- Reading Hegel’s Phenomenology
Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit has been increasingly studied in ever-greater detail in recent years. In John Russon's interpretive study of Hegel's theories in this book, explanation is tightly constrained by the core argument of its various sections. The text is divided into an introduction and fifteen chapters concerning different aspects of Hegel's great treatise.
Russon describes and justifies his strategy in a detailed introduction. Unlike other commentators, Russon focuses on the methods, premises, evidence, reasons and conclusions of Hegel's argument without consideration of the language, allusions and cultural context in which the book was composed. Russon further proceeds through separate studies of the separate sections of Hegel's treatise, which he treats as independent arguments about various aspects of human experience, as opposed to a continuous commentary on the work as a whole.
These methodological innovations give Russon's discussion a distinctive character. Hegel stresses the intrinsically historical character of all thought. According to Hegel, all philosophical positions, including his own, belong to the history of philosophy. Treating Hegel's argument without reference to the specific context in which it was formulated makes it more difficult to grasp Hegel's claims. It further creates the illusion that Hegel's theories do not belong to their time and place, or historical moment. Russon's strategy of discussing each section of the Phenomenology as if it stood alone suggests that each is independent of the other and that the overall argument, which other commentators often strive to bring out, is non-existent. Russon emphasizes precisely this point in suggesting that a good reader of the Phenomenology must learn to treat each chapter autonomously. That is a useful hint if it means that Hegel's readers need to take each part of the book seriously and on its own terms. But if it also means that his readers should not be attempting to discern a deep but often elusive structure in the work as a whole, then for many this suggestion would appear to be seriously misleading.
Since Hegel is one of most difficult authors in the Western tradition, it is hardly surprising that there is little agreement and much controversy about even basic moves in his arguments in the Phenomenology. Yet one of the more surprising traits of Russon's discussion [End Page 493] is that he simply does not mention well-known accounts of the Phenomenology by such authors as Q. Lauer, H. S. Harris, T. Pinkard, A. Kojève and J. Hyppolite. Russon insists that his intention in writing this book is pedagogical. He suggests that his study is intended to serve as a companion volume in a one-semester course on Hegel's Phenomenology. Each chapter intends to provide a lesson for someone concerned to grasp the argument of the book. Yet the lack of any reference to other such studies makes it not easier but more difficult for the student to evaluate the specific utility of Russon's approach with respect to available alternatives.
Russon says that the basic themes of his approach are stated in chapter 11, and his distinctive approach is best brought out in chapter 5. Chapter 11 considers the existential drama of the "Struggle to the Death" as the foundation of self-consciousness and intersubjectivity. Self-consciousness and intersubjectivity are rooted in the lived body, which Russon regards as central to the development of spirit. According to Russon, unlike many later thinkers, for Hegel, the fact that the themes of language and embodiment are paired, not separable, is central to his position. Russon goes on to argue that the famous discussion of master and slave turns on the problem of communication. He extends this approach to Hegel's treatment of Antigone, which he interprets as depicting the way a social system takes the place of the individual ego in pointing to what he calls an absolute, or dialectical, reading.
Chapters 9–11 analyse the argument of Hegel's chapter on spirit. Chapter 9 focuses on "Spirit and Skepticism"; chapter 10...