The appeal of the newest translation of Martin Heidegger’s text Hegel by Joseph Arel and Niels Feurerhahn may seem to be at first limited to young hipsters majoring in philosophy who, while twirling their anachronistic handlebar mustaches and hiking up their skinny jeans, contemplate metaphysics over vegan chai lattes in order to impress their girlfriends. However, Hegel’s (and by extension Heidegger’s and his translators’) importance to identity politics and cultural studies can’t be ignored.
The critical exploration of Hegel’s subject-object relationship is a stepping stone to theories of the Other in discussions of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. That said, even well-educated readers may find this text fragmented and difficult to decipher. Remember studying a priori knowledge in graduate school? If not, well, Google search is a thing.
The book reads about like one would expect a German philosophy text to read: fragmented and circular. This is not “Hegel for Dummies”, nor does this new translation make Heidegger’s interpretations of Hegel easier to comprehend. In fact, in their introduction, the translators themselves concede that much of Heidegger’s original text is “fragmentary and much less polished than many of his other works.” In places the introduction even reads like the translators’ apology for the incomprehensibility of much of the book, perhaps wishing to absolve themselves of responsibility for the readability of the text.
The translators even confess to guessing at Heidegger’s meaning at times, noting that his writing had an “elliptical and fragmentary” (there’s that word again) style that suggested Heidegger was exploring ideas rather than writing a book. The translation is an attempt, it seems, to fill in the blanks left by Heidegger’s incomplete and journalistic notes on Hegelian philosophy, perhaps even with Heidegger’s original intent being to lecture on rather than write about Hegel. Whether the translators’ guesses are correct is, frankly speaking, anyone’s guess.
Not ironically, the introduction clarifies that Heidegger himself was guessing about Hegel’s meaning, so the fact that the translators are guessing about Heidegger’s meaning makes the reader wonder if any of the text is actually hitting its mark.
Ontology is the watchword here, since the raison d’être of Heidegger’s exploration is to shed light on Hegel’s study of the nature of human existence. There isn’t an argument being made or a coherent plot to follow. This is Philosophy with a capital F. Hegel was a thinker, a German philosopher whose early 19th century writing has become part of Western philosophical canon, with Martin Heidegger being widely recognized as his most well-known 20th century interpreter. This new translation by Arel and Feururhahn attempts to make Hegel’s ontology relevant for 21st century perusal. Or maybe one of them had a tenure review pending.
Heidegger’s probable intent to present the information orally rather than in writing does account for much of the difficulty in reading the text itself, as the translators try to maintain the stream of consciousness feel of his notes. The result is prose that repeats its words and overlaps content, often using hyphens in words that aren’t hyphenated in English. The choice to hyphenate English words like “pro-jection” and “im-permanence”, though justified in the introduction as an intentional choice to maintain the flavor of the German, is never very clear. The difference between “abyss” and “a-byss” will be lost on native English speakers; some may even think that “ab-solute” seems more like a printing error than an editorial choice. Perhaps German speakers will better understand the editorial choices.
In other places, the translators use punctuation to emphasize Heidegger’s points. However, these choices, too, are lost on readers who may not comprehend why certain passages mark eureka moments for the author (or why so many words are italicized and put in quotation marks):
The unconditionedness of thinking points to ‘becoming’ (as ‘I’ think). But this in turn points to the expulsion from becoming [Ent-werden] and only thus Hegel’s negativity!
Of course! Wait, what? The choice to include an exclamation point instead of a period at the end of such sentences suggests that the reader should be nodding in agreement to a point the author has made, but such times are usually so obfuscated by double- and triple-speak as to engender a “huh?” instead of an “a-ha!” Although the translators acknowledge that the editorial choices they’ve made are an attempt to mirror Heidegger’s original choices, it doesn’t make the text’s style any less confusing.
A skeptical reader might wonder if the sole purpose of the new translation was to further the academic careers for the translators. Its ivory tower flavor and university press marks might confirm such a cynical conclusion. Whether or not this new translation of Heidegger was a good one—better than previous translations—is open to interpretation. Native German speaking Hegel experts may be the only qualified judges on that issue. Even Heidegger confesses that a full accounting of Hegel’s systems and philosophy would be impossible.
Heidegger’s discussion of Hegel’s philosophy builds on and contrasts the ideas with other philosophers, especially Aristotle, Nietzsche, and Kant and readers unfamiliar with metaphysics in Western philosophical discourse will find the text not so much difficult as baffling. The circular logic and roundabout approach is typical of the genre but not for the casual reader. Hegelian notions like “the other as the other of the other” are just infuriating enough to make even the staunchest of academics sigh audibly.
So what is Hegel’s standpoint?
The standpoint is the absolute itself; and this as the whole of “being” is what does not require a standpoint, and is not somehow standpointless.
(Sigh.) Even savvy coffee shop hipsters are probably just pretending to understand these mentally masturbatory meanderings.
Hegel’s ideas, however, are critical to contemporary discourse, especially in cultural studies theories of otherness. Heidegger frequently provides comparisons between the negativity of Nietzsche’s nihilism and the more positive subjectivity of Hegel, which is potentially useful in specific discursive contexts. Of course, it was never Heidegger’s intent to provide details on what exactly those contexts might be, and it’s up to later scholars to attempt to put Hegel’s subjectivity into useful practice. Heidegger was attempting to explain Hegel’s ideas, not apply them.
Readers looking to actually put Hegelian theories into practice using this text, however, may want to reconsider. French philosopher Michel Foucault’s famously complicated treatises on identity are easier to understand. Even Aristotle’s cave might be more accessible for some scholars.
Much of the text maintains the German language and the over 20 pages of German-English glossary terms make the reader wonder why the translators didn’t simply translate all the words. Pieces of the text will literally be Greek to readers, as the text uses not foreign words but characters from foreign alphabets, as well. The Latin, Greek, and German to English translations are as epic in scope as a Gutenberg bible reading. Even well-educated Ph.D.s in the humanities will find the linguistics a challenge. At the end of the translators’ introduction they note that:
Given the ubiquity of Heidegger’s elliptical style, filling in the appropriate words would have significantly altered the overall appearance of the text and would have suggested to the English reader a much more “polished” manuscript than the original actually is.
At least one English reader laments that such a choice might have also made the text easier to understand.
It’s not really the translators’ faults that Hegel and Heidegger are so difficult to absorb, but it would have been nice to get more insight into the philosophy, at least in the introduction. Is it a good translation? Perhaps. Is it comprehensible? Not so much. The book is exhausting. Bring a snack.