Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Dialectical Bog

The Hegel readings got very tough this week. I tried to take notes and follow along, but many long passages made no sense at all to me. Most of the problem lies with me: I just don't have the background, the philosophical skills, or the time to read it until I understand it. Of course, some of the problem may be Hegel's: it could be that he doesn't ultimately make sense. My first impression of many sections is that I'm reading the work of a madman dancing incessantly in circles around the same dense tangle of words that have meaning (or seem to have meaning) only to him -- and that impression could be partly true. But many people understand Hegel better than I, so I know I've simply set myself a frustrating task beyond my capabilities.

But I find a few consolations here in my Hegelian Slough of Despond. First, learning nothing is learning something. That sentence actually sounds dangerously like Hegel, who posed that Being and Nothing are not contradictory but rather inseparably entwined: the one implies the other and in fact is the other. (If you can think of Nothing, then Nothing is the content of your thought, and since your mind is operating, the content of its thought must be something, or some Thing. Thus Nothing is a Thing: it has and is Being.) But I don't have a Hegelian meaning in mind. I mean that if I learn nothing of the content of Hegel's writing on a given day, I have at least learned that I can't understand him, in addition to learning what his writing style is like and what terms were important to him. I didn't know just how difficult this would be until a couple of weeks ago, so that's progress.

Second, suspecting that I might not enjoy every day of my experience with Hegel, I scheduled the book in two big sessions, with a few weeks in between. So I read (or tried to read) every day this last week knowing that on Friday I would get a break. Sometime in late May or early June I'll come back to the anthology refreshed and ready for some hard work again. And who knows? The next section of the reader might be easier; I understood a lot of what I read the first few days, after all.

Third, my trouble understanding Hegel drives me humbly to seek help. The online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provided a lot of clarification, as usual. (I highly recommend it!) Even this reliable reference, though, lost me in its section on Hegel's logic (the part of the Hegel anthology that has caused me all the trouble). But I also consulted Peter Singer's A Very Short Introduction to Hegel and found an explanation there that I could follow. In fact, he mostly touched on points that I had written in my notes, making me think that I had at least found the key phrases, even if I didn't understand them at first.

Fourth, I know that Hegel is not really waiting to be understood. Singer says that virtually no reputable philosopher in the world thinks Hegel succeeded in establishing a coherent, helpful, accurate system of the Way Things Are. The point in studying him is that many other influential people did think so: Marx and, indirectly, Hitler, for instance. So merely getting the key phrases will at least help me understand a bit better when I see Hegel's name invoked as I read about other figures in history.

But why not just read Singer's book about Hegel and be done with it? Partly because I want the chance to experience these things for myself; reading about the Grand Canyon is not the same as seeing it first-hand. I also want to read Hegel because ideas stick in my mind better when I read them in their original sources; that's been true for me with Aristotle, Euclid, Freud, Dostoevsky, and many other writers. But mostly I want to come back to Hegel and give him another try in a few weeks because that's what this whole project is about. I take this journey through literature ready to discover whatever I discover, even if my discovery involves only my own limitations.

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