A glance at this article on Hegel is enough to bring out many sighs.
Hegel is for all practical purposes practically unintelligible even for professional philosophers. A surprising number of intelligent people actually agree privately that Hegel as a bunch of nonsense. I recently mentioned this to one professor of philosophy, who agreed that of course Hegel was a bunch of “gobbledy-gook.”
Not all philosophers share the same interests, priorities or even basic assumptions about what philosophy ought to be doing. A number (however surprising) of unidentified intelligent people might very well be agreeing with the view that Hegel was a fraud; that lends little weight to the argument itself. A number of intelligent people also agree on many other things that will make no sense to other intelligent people.
What has happened is as follows:
1. Someone, somehow, becomes an “authority” in Philosophy. They make a living at it by getting a job at the university.
2. They make difficult-to-understand statements. They assign difficult-to-understand texts.
3. Gradually, students assemble to study these authorities.
4. Those who are smart enough to realize that this is going nowhere drop out and study something else.
5. Eventually, the students who remain — either because of social conditioning, or because of lack of any other easy way to make a living — find a way to please the authority in some way or another and become “experts.” These students become professors of philosophy. Go to step 1 and start over.
This does not apply to all academic philosophy, but it applies to more of it than it should.
Someone might say, “what about Marx? He was influenced by Hegel, and he affected the lives of millions of people.” Marx, of course, may have believed he was getting something out of Hegel, but that is Marx’s problem, not ours. Marx fancied himself a philosopher, and dabbled in philosophy like countless others. Marx even sought to differentiate himself from Hegel. But until it is shown what Hegel said, it cannot be claimed that anything that Hegel actually said — as opposed to what Marx thought he got out of Hegel — actually changed the world.
It’s Marx’s problem that he actually read and understood Hegel and then tried to move away from Hegel?
Hegel scholarship is an intellectual Ponzi scheme, the success of which depends on convincing another generation of scholars-to-be that Hegel actually said something.
If I quoted the entire article, I could be accused of cruelty. The point is, I’m not interested in the person who wrote this, and the total lack of comprehension on his part doesn’t bother me. What astounds me is how right Jeanette Winterson was when she wrote: “We hear a lot about the arrogance of the artist but nothing about the arrogance of the audience.”
Not to say that Hegel was an artist. I’ve heard that the German original is easier to read than English translations of Hegel’s texts. Good for the Germans, because Hegel really is a difficult prose writer and thinker. He’s so difficult to the uninitiated, in fact, that I really don’t blame anyone for thinking he’s a fraud. But Hegel was not a fraud — while I am too poorly versed in most of the Hegelian literature to judge whether everything he wrote made sense (Christ, what a project that would be; and a fruitless one), I know from my study of the Phenomenology of Spirit that he did say something. I haven’t spent so long trudging through the Phenomenology just to find sense in it — with the help of friends and mentors, I realised that the sense is there to be found. Reading Hegel for the first time eventually stops being about determining whether he was full of crap, and becomes a quest to understand his overall project, to see the connections between arguments, to call into question the mechanisms we use to make sense of things. In short, it becomes a properly philosophical process.
Still, because there are so many people out there trying to come to grips with the intolerable obscurity of Hegel’s arguments and style, I think it’s only fair that I help, in my way, to show them it’s not an impossible task. My helpful friend and tutor, Robbert Veen, founded a site a while ago, a site dedicated to the study of Hegel. Now that his other obligations are pressing on him, he’s decided to take a break from updating that site. It’s a perfect occasion to gather the most useful and pedagogically sound posts he’s made on his site, and to make them available as an ebook for anyone interested in making sense of Hegel, and particularly of the Phenomenology. I have his blessing and support, so I’ll get to work on this very soon.