video from some questionable pop-philosophy channels on the internet. Philosophy is serious business (seriously)—well, maybe not so serious, but it requires at least honest engagement. You should not worry about starting anywhere and hearing a name/term that you’re not familiar with, after all we have the internet and can quickly search and catch up on whatever we need at any point.
I’m no expert in the learning of Hegelianism, and have only my own experience to go on, but I’m going to take a gander and have faith that you, the reader, are more or less as capable as I even if you’re not as obsessively passionate. You can read Hegel fruitfully and not be utterly lost when engaging his works directly, and you don’t need as much background as many claim you need. While Hegel may be like a fine cheese with wine—he gets better with an experienced age rich with an accumulation of knowledge—he’s not quite that unpalatable even if you have not yet developed the refined taste to tell cheap from fine. You see, Hegel’s system is like an onion—it’s got multiple layers that together form a whole. It seems that learning the system feels like peeling an onion to most: you cry tears of frustration while peeling one layer only to find another layer underneath, compounding the frustration.
Now, I’m aware that not everyone cares to try to understand Hegel as Hegel, as opposed to Hegel through Marx, Hegel through Heidegger, etc. That may be many, but it’s not me. That said, my suggestions here are for those who want to understand Hegel in his own and not through the lens of others, but they may help anyone wishing to engage Hegel in general. Personally I avoid commentaries on a first reading, but you can do as you like.
So, here is what I can suggest to you:
First: Get an overview
It’s always interesting to know why a philosopher thinks as they do, and Hegel is one philosopher in which the personal past and philosophical thought intertwine tightly. Knowing where Hegel was coming from, what he borrowed from who, and who he criticized isn’t unhelpful, especially once one branches into secondary literature. That said, don’t worry too much about prior philosophers. Hegel’s system is logically self-enclosed, and if you do things right you don’t really need other philosophers to get most of it, they’re mostly brought up as foils for Hegel’s points. There are a lot of overviews out there, but my favorite up to now is Richard Kroner’s essay “Hegel’s Philosophical Development.“ It’s about 40 pages and it’s very easy to read—given that you understood a bit of the background of German Idealism and Kant in general. It is quite a fascinating rundown of how Hegel’s life, personality, and philosophy came together to produce his system. This essay is from the translated collection of Hegel’s Early Theological Writings (Works in Continental Philosophy). There are lots of other overviews, you may try any as you please.
Second: Understand Dialectics
Dialectics is the core of Hegelianism, so it’s best to get it and get on with it before anything else. If you want a direct ice water bath experience of getting to know it, I recommend you read the the beginnings of the Science of Logic first. Particularly, read the prefaces, introductions, and chapters one and two. The movements you see are exactly what dialectics are.
Now, perhaps it is my intellectual masochism speaking—you may not want to take this up if you find it too difficult—but I suggest you try reading and comprehending these chapters on your own without a guide. The reason I recommend no guide is because I think the point of Hegel’s works is for you to think along with him, not just read what someone else says he thinks. Dialectics is a logic that simply demands a rigorous thinking unlike any other. At least give it a try before you give up and turn to a commentary. The exercise is priceless.
If you find that too intimidating, well, there is the long post I wrote on it linked above. If that is too daunting from scratch, here is a much simpler introduction. Dialectics are really simple, simpler than the formulas even, yet it is this very simplicity that makes it difficult. It pays off to be able to think them.
Third: Grasp the Universal
A lot of emphasis is given to the Hegelian Universal by Hegelians, but it’s often hard to come to grips with this as a beginner. I think most commentators on Hegel do a terrible job at explaining this concept. It is KEY to comprehending a lot of what Hegel logically does and why he does it. Winfield does a pretty great job on summarizing the basic notion of the Universal, and once you get a grasp you will see it everywhere in Hegel. Everywhere.
I wrote a summary blog on the Hegelian Universal as a small intro.
Fourth: Grab a Hegel dictionary
If you’re going to start with the Phenomenology, or anywhere that’s not the Science of Logic, you’re not going to make it far if you don’t get some key terms down. Sublation, determinateness, dialectical, Spirit, substance, subject… the list just goes on. This language is definitely a gate, often due more to our insistence to interpret them with our own preconceptions rather than being open to Hegel’s development of them. My advice is to suspend judgment on the terminology’s meaning and just go with the flow even though you may feel impatient despair at not understanding what he’s saying until he clears it up later. Be mindful of context and pay very close attention to Hegel’s relating of one term to another.
I will say, Hegel didn’t leave us as helpless as I had first thought, but you would have to pay very close attention to notice that he tells us the meaning of these terms in the Phenomenology as it develops. To note something interesting, in the Preface itself is a preliminary explanation of the enigmatic claim that “substance must become subject,” it’s just that this explanation is spread out through some disconnected paragraphs that are heavily logical and dense with Hegelian terms. This is the very preface which most tell you to not bother reading. It’s bad advice, don’t listen to it. Read that Preface!
Don’t expect your first reading of the Phenomenology to be of great life changing insights page after page, the subtlety of the book’s denseness is immense, and most people miss out on the logical development and focus on the far more familiar and relatable content after the section on life and self-consciousness, and that’s ok.
Fifth: Don’t fear the Hegel
If you understand dialectics and can follow one, then you can read almost any Hegelian work. You won’t understand it on the level of an erudite sorcerer with a PHD in Hegelian science (i.e. a full systematic insight), but you’ll sure know how to follow on the necessary ground level of the dialectical developments. If you can “get” the Science of Logic’s first chapter, you can get almost anything else in Hegel if you have the will to work it out as far as following along goes. You too can understand Hegel without resorting to someone else telling you about it. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but it won’t be impossible.
Sixth: Don’t forget you’re here forever.
Hegel is a systematic philosopher in which everything swings back to itself and points beyond itself, and if you’re going to deal with him in earnest you’ll have to get around to the rest of him sooner or later, even those nasty reactionary and unfinished parts. You think the Phenomenology of Spirit is where it ends just because it has a chapter titled “Absolute Knowing?” Please… the Science of Logic is right ahead of it, and then the Philosophy of Nature, Philosophy of Spirit, Philosophy of History, Philosophy of Aesthetics, Philosophy of Right. Never forget: The truth is the whole. Hegel’s system is one of incredible subtlety, every step forward does not just reveal something further than where you were, but brings all that came before into new light such that even the prior portions are themselves expanded by the new insights.
For those who just want to read about Hegel
Don’t want to read Hegel but want to talk about Hegel as if you did? The clearest writer about things Hegel without much Hegelese is James Kreines. He recently released a great book, Reason In The World: Hegel’s Metaphysics and Its Philosophical Appeal. Check it out, you won’t regret it. Currently, my favorite commentator/expositor of Hegel is Richard Dien Winfield, however, his style requires some grasp of Hegel’s thinking style (you have to at least be open to the style of immanent critique), which doesn’t make him a great person to start one’s Hegelian journey with, but if you can follow his style I recommend him highly.
You can also check out the popular milieu of the day with Pinkard and Pippin, etc. I haven’t read them much, so I can’t speak for their readability, but people seem to like them. One reading I cannot recommend is Jay Bernstein’s interpretation of Hegel. While I love his lectures (one of my favorite lecturers), and his reading is very interesting in its own right, it’s too disconnected from Hegel’s actual project and method to recommend anyone to start with it.
One thing is for sure, you’ll rarely get a boring commentary on Hegel when it comes to interpretation. You may not like his style, but you can’t complain that his effect on philosophy has been to generate boredom.