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Force and understanding in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit

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The Phenomenology of Spirit charts the development of consciousness as it rises from lowly common sense to the heights of what Hegel calls ‘absolute knowing’ – the unconditioned form of thinking proper to philosophy itself. This development passes through a series of transitions, and this short essay takes a close look at just one of them: the chapter entitled ‘Force and the Understanding’ at the end of the ‘Consciousness’ section.

We start by briefly surveying this chapter’s position and role within the overall schema of the Phenomenology. We then move on to examine in some detail the nature of the object as outlined in the previous chapter on perception – an object whose contradictions will continue to unfold in the chapter on understanding that is the focus of our enquiry.

There then follows an exposition of how this object develops through the consecutive phases of ‘force’, the ‘realm of laws’ and the ‘inverted world’, before culminating in the ‘infinity’ that prepares the transition to self-consciousness. At each stage we move further away from a commonsense conception of the object. This process reaches a climax at the end the chapter where Hegel overturns our naive notion of ‘appearance’ in favour of a more dialectical conception.

The mysterious ‘inverted world’ is, I argue, an unstable and transitory phenomenon thrown up by the passage from one conception of appearance to the other. I end with a few remarks on how the paradoxical structure of ‘infinity’ overcomes object-oriented consciousness and prepares the ground for the subsequent shift to self-consciousness.

Understanding and consciousness

Hegel divided the Phenomenology into three overarching sections: ‘Consciousness’, ‘Self-Consciousness’ and a third much larger unnamed section that traverses chapters on ‘reason’, ‘spirit’ and ‘religion’ before ending on ‘absolute knowing’. The first section examines forms of consciousness directed towards objects that are conceived of as external to consciousness. The second involves consciousness turned towards itself, or towards another consciousness. These two moments are brought together in the third section, which concerns forms of experience that are aware of themselves and of the wider world in both its natural and social aspects.

The ‘Consciousness’ section is itself broken down into three chapters covering ‘sense-certainty’, ‘perception’ and ‘understanding’, three progressively more complex forms of object-oriented consciousness. Sense-certainty and perception correspond to the standpoints of naive and critical empiricism respectively. They both try to pinpoint the essence of the object in its sensuous presence. It is only after the failure of these efforts that we move to the third stage of understanding (Verstand), which moves beyond sensibility and instead attempts to grasp the object intellectually.

Despite this shifting standpoint (and the corresponding shift in the nature of the object, from ‘this’ to ‘thing’ to ‘force’), each stage of consciousness tries to position the object’s essence in the object and therefore outside itself. Consciousness is reluctant to assume responsibility for the object and abides by the tacit maxim: “Don’t mind me, I’m not here.”

It is only at the end of the chapter on understanding, after the deconstruction of appearance, that the boundary between consciousness and its object is finally dissolved. We discover that “behind the so-called curtain which is supposed to conceal the inner world, there is nothing to be seen unless we go behind it ourselves” (PS, §165). The chapter on understanding thus represents the traumatic last stand of object-oriented consciousness as it gives way to the birth of self-consciousness.

The object of perception

Before we start working through the chapter on understanding it is worth taking a preliminary look at the object as outlined in the previous chapter on perception, in paragraphs §113 to §115. Many of the twists and turns of the dialectic in the third chapter are prefigured in the construction of this object. A sound grasp of it therefore makes it much easier to see what is going on in later stages.

Perception arises from sense-certainty when the universality implicit in that sense-certainty is brought to the fore. That universality is expressed in the object of perception, transforming it from a brute ‘this’ into “the thing with many properties” (PS, §112). Unlike sense-certainty, “perception contains negation, that is, difference or manifoldness, within its own essence” (PS, §112).

The implicit tension between the unity of the thing and the plurality of its properties is what animates the development of this object in this chapter and the next. The irruption of universality into the ‘this’ means that “many such properties are established simultaneously, one being the negative of another” (PS, §113). The question is how this multitude of properties can be related to the one thing, and Hegel offers two contrasting models of how this could be.

The first of these models is set out in paragraph §113. It is characterised by passivity and indifference. The many properties are “indifferent to one another, each is on its own and free from the others”. They “interpenetrate, but without coming into contact with one another”. Hegel uses the word ‘also’ (auch) to describe this indifferent togetherness: a grain of salt “is white and also tart, also cubical in shape”, and moreover “the whiteness does not affect the cubical shape, and neither affects the tart taste” (PS, §113).

What does this indifferent ‘also’ of properties define? Not a thing exactly, but rather ‘thinghood’ (Dingheit): a medium for the properties, or a location where they can be together. Moreover, since the properties are not properties of some thing, strictly speaking they are not quite yet properties either, but rather ‘determinacies’ (Bestimmtheiten) or ‘matters’ (Materien).

However, there is a deeper level to the thing than this indifferent ‘also’, and this makes up the Hegel’s second model of the perceptual object – the excluding ‘one’. Rather than the properties merely lying together indifferently, they start to actively distinguish themselves from one other, and even oppose one another: white not tart, tart not cubical.

As the ‘matters’ start to exert their distinctiveness and pull apart from each other, the thing must start to exert its distinctive unity in order to hold them (and it) together. In this manner the ‘also’ becomes a ‘one’ and “thinghood is determined as a thing” (PS, §114).

Hegel brings together these two models in paragraph §115. The object of perception, considered in toto, is dynamic, comprising the movement from the indifferent ‘also’ to the excluding ‘one’ and back again. The object is “the point of singular individuality in the medium of subsistence radiating forth into plurality” (PS, §115).

But this is an insight for us, the philosophically experienced readers that the Phenomenology is implicitly addressed to. Consciousness at the stage of perception is still wedded to sensuous being, albeit critically. It cannot therefore grasp the entire dynamic cycle of the object, but only one of its moments, in snapshot as it were.

The remainder of the chapter traces the futile attempts of perception to posit one of these sensual moments as the truth and essence of the object. These attempts fail and lead to despair and deception. Consciousness is forced to step beyond the sensuous and posit the essence of the object at a higher level – that of understanding.

The play of forces

The chapter on ‘Force and the Understanding’ starts with a brief discussion of the ‘unconditioned’ (unbedingt) universal.  ‘Unconditioned’ here means unconditioned by the sensuous, an ‘un-thinged’ object if we take the German term literally.

Nevertheless the ‘unconditioned universal’ remains an object for understanding, conceived of as external to and independent of consciousness. Understanding “shrinks away from what has emerged” (PS, §132) and does not yet fully acknowledge its own role in generating the unconditioned universal.

Hegel moves on to note a “positive significance” to the failure of perception: it collapsed because it could not grasp the unity of the excluding ‘one’ and the indifferent ‘also’ (PS, §134). This unity now takes centre stage. Understanding can see in the mind’s eye what perception cannot: both moments in “their transition into one another” (PS, §135). Hegel names this transition ‘force’.

The term ‘force’ (Kraft) is a curious one and clearly meant to evoke the similarly named concept from Newtonian physics. But it would be a mistake to read the term too literally and see this chapter as primarily a commentary on physics. Hegel’s concerns are always in the last instance philosophical ones, and the ‘force’ he talks about is ultimately his own philosophical concept, not one borrowed from another discipline. The relationship to physics in this chapter is indirect, apart from in the later stages of the chapter that I discuss below.

Hegel initially conceives of force asymmetrically: the movement from the ‘one’ to the ‘also’ is the ‘expression of force’, while the movement from the ‘also’ back into the ‘one’ is ‘force proper’ (PS, §136). But this conception is rapidly supplanted by a symmetric one in which the two movements are conceived of as two forces, each ‘soliciting’ and ‘being solicited’ by the other (PS, §138).

Moreover, this stately dance of forces reciprocally summoning one another (perhaps best pictured as a double helix) begins to take priority over the forces themselves. As Hyppolite puts it in his commentary on this chapter: “When the two forces are posed in their independence, their interplay reveals their interdependence.” (Hyppolite, p124).

Two points should be noted about this play of forces that prepare the way for what follows. First, the two forces are the same insofar as they are both forces and different insofar as there are two of them. They exhibit a paradoxical combination of sameness and difference – “the absolute antithesis is posited as a self-identical essence” (PS, §134) – that prefigures the ‘infinity’ that arrives at the chapter’s end.

Second, Hegel notes that while the concept of force “becomes actual through its duplication” (PS, §141), the two forces only exist in terms of each other, and hence “their being really has the significance of a sheer vanishing”. This simultaneous combination of manifestation and vanishing is the hallmark of appearance, to which we now turn.

Appearance and the supersensible world

This ‘vanishing’ triggers a shift in the understanding’s object: where once it looked at the play of forces, now it looks through that mediating play “into the true background of things” (PS, §143): “There now opens up above the sensuous world, which is the world of appearance, a supersensible world which henceforth is the true world, above the vanishing present there opens up a permanent beyond.” (PS, §144).

This supersensible world is thus initially conceived of as a ‘beyond’ of appearance, with appearance as a medium or the ‘middle term’ of a syllogism (PS, §145). It is as if consciousness is a three-stage rocket fired into the stratosphere: sense-certainty takes us so far, perception a step further, but both finally give way to understanding that penetrates the furthest reaches of the beyond.

But this picture of appearance is misleading in certain respects. As Heidegger notes in his lectures on the Phenomenology: “Appearance, taken as appearance, is the appearing of something other than itself.” (Heidegger, p107). What did Van Gogh paint? A picture, to be sure, but he did not just paint that; he also painted a vase of sunflowers, which was not a picture. Similarly appearing is not just about the passing away of appearance, but also the manifestation of that appearance’s other.

This leads to a second, properly dialectical, model of appearance that combines the two moments of vanishing and manifestation. Strictly speaking appearance can no longer be thought of as a medium through which we access a beyond, nor can we counterpose appearance to its beyond. The two are rather identified, not straightforwardly, but in terms of their mutual vanishing into each other.

Hegel flags up this transformation in paragraph §147: “The supersensible is the sensuous and perceived posited as it is in truth; but the truth of the sensuous and the perceived is to be appearance. The supersensible is therefore appearance qua appearance… It is often said that the supersensible world is not appearance; but what is here understood by appearance is not appearance, but rather the sensuous world as itself the really actual.”

It will nevertheless take some time for understanding to work through this transition from the first conception of appearance to the second. This passage takes us from the ‘realm of laws’ to ‘infinity’, a journey that takes us through the strange terrain of the ‘inverted world’.

The realm of laws

We start with appearance as a medium through which we grasp the beyond. The appearance is the play of forces whereby they arise and vanish into each other in ‘absolute flux’ (PS, §148). The truth of this flux is ‘universal difference’ expressed as a law, the “stable image of unstable appearance” (PS, §149). Initially, therefore, the supersensible beyond presents itself as “an inert realm of laws” that stands in contrast to the incessant change of the perceived world.

This picture is, however, problematically one-sided. If the supersensible world is one of static laws and the phenomenal world one of incessant change, then “form and content remain inadequate” (Hyppolite, p127). An essential aspect of the world – change, dynamism, multiplicity – remains marooned at the level of appearance and fails to be sublated into the supersensible. The dialectic that follows aims to introduce dynamism to the static law and thus bring understanding to life.

While Hegel’s aims might be clear, his arguments in what follows are, to my eyes, the most obscure and least satisfactory of this chapter. The bulk of this passage is devoted to a critique of mathematical physics that draws heavily on arguments from Hegel’s Jena lectures on logic and metaphysics. Hegel charges physical laws with being unable to provide an adequate account of their own necessity, thereby lapsing into “merely verbal” (PS, §154) and ultimately tautological ‘explanations’ that repeat the world rather than actually explain anything (PS, §155).

It is difficult not to discern in all this what Badiou calls the “Romantic gesture” in Hegel: setting up philosophy in rivalry to mathematical science then treating the latter as “no more than a crude, dispensable stage on the way to the former… everything which has been sieved and sublated is henceforth dead for thought” (Badiou, p35).

Certainly Hegel never returns to the question of physics in order to supplement it with the necessity he claims it lacks. The natural science that crops up in the later chapters of the Phenomenology is noticeably purged of troublesome mathematical content, and is instead content to paddle in the shallow waters of biological classification.

The inverted world

Details aside, the aim of the dialectic above is to introduce change into the supersensible world. The paradoxical combination of sameness and difference we discovered in the play of forces now becomes a ‘second law’ of appearance, one based on the “permanence of impermanence”. Hegel describes this new law in terms that nod towards electromagnetism: “what is selfsame repels itself from itself” and “what is not selfsame is self-attractive” (PS, §156).

The introduction of this foreign principle has a dramatic effect on the “tranquil kingdom of laws” – it is “changed into its opposite”, a “second supersensible world” that is “the inversion of the first” (PS, §157). There then follows one of the most bizarre passages in the Phenomenology, where Hegel describes this topsy-turvy world where sweet becomes sour, white becomes black and north becomes south. The inversions cover moral laws as well as natural ones: honour becomes contempt and punishment becomes pardon (PS, §158).

What is going on here? Hyppolite argues that the inverted world should be seen as a radicalisation of the commonsense view of appearance and supersensible beyond as opposites: “The difference between essence and appearance has become an absolute difference, with the result that we say anything in itself is the opposite of what it appears for another. We could indeed agree with common sense that appearances are not to be trusted; that they must, on the contrary, be negated if their true essence is to be discovered.” (Hyppolite, p136).

The inverted world is thereby an unstable phenomenon brought about by an incomplete transition from the naive to the dialectical conception of appearance. The problem arises from introducing the principle of dynamic contradiction into the realm of laws without altering that realm’s qualitative status as an ‘inner world’ or a ‘beyond’ of appearance.

Another way of looking at this involves highlighting a problem with the ‘three-stage rocket’ model of appearance outlined above. This picture conceives the ‘beyond’ of appearance as if it were somehow lurking over the horizon – and not as something qualitatively different to appearance. The beyond is rather conceived of as an appearance that just happens not to appear. And the inverted world simply pushes this logic to breaking point: it is quite literally the appearance that does not appear: sweet things are ‘inwardly’ sour, white things are ‘inwardly’ black.

There is a fallacy in all this, as Hegel explains. If we are to import a principle of dynamic contradiction into the supersensible world, we cannot let the inner-outer distinction remain untouched: “But such antithesis of inner and outer, of appearance and the supersensible, as of two different kinds of actuality, we no longer find here.” (PS, §159). Conceiving things in this way in fact sends us back from understanding to the level of perception complemented by an imaginary inner world “thought of as sensuous”.

Instead we have to find the inverted world in this world, as possibilities operating within it, and think the two together. The inverted world “has at the same time overarched the other world and has it within it… it is itself and its opposite in one unity” (PS, §160). Hegel calls this unity of opposites – “the bond of the bond and the non-bond” as he put it in his early writings – infinity.

Infinity and self-consciousness

Infinity is the paradoxical truth of the object that holds together unity and difference in a higher unity. Hegel calls it “the simple essence of life, the soul of the world, the universal blood… it pulsates within itself but does not move, inwardly vibrates, yet is at rest” (PS, §162). Its structure was there from the start of consciousness, animating the dialectical progressions of sense-certainty and perception. But it is only at the culmination of the dialectic of understanding that it has “freely and clearly shown itself” (PS, §163).

Infinity is the truth of the object, but it is not quite itself an object. For a consciousness that grasps infinity grasps its unity with infinity as well as its difference. The ‘object’ no longer stand opposed to consciousness, and so consciousness transforms into self-consciousness: “I distinguish myself from myself, and in so doing I am directly aware that what is distinguished from myself is not different.” (PS, §164)

Appearance as a curtain hanging before the inner world, or the middle term of a syllogism, has thus dissolved. Instead the two former extremes – the inner being of consciousness and the inner being of the object – are united (PS, §165). The stage is set for the next phase of the phenomenological journey: that of self-consciousness.


The primary text used is GWF Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, translated by AV Miller (Oxford University Press, 1977). I have also consulted Jean Hyppolite’s French translation, Phénoménologie d’Esprit (Éditions Montaigne, 1941). Secondary texts cited include: Jean Hyppolite, Genesis and Structure of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (Northwestern University Press, 1974); Martin Heidegger, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (Indiana University Press, 1988); Alain Badiou, Theoretical Writings (Continuum, 2004).



This entry was posted on 20 May 2011 by in Philosophy and tagged .