|Author||Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel|
|Original title||Phänomenologie des Geistes|
The Phenomenology of Spirit (German: Phänomenologie des Geistes) (1807) is Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's most widely discussed philosophical work; its German title can be translated as either The Phenomenology of Spirit or The Phenomenology of Mind. Hegel described the work as an "exposition of the coming to be of knowledge". This is explicated through a necessary self-origination and dissolution of "the various shapes of spirit as stations on the way through which spirit becomes pure knowledge".
The book marked a significant development in German idealism after Immanuel Kant. Focusing on topics in metaphysics, epistemology, physics, ethics, history, religion, perception, consciousness, and political philosophy, it is where Hegel develops his concepts of dialectic (including the master-slave dialectic), absolute idealism, ethical life, and Aufhebung. It had a profound effect in Western philosophy, and "has been praised and blamed for the development of existentialism, communism, fascism, death of God theology, and historicist nihilism."
Hegel was putting the finishing touches to this book as Napoleon engaged Prussian troops on October 14, 1806, in the Battle of Jena on a plateau outside the city. On the day before the battle, Napoleon entered the city of Jena. Later that same day Hegel wrote a letter to his friend the theologian Friedrich Immanuel Niethammer:
I saw the Emperor - this world-soul - riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it . . . this extraordinary man, whom it is impossible not to admire.
Terry Pinkard notes that Hegel's comment to Niethammer "is all the more striking since at that point he had already composed the crucial section of the Phenomenology in which he remarked that the Revolution had now officially passed to another land (Germany) that would complete 'in thought' what the Revolution had only partially accomplished in practice."
The Phenomenology of Spirit was published with the title "System of Science: First Part: The Phenomenology of Spirit". Some copies contained either "Science of the Experience of Consciousness", or "Science of the Phenomenology of Spirit" as a subtitle between the "Preface" and the "Introduction". On its initial publication, the work was identified as Part One of a projected "System of Science", which would have contained the Science of Logic "and both the two real sciences of philosophy, the Philosophy of Nature and the Philosophy of Spirit" as its second part. The Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, in its third section (Philosophy of Spirit), contains a second subsection (The Encyclopedia Phenomenology) that recounts in briefer and somewhat altered form the major themes of the original Phenomenology.
The book consists of a Preface (written after the rest was completed), an Introduction, and six major divisions (of greatly varying size): "Consciousness", "Self-Consciousness", "Reason", "Spirit", "Religion", and "Absolute Knowledge". Most of these have further hierarchical subdivisions, and some versions of the book's table of contents also group the last four together as a single section on a level with the first two.
Due to its obscure nature and the many works by Hegel that followed its publication, even the structure or core theme of the book itself remains contested. First, Hegel wrote the book under close time constraints with little chance for revision (individual chapters were sent to the publisher before others were written). Furthermore, according to some readers, Hegel may have changed his conception of the project over the course of the writing. Secondly, the book abounds with both highly technical argument in philosophical language, and concrete examples, either imaginary or historical, of developments by people through different states of consciousness. The relationship between these is disputed: whether Hegel meant to prove claims about the development of world history, or simply used it for illustration; whether or not the more conventionally philosophical passages are meant to address specific historical and philosophical positions; and so forth.
Jean Hyppolite famously interpreted the work as a Bildungsroman that follows the progression of its protagonist, Spirit, through the history of consciousness, a characterization that remains prevalent among literary theorists. However, others contest this literary interpretation and instead read the work as a "self-conscious reflective account" that a society must give of itself in order to understand itself and therefore become reflective. Martin Heidegger saw it as the foundation of a larger "System of Science" that Hegel sought to develop, while Alexandre Kojève saw it as akin to a "Platonic Dialogue ... between the great Systems of history." It has also been called "a philosophical roller coaster ... with no more rhyme or reason for any particular transition than that it struck Hegel that such a transition might be fun or illuminating."
The Preface to the text is a preamble to the scientific system and cognition in general. Subtitled "on scientific cognition", its intent is to offer a rough idea on scientific cognition, and thus, making "any attempt to follow it out in detail . . . easier to grasp". Tandem to this is the "opportunity to get rid of certain habits of thought which impede philosophical cognition". As Hegel's own announcement noted, it was to explain "what seems to him the need of philosophy in its present state; also about the presumption and mischief of the philosophical formulas that are currently degrading philosophy, and about what is altogether crucial in it and its study". It can thus be seen as a heuristic attempt at creating the need of philosophy (in the present state) and of what philosophy itself in its present state needs. This involves an exposition on the content and standpoint of philosophy, i.e, the true shape of truth and the element of its existence, that is interspersed with polemics aimed at the presumption and mischief of philosophical formulas and what distinguishes it from that of any previous philosophy, especially that of his German Idealist predecessors (Kant, Fichte, and Schelling).
The Hegelian method consists of actually examining consciousness' experience of both itself and of its objects and eliciting the contradictions and dynamic movement that come to light in looking at this experience. Hegel uses the phrase "pure looking at" (reines Zusehen) to describe this method. If consciousness just pays attention to what is actually present in itself and its relation to its objects, it will see that what looks like stable and fixed forms dissolve into a dialectical movement. Thus, philosophy, according to Hegel, cannot just set out arguments based on a flow of deductive reasoning. Rather, it must look at actual consciousness, as it really exists.
Hegel also argues strongly against the epistemological emphasis of modern philosophy from Descartes through Kant, which he describes as having to first establish the nature and criteria of knowledge prior to actually knowing anything, because this would imply an infinite regress, a foundationalism that Hegel maintains is self-contradictory and impossible. Rather, he maintains, we must examine actual knowing as it occurs in real knowledge processes. This is why Hegel uses the term "phenomenology". "Phenomenology" comes from the Greek word for "to appear", and the phenomenology of mind is thus the study of how consciousness or mind appears to itself. In Hegel's dynamic system, it is the study of the successive appearances of the mind to itself, because on examination each one dissolves into a later, more comprehensive and integrated form or structure of mind.
Whereas the Preface was written after Hegel completed the Phenomenology, the Introduction was written beforehand. It covers much of the same ground, but from a somewhat different perspective.
In the Introduction, Hegel addresses the seeming paradox that we cannot evaluate our faculty of knowledge in terms of its ability to know the Absolute without first having a criterion for what the Absolute is, one that is superior to our knowledge of the Absolute. Yet, we could only have such a criterion if we already had the improved knowledge that we seek.
To resolve this paradox, Hegel adopts a method whereby the knowing that is characteristic of a particular stage of consciousness is evaluated using the criterion presupposed by consciousness itself. At each stage, consciousness knows something, and at the same time distinguishes the object of that knowledge as different from what it knows. Hegel and his readers will simply "look on" while consciousness compares its actual knowledge of the object--what the object is "for consciousness"--with its criterion for what the object must be "in itself". One would expect that, when consciousness finds that its knowledge does not agree with its object, consciousness would adjust its knowledge to conform to its object. However, in a characteristic reversal, Hegel explains that under his method, the opposite occurs.
As just noted, consciousness' criterion for what the object should be is not supplied externally, rather it is supplied by consciousness itself. Therefore, like its knowledge, the "object" that consciousness distinguishes from its knowledge is really just the object "for consciousness" - it is the object as envisioned by that stage of consciousness. Thus, in attempting to resolve the discord between knowledge and object, consciousness inevitably alters the object as well. In fact, the new "object" for consciousness is developed from consciousness' inadequate knowledge of the previous "object." Thus, what consciousness really does is to modify its "object" to conform to its knowledge. Then the cycle begins anew as consciousness attempts to examine what it knows about this new "object".
The reason for this reversal is that, for Hegel, the separation between consciousness and its object is no more real than consciousness' inadequate knowledge of that object. The knowledge is inadequate only because of that separation. At the end of the process, when the object has been fully "spiritualized" by successive cycles of consciousness' experience, consciousness will fully know the object and at the same time fully recognize that the object is none other than itself.
At each stage of development, Hegel, adds, "we" (Hegel and his readers) see this development of the new object out of the knowledge of the previous one, but the consciousness that we are observing does not. As far as it is concerned, it experiences the dissolution of its knowledge in a mass of contradictions, and the emergence of a new object for knowledge, without understanding how that new object has been born.
Consciousness is divided into three chapters: "Sense-Certainty", "Perception", and "Force and the Understanding."
Self-Consciousness contains a preliminary discussion of Life and Desire, followed by two subsections: "Independent and Dependent Self-Consciousness: Lordship and Bondage" and "Freedom of Self-Consciousness: Stoicism, Skepticism, and the Unhappy Consciousness" (das unglückliche Bewußtsein). Notable is the presence of the discussion of the dialectic of the lord and bondsman.
Reason is divided into three chapters: "Observing Reason," "Actualization of Self-Consciousness," and "Individuality Real In and For Itself."
Spirit is divided into three chapters: "The Ethical Order," "Culture," and "Morality."
Religion is divided into three chapters: "Natural Religion," "Religion in the Form of Art," and "The Revealed Religion."
Phenomenology's final chapter is titled "Absolute Knowing" (Miller translation) or "Absolute Knowledge" (Baillie translation, which uses better English). "Absolute" is a philosophical term referring to anything regarded as fundamental to reality. The American Heritage College Dictionary offers this philosophy-based definition: "something regarded as the ultimate basis of all thought and being."
The famous dialectical process of thesis-antithesis-synthesis has been controversially attributed to Hegel.
Whoever looks for the stereotype of the allegedly Hegelian dialectic in Hegel's Phenomenology will not find it. What one does find on looking at the table of contents is a very decided preference for triadic arrangements. ... But these many triads are not presented or deduced by Hegel as so many theses, antitheses, and syntheses. It is not by means of any dialectic of that sort that his thought moves up the ladder to absolute knowledge.
Regardless of (ongoing) academic controversy regarding the significance of a unique dialectical method in Hegel's writings, it is true, as Professor Howard Kainz (1996) affirms, that there are "thousands of triads" in Hegel's writings. Importantly, instead of using the famous terminology that originated with Kant and was elaborated by J. G. Fichte, Hegel used an entirely different and more accurate terminology for dialectical (or as Hegel called them, 'speculative') triads.
Hegel used two different sets of terms for his triads, namely, abstract-negative-concrete (especially in his Phenomenology of 1807), as well as, immediate-mediate-concrete (especially in his Science of Logic of 1812), depending on the scope of his argumentation.
When one looks for these terms in his writings, one finds so many occurrences that it may become clear that Hegel employed the Kantian using a different terminology.
Hegel explained his change of terminology. The triad terms, 'abstract-negative-concrete' contain an implicit explanation for the flaws in Kant's terms. The first term, 'thesis,' deserves its anti-thesis simply because it is too abstract. The third term, 'synthesis,' has completed the triad, making it concrete and no longer abstract, by absorbing the negative.
Sometimes Hegel used the terms, immediate-mediate-concrete, to describe his triads. The most abstract concepts are those that present themselves to our consciousness immediately. For example, the notion of Pure Being for Hegel was the most abstract concept of all. The negative of this infinite abstraction would require an entire Encyclopedia, building category by category, dialectically, until it culminated in the category of Absolute Mind or Spirit (since the German word, 'Geist', can mean either 'Mind' or 'Spirit').
Hegel describes a sequential progression from inanimate objects to animate creatures to human beings. This is frequently compared to Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory. However, unlike Darwin, Hegel thought that organisms had agency in choosing to develop along this progression by collaborating with other organisms. Hegel understood this to be a linear process of natural development with a predetermined end. He viewed this end teleologically as its ultimate purpose and destiny.
Walter Kaufmann, on the question of organisation argued that Hegel's arrangement "over half a century before Darwin published his Origin of Species and impressed the idea of evolution on almost everybody's mind, was developmental." The idea is supremely suggestive but in the end, untenable according to Kaufmann: "The idea of arranging all significant points of view in such a single sequence, on a ladder that reaches from the crudest to the most mature, is as dazzling to contemplate as it is mad to try seriously to implement it". While Kaufmann viewed Hegel as right in seeing that the way a view is reached is not necessarily external to the view itself; since on the contrary a knowledge of the development, including the prior positions, through which a human being passed before adopting a position may make all the difference when it comes to comprehending his or her position, some aspects of the conception are still somewhat absurd and some of the details bizarre. Kaufmann also remarks that the very table of contents of the Phenomenology may be said to 'mirror confusion' and that "faults are so easy to find in it that it is not worth while to adduce heaps of them." However, he excuses Hegel since he understands that the author of the Phenomenology "finished the book under an immense strain".
The work is usually abbreviated as PdG (Phänomenologie des Geistes), followed by the pagination or paragraph number of the German original edition. It is also abbreviated as PS (The Phenomenology of Spirit) or as PM (The Phenomenology of Mind), followed by the pagination or paragraph number of the English translation used by each author.
If, therefore, one is provided with sufficient audacity and is encouraged by the pitiable spirit of the times, one will hold forth somewhat as follows: 'It is not difficult to see that the manner of stating a proposition, of adducing grounds or reasons for it, and likewise of refuting its opposite through grounds or reasons, is not the form in which truth can appear. Truth is the movement of itself within itself', and so on.; Schopenhauer, Arthur (1974). "Sketch of a History of the Doctrine of the Ideal and the Real, Appendix". Parerga and Paralipomena, Volume 1. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19824508-4.
I do not think that it is difficult to see that whoever puts forward anything like this is a shameless charlatan who wants to fool simpletons and observes that he has found his people in the Germans of the nineteenth century.
Electronic versions of the English translation of Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind are available at:
Detailed audio commentary by an academic: