I've read about a half of Hegel's Logic and a bit of Phänomenologie des Geistes, but both are difficult to understand; I do not whether it is the translation or the intent that is ambiguous.

I know some Hochdeutsch and can read Nietzsche/Hitler/Heidegger with moderate success. I recently started to study Hegel in German and I still can't understand what's in the language.

The question is whether Hegel is at all comprehensible in (e.g. English) translation. I know of books like 'The Secret of Hegel' but they are not philosophy to me.

  • Don't know for sure but I heard Hegel's easier to read in English than in the original. Which doesn't mean it's accurate.
    – iphigenie
    Feb 14, 2013 at 1:37
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    A common complaint regarding Hegel (one popular among analytic-oriented philosophers like myself) is that he is a bit of an obscurantist. If that is correct, which I suspect it is to some degree, then the difficulty you are having is to be expected.
    – Dennis
    Feb 14, 2013 at 2:01
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    "A bit of an obscurantist" is a very nice way of saying it. Even our professors tell us to drink a glass of wine before reading him. Hegel is one of the worst German authors ever.
    – iphigenie
    Feb 14, 2013 at 9:31
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    Yes, I heard Hegel is unreadable in German too. It seems the difficulty in reading Hegel is thanks to Hegel himself and not to the translations.
    – R. Barzell
    Aug 26, 2015 at 19:45

4 Answers 4


To get things out of the way, I wouldn't describe Hegel as an obscurantist (i.e., a philosopher or thinker committed to making his position obscure), but I would say he's very difficult to read. At the same time, I would say that Hegel is often obscure to 21st century readers. I would also say that he's a poor "author" -- where we need to understand that he's not exactly an "author" in the sense of someone who sat down to write a book.

While knowledge of German definitely helps even when reading in English, I would say this matters more for technical vocabulary than for grammar. To put it another way, it's confusing when you're gliding through in English and see words like "existence", "real" , "actual", "sublimation", "thing", "matter", "concept" -- when these are actually technical terms (real and actual have different meanings at most points in Hegel). Getting a grasp on what's a technical term and not is helpful.

Thus, what I would say is that it's important to read Hegel along with the right sort of secondary supports to make sense of what he's doing. Sometimes, the secondary reader will agree that a section makes no sense. At other times, they can provide insight into discussions that are obscure to us now but that make sense of the terms and elements in the debate that might have made sense to late 18th / early 19th century Germans but do make any sense to us now.

  • I've personally come to believe that the obscurity of Hegel is an ironic result of his (failed) attempt to make his ideas as clear as possible. Feb 4, 2016 at 19:31
  • @ChrisSunami: I do not think so, no. The problem with him is that he oscillates between his own argument (which is pretty clear for the most part) and sometimes very metaphoric divagations when it comes to (negative as well as affirmative) comments on other authors. He rarely states whom he's talking about and often mutates into a poet at these not even marked occasions. Identifying these and concentrating on the actual argument makes even the Phenomenology quite a good reading. He wanted to create a compelling argument for his 'science'. I think it is for the most part.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Feb 6, 2016 at 0:44
  • Obscurantist in the likes of Derrida? No. Poetry? Yes. Who doesn't love such pithy observations as "Just as little is seen in pure light as in pure darkness"? But is it a knowledge claim? No. Is Hegel a philosopher? No.
    – MmmHmm
    Mar 13, 2017 at 16:11

I think yes, of course it makes sense to read Hegel in translation. But reading it in English only and without guidance will not work. Think of the books of Hegel (and other contempory philosophers) and their origin: Summarizing past and basing future lectures. If you read this book while hearing the lecture of Hegel himself, I think with some effort you would have easily understood him. But alone? I do not think so.

In particular if you are capable of understanding German to some extend, reading Pinkard's translation with both languages in one file could help getting the point and the meaning behind concepts. You have to parse this book sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph anyway, so doing it in both languages does help from time to time.

You can find it here.

In addition, there are of course companions which may help if read simultaniously. A quick google search gave e.g. this one.

Hegel is understandable, and I heard (and at some rare points made the experience myself as german native speaker) that in English it was easier. But my opinion is that the best would be to read both German and English to get as much as possible out of it. Because if I only read the English translation, the loss would have been bigger than reading German only.

Regarding the rants of @iphigenie and others: There are different opinions on Hegel. It may take a lot of time to get into it, but most who do say it's worth it. I think he is one of the deepest thinkers of all time. But there are others who are saying that if you took the time to get into it, you cannot help but stating it was worth it, rather than saying it isn't that good anyway after wasting months and years. Up to now, I am member of the former.

I think that while the whole point of absolute mind [I think this is the better translation compared to "spirit"] is construed due to the "need" of a place for something divine (socially and historically based; Fichte lost his chair because he was blamed for not leaving place for it!), the rest is deep insight. It is hard to understand, yes. But if it was easy, it wouldn't be anything other than obvious. Philosophy had so many people stating obvious things in form of not-so-obvious, but still comparably simple language recently.

  • According to a story told by Foucault and repeated recently by Badiou, German philosophers have admitted that Jean Hyppolite's French translation of the Phenomenology is to be prefered to the original text. Hegel's texts are indeed transalatable and reading them in a Romance language helps.
    – sand1
    Feb 1, 2016 at 18:28
  • @sand1: And I heard (from a German student that studied at the Sorbonne) that the french translation of Husserl that is "to be preferred" according to her French professors is indeed easier to understand, but does not at all cover the depth of the ideas of Husserl. So while not knowing the quality of the translation of Hegel in direct comparison, I am cautious towards French translations.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Feb 1, 2016 at 20:31
  • Maybe a translation into German would be useful? Early 19th century German will pose problems to modern Germans. Words change their meaning, obscure words become unknown and common words obscure.
    – gnasher729
    Feb 4, 2016 at 20:27

I would say from personal experience that reading Hegel in translation is worthwhile. I would go so far as to say that all worthwhile philosophy must be translatable across languages almost by definition.

Of course, a lot will be missed. Hegel apparently delights in words with double meanings, for example. Yet I too have heard from German speakers that some of Hegel may actually be clearer in English, once forced through the interpretive "strainer" of translation.

Some people claim that it helps to read his early theological writings to get a better sense of him. On the other hand, much of his writing, "The Philosophy of History," for example, is not obscure at all.

In more difficult works like "The Science of Logic," you just have go very, very slooooowly. I'd recommend just reading the section on "The Doctrine of Being" line by line about 10 times over, chewing and cogitating. It's actually very interesting. It contains much "Hegelianism" in a few pages. And the slow-drip method is much more rewarding than attempting to "read the book" at a first go.

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    " I would go so far as to say that all worthwhile philosophy must be translatable across languages almost by definition." After agreeing whole-heartedly with this statement, I realized that requiring philosophy to be unambiguously translatable would favor analytic philosophy over the so called continental style. In fact it would force most people to write in the analytic style. Feb 1, 2016 at 18:39
  • Perhaps, but I didn't say it could ever be unambiguous or even "accurate." It is just that what we might call the "philosophy" part of the writing entails the struggle to prescind from the contingencies of language, or the "enchantment of language," as I think Wittgenstein called it. Heidegger or Derrida, for example, may slip more deeply towards the pure "language" aspect. Yet I would say they are unified to "philosophy" precisely by "that which can be translated," if only glimpsed in translation. To offer "untranslatable" ideas would be too close to the "irrational," too far from Logos. Feb 1, 2016 at 19:03
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    Barbara Cassin directed the compiling of 1500 pages of text in a Dictionary of Untranslatables. A Philosophical Lexicon, (Princeton University Press, 2014) - this is, of course, a translation from the French (Vocabulaire européen des philosophies : dictionnaire des intraduisibles, Paris, 2004)
    – sand1
    Feb 4, 2016 at 13:53

It is true that Hegel's Logic cannot be understood in one read. Any reader has to do a lot of preparatory work before he takes up either the Lesser Logic or the Science of Logic. The kind of training and preparation the reader has undertaken in reading a philosophical work is more important before talking about the difficulties. Of course, the German language has been praised by Hegel for its richness. A reader of German has to master not only their use of German but also their thought content. The question is whether you are so prepared? If you are well-prepared you can sail with Hegel's thought easily, if not you'll have to put in the effort.

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    "You'll understand it if you're intelligent" isn't very helpful.
    – E...
    Mar 13, 2017 at 14:04

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