Preface to Graduate School: Reading Hegel or learning how to read again

After an arduous year one of grad school I have come out alive. In anxious preparation for year two a few good friends and myself set quite the task this summer to read Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit that haunted us all year. Given the complexity and reputation of the great man himself I find our “Adventures in Hegel” will entertain readers on how we successfully managed reading his “Preface” to the book. What follows is the affective and intellectual journey myself and friends Katy and Liz have embarked upon.

In lieu of actually trying to explain Hegelian thought or even relay my precise thoughts on the preface I provide some useful tactics we employed to “mastering”, well, getting through difficult texts such as Hegel. Now at the end of year one of graduate studies I can attest the most common nerve-racking question from new grad students to be “How do I read X?” Whether long novels, poetry, images, and of course theory/philosophy everyone has that one form they consider impenetrable to decipher. My fellow book club interlocutors agreed our reading of Hegel to be extremely enlightening and cleared up many conceptual gaps. It does help we’re all good friends but we actually had a great afternoon discussing Hegel? It was fun, and not soul-crushingly dark and intimidating? But how?! Our satisfaction shows such texts are indeed very approachable with just the right attitude.

1.) Mindset: Empty your head as much as possible, and keep it that way!!

When it comes to any major writer or artist there follows their reputation, i.e. what you “think” you know about their work. Nothing is more toxic to your own and their thought! As academics, or rather just people in the world, we have as much a critical voice to comment on these texts as anyone else. The discourse that precedes Hegel is admittedly near impossible to disentangle from reading his works. One technique to combat this discourse is explain or translate his thought into your own words whether via notes or better another personal. Funny enough, Hegel’s Preface stresses the necessary approach to take objects as their appear to us to begin to gain true knowledge.

One of the most helpful tips I’ve exercised in reading difficult texts, especially philosophy, is to let it wash over you. People spend their entire lives struggling to make sense of these texts, you will not master it in one reading. Just take it as it comes, but remain engaged by setting a small reasonable and general goal for yourself. The goal I have for each text differs in accordance to desired learning outcome. For example, when I undertook Spinoza all I wanted was a clearer understanding of affect, and with Hegel if I could start to properly grasp dialectical thought well that would be grand! This guides the reading process a bit by giving motivation to strive through page after page of seeming obscurity.

Fill up your water bottle, pack a snack, and get comfortable so you can take your time. A professor once told my friend that to properly read Hegel “to read one page a day is way too fast!” Well, you will never finish a book at that rate but slow down at moments of confusion without consuming your day. Sometimes I set time blocks as its it’s an exercise routine, so I will say “okay 30 minutes a day, Hegel and I, let’s go.”

Lastly, for texts in translation we might push what the native definition of any word means, a bilingual dictionary is a helpful reading aid. Frequently used but yet abstract language are the words to double-check, such as Hegel’s use of “essence” and/or “spirit.”

2.) Know your notes

Take notes, but this is obvious right? I take two types of notes, the first directly marks up the printed page and the second goes in my handy-dandy notebook. Within the text I underline moments of coherence, those little gems of understanding that shine through the mass of enigmatic text. Notes recorded externally to the page should follow whatever format that works best for you. I do highly suggest putting aside any attempt to produce some finished product. Write “stupid”, simple, silly, draw pictures even— write in the voice of your everyday head. Ask questions of the text, such as: What does X mean in this usage? What are the implications of this line of thinking? What makes Hegel so important anyhow? You will thank yourself later when you actually refer to these notes.

3.) Follow up with historical context & secondary literature

After reading feel free to pursue historical context, but keep this research concise unless history is your “thing.” It’s helpful to know what major events lurk beneath texts and it contextualizes the major philosophical argument the writer participates within. Hegel’s “end of history” and “Spirit of Age” ideas clicks more easily when we remember the Battle of Jena and scientific revolution events and their aftermaths unfold behind him. I say

By secondary literature I don’t mean Reddit or Google finds and advise to consult peer reviewed sources from academics with the credentials to back up their words. One great trustworthy source of secondary info are podcast and online lecture videos. The MIT OpenCourse Ware website makes available a WEALTH of knowledge from past MIT courses.

MIT Open Course Ware

Another great starting point is ITunes University podcasts, to which I suggest selecting podcasts published by universities. My favorite is from Stanford, titled “Entitled Opinions (about Life and Literature)” with Professor Robert Harrison. Here’s a link to listen live on and pursue past episodes:

Entitled Opinions Archive

4.) Conversation: If possible, meet with friends, professors, or even contact fellow bloggers 🙂

Having a non-stressful space and apt interlocutors to discuss vexing texts is extremely rewarding as my past experience shows. You need people to respond with and receive equal attention from, and together make sense of the insensible. The graduate school environment provides a whole slew of peers who are just as new at this whole “academia thing” as you consider yourself. Therefore, these are the perfect people to engage in generous and comfortable conversation. Professors are great to contact as well but sometimes these environments can be understandably intimidating.

For the Hegel book club we started with our first responses, which are just as “silly” and honest as our notes:

Amy (me): “I still don’t understand Kant or Hegel, but this is kinda of beautiful?”

Katy: “Sure.”

Liz: “He hates math like me!”image1 copy

Next we followed with our questions, reading passages aloud, some fun German-English translation, and even some very detailed graphics. I leave you with our collective illustration of Hegelian thought and beg readers to not judge or take for fact the product our productive chaos.