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.
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.
Stephen Houlgate is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick. He is the author of An Introduction to Hegel's Philosophy: Freedom, Truth and History, 2nd Ed (Blackwell, 2005) and The Opening of Hegel's Logic (Purdue UP, 2006). He is the editor of The Hegel Reader (Blackwell, 1998) and Hegel and the Arts (Northwestern UP, 2007), as well as co-editor (with Michael Baur) of A Companion to Hegel (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011).
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 the Science 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 DasKapital, 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.
Some of the dialectical twists that happen in the Logic and the Philosophy of Right, too, can be explained very clearly, and of course the Philosophy of Right has exercised considerable influence on later thinkers such as Marx. Hegel has also been very influential in theology. One of Hegel’s claims – to put it simply – is that God is not God without human beings. Human beings are thus integral to the life of God. And that seems comprehensible. Maybe the implications of that idea need to be worked out, but it becomes a very powerful thought. Some of Hegel’s followers, like Feuerbach, take it in the direction of atheism, but others see it as bringing out something very important in the heart of Christianity: that Christianity sees the divine as realised in the human. Hegel emphasises that almost more than anybody. And it becomes influential on later theologians.
“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.”
There are other works of Hegel that are not so difficult, such as his Aesthetics. It’s full of vivid examples. Yes, you do find some complex vocabulary and difficult ideas, but his accounts of Sophocles’s Antigone or Oedipus Rex or Shakespeare’s Macbeth are all very comprehensible.
So it’s a complicated story. Some people were influenced by bits of Hegel that weren’t complex; some people were influenced by bits of Hegel that were complex but their own work is complex too; and in the case of some people complexity is in the eye of the beholder. I think my job as a teacher is to help students read and understand Hegel’s texts and, if possible, to get them to the stage where they say ‘gosh, what was the fuss? This is clear and really profound’.
Let’s take a look at your book choices. First of all, we have Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. What is Hegel’s project in this work?
The project of the Phenomenology is inseparable from the project of his Logic. The Logic is the start of Hegel’s system. It is his metaphysics but it’s a particular kind of metaphysics that tries to disclose the nature of being through understanding what it is to think properly. It begins from the idea that we can understand the nature of being through thought. But that’s an assumption that was made by Parmenides, Spinoza and Leibniz. It’s a classical metaphysical assumption.
Hegel then acknowledges that what he variously calls ‘ordinary consciousness’ or ‘natural consciousness’ – i.e. everyday non-philosophical consciousness – doesn’t share the confidence that one can understand the nature of being through thought. Interestingly, Hegel doesn’t simply dismiss that and say well tough, but he thinks this concern needs to be addressed. In fact, he says in the preface to the Phenomenology that non-philosophical consciousness has a right to be shown why it should move from its point of view to that of philosophy.
So the task of the Phenomenology is to take ordinary consciousness – or those who attached to ordinary consciousness – from its own perspective to the perspective of philosophy. The Phenomenology fulfils this task by subjecting consciousness to a rigorously internal or ‘immanent’ critique in which consciousness undermines its own standpoint and thereby leads itself to the position of philosophy. I think that some people believe that in Hegel’s case ‘phenomenology’ is just the name of a book and that phenomenology as a discipline doesn’t begin until Husserl, Heidegger and Sartre. I don’t think that’s right. I think Hegel is doing phenomenology in a strict sense – it is a distinct discipline – and what makes it different from philosophy is that it’s not trying to think the nature of being.
Hegel’s Logic is trying to think the nature of being, in the same way Spinoza was trying to tell you what substance is. Phenomenology is not doing that. What it is doing is examining the internal coherence of various modes or ‘shapes’ of consciousness and seeking to discover whether those shapes can sustain the idea they have of their own object and indeed sustain their own self-image. Hegel argues that they can’t and that through a dialectical process – the experience that each shape undergoes – the object of each shape of consciousness gets transformed into a new one. This new object then becomes the object of a new shape of consciousness and in this way the shapes form a chain – a chain that takes us from the simplest consciousness (sense-certainty, which we will discuss shortly) to the standpoint of philosophy. Phenomenology thus justifies the standpoint of philosophy by showing how ordinary consciousness is led by its own commitments, when their implications are worked out, to that standpoint.
The Phenomenology is an introduction to Hegel’s system, but it doesn’t tell you what’s going to come later. In this sense it is somewhat like Descartes’s first meditation. It’s a process of breaking down certain assumptions that ordinary consciousness has, and in so doing leading consciousness to philosophy. However, in Hegel’s case, the process of breaking down assumptions is immanent: it’s carried out by consciousness itself (rather than by the doubting ‘I’).
But don’t go to the Phenomenology thinking that it’s just about epistemology, or (if you start with the later chapters) that it’s mainly about practical philosophy or history or about art or religion, because it’s about all of them. If you think it’s going to be a work in just one of these areas, you’re going to be very confused and you might conclude that you can’t take it seriously as a work in any of the areas. But it’s not meant to be about any one of these in particular. It’s meant to be a study of a range of different shapes of consciousness, in which consciousness changes and mutates into different forms in a logical order. Hegel claims that you start with shapes of consciousness that are more usually seen as the objects of philosophy of mind or epistemology, but that you are then taken on to new shapes, such as desire, mutual recognition, the life or death struggle and the master-slave dialectic. Those are much more practical. Then you get to the standpoint of reason which is initially that of science, though within reason you also come to a section on ‘virtue and the way of the world’, which examines the problems encountered by virtue when it seeks to realise itself in the world without, as it were, getting its hands dirty. And then later in the text you encounter discussions of Antigone, the French Revolution, religion and so on. What have these to do with sense-certainty? Nothing, if you approach the text in terms of certain fixed categories. But if you focus on the way each shape of consciousness transforms itself into a subsequent shape, you can see that the later, more practical or historical shapes are in fact made necessary by the earlier, more epistemic ones.
“It’s meant to be a study of a range of different shapes of consciousness, in which consciousness changes and mutates into different forms in a logical order.”
The work thus has a definite coherence to it, but the coherence is a logical one, guided by the self-transformation of consciousness. As such, it’s not subsumable under the traditional categories of philosophy.
Does Hegel think that there is a correct way to look at consciousness? What is the source of the rightness?
What it is to look at consciousness in the ‘right way’, for Hegel, is to look at consciousness in the terms that consciousness itself sets. Hegel says in the introduction that the standard that consciousness uses to evaluate its own standpoint is what it sets up itself as being the truth. So he identifies what each shape of consciousness takes to be its object and he then traces the experience that’s made necessary by that object – an experience in which the nature of the object is changed. By ‘object’, by the way, he doesn’t just mean a table or a chair: clearly, a table doesn’t transform itself into a chair in our experience. What Hegel means is that each shape of consciousness has in view a different kind of object: a simple this, or a more concrete thing with properties, or an object of desire, or an object of art or religion, and so on. And he claims that the experience of one shape of consciousness transforms it into a new shape with a new kind of object.
‘Sense-certainty’ is the first shape of consciousness that Hegel looks at. If we look at a pen, the sensory material that we’re dealing with is the same for the different stages of sense-certainty, perception, understanding, and desire. But the kind of object consciousness takes the pen to be – its conception of what it is to be an object – is different. Sense-certainty looks at the pen and doesn’t think ‘pen’, it just thinks ‘this here’, because it takes itself to be in direct, immediate contact with the thing. So, the form of its object is simple immediacy: this, here, now. But in experience, that simplicity gets lost and the object becomes more complex. When we get to perception, the same sensory material is understood as a thing with properties: it is a thing with a feel, a look, etc. Then when we get to understanding, the object is now taken to be held together by certain forces and also governed by laws. What understanding wants to do is understand the relationship between those laws and those forces. And that generates a new transformation of both consciousness and its object. When we get to desire, the object is then understood to be something that feeds my sense of self. I thus assert myself through consuming the pen in some way, perhaps by breaking it or destroying it.
“ Each shape of consciousness has in view a different kind of object: a simple this, or a more concrete thing with properties, or an object of desire, or an object of art or religion, and so on. ”
So different shapes of consciousness have different conceptions of what it is to be an object. For aesthetic consciousness, the object might be a work of beauty, and for religion it might be an object of veneration. What Hegel is interested in is always the conception of an object that a certain shape of consciousness has and the experience that that very conception generates. And he claims that in each case the way the object is first taken to be produces a distinctive experience of it. Hegel demonstrates this by rendering explicit what is implicit in the object as it is first taken to be. Indeed, if there’s a general method to Hegel’s philosophy it is this process of rendering explicit what is implicit. The paradox – and what makes it difficult for people to follow – is that in each case the very conception of an object with which consciousness begins produces an experience in which that conception is altered. In fact, it’s turned into its exact opposite. That is the dialectical moment in the experience Hegel describes. If this change happens, and if Hegel can show that the change is indeed generated by the initial conception of the object, then there’s nowhere else to go. You can’t say I’ve made a mistake and revert to the initial conception of the object because it’s that earlier conception which led to the later experience in the first place.
Hegel stands under the self-imposed obligation to be as immanent as possible in thinking about consciousness and not to import his own views about what consciousness should be saying. Each shape of consciousness is governed by a norm that it sets for itself, namely its own conception of its object. Consciousness has a certain conception of what it counts as the truth or the object, but it undergoes an experience of that object in which the latter is changed and in which consciousness itself is changed too. That injects a dynamism into the whole thing, which is part of why people find Hegel’s Phenomenology exciting. You start by looking at the world in a certain way, but then find both that world and yourself transformed by the experience you undergo.
But note that Hegel is not describing an empirical process, such as thinking about Brexit in one way on one day and then thinking something different about it the next day. It’s a logical process that works out how a shape of consciousness must change – should change – if it takes its own conception of its object seriously. Of course, in life people do not always follow the logic of their standpoint. There are, for example, ‘masters’, who do not understand that their dominance is logically self-contradictory – because it depends on the subservience of another – but who carry on seeking to dominate others. In other respects, however, the logical process described by Hegel can be seen to work itself out in history itself. The French Revolution is a good example. Hegel describes the conception of freedom that drives the French Revolution as ‘absolute freedom’. He recognises that this is, indeed, a certain kind of freedom, but it’s a freedom that takes itself to be very abstract. So it works against particular institutions and associations of people and deems all individuals to be free in the same way as citizens (citoyens).
We’re all equal before the law and equal bearers of rights. But Hegel thinks that such freedom abstracts from the particular differences that make us human, and that this abstractness reveals itself in death: for the revolutionaries begin to discover that they can have only one relationship to those who are against the revolution, namely that such people should not be. Death thus becomes the conclusion. That is not what the original revolutionaries of 1789 want, but, for Hegel, it is the dialectical consequence of taking freedom in such an abstract way. So Hegel thinks that the Reign of Terror in 1793-4 is an intrinsic, necessary consequence of the revolution. And that is really interesting and thought-provoking. How can you be committed to genuine freedom, and yet this good turns out to be bad? Hegel’s insight into this connection between the French Revolution and terror is, of course, poignant when one recalls his early enthusiasm for the revolution.
“ You start by looking at the world in a certain way, but then find both that world and yourself transformed by the experience you undergo. ”
Hegel thinks that tragedy presents a similar dialectic. Tragedy is in many ways about doing the wrong thing while doing the right thing, where doing the right thing itself turns out to be the wrong thing and proves to be destructive and self-destructive. This dialectical element is what either frustrates you when you read Hegel or excites and exhilarates you. It just caught me. Right from the very beginning, I thought it really exciting.
If Hegel is writing about one’s own experience of consciousness, is there a solipsistic or sceptical challenge here?
In his phenomenology Hegel is not self-consciously personal, as Descartes is in his Meditations. Hegel is doing something that in principle anybody can do and discovering the same transformations as anyone else would see. In fact, he thinks of phenomenology as something that ‘we’ do, and this is one of the problems we encounter in Hegel’s new discipline: who are ‘we’? But whoever we are, we are ‘we’ and not ‘I’. Furthermore, the whole thing is driven forward by the logic that is inherent in consciousness, and consciousness itself becomes more than just an ‘I’. It starts off as ‘I’ and ‘this’, but when you get to self-consciousness, you soon have two self-consciousnesses together. Then when you get to ‘spirit’, you’ve got a whole world – a society, family, and the state. ‘Spirit’, by the way, is not some disembodied transcendent entity governing the lives of people. It is human self-consciousness in its many social, political, historical and religious forms. But it is not merely human self-consciousness, for the latter is itself the self-consciousness of being – and of the reason or ‘logos’ at the heart of being. ‘Spirit’ is thus being itself – the world – that has come to self-consciousness in humanity, above all in humanity that lives a social, communal life.
So the consciousness that is under examination in the Phenomenology proves to be a shared, communal consciousness, not just an ‘I’. And the examination of consciousness is itself carried out by a ‘we’. Phenomenology is thus not an activity of private introspection – a study by a solitary self of itself. It is on the contrary, as Hegel puts it, an ‘exoteric’ discipline: it is something that is publicly understandable. It traces an inexorable logic within consciousness, but one that is publicly understandable. It’s not esoteric or private in any way.
But can such a discipline be challenged by solipsism or scepticism? That depends. On the one hand, scepticism is itself undermined by phenomenology, for scepticism, of a radical Greek kind, is one of the shapes of consciousness that Hegel examines. It’s the penultimate shape of self-consciousness. But it proves unable to sustain its self-understanding and transforms itself into a new shape of self-consciousness. Such scepticism, Hegel claims, always seeks to undermine whatever it puts forward. Initially, it’s sceptical of the evidence of the senses on the basis of the abstract freedom of the self. But then it’s sceptical of that on the basis of the senses. So he says that the sceptic ends up like two naughty children squabbling with one another – one of whom says yes when the other says no – just for the sake of being stubborn.
In Hegel’s view, therefore, what’s going on in the sceptic is that there are in fact two selves bound together in one, but they can’t think of themselves together as one. One’s always replacing the other. I say this; but I say not this; then I say not not this, and so on. If, however, we render this implicit two-in-one explicit, we are taken on to a new shape of consciousness that is no longer that of scepticism. The logic of scepticism thus carries us forward to a new shape in which the two selves in the sceptic are no longer just two, but are explicitly bound together as two-in-one: the shape Hegel calls ‘the unhappy consciousness’. So, in Hegel’s view, scepticism undermines itself, and transforms itself into an ‘unhappy’ self, in the course of the Phenomenology.
Furthermore, solipsism undermines itself as well. If we look at the start of phenomenology, you could say that sense-certainty is trying to be just itself, and so is trying to be solipsistic, if not sceptical – it is saying, as it were, ‘I know this, everyone keep out, it’s just me and this’. But Hegel thinks that the very immediacy of that experience turns it into something vacuous and universal. Consciousness thus can’t get the specificity it wants, and so it retreats back into what ‘I’ mean by this, but this doesn’t capture the specificity it seeks either: for if I just say ‘I’ and focus on what ‘I’ mean, I turn myself into the same ‘I’ that you are, and so I haven’t specified anything about me. I can’t capture the specificity of my object, therefore, by simply insisting that it is what ‘I’ mean by this, for the thought of ‘I’ is indeterminate: it doesn’t pick out me in particular. Here, I think, you’ve got the seeds of an argument against a form of solipsism. If solipsism withdraws completely out of any public discourse into the immediacy of itself, it ends up not being immediately itself at all, but an ‘I’ just like any other self: completely empty and vacuous.
So there are arguments in the Phenomenology against both scepticism and solipsism. On the other hand, Hegel also recognises that what he calls the ‘barren ego’ may not be persuaded by such phenomenological arguments. In that case, Hegel thinks, however strong one’s arguments may be, if someone insists on solipsism or scepticism – just as if someone insists that 2 + 2 = 5 – then you have to leave them to it. Hegel argues that the ‘solipsism’ of sense-certainty proves to be empty and indeterminate and that scepticism turns itself into an unhappy consciousness, and he clearly regards the logic that leads to these conclusions as compelling. But his aim is not to persuade every last person that he’s right. There’s a lot you can say to challenge the sceptic’s point of view, but if ultimately the sceptic insists on that point of view, then there’s not much you can do except leave the sceptic to his insistence and see how he gets on.
In one sense, however, you can regard the Phenomenology itself as a work of scepticism. Not stubborn, wilful scepticism, but what Hegel calls ‘sich vollbringender Skeptizismus’ (self-completing scepticism). The relation to Descartes is interesting. Think of Descartes’ first Meditation as taking a set of ordinary assumptions such as ‘I can rely on what I see’, ‘I’ve got a body’, ‘there is a God’, and as gradually whittling those assumptions away. The Phenomenology is also the process of gradually and sceptically undermining certain standpoints that we take to be obvious: I’m here and the world is there; the world is made up of things with different properties; selves are essentially distinct from one another. There is, however, an important difference between Cartesian and Hegelian scepticism. In Descartes’ first Meditation the scepticism is driven forward by the doubting self, not by the ordinary assumptions themselves. In Hegel’s phenomenology, by contrast, each shape of consciousness is subjected to an immanent scepticism, so the whole work turns out to the process of immanently self-induced scepticism about our ordinary assumptions – a work that eventually leads beyond such scepticism itself to philosophy.
Phenomenology is thus not Hegel’s work. I think that something similar is true of the thought of Kant and Spinoza too. There are some philosophers for whom philosophy is their philosophy – Nietzsche is one of those, and Descartes in certain moods – but Hegel is exactly the opposite. Hegel doesn’t think of his philosophy or phenomenology as specifically his. When he’s dead, other people can do it just as well. So it’s not at all personal, it’s not at all solipsistic. Hegel’s phenomenology is an immanent scepticism that seeks to show, in a way that is exoteric and publicly understandable, how both solipsism and wilful scepticism, like other shapes of consciousness, undermine themselves through their own experience.
An important chapter in the Phenomenology talks about ‘absolute knowledge’. Can you say a little about what this amounts to?
One thing it isn’t is knowledge of the Absolute. Your readers need to know that.
Absolute knowledge is knowledge that’s been absolved from the distinction between object and subject. To put it simply, ordinary consciousness in its various forms has one thing in common: it takes there to be a clear distinction between the knower and the known, a distinction between me and the world. Hegel, however, doesn’t regard this distinction as absolute, because he thinks that we can know the world through pure thought. For Hegel, it is true that I am not the world, but in another sense I am the world because I am – we are – the world that has come to consciousness of itself in thought. So thinking is able to understand being because thinking is itself a form of being. For Hegel, that’s the philosophical point of view. ‘Absolute knowledge’ just is this philosophical standpoint, for which the distinction between subject and object is no longer absolute. This distinction begins to be broken down earlier in the book, but at the end – in absolute knowledge – it is undermined most thoroughly. Absolute knowledge is thus not some grand knowledge of everything, nor is it knowledge of some ‘thing’ called the ‘Absolute’. It is simply consciousness or thought that no longer regards the distinction between itself and being as absolute, and so now knows that it can understand being through thought alone.
The distinction between self and object is at its sharpest in the shape of ‘sense-certainty’, but as we move through different shapes of consciousness, shapes begin to emerge that understand the active role that their own consciousness plays in disclosing, or in some cases transforming, their object. Understanding, for example, recognises that, in order to comprehend not just of the play of forces we see around us but also the deep structural laws that govern it, we’ve got to move from ‘passive’ empirical perception to ‘active’ understanding. Understanding as a way of thinking has got to disclose those laws through its own activity. That’s already beginning to undermine the sharp distinction between the knowing subject and its object. Of course, all practical consciousness does that, too, by transforming the object that it knows. So there is no sharp distinction between subject and object there either. Later on the object I engage with becomes another self-consciousness or, indeed, my own self-consciousness, as in the ‘unhappy consciousness’. So, once again, there is no sharp distinction between the self and what is other than it. Then with absolute knowledge consciousness recognises that the form of its own thought and the form of being itself are one and the same, and that thought can thus understand being through its own autonomous activity.
It should be said, though, that the chapter on ‘absolute knowledge’ can be a bit disappointing for readers, because for the most part it just goes through all the shapes that we’ve already been through. This is because part of what absolute knowing does is recuperate the path that’s taken us there. Above all, however, absolute knowing is a form of knowing that has been freed from what Hegel calls the opposition of consciousness and so is free to do philosophy. At the beginning of philosophy, therefore, we don’t have a concrete object called ‘the Absolute’. All we have is indeterminate being that is no longer understood to be something other than thought, but is known to be one with the thought that thinks it. Later in the Logic there is a category called the ‘Absolute’, which coincides in some ways with Spinoza’s concept of substance. But there’s no reason why one should choose that as the general topic of Hegel’s philosophy rather than any other category.
In saying this, I differ from someone like Frederick Beiser. Absolute knowing, in my view, is not from the start knowledge of the ‘Absolute’. It’s knowing that has been freed from the assumed oppositions of consciousness.
For someone who doesn’t necessarily want to read the whole work, are there particular sections of the Phenomenology you would recommend?
Yes, it has some extraordinarily exciting scenarios in it. I’d point to: the ‘life and death struggle’, the master-slave dialectic, the ‘unhappy consciousness’, the account of Antigone in relation to Creon (in Sophocles’ play). There’s also the discussion of the ancien régime, with all the flatterers in the court around Louis XIV, and of the French Revolution. There’s also a wonderful bit that describes a group of moral consciences congratulating themselves on how noble and excellent they all are. These are some of the most engaging parts of the book. You almost think a great filmmaker like Eisenstein could have filmed this. The way we’ve been talking about the Phenomenology so far might make it seem a little dry and abstract, especially if you’re not interested in its relation to Hegel’s Logic. And many people, like Kojève, weren’t interested in Hegel’s Logic. But there are insights into the dynamic of human interaction in the Phenomenology that really make this a remarkable book to study.
Your next choice is Hegel’s Science of Logic. Why have you recommended this book?
It’s going to sound hyperbolical, but my short answer is that I think it’s the greatest work of philosophy ever written by anybody anywhere. And I’ve worked on Plato, Aristotle, Descartes; I teach Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant – who I think is also one of the greats; and I have studied Nietzsche, Heidegger, Wittgenstein and others. These are all well worth studying, but Hegel’s Logic is quite stunningly insightful and profound, and in my view hugely important.
The more expansive answer to your question is as follows. Let’s assume that Kant’s point is broadly right: that we don’t come unmediated to the world, but that our knowledge of the world is structured by certain categories. Hegel accepts that. In that sense, Hegel is a Kantian. These categories include causality, substance, quantity – the very idea of number, etc. And Hegel would say that even a bare thought such as ‘something’ is such a category. The fish in my fish tank at home don’t think in terms of ‘something’, or ‘if I do this, this will cause that’. They have various experiences but they don’t articulate them in that way. But we do articulate them in that way.
Hegel thinks that these categories provide a ‘diamond network’ that suffuses everyday experience. These categories don’t just inform philosophical experience, they inform everybody’s experience. They are part of what it is to be human. They are Hegel’s and Kant’s version of a linguist’s idea of grammatical rules: they structure the way we think. Kant thinks that these categories are fixed; they have always been like that and have never changed. Hegel thinks that they haven’t been fixed, but they have developed. Part of philosophy’s task is to try and understand that development, and he thinks we have now come to the point at which we can finally understand their proper nature. This matters because if we don’t understand their proper nature, then we can actually be misled by the categories that structure our experience. In this case, we wouldn’t be committing empirical errors, but rather errors at the level of the categories we employ.
“ The Logic is Hegel’s attempt to understand anew all the basic concepts of thought. They include very simple ones like ‘being’, ‘becoming’, ‘something’, ‘other’, but then also the concept of ‘being finite’. ”
Let’s think about an idea like ‘something’. There’s something on the table now: your phone. Hegel’s claim is that if we didn’t have the idea of there being ‘something’ at all, then all you would experience would be unstructured perceptions. You need to have the very thought ‘something’ to think of what you see as a unified entity. Furthermore, Hegel thinks that being ‘something’ is a little more complicated than we normally take it to be. We usually think that things – whatever we take to be ‘something’ – are independent of other things and are simply what they are. But Hegel argues in the Logic that to be something is to be inextricably bound up with what’s other than it. So ‘being other than’ is part of being ‘something’. Indeed, it’s even more complicated than that: for being exposed to influence by what is other than you is also part of being something.
Imagine that we now move up a gear and think about people rather than mere things. Let’s say we take the ordinary conception of ‘something’ and think of people as ‘somethings’. In Hegel’s view, this will build a structural individualism into our thought of people, and I think Hegel would claim that modernity is governed by such individualism in many ways. Many of the debates we’re having about identity at the moment amount to asserting ‘I am who I am, don’t challenge me. I am this individual. You have nothing to say to me’. That, one might argue, is the result of thinking of people in terms of the ordinary conception of ‘something’ (and of ‘identity’).
But now let’s take Hegel’s conception of something. What would human life look like if this is the way to think of people? The Hegelian would say that being something has ‘being other than’ built into it and has interaction built into it. And so, in fact, we can’t just be who we are by ourselves. We are who we are in and through interactions with others. Those interactions will be personal, social, political and so on, and, Hegel argues, they will involve recognition. So, for Hegel, who I am is partly constituted by what others take me to be. I may not like this, but that’s tough, because it is made necessary by what it is to be ‘something’ at all, by the inherently relational character of every something. If this is the case, we of course have to make sure that we recognise one another in such a way that we do justice to one another. But we can’t think that we can live in a world in which what someone thinks about me makes no difference to me. It makes a lot of difference.
For instance, I am defined as a university teacher. I couldn’t be that outside of university and I couldn’t be that without my students. My wife and I can’t be parents without having children, etc. So here we have an example of the way in which a simple concept like ‘something’ can affect the way we understand the world. If it is taken one way, things become isolated from another, but if you take it as Hegel thinks, then things are interrelated and integrated.
“ So, for Hegel, who I am is partly constituted by what others take me to be. I may not like this, but that’s tough, because it is made necessary by what it is to be ‘something’ at all. ”
The Logic is Hegel’s attempt to understand anew all the basic concepts of thought. They include very simple ones like ‘being’, ‘becoming’, ‘something’, ‘other’, but then also the concept of ‘being finite’. What does it mean to be finite? Well, it means to end. Is that the same as being limited? For some philosophers like Spinoza, being limited is just the same as being finite. But not for Hegel. For him, there’s a subtle distinction between the two: you are limited by something else, but you end through your own being. This is not to deny that other things can bring us to our end, but Hegel’s point is that, even without the action of other things, we will come to an end simply through being what we are. This, of course, has tragic implications, for it means that we bring ourselves to our own end whether we like it or not. Hegel also has a distinctive conception of infinity, which he understands to be immanent in the sphere of the finite itself, rather than a transcendent ‘beyond’. Hegel then goes on to consider ‘quantity’, ‘essence’ and other concepts. So it’s an extraordinarily ambitious and wide-ranging study of the basic categories of thought.
Yet the Logic actually does two things, since it studies the basic categories of thought and the basic forms of being at the same time. This is because, in Hegel’s view, the two coincide. So, first, the Logic does again in a new form what Kant tried to do in the first Critique in his so called ‘metaphysical deduction’, namely it aims to discover the basic categories of thought. Kant seeks to derive the basic categories from the logical forms of judgement, but Hegel thinks that this is not good enough, that it is too question-begging. Why assume that thought is essentially judging? And why assume, as Kant does, that thought is discursive and has to unify intuitions? Hegel thinks that there is ultimately no satisfactory answer to these questions in Kant, but that Kant simply takes a certain conception of thought for granted – dogmatically.
Hegel’s project, therefore, is to try to derive all the categories, and to understand them properly, without assuming in advance that we know what they are or what thought is. That’s crucial. Second, the task of the Logic is to think and understand pure being – the pure being with which absolute knowledge is left at the end of the Phenomenology. Since the Logic aims to discover the basic forms of being, as well as the basic categories of thought, it is a metaphysics as well as a logic. So you can say that Hegel is not only redoing Kant’s derivation of the categories, but also doing anew what Spinoza did, namely understand what there is. Spinoza, of course, begins with substance and then considers the relation between substance, attributes and modes. Hegel, however, thinks that this is to assume too much at the start of metaphysics and that all we are entitled to begin with is pure, indeterminate being. In the course of the Logic Hegel then shows that a host of other categories – that are both forms of being and forms of thought – can be derived from pure being, including the concepts of quantity, measure, essence, identity, difference, substance and causality. These categories are thus not just assumed by Hegel to belong to thought, but they are proven to do so by being derived from thought itself – from the thought of simple, indeterminate being. This new derivation of the categories also reveals the proper way to understand them.
Hegel’s Logic is exhilarating to study and extraordinarily rich. It is abstract, there’s no doubt about that, and there are few examples. But the work is important even if you don’t end up being a Hegelian because of the fine and significant distinctions that Hegel thinks that thought and being make necessary. One of the best compliments paid to Hegel was from a student I taught twenty-five years ago in America. He said ‘that I’ve never been exposed to more significant philosophical distinctions by any other philosopher I’ve studied’. He’s not a Hegelian but that’s what he said. And I think that’s exactly right. They are not scholastic distinctions that you might think are meaningless. They are meaningful and significant.
“ The ethical, social and political implications of this idea are enormous. These are the things that the Logic is full of: abstract ideas with dramatic implications for human life. ”
I’m not going to review everything in the Logic but there are certain ideas that people who are not philosophers will find really interesting. I’ve already talked about interrelatedness. That is crucial. This is the fact that to be something at all is to be interrelated with a variety of different things. Secondly, there is the idea of an immanent dialectic to which we are subject. The idea of finitude expresses that really well: that we are born to die, not necessarily at the hands of somebody else but through our own being. Thirdly, Hegel is very interesting on the phenomenon of exclusion.
In the course of the Logic there emerge various different kinds of difference. There is the immediate difference between being and nothingness; and there’s determinate difference which is when you say ‘this, not that’, ‘cold, not hot’. That is determinate oppositional difference. But then there is separateness – apartness – where things aren’t set at odds with one another but are just separate, like something and other. Then there is another kind of difference which is exclusion. Hegel examines this particularly in the logic of essence, where he argues that certain terms, such as ‘positive’ and ‘negative’, include one another within them as excluded. The positive has within itself the moment of not-being-negative, and the negative is the non-positive. Each, therefore, is included in the other, but as excluded by it. This idea by itself is rather abstract, but if we think of human identity in this way, the idea is very illuminating: for we see that if I define myself through exclusion – as not this, not that and so on – I build into my identity that which I exclude in order to be who I am, and so I bind myself to the very thing I seek to exclude. The ethical, social and political implications of this idea are enormous. These are the things that the Logic is full of: abstract ideas with dramatic implications for human life.
Is the Logic a work of preparation with an eye to something else? Is it just laying the foundations to then go on and talk about the practical, social, and political?
Hegel’s logic is a discipline in its own right, but it also prepares the ground for an understanding of nature and spirit in the rest of Hegel’s philosophy.
Hegel’s Phenomenology gets you to the standpoint of philosophy, but Hegel sees philosophy itself as having three parts: (1) logic; (2) philosophy of nature; and (3) philosophy of spirit. Logic is an account of the basic categories that structure our experience and of the corresponding forms of being. But then we go to the philosophy of nature which, using these categories, examines what it is to be space, time, matter, and light, as well as physical, chemical and organic matter. And then we go on to the philosophy of spirit. This has three parts. The first part deals with ‘subjective spirit’ which includes the self in what Hegel calls its ‘anthropological’ dimension (that is, its sensations, feelings and habits), then consciousness, and then what he calls ‘intelligence’ (which includes imagination, language, memory, as well as drive and free will). Then you have the philosophy of ‘objective spirit’ which sets out how human freedom objectifies itself in the world, as right, action, family life, the economy, the state, and history. Then finally there is the philosophy of ‘absolute spirit’, which deals with art, religion and philosophy itself. Each stage of Hegel’s philosophy has its own immanent logic which is clearly derived from the Logic but is not just an application of the categories discovered in the latter. There is, therefore, a distinctive logic of nature, a distinctive logic of freedom, a distinctive logic of art and so on. But they are clearly derived from what he’s talking about in the Logic. So, yes, Hegel’s logic is preparatory as well as a discipline in its own right.
‘Logic’, as a word, refers to formal rules of inference. If Hegel’s Science of Logic aims to be presuppositionless, does he have to reprove those rules?
Exactly, that’s right.
It’s not that Hegel is working in a complete vacuum. Like Descartes, Hegel recognises the context in which he’s working but he wants to put that to the side and begin again from scratch. But it’s only from within a certain context that you can do that. This is a context that requires freedom of thought and demands that you don’t simply take things for granted on authority. That means you’ve got to set aside all your presuppositions. So freedom requires being ‘presuppositionless’, which is Hegel’s own word. The Logic thus begins from pure indeterminate, unspecified being. It then moves through ‘becoming’ to ‘determinacy’ which leads on to ‘something’ which generates ‘finitude’ and so on. Later in the Logic familiar principles and forms of judgement and inference are then also derived. Such principles and forms are thus not just taken for granted but are proven to belong to thought (and indeed to being). They are, however, also shown to be more dialectical than ordinary thought has recognized.
How influential has the Logic been? Wasn’t it relatively neglected?
Well, Kierkegaard writes about the Logic in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript. He knows that Hegel claims to provide a presuppositionless derivation of concepts and he argues explicitly that such a derivation is impossible. Karl Marx’s doctoral dissertation on the Greek atomists draws heavily on Hegel’s logic of ‘being for self’ and the ‘one and the many’. Lenin read the Logic and made notes all the way through it. Heidegger and Gadamer also read parts of the Logic. So it was never completely neglected, but there’s no doubt that the great French writers of the 20th century like Sartre and Kojève who were interested in Hegel worked more on the Phenomenology. The other part of Hegel’s philosophy that eclipsed the Logic was the Philosophy of Right. So, yes, the Logic was neglected but it was never completely forgotten.
And it certainly hasn’t been neglected by John Burbidge, the writer of your next book choice. This is On Hegel’s Logic.
I’ve included my next two choices not necessarily because I agree with them, but because of their importance, both generally and for me in particular. I’m not allowed to choose one of my own books for this interview, but my Opening of Hegel’s Logic is the one I recommend most as a guide to the Logic and I could not have written it without Burbidge’s important work. So I want people to read Burbidge as well.
His book was one of the first in English to make the arguments in Hegel’s Logic really clear. It adopts a distinctive approach: what Burbidge emphasises is that the Logic is a study of what happens when we think. The Logic, for him, is not so much a study of categories in their own right, but it is a study of what is involved in understanding something and of the dialectical tensions we get caught up in in the activity of understanding. Due to this emphasis on the process of thinking, some people have accused Burbidge of being too psychologistic in his reading of the Logic, and I share that concern. But what is great about Burbidge’s book is its attention to detail, its clarity and accessibility, and its sensitivity to the nuances of Hegel’s argument. Burbidge explains (and embraces) the dialectical changes that occur, and he acknowledges that there isn’t just a single uniform method to Hegelian logic. In this way, he opened up the Logic to an English-speaking audience and showed it to be a work of serious, rigorous philosophy rather than obscure, impenetrable metaphysics. So, without picking my own book, this would always be the first one I would recommend.
Burbidge bases a lot of his account on Hegel’s distinction between three forms of thinking: understanding, dialectic, and speculative thinking. He conceives of this distinction in the following way: understanding takes a concept and tries to clarify it, but in the clarifying of it the dialectic, as it were, takes over and moves understanding in a direction it doesn’t want to go in. Understanding wants to get a clear and distinct conception of a certain idea – for example, being – but dialectic takes over and turns that idea into its opposite – nothing. Speculative thinking then unifies those two thoughts into one, and so we get a new concept: becoming. And so it goes on. The process is aiming at clarity and so, against what Popper and Schopenhauer contend, Hegel, as Burbidge reads him, is not trying to be obscure. He is trying to think through what it means to get clear about a concept. And he shows that if you really understand what it is to get clear about a concept, you realise that you get involved in certain dialectical complexities that take you in directions you didn’t want to go in. And new categories emerge from that. So, in trying to get clear about categories, you are necessarily taken on to other categories.
“ He opened up the Logic to an English-speaking audience and showed it to be a work of serious, rigorous philosophy rather than obscure, impenetrable metaphysics. ”
I am mildly critical of Burbidge’s book because I think the Logic is not so much about what happens when we understand, but that it’s dealing more with categories and concepts in their own right. So I don’t think that, when you’ve worked your way through Hegel’s Logic, you will necessarily stay with Burbidge’s interpretation; but I certainly couldn’t have got to where I am now without what he’s done. His little book The Logic of Hegel’s ‘Logic’ is another gem. It’s really good and helpful, even though I disagree with parts of it. I’m writing another book on the Logic now and I go back to Burbidge and engage with his work regularly. I owe him a tremendous debt.
Your fourth choice is Hegel’s Idealism: The Satisfactions of Self-Consciousness by Robert Pippin.
Pippin has made a huge impact, there’s no denying it. Like Burbidge, Pippin tried to introduce clarity into what Hegel is doing, against the background of what he takes to be an untenable metaphysical reading of Hegel. By such a reading, he means one that takes Hegel’s Logic to be concerned with dubious entities, such as the ‘Absolute’. Pippin rejects such a reading and so is usually understood to put forward a ‘non-metaphysical’ interpretation of Hegel. In fact, however, the matter is a bit more complicated.
To explain Pippin’s interpretation of Hegel, let’s start with Kant. Pippin takes up Kant’s basic thought that cognition has two roots –intuition and understanding – which work together to yield objects of experience. More specifically, intuitions give us the immediacy of things – their being here and now – and the understanding then gives us the various forms of objectivity. What people don’t always recognise is that Kant is not simply saying that we need certain categories in order to make sense of the world; he is saying that intuitions themselves have to be understood in terms of certain categories in order to be objects for cognition. This is in the B deduction of the Critique of Pure Reason. So the categories are conditions not just of our experience of objects but of objects themselves as objects of cognition. That’s really important to Pippin’s Kant.
“ Pippin’s work has made Hegel respectable among Kant scholars and other people who wouldn’t otherwise read Hegel. ”
Now we move to Hegel. Hegel takes over the broad idea that the categories, as unfolded in the Logic, are the conditions of anything being a determinate object of cognition. Hegel, however, drops Kant’s idea that cognition is also mediated by forms of intuition – space and time – that are subjective. Kant’s forms of intuition are universal – all finite beings like us share the same forms – but they’re subjective in the sense that they have their source within the mind. By the way, Kant is, in my view, quite dogmatic about this: because the forms of intuition are a priori and so subjective, we know that they can’t belong to things in themselves, but only to things as they appear to us. Yet Kant does not, as it were, peer over the wall bounding our experience and see directly that things in themselves are not spatio-temporal. This is impossible, not just because we are restricted to what is on this side of the wall, that is, to the objects of possible experience, but also because things in themselves should not be thought as actually there beyond the limits of experience. They are, rather, something that thought posits from within experience itself. More precisely, they are what we must think there to be when, within experience, we abstract from the conditions under which alone we know and experience objects. So Kant can’t say there are such things, he just says we must think there to be such things. But because we know that the forms of space and time are subjective, we must think things in themselves not to be spatiotemporal. Not all readers of Kant understand ‘things in themselves’ in this way, but this is how I understand them. Be that as it may, Hegel drops the whole idea that things in themselves must be thought to be (or that they are) beyond the reach of cognition, and maintains that what there is, is knowable. However, he retains the idea that the categories are the conditions under which things can be known, can be objects of cognition.
Pippin understands Hegel in the way I have just described, too, though there are subtle differences between our interpretations. For example, Pippin thinks that the first part of the Logic – the logic of being – considers the problems that arise when one attempts to understand what there is through simple categories, such as ‘something’. For him, Hegel’s exposure of the failure of this attempt then leads to the discovery, later in the Logic, of the further categories that are in fact required for something to be a determinate object of cognition. In my view, by contrast, the logic of being has a more positive role and simply unfolds what it is to be ‘something’, ‘finite’ and so on.
Pippin’s work has made Hegel respectable among Kant scholars and other people who wouldn’t otherwise read Hegel. They now read Hegel because of what Pippin has done. But, interestingly, Pippin’s book has been influential by being slightly misunderstood – a misunderstanding that I was guilty of myself for a while. Pippin is usually taken to regard Hegel as a non-metaphysical thinker, as a thinker who tells us about the categories required for cognition of objects but nothing more. In fact, however, Pippin accepts that Hegel is a metaphysical thinker of a certain kind, because he thinks that, for Hegel, how something is understood to be is what it is. Pippin’s Hegel gives us an account of what it is to be an object for a possibly self-conscious judger, for thought and understanding. But at the same time, he claims that, for thought, this is all that an object can be. There is nothing more to things that we could know beyond what it is for them to be objects of cognition, so understanding the conditions of such objects just is knowing what they are. This is a subtle position, and I think that Pippin is right to complain that his Hegel is not simply non-metaphysical. Pippin’s Hegel just looks non-metaphysical when compared to the image of the ‘metaphysical’ Hegel that he rejects – the image of Hegel as a philosopher of the ‘Absolute’.
Nonetheless, it seems to me that there is still something missing from the position adopted by Pippin’s own ‘metaphysical’ Hegel: for, in my view, there is an element of sheer being that is not collapsible into being for a knower or being an object of cognition. When we think about this table, we think that that table is there. Yes, it is known by us, but it also has a being and an identity of its own. My Hegel is thus trying to work out the categories that structure not only (a) how we must think of things; not only (b) what something must be to be an object of cognition; but also (c) what is to be at all. I think this third element is missing from Pippin’s account. For me, the long and the short of it is that Pippin’s Hegel ends up being a little too close to Fichte, for whom also ‘to be’ is ‘to be for a subject’.
But Pippin’s interpretation of Hegel is very sophisticated, very interesting, and has been hugely provocative. It has helped give rise to the whole debate about whether Hegel is metaphysical or not. Since Pippin has been associated with the non-metaphysical interpretation, this has allowed others to advocate a metaphysical interpretation again. So, one consequence of Pippin’s book has been a huge revival of interest in the metaphysical Hegel (albeit understood in a variety of different ways).
Your last book is Hegel’s Aesthetics. This is a colossal work on the history of art, as well as analysing individual artforms like sculpture, architecture, poetry etc. Tell me about this choice.
I would say that a great way of getting into Hegel is through the Aesthetics. For a start, it contains lots of examples of artworks, unlike Kant’s aesthetics. Hegel comments on paintings, poems, plays, works of sculpture, etc., all of which you can look up on the internet or go and see in galleries. And that is really helpful, since you can see Hegel’s thinking at work in specific cases.
Hegel’s Aesthetics comprises his lectures on fine art. The question to ask is: why is art so important to him? Hegel thinks that the Logic sets out the basic truth about being and thought, then the philosophy of nature tells you about the truth of nature, and then the various parts of the philosophy of spirit tell you about what it is to be a human being, to be free and so on. But philosophy is not the only way in which we understand these truths. There are, in fact, for Hegel, three basic forms of mindedness: (i) intuition; (ii) representation; and (iii) thought. These are discussed in the philosophy of subjective spirit and they pretty much match Kant’s intuition, imagination, and thought. Intuition is sensuous for Hegel: it is the seeing, hearing and feeling of things. Representation is somewhat more inward. It’s an inward picturing, which works with images, metaphors, and analogies. Finally, thought deals in concepts. Hegel’s claim is that – ideally – the truth should be known by us in all three ways.
“ Whatever your views about art may be, studying Hegel gives you a thorough aesthetic education, as he takes you through a whole array of artworks that, in his view, you should know if you’re part of the modern world. ”
Philosophy knows the truth in pure concepts, in the distinctive categories of the Logic and so on. Religion knows basically the same truth, but in images and metaphors – Christianity being the principal religion for Hegel. Religion doesn’t talk about being, becoming, nothing; it talks about the ‘creation’ and about ‘God’ being the ‘Father’ and the ‘Son’. But the basic story that’s contained in Christianity, Hegel thinks, is the same as that told by philosophy, namely that there is a power that is responsible for there being a world and which comes to self-consciousness in human beings. In philosophy it’s called reason, in religion it’s called God. The story of the creation, the incarnation, the resurrection, etc., is thus religion’s account of the process through which divine reason comes to fulfilment in human beings – above all, in human beings that live their lives in love and forgiveness. Hegel has more to say about religion, and about religions other than Christianity, but this is the core of his theology.
In contrast to religion and philosophy, art knows the truth through sensuous intuition. Hegel holds that we need to have a sensuous encounter with and experience of the truth. In art, therefore, the human spirit articulates its basic truths in what is visible and audible. For Hegel, there is a hierarchy among art, religion, and philosophy. Philosophy and religion, if you like, get it more right than art does. And philosophy in particular knows the truth in the truest way. It is thus at the top of the pyramid. But philosophy is not for everyone. In principle it is for everyone but in practice it isn’t, partly because of the intellectual demands it makes and partly because you have to devote your life to it in a way that most people are unable to do. Religion takes up the truth in a way that anybody can understand in practice as well as in principle. Art then communicates such truths in a more direct, intuitable way, but it doesn’t speak to and enter into our inwardness in the way religion does. Religious truths in their images and metaphors become part of the life of faith and inform who we are. But art is always in some sense different from or outside us. However, art is as indispensable to us as religion and philosophy, because we need to experience the truth in each of these ways (if we can).
Furthermore, there is an irreducible value to each of the distinctive ways in which art, religion, and philosophy present the truth. It’s not just that you’re getting the same truths in three different ways. The different ways have their own value. The way in which art speaks to us thus has its own distinctive value that religion and philosophy can’t match. So, actually, in some respects, philosophy is deficient with respect to art even though, in terms of pure truth, art is deficient in relation to philosophy.
Hegel’s Aesthetics is, in my view, one of the greatest accounts of art we possess, and an important part of the story he tells concerns the history of art. Hegel is interested, for example, in the fact that, in earlier ages, art and religion were much more closely linked than they are now. Consider the Egyptians and the Greeks. For the Greeks, Hegel thinks, religion and art were inseparable. In fact, he even says that the poets gave the Greeks their gods. What happens as we move into the Christian period, and particularly in the Reformation, is that religion and art move apart. For medieval Catholicism, art is still crucial to religion, but not so much for Protestantism. Protestantism becomes more inward, more focused on the word, and art thus ceases to be so important to it. That has a twofold effect. Art is reduced in value in some respects and firmly located in third place in the hierarchy of absolute spirit. But it is also given its autonomy. Art gains an autonomy it never enjoyed before because in earlier ages it was much more closely tied to religion. So Hegel highlights a paradox here: after the Reformation art gains its autonomy and freedom whilst also having a reduced place in human life.
“ The way in which art speaks to us thus has its own distinctive value that religion and philosophy can’t match. ”
For many people after Hegel, however, that’s not the way it is. For them, art has gone to the top of the hierarchy, religion has gone to the bottom or disappeared entirely, and philosophy is somewhere in the middle. Indeed, this elevation of art above religion was already happening with the German Romantics, and Hegel was worried about it. Since Hegel’s day church attendance has gone down in many Western countries and religion doesn’t have the central importance in life that it used to have. For Hegel, that is seriously bad news. He was worried enough in his own time, but if he could see what we are going through now, he would be really worried. In Hegel’s view, once you lose religion, you don’t get it back again in a hurry. He may be right or wrong about that, but that’s the way he thinks about it.
Another virtue of Hegel’s Aesthetics is that it is easier to read than a lot of Hegel’s other works. It combines a systematic structure with real richness and insight at the level of detail. Hegel’s Aesthetics tells you about art in general and about specific artworks, and it gives you a historical perspective on art. You learn about the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Medievals. You learn about the differences between architecture and painting and music. You think about concrete artworks but you also think about modernity, about what art is and should be in the modern world. Heidegger, Adorno, and Danto have all been particularly influenced by Hegel in thinking about art in modernity.
With all this taken together, even if you end up being sceptical about the grand story that Hegel tells, there is a lot to learn and enjoy on the way. And you have the added benefit of having all these great artworks that you can consult too. Whatever your views about art may be, studying Hegel gives you a thorough aesthetic education, as he takes you through a whole array of artworks that, in his view, you should know if you’re part of the modern world.
Some commentators on Hegel refer to him as having a thesis about the ‘end of art’ in the Aesthetics. What does this mean?
One thing to consider is that, for Hegel, there is both what the logic of art makes necessary and what simply happened in history. Hegel is aware of both of these. According to the logic of art, I think the safest thing to say is that there isn’t an ‘end’ of art in the sense that art stops being produced or stops mattering to us. What does occur – and maybe this could count as a kind of ‘end’ of art – is that art ceases being the highest expression of the truth, as it was for the Greeks. For the Greeks, art was the highest expression of the truth because it was coextensive with religion. As we go through the Christian and modern periods, however, art loses that status. That aspect of art therefore ends. But art itself doesn’t end. And, indeed, the importance of art doesn’t end. Art is as irreducibly necessary now as it ever was because we remain beings that need to know the truth through intuition, as well as through representation and concepts.
“ …the purpose of art is not to imitate nature but to express the freedom of the human spirit in a sensuous, intuitable form. ”
At the conclusion of the Aesthetics there is a different ‘end’ to art when art leads logically to religion. This occurs, interestingly, in comedy. Hegel distinguishes genuine comedy, which he finds supremely in Aristophanes, from the ridiculous, which he finds in someone like Molière. Putting it very simply, what marks genuine comedy is the ability of a character to laugh at himself. We don’t just laugh at a comic character, therefore – that would be ridicule – but we laugh with the character. In such laughter, Hegel thinks, there is an acknowledgement of one’s foibles and folly; Falstaff is one of the best examples of this. And, for Hegel, there’s an implicitly religious moment in such acknowledgement because we let go of our proud self-image. This, then, provides the logical transition to religion. So here there is a logical ‘end’ to art, which, however, many readers of Hegel ignore.
There are also developments in modernity that bring with them the historical risk, though not the logical necessity, of a certain ‘end’ to art. What Hegel has in mind is, on the one hand, the process in which art becomes progressively prosaic. This leads to extreme mimesis where art simply tries to imitate nature, as in some of the naturalistic realism we see in 18th– and 19th-century art. Hegel thinks that such mimesis is a distortion of art, since the purpose of art is not to imitate nature but to express the freedom of the human spirit in a sensuous, intuitable form. We certainly need to draw on natural forms – principally the human body and face, but also landscapes and animals – in order to express human emotions, ideas and freedom. But, in Hegel’s view, we don’t need to imitate nature for its own sake, because we’ve already got nature in our gardens and the countryside. The opposite side of the coin is the extreme subjectivism Hegel finds in modern romantic irony. This, too, distorts art by failing to express deep truths about human life and freedom and instead just celebrating the power of the ironist to subvert the prevailing order.
In both these cases, therefore, art ‘ends’ in the sense that it no longer does what art is supposed to do: express the richness of human life and freedom. Hegel thinks, however, that this ‘end’ can be avoided if artists imbue their naturalistic images with life, or deploy their subversive humour in the service of genuine human freedom. Furthermore, Hegel thinks that modern naturalism and irony are actually stages on the way to a new art that is liberated from all restrictions of style and content. This new modern art has what Hegel calls ‘Humanus’ as its subject matter. What modern art should now be, according to the logic of art, is thus a free engagement with and expression of human life and freedom in all its different aspects. This is close to what Danto has in mind when he talks about modern pluralism. The difference between Hegel and Danto is that, for Hegel, there is a normativity still built into the idea that human freedom should be the focus of art. So taking a set of bricks, putting them in a gallery and calling them art – which is allowed by Danto’s pluralism – wouldn’t count as art for Hegel. Modern artistic freedom, for Hegel, thus has limits imposed by the requirement that art express the richness of human life.
“ I suspect that The Simpsons comes closer to true art, as Hegel conceives it, than Rothko’s grand expressions of abstract, sublime, indeterminate feeling. ”
Prosaic naturalism and romantic irony do not, therefore, have to mark the ‘end’ of art. They do so, only if we get stuck there. But, for Hegel, this is not logically necessary, but rather what happens historically when abstraction takes over. So, if abstraction takes holds of naturalism or subjective irony and makes either the principal aim of art, or if abstraction in some other form becomes the essence of art, then you no longer have art in its true sense. Art is dead, and you just have artistry. Hegel makes a distinction between a work of art (Kunstwerk) and a piece of artistry (Kunststück). A piece of artistry is not a true work of art, because it doesn’t do what the latter should so, which is to express and embody the freedom, richness and life of the human spirit. It just draws well or paints well, and is able to imitate things in nature.
Similarly, the subjectivism that Hegel associates with certain kinds of Romanticism also loses sight of art because it often doesn’t give determinate expression to human freedom, but aims rather at subverting such freedom through its ironic play or through highlighting the ways in which the unconscious, dreams and so on can disrupt our lives. All of this, of course, raises really interesting questions. What would Hegel do with someone like Rothko who is not subjective particularly, but produces an art of sublime abstraction? Would Hegel consider Rothko’s paintings to be true art, or to be mere pieces of artistry that fail to express the richness of human life and experience? As for me, I’m a fan of The Simpsons. And what do you get in The Simpsons? You get real humanity, real warm, and comic genius. For that reason, I suspect that The Simpsons comes closer to true art, as Hegel conceives it, than Rothko’s grand expressions of abstract, sublime, indeterminate feeling.
But there is a debate about this. Robert Pippin thinks that modern abstract, non-representational art is Hegelian. In Pippin’s view, Hegel is a philosopher of modernity, for whom the modern freedom of self-determination is not bound by nature. So what is the appropriate artistic expression of a freedom that is not bound by nature? Well, it’s abstract, non-naturalistic, non-representational art. This is a powerful view, but I don’t think it’s right. In my view, Hegel thinks that art is essentially the sensuous expression of human life and freedom, and the most appropriate expression of the latter is provided by human beings themselves (in drama) or by images of human beings (in painting and sculpture). And so, true art has an intrinsically representational character. Obviously not in music and architecture, but in the other arts. Yet true art is not representational for its own sake. Such art is not trying to be mimetic. It is representational because it has human life and freedom at its core. So my Hegel looks conservative; he is someone who would not consider the work of, say, Jackson Pollock to be genuine art. But this is not because Pollock avoids imitating nature. It is because he does not express and celebrate the richness of human life in the way Rembrandt or Shakespeare do.
But even if your taste tends more towards Pollock than Rembrandt and you think Hegel is a crusty old conservative, the Aesthetics is well worth reading. Hegel has a profound and insightful account of tragedy, and he illuminates the other arts, too. You’re not going to agree with all his judgements, but they are often pretty good, and the aesthetic principles that underpin them are always worth thinking about.
How does Hegel’s approach to aesthetics differ to someone like Kant’s?
Some people who work on Hegel’s aesthetics say that this is not aesthetics as Kant does it, and I agree. Hegel’s work is very different from that of Kant. Kant’s aesthetics is much more about our response to beauty – beauty in nature as well as in art. More specifically, it examines the difference between the judgement ‘I like this’ and the judgement ‘this is beautiful’. Kant thinks that there is a claim to objectivity in the judgement that something is beautiful which is not made when I say ‘I like it’, and yet there isn’t a concept of beauty. So if I say something is beautiful, I expect you to see that it’s beautiful too, and in this way I appeal to a common aesthetic sense in both of us. Yet there’s no concept available to spell out what the beauty of an object consists in, whereas the pre-Kantian rationalists believed that there is (e.g., harmony or perfection). This is very interesting and thought-provoking, but it is different from Hegel’s concern in his aesthetics. Hegel’s approach is in a way more like Heidegger’s. His aesthetics is a philosophy of art. Hegel is interested in what art does and how art works.
Finally, given that Hegel is very difficult and reading him requires a lot of intellectual effort, is he worth it?
Absolutely, he’s worth it. Having spent my adult life studying Hegel and encouraging others to do so, what else am I going to say? There is one principal reason why he is worth it and that is that he provides so many rich insights into the complexities of being, nature and human life. In particular, he highlights the dialectical element of human life. This is the intrinsic necessity that structures the way we behave and the things we do, and that turns anything one-sided into its very opposite. It’s not only exhilarating to understand this but we need to understand it. Hegel is of the view that actions have consequences and either you learn about them and live in accordance with them, or you suffer them. There is no escaping them. That’s his claim.
Of course, this idea of dialectical consequences has been picked up by people like Marx, though there are significant differences between Hegel and Marx. One difference is that Hegel thinks that a modern economy based on production and exchange is redeemable, whereas Marx thinks it isn’t. Despite this difference, however, Hegel is well aware that a society built on maximising (rather than optimising) growth will lead to huge discrepancies between the rich and the poor, and to the impoverishment of many, and he explains in detail why this is the case in his Philosophy of Right. That’s where Marx gets it from.
Hegel was interested in writers like Adam Ferguson at the end of the 18th century who were grappling with the problem of poverty in rich modern societies, and in Hegel’s view modern societies produce poverty when they encourage unrestricted competition between people in the economy. In contrast to Marx, however, Hegel thinks that such poverty can be avoided within an exchange-based economy if economic activity is carried out in the context of mutual recognition and respect. If we have a genuine, and institutionally guaranteed, concern and respect for one another, then we will not always seek to outdo one another, with the attendant risk that we will fall into poverty if we cannot keep up. This is perhaps one of the reasons why you don’t get as much poverty in less competitive and more cooperative societies, such as Norway and Sweden, as you get in the United States and Britain. For Hegel, you can accept this logic and adjust the way you view the world accordingly, or you can suffer the possibly tragic consequences of being stubborn.
Unreconstructed capitalism, for both Hegel and Marx, leads tragically to poverty and alienation. In Marx’s view, famously, the only solution is a revolution in which capitalism is abolished and production taken into public ownership. In Hegel’s view, by contrast, if we embed our economic production and exchange within a system of mutual recognition and concern, we can avoid both revolution and the tragic, dialectical consequences of unrestricted capitalist competition.
“ You approach these thinkers with a sensitivity to distinctions and paradoxes that is hard to acquire without studying Hegel. ”
Hegel’s thought is thus the source of important insights about our social and political lives. I also think one gains insight into aspects of personal life from Hegel. He’s a great psychologist with an acute understanding of the paradoxes of human desire. And studying Hegel also enriches our study of other philosophers. The value of Hegel’s thought thus lies not just in what you get out of it, but also in what you then bring to the study of, say, Kant or Aristotle. You approach these thinkers with a sensitivity to distinctions and paradoxes that is hard to acquire without studying Hegel.
Not everyone is going to have the time to read Hegel and that’s a shame. It’s a shame, too, that most people won’t have the time or perhaps the energy to study Aristotle, Kant or Heidegger. Philosophers such as Kant and Hegel are hugely rewarding, but not everyone is going to be able to read them. You can’t just pick up Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason or Hegel’s Logic in an evening after having spent all day at the office and think you’re going to make much headway with it. It’s hard. But if you have the time and are willing to make the effort, studying these works can be hugely rewarding.
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Stephen Houlgate is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick. He is the author of An Introduction to Hegel's Philosophy: Freedom, Truth and History, 2nd Ed (Blackwell, 2005) and The Opening of Hegel's Logic (Purdue UP, 2006). He is the editor of The Hegel Reader (Blackwell, 1998) and Hegel and the Arts (Northwestern UP, 2007), as well as co-editor (with Michael Baur) of A Companion to Hegel (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011).
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