Yes, I know I’ve been bad about writing lately. No, it’s not just because I’ve been busy (though that’s part of it), much as I’d like to blame it on that; mostly, it’s because I keep starting posts and then deleting them (there’s a really good one on philosophy, bicycling, and unfriendly motorists who pass inches away from you to make a point that just needs me to find the right words that aren’t too inflammatory that I must have redrafted four times by now, and have been thinking about since a ride in November), and, well, I’ve been reading Hegel.
Yes, Hegel. Why? Because I can.
No really. It’s been so long since I’ve read anything really and properly hard—yes, even all that Augustine doesn’t compare to incomprehensible German idealist philosophy—that I figured it was time to tackle the most significant and dense work of 19th Century philosophy from CUA’s List III on my shelf, the Phenomenology of Spirit.
And sure it’s significant—I mean, add some economics, it gives you Marx; some Kierkegaard/Pascal/Augustine, you get Sartre; several courses in music theory, Mahler—but also, it’s sitting on my shelf, chiding me for having never read it, for being a coward who fears the Phenomenology, who no longer has the intellectual ability to handle hard books, who’s gone soft since leaving grad school and settling for a comfortable, if ultimately unsustainable, status quo existence as a publisher’s minion.
So of course I had to tackle it, to prove that I could still read hard things, that I still had a bit of the old fight that once drove me to do crazy intellectual things like write seriously about Marsilius of Padua, the epistemological basis of Locke’s theory of toleration, or Wittgenstein, rules, and law. Things that used to make people’s heads spin, that could expand your world. I realized just how much I missed that while reading de Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity seriously, rather than as I would a novel; so hey, let’s go to the source of these continental philosophies. Let’s read us some Hegel.
To my credit, I made it a whole three pages before I started swearing.
That’s about how long it took me to find out that reading Hegel is not like, say, reading Kant. See, Kant is logical, even if the logic is all his own; follow his lines of reasoning, realize that he’s using words in his own particular weird ways, just understand that it’s like using Adobe Illustrator—it makes sense if you’re a computer, so, if you just think like one, it’ll all fall into place—and everything will (eventually) make enough sense for you to keep going. Hegel, on the other hand, doesn’t do this. He uses terms before defining them (what the @#$& is the @#$&ing Absolute? Oh, that doesn’t get discussed until much later in the book, but you’re using that concept now to discuss other, more elementary, concepts…grrr), his writing makes Kant’s first Critique look like Aquinas (sometimes hard, often foreign and bass-ackwards to your way of thinking, but always clear), and, well, it’s still hard, dense Absolute Idealist German Romantic philosophy.
Oh, and unlike most of the other really hard works of philosophy I’ve tried to read, I’m trying this one alone. No teachers to clue me in to what’s going on, no seminar to work things out with, just me, my books, and the vast, unhelpful Internet. I mean, sure, I’ve read other “hard” things like Foucault, de Beauvoir, Sartre, Augustine, and Camus recently, but not only are they not on Hegel’s level of difficulty in any way, shape, or form, but I had a background in how or what they thought; I knew what to expect, their rhetorical strategies, and, especially for Foucault, what parts of the endless history could be safely ignored or skimmed. Skim a sentence of Hegel, and you’re toast.
So why am I still trying? Easy. It’s time for another book recommendation! While it’s not the only really good book by this title,* The Logic of Desire by Peter Kalkavage is about as close to being back in the seminar room with somebody who understands what’s going on and can translate the Hegelese to English as you can get. Mr. Kalkavage, Ph.D. is a St. John’s tutor, and it shows; frequent references to other program books, relatively strict adherence to the text, never getting bogged down in later interpretive details and debates, always explaining and unpacking Hegel, rather than theorizing on him—it may be a stereotype of SJCA/SF, but it’s not a bad one, and, in this case, it holds. It’s also the exact perfect thing you need—or at least I needed—when making a valiant slog. Yes, I still return to the original text, just because that what I do, but, more often than not,** it seems like I’m just reading a badly written rehash of what I’ve just read.
So maybe I’m not making this as hard on myself as I perhaps could. Maybe I’m giving myself a fighting chance, rather than going at this like a full-on slog. So be it; it’s still the Phenomenology. There’s no way to make that easy. And yeah, it’s definitely been a fun trip so far. I’ll take my one-book handicap when trying to make it through one of the most notorious and ignored bits of the philosophical canon if it means I get through it in one piece.
And, I swear, I’ll eventually get that post I’ve been working on written. One of these days.
*The other is, of course, published by CUA Press, on Thomas’s theory of the emotions. I’d be shocked if I’m the only CUA SoP alum who likes/owns both Logics of Desire.
**Okay, there’s yet to be a “not.”