Hegel’s Phenomenology: The Sociality of Reason

Pinkard, Terry. Hegel’s Phenomenology: The Sociality of Reason, Cambridge, 1994.


The Phenomenology‘s obscure style is notorious. One of the first books ever to be written in English on Hegel was James Stirling’s The Secret of Hegel. A reviewer commented that Stirling had succeeded in keeping the secret, and, for many contemporary readers, the feeling has been that the secret is still intact. It is still difficult to pick up the Phenomenology and simply begin reading it, even for a trained academic philosopher who has become thoroughly habituated to the kind of linguistic usage that characterizes much Western philosophy and that non-philosophers often find so puzzling. This initial obscurity of the Phenomenology of Spirit has invited upon itself various incompatible readings. Go to a university library and check out several works on the Phenomenology of Spirit; you will find that almost all of the say that the book is about different things. There are myriad readings of the Phenomenology, ranging from seeing it as a work of orthodox Christianity to seeing it as a full-scale attack on Christianity. To some, the Phenomenology has been taken to be something like a philosophical roller coaster that in certain passages suddenly roars down its tracks at high speed after having slowly rumbled up to certain heights, with no more rhyme or reason for any particular transition than that it struck Hegel that such a transition might be fun or illuminating. Others have seen it as a kind of philosophical Bildungsroman, in which the is something large and metaphysical called Geist, or “Spirit.” Others have seen it as the work of a youthful revolutionary who gradually and unfortunately changed into a stodgy, officious professor in Berlin extolling the virtues of the Prussian state. Hegel’s thought has been praised and blamed for the development of existentialism, communism, fascism, death of God theology, and historicist nihilism. Hegel has also been called the Aristotle of the modern world and the Aquinas of Protestantism. Indeed, given the differing reactions to Hegel, it would be an interesting piece of intellectual history to trace out all the various interpretations of this work (and of Hegel himself) that have surfaced in the world since its publication. It would be a history ranging from idolatry (Hegel as the man who had all the answers) to puzzlement to bewilderment to disgust to outright rejection as a charlatan (typical of the twentieth-century Anglo-American reaction to Hegel).

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