July 20th, 2013 / 3:45 pm

The Beginner’s Guide to Hegel


Jesse Hudson, one of the most monastic and scholarly people I know, started talking about Hegel on Facebook. Hegel’s work has always felt intimidating to me, and often when I read his writing, I think that he’s totally full of shit—that he took simple, intuitive ideas and hyperinflated their elucidation to appear logically rigorous and philosophically masterful. Basically, I got thinking that Hegel was a damned charlatan.

But I also knew that Jesse deeply responded to Hegel’s philosophy. So I asked him some questions for the Hegel-averse and uninitiated, following the format of The Beginner’s Guide to Deleuze with Christopher Higgs. Here we go:

Why should we read Hegel?

Hegel is fucking difficult, right?

In order to proclaim the importance of reading Hegel, the initial hurdle to overcome is the impression one initially has in regards to the supposed difficulty (or, stated more extremely, incomprehensibility) of Hegel’s texts. This isn’t necessarily a misinformed opinion of Hegel since, without doubt, Hegel’s texts are extraordinarily rigorous and densely packed. It isn’t uncommon to spend hours (or hours and hours over the span of several days) unpacking a mere page or two of his Phenomenology or Logic. This is due, in large part, to the fact that Hegel (like, it must be admitted, any other philosopher) writes with his own peculiar terminology. Derrida has differance; Deleuze has rhizome; Hegel has being-for-self, negation of the negation, positing presuppositions, ‘sublation’, being-in-and-for-self, etc. Hence, reading Hegel involves a great deal of work that is not unlike the work involved in learning a new language. But, to paraphrase Derrida, you wouldn’t necessarily decry the difficulty of a thermonuclear physics text or a text discussing the subtleties of semiotics and differential calculus. Therefore, the cries of anger and frustration seem a bit odd when directed towards philosophy (texts that are undoubtedly as theoretical and ‘specialized’ as the previous examples). And, before, arguing that, sure, those mathematical or scientific examples are difficult, BUT they have practical applications—it would be best to consider the fact that perhaps there are certain presuppositions and biases located in the theoretical/practical dichotomy you’re employing. Therefore, when reading a piece of Hegel’s incredibly packed and oddly stated text—perhaps about being-for-self’s exclusion of its own in-itself and the subsequent negation of this negation that results in being-for-self’s return-into-self—remember that the difficulty of things doesn’t necessarily imply a lack of value. And, in the end, if you still view Hegel as a pompous obscurantist, run to Bertrand Russell or whoever you choose. But you have to read him before you can even attempt to undermine him.

That aside, the simplest reason we should read Hegel is that his philosophy is fundamentally devoted to attempting to understand how we can be free. Also, if you’re interested in understanding how our arguments often contain hidden fallacies and presuppositions, then the Logic should interest you from that angle too. And, finally, reading is fun, right? If you gravitate towards difficult texts or books that require dissection and parsing, Hegel will keep you busy for quite some time. His books should come recommended to those who enjoy Joyce, Nabokov, Pynchon, Ashbery, or Pound. And, though it may sound odd, I would recommend Hegel to those interested in more “experimental” texts. Hegel’s language is a fascinating thing to watch as it twists and turns, imbues a simple copula or preposition with profound importance, and sometimes becomes so thickly (and fascinatingly) coagulated and thick that it gives you the feeling of pulling a thread through a slab of concrete. I’ve never experienced language that comes so close to feeling like an actual physical object.

Can you state Hegel’s philosophies as simply as possible?

First, as a precaution: Hegel explicitly warns against putting philosophical statements in predicative form (or in the form of judgments), stating that the form reduces the dialectical movement to a static expression. For instance, whereas you could, within Hegel’s philosophy, state that ‘the finite is the infinite,’ you would also have to iterate that ‘the finite is not the infinite’. The “is” and “is not” are simultaneous.

But, setting that aside, I think the best expression of Hegel’s philosophy is to be found in one of his key phrases: The “negation of negation”. Now, this is largely about self-determination or, more simply, freedom. But how is freedom possible when everything is determined by its contrast to something else? How can this include self-determination? Hegel’s answer is that, whereas something is indeed determined by its other, this negation (Hegel believes, along with Spinoza, that ALL determination is negation) can be negated and, as a result, something can overcome its determination by other and, as Hegel says, “return into itself”. The key is that we can’t obliterate the way in which we are determined by others—because that’s a constitutive factor of self-determination! Our relation to others is a necessary part of freedom. Now, if this sounds totalitarian then you must remember that, in self-determination, we can’t “reduce” our other to ourselves in a totalizing, reductive manner. The other has to remain other if we’re to remain free. (Hegel shows in the Logic that selfishness or social atomism is logically doomed to failure).

I realize that that is more complicated, perhaps, then it should have been so I’ll state it much more simply: We are only free and truly ourselves when we relate to or engage with others in an unselfish, non-subjugating way. You can view Hegel’s entire system as a way of making this logically, ethically, and politically evident.

How can we use Hegel’s philosophies in everyday life? Does he supply new or preferred ways of not only thinking, but being? In other words: how does Hegel show me how to live?

At the risk of redundancy, I’d have to say that the practical aspect of Hegel’s philosophy that has affected me most in terms of my own daily life is largely connected to what I said above in relation to other-determination. I have attempted for a long time to ‘shut myself off’ from other people and to remain in a kind of self-imposed physical and emotional isolation. And in my encounters with various topics ranging from religion to politics, I was largely vitriolic in my condemnation. {When reading the dialectic of “Faith and Enlightenment” in the Phenomenology, my outright disgust with religion in all its forms began to crack. Here’s that section.}

That, of course, is only an example. In terms of the larger picture, I’d have to say that Hegel has taught me that in order to be free one must be concerned with the state of other people’s freedom. You must see other people as free, as innately embodying the same universal freedom as you. As corny as it may sound, reading Hegel has made me more compassionate. I find myself often feeling rather ‘defensive’ of Hegel when it comes to him being accused of empty verbiage and posturing since so much of who I’ve decided I want to be as a person is caught up in what I’ve learned while reading him. What is more important on the level of daily existence than the way in which we make decisions and whether or not those decisions are ultimately ethical? So, no, Hegel doesn’t teach you how to make an omelet or how to redesign your house. Instead, he offers something far more valuable: a rigorous understanding and ‘deconstruction’ of our most basic concepts and the ways in which they are fallacious and, therefore, prevent us from achieving logical freedom. On top of this he offers a logical deduction of the absolute necessity of recognizing the ‘other’, of being free not in spite of others but through others.

What is one idea about Hegel or his work that you want to dispel?

Scrub the idea of “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis” from your mind. It isn’t in any of Hegel’s texts (it’s largely from Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre) and only gets in the way. If someone starts talking about Hegel’s ‘synthesis of a thesis and its antithesis,’ you should know pretty quickly that they have no knowledge of Hegel. Let me say that again: If you think Hegel is about the triadic ‘thesis antithesis and synthesis’, you probably haven’t read so much as an introduction to Hegel (published in this century anyway)—much less his actual texts. The form is immanent in the content itself—not applied haphazardly as some petty formula.

And, if I may perhaps be permitted one other…..

Don’t fall prey to the “postmodern” attempts at claiming that Hegel reduces an irreducible difference to a totalitarian identity. In Hegel, identity implies an internal difference. Difference is constitutive of identity. Think about it again in terms of what I was saying above about being yourself through others. This implies a final identity with self. But this identity is constituted by difference (the difference between you and the other). Therefore, in brief, he views difference as being at the core of all supposed identity (Derrida is largely and almost completely Hegelian) but, unlike the philosophies of Derrida, Deleuze, and (to an extent) Adorno, he doesn’t attempt to privilege some mystical difference any more than he attempts to privilege a mystical identity. These critiques of Hegel are largely offshoots of Schelling’s biased comments in On the History of Modern Philosophy. And as Stephen Houlgate says on the very first page of his magnificent commentary, The Opening of Hegel’s Logic (a 500 page book that covers 2 chapters of the Logic), “A great many of those who work against Hegel—such as Russell, Popper, and Deleuze—have almost no direct knowledge of his texts and lectures.”

If you could give someone a Hegel bundle of five items, what would it contain? (It can include anything: any of Hegel’s books/essays, anything Hegel writes about often, other texts, other media, etc.)

A) First, one by Hegel: The Science of Logic. Against common sense and what most other people say, I would recommend starting with the Logic as opposed to the Phenomenology.

B) Hegel’s Philosophy of Reality, Freedom, and God by Robert Wallace. This book, more than any other, deals with what I was mentioning above about the necessity of other-determination for self-determination. It also serves as a great overview of the whole system and as a magnificent commentary on the Logic. And, as a bonus, it is very accessible to the uninitiated.

C) From Being to Infinity by Stephen Houlgate. This covers the first two chapters of the Logic with exceptional attention to detail. Houlgate is, in my opinion, the best commentator and Hegelian scholar alive.

D) Too expensive for me to recommend as a must, but very good nonetheless is Hegel’s Critique of Essence: A Reading of the Wesenlogic by Franco Cirulli. The Logic of Essence is the middle part of the Logic and, though my favorite (it’s pretty “wacked out” so to speak), undoubtedly one of the most difficult and frustrating texts I’ve ever read. This book helps to situate it in relation to Fichte, Schelling, and Kant.

E) And, for the absolute beginner, An Introduction to Hegel: Freedom, Truth, and History again by Stephen Houlgate. It covers the entirety of Hegel’s philosophy in a language easily accessible to the beginner.

And here are some audio lectures on the Logic by Richard Winfield (another great commentator) from the University of Georgia.

And finally, your favorite sentence or paragraph from Hegel’s writing?

The universal is therefore free power; it is itself and takes its other within its embrace, but without doing violence to it; on the contrary, the universal is, in its other, in peaceful communion with itself. We have called it free power, but it could also be called free love and boundless blessedness, for it bears itself towards its other as towards its own self; in it, it has returned to itself.

Here, as a kind of “proof,” is my own personal explication of a paragraph from Hegel’s Logic that I hope will show that, despite the text’s initial appearance, it is indeed understandable. Of course, I should issue the caveat that each category in the Logic is immanently derived from the category that immediately precedes it. This means that choosing one particular paragraph results in an inevitable distortion and makes simplifying or ‘explaining’ it difficult in the sense that I will be forced to rely on terms and categories that have been derived in previous sections.

Measure in its immediacy is an ordinary quality with a specific magnitude attaching to it. Now that aspect of the quantum according to which it is an indifferent limit which can be exceeded without altering the quality, is also distinguished from its other aspect according to which it is qualitative and specific. Both are quantitative determinations of one and the same thing; but because of the initial immediacy of measure, this distinction is also to be taken as immediate, and therefore both aspects also have a distinct existence. The existence of measure, then, which is intrinsically determinate magnitude, is in its behaviour towards the existence of the alterable, external aspect, a sublating of its indifference, a specifying of measure.

This is from the chapter on Measure which immediately follows the chapter on the Quantitative Ratio (the relation between a quantity and a quality). Here’s the gist of what it’s saying:

Measure (a conjoining of a quality and a quantity) is immediate. This means that its constituent parts are immediate and, therefore, not mediated. Hegel points out that the two aspects of something’s quantity can be distinguished. First, something’s quantity can change without affecting the quality (an object that is diminished remains the object that it is). Secondly, there is a particular limit to which this quantity can be changed before it changes the something’s quality (after changing the quantity of something past a specific point, the something changes qualitatively and is no longer what it initially was). Now, whenever Hegel says that something is immediate he normally means that, since they aren’t mediated through one another, they stand in a relation to one another. So, the last part of the paragraph is saying that, since the two aspects of quantity are immediate, we can look at them separately. Therefore, the intrinsic aspect of something (in which it is qualitatively what it is) limits or sublates (to simultaneously cancel and preserve) the indifference of the external aspect. All this means is that the internal quality of something specifies the degree to which that something’s quantity can be changed. After a certain amount of change in quantity, we end up with a qualitative change.

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  1. Christopher Higgs

      Love this! Many thanks for doing it. Couldn’t agree more with Jesse’s recommendation of Hegel’s work to lovers of experimental literature. YES!

      To complicate things, I take minor umbrage with Jesse’s assertion that readers should “Scrub the idea of “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis” from your mind.” While he’s got a point that many (most?) Hegelian scholars tend to reject the association, Leonard F. Wheat’s remarkable book published last year, Hegel’s Undiscovered Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis Dialectics: What Only Marx and Tillich Understood, does — in my opinion — a convincing job of demonstrating that there are in fact something like forty apparent dialectics in Hegel’s two most important works (Phenomenology of Spirit and The Philosophy of History). So perhaps it’s hasty to dismiss the connection outright?

      Of course, we read Hegel today through so many interpretive lenses: I’m not familiar with Cirulli’s book, but Houlgate’s version of Hegel is certainly essential. From my perspective, Alexandre Kojève’s seminars are also essential, especially considering the massive influence his version of Hegel had on late 20th century big timers like Derrida, Deleuze, Lacan, Sartre, Bataille etc. — not to mention the Avant-Garde: Queneau and other Oulipo folks, Breton and other Surrealists, and so many others attended those lectures. Would be keen to hear Jesse’s take on Kojève’s Hegel.

      All in all, I really appreciate your insights, Jesse. And I hope you do more of these beginner’s guides, Ken. Most excellent!

  2. Brendan Connell

      This is the direction HTMLGiant should go. It would be nice to see some more lively philosophers covered though than all these modern cats. Hegel is sort of Larry King of philosophers. A long essay on someone like Libanius would be welcome.

  3. Jesse Hudson

      Chris, Thanks for the compliments first of all! They are greatly appreciated!
      As to the dialectic. I’m not denying that there is a dialectical process that is evident in Hegel’s works. I just don’t feel as though the ‘thesis, antithesis, synthesis’ explanation is a particularly apt way of describing it. I am aware of Wheat’s book but have only read portions. I hope to get a copy soon so I can see exactly what it is he claims to have found. Fichte is the philosopher most known to have employed the particular ‘form’ mentioned above. First there is the thesis of the positing of the I, the the antithesis of the Not-I, and the ongoing synthesis of the I attempting to overcome (or strive against) the Not-I. [On an interesting sidenote, this is precisely Hegel’s critique of Fichte–that, like Kant, the unity of subject/object, “ego” and thing-in-itself is never attained; it is propelled into an unattainable beyond. One of the ironies for me is that, considering Kant’s well-known antisemitism, this places him in the exact same position as Judaism in Hegel’s philosophy of religion]
      But, nevertheless. I tend to agree with William Maker’s statement that, in terms of an actual ‘method’ (one that is applied to the content), Hegel has no method. If he did and applied that ‘a priori’ method to the subject matter, there would be a lingering divide between form and content. That is why, at the end of the Logic, the Absolute Idea involves a discussion of method, a ‘looking back’ and realizing that the content has an immanent form. But, I think we can agree that this is largely semantics…
      So, as to the whether or not the derived method conforms to the form of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis… I think that formula largely obfuscates the actual texts since it explains nothing and barely fits the actual material. An alternative that fits a little better is: understanding, dialectic, speculative reason. The understanding takes the determination in its immediacy and tends to see it as static, fixed. The dialectic intervenes and claims that the understanding is ignoring another aspect of the determination. However, the dialectical viewpoint, in its stubbornness, also take this alternative as static and fixed in its immediacy. Speculative reason mediates the two, names the action of the two aspects as they modulate back and forth. The next category is, once again, taken as immediate by the understanding and on and on. Hence, all immediacy is mediated in the sense that, through mediation with its other and a return into itself, it becomes immediate in the sense of Hegel’s concept of “being for self”. Or–This thing is what it is in its immediacy only through being mediated through its other. Etc.
      God, that turned out to a long garbled whatever. But you know what I mean.
      As to Kojeve, I find him fascinating from what I’ve managed to read. The only problem is that he has a strictly Left Hegelian point of view and tends to read all of Hegel’s text (paying a lot of attention, as usual, to the master/slave dialectic) in that light. Though I find myself firmly on the left side of things politically, I feel like this Right/Left Hegel divide has problems on both sides. In short, I don’t think we can claim that Hegel is a humanist and ignore his comments on religion. Hegel was undeniably a Christian. But, in a weird way, he brought God/the infinite down to the human/finite. But he didn’t fuse the two. They are what they are only through one another.

  4. Christopher Higgs

      Thanks for this thoughtful response, Jesse.

      I think you’re spot on w/r/t this idea of the problem of the Right/Left Hegel divide. Because of Marx, there will forever be at least one huge political shadow across Hegel.

      Your elaboration regarding your reservations about the “thesis/antithesis/synthesis” formula makes good sense. Given that most people associate that method with Hegel when in fact it derives from Fichte is akin — in my mind — to the way most people wrongly associate Spencer’s concept of “the survival of the fittest” to Darwin. By doing that, we limit the work’s complexity. We make it a soundbite. While the process may be demonstrably present in Hegel’s texts (as Wheat argues), I can see how the reductive formula does little to enlighten his work. Alas, I am guilty of making that reduction for my own needs — it’s such an easy boogeyman to create! Your alternative “understanding, dialectic, speculative reason” is certainly more nuanced, and gives a stronger picture of Hegel.

  5. Ethan Ashley


  6. febei566


  7. deadgod

      takes the determination in its immediacy and tends to see it as fixed

      intervenes and [discloses] another aspect of the determination; also takes this alternative as fixed in its immediacy

      mediates the two aspects as they modulate back and forth

      That’s a fine way of putting the movement ‘up’ from less inclusive and less extensive notion to more, but it seems to me a well-put elaboration of that very “petty formula” of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. I think that, while you deny its utility, you’ve made good use of this triadic unit of progression–threaten to calcify into opaque preconception as the triad might.

      That ‘the consequent mediation becomes the “next” determinate immediacy that seems at first fixed’ – that yoking of mediation to mediation by way of intermediate immediacy – that is the unit of what could be called, in a flexible shorthand that threatens to oppress further development of ‘the Notion’, a “method”.

      A Hegelian criticism of Hegel might be not that the text is too elaborate, but rather, that it’s not–it’s never–elaborate enough. –that a text spooling out a skein of ‘the Notion’ can never labor precisely enough entirely to, what, capture and transmit ‘the Notion’.

      To me, as long as a generative infinity of disclosure is persistently anticipated in its exercise, the formula thesis-antithesis-synthesis is not only useful, but it actually happens in thinking with Hegel — as in your introductory remarks to him!

      By the way, a good book that agrees with your condemning of the formula as “formula” is Kaufmann’s Hegel: A Reinterpretation. In section 37. (Dialectic) and at the end of 45. (The Contents of the Logic), Kaufmann angrily denies that the Fichtean triad makes sense at all with respect to Hegel. Kaufmann even shows where Hegel explicitly disparages the triad (footnote 37, coincidentally in section 37):

      The only place where Hegel uses the three terms together occurs in his lectures on the history of philosophy, on the last page but one of the section on Kant–where Hegel roundly reproaches Kant for having “everywhere posited thesis, antithesis, synthesis”.

      I think you and Kaufmann and Hegel are too dogmatic in limiting the slogan ‘thesis-antithesis-synthesis’ to its dogmatic one-sidedness as “slogan”.

  8. Jesse Hudson

      Perhaps I was insufficiently clear about the above mentioned triadic formula.

      Whereas, yes, it could perhaps describe the most basic, elementary moves of Hegel’s speculative philosophy (perhaps in an introductory course to philosophy for students who have no desire to actually pursue the subject matter further), it fails to account for the “why” of that movement. There is no antithesis brought to bear upon an initial thesis. And the supposed thesis and antithesis are never synthesized. In the dialectic of being and nothing, it’s not that nothing is brought as an antithesis to bear upon being. That would reduce it to a mere external reflection (something Hegel repeatedly and viciously attacks). The key is to see that being IS nothing. Nothing isn’t external to being like an antithesis is to a thesis. The “thesis” of being contains nothing. So any supposed synthesis isn’t a conjoining of a thesis and an antithesis–it’s merely a more adequate way of describing what the “thesis” is in its own self. The Logic progresses solely through attempts at more adequate ‘conceptualizations’ of these so-called theses.
      And Kaufmann is hardly the only one to deny this formula. Findlay, Burbidge, Carlson, Houlgate, Winfield, Wallace, and every one else of the last, oh say, century has denied it and shown in differing manners how it is not only inadequate but false.

  9. Jeremy Hopkins

      What is the thesis of being?

  10. deadgod

      Maybe my qualification of the triadic formula as formula was insufficiently clear: the formula as a magically enlightening crystallization is inadequate to understanding the movement of Hegel’s thought.

      Every philosophical formula is inadequate–absent elaboration.

      But the ‘antithesis’ organically embedded in and mutually implicating that proposition (of formula-inadequacy) is that every dogmatic rejection of formulas as tools is, likewise, inadequate philosophically.

      For example, when you say that a “synthesis isn’t a conjoining of a thesis and an antithesis [external to each other]”, that seems to me (provisionally) adequate: “synthesis” is not additive, but rather, as you say, disclosive of a necessity already present (albeit undeveloped conceptually) in the “thesis” and “antithesis”–which are not brought synthetically together, but revealed as together in the thinking of their “synthesis”.

      But when you illustrate this movement by saying that “[t]he key is to see that being IS nothing”, you assert a formulaic identity which mars the conceptualization. The ‘being’ of a thing which exists is not identical to that thing’s non-existence, nor is that ‘being’ identical to the being of everything else that exists.

      The dialectical movement of ‘being’ and ‘nothing’ is not a static and fixed identity; that would be, indeed, an external reflection of the necessary unity of becoming, rather than a conceiving of it.

      So we agree: it’s easy for formulaic shortcuts to mis-take an elegant process of thought, and that’s an indispensable warning to attach to–to see as inherent in–‘thesis-antithesis-synthesis’.

      The condescension of “an introductory course to philosophy for students who have no desire to actually pursue the subject matter further” is unhelpful; it simply enforces, among the vulnerable, a dogmatic and unnecessary resistance to that inward fluidity and dynamism active at every step in the Notion–each of which one would try to understand with a “more adequate way of describing what the ‘thesis’ is in its own self”.

      I’d quoted Kaufmann in support of the position I oppose to clarify my opposition. That his name would elicit the authority of a list of experts was a bonus I hadn’t anticipated.

  11. lily hoang


  12. elias tezapsidis


  13. How to understand Hegel? - Historum - History Forums

      […] Some reading of Kant is helpful and their are introductory books to Hegel's work but I definitely think Hegel appears rigorous to most people including myself. This is a funny and somewhat informative take on it- The Beginner?s Guide to Hegel | HTMLGIANT […]