The Journey of the Mind of God to Us: Hegel's Ladder and Harris's Graduate Seminars

By Shannon, Daniel | CLIO, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

The Journey of the Mind of God to Us: Hegel's Ladder and Harris's Graduate Seminars


Shannon, Daniel, CLIO


H. S. Harris presented his first seminar on Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit in the winter term of 1983-84 at the University of Toronto, which began with his interpretation of Hegel's title page and table of contents, and continued through to Sense Certainty. In the following year, the seminar moved to Glendon College at York University, and Harris continued where he left off, traveling as far as Self-Certainty. I was in attendance at these seminars and continued to participate in each one until the spring of 1989. During the six years that I was present, Harris transversed Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit as far as the Morality section at the end of chapter six. What we heard in the seminar was usually a reading of Hegel's Ladder "in progress" throughout the autumn semester; in the spring semester each student would present his or her interpretation of some section of the text or, alternatively, some interpretation of a text as given by some notable commentator, such as Alexandre Kojeve, Charles Taylor, or Kenley Dove. Harris proposed then, as he does now, that Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit is not a philosophical text in the normal sense of the word "philosophical." It is a great narration of the journey of God in and through the experience of human consciousness. It is epic literature as well as philosophy. "God" in Hegel's narrative is Spirit, and in particular the Spirit qua Reason that moves us to our own fulfillment as human beings; this fulfillment is our happiness, a life of blessedness. Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, like Dante's Divine Comedy, is an account of a spiritual ascent, where, even though humanity is the subject of the work, understanding the subject requires insight into religion, history, and literature. Hegel himself is characterized in Harris's reading not exclusively as a philosopher, but as a philosopher, poet, and prophet.(1) What Harris means by this is that Hegel saw himself as seeking to accomplish three tasks in the Phenomenology of Spirit.

The first task is strictly to introduce us to his "philosophical science," and in respect to this Hegel presents a rational justification of philosophy in and through argumentation. Hegel's "science" is governed by logic, and its goal is to present the concepts of logic as they present themselves in the development of philosophy. As a philosopher, Hegel is concerned to introduce us to the system of philosophy, or more specifically, to present to us the account of how Transcendental Idealism knows "what truly is"--what die Sache selbst is--and for this purpose Hegel shows us how other philosophers have contributed, and often failed, in their philosophical assertions on "what truly is." The philosophers who compete with Hegel in presenting the development of the concept, but who engage in a quixotic quest, are for the most part Hegel's own contemporaries: Joseph Gorres, Henrich Steffens, W. T. Krug. Unlike Hegel, who, Harris contends, presents the certainty of logic and concept, these contemporaries present the obscuring of truth: philosophy as mystification, as popular ideology, or as false science. The certainty that Hegel presents is how authentic scientific philosophy reaches the light of truth as opposed to these "clouds of error."

As a philosopher, Hegel proposes a science, and it was this science that Harris defended in his seminar, often against the proponents and critics of Hegel today. Let me elaborate on this point. As part of his seminar, Harris would have the graduate students present an interpretation of the text. What was most significant in what followed the presentation was Harris's critique of the interpreters' views--usually both the chosen commentator and the student's point of view. Those who offered their interpretations, for instance, through the eyes of Marx's critique of Hegel or through the blindness of ignoring the systematic program that Hegel had envisioned at Jena, were subject to a robust critique. As with the seminar, Harris offers in Hegel's Ladder rejoinders and criticism against Hegel's admirers and critics.

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