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Notes on Hegel’’s Phenomenology of Spirit

Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit boasts a bizarre and starkly original structure. While Hegel’s philosophical preoccupations are in line with those of his German Idealist precursors – constructing a scientific metaphysics, reconciling ethico-political and scientific reason, emphasising subjectivity as the key to these deadlocks – his method is radically different.

Rather than presenting his philosophy in the form of a finished system to be outlined, explicated and set to work (in the manner of, say, Kant or Fichte), Hegel presents us with a Bildungsroman – a narrative of self-education and development ­– that traces the mutations and vicissitudes of consciousness from its origins in brute self-certainty (roughly speaking, jabbing your finger at things and grunting “This!”, “Here!”, “Now!”) to its destiny in divine Absolute Knowledge.

This journey takes us through stages, and sub-stages within those stages. Hegel describes this as “the path of the soul as it wanders through the series of ways it takes shape” (PS, §77) and compares the stages to “stations” – an allusion to the Stations of the Cross in Christian iconography. We have, it seems, a straightforward tale of linear progress from the base to the holy.

A couple of things complicate this picture, however. For starters, while these temporal or historical metaphors are perhaps unavoidable, they are by no means fundamental. The movement Hegel speaks of is a logical one – how one concept necessarily transforms itself into the next. It is this logical progression of concepts that becomes the basis for Time and History, not vice versa.

Secondly, this movement has a cyclical element that at times threatens to eclipse its more obvious progressive aspect. The Absolute is not simply a distant endpoint of knowledge. In a sense it was there from the beginning, lurking within the jabbing and grunting of self-certainty as a potential waiting to unfold.

This tension between a step forward and a return to the source animates the political debates between revolutionary and conservative interpretations of Hegel’s thought. It is a tension captured in the double meaning of Hegel’s preferred term for dialectical progression: Aufhebung – which means both “to preserve” and “to annul”.

The question remains as to why Hegel embarks upon his idiosyncratic but seminal course. My view is that he is returning to a key political problem of Enlightenment thought: how can the new philosophy of liberating reason be made accessible to all?

Kant grapples with this problem but ends up deciding to sacrifice his early populist flamboyance for an austere and desiccated style. The critique of pure reason, he reluctantly concludes, is ultimately the concern of experts rather than lay masses (CPR, Axviii). A certain elitism, at least in presentation, is therefore unavoidable.

Hegel emphatically rejects this conclusion. Any system of knowledge that cannot trace the path from mundane thought to itself is a system that cannot think its own materialisation. Its universality remains “abstract” and to that extent impaired. Consequently a truly scientific metaphysics must encompass an account of its own development from humble origins. Implicit within all this is a critique of utopian thought that will come to the fore in the hands of Marx and Engels.

Consciousness and Self-Consciousness

The first major dialectical progression to be found in the Phenomenology is the transition from consciousness to self-consciousness. As with all such transitions, it involves both a break and a continuity – with rival schools of Hegel interpretation tending to stress one over the other.

The “analytic” school of interpretation stresses continuity. Consciousness is essentially a subject relating to an object; self-consciousness involves that same subject relating to itself. At first glance, then, it seems that self-consciousness is a special case of consciousness in general, in much same the manner that 2 × 2 is a special case of 2 × x, doubling in general.

Even here, however, a complication arises. Inwood, for instance, notes that the reflexive dimension of self-consciousness is present at the very start within ordinary object-oriented consciousness, in the form of an “awareness of the discrepancy between itself and its object”. Moreover, this minimal self-awareness acts as the motor of the dialectic, triggering the advance to the next step.

An example of such a transition occurs in the opening paragraphs of the dialectic of self-certainty. We start with the immediate certainty of a This, which then splits in two: “This as I” and “This as object” (PS, §92). The latter of these proves to be contingent and fleeting, while the former remains stable. Self-certainty is thus “driven out of the object” and “pushed back into the I” (PS, §100).

This pattern of an object of consciousness being displaced and ultimately sublated by its subjective supplement is a leitmotif running throughout the opening chapters of the Phenomenology and beyond. Its ubiquity suggests that far from self-consciousness being a mere form of consciousness, the relationship is the other way round: object-oriented consciousness is but a passing moment of a more general and profound process of self-consciousness.

This is the viewpoint adopted by the “existential” school of Hegel interpretation that stresses the rupture between self-consciousness and consciousness over any continuity. Hyppolite, for instance, declares the motto of German Idealism to be: “Self-consciousness is the truth of consciousness.” And consciousness leads itself to this truth “by an internal logic of which it is not aware”.

This “rupture” diagnosis is given further credence by the radically different style and content of Hegel’s arguments in the chapter on self-consciousness. The epistemological concerns of earlier chapters are replaced by ethical and existential ones. Consciousness turns towards projects rather than objects. The subject of knowledge gives way to the subject of desire.

Even on a formal level, the twists and turns of the dialectic of self-consciousness are significantly more complex than those of consciousness. The subject reflecting upon itself becomes two subjects facing each other. This in turn transforms into a “life-and-death struggle” between them. At this point the symmetry breaks down: one subject emerges as master and the other as slave. The celebrated “master-slave dialectic” ensues, culminating in the slave’s self-emancipation through labour. The journey of consciousness has taken it right up to the threshold of History.

Understanding and Reason

The themes of the chapter on self-consciousness are predominantly intersubjective – the wider natural and social world recedes into the background as the focus shifts to relationships between one subject and another, or between a subject and itself.

This does not mean, however, that Hegel is uninterested in what we might loosely call scientific cognition of the world, and the section on self-consciousness is bookended by two chapters dealing with just that problematic. It is preceded by a chapter on “Understanding” (Verstand) and followed by a much larger one entitled “Reason” (Vernunft).

Inwood notes that these two terms were introduced into German by Meister Eckhart as translations of medieval philosophical distinctions. Vernunft referred to ordinary discursive reason, while Verstand was the higher form of intellect that moved beyond the sensible world to grasp things as pure conceptual essence, or idea.

By the time of Wolff and Kant, these connotations remained but their priorities were reversed: Understanding’s detachment from the sensory was now seen as a defect rather than a virtue, and this defect was to be remedied by Reason’s higher synthesis of the sensible and intelligible.

Hegel broadly adopts this distinction but recasts it to fit his phenomenological narrative. Understanding’s orientation towards supersensible laws marks it out as the highest form of (object-oriented) consciousness. It has learnt that perception leads ineluctably to deception, and searches for truth beyond that realm. But it has not yet discovered that lurking behind the curtain of appearance, “there is nothing to be seen unless we ourselves go behind it” (PS, §165).

Reason, in contrast, takes its place after the intervention of self-consciousness. The course of self-consciousness runs through the master-slave dialectic, stoicism and scepticism, before culminating in an “unhappy consciousness” that relates to itself, but only at the price of being cut off from God and the world. Reason reunites consciousness and self-consciousness by stepping back out into the world – but this time fully aware of its own subjective immersion in reality and confident of its ultimate identity with that reality. In contrast to earlier forms of consciousness, Reason observes.

The shift from Understanding to Reason also involves a shift in the genre of worldly knowledge sought out. In its emphasis on laws and forces, Understanding’s journey through the “nightlike void of the supersensible beyond” (PS, §177) draws its inspiration from physics, and in particular the science of electromagnetism, then in its extreme infancy.

Reason, in contrast, travels through realms that roughly correspond to biology, psychology, right up to the first tentative appearance of ethics and jurisprudence. In these latter phases we step onto the terrain of the study of our collective lives. Reason’s observation has finally discovered itself as an object of study. At this point the journey of individual consciousness is over and we enter a new arena, one animated by the “I that is we and the we that is I” (PS, §177): the arena of Spirit.

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This entry was posted on 14 November 2009 by in Philosophy and tagged .