Notes on reading Hegel: the impossibility of reading Hegel (1):
In the years since writing my dissertation on Paul DeMan, which required a reading of Hegel, I have tried a number of times to write a critical reading of The Phenomenology of Mind, but have always run into a number of obstacles, which I thought I should share, just writing them out as they occur to me.
1. The Phenomenology is narratively structured and is not reducible to arguments. In his recent Hegel and the Phenomenology of Spirit, Robert Stern has made one of the most strenuous efforts to read the text as a construction of a series of arguments in support of a central thesis. His text is strong, it will help to deepen understanding of Hegel in certain circles. It is not, in the last analysis very convincing to anyone who has spent any great length of time with the Phenomenology. One reads Stern, remarking, ‘yes, this is right,’ or ‘that would be the case,’ and yet comes away from Stern with the deep sense that something vital has been missed, something remains unaccounted for.
What Stern does not account for is Hegel’s deployment of narratively ordered rhetoric, such as the terms for “struggle,” “torture,” “triumph;” references to the Mind “going” on a journey from theory to theory as though from one place on a map to another; the remarks concerning the Mind’s pride, its disappointments, its suspicions and anxieties.
Finally, Stern does not account for the seemingly imperious tone of much of the text. Referring to two opposite moments of the Spirit (and when is he not writing of two opposite moments of the Spirit? – except on the last page), Hegel writes: “Both have to be united” (p. 707). Were he simply constructing arguments, Hegel would proceed to explain the necessity for this union; but he doesn’t. That’s because he isn’t remarking an objectively shared requirement of reason, but an “inner necessity” of the Spirit, a felt need to do this. Hegel is remarking the Mind’s demand upon itself to develop a uniform knowledge of the world, as the only possible explanation for intellectual inquiry, which, after all, the Mind would not need to perform, were it not driven to know, and to do so with absolute certainty. This is the motivation of an agent engaged in an action – say, the hero in an adventure story, like a detective in a mystery, determined to solve the crime at all costs. The Phenomenology of Mind is a philosophical epic; its precursor to be found among the ancient Greeks was no text written by Aristotle or Plato – but Homer’s Odyssey.
2. The Phenomenology‘s dialectical structure accounts for all possible objections to its project within its project. This means at least the following:
A. It is inevitable that a reader will mistake a remark in the Phenomenology for a positive statement of affairs from Hegel, when in fact all he is doing is elucidating a moment to be later negated. “For the virtuous consciousness law is the essential element, and individuality the one to be superseded and canceled both in the case of its own conscious life, as well as in that of the course of the world” (p.402). Here do we have Hegel coming out as a vigorous opponent of individualism, declaring a necessity for submission to law in an ethical society? No, we do not. Since Hegel will ultimately hold that a proper ethic derives from the universality of the individual qua ethical consciousness (of which law is an expression), this submission to law by a “virtuous consciousness” of an individual not yet realizing its universality, will itself have to be negated. Unfortunately, at this point in the text, we don’t know this, thus we may be tempted to read Hegel’s sentence as a proposition (it certainly reads like one), rather than as the description of particular moment in the development of ethical consciousness. In order to recognize this, the reader needs to suspend judgment and read on, allowing Hegel to present all manner of propositions – and their negations – until one finally gets the hang of the process, rather than taking a position on any particular argument.
But this leaves a critical reader in an unhappy place: criticize Hegel for a position he is not really taking, which is surely unfair to Hegel; or suspend the critical faculties all together, until the text is completed – which hardly seems fair to the reader. Yet there it is – the Phenomenology must be swallowed whole, to understand any of it at all – sampling ‘selected passages’ will not do.
B. Taking a position in opposition to the negative/ positive movements of the dialectic merely reverses its polarities, producing a mirror image of the process. The most notorious example of this is in Marx, who once claimed to have stood Hegel on his head. Well, this is not really possible. If the Absolute Knowledge of the Spirit, which Hegel tells us is the ultimate goal of his project, is thoroughly materialized in the way Marx claimed it ought to be – that is, Consciousness finds itself finally within an external environment entirely of its own production – this does not change the validity of the Phenomenology‘s structure or of its intended achievement one iota. Following the withering away of the state into the communal society of fully realized subjects in Marx’s projected future completion of the historical dialectic, would only mean that Hegel had been right, that Consciousness could not realize itself without realizing its unity with all that could be known, as universal subject; we simply discover, in Marx, that the way to accomplish this is to produce all that could be known as an expression of that consciousness. “The real is the rational,” Hegel famously claims. To which Marx replies, ‘the real is the material.’ Except that this cannot be fully realized until the material is made rational; at which point, of course, the real will have been made the rational, just as Hegel says.
C. Once having engaged Hegel, simply shutting the book and declaring Hegel wrong or misguided, and arguing that the Phenomenology ought to be set aside all together, puts us immediately into the text as one stage of the dialectic itself. The problem here is that Hegel has asked us to look at the entire nature of rational thought just as such. If, once encountering this request, we turn our backs on it of choice, we will then find ourselves impelled to continue the project of rational thought but without examining its inherit structure and teleology. Not all rational thought moves in the direction Hegel claims for it; but its ground remains unexamined, a single unplanned step in the process of rational thought will send us straight into the process described in the Phenomenology, and Hegel will be found to have described our thinking before we ever thought it. Because it is the unexpected that generates the energy that drives the dialectic – the disappointments, the anxiety, the occasional sense of despair; the sense of emptiness when we realize that our beliefs are somehow lacking in what we expected from their full realization.
Consider charity; we want to appeal to others, to act more charitably, on the basis of a belief that everyone shares some instinct for charity, some necessary sentiment of sympathy for others. But if the others we address reject this appeal, deny any such feeling, then the discussion would appear to be over – so much for any ‘charitable instinct.’ In response to this, we are almost certainly going to mount rational argumentation, persuading others to see charity as some objective necessity of social life. It is no longer the feeling, but the idea of charity that commands our behavior.
Once we make such a move, we might just as well pick up the Phenomenology again, and let Hegel describe how it is we are going to accomplish this, because that’s precisely one of his intentions in writing the text.
D. Undoubtedly, one of the most frequent oppositional attitudes adopted towards Hegel’s text is that of irony. But Hegel himself recurrently as much as warns of this, and just as frequently explains why it proves ineffective. Irony is in fact an embedded function of the dialectic, driving recognition of its negative moments. Eventually, it opens the way to a positive understanding, which, unfortunately, the ironist is not prepared to provide; but Hegel is.
Phenomenology of Mind, GWF Hegel, trans. JB Baillie, Harper & Row, 1967.
Hegel and the Phenomenology of Spirit, Robert Stern, Routledge, 2002.