Hegel’s Democratic Spirit


The Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit is a good place to begin with Hegel. The key question he’s asking in these pages is: What is philosophy? And his answer tells us a lot about what kind of philosopher he was.

He begins in a typically Hegelian way: by making a seemingly absurd and contradictory claim. He opens his Preface by telling us that prefaces to philosophical works are a waste of time, because philosophy is a subject that can’t be explained in an overview, and philosophical truth can only be “expounded” by closely setting out the method so that, through it, a definite result is reached and the necessity of the result is understood. He contrasts philosophy with anatomy, to explain what a special sort of “science” philosophy is: anatomy, understood as “the knowledge of the parts of the body regarded as inanimate,” is a mere “aggregate of information” that can be learned by rote, whereas philosophy requires the reader to follow the text closely, following and approving for themselves the steps of the method, in order to discover the conclusions for themselves.

Later in the Preface he explains what happens when you mistakenly believe philosophy to be like anatomy, a collection of facts to be memorised, a means to a definite end: you end up with “dogmatism.” When there is a clear fact of the matter, it is an easy thing to give a straightforward answer – the examples he gives are “When was Caesar born?” and “How many feet were there in a stadium?” A dogmatic philosopher is one who thinks that the answers to philosophical questions are as straightforward as matters of general knowledge, and who will give responses to philosophical questions that are immediate and simplistic, and will be unwilling and unable to show any kind of working. Truth is a simple matter, for a dogmatist: the important things can be immediately seen to be true or false.

For Hegel, philosophy is not about facts, but about the process of knowing itself. This is why philosophy must be a journey, begun by reader and writer together. By working through the subject matter yourself, you gain an insight into your own thought processes. By comparing your own thoughts to those set out by the writer, you get a sense of what is universal in your thinking, and what is not. You learn to think for yourself, but more deeply than you could ever have done without the guidance of the philosophical tradition, which you find condensed here in the book you’re reading.

I suggested at the start that What is philosophy? is the question of Hegel’s Preface. The answer Hegel gives is, on the negative side: that philosophy is not a mere collection of facts; it is not merely a method; and it is not merely a result that can be read and memorised without doing any of the difficult work. On the positive side: that it is the science of knowledge, understood as something that a human individual must partake in themselves in order to take anything of value away from it.

And we can see, from Hegel’s answer to the question, what kind of philosopher he was: an egalitarian and democratic thinker who believed that real philosophical truth can only be discovered for the individual by the individual, and must never be unquestioningly accepted from any authority that would dogmatically assert their own system of philosophical truths.

(I’ve been reading A.V. Miller’s translation of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. The “Preface” makes up the first 72 sections of the book.)

(Image is from Wikimedia Commons.)

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4 Responses to Hegel’s Democratic Spirit

  1. rickkoster says:

    Thank you. I enjoyed reading this. Will you be writing more posts on this subject? I’ve been reading Kojev’s lectures on reading Hegel. Have you read them at all?

    Liked by 1 person

    • leewatkins says:

      Thanks for reading! Yes, I’m planning to post more on the Phenomenology soon.

      I did read Kojev, but a long time ago. How are you finding it?


      • rickkoster says:

        I read the Kojev mainly because of the huge impact his work had on Lacan. I find Kojev really clear and easy to follow. Todd McGowan in his videos on YouTube ‘Emancipation after Hegel’ says that Kojev misses something from Hegel, but I don’t know enough yet to know what that is …

        Liked by 1 person

      • leewatkins says:

        I think it’s really easy to miss something from Hegel, because there’s so much! Interpreters always focus on what is important to them. I don’t think Kojeve should be too heavily judged for doing that too


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