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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 909

The Phenomenology occupies a crucial place in the development of Hegel’s thought. It marks his maturation as a philosopher of the highest rank and anticipates within its own unique format every aspect of his later work. Hence, it is important to understand the overarching themes of the book before turning to its examination of ethics.

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A major aim of Hegel in the Phenomenology is to renew classical Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy from within the modern philosophical tradition. It was only through examination and critique of everything that had been thought since the Greeks that a worldview modeled on theirs could become a viable framework from within which modern people could think and act. In striving to fulfill that aim, Hegel developed a view of the subject who experiences, knows, and acts, which was in conscious opposition to any and all views of subjectivity that were empirical (for example, John Locke), naturalistic (for example, much of the thought of the Enlightenment), or transcendental (for example, Immanuel Kant). His view was that the acting and experiencing subject is both self-transforming over time (hence, historical) and fundamentally social (in opposition to any and all individualist models).

Thus, in the book’s first major section, “Consciousness,” Hegel demonstrates that consideration of even the apparently most basic forms of knowing, such as sense perception, produces in the knowing subject an awareness of both itself as knowing and of other knowing subjects. Out of these experiences arises self-consciousness. In Hegel’s famous examination of the master-servant relationship in the section “Self-Consciousness,” he graphically describes the social yet divided character of human experience.

In the remainder of the Phenomenology, Hegel depicts the experiences of this divided human self. In doing so, he examines what are for him the key movements in the development of consciousness in Western culture from the Greeks to Hegel’s own time. Stoicism, skepticism, the unhappy consciousness of religion, the development of modern philosophy from Descartes to Kant, the opportunities and perils of freedom in the era of the French Revolution, the phases of religious development in human history—all these are subsumed into Hegel’s story of the development of Geist, or “spirit.” Geist is the larger rational plan of which all phases of the development of human consciousness are instances. Each phase is therefore a partial revelation of Geist.

Chapter 6 of the Phenomenology, in which Hegel examines the development of Geist from the Greeks down to his own time, is the section of the book that is germane to ethics. It is structured around a distinction crucial to Hegel’s thought, that between morality (Moralität) and ethical community (Sittlichkeit). Morality is that arena of human life in which the individual is thought of as a subject who is responsible for his or her actions. For Hegel, however, moral life attains its highest realization only within the larger life of a society; this is the realm of ethical community. To be truly morally free therefore requires a society within which that freedom can be expressed.

Here, Hegel’s historical reconstruction of Western consciousness becomes crucial. Once there was a historically existing ethical community—that of the ancient Greeks—in which the city-state provided for its citizens the essential meaning of their lives. This primal Sittlichkeit was lost forever in its original form, however, because of developments within Greek culture itself. Hegel’s profound discussion of the tensions between divine law and human law in Sophocles’ play Antigone exemplifies his view that the Greek ethical world had within it the seeds of its own destruction.

Such a natural ethical system, arising spontaneously out of the early developments of Greek cultural life, was inevitably going to be destroyed, Hegel thought, because the ongoing development of Geist toward greater self-consciousness would show such a system to be restricted. Socrates’ inquiries initiate the transformation of this first natural Sittlichkeit: its original unity was shattered by developments within it as Greek thinkers restlessly searched for universal standards of reason and morality—that is, standards greater than the framework of polis life.

Hegel then went on to describe the standpoint of morality as characteristic of the modern spirit. It is crucial to emphasize that the moral standpoint is, for Hegel, an individualist model of human action. Even when this modern individualist morality is developed to its highest point, at which the individual moral self is seen as identical with the universal law of reason, as in the philosophy of Kant, it is still partial or one-sided in Hegel’s view.

Thus, the Phenomenology contains a tension in Hegel’s ethical thought as it had developed to this point: From a historical point of view, modern morality was superior to Greek ethical community because it was a later, higher stage of Geist’s ongoing self-revelation; if modern morality is an advance, however, it is nevertheless a one-sided and partial one, doing scant justice to the social aspects of human communal life. What Hegel would later attempt in the Philosophy of Right was the construction of a modern notion of ethical community that would be historically as well as philosophically superior to both Greek ethical life and modern individualist moralities. The reader of The Phenomenology of Spirit thus catches the development of Hegel’s ethical thought in process and will be led to turn to the Philosophy of Right to encounter his resolution of the tension that so provocatively animates the discussion of ethics in the Phenomenology.

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