I never thought I’d ever say this, but I greatly enjoyed reading a book about Hegel. I also finally understand what Hegel was trying to do in his Phänomenologie des Geistes ("Phenomenology of Spirit") and his Wissenschaft der Logik ("The Science of Logic").

In the preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit Hegel famously wrote “The truth is the whole”, which sounds a lot better in the German original “Das Wahre ist das Ganze”. It is one of those gnomic statements that analytical philosophers like to make fun of and that I struggled with as a student. But as Jürgen Kaube explains in his excellent Hegel biography Hegels Welt, even a simple observation such as “This is a glass of water” rests on numerous premises. The statement is not simply true if it is indeed a glass of water and not a cup of coffee or a vase of flowers, as analytical philosophy would have it. For what kind of water are we talking about? H2O, mineral water or tap water? Tap water presupposes the existence of a whole system for its distribution and laws for maintaining and enforcing quality standards. This in turn presupposes a means of measuring drinking water quality and so on. And let’s not forget the provenance of the glass and the history of glass making. There is an entire world contained in a glass of water. This is what Hegel means when he claims that “the truth is the whole”.

As Kaube observes, we never just think. We always think of something. Unlike walking or swimming, thinking requires a subject, a problem or a question. We don’t just think of something either, we think of that something as something, as ridiculous for instance or as worth thinking about. When we think of something we do so using concepts such as true, many, here, there, difference, negation, love, becoming and so on. What Hegel means by the science of logic is the study of these concepts. It is therefore not to be confused with the post-Fregean notion of logic. 

A key aspect of thinking, according to Hegel, is that it negates. But why does every concept contain a negation? As Kaube explains, if a leaf is green, it’s not yellow or brown. The situation is serious, not funny and it's not harmless either. Or as Jean-Luc Nancy writes in Hegel. The Restlessness of the Negative, a thing is only a thing other than all other things. Whenever we identify, classify, differentiate, compare or analyze something we negate it. And because we can err in doing so, thinking itself is also open to negation. The way Kaube explains it, it suddenly makes sense, or rather, more sense than when I read Hegel himself.

In Hegels Welt Kaube presents a panoramic view of the political, social, scientific and technological revolutions that occurred during Hegel’s lifetime (1770-1831), from the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era to the invention of the steam engine and the hot-air balloon, all of which shaped Hegel’s thinking. In October 1806 Hegel witnessed Napoleon entering the city of Jena, the day before he would lead his army into a crushing defeat of the Prussian army. Hegel famously referred to Napoleon as “die(se) Weltseele (..) auf einem Pferde sitzend” (*). He himself had narrowly managed to send his only copy of the Phenomenology of Spirit to a publisher in Bamberg, just before French troops ransacked Jena.

Jürgen Kaube writes with flair and a subtle sense of humor. As Kaube observes: “There are many sentences in Hegel's work that have become quotation classics. His style was to introduce readers to the extreme possibilities of the German language, not least the possibility of losing the governing verb over long periods to then suddenly come up with a short, cutting and figurative turn of phrase” (my translation **).

In 1797, at the age of 22 Hegel’s old friend Schelling had already published several well-received articles and was considered one of the rising stars in German philosophy. His other friend from his youth, Friedrich Hölderlin, had just finished Hyperion, which today is considered one of his most famous works. And what did Hegel do? Hegel read. Of course, eventually all his reading would find its way into his writings and he would come to tower above his contemporaries. But his thinking had a long gestation process.

Today Hegel is primarily a figure of historical interest, although his ideas live on in the work of thinkers such as Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou. In Hegels Welt Jürgen Kaube does an excellent job explaining why Hegel matters. Hegel sought to capture the world in thinking. As Jean-Luc Nancy writes in Hegel. The Restlessness of the Negative, Hegel does not ask why there is something rather than nothing nor how our knowledge is possible. His thinking consists in exposing and explicating what is real in it (in Hegel’s words “Auslegung des Absoluten”). Exposition, explication or interpretation is the “self-exposition of the absolute and (..) the display of what is” (***). Knowing, therefore, is not a representation (Vorstellung), but a presentation (Darstellung). In that sense Hegel was ahead of his time, since many cognitive neuroscientists today still speak of the brain representing this or that.

I still wouldn’t recommend reading Hegel himself, because like many of his contemporaries I consider his work practically unreadable.

(*) “Den Kaiser - diese Weltseele - sah ich durch die Stadt zum Rekognosieren hinausreiten; es ist in der Tat eine wunderbare Empfindung, ein solches Individuum zu sehen, das hier auf einem Punkt konzentriert, auf einem Pferde sitzend, über die Welt übergreift und sie beherrscht.” Kaube, Jürgen. Hegels Welt. Berlin: Rowohlt, p. 180.

(**) “In Hegels Werk gibt es viele Sätze, die zu Zitierklassikern geworden sind. Sein Stil war es, die Leser über Seiten hinweg mit extremen Möglichkeiten der deutschen Sprache bekannt zu machen, nicht zuletzt mit der Möglichkeit, in langen Perioden das regierende Verb zu verlieren, um dann ganz plötzlich kurz, schneidend und bildhaft zu werden.” Kaube, Jürgen. Hegels Welt. Berlin: Rowohlt, 2020, p. 320.

(***) Nancy, Jean-Luc. Hegel. L’inquiétude du négatif. Paris: Hachette, 1997, p. 16-20. It has been translated as Hegel. The Restlessness of the Negative. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 2002.