Context

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.

Metaphysics

Like philosophers Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, Hegel was a metaphysician in the tradition that stemmed from the Greek philosopher Parmenides. The problem of philosophy in the broadest sense had to do with the identity of being and knowing. Admitting that the way of mortals is mere seeming, each of the three in his own way was trying to expound the way of truth. For Fichte, the Absolute (ultimate reality, the Kantian thing-in-itself) is the self that produces the phenomenal world and then overcomes it. For Schelling, the Absolute is the common source of the self and the world. Both men held that the task of philosophy is to lead the finite mind to the level of immediacy at which the difference between knowledge and being disappears in vision. Hegel thought that both men went too far in their attempts to abolish diversity. In his opinion, an intuition that leaves all difference behind is ignorance rather than knowledge. He said, rather unkindly, that Schelling’s Absolute is “the night in which all cows are black.” He agreed that knowledge demands immediacy but he denied that the distinctions present in human consciousness are incompatible with the unity demanded of knowledge, it being sufficient that the logic of thought and the logic of being are the same. In short, when one thinks dialectically, one thinks truly. This, as is often pointed out, was also Aristotle’s solution to the Parmenidean problem. According to Aristotle,...

(The entire section is 450 words.)

Phenomenology

All of this is metaphysics. Like Parmenides, Hegel, when he speaks of Absolute Spirit, views the world not as it appears to mortals but as it is known by the gods. Metaphysics, the science of reality, is not phenomenology, which is the science of appearances. In The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel, without abandoning the standpoint of one who knows, observes and describes the opinions of finite spirits in their multiplicity and contrariety. It is like history, says Hegel, in that it includes the sum of human experience, both individual and communal; but, whereas history views these experiences “in the form of contingency,” phenomenology views them “from the side of their intellectually comprehended organization.” Most of the book is a far cry from metaphysics; and if one finds some parts indigestible, the explanation is usually that Hegel is alluding to things one has never encountered in one’s reading. Incidentally, the German word Geist, unlike the English words “mind” and “spirit,” covers the whole range of human concerns. Psychology, history, philology, sociology, theology, ethics, and aesthetics, each of which Hegel manages to illuminate, are all referred to in German as Geisteswissenschaften, or ”sciences” of Geist.

The Phenomenology of Spirit, therefore, is the story of humankind. It is concerned directly with finite spirits and only indirectly with the Absolute,...

(The entire section is 589 words.)

Consciousness and Self-Consciousness

Part A, “Consciousness,” is an essay in epistemology. Specifically it is a critical history of humanity’s attempt to base knowledge on sensation. Although it seems probable that Hegel first envisaged the problem as it appeared to Plato in Theaettos (middle period dialogue, 388-368 b.c.e.; Theaetetus, 1804), his exposition makes full use of the light shed on it by modern empiricism. In three chapters, Hegel traces humanity’s attempt to find certainty through knowledge, first on the level of sensation, then on the level of perception, and finally on the level of scientific understanding. Sensations are indeed immediate, but they cease to be such the moment one makes them objects of knowledge. The object of perception, of which common sense is so sure, turns out to be a collection of properties. The chemical or physical force in terms of which humanity tries to explain these properties turns out to be unknowable and has to be abandoned in favor of descriptive laws, which, although satisfactory from a practical standpoint, are unsatisfactory to consciousness bent on knowledge. In the end, consciousness learns that the sensible world is like a curtain behind which an unknown inner world “affirms itself as a divided and distinguished inner reality,” namely, self-consciousness. However, says Hegel, to understand this “requires us to fetch a wider compass.”

In part B, “Self-Consciousness,” Hegel makes a new start. The wider compass means taking account of humanity’s animal condition. Life, says Hegel, is an overcoming. The animal does not contemplate the sensible world but consumes it. Self-consciousness dawns when...

(The entire section is 691 words.)

Reason, Spirit, and Religion

Part C, left untitled by Hegel, is the synthesis of consciousness and self-consciousness; but the synthesis, insofar as it falls within the compass of The Phenomenology of Spirit, is incomplete. This incompleteness must be kept in mind when considering the titles that Hegel gave to the three subdivisions of part C. They are Reason, Spirit, and Religion. The titles are part of the passing show, banners around which modern people are accustomed to rally.

Reason, as understood in this major division, is the reason of newly awakened modern humanity. In contrast to the ascetic soul of the Middle Ages, modern humans are blessed with sublime self-confidence, certain of their vocation to pull down the rickety structures of the past and to build new ones on the foundation of reason. Hegel discusses the rise of science, humanity’s pursuit of pleasure, and the doctrine of natural law. This section is memorable mainly for the comical situations into which people’s zeal and good intentions get them. Disregarding their objective nature, they plunge into life, only to find themselves mastered by fates beyond their control. Retreating somewhat, they take refuge in “the law of the heart,” which the cruel world refuses to understand. Or, as a “knight of virtue,” they engage in sham fights with the world. All this appeal to immediacy, Hegel says, is “consciousness gone crazy, . . . its reality being immediately unreality.” A delusory objectivity is...

(The entire section is 519 words.)

Morality

Absolute freedom is undoubtedly what every self demands. However, the lesson Hegel draws from the Enlightenment is that the individual cannot claim to be absolute: The truth that is in one must be in everyone else as well. This was the new morality that was then enjoying great success in Romantic circles. Morality has the task of harmonizing thought and inclination. It recovers the wholeness known to the ancient Greeks but it does not do so by means of custom but by means of the voice of conscience, the moral reason present in every person.

This section of The Phenomenology of Spirit is important chiefly for its criticism of deontological ethics. Universal law raised above all the contingency and duty divorced...

(The entire section is 227 words.)

Religion

Hitherto, consciousness has conceived of itself alternately as object and subject, as individual and social. At each level, Spirit has taken into itself more of the content of human experience, although it continues to mistake each new experience for the whole toward which it aspires. This wholeness Hegel finds in “Revealed Religion,” by which he means Christianity. However, once again he loops back in time and, in the final section, presents an entire phenomenology of religion.

Religion had been of major concern to Hegel from the time when, as a theological student, he had found difficulty reconciling biblical revelation with Greek paideia. His survey traces religion through three stages: the cosmological...

(The entire section is 319 words.)

Additional Reading

Abrams, M. H. Natural Supernaturalism. New York: Norton, 1971. Though predominantly a discussion of British and German Romantic poetry, the book contains a valuable discussion of The Phenomenology of Spirit. Abrams’ book is also an instructive application of Hegel’s conclusion that art expresses spirit, particularly in chapters 3 and 4.

Butler, Clark. G. W. F. Hegel. Boston: Twayne, 1977. A comprehensive study of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel that aims not to be merely about Hegel but to communicate the essence of Hegelian philosophy to a wider public by being accessible but not oversimplistic. Approaches Hegel from the cultural standpoint of the present. Contains an annotated bibliography...

(The entire section is 727 words.)

Bibliography

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Abrams, M. H. Natural Supernaturalism. New York: Norton, 1971. Though predominantly a discussion of British and German Romantic poetry, the book contains a valuable discussion of The Phenomenology of Spirit. Abrams’ book is also an instructive application of Hegel’s conclusion that art expresses spirit, particularly in chapters 3 and 4.

Butler, Clark. G. W. F. Hegel. Boston: Twayne, 1977. A comprehensive study of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel that aims not to be merely about Hegel but to communicate the essence of Hegelian philosophy to a wider public by being accessible but not...

(The entire section is 722 words.)