An Animated Intro to G.W.F. Hegel, and Everything Else You Wanted to Know About the Daunting German Philosopher

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. 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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

6 Polit­i­cal The­o­rists Intro­duced in Ani­mat­ed “School of Life” Videos: Marx, Smith, Rawls & More

Niet­zsche, Wittgen­stein & Sartre Explained with Mon­ty Python-Style Ani­ma­tions by The School of Life

Down­load Wal­ter Kaufmann’s Lec­tures on Niet­zsche, Kierkegaard, Sartre & Mod­ern Thought (1960)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Gregory Sadler says:

    If you’d like to see some videos that engage with Hegel’s Phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy close­ly, here’s my Half-Hour Hegel series blog (where you can find the lec­ture videos organized)

    So far, we’re 65 half-hour instal­la­tions in, and just about fin­ished with the first main part of the Phe­nom­e­nol­o­gy.

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