Friday, March 18, 2011


A moment I have not awaited eagerly has come: the time to blog about Hegel. I've been at it a few days, and so far I understand about a third of what I read and like even less. So what do I say? I know I have a degree with Philosophiae in the title, but I'm not a professional philosopher, so how do I critique this? The moment calls for courage -- courage to admit my limitations and courage to share my tentative responses.

Hegel was an enormously influential philosopher, even -- or especially -- among nineteenth-century music theorists. He comes up in a lot that I read, so I've wanted to tackle him for a long time. The Britannica set comes with a Hegel volume, and I duly read my assignment as I was going through the set's reading schedule. But the reading in that first plan came from the Philosophy of History, and based on what I had read about him in other sources, it seemed that I hadn't reached the core ideas. Not that I didn't learn some things: Hegel's idea that the invasions of Rome by Germanic barbarians started civilization rather than quenching it for a while does a lot to explain the sense of national superiority that led Germany to such troubling visions of domination between 1870 and 1945. But I knew I needed to read more, especially the Phenomenology of Spirit.

In putting together my current Ten-Year Plan, I decided on a reader published by Blackwell that contains a lot of the Phenomenology and excerpts from several other works as well. It's a long book: 530 fairly large pages filled with Hegel's dense prose, and I made a plan to read it all. But how? I have to go into it knowing that I'm not going to understand it. That admission, far from making the task more daunting, actually frees me to go at a pace that will get me through the anthology in some timely fashion; in this case, I decided on twenty pages a day, using a triage approach. If something makes sense, I just mark it: it's probably a main point. If something doesn't make sense, I glance over it quickly and try not to worry about it. If something almost makes sense, I might try to read it a second time. But the point is to get through the book so I can get a basic idea of Hegel's main thoughts from Hegel's own words (or at least translations of Hegel's own words), so I try not to go back over very much.

Here's a summary of what I have so far: Common experience tells us that we are surrounded by things, and, even if our senses can be doubted (Is that straw really bent as it enters the water? Is my red the same as your red? etc.), we feel that at least we know that the things we sense exist absolutely, and that we know them without mediation. But, says Hegel, if we examine the perceptive process, we find two objects: an 'I' and a 'this'. We only sense 'this' through the 'I' that sees it, and we only sense 'I' because it has experiences of 'this' (and, supposedly, 'that'). So everything we sense, he says, we sense through something else and not immediately. If we are truly to have immediate knowledge, we have to give up the distinction of subject and object, give up on the 'I' (why do so many philosophers want to deny the individual human soul?!), give up on the absolute existence of things, and realize that everything is a part of pure thought examining itself. The history of the world is the development of pure thought learning this lesson.

I'll be honest and say it sounds a little crazy, although I know I'm not truly qualified to judge. I think it's safe to say, though, that it would be easier to judge if it were easier to read. After writing the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel said he felt the urge to become accessible to a wider audience. But the editor of my anthology says that the resulting book, the Science of Logic, puzzles even philosophers. I note in this section of the reader that Hegel made additions, and additions to the additions, indicating that he thought that even the published corrections of the published original didn't say everything it should. Now, I know that many intelligent, trained people have found Hegel's ideas helpful, but I tell my students (and had teachers tell me) that if the prose isn't clear, it's probably because the ideas aren't clear in the writer's mind.

Well, that took a lot of nerve to say. Hegel could be completely comprehensible to the best experts and yet totally opaque to the layman, like some music theory. But the other day I read Hegel's explanation of why philosophy is so hard to understand, and his explanation made me think the blame should not rest wholly on my ignorance. He says philosophy makes claims about specific things, while language can only talk about universals; so philosophy always says the opposite of what it means, and that's why it's so hard to read. Can that really be the reason Hegel's work is so hard to get through? Some philosophy, after all, is easy to read (Plato comes quickly to mind). Also, by his argument all language should be equally difficult to understand, so his theory doesn't explain why philosophy -- and his in particular -- is especially difficult. OK, it's courage or nerve or foolish recklessness or whatever you want to call it, but I think that in this passage, Hegel might only have been trying to justify his lack of effective self-editing.

But he's one of the most influential philosophers of the last two-hundred years, and I want to keep reading, so I'll just continue to apply my triage procedure based on how well I understand a passage, and that way I'll do a little of my own editing.

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