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Hegel: Philosopher of the Modern - A reading of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit

Lecturer: Bryan Cooke

Originally Taught: Evening Sem 1 2012

This course will introduce students to the philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel.  The course is organised around a reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit – that baroque, magisterial, occasionally mystifying book which generations of philosophers have considered to be both the great propadeutic to Hegel’s system as well as a masterpiece of speculative construction in its own right.  While following the structure of the Phenomenology, the course will also, necessarily, make use of ancillary material from Hegel’s broader corpus, drawing on the Lectures on the Philosophy of History, the Introduction to Aesthetics and the Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion as well as the early monographs Faith and Knowledge; the Difference between the systems of Fichte and Schelling, the Spirit of Christianity and any material whatsoever that might help students to navigate the Phenomenology’s maelstrom.

Given its limited time and scope, the course will necessarily wrestle with the twin imperatives to a) give a sense of thePhenomenology within an historical context and to b) show how Hegel’s work is important for the world of the twentieth century.  In emphasising this latter aspect (i.e. the contemporaneity of Hegel’s thought or, as the French would say ‘the actuality [actualité] of Hegel’, I will draw upon Catherine Malabou’s recent work on the “Future of Hegel” and other contemporary scholarship dedicated to making sure that Hegel’s status as a ‘great figure of the history of philosophy’ is not equivalent to the mummification of thinking that it is the purpose of dialectics to struggle against.

Course Schedule:
The First lecture “The Insistence of the Dialectic” will attempt to give a sense of Hegel’s project, his lifelong concerns, and how he came to write the Phenomenology of Spirit and a discussion of some aspects of the famous “Preface” to the Phenomenology. I will also attempt to give a provisional answer to the question ‘Why read Hegel today?'

Lecture 2 will begin the reading of the Phenomenology in earnest, continuing with a discussion of the “Introduction” and the section on consciousness.  I will attempt to show how this section is used by Hegel to position himself against other philosophers, particularly of a vaguely “Kantian” disposition.

Lecture 3 will discuss the section on “Self-consciousness” and will be primarily concerned with the famous ‘Master/Slave dialectic' (glossing its surprising importance in twentieth-century French philosophy).  Time permitting I shall also discuss Hegel’s portrayal of this conflict’s ‘sublation’ into the dialectic between Stoicism and Skepticism which itself resolves into the motif of the Unhappy consciousness.

Lecture 4 and (possibly part of 5) will be dedicated to the section on “Reason”, culminating in the dialectic of reason and action, ‘the law of the heart’ with the search for ‘spirit’ in external manifestations.

Lecture 5 and 6 begins the long, labyrinthine discussion of “Spirit” with the discussion of ‘ethical life’ (or substance) and morality (which is also the beginning of a discussion on social and political institutions) and which culminates in the discussion of Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment the French revolution and Romanticism.

Lecture 7 is dedicated to religion and to ‘absolute spirit’.

The final lecture of the course is dedicated to continuing the discussion on Absolute Spirit and opening Malabou’s question about the ‘Future of Hegel’.

Suggested Reading:

There is only one reading for the course (but it is a vast and intimidating one that will probably not be finished during the 8 weeks of the course), namely:

Hegel, G.W.F., The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller.

If students have any time to read for the course, I do hope that they spend it wrestling with the Phenomenology of Spirit – even if it is only with a few sections pertinent to the week’s lectureMy hope is that the lectures will at least allow students, while reading, to be able to glimpse some of the conceptual riches of the book that lie beneath its infamously tortuous locutions.  In not setting other readings, my thought here is that it is better to wrestle with a great text (even one whose reputation for punishing obscurity is entirely justified) than to stick to secondary materials which gain in coherence at the price of partiality.   Because the lectures themselves are already secondary materials suffering from the very problem I have just mentioned (i.e. they will simplify and distort in the attempt to make accessible), it would be all the better if students could at least have some experience of swimming in the Phenomenology’s own icy waters.  

For the perplexed, however, or for those who wish to read further, I recommend the following books:

Frederick Beiser’s Hegel (especially if read alongside his The Fate of Reason) makes for a fine, solid, readable introduction to Hegel’s system as a whole.  Its fair-handedness and scrupulousness also means that it is a pedestrian and rather uninspiring book, but it is still a good survey of basic Hegelian ideas.

Charles Taylor’s Hegel is, in many ways more interesting than Beiser’s, but it is also less reliable.  The best thing about Taylor’s book is that its early sections on the historical background to Hegel’s thought will be very useful for any students who might be thinking “but why would anyone bother with all this?, i.e. what motivated someone like Hegel to undertake the seemingly crazy project to which he dedicated his life”.  On the downside, the book is slightly (if endearingly) rambling (it is very long) and the interpretation of Hegel that it puts forwards is at odds with that which will be put forward in the course.

Alexander Kojéve’s Introduction to the Reading of Hegel is an ingenious, idiosyncratic and incredibly influential reading of Hegel, that will be of great interest to students interested in what made ‘Hegel’ both an obligatory passage point and a philosophical enemy to an entire generation of French philosophers.  The English translation (by Allan Bloom) is, however, considerably abridged.  Not recommended as a reliable source on Hegel in general, but interesting in its own right and a text which we will discuss at length in looking at the section in the Phenomenology on ‘Self-Consciousness’. (For more on the ‘French Hegel’, Jean Hyppolite’s work is also of great importance, but, I would warn, that it is also far less accessible to the new student.)

Slavoj Zizek is a brilliant, original, occasionally mad reader of Hegel and thus serves as an excellent foil to Beiser. However, Zizek’s fragmentary, digressive style makes it difficult to nominate a particular text in which Zizek’s ‘Lacanian’ Hegel can be found.  As a compromise, the best thing to read for Zizek on Hegel would probably be a combination of passages from the two early works: For they know not what they do: enjoyment as a political factor and Tarrying with the Negative.  

For contemporary Hegel scholarship, the recent collection, edited by Zizek called Hegel and the Infinite offers good essays by original thinkers rather than scholar-bureaucrats.   (Bruno Bosteels' essay on Hegel and South America is a stand-out).

Finally, Catherine Malabou’s The Future of Hegel, though difficult and assuming familiarity with Hegel’s work is an event in the micro-universe of Hegel scholarship.  To quote Badiou it is a ‘fragile scintillation’ of another world.

Note: these last readings in particular will take the student far beyond the (introductory) level of the lectures.

Addendum to “Further Reading” 07/03/2012:

Given that, with Hegel only a few days away, you are all probably thinking: “but wait, how can 8 lectures possibly be enough to fill the Hegel shaped void in our lives?!?”, I just thought I’d take the time to add some more material to the ‘Further Reading’ list.

First, four books on the background to Hegel’s philosophy:

While I mentioned earlier that I find Frederick C. Beiser’s Hegel to be both well-rounded and scholarly (if a little uninspired) his two books on the philosophy of the period between Kant and Hegel are creatures of an entirely different order of luminosity (and, on an unrelated note, very good.)  Even if they were not as excellent as they obviously are, these books would still be indispensable for students of German Idealism, just because they attempt to deal with thinkers who are almost never discussed in Anglophone philosophy departments (who today talks about Schulze, Reinhold or Salomon Maimon?).   Nonetheless, for clarity, energy, and reasonably friendly explanations of thought that is famous for both being formidably difficult and frustratingly obscure, I heartily recommend (at least for those students interested in Hegel’s philosophical background):

a) Beiser’s The Fate of Reason: German Philosophy from Kant to Fichte

As well as its sequel German Idealism: The Struggle Against Subjectivism 1781-1801 (2002)

Some of this material is also discussed (albeit in much less detail) in Terry Pinkard’s excellent Hegel biography: a book whose only real flaw is that its author passed up the opportunity to call it My Big, Fat Hegel Biography.

For a different perspective on the thinkers discussed by Beiser, I would also recommend Dieter Henrich’s thought-provoking and influential lecture course Between Kant and Hegel.  (Warning: the lectures get progressively more difficult after the introduction of Fichte, who is, in many ways, the protagonist of this series.)

(N.B.: all of the above-mentioned material is ancillary, i.e. only for people whose appetite for Hegeliana grows with each metonymic satiation, i.e. these are not compulsory readings they are for those who (ideally after the course) who -- to paraphrase Niklas Luhmann in a (typically) waggish mood -- ‘do not wish to die without having a taste of Hegel scholarship.’   Just to make this clear: while I will almost definitely touch upon thinkers like Fichte, I will definitely not have time to give them the attention that they deserve...

And, more relevant to the Phenomenology itself:

1) Susan Buck-Morrs’s Hegel and Haiti is provocative, fascinating and a ‘must-read’, for anyone thinking about Hegel and politics.

For commentaries on the Phenomenology itself:

2) Frederic Jameson’s (very short) new book The Hegel Variations is full of insights, interesting asides and occasionally fascinating expositions of some (admittedly scattered) passages of the Phenomenology.  It is also, however, like most of Jameson’s work in its own idiosyncratic genre: neither a primer nor a commentary it is also not really an introduction.  Recommended if you like other things by Jameson, although I think that it is inferior to Jameson’s fascinating (but vast) book Valencies of the Dialectic.  The latter is more of a kind of ‘Discourse on Method’ by an unrepentant dialectician.

3) For blow-by-blow commentaries, both Jon Stewart’s The Unity of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and Jean Hyppolite’s Genesis and Structure of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit come highly recommended.  We will not, of course, have the time to talk about the Phenomenology at anything like the level of detail found in these books, but this might make them all the more useful to students who would like to go further into the Hegelian labyrinth.

N.B. Repeating: all of these texts count as ‘further reading’ and not as essential reading for the course. For weekly readings, I will assign passages of the Phenomenology at the end of each lecture.  Additional readings will also be submitted online (details to be advised.)

Difficulty Level: Intermediate
The course is designed to be introductory in the sense that I a) do not assume that students will have any prior knowledge of Hegel or the Phenomenology and b) I will attempt to keep the presentation as broadly accessible as possible.  For this reason, serious Hegel scholars are advised to stay away lest they choke on simplifications, reductions, glib glosses and other flaws derived from my desire give a panoramic view of the phenomenology even at the expense of a detailed analysis.   However, Hegel is a difficult thinker and I choose the ‘intermediate’ designation in the hope that the reader has at least some minimal acquaintance with European philosophy in general and continental philosophy in particular (e.g. the student might have done one or two other MSCP courses.)  Having said this, totally inexperienced students are welcome as long as they have patience, an open-mind and some courage in the face of abstraction!