As a 21-year-old senior in college, Nancy Hirschmann encountered—and was forever changed by—German philosopher Hegel’s notoriously difficult passages in The Phenomenology of Spirit. Suddenly, she “broke through the wall” of the concept of the “master-slave dialectic” and its notion of consciousness and recognition. The act of reading a text, deciphering it, and understanding how it translates into a significant meaning kindled Hirschmann’s engagement with political theory.

For Hirschmann, grappling with Hegel’s work was like “solving a very complicated puzzle.” The formative experience of writing her college term paper (one of her proudest written accomplishments) led her to pursue an academic career as a political theorist.


I guess one of my formative Humanities Moments was when I read Hegel’s master-slave dialectic from The Phenomenology of the Spirit, because this was a very difficult passage to understand, obviously, not surprisingly for anyone who’s read it. Here I am, this 21-year-old senior in college, wrestling with this. We had very little lecture time spent on this reading, so I was really trying to grapple with it myself.

All of a sudden, it just broke through. I broke through the wall, and I got what he meant by this whole notion of consciousness and recognition. I think that that was probably the best thing I’ve ever written in political theory, even though it was only an undergraduate term paper. I felt so engaged with the work. I felt so connected. It was like solving a very complicated puzzle. It really made me want to continue that feeling.

That’s why I ended up going on to become a political theorist, because I thought, “This is really exciting, the concept of reading a text, deciphering it, figuring out what the author is saying, but then also understanding how that translates into a meaning that has significance for the way all humanity lives.” I thought that was a very powerful moment for me.