Why Do We Read Hegel?

A Personal Response
by Robbert A. Veen, Huizen, the Netherlands © 2009

You can make a delicate and complex argument why it is necessary to understand Hegel's philosophy. You can write about the importance of his logic, his dialectics, to the understanding of human communication and social institutions. You can show elaborately how Hegel was the first to understand the nature of modern society, and construct a critical position on current issues from his philosophy of right. And even though we have found Hegel to be incorrect in many of his positions on the natural sciences and history, the way he constructed a philosophy of nature and the history of the Spirit is still exemplary in many ways. Even if you cannot find all of this in Hegel, it's still a good thing to know about him anyway, because so many contemporary philosophers have taken his insights as a starting point. Slavoj Zizek is certainly the best known of them, but you could also mention Jacques Derrida, Vittorio Hoessle and many others. The complexity of Hegel is fascinating What makes Hegel so fascinating? I am tempted to say that I became obsessed with Hegel because it takes so much time and effort to understand him. But I will not say that. It would seem that the complexity of his work and sometimes even the obscurity can be fascinating on a personal level, but that in itself is not very inviting. To me personally however it is quite true. The art of interpreting a philosophical text reaches, in the case of Hegel's writings, its highest level. All of the labor that you need to put in to understanding Hegel has a solid revenue. Understanding Hegel always means an improved understanding of the world, our culture and oneself. One might disagree with him in every respect, but you get the feeling that nothing is overlooked. It's dazzling. Everything is there. There is hardly any original thought that we have, that Hegel did not anticipate. Some people, especially in the Dutch tradition of neo-Hegelianism, didn't even try to be original. Philosophy to them meant rewriting and editing Hegel, applying the system to new problems. "Understanding Hegel means understanding that he cannot be surpassed," said German philosopher Richard Kroner. That goes even beyond the famous dictum that the entire history of philosophy consists of nothing but footnotes to Plato.

It doesn't mean that Hegel is the only philosopher I read. I have read Plato, Aristotle, Thomas and Kant extensively, and I try to keep up with contemporary philosophy as well. I always had a special interest in the Jewish philosophy of Martin Buber, Immanuel Lévinas and Emil Fackenheim. I like reading Heidegger, Derrida, Badiou, Agamben and Zizek. And lately I had a renewed interest in English philosophy: Locke, Hume but also Rawls and others. I am indebted to all of them. But none of them had pages that were so delightful, so cramped with brilliance as did Hegel's. Understanding the world better All of this however remains superficial. If philosophy is about understanding the world, then the only good reason for reading Hegel must be that he makes us understand the world better than anybody else. Now does he do that? I think there are at least three basic principles in Hegel's philosophy that we need in our contemporary efforts. First of all, though mostly misunderstood, we need to understand Hegel's thesis about the identity of the concept and its reality. It is badly misunderstood if we just take that as a statement of principle by itself. That is, if we mean by that, that the subjective idea that we have is identical to the material reality out there. Hegel never meant that. Understanding what he did mean turns out to be a very prosperous enterprise. At least you can say that our modes of thinking and the reality that we live in are not fully divergent. You can approach that from many perspectives: as a specimen of nature we find within ourselves a growing understanding of the world, that is in some way a product of the world itself. Nature comes to self understanding within us. But there are many other ways to approach this. Second, and to me quite important, is Hegel's analysis of European culture, society, religion, and history. Especially because the concept in Hegel is not just a justification of things as they are. The concept for instance of property is not simply an expression of the status quo, but it is also a basis for criticism. Criticism of the way we think, act and live within our contemporary social institutions. Criticism of current ideologies, criticism of the illusions of our modern political culture. This critical aspect of Hegel social philosophy and ethics is not immediately apparent, but it is required by the very nature of the concept. And by the way, this explains why Hegel could say that whenever the concept differed from reality, it was too bad for reality. That was not an expression of subjective idealism, but a strong affirmation of the normative value inherent in the pure concept. My third point is the most personal. Of course philosophy is and should be a science. As such its aims and contents go beyond the purely personal. Nevertheless philosophy remains a search for wisdom, and it attracts many people beyond the pale of academic pursuits precisely because it expresses the universal human quest for truth, goodness and beauty. Of course Hegel warns against any philosophy that tries to be reassuring or comforting or entertaining. Not because those aims are unworthy, but because comfort can only be found in the truth, and truth can only be found in the

hard labor of the concept. I found that understanding Hegel also meant understanding my own life. Of course not in its psychological and social particulars, but in its universality as a social being, as a product of European culture, as a spiritual being. In sum, Hegel is worth the effort. And there is a simple dialectical argument to prove that, even if you're not convinced by my three previous arguments. They say that Hegel is the most important philosopher that ever lived. He is certainly the most difficult to refute. So there you have it: precisely by arguing with and against Hegel, you can develop your own position to its highest possible level. Hegel is the best sparring partner you can imagine. He is the most critical interrogator you can ever hope to find. If you know why you need to differ from Hegel, chances are that you have stumbled upon a meaningful truth for the present. How to study Hegel? How best to study Hegel? Just reading him would be a nice start. You could rewrite paragraphs in your own style, you could try to write down the flow of his arguments, you could make small lists of the various meanings of Hegel's terminology. Your notebook would soon be filled with a lot of question marks. I remember sitting down with a friend when I just started reading philosophy at the University of Amsterdam. We tried to read the preface on the phenomenology together. We couldn't understand what Hegel meant after the fifth or sixth paragraph of that preface. So we skipped that part, and tried the introduction. We couldn't understand the first paragraph. Then we decided to go straight for the first chapter on consciousness. And then of course we found that we didn't agree with anything Hegel said. At least we thought that now we had some understanding of what he was trying to say. But the chapter was so complex, then we looked at the table of contents to find something a little easier to read. Then we discovered that Hegel had written a chapter on phrenology. We began to laugh at the silliness of this 19th century philosopher man believed in the science of measuring skulls to reach a psychological understanding of human nature. Needless to say that after just two sessions we dropped Hegel. Fortunately we had a wonderful teacher in our second year whose classes were compulsory who showed us where we went wrong. When he explained the preface and introduction and the section on consciousness, it was as if Hegel himself was among us. To this day I have found no better way to understand Hegel, but also Plato, Aristotle, Thomas or Kant for that matter. Classical texts of such complexity required the knowledge of a body of literature, a context in which we can understand what is going on. Hegel needs a voice, a personal guide. I had the good fortune to be taught Hegel by two of the most clever minds I've ever encountered: Jan Hollak and KeesJan Brons. For me it is a privilege (and a pleasurable novelty to do so on the web) to teach Hegel in this manner. WIZiQ gives me the opportunity to reach out to people in

the world that have gained some access to Hegel, but now need a living dialogue to advance their understanding. The World Wide Web may be one of the objective realizations of what Hegel called the world spirit. 19th century thought and 21st-century technology come together. We live in a fascinating age.