The phenomenology of whose mind? vier (zwei)

Notes on reading Hegel: the impossibility of reading Hegel (2):

(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.)

3. Every element of the dialectic in the Phenomenology eventually will be discovered to engage every other element of the dialectic.

Consider this in terms of Kojeve’s Introduction to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. The main charge that is most frequently placed against this reading of Hegel’s text is that Kojeve makes the mistake of reading the entire Phenomenology as a meditation on the “Master/Slave” dialectic which appears about mid-way of Hegel’s text. This has Kojeve’s problem precisely backward. What I believe really happened was that the Marxist-influenced Kojeve was attempting to guide his student’s reading of the Phenomenology to begin with the “Master/Slave” dialectic, to persuade them to read the Phenomenology with social issues arising from the problems of material productivity foremost in their minds.

Unfortunately, in order to read the “Master/Slave” dialectic in any depth, Kojeve found it necessary to give a reading of the entire Phenomenology, in order to make sense of the implications of the “Master/Slave” dialectic. That would be because the issue comes down to a problem of subjectivity both per se and inter alia. That means there is no point in clarifying the nature of the subjectivity of the “Slave,” the important realization of this particular moment of that particular dialectic, unless one has an adequate conception of what Hegel means by subjectivity itself – and this is not revealed until the final page of the Phenomenology, it is the subjectivity of absolute knowledge, wherein the subject discovers itself in – and only truly in – all that it knows. (The subjectivity of the “Slave” is important moving towards this, because the “Slave” comes to know the necessity of productivity, the value of service to others, and the social positions these necessitate; but the “Master” doesn’t even really know the “Slave.”) So there is no effective way of giving a close reading of Hegel’s text on the “Master/Slave” dialectic, without first, and again at last, reading the whole of the Phenomenology.

4. In order to fully understand the Phenomenology, one has to have a pretty good working knowledge of virtually the history of Western philosophy up until Hegel’s time, at least as well as Hegel himself knew it. (Knowledge of the history of Western literature and rhetoric up to Hegel’s time helps as well.)

Consider the following sentences:

“Thus we say of a thing,’it is white, and also cubical, and also tart,’ and so on. But so far as it is white it is not cubical, and so far as it is cubical and also white it is not tart, and so on.”

This is Hegel; but although there is no reference to Aristotle, it is actually clearly lifted from Aristotle’s writing on the differences between properties of an entity essential to it and those accidental. And so we should really expect these sentences to appear in a discussion of the nature of the properties of an entity; but that’s not Hegel is discussing here at all. Here is the larger context from Hegel’s text:

“Now, on this mode of perception arising, consciousness is at the same time aware that it reflects itself also into itself, and that, in perceiving, the opposite moment to the ‘also’ crops up. This moment, however, is the unity of the thing itself, a unity which excludes distinction from itself. It is consequently this unity which consciousness has to take upon itself; for the thing as such is the substance of many different and independent properties. Thus we say of a thing,’it is white, and also cubical, and also tart,’ and so on. But so far as it is white it is not cubical, and so far as it is cubical and also white it is not tart, and so on. Putt6ing these properties into a ‘one’ belongs solely to consciousness, which, therefore, has to avoid letting them coincide and be one (i.e. one and the same property) in the thing. For that purpose it introduces the idea of ‘in-so-far’ to meet this difficulty; and by this means it keeps the qualities apart, and preserves the thing in the sense of the ‘also.'”

What Hegel is doing here is taking Kant, applying him to Aristotle, and coming up with Locke. And since we know Hegel is no great fan of Locke, we know this is not the end of the process getting described here. But what Hegel has so far accomplished, is an account of Aristotelian metaphysics, Kantian epistemology, and Lockean grammar. But this would not be noticed by anyone who has not read Aristotle, Locke and Kant. In fact what Hegel is really thinking here is incomprehensible unless one admits that Hegel holds effectively (by going to the root of Locke’s theory of language), that Kant comes before Locke, who then initiates Aristotle’s metaphysics. This is, of course, an abuse of history; but it would make entire sense to someone disciplined in viewing history panoramically: in the interplay of the dialectic, old ideas become new again, and new ideas spring from ancient ground.

5. Finally, I need to remark the grammatical difficulty of the Phenomenology, by whioch I do not mean Hegel’s occasionally difficult German, but his grammar seen in the widest perspective, as a grammar unconstrained by any deference to audience expectations.

In the above example, concerning Hegel’s use of Kant, Aristotle, and Locke, it must be admitted that within Hegel’s discourse, there is absolutely no immediate indication that Kant, Aristotle, or Locke are the philosophers whose ideas Hegel is putting into play. A reader comfortably familiar with these philosophers, will recognize their ideas. But Hegel isn’t going to acknowledge this, and the reader lacking that familiarity will likely get completely lost in reading this.

But consider the matter in a less historical, more purely grammatical issue here. “Putting these properties into a ‘one’ belongs solely to consciousness, which therefore, has to avoid letting them coincide and be one (i.e. one and the same property) in the thing. This does not follow grammatically from the previous two sentences, which concerned an object (in the epistemological sense), to which the “properties” are said to belong as predication, which saying thus makes this epistemological object a logical subject. (‘I am thinking about X – thus my epistemological object – which is then the logical subject of the claim “X has property Y” as its predication.’) This should make the epistemological object a grammatical subject as well. Yet in the presently considered sentence, the grammatical subject is an act – “putting these properties”… no, wait, it is “consciousness,” “which therefore has to avoid” … well, could it be a collective formed by the properties to “be ‘one'”?.. no, it’s a single entity, “one and the same property” … well, in any event, it is certainly no longer the object.

Hegel knows what an epistemological object is; and certainly the author of The Science of Logic knows what a logical subject is. He just doesn’t seem so interested in what a grammatical subject might be.

Let us go back to the main concern of the passage under consideration. Hegel doesn’t mention Aristotle, Locke or Kant, because he doesn’t see any reason to. He is simply writing down his thinking on the matter as it presents itself to him, fully confident that, as he has grasp of the entire narrative, the discourse will thus set itself to paper, clear to any who understand what the discourse concerns.

Unfortunately, the only reader who could possibly know absolutely what this discourse concerns is Hegel himself. This is not the language of a discourse addressed to others, but only to one’s self. It is the language of thought, not public address. Hegel is thinking to himself, and he happens to be writing while he does.

As most theorists of composition now agree, every writer addresses an ideal audience, which audience determines the rhetorical strategies of the discourse. Hegel’s ideal audience – is Hegel.

Unfortunately, since his rhetorical strategies are directed at himself, and one’s self makes an audience very easy to please, a great many of the simple grammatical necessities that rhetoric demands sooner or later simply dissolve. Thought is then allowed to go its own course, free of social expectations or constraint. A reader either will find some way to think with such a writer, or will abandon the effort.

If one really does have a sense of what Hegel is thinking, and knows what Hegel knows, The Phenomenology of Mind is surprisingly easy to follow. If a reader is not anywhere near this fortunate, the text is impossible.



Alexandre Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit, edited by Allan Bloom, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980.


5 thoughts on “The phenomenology of whose mind? vier (zwei)

  1. I like that you appear to address the ‘oddity’ involved with Hegel (at least). The issue i often address is how imight know exactlt what Hegel means even before i might read him or having not read, say , Locke andAristotle and such.

    Might it be that Hegel was just recording what is obvious once some hasa certain undetstanding of things? And that Aristotle and such were really doing the same thing, but just using dufferent clausal framings?


    • landzek,
      you raise a very important point. The Phenomenology presents itself as, in part, a description of the process of (philosophic) thought. It persuades us to this by having us think along with the text, so that this description becomes our process of thought. And a larger claim of the Phenomenology is that any philosophic thought will develop in much the same process of thinking. That’s why to simply read the text, one doesn’t yet need to know all of the historical sources Hegel is drawing on; and why also one ends up seemingly understanding Hegel almost in advance of the next movement in his text. And yes, Hegel would say of previous philosophers that they were thinking in the manner he describes, and found their limits in historical contingencies. However recognizing Hegel’s historical resources gives a much richer understanding of the text.

      (I hope it’s understood that the last sentence of this post is somewhat tongue in cheek. Obviously it’s not impossible to read the Phenomenology, or we would never have heard of it. But it is certainly difficult.)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Wouldnt the historical sourses merely confirm that what Hegel is saying is true, if you can read Hegel without them and undetstand? What context or depth are the other suthors granting ?
        Would this depth be merely a horizonal repetition of Hegel? Albeit historical reflective of historical discursive limits?

        Do you have other papers that might treat this ?


      • landzek,
        That’s a difficult one to answer, because one can get accustomed to reading other philosophers through the Hegelian lens, so to speak, which doesn’t quite do them justice. Let’s just say that Hegel gives a strong account of how philosophic proceeds; but there may be side-raods and detorus of which he is unaware.

        You have to bear in mind that Hegel was the best read of the philosophers of his day – he had digested all of the available Greek texts, pretty much everything written from the Renaissance on (at least in philosophy), and a good bit of Medieval theology as well. Some of what he’s doing is smelting all this together to find what he thinks is the gold within.

        For those further interested there’s a brief informative biography of Hegel at: Of the major works on Hegel, I remember being impressed by Charles Taylor’s (but it’s been a while.)

        Liked by 1 person

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