Parsing Hegel

23 May 2019

In another life I read a lot of Hegel, now a mere side-interest of mine. Despite the assurances of my former supervisor Bob Stern to the contrary, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s work is infamously opaque. Making sense of his Phenomenology of Spirit poses a considerable challenge, and those who claim to understand him often end up with rather different readings.

In my current life, I am finishing up an MPhil in Advanced Computer Science. My project is in the area of computational semantics where we seek to make sense of expressions in natural language by automatically producing formal representations of their meaning. For this purpose, I am using the Boxer-parser, which uses Discourse Representation Theory (DRT).[0] DRT offers a fancy formalism for capturing action-sentences using a neo-Davidsonian event semantics. One benefit of this theory is that it allows us to represent the meaning in neat little boxes, hence the namer of the parser. The boxes specify a number of variables at the top and then contain conditions in the form of predicates below.

If computational semantics enables us to make sense of natural language, then why not use it to make Hegel approachable? Why not run Boxer on the Phenomenology? I can think of very good reasons to resist the idea for the whole book, but not a single one of them kept me from giving it a try with a few sentences. So I just went ahead and adapted a tiny sliver of what I have learned during my MPhil to turn the first sentence of the Phenomenology into a formal representation.

The challenge should not be underestimated. The first two sentences read as follows:[1]

“It is customary to preface a work with an explanation of the author’s aim, why he wrote the book, and the relationship in which he believes it to stand to other earlier or contemporary treatises on the same subject. In the case of a philosophical work, however, such an explanation seems not only superfluous but, in view of the nature of the subject-matter, even inappropriate and misleading. “

This is not exactly “The dog chases the car”, an example much more adapted to the powers of Boxer. But I have to admit that Boxer surprised me. It managed to produce a representation of the first two sentences:[2]

Despite the intuitive character of the boxes, it is not exactly easy to make sense of the jumble. Boxer seems to have produced less than complete parses, hence the repetition of certain elements (e.g. “contemporary treatise”), but I am honestly impressed that I got anything at all. In fact, Boxer did not present a parse when offered the third sentence:

“For whatever might appropriately be said about philosophy in a preface - say a historical statement of the main drift and the point of view, the general content and results, a string of random assertions and assurances about truth - none of this can be accepted as the way in which to expound philosophical truth. “

Failing on such Germanic verbosity is nothing of which Boxer has to be ashamed.It ends, however, the present hopes of rendering Hegel intelligible with the current technology.

I want to suggest that Hegel’s Phenomenology in fact works better with the neo-Davidsonian approach of Boxer than other philosophy texts, because it tries to describes the actions and experiences of spirit. What it describes is closer to action than what we find in most philosophy books.

If you generously fund me for four to five years, I will try to produce such representations for the whole of the Phenomenology. The decision whether that is a worthy investment of your money is up to you.

You can find the code I used in a public github repository, but you need to install the C&C parser as well as Boxer for it to work, which is a challenge in its own right.


[0] Kamp, Hans, and Uwe Reyle. From Discourse to Logic: Introduction to Modeltheoretic Semantics of Natural Language, Formal Logic and Discourse Representation Theory. Studies in Linguistics and Philosophy 42. Dordrecht: Springer-Science+Business Media, B.V, 1993.

[1] I am using the Miller translation.

[2] The parse neglects a few niceties such as representing the word-senses was WordNet synset and the like, but that is not the problem.