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Phenomenology of Spirit

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Phenomenology of Spirit

The Phenomenology of Spirit
Author Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Original title Phänomenologie des Geistes
Country Germany
Language German
Genre Philosophy
Publication date 1807

Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807) is G.W.F. Hegel's most important, most widely discussed philosophical work. Hegel's first book, it describes the three-stage dialectical life of Spirit. The title can be translated as either The Phenomenology of Spirit or The Phenomenology of Mind, because the German word Geist has both meanings. The book's working title, which also appeared in the first edition, was Science of the Experience of Consciousness. On its initial publication (see cover image on right), it was identified as Part One of a projected "System of Science", of which the Science of Logic was the second part. A smaller work, titled Philosophy of Spirit (also translated as "Philosophy of Mind"), appears in Hegel's Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, and recounts in briefer and somewhat altered form the major themes of the original Phenomenology.

Phenomenology was the basis of Hegel's later philosophy and marked a significant development in German idealism after Kant. Focusing on topics in metaphysics, epistemology, physics, ethics, history, religion, perception, consciousness, and political philosophy, The Phenomenology is where Hegel develops his concepts of dialectic (including the Master-slave dialectic), absolute idealism, ethical life, and Aufhebung. The book 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."[1]

In The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel takes his readers through the evolution of consciousness. The consciousness is that of an entity called Spirit. Spirit is loosely comparable to a pantheist's definition of God as nature. Spirit undergoes three dialectical stages, the first of which is merely implied. The stages are (1) unconsciousness, a stage in which Spirit has not yet acquired mind, (2) consciousness, in which Spirit acquires mind but misinterprets everything it perceives as something other than itself, and (3) self-consciousness, wherein Spirit realizes what it really is—all reality, including all human minds—and that it is the "divine" or "God," but not the supernatural God of theism.

Historical context

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. Hegel recounted his impressions in a letter to his friend 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.

"That Hegel said this to Niethammer at that time 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."[2]

Spirit Identified

It is impossible to understand Phenomenology of Spirit without understanding Hegel’s concept of Spirit. Spirit, defined by Hegel as “all reality,”[3] is a somewhat complicated four-faceted conceptual entity. It has a physical side and a mental side. Each side has a general (“universal”) facet and a particular facet. Spirit’s physical side is all physical (material) reality, including both natural objects (stars, comets, clouds, mountains, lakes, sand, elephants, birds, worms, humans, trees, flowers, moss) and artificial or man-made objects (houses, keys, fences, carts, teaspoons,plows, guns, toys, ships, shoes, flags, cake). The physical side’s general facet is the world or universe itself (Spirit is sometimes called the World-Spirit[4]). The particular facet is all the particulars that constitute the universe.

The mental side of Spirit is nothing but the collective mind of man, the sum total of all human minds. Mind’s general facet is this totality. Mind’s particular facet is the individual minds of individual human beings. It is through his mind that Spirit achieves self-consciousness, also called self-realization. Self-realization occurs when Spirit, thinking with Hegel’s mind, finally realizes that it is all reality – everything perceived by all human minds plus the minds themselves.

Self-realization brings “Absolute Knowing” and transforms Spirit into Absolute Spirit.[5] (Some interpreters mistakenly refer to Absolute Spirit as synonymous with Spirit, not realizing that Absolute Spirit does not come into existence until the last paragraph of Phenomenology.) Absolute Knowing is the knowledge of man that he and not the imaginary God in heaven – the God of “picture thinking” – is the true God, the “divine” or “infinite.” Kaufmann thus comments that Hegel’s exposition “should have caused no misunderstanding, had it not been for Hegel’s occasional references to God.”[6] Findlay is more emphatic: “Hegel often speaks the language of a metaphysical theology, but such language, it is plain, is a mere concession to the pictorial mode of religious expression. As a philosopher, Hegel believes in no God and no Absolute.”[7] Tucker is even more emphatic: “Hegelianism . . . is a religion of self-worship whose fundamental theme is . . . Hegel’s image of the man who aspires to be God himself, who demands ‘something more, namely, infinity.’”[8] The image presented by Hegel is that “of a self-glorifying humanity striving compulsively, and at the end successfully, to rise to divinity.”[9] Solomon adds: “What then does Hegel’s conception of God admit which any atheist would not? To say that God exists is no more than to say that humanity exists. That is atheism.”[10]

In Phenomenology, Spirit undergoes a dialectical “life.”[11] “Dialectical” refers to Hegel’s unique brand of thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectics. A Hegelian dialectic is a three-stage process consisting of a thesis, an antithesis (anti-thesis), and a synthesis. The thesis is a concept that can usually be stated in one or two words (e.g., one). The antithesis is the opposite concept (e.g., many), not just something different. The synthesis is a sort of compromise (e.g., one composed of many, or one = many). Most of Hegel’s dialectics consist of a two-concept thesis, a two-concept antithesis, and a two-concept synthesis that combines the best concept from the thesis with the best from the antithesis. Hence, in Spirit’s “divine life,” Spirit advances through these stages:

  • Thesis: unconscious + unity
  • Antithesis: conscious + separation
  • Synthesis: conscious + unity (“conscious” from the antithesis, “unity” from the thesis)[12]

Hegel was aware that humanity has not always existed. Lecturing on the philosophy of history, he said, “After the creation of nature appears man.”[13] Before man appears, however, "the first organism" is the earth, which does not have the form of "a living creature."[14] During this pre-human era, Spirit exists in its physical aspect but not in its mental aspect: it does not yet have a mind, hence is unconscious. Being unconscious, it can’t perceive and misinterpret the many “objects” in the universe as something other than itself. So it exists in a state of unity. In this stage (thesis stage), "God, as spirit, is already metaphorically asleep [unconscious] in nature, and the divine principle of 'spirit' comes to fruition only as humans appear on the planet." Then "spirit, as it were, wakes up from its natural slumber and becomes conscious of itself."[15]

When man arrives on the planet, Spirit acquires its very human mind and becomes conscious. Individual men see all sorts of “objects” that they misinterpret as “alien,” or things other than themselves. But both the observer and the objects are essentially Spirit, so Spirit becomes existentially separated or estranged from itself (antithesis stage). Finally Hegel arrives and, acting as Spirit’s mind, “realizes” (but has really known all along) that he and every object he perceives are one, because both are essentially Spirit. Tucker puts it this way: "Hegel . . . conceived himself as particular man in whom God [Spirit] -- the absolute self -- finally achieves full actualization."[16] Spirit thus regains the unity it had in the thesis stage, but this time the unity is conscious unity (synthesis). Man has become God. And there the book ends.

Structure of Phenomenology

The structure of Phenomenology is heavily influenced by Hegel’s need to conceal his atheism. Solomon points out that in his early unpublished writings – these attacked Christianity – Hegel wrote clearly. But around 1800 his once-clear language became the obscurantist, ambiguous, sometimes impossible to comprehend language – the language of Phenomenology—for which Hegel is famous. Why the change? Pinkard writes: “Hegel was desperate for a position [a professorship], and to get a position he needed a book.”[17] But a book openly espousing atheism would have wrecked Hegel’s career ambitions. Solomon provides more detail: “Hegel had seen Spinoza’s Ethics condemned in Germany. He had seen Kant, whom he considered to be unquestioningly orthodox, censured and censored by the narrow-minded regime of Frederick Wilhelm II. He had seen Fichte dismissed from the university at Jena [where Hegel was teaching] for views that were (incorrectly) construed as atheistic. Is it only a coincidence that the year of Hegel’s 'great conversion,' 1800, is also the beginning of his professional philosophical career, and that the writing of Phenomenology (1806) is simultaneously the time of his first professorship?”[18] And so Hegel’s writing became what Pippin calls “the ugliest prose style in the history of the German language.”[19]

Ambiguous, obscurantist writing is the first of two techniques Hegel uses to conceal his atheism. The second technique is well concealed thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectics – dialectics that Karl Marx and Paul Tillich understood but that most other interpreters couldn’t recognize.[20] As already mentioned, the overarching structure of Phenomenology is the dialectic that proceeds from (1) unconscious + unity to (2) conscious + separation to (3) conscious + unity. Shorter dialectics emerge under this long one. Phenomenology begins with a long section on “Consciousness” whose three subheadings are a thesis (one, universal), an antithesis (many, particular), and a synthesis (one = many, universe composed of particulars). All three stages are so subtly presented that they have largely escaped notice. A long series of even shorter dialectics are hidden in commentaries that seem to discuss other subjects, such as Faust and phrenology. Near the end of the book the long chapter on “Religion” has three sections – “Natural Religion,” “Religion in the Form of Art,” and “The Revealed Religion.” These headings constitute an extremely subtle dialectic: natural (thesis), artificial (antithesis), and natural = artificial. Natural alludes to man, a natural being; artificial alludes to God, an artificial (man-made) being; and natural = artificial (synthesis) is an encrypted way of saying Man = God.[21] At a still lower level of Hegel’s outline, each stage of the natural-artificial dialectic has within it one or more additional dialectics.

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.

Because of 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,[22] 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"[23] 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,[24] while Alexandre Kojève saw it as akin to a "Platonic Dialogue ... between the great Systems of history."[25] It has also been called "a philosophical rollercoaster ... with no more rhyme or reason for any particular transition than that it struck Hegel that such a transition might be fun or illuminating."[26] This last comment, however, reflects its author's failure to recognize that the ostensible subjects of various passages are not the real subjects, which are concealed dialectics.

Hegel's Preface

The Preface to the Phenomenology, all by itself, is considered one of Hegel's major works and a major text in the history of philosophy, because in it he sets out the core of his philosophical method and what distinguishes it from that of any previous philosophy, especially that of his German Idealist predecessors (Kant, Fichte, and Schelling).

Hegel's approach, referred to as 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 a description of how Spirit's consciousness first emerges from unconsciousness (thesis) and then proceeds to a stage where consciousness misinterprets external "objects" as "alien" (antithesis) -- things other than itself—and finally achieves self-consciousness by recognizing that the external objects are itself, because everything is essentially Spirit (synthesis). Regarding the second stage, Hegel writes, "The object is revealed to it [as] something alien, and it does not recognize itself."[27] The second stage, self-alienation or separation from itself, is followed by the third stage, a dialectical synthesis: "Spirit . . . . becomes alienated from itself and then returns to itself from this alienation" (italics added).[28] Hegel’s word "returns" plainly suggests an earlier stage (thesis stage) of nonseparation that precedes the stage of separation (antithesis stage) from which Spirit returns in a triadic movement from nonseparation (unity) to separation and then back to nonseparation. In Hegel's dynamic system, phenomenology is a description of successive appearances of Spirit to itself, where the perceiving aspect of Spirit is it's mind, the mind of humans. Only at the end of the book does Spirit correctly perceive what it actually is.

Perhaps the most important passage of the preface is this: “Of course, the triadic form [dialectics] must not be regarded as scientific when it is reduced to a lifeless schema, a mere shadow, and when scientific organization is degraded into a table of terms [Kant’s table]. Kant rediscovered this triadic form by instinct, but in his work it was still lifeless and uncomprehended; since then it has, however, been raised to its absolute significance, and with it the true form in its true content has been presented, so that the Notion of Science has emerged.”[29] Here Hegel is obviously praising the dialectics that has evolved in Hegel’s work from Kant’s “lifeless” table. He is implying that, in Phenomenology, thesis-antithesis-synthesis (“triadic”) dialectics has been perfected, raised to “absolute significance.” Indeed, dialectics has become a “Science” (modestly spelled with an upper case S). In short, Hegel is calling attention to, and praising, his extensive use of dialectics in Phenomenology. He is telling us to look for his concealed dialectics.

But, incomprehensibly, Beiser writes: “Hegel did praise “the triadic form” that had been rediscovered by Kant, . . . but this is a reference to the triadic form of Kant’s table of categories, not a method of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. . . . Hegel never used Kant’s method.” Dialectics “corresponds to nothing in Fichte or Schelling, let alone Hegel.”[30] Now reread in the preceding paragraph what Hegel actually wrote. He is not praising Kant’s triadic form; he is calling it unscientific and lifeless. Hegel’s praise is for his own version of dialectics, which has been raised to a “Science.” True, Hegel never used Kant’s method, where dialectics is “degraded into a table of terms,” but how can Beiser infer from what Hegel actually wrote that Hegel was hostile to dialectics – didn’t use dialectics? Hegel is plainly hinting that we should be alert for dialectics in Phenomenology.

Hegel's Introduction

The preface is followed by a brief “Introduction” section that has little of substance. We merely learn that Phenomenology will deal with “the life of the Spirit” and that this “life” will follow a “road” that passes through many “stations.” Later in the book we learn that the stations are narratives that superficially discuss a wide variety of largely unrelated topics but cryptically develop hidden dialectics. References to “two moments” (the thesis and antithesis stages of a dialectic) and “this dialectical movement” (Hegel’s italics) are hints that dialectical activity is under way,[31] although most interpreters seem to have missed the significance of these words. Recall that, in the Preface, Hegel refers to the dialectical triad as his new "Science." In his introduction, Hegel says that Spirit's life of travel is Spirit’s "education" – it is really our education – in the so-called Science of dialectics: "The series of configurations which consciousness goes through along this road is, in reality, the detailed history of the education of consciousness itself to the standpoint of Science" (Hegel’s italics).[32]

The most significant words of the Introduction are in the last two sentences: “In pressing forward to its true existence, consciousness [Spirit’s mind] will arrive at a point at which it gets rid of its semblance of being burdened with something alien, . . . where appearance becomes identical with essence. . . . And finally, when consciousness grasps this its own essence, it will signify the nature of absolute knowledge itself.”[33] Translation: During the antithesis stage of its “life,” Spirit is “burdened” with the misconception that every object it sees is “something alien,” something other than itself. When Spirit “gets rid of” this misconception, it will obtain “absolute knowledge” and progress from the state of “existence” to the state of “essence.” Spirit will get rid of the misconception when it realizes that the supposedly “alien” objects are itself, that everything (including the conscious observer) is Spirit or “God,” and that man is therefore God. This realization is the act of self-realization, which elevates Spirit to its ultimate status of Absolute Spirit. It is man’s realization that he, and not the supernatural God formerly imagined to exist in heaven, is the true God.

Hegel's Consciousness Heading

Hegel’s next heading, Consciousness, is divided into three chapters: "Sense-Certainty", "Perception", and "Force and the Understanding."

Sense-Certainty, Perception, and Force and the Understanding are, respectively, the thesis, antithesis, and synthesis of a hidden dialectic. Later in Phenomenology Hegel actually says that the three concepts constitute a dialectic: “The activity of skepticism . . . exhibits the dialectical movement [Hegel’s italics] which Sense-certainty, Perception, and the Understanding each is.”.[34] The dialectic:

  • Thesis: one (universal)
  • Antithesis: many (particular)
  • Synthesis: one = many (universal = particulars)

This dialectic alludes to the idea that Spirit is a universal entity (one unified self) composed of innumerable particulars, including all human beings and their minds. Hegel manages to say in one surprisingly clear sentence all that needs to be said about sense-certainty: “So it is in fact the universal that is the true [content] of sense-certainty.”[35]

The discussion of Perception shifts to the topic of particularity. Hegel describes how different objects have different characteristics that distinguish them from other objects. The characteristics include such things as shape, color, taste, and weight. His point is simply that we perceive differences that separate one object from another, giving us many particular objects. This lesson is so far removed from profundity – it is kindergarten knowledge – that we should recognize that there is a hidden point. That point is that Perception is a code word for “many” or “particular.”

Force and the Understanding is a rambling discussion that superficially relates to invisible forces such as gravity, magnetism, and centrifugal force. The first two pull things together. And that is what a synthesis does: it pulls the thesis and the antithesis together into a sort of compromise if not a previously unperceived identity. In this instance, one and many, which superficially are opposites, are actually identical in the sense that the one is composed of the many. Spirit, one entity, comprises all of the many objects in the universe.

Hegel's Self-Consciousness Heading

Hegel’s discussion under the “Self-Consciousness” heading has almost nothing to do with the heading. In Hegel’s idiosyncratic terminology, self-consciousness means the same thing as self-realization, namely, Spirit’s realization that everything is essentially Spirit and that man is therefore God. But the Self-Consciousness discussion is really a discussion of four narratives containing hidden dialectics. The four topics are Lordship and Bondage, Stoicism, Skepticism, and the Unhappy Consciousness. Lordship and Bondage, better known as Master and Slave, is by far the most widely recognized and discussed of Hegel’s narratives. And it contains the dialectic that is perhaps the most directly related to Hegel’s God = man message. So, in the interests of brevity, the discussion can be confined to the master and slave dialectic.

In Hegel’s narrative, a person called “consciousness” is at first alone in his world. He enjoys freedom, but the freedom is only potential, not actual: he has not yet encountered another being who might enslave him. Then he meets, fights, and submits to another person whose slave he becomes and who becomes his master. But the master eventually becomes dependent on the slave, and the slave in effect becomes the master. The master is then forced to free the slave. This story is really a parable in which the master is God, the slave is man, and the slave’s ultimately becoming the master is man’s ultimately becoming God (Spirit’s act of self-realization). The master's dependence on the slave symbolizes God's dependence on man's belief that a supernatural God exists. Solomon can therefore write that Hegel “was very concerned with and disdainful of the whole traditional opposition of God and man, which he viewed as nothing less than a ‘Master-Slave’ relation which made impossible human dignity.”[36]

The narrative and its related concept of bondage also introduces Hegel’s widely misunderstood concept of freedom. Hegelian freedom is not a sociopolitical concept having to do with the proper balance between the rights of the state and the rights of individuals. Hegelian freedom is instead release from bondage – bondage to God, bondage to religion, and bondage to religious superstition. The slave’s achieving freedom from bondage to the master symbolizes man’s achieving freedom from bondage to God. And that is what happens when Spirit achieves self-realization, when man elevates himself to “infinity.”[37]

The parable's chief dialectic is this:

  • Thesis: potential + freedom
  • Antithesis: actual + bondage
  • Synthesis: actual + freedom

Like most of Hegel's other dialectics, this dialectic has a two-concept thesis, a two-concept antithesis, and a two-concept synthesis that borrows the best concept from the thesis (freedom) and the best from the antithesis (actual). (Other dialectics have one concept per stage and syntheses that reveal that the antithesis is really the thesis in disguise—for example God [thesis], man [antithesis], God = man [synthesis].)

Hegel's Reason Heading

Hegel’s extremely long section on “Reason” has three chapters: "Observing Reason," "Actualization of Rational Self-Consciousness," and "Individuality [as] Real In and For Itself." Here we find an even longer series of dialectical narratives. The best narrative for illustrative purposes might be the “Physiognomy and Phrenology” narrative. These two long-discredited theories assert that a person's character can be predicted from facial features (physiognamy) or from bumps on the skull (phrenology). This material commands interest because it has generally been regarded as the most digressive, out-of-place subject matter in Hegel’s book. Solomon calls the physiognomy-phrenology discussion "the oddest single section in the entire book."[38] Kaufmann finds the discussion "oddly" included.[39]

The narratives correspond to two inner-outer dialectics. Every person supposedly has a certain inner (concealed) character, say, that of a poet. Physiognomy and phrenology say a person’s character can be judged by the person's outer features. If the outer features supposedly reveal that the person has poetry talent, and the person then writes a remarkable poem, the identity of the inner character and the outer character is revealed. This dialectic results:

  • Thesis: Inner
  • Antithesis: Outer
  • Synthesis: Inner = Outer

This dialectic alludes to Spirit’s interpretive problem. During Spirit’s “conscious separation” period, consciousness (any human mind) judges all external objects by their outer appearance and concludes that they are “alien,” things existing apart from the observer. “Consciousness . . . does not recognize itself in that reflected object,”,[40] because consciousness is judging the objects by their outer appearance. When Spirit achieves self-realization, it reverses course and judges objects by their inner reality. Consciousness finally recognizes that the objects are itself, because consciousness and the objects are all essentially Spirit. Spirit is their inner reality or essence. So consciousness (Spirit) concludes that each object’s outer appearance matches its inner reality, because both consciousness and the observed object are Spirit. Everything is Spirit, because Spirit is all reality.[41]

Hegel’s Spirit Heading

In Phenomenology’s table of contents a “Spirit” heading follows the "Reason" heading. The surface topics Hegel seems to be discussing again serve to disguise a series of dialectics, seven in this case (not counting additional dialectics where a surface topic hides more than one dialectic). Possibly the most illuminating of these new dialectics is the one hidden in Hegel’s retelling of the Greek tragedy Antigone. In this tale the heroine, Antigone, buries the body of her brother, a traitor, in defiance of orders from Creon, king of Thebes. In a parade of related events, Antigone, Creon’s son, Creon’s wife, and ultimately Creon himself commit suicide. The underlying cause of these events is a conflict between (a) the laws of the gods, or divine law, upheld by Antigone, and (b) human laws, promulgated by Creon. "Antigone . . . is torn between 'the Divine Law' of family unity and the 'Human Law' of society and social obedience."[42]

Surprisingly, Hegel discusses Antigone without taking sides. Stern illuminates Hegel’s refusal to judge with these words: “It is less clear exactly how Hegel wants us to understand the play, and thus exactly what lesson he wants us to draw from it.” He adds that it is a “mistake . . . to look for evidence that Hegel wanted to ‘take sides’.”[43] But why was Hegel unwilling to take sides, given Creon’s extreme cruelty and unreasonableness (burying Antigone alive for burying her own beloved brother)?

The answer is that Hegel is retelling the story in order to create another dialectic. In this dialectic, both divine law (Antigone) and human law (Creon) are right, depending on whether you adopt a woman’s perspective or a man’s perspective. Here is the dialectic:

  • Thesis: divine law is right ("divine")
  • Antithesis: human law is right ("human")
  • Synthesis: both laws are right (divine law = human law—when divine = human, hence God = man)

Here we have an extremely subtle adumbration of Hegel’s God, man, God = man dialectic. To those who have ears, Hegel is saying that the true God (Spirit) is man.[44]

Hegel's Religion Heading

Religion too is divided into three chapters: "Natural Religion," "Religion in the Form of Art," and "The Revealed Religion." Kaufmann has written: “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.”[45]

To be sure, not all of Hegel's triads are dialectics. But the table of contents triad of (1) natural religion, (2) religion in the form of art, and (3) the revealed religion has subtlety in its wording. The key word is “art.” All art is man-made, hence artificial rather than natural. We thus have a hidden natural-artificial dialectic. This dialectic becomes even more apparent when we see that both “natural religion” and “religion in the form of art” have more explicit natural-artificial subdialectics that call our attention to the natural-artificial dichotomy.

Now things get more subtle. Man is a natural being, so “natural” can represent man. God, according to Hegel, is a man-made being, a product of human “picture-thinking,” so “artificial” can represent God. And when we get to “the revealed religion” (Hegel’s redefined concept of Christianity), we learn that man is God. In Solomon's words, "The incarnation no longer refers to Christ alone,but only to the philosophical thesis that there is no God other than humanity. Spirit, that is, humanity made absolute, is God.".[46] That is, man is the essence of Spirit, which Hegel sometimes deceptively calls God to conceal his atheism. Kaufmann understands this: “The Phenomenology of the Spirit ends with the death of God, with Golgotha [Calvary Hill]. . . . . To put it in our own words; there is no supreme being beyond.”[47] This process of interpretation yields the following dialectic, which uses the format in which the synthesis reveals that the antithesis is really the thesis in disguise:

  • ‘’Thesis’‘: natural (man, human)
  • ‘’Antithesis’‘: artificial (God, divine)
  • ‘’Synthesis’‘: natural = artificial (man = God, human = divine)[48]

Hegel's Absolute Knowledge Heading

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 word tends to imply a metaphysical “essence” that exists within everything, although metaphysics is not necessarily involved. Hegel seems to use the word to reinforce his other misleading ambiguities that suggest that Spirit is a metaphysical entity. But absolute knowledge is really nothing more than the concept that God is man – actually “all reality” but essentially man, who is Spirit’s mind. Stated otherwise, absolute knowledge is the knowledge that arrives with self-realization and that transforms Spirit into Absolute Spirit.

The final sentence of Phenomenology brings out the true substance of Absolute Knowledge. The sentence is an adaptation of Schiller’s poem Die Freudenschaft. Hegel writes: “Only

from the chalice of this realm of spirits [humans] foams forth for Him his own infinitude.”

Hegel is saying that "infinitude," or Godhood, can be found only in this world of human beings, not in heaven above. Kaufmann clarifies this meaning: “To be sure, the tone of the ending seems affirmative; but we should not overlook a crucial word that Hegel has placed before [above] the concluding quotation – a word that, being foreign to Schiller’s text, carries immense weight: nur (only). In Schiller’s last stanza the presumption is that the infinity of the supreme being is mirrored by the whole realm of souls: though no single one equals the master’s infinity, all of the souls together do mirror it. For Hegel, the infinite God is dead.” And, in contrast to the myth where the God-man Jesus rises from the grave, this time “the death of God . . . is not followed by any resurrection,” because “the spirit [God] is not to be found in another world.”[49] The Spirit is to be found only in our human world, earth. Acccordingly, Heinrich Heine, a former student of Hegel, could write: "I learned from Hegel that it was not the dear God who lived in heaven that was God, as my grandmother supposed, but I myself here on earth."[50]

In the preceding chapter, Hegel says "the death of the divine man [Jesus] . . . ends only in natural [not supernatural] universality." Hegel is replacing the supernatural God with a natural God, humanity, "the Spirit who dwells in His community, dies in it every day, and is daily resurrected."[51] Humans die "every day" and are "daily resurrected" (born). The supernatural God is dead and is being replaced by humanity. Hyppolite comments: "The death of Christ is not only the death of the God-man [God-incarnate on earth], but also the death of the abstract God [God in heaven]."[52] For Hegel, absolute knowledge is thus the knowledge that the supernatural God is dead and has been replaced by humanity, the natural God. It is the knowledge that the true God (Spirit) is the natural God, mankind—one's self. Hence Findlay can say that "despite his later verging towards reaction, he [Hegel] remains the philosopher . . . of liberal humanism."[53] And Solomon can say that "Hegel used religion and religious vocabulary as his instruments, as if the last logical consequence to be drawn from Christian doctrine is humanism."[54]

The earlier part of this short chapter consists almost entirely of obscurantist verbiage that adds almost nothing to what has been said in previous chapters. These earlier pages do, however, reintroduce the concept of freedom, originally presented in the master and slave dialectic. Hegel is now saying that self-realization or absolute knowledge releases man from bondage to God and to religion, hence gives man freedom.[55]

One interesting earlier-in-the-chapter sentence does say that “[absolute] knowing is seeming inactivity which merely contemplates [recognizes] how what [was previously] differentiated [into nonidentical subjects and objects] . . . returns into its unity.”[56] Here Hegel alludes to his overarching dialectic: (1) unconscious + unity, the thesis, (2) conscious + separation, the antithesis, and (3) conscious +unity, the synthesis. What was “differentiated” or separated in the antithesis stage of the dialectic “returns” to the “unity” it had in the thesis stage. But this time the unity is conscious rather than unconscious: Spirit now knows that it is a union or universe consisting of all objects in the universe, particularly the humans who provide Spirit’s mind. In the thesis stage there was also a union, but Spirit was unconscious and didn't know this. Only now does it know, or possess the knowledge that it is all reality, a universal comprising particulars.

Also: “This release of itself from the [separated or antithesis] form of its Self is the supreme freedom” – because the release brings freedom from bondage to God and religion.[57] Note how Hegel, true to his obscurantist style of writing, deliberately omits the bracketed words that are needed to give meaning to the word “form.” We must deduce what “form” he is referring to.


Arthur Schopenhauer criticized Phenomenology of Spirit as being characteristic of the vacuous verbiage he attributed to Hegel. "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. (Hegel, Preface to the Phenomenology of the Mind, p. lvii, in the complete edition, p.36 [§ 48]) 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."[58]

Popper's criticism, quoted earlier, is similar: "There is so much philosophical writing (especially in the Hegelian school) which may be justly criticized as meaningless verbiage."[59]

In the same vein, Solomon says this: "Hegel discovered . . . that obscurity and profundity are easily confused, that the smaller the audience, the more academically acceptable one is likely to be, and that the harder one is to understand, the less likely one is to be refuted."[60]

See also

  • The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology


English translations of The Phenomenology of Spirit

  • Phenomenology of Spirit, translated by A. V. Miller with analysis of the text and foreword by J. N. Findlay (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977) ISBN 0-19-824597-1
  • Phenomenology of Mind, translated by J. B. Baillie (London:Harper & Row, 1967)
  • Hegel's Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, translated with introduction, running commentary and notes by Yirmiyahu Yovel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004) ISBN 0-691-12052-8.
  • Texts and Commentary: Hegel's Preface to His System in a New Translation With Commentary on Facing Pages, and "Who Thinks Abstractly?", translated by Walter Kaufmann (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1977) ISBN 0-268-01069-2.
  • "Introduction", "The Phenomenology of Spirit", translated by Kenley R. Dove, in Martin Heidegger, "Hegel's Concept of Experience" (New York: Harper & Row, 1970)
  • "Sense-Certainty", Chapter I, "The Phenomenology of Spirit", translated by Kenley R. Dove, "The Philosophical Forum", Vol. 32, No 4
  • "Stoicism", Chapter IV, B, "The Phenomenology of Spirit", translated by Kenley R. Dove, "The Philosophical Forum", Vol. 37, No 3
  • "Absolute Knowing", Chapter VIII, "The Phenomenology of Spirit", translated by Kenley R. Dove, "The Philosophical Forum", Vol. 32, No 4
  • Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit: Selections Translated and Annotated by Howard P. Kainz. The Pennsylvania State University Press. ISBN 0-271-01076-2
  • Phenomenology of Spirit selections translated by Andrea Tschemplik and James H. Stam, in Steven M. Cahn, ed., Classics of Western Philosophy (Hackett, 2007).

"Hegel's Phenomenology of Self-consciousness: text and commentary" [A translation of Chapter IV of the Phenomenology, with accompanying essays and a translation of "Hegel's summary of self-consciousness from 'The Phenomenologgy of Spirit' in the Philosophical Propaedeutic"], by Leo Rauch and David Sherman. State University of New York Press, 1999.

Secondary literature

  • Davis, Walter A., 1989. Inwardness and Existence: Subjectivity in/and Hegel, Heidegger, Marx and Freud. University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 0-299-12014-7.
  • Heidegger, Martin, 1988. Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-32766-0.
  • Hyppolite, Jean, 1979. Genesis and Structure of "Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. Evanston: Northwestern University Press. ISBN 0-8101-0594-2.
  • Kojève, Alexandre. Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit. ISBN 0-8014-9203-3.
  • Russon, John, 2004. Reading Hegel's Phenomenology. Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-21692-3.
  • Taylor, Charles, 1975. Hegel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-29199-2.
  • Solomon, Robert C., 1983. In the Spirit of Hegel. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-503650-6.
  • Pippin, Robert B., 1989. Hegel's Idealism: the Satisfactions of Self-Consciousness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989. ISBN 0-521-37923-7.
  • Forster, Michael N., 1998. Hegel's Idea of a Phenomenology of Spirit. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-25742-8.
  • Harris, H. S. Hegel's Ladder, 2 vols.
  • Harris, H. S., 1995. Hegel: Phenomenology and System. Indianapolis: Hackett. ISBN 0-87220-281-X.
  • Kadvany, John, 2001, Imre Lakatos and the Guises of Reason. Duke University Press. ISBN 0-8223-2659-0.
  • Loewenberg, J., 1965. Hegel's Phenomenology. Dialogues on the Life of Mind. La Salle IL.
  • Pinkard, Terry, 1996. Hegel's Phenomenology: The Sociality of Reason. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-56834-0.
  • Stern, Robert, 2002. Hegel and the Phenomenology of Spirit London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-21788-1 An introduction for students.
  • Yovel, Yirmiyahu, Hegel's Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit: Translation and Running Commentary, Princeton and Oxford : Princeton University Press, 2005, ISBN 0-691-12052-8
  • Westphal, Kenneth R., 2003. Hegel's Epistemology: A Philosophical Introduction to the Phenomenology of Spirit. Indianapolis: Hackett. ISBN 0-87220-645-9.
  • Westphal, Merold, 1998. History and Truth in Hegel’s Phenomenology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-21221-9.
  • Kalkavage, Peter, 2007. 'The Logic of Desire: An Introduction to Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit.' Paul Dry Books. ISBN 978-1-58988-037-5.

External links

Electronic versions of the English translation of Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind are available at:

  • University of Idaho: , Translated by J. B. Baillie
  • Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind
  • Translating Hegel blog, including a running translation of the Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit: Translating Hegel
  • Phenomenology of Spirit. translated by Terry Pinkard (2012)
  • Phenomenology of Spirit. Bilingual, with Dictionary.

Detailed audio commentary by an academic:

  • The Bernstein Tapes: Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind
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