The phenomenology of whose mind? ii

Notes on reading Hegel: personal stuff

My first encounter with Hegel was in the early 1970s. At that time, and for some 50 years previously, in America, most pedagogues in higher education believed that the Hegel text most worth transmitting to future generations would be his Philosophy of History. Nobody even casually familiar with 20th century historical scholarship on the ancient Mediterranean civilizations or on the civilizations of Asia, even of the civilization of the Middle Ages – could ever think Hegel’s ‘meta-narrative was anything more that an elaborate mythopoesis. Besides, the racism of his denial of the historical existence of Africa (he knew the place existed, he just denied it any historical value) was both offensive and (since originating from ignorance rather than racial antagonism) childishly petty. Nothing could so successfully throw a cloud over a discussion of Hegel, that certain political movements of the 1960s should have necessitated, than for conservative academics to present Philosophy of History as somehow Hegel’s primary text. Nobody was actually able to find use for it but History majors, and if they chose to go on to graduate school, more challenge issues awaited them. Personally, I found the book obnoxious, and was later pleased to hear J. Bronowski, in his television essay The Ascent of Man, declare Hegel to be something of a forgettable clown.

In 1987, i was accepted into the graduate program in English at SUNY Albany. At the time, the great controversies of that profession concerned the introduction of Post-Structuralist discourse into Literature studies, and the introduction of Marxism into Composition studies.. This meant I was doomed to re-encounter Hegel in a serious way. Of course, many many English scholars accepted the terms of the discourse of these controversies just as given. Words like “abyss,” “subversive,” “empowerment come as cheap as any other. In the 18th Century, readers said of a passage that it was “unfathomable;” in the 19th, they called the passage “obscure;” by the end of the 20th, it was said to “mark the abyss.” A simple exchange of words could make an essay by Samuel Johnson on Shakespeare read like a Post-Modern “interrogation of the text.”

Originally, I began inquiry into Hegel because his name continued to recur in the texts of the major Post-Structuralists and Marxists. It became clear that some of the scholars debating in the aforementioned controversies were deploying terms they had gotten second-hand, the origins or real usage of which they had little understanding; they had probably never read Hegel, even though referring to his ideas. The way to find out what these controversies were really all about, it seemed to me, was to focus on one of the more careful and better informed voices in the debate; thus I chose to write my dissertation on literary theorist Paul DeMan – a popular figure among some, a notorious figure among others, but whose writings on Hegel seemed to reflect both a careful reading, and an understanding of the material. But of course, in order to write about DeMan with equal care and understanding, I would have to read Hegel.

What I found in Hegel was not quite the monster of “History” that I remembered. For one thing, Hegel was a true child of the French Revolution – up until his death, he continued to show reverence for the day of the year on which the Bastille had been stormed. Yet he was also a devout Lutheran (at least in observance; his actual beliefs remain somewhat debatable). In his youth he was something of a slob, who developed an inordinate fondness for wine, which only grew more refined over the years, perhaps the only taste Hegel had which he ever did refine (he was a sucker for tear-jerker romantic novels). Intended for the pulpit, his doctorate was in theology, not philosophy; but he long followed a career as a secondary school educator, unnoticed and unrewarded, relatively poor until his forties. It now seems almost ridiculous that he eventually ended up the most publicly recognizable professor at the University at Berlin. His college friends all earned reputations for their writing before he did; his closest friend, the poet Hoelderlin, went insane. Most of the friendships he developed in later life were with former students; apparently one needed to be trained into his thinking, to be able to follow his conversation. He once had a long conversation with Goethe, who afterward confessed to his wife that he had only listened patiently because he couldn’t follow what Hegel had to say. His affair with a landlord’s wife is notorious, as is the off-spring of that union; but he welcomed the child into his home after his later marriage. Indications are that he a very warm husband, but a very cold father. If any philosopher developed a language with which to interject his personal feelings into philosophy, it was Hegel, whose unmeasured prose flies passionately towards its goals with little regard for the proprieties of discourse; but Hegel apparently took pains to seal off his philosophic thought from the immediate experiences of life.

In the “Preface” to the Phenomenology, Hegel tells us that we Moderns find ourselves at the very beginning of a new civilization; which is exactly the historical moment when philosophy prospers, as defining the forms of a new culture taking shape. In the “Introduction” to the much later Philosophy of Right, he tells us we find ourselves at the end of an age, with history painting its “grey on grey.” This means there is nothing for thought to do but turn to philosophy, the purpose of which is to describe the cultural forms that have been completed and are not likely long for the world. One wants to say that thus, for Hegel, philosophy has a dual purpose; but in fact, the absolutism of his language tells us that between his youth and his maturity, he simply changed his mind. If this is hard to read, it is because Hegel himself repeatedly implies that this could only happen dialectically; yet he leaves no trace in his personal writings of the movement of thought that led from the youthful visionary of history in the making, to become the aging observer of a history made.

I sometimes tell friends that, at the great conversation formed by the texts of philosophy, Hegel is the cranky uncle one needs to invite in order to secure an inheritance. I think some readers of Hegel really want to love him, but that he doesn’t want them to love him, he wants them to love wisdom. Unfortunately, Hegel often forgets that every entreaty addressed to wisdom must take the form of a question. Hegel is so determined to tell us what the answers are, he frequently forgets the questions.


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