Context

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

While Napoleon was defeating the Prussians outside the walls of Jena, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was completing his The Phenomenology of Spirit. Napoleon’s victory signified for Hegel the triumph throughout Europe of enlightened self-rule and marked the beginning of a new social era; and in the preface to The Phenomenology of Spirit, he drew a parallel between Napoleon’s achievement and his own. “It is not difficult to see that our epoch is a birth-time and a period of transition,” he wrote. “The spirit of man has broken with the old order of things and with the old ways of thinking.” Changes leading up to the present had, he said, been quantitative, like the growth of a child in the womb, but recent events had marked a qualitative change such as happens when the child draws its first breath.

When Hegel made this optimistic assessment of his own achievement, he was thinking not merely of the book in hand but of the system of knowledge for which he was later to become famous and which, even then, he was expounding in university lectures. The Phenomenology of Spirit was to introduce the system to the public. Originally he had planned to include the work in the first volume of his Wissenschaft der Logik (1812-1816; Science of Logic, 1929), but the project outgrew the limits of an introduction and was published as a separate work.