The Professor:"If you don't read 'Phenomenology of Spirit' in German, you will never understand Hegel, let alone Zizek."
DJ Ian:"But I don't read German...OK, I will get myself a big fucking dictionary...Then I will get back to reading Zizek as soon as possible. All of my reading schedule is dedicated to reading Zizek for the next three years."
The Professor:I trust you're going to read Zizek in Slovenian?
THE INTERPLAY OF UNDERSTANDING AND CRITICISM:
"It is not the worst reader who provides the book with disrespectful notes in the margin."
Theodor W. Adorno
A PREFACE TO A CRITIQUE OF THE PHENOMENOLOGY:
Hegel has enjoyed a resurgence of interest and popularity at various times over the last 80 years.
Much of the philosophy that appeals to me personally couldn't have been achieved except on the shoulders of this giant.
Some of this later philosophy endorses aspects of Hegel, some rebels against it, some adapts it.
Reading this work was part of an exercise in understanding why. What insights did he have, and why do they appeal?
Ironically, it seems that we are now supposed to admire him not just for his insights, but for the avowed errors in his philosophy.
Of course, it is possible to admire someone for their near misses, how they almost climbed Mount Everest, but died trying.
However, to assert that Hegel continues to be relevant now, precisely and primarily because we are still making the same errors that he made in his time (in his case, at least, out of a certain delusion of grandeur), that we share his errors and flaws, is hardly a solid foundation for an argument that his philosophy achieved any unique truth or version of the truth or approach to the truth.
It simply acknowledges his humanity and susceptibility. He is more a point of departure than a point of arrival or destination.
So if Hegel is just roadkill on the highway to Absolute Truth, let's just admit it, get back on the bus and resume the rest of this long, strange, and apparently endless trip.
Gallantry Without a Citation
You have to wonder whether, in many cases, the appeal and embrace of Hegel's philosophy derives from his use of language, just as much as the concepts.
To this end, I've tried to approach reading Hegel from both a philosophical and a literary point of view.
From a literary point of view, Hegel is a terrible writer whose work can be distilled down to some occasionally great sentences and phrases and/or some more than occasionally great ideas. (I'll try to enunciate them later in this review or elsewhere.)
The extent to which these ideas are Hegel's ideas or unique to him or just a response to or tweaking of the ideas of others before him is for historians of philosophy to judge.
Hegel's work itself doesn't expressly acknowledge or cite his sources or the arguments to which he is responding.
It's like an enthusiastic undergraduate term paper completed under pressure of a self-imposed deadline (the imminent battle of Jena and conquest of Prussia). By the time pen meets paper, the 36-year old Hegel has managed to convince himself that they are his ideas, so that ultimately he neglects to fess up to his inspiration. Ultimately, like the embrace of his acolytes, his work is a triumph of assertion.
Of course, that doesn't mean that it is without merit. The 21st century reader just has to do a lot of sifting. And the comprehension of Hegel is just as needing and deserving of annotation and secondary material as Joyce and Pynchon.
When They Begin the Beguine
At an individual sentence level, Hegel is not always difficult. It's just that he seems to throw multiple sentences at the reader, without necessarily communicating or effectively helping readers understand the sequence of his arguments. The difficulty arises from the untamed collective, not the disciplined individual.
Still, within the rush or barrage of sentences, some sentences and phrases inevitably stand out. The quality of these sentences, or their pregnancy, occasionally, with a meaning that is hard to divine, are the source of much of his appeal (if you dig that kind of thing). Indeed, it helps Hegel's case that they are so difficult to divine. Like God, it is not for us to fully comprehend his ways or his words. We are just supposed to trust them both. They appeal to our credulity and need to believe.
Many of Hegel's sentences and phrases sound good, even if at first, let's be totally honest, you don't really know what they mean, like "Begin the Beguine"...and, yes, the one that most appeals to me personally, "the Negation of the Negation" (which once it's grabbed you, will never let go).
"A very simple process, which is taking place everywhere and every day, which any child can understand as soon as it is stripped of the veil of mystery in which it was enveloped by the old idealist philosophy."
I'm still stripping.
The Negation of the Negation is cool. Hegel's Epistemology is, well, epistemological. The rest is pretty suspect. I think. I'm still thinking. Well, trying to think. I think.
INVENTION PART I
Hegel wasn't even invented when I went to college, so I'm going to have to make the next part of this review up...with a little help from Hegel...
DJ IAN VS. DJ HEGEL
God Makes Sense, If You Can Believe It
1. And so God took a part of his mind and his soul,
2. And where there was nothing, he made Man.
3. And he gave part of his mind and soul to Man,
4. And, lo and behold, Man did verily exist.
5. Still, though God had lost a part, he was still whole.
6. And while Man had gained a part, he too was whole.
7. And God and Man together made a whole.
8. And where there should have been two wholes, there was only one.
9. Man ascended to his feet, and looked around,
10. But there was no thing for him to see.
11. So God made other Life for Man,
12. And Man had Objects to look at and eat and desire.
13. Each Object contained a little part of God.
14. And when Man looked at an Object, he saw a part of God.
15. And that part of God was also a part of Man,
16. So when Man looked at an Object, he also saw himself.
17. Thus it was that Man was at one with the Object,
18. And Man was at one with God.
19. And verily Man understood this.
20. And so it was that Man made sense.
21. Out of what God had given him.
In Which God, Enraged, Goes Forth, Consumes and Returns [A Jena Fragment in Hegel's Own Words]
"1. God, become Nature, has spread himself out in the splendor and the mute periodicity of his formations,
2. Becomes aware of the expansion, of lost punctuality and is engaged by it.
3. The fury is the forming, the gathering together into the empty point.
4. Finding himself as such, his essence pours out into the restlessness and inquietude of infinity,
5. Where there is no present,
6. But a wild sallying forth beyond a boundary always reinstated as fast as it is transcended.
7. This rage, in that it is a going forth, is the destruction of Nature.
8. The going beyond the formations of Nature is in effect likewise an absolute falling back into the self, a focal return.
9. In doing this, God, in his rage, consumes his formations.
10. Your whole extended kingdom must pass through this middle-point, this focality;
11. And by this your limbs are crushed and your flesh mashed into liquidity."
GRATUITOUS ADVICE AVAILABLE FOR THE FREE
Some Gratuitous Advice, from [Earl Bertie] Russell Revives Censorship Always in All Ways
"The worse your logic, the more interesting the consequences to which it gives rise!"
Some More Gratuitous Advice, This Time from Zizek
"One is thus tempted to say, 'Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted Hegel. The point [however] is to change him.'"
INVENTION PART II
To understand and appreciate Hegel, it helps if you pretend that you're God.
HEY! WHAT'S THE BIG IDEA?
Safeguarding the System
Hegel purports to construct a system of philosophy that is both comprehensive and self-contained.
Hegel and his adherents guard it preciously. [Forgive me, if I refer to Hegel and his adherents interchangeably.] As a result, it's difficult to criticise the System, without evoking responses that you haven't understood Hegel or that you have inaccurately paraphrased him.
To be honest, I think any reader has to proceed regardless, if you're going to make the effort to read Hegel at all.
An Invitation to Heretics
Even if you sympathise with Hegel, like any dogmatist, he invites or attracts heresy. No purpose is served by agreeing or disagreeing with every tenet of his philosophy willy-nilly. There's no point in setting out to be an acolyte or an apostate. Readers should feel free to dismantle the System and save what they can. After all, this is what the Young, Left Hegelians did in the wake of his death.
Detection or Invention?
One problem with Hegel is that he pretends that his System is a detection of what is present in nature, that it is the result of discovery, not the product of invention on his part.
As a result, it purports to be factual and real. If you disagree with it, then supposedly you are flying in the face of reality.
This rhetorical strategy is disingenuous. Of course, he created his System, no matter how much of it is based on or modified from the work of earlier philosophers. Of course, we have the right to submit it to scrutiny, to attempt to prove it right or wrong.
If Hegel pretends that he deduced his philosophy from first principles, then he is not being truthful. If he pretends that he discovered a method in the workings of nature and history, but reckons that he does not apply that method or any method in his own philosophy, then he is playing with semantics.
An Aversion to Critique
Hegel is just trying to make his subjective pronouncements critique-proof or un-critiquable. A reasonable enough goal, if it is confined to enhancing the robustness of his own pronouncements, but you can't deny readers the right to attempt a critique. That is one way guaranteed to alienate an audience, to split a following and push potential advocates away. Which is what happened, inevitably, after his death.
What I mean by this is that I don't accept that Hegel arrived at all aspects of his philosophy after a process of deduction. [Not that I'm saying anybody could have achieved this.]
On Having Faith in the System
I don't disagree with Hegel's attack on Empiricism, for example. However, to the extent that he asserts that Consciousness is part of Spirit, a God, then I don't accept that he has necessarily proven the existence of God or that the Spirit of God plays a role in the process of individual human thought or reason. Thus, it seems that Hegel's System, which I assume is supposed to be rational, is built on an act of faith in the belief of God.
I am prepared to accept that social, rather than spiritual or religious, factors play such a role. For example, I accept that we differentiate between objects, partly if not wholly based on our capacity for language. Language is a social construct. I don't necessarily accept that it is intrinsically spiritual. I also don't want to embrace any ideas that approximate to some hyped-up politico-cultural concept of Volk or the People.
I suspect that Hegel started his philosophical deliberations with a religious-based preconception, in particular, a belief in a monotheistic God, and that he integrated it into his philosophy.
On Questioning the System
To the extent that Hegel's System is a hierarchy that works its way up to the pinnacle of God, there are a number of questions that I, an Atheist, feel should be asked:
Does the entire System fall, if you don't believe in God?
Alternatively, is his System modular and severable, so that you can salvage parts that appeal to you? If the latter, which parts? And to what extent are those parts solely attributable to Hegel? Are they equally components of other philosophies, whether pre-Hegelian or post-Hegelian?
To some extent, my way of approaching and questioning Hegel might owe a lot to the approach of those Left Hegelians who happened to be Atheist.
In the absence of a belief in God, it must also take into account the approach of more materialist philosophies like those of Feuerbach, Marx and Engels (and subsequent Marxists).
Spirit Made Flesh
Of course, I also have to accept the possibility that Hegel might be right in believing that there is a Christian God (in his case, Lutheran), and that everything else potentially follows.
If it turns out that monotheism is right, then Hegel's philosophy seems to come close to a belief that all of Nature derives from God and that humanity, in particular, is Spirit made Flesh. Presumably, Nature is also Spirit made material.
Working backwards or upwards from Flesh, the ultimate destination must therefore be Spirit (even if Flesh is preserved).
I'll leave open for the moment whether Spirit might actually be any more than Energy. Hegel certainly regards it as the repository of Absolute Knowledge. Thus, it seems that, for him, it must be conscious and intelligent. It also appears to transcend each individual, even though it embraces every individual. It is a composite or unity of differences or opposites.
Fear of Contradiction
For me, what seems to sit at the heart of Hegel's philosophy is contradiction. This is the contradiction between different objects, whether consciousnesses or not.
For each of us, for each Subject, every other consciousness or thing is an Object, one that contradicts us. Just as I am me, I am not you, and I am not it, that object.
In my mind, this is simply a recognition of difference. Practically and socially, I don't see these observations as the foundation of opposition, conflict or contradiction.
I don't know whether this is a matter of translation. However, I witness a lot of conflict and antagonism between Subject and Object in Hegel. I haven't yet worked out why difference is not enough.
In other words, why isn't it enough that perception and language allow us to differentiate between things, consciousnesses, Subjects and Objects?
Why isn't it enough that language is a social system of signs that enable us to identify, think about and discuss difference.
Why is it somehow implicit that this Object exists at the expense of this Subject or Object? Why is everything "set against" everything else in perpetual contradiction?
Are two strawberry plants in a garden really opposed to each other? Do they battle each other for nutrients? Is their ostensible rivalry really such a big issue in their life? Are two rocks sitting at the bottom of a stream any different?
The Hegelian Paradox: From the Inquisitorial to the Inquisitional
The ultimate Hegelian Paradox is that the Philosophy is based on contradiction, yet the Philosopher will brook no argument.
The System is founded on the adversarial, yet disagreement is heresy (even if the Philosophy by its very nature seems to invite or attract heresy).
Similarly, it is reluctant to accept that a rational philosophical process or method is being utilised. It is enough to look, seek and ask questions. The answers are there waiting for us to find them. Truth and understanding will result from the only method that is necessary, an inquisitorial process. If you ask [God], you will be answered [by God, if not reason].
Still, the normal outcome of an inquisitorial process is a decision. In Hegel's Philosophy, it is not a human decision, but a divine revelation. Once revealed, it can't be questioned. It can only be respected, observed and enforced.
Hence, as is the case with all heretics, the sectarian non-believer attracts the attention of the Inquisition.
Hence, Hegel embraces both the Inquisitorial and the Inquisitional, having constructed both a System and an Institution.
It's up to us to determine whether to take a vow to Hegel or whether simply to do good.