Thursday, October 24, 2013

Adventures in Hegel -- The Phenomenology

I've been trying to come to terms with Hegel, on and off, for over 20 years. The motivation is plain: if one tries reading the existentialists, phenomenologists, or postmoderns of the 20th century, for example, one can't take a step without huge reference and debts to him. Forays into Sartre, Heidegger, Husserl, and Derrida inevitably lead back to Hegel, either as a source or as an intellectual antagonist.

For starters, Hegel is not:
  1. a simple-minded progressive who blindly asserts an "end of history."
  2. the originator of "thesis plus antithesis yields synthesis." That formulation comes from Fichte.
  3. Easily summarized. Even with extensive reading, it's a mine field to attempt to gloss this deep and obscure thinker.
Hegel is doing something different than the epistemologists of the Enlightenment were doing (one can picture a line of thought starting with Descartes in the mid-1600's and reaching its apogee with Kant in the late 1700's). The common thread there was to treat the mind, the spirit, like another object for consideration, in implicit opposition to the subject. These philosophers, in broad outline, followed the same program: start from a theory, or system, of how the mind works, and from that we'll figure out what we can truly know. Call it optimistic (or naïve) epistemology.

Hegel stands this mode of philosophy on its head. He claims not to be theorizing, but merely observing the contents of various modes of consciousness. His intent is to ask, "what does each mode of thinking do, from the inside? What is the content of this mode of thought -- how does one experience this mode of thought?" His conceit is that each mode of thought, from within, generates its own sense of incompleteness and frustration; each reveals itself to be inadequate. Later, another mode of thought appears on the scene and reveals itself to be the resolution to the failure of a prior mode of thought.

Along the way, we encounter a range of smaller discourses. One of the most famous is the quest for each self's recognition and the moments of that quest's development: the battle to the death, the relationship of lordship and bondage, and the self-refutation that each of those moments gives rise to.

So what's the gist of this? The gist is . . . that you can't be in a hurry to get the gist. Trying to sum up what it means as a whole is extremely difficult. Hegel in particular points out this difficulty, present for all writers. If one reads only to have a convenient one-line bromide to summarize a writer's life, what one is doing is not reading so much as inoculating one's mind against the possibility of encountering new ideas.

In addition to reading the Phenomenology, secondary reading is also useful here. Published 6 years ago, Peter Kalkavage's Logic of Desire would have been a great help to me 20 years ago. Kalkavage uses this idea as his frame: the Phenomenology can be thought of as biography, as a story of development, a bildungsroman, that it endeavors to give an account of how mind comes to know itself. I heartily recommend it to anyone who wants to begin to understand something of this seminal thinker.

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