The difficulty with Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel


EXCERPT: . . . Is it worth the effort? I mean, you spend a hundred hours poring over The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807)—widely considered to be Hegel’s masterpiece—and what do you have to show for it? The book is supposed to take you from the naïve, “immediate” (unmittelbar, a favorite Hegelian term of contempt) position of “sense certainty” to Absolute Knowledge, “or Spirit that knows itself as Spirit.” That sounds pretty good, especially when you are, say, eighteen and are busy soaking up ideas guaranteed to mystify and alarm your parents. But what do you suppose it means? Mr. [Terry] Pinkard notes that at Jena in the early 1800s, “Hegel seemed to inspire two kinds of reaction: he was either highly admired and even idolized, or he was disparaged.” In fact, Hegel’s work has always inspired these opposite reactions, throughout his lifetime and afterwards. Mr. Pinkard, who teaches philosophy at Georgetown University and who has written several other books about Hegel, is firmly in the admirers’ camp. I am not.

[...] Hegel wrote a great deal of nonsense. Yet he did not do it on purpose. Arthur Schopenhauer, one of Hegel’s bitterest enemies, was right to complain about “the stupefying influence of Hegel’s sham wisdom.” (No one under the age of forty, he thought, should read Hegel: the danger of intellectual corruption was too great.) But I believe that Schopenhauer was wrong to attribute mystifying motives to Hegel. He may have been, as Schopenhauer also said, a “charlatan,” but Hegel was a sincere charlatan. He said a lot of loopy things. He believed them all.

Kierkegaard saw something essential about Hegel when he noted that he and his philosophy “constitute an essay in the comical.” Hegel, Kierkegaard said, was like a man who had built a palace but lived in the guard house. His elaborate “System” of philosophy promised to chart the necessary development not only of consciousness but also of world history and even of nature— indeed, for Hegel, there were no hard and fast distinctions to be drawn among these realms. On the first page of his preface, Mr. Pinkard plaintively asks how it is that Hegel “came to be so badly misunderstood.” That is one question I think I can help him answer. Item: “A rational consideration of Nature,” Hegel wrote in his Philosophy of Nature,

must consider how Nature is in its own self this process of becoming Spirit, of sublating its otherness—and how the Idea is present in each grade or level of Nature itself: estranged from the Idea, Nature is only the corpse of the Understanding. Nature is, however, only implicitly the Idea, and Schelling therefore called her a petrified intelligence . . . ; but God does not remain petrified and dead; the very stones cry out and raise themselves to Spirit.

Which leaves us—where? Between a rock and a hard place, anyway. All but Hegel’s most abject admirers are (at least secretly) embarrassed by his philosophy of nature. It takes a strong man to read, for example, that “the celestial bodies only appear to be independent of each other” without blanching. A peek into that part of Hegel’s oeuvre is the quickest way to highlight Kierkegaard’s point: the discrepancy between pretension and achievement is like Falstaff’s dishonesty: “gross as a mountain, open, palpable.” The formidable difficulty of Hegel’s writings might make it seem that one must be extensively trained in philosophy to answer him effectively. But this, Kierkegaard wrote, “is by no means the case. All that is needed is sound common sense, a fund of humor, and a little Greek ataraxy [tranquillity].” Of course, it is not without irony that those homely things— common sense, humor, and tranquillity— may be in even shorter supply these days than the sort of dialectical prowess that playing with Hegel’s philosophy requires.

A second reason to read Hegel has to do with that treacherousness. Just as doctors learn a lot about health by studying diseases, so we can learn a lot about philosophical health by studying Hegel. As Russell noted, Hegel “epitomized better than anyone a certain kind of philosophy.” It wasn’t, Russell thought, a good kind of philosophy—he believed that “almost all of Hegel’s doctrines are false”—but it vividly illustrated the mental consequences of looking at the world in the peculiar way that Hegel’s philosophy teaches us to.

A third reason to read Hegel is his influence, which everybody—friend as well as foe—admits was enormous. “No philosopher since 1800,” Walter Kaufmann wrote in his 1965 appreciation of Hegel, “has had more influence.” That influence took several different directions, of which I will mention three. In the first place, Hegel’s writings, especially the Phenomenology and the Philosophy of Right (1820), were a definitive influence on the philosophy of Karl Marx and, through him, on Lenin and Stalin and on Marxism in general. It is true that Marx devoted many pages to criticizing Hegel’s philosophy. But he firmly embraced Hegel’s view of history as a realm of ineluctable dialectical progress—progress, that is to say, which is necessary, i.e., inevitable, and which proceeds by continuous negation. As the philosopher Louis Dupré put it, Marx accepted the method of Hegel’s philosophy while discarding its content. One often hears that Marx attempted to “stand Hegel on his head.” What Marx actually said (in Capital) was that Hegel’s idealism left his dialectic “standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.”

A third reason to read Hegel is his influence, which everybody—friend as well as foe—admits was enormous.

Just how “rational” Marx’s appropriation of Hegel turned out to be, we now know. The murderous legacy of Marxism cannot be laid at Hegel’s door—except, perhaps, insofar as Hegel’s philosophy unfits the mind for exercising serious criticism. Marx never tired of excoriating Hegel for his “mystification.” Quite right, too. But Marx took on board a particularly noxious piece of mystification when he swallowed Hegel’s dialectic. As George Santayana noted in Egotism in German Philosophy (1916; rev. ed. 1939), implicit in Hegel’s dialectic is a monstrous piece of “egotism” that presupposes the preposterous effort of “making things conform to words, not words to things.”


Users browsing this thread: 1 Guest(s)