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  • To Be is to Be an Anecdote: Hegel and the Therapeutic Absolute
  • John McCumber (bio)

Anecdote: The narrative of a detached incident, or of a single event, told as being in itself striking or interesting.


Anecdotes, it would seem, are of small importance to philosophy. Philosophy is a set of arguments. Philosophical arguments reach universal conclusions, and so cannot make use of particular premises. According to the above definition, which is the Oxford English Dictionary’s, anecdotes claim to be striking or interesting, which they cannot be to all people equally. They are therefore merely particular and, like the figures of rhetoric, are to be banned from philosophy’s search for truth. Why even think about them?

But this simple exclusion of anecdotes from philosophy may, like all philosophical exclusions, be too simple. Nervousness about philosophical simplicity leads us naturally to the most complex, not to say involuted, of philosophers: Hegel. Hegel, who excluded nothing from philosophy, stands in a complex and even tormented relationship to anecdotes. Understanding what that relationship is tells us some important things about his philosophy, and perhaps about ourselves.

Not that Hegel talks much about anecdotes—indeed, he seems, quite traditionally, to have despised them. When he does use the term, in his discussion of the “cultured consciousness” in the Phenomenology of Spirit, he says

to present the existence of the good and noble through a single anecdote, be it fictional or true, is the most disparaging thing that can be said about it

(Werke III: 388/319).

The problem here, as the lines preceding this quote make clear, is one of form: the anecdote, as something actual and striking in its own right, is wholly individuated and as such stands in opposition to the pull to universality, which has characterized reality itself from the opening pages of the Phenomenology on. To put it in the terms of those pages (Werke III: 82–92/58–66), the anecdote would result from detaching an example (Beispiel) from the more general truth of which it is an example, thus presenting itself merely as striking. [End Page 56]

Anecdotes, even for Hegel, are thus useless to philosophy, and on quite traditional grounds. But, as his letters show, Hegel was—in his private or real life—quite fond of anecdotes, and occasionally he does make use of them philosophically. In “Who Thinks Abstractly?”, a short piece from 1807, Hegel actually gives a series of anecdotes:

(1). A murderer was brought to the scaffold. He was a strong, handsome, interesting man; but when “the ladies” mentioned this, the populace was infuriated.

(2). A mayor got upset because writers had gone too far and were trying to root out Christianity itself—for a new book had been written in defense of suicide. The book turned out to be Goethe’s Werther.

(3). An old woman saw the murderer’s head laid on the scaffold after being separated from his body. Suddenly the sun shone upon it. How wonderful! The grace of God is upon him!, she cried.

(4). Yet another old woman was told that the eggs she was selling were spoiled, and she answered with a string of insults concerning the shopper herself, her father, her mother, who consorted with the French, and so forth.

(Werke II: 575–81/“Who…?” 284–88).

My final example of an Hegelian anecdote is quite famous, if only because Hegel actually tells it twice.

(5a). A man went into a grocery store looking for fruit. The grocer suggested cherries, pears, grapes, and so on. The man rejected them all, because he was looking for fruit. (Werke VIII: 59/Encyclopedia Logic 38)

(5b). A doctor advised a sick man to eat fruit. The man was served cherries, or plums, or grapes, and rejected them all because he had been told to eat fruit.

(Werke XVIII: 37; my translation).

That Hegel thinks (5a) and (5b) are the same anecdote—he specifically says this (Werke XVIII: 37)—is a problem of its own, of course. Does Hegel see no difference between a doctor and a grocery store? Hardly likely. Is it because both versions hold the same lesson? But according to the OED, anecdotes are advanced...


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