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.
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, divine mind—mind fully actualized—”thinks itself, and its thinking is a thinking of thinking.”
An obvious difference between Aristotle and Hegel is that for the latter, the divine mind is immanent in the world process. Hegel expresses this by saying that Substance and Subject are one. Spirit, which is Hegel’s Absolute, is said to be “the inner being of the world.” It exists in itself (an sich) as Substance, but it also exists for itself (für sich ) as Subject. “This means, it must be presented to itself as an object, but at the same time straightway annul and transcend this objective form; it must be its own object in which it finds itself reflected.” The process Hegel describes as a circle that has its end for its beginning. What he means is that when the movement begins, Spirit is one, and when it ends, it is again one, while in between, it is divided and tormented by the need to end the division. From Hegel’s point of view, the circular movement was not in vain. In the beginning, Spirit was potentially everything but actually nothing. Only by means of the processes known as nature and history does Spirit attain to...
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