Sunday, November 13, 2016

How Much Background Do You Need?

One of the Hegel-related blogs I read regularly is The Empyrean Trail, written by Anthony Wolf, who also goes by the pleasingly fanciful moniker of A.W. Hegel.  I like what I've read so far, and a recent piece - An anecdote on the myth that Hegel is impossible without background - has spurred me to do some thinking, and as you can see here, a bit of writing today.

He's raising a very important question, one that does come up from time to time as comments on the Half Hour Hegel videos - just how much preparation does one need in order to be able to successfully read and understand G.W.F. Hegel's works?  Here's how Anthony puts it:
One of the most annoying points I encounter repeatedly when it comes to engaging Hegel for a newcomer is the repetition that Hegel is very, VERY, difficult. So difficult, in fact, that if you have not had at least four years of your life dealing with learning at least the continental movement from Hume to Kant to Fichte to Schelling to… ever increasing background qualifications, you have no hope in properly understanding anything Hegel has to say. That’s not even counting the difficulty of learning Hegel’s terminology itself and the obscure logic of dialectics. So… just hold on until you’ve made it through undergrad, there is no shame in admitting that Hegel is too hard for you.
I would say that on the whole - and if we're talking about his major works, like the Phenomenology of Spirit or the Science of Logic, Hegel is indeed difficult.  Perhaps not at the the apex "Difficulty level: Hegel" that the jokester behind Existential Comics sets Hegel's works at, but pretty tough.

Notice though that not all of Hegel's works are at that level of difficulty. His various lectures are considerably more accessible to the average reader.  I'd even say the Philosophy of Right and the Encyclopedia Logic are easier to read and make sense of than the Phenomenology of Spirit and the Science of Logic.

Hegel does indeed develop - sometimes by reappropriating these from previous thinkers - his own philosophical terminology.  And, since his work aims at somehow doing justice to the very dynamism of thought, consciousness, action, history itself, the terms don't always mean exactly the same thing from one context to another (so, for example, it's not as if "being-for-self" always has the same significance in the many passages it can be found in).  And that terminology does make for difficulty, not least because, despite his many other strengths, Hegel is not a particularly adept stylist, nor is his writing all that clear (not that these would eliminate all of the difficulties!).

Hegel is also one of those thinkers who does engage and even attempt to assimilate (or aufheben) his philosophical (and theological, and literary, and historical, and . . . ) predecessors.  He is, as they say, an encyclopedic thinker, but he's also one who is attempting to synthesize what is valid and valuable from previous or even present perspectives into the fabric of his own.  He's also trying to articulate an incredibly complex developmental viewpoint.  Worse, he often just makes allusions without providing the actual references to what he is discussing, treating, critiquing, exploring - the Phenomenology is particularly trying in this respect!

So, I suppose one could understand why someone might indeed say precisely the sorts of things that annoyed Anthony to hear or read.  It's not as if there's zero basis for that line of thinking.  But, there's also a lot more to be said on the topic as well.  Anthony quite correctly points out:
Yes, it is true that you will miss an immense amount of subtlety in the Phenomenology of Spirit and the later works’ arguments and the texts’ conversation with the philosophies of Hegel’s past and present, but just because one misses subtlety does not mean one is left with an unintelligible experience in which nothing great is learned.
That's dead-on, in my view.  I suppose Hegel himself might be faulted for contributing to the impression that unless one understands a complex and rich text perfectly and entirely, it's not established that one really has understood it.  One could spin something like that out of Hegel's epistemological reflections on the nature of genuine Wissenschaft (which means a bit more than what we call "science" these days),  as well as his insistence on the necessity to arrive at Absolute Knowing by the end of the work.  But, it is important - just as important in my view - to acknowledge when some progress has been made, even if one isn't crystal clear about what the endpoint of that progress is presumed to be.

Hell, I'm sure I still mess some "amount of subtlety" as I reread the Phenomenology - after over 20 years of reading, rereading, studying the text - when I create any given video commentary!  There's nearly always something more that could be said or brought into some kind of connection - and not just when it comes to Hegel, but any great thinker.  But there is a less and a more, a poorer and richer, an inadequate and adequate (enough) when it comes to the world of thought.

Here I think a point of comparison between Hegel and certain past thinkers may be quite useful.  The two I have most in mind are Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas.  Both of them are similar to Hegel in that they attempt to bring in and synthesize multiple perspectives from previous philosophy - and of course, not just philosophy, but whatever other domains of human knowledge they have available to them as well.  It can be quite useful to know a good bit of Plato when you go to study Aristotle. And it's just as useful to know a good bit of Augustine, as it is to know Aristotle, when studying Aquinas. But, one can also understand Aristotle without reading Plato, and likewise for Thomas.  You can also understand Augustine without working your way through the great schools of Hellenistic philosophy, for that matter.

Why is that?  Well, Aristotle and Aquinas both - like Hegel - do not simply inherit a philosophical milieu and terminology.  They reshape it in developing their own perspective.  It's not as if by understanding what a term means in Kant's works - or Fichte or Schelling, or . . . - that one automatically understands what Hegel has decided to do with it at this or that place in his own work. Sometimes, you've got to look at how he uses it - and I will admit that it's often more difficult with Hegel than with Aristotle or Aquinas, not least because he embraces dialectical development in a way that these other two do not, and makes it central to his own thought.

So, I'm basically in agreement with Antony Wolf.  One can read and even make some progress with Hegel without doing a vast amount of preparatory work.  That's not to say it will be easy - take a look at the rest of the narrative he provides, and if you've struggled with Hegel yourself, you might find something similar to your own experience - but it's definitely not insurmountable either!  That's one reason I've been producing the Half-Hour Hegel video series in the first place, to make it easier for a wide audience, not merely the much smaller set of the academically anointed, to engage in serious study of the Phenomenology.

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