G W F Hegel is one of the most divisive figures in western philosophy. He influenced Marx, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, Adorno and countless others. And yet, he is seen as perhaps the most obscure and inaccessible philosopher to read. Is he worth engaging with? How should we read him? Stephen Houlgate, a philosopher at Warwick University, gives us an in-depth look at Hegel.
Who was Hegel? What sort of philosophical context should we place him in?
Hegel was born in Stuttgart in 1770, an exact contemporary of Beethoven and Wordsworth. He was almost nineteen when the French Revolution broke out and this had a great impact on him. There’s a story that he and Schelling and Hölderlin, who were contemporaries of his, went out and planted a ‘freedom tree’ on 14 July, 1793 and danced a revolutionary French dance around it. Even if this story is not true in all its details, it indicates that they responded enthusiastically to the French Revolution.
“People often describe Hegel as a kind of Aristotle of the modern age. ”
Hegel lived through the Napoleonic wars and took quite a long time to get a job. From the age of about thirty to thirty-six, he worked as an unsalaried lecturer in Jena. Then he was the head of a gymnasium – a secondary school – from 1808 to 1816, during which time he wrote theScience of Logic. And then in Berlin he flourished, becoming a very prominent figure. He knew Goethe and a number of the Romantics, and both Felix Mendelssohn and Ludwig Feuerbach went to his lectures.
Hegel got married in 1811, which needs to be pointed out because Kant wasn’t married, Nietzsche
wasn’t married, and Kierkegaard wasn’t married. In that sense, he was quite bourgeois in the life that he led and this is reflected in the institutions of the state he describes in his Philosophy of Right.
People often describe Hegel as a kind of Aristotle of the modern age. He had an insatiable desire to learn and understand things. So he was interested in mathematics, science and politics. He was also interested in art, and he would travel far in order to see it. He went on long coach journeys to Vienna and Paris and Leipzig to see people but also to go to art galleries.
He was very gregarious, and when travelling he would tell engaging stories in the letters he wrote to his wife about the people he’d met and conversed with. So he was quite personable, though he could also be fairly irascible and was not averse to picking fights with people. He was steeped in history, and very aware of the constitutional developments that were going on at the time and, of course, the expansion of Napoleon’s influence.
In terms of the philosophical background to Hegel’s thought, most immediately we have Kant. But initially it’s not so much Kant’s theoretical philosophy, but rather his practical, moral philosophy, that engages Hegel. As a young man he is interested especially in how we can reconcile the demands of Christianity with Kantian morality. How do you make a rational religion that people can still participate in? And religion remains an enduring interest throughout his life. So Kant and followers of Kant like Fichte and Schelling were very important to his development. But so were the Greeks.
You’ve got to remember, Hegel could write his diary in Latin when he was fourteen and he could read Greek as a young man. So he read Plato, Aristotle, Aeschylus, and Sophocles. He was steeped in all of this. There’s the Greek influence, the influence of Kant, Fichte, and Schelling, and there is also the political influence of the French Revolution. Hegel is also acutely aware of his position in modernity, of the fact that he lived at a time after the Reformation. It’s no longer the medieval world. He has quite a developed sense of what makes the medieval world different from modernity, not only in terms of ideas but also political structures. I would say Hegel was very much the opposite of the classic existentialist struggling alone to make sense of the world. He was very involved with people and that’s reflected in his philosophy. I think that will set the scene.
With Hegel’s status, I see two elements that seem hard to reconcile. On the one hand, we have the fact that he was enormously significant, influencing thinkers like Marx, Feuerbach, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Adorno and countless others. But at the same time, Hegel is considered the most inaccessible and obscure philosopher to read and understand. How can he be both? What was his reception at the time?
You’re absolutely right, there is that difficulty. Of course, one has got to remember that some of the people who were strongly influenced by Hegel are also not that easy to read. Kierkegaard and Schelling studied Hegel closely and neither of them is particularly easy to read. Marx worked on parts of Hegel’s Logic which then went into his doctoral dissertation and into Das Kapital, which isn’t an easy read. Heidegger read parts of Hegel, Gadamer did, Derrida did, Hyppolite did. None of these people are easy.
“So disagreement about whether it is highly poetic and literary, and of enormous value, or just a lot of obscure incomprehensible balderdash is found at the time.”
When teaching at Jena, Hegel was famous for not having a very clear delivery. He stuttered and had a thick Swabian accent. The delivery style was not geared to the needs of students. When the Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) came out, it got very mixed responses. Some people thought it was very difficult and impenetrable, but others like Jean-Paul Richter praised its style. So disagreement about whether it is highly poetic and literary, and of enormous value, or just a lot of obscure incomprehensible balderdash is found at the time.
Schopenhauer had a gripe against Hegel and accused him of an almost deliberate lack of clarity. He believed Hegel was poisoning young minds. Schopenhauer famously scheduled his lectures at the same time as Hegel’s and, of course, nobody turned up to his and he got very angry. He makes an amusing distinction between ‘the windbag’ who is Fichte and ‘the charlatan’ who is Hegel. Others, by contrast, thought Hegel to be a most profound philosopher. So, yes, there was disagreement at the time about the quality of Hegel’s writing and teaching.
But he gets better. I think the delivery gets better. He spent eight years as a headmaster at a gymnasium during which time he taught logic and various other topics to schoolboys. That must have improved matters. We can tell from the later lecture transcripts, some of which were taken down verbatim, that the sentences get a bit shorter and the ideas get clearer. But there’s another way of looking at all of this. And that is that what some people regard as obscure isn’t necessarily so, if you read it in the right way. I think that has got to be said. The difficulty with Hegel is twofold. It’s partly just the difficulty of the thoughts. Hegel embraces contradictions and paradoxes; you get sentences in which the subject matter you’re discussing mutates in the very thinking of it. But that’s part of his way of thinking.
He also coins verbal nouns and will create new words out of everyday expressions. If you take the idea of something becoming different from itself – in Hegel’s language, something becoming ‘other’ than itself – Hegel will create a noun: Sichanderswerden (becoming other than oneself). Well, we’re not used to that. That’s difficult. But from teaching Hegel, my feeling is that if you can penetrate through to the ideas and get students to see them, and then you look back at his sentences and say to students ‘how would you have expressed that?’, you find that it’s often not that easy to say it in any other way than Hegel said it.
So one has got to be a little bit careful. Sometimes the obscurity is there, absolutely, I cannot deny that; but it’s sometimes in the mind of the reader who is just not able to be flexible enough to think in the way that Hegel wants. And there are parts of Hegel that really leap off the page. For instance, in the Phenomenology, you have the ‘master-slave dialectic’ which really comes alive. There are sentences in there that are difficult, but there’s a story being told there that you can get your head around... read more: