Listen to Hegel’s Phenomenology Read Out Loud

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) was a German philosopher. He is considered one of the most important figures in Classical German Philosophy and one of the founding figures of modern Western Philosophy, with his influence extending to the entire range of contemporary philosophical issues, from epistemology, logic, and metaphysics to aesthetics, philosophy of history, philosophy of religion, philosophy of law, and the history of philosophy.

This is the story of how Phenomenology of Spirit, one of the most difficult philosophical books ever written, came into the world:

Hegel was thirty-seven; he was lecturing at the University of Jena, but was not very successful. He was quite poor, he needed money. He had a contract with a publisher in Bamberg for the Phenomenology, his first big and serious philosophical book. At some point the work slowed down and Hegel did not receive any payments, until his respected friend Niethammer intervened and convinced the publisher to pay Hegel an advance, as much as half the entire honorarium.

Hegel’s deadline for submitting the manuscript was October 18, 1806. Shipping the text from Jena to Bamberg would take five days, so October 13th was his last day to take the package to the post office. On October 8th and 10th, Hegel sent the bulk of the manuscript to Bamberg. On October 9th, war broke out between France and Prussia. Hegel still had to send the concluding part of the book, but the postal service was no longer functioning. On the morning of October 13th French troops occupied Jena. “The hour of fear”—that’s what Hegel called this moment.

Soldiers burst into Hegel’s house. He tried to be friendly, inviting them for a glass of wine, but he soon had to flee—with the remaining parts of the manuscript stuffed in his pockets. In another house where he took refuge, he spent a few hours organizing these papers and putting the finishing touches on the manuscript. Only on October 20th was he able to send it to the publisher, who, in spite of this delay, paid him what was due, as Hegel was broke and his house plundered.

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