On Appreciating Hegel
Written by: Ludwig Siep
Exploring the Phenomenology
Ludwig Siep, the author of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, reveals why he studies—and loves—Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's classic philosophical work, The Phenomenology of Spirit.
The Phenomenology of Spirit has been my favourite book since the early years of my studies. It is at the same time a novel full of reality – both concerning human characteristics and historical events – and a systematic construction of grand ambition (leading even to something Hegel calls “absolute knowledge”). It shows that philosophy is not limited to abstract concepts or to justifying methods of the sciences. In Hegel’s “philosophical novel” the basic human relations of love and struggle, domination and liberation are discussed in their phenomenal “richness” as well as in a surprising and deep philosophical interpretation. My first monograph on Hegel’s actuality which I published as a young professor was concerned with the “principle” behind these interpersonal relations which he calls “mutual recognition”. I discussed it as a possible criterion for rights, duties and institutions in a modern society (Anerkennung als Prinzip der Praktischen Philosophie, 1979). Since then a “theory of recognition” developed in modern philosophy with contributors such as Charles Taylor, Axel Honneth or Paul Ricoeur.
As to the other aspect, the Phenomenology deals with political and cultural history since the early times of the Egyptian Pyramids and the Persian religion of the divine light (the Zend-Avesta). It contains interpretations of the history of art from the Sphinx of Gizeh through the Greek tragedies (Antigone, Oedipus) to the literature of his time (Goethe’s Faust, Hölderlin’s Hyperion, Diderot’s and Rousseau’s novels and essays). The truly astonishing thing is that – besides the intriguing single interpretations – Hegel links the history of art with that of science, religion and politics. For instance the “discovery of the individual” by Socrates (and his concept of the inner voice of conscience) is related to the Peloponnesian War (with Socrates beloved Alcibiades as the reckless individual actor). In it, the “beautiful harmony” between the individual citizen and his city-state (“polis”) breaks down and the “super-empires” (Alexander, later Rome) with their powerless citizens emerge. Or take another example: the analogy between Rousseau’s concept of the “universal will” without minority rights and independent groups is demonstrated as one of the main spiritual sources of Jacobinism and its decline into terror. Here the book reflects Hegel’s own youthful enthusiasm for the French revolution and his disappointment with its course. He tries to analyse the reasons for this failure both in terms of the “abstract oppositions” in the philosophy and literature of his times as well as in general features of revolution. One of it is the misunderstanding of many revolutionaries that their own deep convictions and theoretical constructions really reflect the feelings and needs of the masses.
Behind the “historical novel”, however, there is the main philosophical idea, of a basic spiritual unity of human cognition and nature, concept and reality, individual and community. Spirit in Hegel’s strange formulation is “being with oneself in absolute otherness”. He also claims – and this always attracted me a great deal – that this is what real freedom is about: to be able neither to lose oneself nor to dominate the other (or “otherness”) and yet feel accepted and at home with the other person, culture or even with nature. However, I had my own disappointment with Hegel. Already in my first book I tried to show that he himself failed to realize the “structure” of freedom and recognition on the highest and contemporary levels of his presentation. There remained an “asymmetry” between the self and the other, the individual and the legal and political institutions. When I turned to the works of the later, established and highly influential Berlin professor, especially The Philosophy of Right, I found myself confirmed. This is not to say that I was – or still am – disappointed with these works as a whole. They are still full of very valuable and “modern” insights: For instance in the necessity but also the instability and dangers of the market economy; especially the danger of causing an ever increasing gap between rich and poor, powerful and powerless. Or his insight in the relation between religion and state: the danger of religious fanaticism but that of the state oppressing religious convictions and activities as well. The problem that the state must be impartial to all religions, but at the same time affirmed by the “deepest convictions” of a religious believer, seems to be far from solved in our times. But Hegel’s solution requires understanding the state as something “divine” in its own right. Consequently the sovereign national state deserves obedience irrespective of its protecting basic individual rights or not. This again violates the “symmetry” between the recognition of the individual and the approval of the state. In our times the “responsibility to protect” – namely the rights and needs of its citizens – is increasingly considered as the limit to state-sovereignty. I have tried to show the “Actuality and Limits of Hegel’s Practical Philosophy” in a recent work (in German, 2010).
There still is, in my eyes, another lasting actuality of the Phenomenology: its concept of a “history of consciousness”. This means that humanity is able to learn from the crises and revolutions of every epoch and society. It can conceive of new institutions, laws and virtues overcoming these crises and solve the social problems. For Hegel, this even leads to a rational social order able to solve at least the principal social problems and overcome the basic conflicts. This seems by far too optimistic. But it seems possible to at least “reconstruct” some important lines of constitutional history as a process of common “learning by radical experiences” – for instance, the abolition of slavery, totalitarianism and the discrimination of races or sexual dispositions. The synthesis of a historical reconstruction and a philosophical justification of these processes remains a crucial challenge for philosophy today.