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How to understand this book
on 22 November 2012
Do not ever believe anyone who describes this book as 'impossible', 'impenetrable', 'obscurant', 'nonsensical', 'badly written' or other such dumb terms. It is true that this may be the most challenging read you ever tackle, even for a trained philosopher, however this does NOT mean that it makes no sense. This is simply the claim of people (Schopenhauer included) who have failed to understand it and refuse to accept their failure.
On the other hand, know that this is not a quick read. If you think you can flick through this and get some quick nuggets of insight, you need to forget it. You cannot read this book on your holiday. If you want to understand it you are going to need to invest some serious time and patience to 'study' it as a serious project. Know that people have spent decades in this pursuit.
But most importantly, do not believe that you are incapable of it. If you are looking at this then chances are that you already have the inquisitiveness and the interest to tackle it. If you also have the patience you are more than capable. Here is some guidance:
1 - Background. You do not need a philosophy degree. People with philsophy degrees have simply read a lot of philosophy (I know because I have a philosophy degree). You can do the same. In my opionion you should make the following the focus of your preparatory reading: Spinoza, Kant, post-Kant (by which I mean the philosophers which came between Kant and Hegel: Jacobi, Reinhold, Novalis, Fichte, Schelling etc - you can read summaries of this period rather than the source texts). It also helps to have a good grasp of Aristotle and, if you are new to philsophy, Descartes. This background reading can be a huge undertaking in itself, but remember I never said this was going to be quick or easy.
2 - Guide texts. Often guide texts can do more harm than good, as you really need to be making your own interpretation. However with this book it helps occasionally to get unstuck with someone else's view. The Routledge Guidebook by Robert Stern and the Reading' by Russon are in my opinion the best.
3 - Translation. None of the existent translations are perfect, and know that the German is also extremely difficult to read. Read more than 1 translation in tandem. Don't underestimate how helpful this can be.
4 - Study. Do not 'read' this book; make notes, summarise its sections in your own words; write down your own thoughts; think about its relevance today; unravel its meaning for yourself. You will find that this is itself an important implication of Hegel's philosophy.
The rewards of all this are massive. Hegel, rather than being an obscurant, is probably one of the most innovative and original philosophers of modern times. When you truly 'get' this book you will be very glad you took the time and effort. It also makes it much easier to move onto the likes of Heidegger; also very difficult but not in comparison to Hegel.