There’s no way around it, German philosopher George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel is incredibly difficult to understand. And yet, his work, like few others since Plato, has been reduced over and over again to one idea—the “Hegelian dialectic” of “thesis, antithesis, synthesis.” As a 1996 beginner’s guide to Hegel phrases it, this “triadic structure” is the “organic, fractal form” of the effusive thinker’s logic. The formula is what most lay people learn of Hegel, and often no more. So it may come as a surprise to learn that Hegel himself never used these terms in this way. As Gustav E. Mueller has written of this “most vexing and devastating legend,” Hegel “does not use this ‘triad’ once” in all twenty volumes of his complete works, nor “does it occur in the eight volumes of Hegel texts, published for the first time in the twentieth century.” So where does the idea come from?
From Hegel’s interpreters, who—baffled by his “obscurity” and “peculiar terminology and style”—have imposed all sorts of clarifying (or distorting) concepts on his work. In his animated School of Life video introduction above, Alain de Botton begins with the problem of Hegel’s famous difficulty. Hegel’s writing has generally been thought of as “horrible”—obscure, overstuffed, tangled, “confusing and complicated when it should be clear and direct.” I can’t speak to his German, but this certainly seems to be the case in English. Yet, whether anyone can say what a philosopher’s work “should be” seems like a matter of interpretive bias. How can we, after all, separate a thinker’s ideas from his or her prose, as though these things can exist independently of each other? De Botton continues with another should:
He tapped into a weakness of human nature: to be trustful of grave-sounding, incomprehensible prose. This has made philosophy much weaker in the world than it should be, and it’s made it much harder to hear the valuable things that Hegel has to say to us.
The video goes on to make a short list of “a small number of lessons” we can take from Hegel. I’ll leave it to you to find out what de Botton thinks those are. Some may find in his tidy summations a useful guide to Hegel’s thought, others a further oversimplification of a philosophy that deliberately resists easy reading. No doubt, whatever we make of Hegel, we need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that his thinking easily boils down to a “Hegelian dialectic.”
For those seeking to understand why his work has been so influential despite, or because of, its legendary difficulty, there are numerous resources online. One might start with “Hegel by Hypertext,” a huge compendium of introductory and biographical material, analysis, discussion, links, and Hegel’s own writing. Hegel.net collects excerpts and full texts of the philosopher’s work in both German and English, as well as “works of Hegel’s 19th century followers” on both the right and left. Hegel’s most famous interpreter was of course Karl Marx, and you will find in every archive a number of commentaries and critiques from Marx himself and several Marxist thinkers.
The Hegel Society of America also gives us articles on Hegel from a range of thinkers across the political spectrum. Finally, we should attempt, as best we can, to grapple with Hegel’s own words, and we can do so with all of his major work on line in translation at the University of Adelaide’s eBooks library. For two very different ways of reading Hegel, see professor Rick Roderick’s lecture on “Hegel and Modern Life” and Slavoj Žižek’s lecture on “The Limits of Hegel,” above. And should you feel that any or all of these interpreters misrepresent the formidable German philosopher, have a listen to the lecture below by Dr. Justin Burke entitled, appropriately, “Everything You Know About Hegel is Wrong.”
Find courses on Hegel in our collection of 140 Free Online Philosophy Courses, and texts by the philosopher on our list of 135 Free Philosophy eBooks.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness