Hegel’s Ladder

Hegel’s Ladder (1997) by H.S. Harris is an incomparable intellectual achievement. Explicitly modeled on the great “long commentaries” on Aristotle by Averroes whom I also admire, its nearly 1600 pages comprise the only complete literal commentary on Hegel’s Phenomenology in existence. For each paragraph in Miller’s translation of Hegel’s text, he gives a pithy abstract, then discusses the passage in detail. (See numerous articles on Harris’ work on my Hegel contents page.) This monument of scholarship was preceded by Harris’ equally large Hegel’s Development, which seems to be the definitive study of Hegel’s work before the Phenomenology.

Harris’ main contention is that Hegel’s famously difficult and confusing argument actually makes good sense as it stands. He also defends the view that the perspective of the Phenomenology was never abandoned in Hegel’s later work. It is not a transcendental psychology or a transcendental history or some weird hybrid of the two, but in Hegel’s own phrase, a “science of the experience of consciousness”.

None of these three terms means what we might think. “Science” here is basically a coherent rational articulation. “Experience” is cumulative rather than immediate, and fundamentally includes many twists and turns of discovery that could not be anticipated in advance. “Consciousness” is not the universal medium in which everything takes place, but the everyday starting point of ordinary life that is both overturned and fulfilled by the progress of experience.

Hegel’s fundamental contention is that if we follow it far enough in its own movement, experience leads us — by way of what Paul Ricoeur later called a vitally important “long detour”, which I think is also the path of the genuine Platonic and Aristotelian open-ended quest for essence — from naive encounter with objects in the immediacy of individual awareness, to a situated ethical being that is at home in the world and free of what Kant called transcendental illusions. Such a freedom from fundamental transcendental illusion is all that Hegel ever meant to claim for what he called “absolute” knowledge.

Of course my own aphoristic style of commentary is as about as close to diametrically opposite of comprehensive literal commentary as could be, but I nourish the hope others will find highlights I pick out — and emphasis and interpolations I add — to be illuminating and relevant. Meanwhile I tremendously admire thorough and even-handed attention to detail like that of Harris, and find it an excellent cross-check.