Seeing the forest for the Hegelian trees
“The reason why he wishes to admit contradictions is that he wants to stop rational argument, and with it scientific and intellectual progress.”
“A beautiful oasis around a treacherous pool of nonsense, and nowhere beneath the foliage is the ground really firm.”
“This illustrates an important truth, namely, that the worse your logic, the more interesting the consequences to which it gives rise.”
“Hegel was a flat, witless, disgusting, revolting, ignorant charlatan who, with unparalleled impudence, kept scribbling insanity and nonsense.”
What is going on here? Hegel is well known as one of the major figures of western philosophy and he was widely influential. Yet all to often he is the butt of jokes and derision, even from fellow philosophers.
Part of the problem is the prose. German has a grammar that can maintain clarity through long and complex sentence structures. This clarity is often lost in English translation. Hegel also uses a highly technical vocabulary and frequently uses words in ways that differ from their typical usage. Contemporary philosophers use the work “logic” to refer to a formal axiomatic system of relations unrelated to their content. In Hegel, “logic” is the rational, structural core of all of reality.
A bigger problem is the lack of context. Hegel was a systematic philosopher. He created a system. His books and lectures explain or elaborate parts of that system. Yet none of these books or lectures provides an overview of the entire system. A person is expected to know, on their own, where they are in the system and how the particular book or lecture relates to the whole.
The names of the books are not much help. We have the Greater Logic, the Lesser Logic, the Lectures on Logic, the Science of Logic, and the Encyclopedia Logic. There is the Phenomenology of Spirit and the Philosophy of Spirit, including a chapter called the “Phenomenology of Spirit.” Not to mention the Philosophy of History and the History of Philosophy.
It can be a daunting task. As Allen Speight describes “One’s choice as first-time student of Hegel seems often, then, to be determined either as a resort to the misleadingly formulaic or as a gesture towards giving up on the effort altogether in favor of caricature.”
The individual books and lectures make much more sense when you see how they all fit together. When you understand how the entire system is constructed it is much easier to see how the arguments and conclusions of one book provide the presuppositions and foundation for the next one. Questions and puzzles from a particular book receive clarification and elaboration in the supporting lectures. There are still obstacles and difficulties. The prose is dense, the structure is elaborate and the project is enormous. But with a roadmap it is much easier to follow the overall direction and when you are able to stand back and view the entire project one forgets the thorny and difficult sentences and starts to see a rather sublime and magnificent philosophy.
Two things will help us:
1) The Roadmap. An outline of Hegel’s entire philosophical project which will hopefully help to situate our reading in the context of the overall system. Download here.
2) Stephen Houlgate’s The Hegel Reader. This anthology includes key excerpts from all the major works systematically arranged in the order of Hegel’s overall argument.
These two taken together should help to get a more comprehensive picture of Hegel and to see and understand his philosophy in a new, and hopefully less confusing, light.
Stephen Houlgate’s The Hegel Reader
For the September meeting we will be reading Parts 1-3 (pp. 1-250) which includes Hegel’s Early Writings, Phenomenology of Spirit and Science of Logic as well as Houlgate’s excellent introduction. These writings provide the introduction and foundational principles of Hegel’s philosophical system.
For the October meeting we will be reading Parts 4-6 (pp. 251-527) which includes some of the most interesting parts of Hegel’s system including the Philosophy of Nature, Subjective Spirit, Objective Spirit and Absolute Spirit. We will be reading excerpts from two of Hegel’s most frequently read works, The Philosophy of Right and The Philosophy of History, as well as the culmination of his entire system, the writings on Absolute Spirit encompassing Art, Religion and Philosophy.