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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