The Phenomenology of Spirit is one of the most significant philosophical treatises of the nineteenth century. It laid the foundation for the many philosophical and psychological investigations and controversies of that century and continues to be an essential text. Though it is often critiqued, qualified, and even violently rejected, no serious thinker has ever been able to ignore The Phenomenology of Spirit’s central claim of the dialectical progress of consciousness toward an absolute understanding of the world. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s landmark study of the history and progress of human consciousness, toward what he calls spirit, developed and brought into common usage ideas such as phenomenology, the dialectic, and the master/slave relation.

Phenomenology is the study of the human mind’s ability to perceive and bring meaning to an object or the world, and not the study of an object itself or of the world itself. To quote Hegel, phenomenology “is the science of knowing in the sphere of appearance.” Like his immediate predecessor, Immanuel Kant, Hegel was an idealist who believed that the mind creates the vast system of meanings and relationships that constitute the human world. What sets The Phenomenology of Spirit apart from Kant and the work of other idealists is that these thinkers did not discuss the lessons of history, while Hegel argued that the circular progress of history brings humanity to a full realization of its knowledge of the world. Where Kant asserted that there are nonchanging and nonhistorical rules and categories, called a priori, which help guide individuals to give meaning to the world, Hegel taught that the progressive unfolding of history develops what constitutes human understanding of the world. He refers to this hard-won and progressively created gallery of images, past customs, cultural laws, and feelings as spirit.

In Hegel’s study of the human ability to see the world, the human spirit has mutated and developed through time in a dialectical process. For Hegel, there is no such thing as progress without an opposition between two parties, peoples, or ideas. He writes that there must always be a thesis, or dominant force, and an antithesis, an opposing and subordinate force to the thesis. These two opposites, far from simply ignoring or destroying each other, engage in a conversation, or dialogue (hence the word “dialectic”) that results in what Hegel calls a synthesis. This synthesis is often a combination of the two previously opposing ideas, but it can also be an entirely new notion created by the dialogue between the two. The Phenomenology of Spirit does not simply show that any concept or knowledge is developed out of two opposing ideas. No single synthesis is ever the culmination or the end in Hegel. The Phenomenology of Spirit teaches that with the passage of time, any new synthesis becomes itself a thesis, which through time inevitably becomes opposed to an antithesis, resulting in another dialectic that in turn creates another new synthesis. Hegel defined this continuing process, the “long process of culture toward genuine philosophy,” as the progress of human history.

The Phenomenology of Spirit has three major divisions: the preface, the introduction, and the body of the text. The preface, essential reading for understanding Hegel’s phenomenological system, is one of the most quoted passages of Hegel’s philosophy. It contains a synopsis of Hegel’s notion of the dialectic, his study of the progress of consciousness to absolute spirit, and a discussion of the importance of the study of consciousness, or phenomenology. Hegel wrote this preface in 1807 after he had finished writing the rest of the book, and it provides a lucid interpretation of The Phenomenology of Spirit. Hegel’s introduction is useful for providing fairly clear definitions of many of the terms used in the rest of the book.

The bulk of the text consists of eight chapters, which Hegel organized into six major discussions respectively entitled “Consciousness,” “Self-Consciousness,” “Reason,” “Spirit,” “Religion,” and finally, “Absolute Knowing.” Each of the six division titles represents major shifts and mutations in the shape of human...

(The entire section is 1760 words.)