Phenomenology of Spirit

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* Book: The Phenomenology of Spirit. G.W.F. Hegel.



Cadell Last:

"In the history of philosophy there are a few texts that standout as what we may call “events”. These texts both break from the past, and cast a shadow on the future of thought. When we think of Plato’s Symposium, or Descartes Meditations, we are dealing with texts which both introduce conceptual understandings that appear radically distinct from previous thought of world-spirit (think Platonic forms, or the Cartesian cogito), and also which shape the conceptual understandings of the world-spirit to come (think monotheistic society, or scientific naturalism).

The Phenomenology of Spirit can be thought as such an “evental-text”. Indeed, most of what we could consider modern or post-modern philosophy is something like a reaction formation to some of the core ideas in Hegel’s Phenomenology. Take, for example, that two of the most influential philosophers of the past two centuries, Karl Marx (19th century), and Gilles Deleuze (20th century), are essentially motivated by “anti-Hegelian” or “counter-Hegelian” impulses. Marx thought that Hegel’s work was all-too-idealist, without concrete grounding in political and economic praxis or orientation. Deleuze thought that Hegel’s work was too focused on the function of sublation and identity, without the capacity to really think essential difference.

So what exactly is Hegel saying in the Phenomenology, and why should you care? The basics can be covered in three points:

Spirit naturally develops itself in basic stages unfolding in shapes that we call consciousness, self-consciousness, reason, spirit, and religion

These basic stages are structured by contingent logics of form, however within their contingent unfolding, there is an inner necessity pointing towards a science of knowing spirit, or spiritual knowing

The necessary science of spirit is a state of absolute knowing which involves a certain immanent relation between thought and being; while this state was achieved by spirit in pre-modern times, it is only now becoming fully reflexive and aware of itself in historical context

Consequently, Phenomenology of Spirit is a description or analysis for “ordinary consciousness” to reflect on the logic of its own development. The Phenomenology guides the reader through the stages of consciousness, self-consciousness, reason, spirit, and religion. The Phenomenology demonstrates the internal logic of spirit’s shapes in these stages: first the positive aspect, which spirit takes as knowledge of its being, and then secondly the negative aspect, which reveals the truth of this knowledge in its undoing or transformation of being.

This is, importantly, not “what Hegel thinks” about “consciousness” or “reason” or “religion”, but more about how “consciousness in-itself” or “reason in-itself” or “religion in-itself”, comes to know the truth of itself. That is at least Hegel’s aim and offer to ordinary consciousness with this work. This is to say that these processes are explored from their logical interiority, and thus if (your) thought follows carefully, he takes one on a thought-adventure through these processes. In this way, one can study how spirit stumbles and falls in the sheer unrest of life towards knowledge of its own truth.

This internal logic is ultimately pointing towards a necessity: the truth of spirit’s own thought, which Hegel suggests is a type of science of spirit, or what is the same: the proper standpoint of philosophy. Here philosophy proper can “begin” (or “begin again”), not from some external axiomatic presupposition or ontology of logical thought (as in “perfect forms” or the “res cogitans” any other assumption of “essence”), but from itself as thought in its simple immediacy (that which “posits” and “presupposes” axiomatic foundations and explores their logical essence).

In this way, Hegel is not attempting to go against the scientific spirit which structured the modern world, from Descartes to contemporary thinking of quantum physics and cognitive science. He is rather attempting to consider science in the light of the logic of spiritual development (which must work internally on its way to an understanding of its own self-nature in thought), and attempting to consider the logic of spiritual development in the light of science (which demands a mature form capable of putting itself, its own thought, to the test of being).

Consequently, what the Phenomenology ultimately prepares spirit for is the logic of its own free self-determination in truth. In order for spirit to reach this capacity in knowing, it has to purge itself of the shapes that constitute the truth of its early development. Hegel here suggests that there is something qualitatively new emerging in modern spirit, that this free self-determination in truth, is becoming increasingly reflexive and aware of its own historicity. He points towards thinkers like Descartes, and also thinkers like Leibniz, Spinoza, Kant, Schelling as philosophers who represent the increasing reflexivity of absolute knowing. These are thinkers who, through radical skepticism and doubt, open a clearing for deeper spiritual self-knowing about the truth of being (e.g. consider Descartes doubt about all external reality, or Kant’s ideas about the impossibility of knowing noumena, i.e. “things-in-themselves”).

However, Hegel’s philosophy does not remain in skepticism and doubt about the absolute truth of being. He merely suggests that we must first reach an understanding of absolute knowing, before we can consider ourselves capable of even asking such questions, since what is the absolute truth of being, if not something that involves our knowing?

This level of thinking brings us to the horizon of post-Hegelian philosophy. This level of thinking helps us to conceive the conditions of possibility for a thinker like Karl Marx, who posited as a necessary truth for being, the state of World Communism; or a thinker like Gilles Deleuze, who posited as a necessary truth for being, difference beyond dialectical mediation. But more importantly, it prepares us for an understanding that our own phenomenological struggles, whether on the level of bare consciousness, self-conscious recognition, rational mediation, spiritual determination or religious identification."