Book Review: Hegel – A Very Short Introduction by Peter Singer

In a few of the books I’ve read recently, most notably Das Kapital and Theology of Hope, the figure of Hegel has loomed large. Yet it any discussion on him always comes across as esoteric and rather impenetrable for this reader, untrained in philosophy. Without diving straight into his works, it seemed more appropriate to read about him, with a book designed for a beginner. So what could be more appropriate than a Very Short Introduction?

We begin with a look at Hegel’s life. One instantly gets confirmation of a likely suspicion: Hegel’s work is heavily shaped by (both in agreement with and as a reaction to) Kant’s philosophy. Having not read Kant or much about his thought, this would seem to be an instant hamstring. Perhaps I should come back to Kant later. The other figure that Kant wishes to highlight is Friedrich Schiller, whose own critiques of Kant may be thought of as mirroring Hegel’s, but that the history of philosophy has looked on Schiller unfavourably, with Hegel emerging as the more memorable of the two.

Singer’s look at Hegel’s own thought begins with The Philosophy of History. The key point I picked up from it was that Hegel viewed history as a progression towards a state of liberty. It is hinted at, though not stated explicitly, that Hegel viewed his own contemporary German state as the culmination of that progress. Singer looks at a few civilisations through Hegel’s eyes, to show us how he reached this view.

The question then arises as to what is meant by liberty. To do this, we get a précis of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Singer is quick to point out that this is not a matter of right as in ‘right and wrong’; i.e. a study of ethics. But rather it concerns rights, a matter of political philosophy. Hegel reacted against the idea of liberty as the ability to do what one pleases, viewing this not as the greatest height of humanity, but as an immature dream. I couldn’t help but think that maybe Friedrich Hayek would have been wise to heed these words. Indeed, the discussion quickly moves to one of economics, where, having referenced him earlier, one cannot but think of Karl Marx.

Moving onto the motion of community, Singer takes us on a tour of Hegel’s view of planned and unplanned ways of living. At this point, I admit I got a bit lost in Singer’s explanation, so goodness knows how hopeless I’d be at trying to get a grasp on the source material of Hegel’s writings on the subject!

Halfway through the book, Singer unleashes on us the following: “It is time to confess: I have been cheating. My account of Hegel’s philosophy so far has carefully omitted of mention of something that Hegel himself refers to repeatedly and regards as crucial: the idea of Geist.” Thus we see that what has been spoken of so far has only partially dealt with the works those chapters purport to. So it is that we then have to look at Hegel’s Phenomenology, starting with whether Geist is better translated as ‘spirit’ or ‘mind’. Singer takes the view that ‘spirit’ sounds too religious and, notwithstanding Hegel’s Lutheran tendencies, is too misleading, preferring ‘mind’ instead.

Without having studied Hegel, I think Singer did a pretty good job here. It hasn’t made me an expert, but I think I got the gist of it (pun intended).

Finally, and almost reluctantly, we get onto Logic and Hegel’s work on dialectics (not to be mistaken for dianetics!). For it is here that I first got a bit lost at the start of Das Kapital. Beginning from a classical view of dialectics as going to and fro with ideas, Singer tells us that Hegel’s view is much more systematised, starting with a thesis, countered with an antithesis before finally the two come together in the form a synthesis, which then in turn becomes the next starting point. i.e. the next thesis.

Throughout the second half of the book, with particular reference to the notions of Geist and dialectics, Singer refers us back to the first part, showing the reader more explicitly what was hinted at before, or showing us that a particular example (e.g. the mind recognising another mind that is not itself, as a means of recognising that it is a mind) fits the models that are explored in the latter part.

The afterword of the book gives the reader a taste of where to go next, by looking at Hegel’s legacy. Singer’s view is that the more conservative take on Hegel’s work (which emphasises his later writings) died a death in a cul-de-sac, while the more radical take (exemplified by Feuerbach and Marx) flourished, understanding Hegel’s later work as a failure to follow through with his earlier ideas, seeking to rework them. An offshoot of this that grabbed my idea was David Friedrich Strauss’ Life of Jesus which I haven’t read yet, but which I know was a work against which Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus was partly a response. A thesis and antithesis, if you will.

Overall, I think Singer met the brief very well. It may be some time before I come to read any of Hegel’s own works, but I think if he comes up again in my other reading, I have here something of a handle to hold onto to help me understand what more modern thinkers are saying about him and his work. So if you have started in the same position as me (see first paragraph) then I would definitely recommend this little book to you as a useful overview.

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