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Translating Hegel

The Phenomenology of Spirit and Modern Philosophy


September 5–7 2008



This symposium investigates crucial aspects of Hegel’s most well-known work, The Phenomenology of Spirit, which will be published for the first time in Swedish translation by Brian Manning Delaney and Sven-Olov Wallenstein. The general rubric, “Translating Hegel,” takes its cues from the occasion of the publication of this new translation—which itself is a philosophical event, since the Phenomenology had to wait more than 200 years to be translated into Swedish—but also attempts to span a whole set of problems, relating both to the specific interpretation of Hegel, and to the general relevance of the history of philosophy to the present. These questions fall under four main headings.

1. How can we “translate” Hegel into a contemporary philosophical idiom—be it phenomenology, deconstruction, critical theory, analytical philosophy, or something else entirely? The advantage of a translation in this sense is of course that it makes Hegel more easily comprehensible, and eliminates many of his idiosyncrasies. In creating a context for his thought that allows it to be assimilated into our present concerns, it sets up a framework that allows us to discern “what is living and what is dead in Hegel,” to use Croce’s famous formulation. Yet which idiom, or idioms, would be most appropriate to this act of translating? Which type of philosophy is the proper “heir” to Hegelianism? What type of vocabulary would be able to transcribe, in the most faithful way, the language of idealism? For a long time, enmity towards Hegel was endemic within analytical philosophy, whereas in German philosophy, he has always been a central reference, and he has also been a constant presence in French discussions at least since Alexandre Kojève’s lectures in the 1930s; this stark difference in Hegel reception’s in the West may have become less strict today, as a “post-analytical” philosophy, drawing on pragmatism, but on other sources as well, begins to look to Hegel for inspiration.

2. What are the risks attending the above sort of “translation”? To what extent does the “post-metaphysical” Hegel often presented today in fact amount to a flattening of historical depth, a foreshortening of perspective that deprives his thinking of its productive distance and difference with respect to the present? Is there something essentially Hegelian, and not just in the sense of a “historically true” Hegel, but something that might act as an illuminating counterpoint, or even as a challenge, to the present, that gets lost in this translation? Does the “translation,” in this sense, of Hegel deprive us of an important resource?

3. Could “translating” in fact mean something other than a mere transposition of one vocabulary into another, e.g., might it allow for a kind of transformation of both the present and the past? Is there something like a “hermeneutic situation” (as the concept is developed by Heidegger) that should guide our relation to Hegel today? And if this “situation” would be determined as the end of metaphysics, versions of which have indeed proliferated in modernity: the overturning of Platonism, the death of God, the impossibility of a philosophical system, the dissolution of philosophy into the sciences—what would this imply for our reading of Hegel, who was indeed the first to proclaim the end of metaphysics, although this in terms of its completion and fulfillment?

4. Finally, and at a more straightforward level, there is the question of the extent to which the above bears upon the practice of the translator of Hegel. We have, at the conference, translators of the Phenomenology into English, French, and Swedish. Hegel's German, especially in the Phenomenology, was almost an idiolect—a violent stretching and bending of the limits of syntax according the logic of the “speculative proposition” delineated in the Preface: a “conflict between the form of a proposition per se and the unity of the concept which destroys that form”, producing a discourse that “destroys the distinction between subject and predicate” to such an extent that is “only the kind of philosophical exposition which rigorously excludes the ordinary relations among the parts of a proposition which would be able to achieve the goal of plasticity.” The general questions posed above of the appropriate contemporary “idiom” for Hegelianism bears on the choice of the translator, and, of course, the translator’s choices affect the contemporary reception of Hegel.


Drawing on the above set of questions, the conference will explore the technical and historical aspects of the Phenomenology and of Hegel’s philosophy in general, as well as its influence on contemporary discussions in philosophy, and the social and human sciences.