Series: From the Tutor's Table

Why is Hegel So Hard to Read?

This is the first in a series of posts by Mr. Poppele, a tutor at St. John’s College, Santa Fe.

We just finished Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit in the Senior Seminar. The Phenomenology is a profound work which has, again on this reading, changed the way I think. These changes are not trivial. My understanding of the (seemingly) simple concepts of ‘true’ and ‘false’ has changed, and those insights have brought greater clarity to my thinking. It is not a matter of a new opinion, or of having more “facts” about true and false. My thinking is larger than it was before, it is bigger, and it can more fully engage and grasp the ideas that I wrestle with.

Hegel is rewarding, but he is also very difficult. I can’t even tell you (for reasons to be explained below) what the book is about. Instead, I would like to share one of my favorite tidbits from the Phenomenology. One of the many things I love is when Hegel tells us why philosophy is so hard to read. First, he outlines a common complaint:

… so much [philosophical writing] has to be read over and over before it can be understood – a complaint whose burden is presumed to be quite outrageous, and, if justified, to admit of no defense.

In those fast-paced, bustling times (he wrote in 1807), it seems that people didn’t want to take the time to wrestle with something that they thought should be easier. Hegel tells us their alternative:

… to read reviews of philosophical works, perhaps even to read their prefaces and first paragraphs. [T]hese… give the general principals on which everything turns, and the reviews, as well as providing historical accounts, also provide the critical appraisal which, being a judgement, stands high above the work judged.

We have a big advantage over Hegel’s readers; we have easy access to countless on-line resources, from high-quality magazines to crowd-sourced summaries. We also have more reasons to get what we want more quickly. Compared to Hegel’s time, there is so much to keep up with – a world of 24/7 news, job pressures, new videos, new posts, and ever-changing technologies. Why would we try to read something that cannot be understood with a single reading? What might make such a thing worthwhile?

I would first ask what kind of thing cannot be understood simply. As I see it, Hegel distinguishes ‘mere information,’ which can be conveyed simply, from a more important and more profound kind of learning and understanding. Mere information can be easily understood because it asks nothing more of us than the addition of a ‘fact’ to our thinking. Sometimes even new ideas can seem easy to understand because we let our prejudice – what we think it ought to say – guide our understanding. The Hegelian view is a harsh rebuke to this: if we are not changed by what we think, we are not really learning. We would be simply resting in a world of familiar understandings to which we add new items.

Reading Hegel for Senior Seminar at St. John's College
Like many philosophers, Hegel’s strength wasn’t in his looks.

Philosophy (like many other things) is worth reading and struggling with because we have to think differently in order to understand it. It’s not about changing our minds: for example ‘I used to think A but now I think B.’ It’s not even about knowing ‘more’ in the sense that ‘more’ means more facts: for example ‘I used to be in favor of this policy, but now that I know what it will do I’m against it.’ It’s about having an understanding that encompasses more, not just of the world, but also of itself. It’s an understanding that, because it has gone beyond its previous bounds, better understands what it means to understand and what it means to know.

Hegel’s work challenges our ideas of logic, history, and even the nature of human thinking. I think his ideas have left plenty of traces in the world, but understanding him is still not easy. He makes a good case that a meaningful book or play or piece of music can only be understood upon re-reading or re-consideration. This is something I have found true not only of philosophy, but also of literature from the Iliad and Odyssey to Moby Dick and Ulysses, and a surprising number of scientific and mathematical works. Looking and wondering for ourselves, rather than letting textbooks form our understanding, is one of the reasons why we study original texts at the College.

Eric Hunter Poppele received an M.S.E. in Environmental Engineering from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. in Civil Engineering from the University of Minnesota, and worked as a consulting engineer for several years between those two programs. He has been on the faculty of St. John’s College since 2003 and has taught all of the classes in the undergraduate program. This semester he is teaching Senior Seminar, Classical Chinese (in the Graduate Institute), and will lead a preceptorial on Turing’s paper on computability.

The student writing staff of the johnnie chair blog

1 comment on “Why is Hegel So Hard to Read?

  1. Thank you for this.


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