Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit

Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit

Perhaps one of the most revolutionary works of philosophy ever presented, The Phenomenology of Spirit is Hegel's 1807 work that is in numerous ways extraordinary. It begins with a Preface, created after the rest of the manuscript was completed, that explains the core of his method and what sets it apart from any preceding philosophy. The Introduction, written before the...

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Title:Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit
Author:Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
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Edition Language:English

Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit Reviews

  • Seth

    In this debut novel, the multi-talented Georg Hegel gives an edge-of-your-seat, no-holds-barred, rip-roaring ride through the dark and mysterious caverns of the criminal mind. This romp-em-stop-em tale traces the journey of a strapping, curious, yet fickle young man named Spirit (Geist in the original German) as his godlike intelligence leads him from the rough-and-tumble, animalistic mean streets of an unknown Caribbean island, through the French Revolution, to the clean and well-ordered cities

    In this debut novel, the multi-talented Georg Hegel gives an edge-of-your-seat, no-holds-barred, rip-roaring ride through the dark and mysterious caverns of the criminal mind. This romp-em-stop-em tale traces the journey of a strapping, curious, yet fickle young man named Spirit (Geist in the original German) as his godlike intelligence leads him from the rough-and-tumble, animalistic mean streets of an unknown Caribbean island, through the French Revolution, to the clean and well-ordered cities of present-day Japan. (For a fuller account of the book's enigmatic conclusion, plus some alternate endings and commentary, see Alexandre Kojève's stunning compendium.) Many readers may know Georg Hegel as a humble high-school teacher and occasional babysitter, but make no mistake: Hegel is a masterful storyteller. In the Phenomenology of Spirit (popularly called P.O.S.), he thrills us with the twists and turns of a deeply complex character's development, stopping on the way to wow us with fights-to-the-death, to illuminate the perils and attraction of religious fanaticism, and even to weigh the pros and cons of arcana such as phrenological metaphysics and systematic racism. Like so many of our best novels, Hegel's narrative is of course completely implausible, yet even when the story stretches the bounds of believability, its constant movement from one point of view to another—followed so often by a graceful synthesis of the two—makes Hegel's P.O.S. one of the best reads of 2007.

  • Ian

    For the purposes of this undertaking, my accomplice DJ Ian and I (I and I) faked our way through reading DC Hegel in English and German (English translation courtesy of Terry Pinkard) with the aid of diverse comic strips, annotations, opinionators and unreliable narrators:

    For the purposes of this undertaking, my accomplice DJ Ian and I (I and I) faked our way through reading DC Hegel in English and German (English translation courtesy of Terry Pinkard) with the aid of diverse comic strips, annotations, opinionators and unreliable narrators:

    Theodor W. Adorno

    Hegel has enjoyed a resurgence of interest and popularity at various times over the last 80 years.

    Much of the philosophy that appeals to me personally couldn't have been achieved except on the shoulders of this giant.

    Some of this later philosophy endorses aspects of Hegel, some rebels against it, some adapts it.

    Reading this work was part of an exercise in understanding why. What insights did he have, and why do they appeal?

    Did his philosophy achieve any unique truth or version of the truth or approach to the truth?

    For me, ultimately, Hegel is just as much a point of departure as a point of arrival or destination.

    You have to wonder whether, in many cases, the appeal and embrace of Hegel's philosophy derives from his use of language, just as much as the concepts.

    To this end, I've tried to approach reading Hegel from both a philosophical and a literary point of view.

    Like the name and lyrics of the song,

    part of the appeal of Hegel's work for me is that it's so beguiling!

    Let's pause for some Ella, to show you what I mean:

    From a literary point of view, Hegel is a terrible writer whose work does its best to defy any attempt to distil it down to some great sentences and phrases and/or some great ideas.

    The extent to which these ideas are Hegel's ideas or unique to him or just a response to or tweaking of the ideas of others before him is for historians of philosophy to judge.

    Hegel's work itself doesn't expressly acknowledge or cite the sources of the arguments to which he is responding. It's assumed that we are familiar with them.

    It's like an enthusiastic undergraduate term paper completed under pressure of a self-imposed deadline (the imminent battle of Jena and conquest of Prussia). By the time pen meets paper, the 36-year old Hegel embraces them as the foundation of his ideas, but neglects to expressly acknowledge his inspiration and sources. Ultimately, like the embrace of his acolytes, his work and its system is a triumph of assertion.

    As a result, a comprehension of Hegel is just as needing and deserving of annotation and secondary material as Joyce and Pynchon.

    At an individual sentence level, Hegel is not always difficult, just mostly. He seems to throw multiple sentences at the reader, without necessarily communicating or effectively helping readers understand the sequence of his arguments. When it comes to Hegel's sentences, the difficulty results from the untamed collective, not the disciplined individual.

    Still, within the rush or barrage of sentences, some sentences and phrases inevitably stand out.

    The quality of these sentences, or their pregnancy, occasionally, with a meaning that is hard to divine, are the source of much of his appeal.

    Indeed, it helps Hegel's case that they are so difficult to divine. Like God, it is not for us to fully comprehend his ways or his words. We are just supposed to trust them both. They appeal to our credulity and need to believe.

    Many of Hegel's sentences and (catch-)phrases sound good, even if at first you don't really know what they mean.

    The one phrase or catchphrase that most appeals to me personally is

    Engels said that the Negation of the Negation is:

    I've tried to set out my understanding of it in My Writings here:

    To understand and appreciate Hegel, it helps if you pretend that you're God.

    1. And so God took a part of his mind and his soul,

    2. And where there was nothing, he made Man.

    3. And he gave part of his mind and soul to Man.

    4. And, lo and behold, Man did verily exist.

    5. Still, though God had lost a part, he was still whole.

    6. And while Man had gained a part, he too was whole.

    7. And God and Man together made a whole.

    8. And where there should have been two wholes, there was only one.

    9. Man ascended to his feet, and looked around.

    10. But there was no thing for him to see.

    11. So God made other Life for Man.

    12. And Man had Objects to look at and eat and desire.

    13. Each Object contained a little part of God.

    14. And when Man looked at an Object, he saw a part of God.

    15. And that part of God was also a part of Man.

    16. So when Man looked at an Object, he also saw himself.

    17. Thus it was that Man was at one with the Object.

    18. And Man was at one with God.

    19. And verily Man understood this.

    20. And so it was that Man made sense.

    21. Out of what God had given him.

    Hegel purports to construct a system of philosophy that is both comprehensive and self-contained.

    Hegel and his adherents guard it preciously. [Forgive me, if I refer to Hegel and his adherents interchangeably.] As a result, it's difficult to criticise the System, without evoking responses that you haven't really read or understood Hegel or that you have inaccurately paraphrased him.

    To be honest, I think any reader has to proceed regardless, if you're going to make the effort to read Hegel at all.

    Even if you sympathise with Hegel, like any dogmatist, he invites or attracts heresy. No purpose is served by agreeing or disagreeing with every tenet of his philosophy willy-nilly. There's no point in setting out to be an acolyte or an apostate. Readers should feel free to dismantle the System and save what they can. After all, this is what the Young, Left Hegelians did in the wake of his death.

    One problem with Hegel is that he pretends that his System is a detection of what is present in nature, that it is the result of discovery, not the product of invention on his part.

    As a result, it purports to be factual and real. If you disagree with it, then supposedly you are flying in the face of reality.

    This rhetorical strategy is disingenuous. Of course, he created his System, no matter how much of it is based on or modified from the work of earlier philosophers. Of course, we have the right to submit it to scrutiny, to attempt to prove it right or wrong.

    If Hegel pretends that he deduced his philosophy from first principles, then he is not being truthful. If he pretends that he discovered a method in the workings of nature and history, but reckons that he does not apply that method or any method in his own philosophy, then he is playing with semantics.

    Hegel is just trying to make his subjective pronouncements critique-proof or un-critiquable. A reasonable enough goal, if it is confined to enhancing the robustness of his own pronouncements, but you can't deny readers the right to attempt a critique. That is one way guaranteed to alienate an audience, to split a following and push potential advocates away. Which is what happened, inevitably, after his death.

    What I mean by this is that I don't accept that Hegel arrived at all aspects of his philosophy after a process of deduction. [Not that I'm saying anybody could have achieved this.]

    I don't disagree with Hegel's attack on Empiricism, for example. However, to the extent that he asserts that Consciousness is part of Spirit, a God, then I don't accept that he has necessarily proven the existence of God or that the Spirit of God plays a role in the process of individual human thought or reason. Thus, it seems that Hegel's System, which I assume is supposed to be rational, is built on an act of faith in the belief of God.

    I accept that social, rather than spiritual or religious, factors play such a role. For example, I accept that we differentiate between objects, partly if not wholly based on our capacity for language. Language is a social construct. I don't necessarily accept that it is intrinsically spiritual. I also don't want to embrace any ideas that approximate to some hyped-up politico-cultural concept of Volk or the People.

    I suspect that Hegel started his philosophical deliberations with a religious-based preconception, in particular, a belief in a monotheistic God, and that he integrated it into his philosophy.

    To the extent that Hegel's System is a hierarchy that works its way up to the pinnacle of God, there are a number of questions that I, an Atheist, feel should be asked:

    Does the entire System fall, if you don't believe in God?

    Alternatively, is his System modular and severable, so that you can salvage parts that appeal to you? If the latter, which parts? And to what extent are those parts solely attributable to Hegel? Are they equally components of other philosophies, whether pre-Hegelian or post-Hegelian?

    To some extent, my way of approaching and questioning Hegel might owe a lot to the approach of those Left Hegelians who happened to be Atheist.

    In the absence of a belief in God, it must also take into account the approach of more materialist philosophies like those of Feuerbach, Marx and Engels (and subsequent Marxists).

    Of course, an atheist has to accept the possibility that Hegel might be right in believing that there is a Christian God (in his case, Lutheran), and that everything else potentially follows.

    If it turns out that monotheism is right, then Hegel's philosophy seems to come close to a belief that all of Nature derives from God and that humanity, in particular, is Spirit made Flesh. Presumably, Nature is also Spirit made material.

    Working backwards or upwards from Flesh, the ultimate destination must therefore be Spirit (even if Flesh is preserved).

    I'll leave open for the moment whether Spirit might actually be any more than Energy. Hegel certainly regards it as the repository of Absolute Knowledge. Thus, it seems that, for him, it must be conscious and intelligent. It also appears to transcend each individual, even though it embraces every individual. It is a composite or unity of differences or opposites.

    For me, what seems to sit at the heart of Hegel's philosophy is contradiction. This is the contradiction between different objects, whether consciousnesses or not.

    For each of us, for each Subject, every other consciousness or thing is an Object, one that contradicts us. Just as I am me, I am not you, and I am not it, that object.

    In my mind, this is simply a recognition of difference. Practically and socially, I don't see these observations as the foundation of opposition, conflict or contradiction.

    I don't know whether this is a matter of translation. However, I witness a lot of conflict and antagonism between Subject and Object in Hegel. I haven't yet worked out why difference is not enough.

    In other words, why isn't it enough that perception and language allow us to differentiate between things, consciousnesses, Subjects and Objects?

    Why isn't it enough that language is a social system of signs that enable us to identify, think about and discuss difference.

    Why is it somehow implicit that this Object exists at the expense of this Subject or Object? Why is everything "set against" everything else in perpetual contradiction?

    Are two strawberry plants in a garden really opposed to each other? Do they battle each other for nutrients? Is their ostensible rivalry really such a big issue in their life? Are two rocks sitting at the bottom of a stream any different?

    It's possible that some or all of the contradiction happens within the consciousness or mind.

    Consciousness detects the outside world of nature, grasps it and drags it into the mind. The Subject consumes or ingests the Object, where it begins to relate to or play with it. It's almost as if the mind is an enormous database of images and responses that are preserved intact. They are ingested, but not digested or integrated into something new and different.

    It's possible that the dialectic doesn't posit a synthesis because within the database both thesis and antithesis continue to exist. Subject to illness, loss of memory and death, nothing in the mind ceases to exist.

    Self-consciousness is the awareness that this process is occurring. However, Hegel also regards self-consciousness as desire itself.

    The ultimate Hegelian Paradox is that the Philosophy is based on contradiction, yet the Philosopher [and his acolytes] will brook no argument.

    The System is founded on the adversarial, yet disagreement is heresy (even if the Philosophy by its very nature seems to invite or attract heresy).

    Similarly, it is reluctant to accept that a rational philosophical process or method is being utilised. It is enough to look, seek and ask questions. The answers are there waiting for us to find them. Truth and understanding will result from the only method that is necessary, an inquisitorial process. If you ask [God], you will be answered [by God, if not reason].

    Still, the normal outcome of an inquisitorial process is a decision. In Hegel's Philosophy, it is not a human decision, but a divine revelation. Once revealed, it can't be questioned. It can only be respected, observed and enforced.

    Hence, as is the case with all heretics, the sectarian non-believer attracts the attention of the Inquisition.

    Hence, Hegel embraces both the Inquisitorial and the Inquisitional, having constructed both a System and an Institution.

    It's up to us to determine whether to take a vow to Hegel or whether simply to do good.

    The choice is ours to Begin the

    .

    In the absence of Corporal Trim's Beguine, here is the undoing of Uncle Toby:

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  • Luís C.

    To understand the consciousness and existence that depends on this same consciousness, it is useful to discover this great work. Hegel applies a philosophy useful to man, a philosophy where one can find leads, indications that can lead to a better perception of the challenges of life that can be crossed without the help of consciousness. To understand this existential research, it is useful to discover the work on this topic as well as those present here. Hegel is a very high-level teacher for

    To understand the consciousness and existence that depends on this same consciousness, it is useful to discover this great work. Hegel applies a philosophy useful to man, a philosophy where one can find leads, indications that can lead to a better perception of the challenges of life that can be crossed without the help of consciousness. To understand this existential research, it is useful to discover the work on this topic as well as those present here. Hegel is a very high-level teacher for those who want to go in search of understanding their mind. An arduous but exciting work.

  • K

    I actually read almost all of this. I would like a cookie.

  • John

    G.W.F. Hegel's

    is one of the densest, most profound, and influential works in Western philosophy. It is also, at points, one of the most incomprehensible books I have ever read. About half way through this nearly 600-page book, I thought to myself, "There is no way that I am going to be able to finish reading this!" I did finish it, however, and it was well worth while.

    is notoriously difficult for a number of reasons. This book was, first of all

    G.W.F. Hegel's

    is one of the densest, most profound, and influential works in Western philosophy. It is also, at points, one of the most incomprehensible books I have ever read. About half way through this nearly 600-page book, I thought to myself, "There is no way that I am going to be able to finish reading this!" I did finish it, however, and it was well worth while.

    is notoriously difficult for a number of reasons. This book was, first of all written in a rush and delivered to the publisher without revision. Second, it is written in a "continental" style that pays little attention to clarity of argument. In order to tolerate Hegel's writing, I found that I had to become comfortable with following the rhythms of his thinking rather than worrying too much about formal argumentative structure. However, one of the most major reasons why this book is difficult to understand is because it deals with very difficult philosophical issues. Difficult ideas sometimes just require difficult language.

    The book is an attempt to think through the unfolding of the history of world consciousness from beginning to end. Hegel uses the German word

    in order to designate the substance of the universe.

    is an ambiguous term that has been translated into English as both "mind" and "spirit." The idea is that the universe is a conscious, living substance that unfolds and grows the way that an organism grows. In the Preface (which, by the way, offers the most clear and concise summary of the ideas in the book), Hegel likens the universe to a plant that sprouts forth and progressively overcomes its early manifestations in order finally to produce a flower, which is the plant's ultimate goal and purpose.

    The "flower" of

    is what Hegel terms "the absolute idea." This is the point at which

    comes to fully understand itself. The universe is like a mind that has become self-alienated, according to Hegel, and the history of thought represents the universe's attempt to return to self-consciousness. Over the course of the book, Hegel traces out the convolutions that

    manifests as it reflects upon itself and struggles to come to terms with its own essence.

    Perhaps the most famous and influential section of the book describes the master/slave dialectic. This is one of the early junctures in the unfolding to

    . It occurs when a mind reflecting upon itself comes to value the sort of recognition and identity that it achieves through self-reflection. As a result, this mind seeks out other minds in order to see itself reflected in the consciousness of others. However, in so doing, this mind inaugurates a "life and death struggle." When two consciousnesses come into contact with one another, they struggle for domination and control, according to Hegel. One mind becomes the master and the other becomes the slave. The irony is that in mastering another mind, the master reduces it to a kind of property that is less than human, and so no longer capable of furnishing the sort of recognition that the master desires. The slave, on the other hand, in becoming enslaved, is forced to work and to creatively alter the world. It, thus, incorporates part of the master mentality into its essence and becomes transformed into something more than just a slave; it becomes a worker.

    This example illustrates an ongoing dialectical process that governs the unfolding of all reality, according to Hegel. This process is one in which opposite forces come into conflict, but instead of simply contradicting one another, they instead become synthesized into something more than the sum of their parts. Over the course of the book, Hegel multiplies examples from the history of consciousness, showing the various ways the world's struggles have contributed to the forward movement of history. History, it turns out, is an ongoing synthesis of various conflicts, all of which are inevitably leading to the full self-consciousness of

    . Once

    has come to understand itself, history (as conflict) comes to an end in the freedom of self-understanding.

    Hegel worked out the details of his dialectical logic in other books, but the

    is where he first showed how this logic plays itself out in the unfolding of the world's history. The influence of Hegel's vision has been enormous, stretching from his own lifetime to ours. Karl Marx applied the Hegelian dialectic to his analysis of class conflict; existentialist thinkers adopted much of Hegel's terminology in order to describe the unfolding of lived, human existence; psychoanalytic thinkers incorporated Hegel's views on conflict into their understanding of human consciousness; and political thinkers have applied Hegel's ideas to the relationships between nations and ideologies.

    Though it was a slog to get through, in completing this book I feel as if I have read something incredibly substantial, important and profound. The world looks different after seeing it through Hegel's perspective.

  • Roy Lotz

    If you'd like to listen to this review, I recorded a podcast version, which you can find here:

    _______________________________

    Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel is easily the most controversial of the canonical philosophers. Alternately revered and reviled, worshiped or scorned, he is a thinker whose conclusions are almost universally rejected and yet whose influence is impossible to escape. Like Herodotus, he is either considered to be the Father of History or

    If you'd like to listen to this review, I recorded a podcast version, which you can find here:

    _______________________________

    Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel is easily the most controversial of the canonical philosophers. Alternately revered and reviled, worshiped or scorned, he is a thinker whose conclusions are almost universally rejected and yet whose influence is impossible to escape. Like Herodotus, he is either considered to be the Father of History or the Father of Lies. Depending on who you ask, Hegel is the capstone of the grand Western attempt to explain the world through reason, or the commencement of a misguided stream of metaphysical nonsense which has only grown since.

    A great deal of this controversy is caused by Hegel’s famous obscurity, which is proverbial. His writing is a great inky cloud of abstractions, a bewildering mixture of the pedantic and the mystic, a mass of vague mysteries uttered in technical jargon. This obscurity has made Hegel an academic field unto himself. There is hardly anything you can say about Hegel’s ideas that cannot be contested, which leads to the odd situation we see demonstrated in most reviews of his works, wherein people opine positively and negatively without venturing to summarize what Hegel is actually

    . Some people seem to read Hegel with the attitude of a pious Christian hearing a sermon in another language, and believe and revere without understanding; while others conclude that Hegel’s language plays the part of a screen in a magician’s act, concealing cheap tricks under a mysterious veil.

    For my part, either dismissing or admiring Hegel without making a serious attempt to understand him is unsatisfactory. The proper attitude toward any canonical thinker is respect tinged with skepticism: respect for influence and originality, skepticism towards conclusions. That being said, most people, when confronted with Hegel’s style, will either incline towards the deifying or the despising stance. My inclination is certainly towards the latter. He is immensely frustrating to read, not to mention aggravating to review, since I can hardly venture to say anything about Hegel without risking the accusation of having fundamentally misunderstood him. Well, so be it.

    was Hegel’s first published book, and it is widely considered his masterpiece. It is a history of consciousness. Hegel attempts to trace all of the steps that consciousness must go through—Consciousness, Self-Consciousness, Reason, Spirit, and Religion—before it can arrive at the point of fully adequate knowledge (Absolute Knowledge). Nobody had ever attempted anything similar, and even today this project seems ludicrously ambitious. Not only is the subject original, but Hegel also puts forward a new method of philosophy, the dialectical method. In other words, he is trying to do something no one had ever thought of doing before, using a way of thinking no one had thought of using before.

    The

    begins with its justly famous Preface, which was written after the rest of the book was completed. This Preface alone is an important work, and is sometimes printed separately. Since it is easily the most lucid and eloquent section of the book, I would recommend it to those with even a passing interest in philosophy. This is where Hegel outlines his dialectical method.

    The dialectical method is a new type of logic, meant to replace deductive reasoning. Ever since Aristotle, philosophers have mainly relied on deductive arguments. The most famous example is the syllogism (All men are mortal, Socrates is a man, etc.). Deduction received renewed emphasis with Descartes, who thought that mathematics (which is deductive) is the most certain form of knowledge, and that philosophy should emulate this certainty.

    The problem with syllogisms and proofs, Hegel thought, is that they divorce content from form. Deductive frameworks are formulaic; different propositions (all pigs are animals, all apples are fruit) can be slotted into the framework indifferently, and still produce an internally consistent argument. Even empirically false propositions can be used (all apples are pineapples), and the argument may still be logically correct, while failing to align with reality. In other words, the organization of argument is something independent of the order of the world. In the generation before Hegel, Kant took this even further, arguing that our perception and our logic fundamentally shape the world as it appears to us, meaning that pure reason can never tell us anything about reality in itself.

    Hegel found this unsatisfactory. In the words of Frederick Copleston, he was a firm believer in the equivalence of content and form. Every notion takes a form in experience; and every formula for knowledge—whether syllogistic, mathematical, or Kantian—alters the content by imposing upon it a foreign form. All attempts to separate content from form, or vice versa, therefore do an injustice to the material; the two are inseparable.

    Traditional logic has one further weakness. It conceives of the truth as a static proposition, an unchanging conclusion derived from unchanging premises. But this fails to do justice to the nature of knowledge. Our search to know the truth evolves through a historical process, adopting and discarding different modes of thought in its restless search to grasp reality. Unlike in a deductive process, where incorrect premises will lead to incorrect conclusions, we often begin with an incorrect idea and then, through trial and error, eventually adopt the correct one.

    Deductive reasoning not only mischaracterizes the historical growth of knowledge, but it also is unable to deal with the changing nature of reality itself. The world we know is constantly evolving, shifting, coming to being and passing away. No static formula or analysis—Newton’s equations or Kant’s metaphysics, for example—could possibly describe reality adequately. To put this another way, traditional logic is mechanistic; it conceives reality as a giant machine with moving, interlocking parts, and knowledge as being a sort of blue-print or diagram of the machine. Hegel prefers the organic metaphor.

    To use Hegel’s own example, imagine that we are trying to describe an oak tree. Traditional logic might take the mature tree, divide it into anatomical sections that correspond with those of other trees, and end with a description in general terms of a static tree. Hegel’s method, by contrast, would begin with the acorn, and observe the different stages it passes through in its growth to maturity; and the terms of the description, instead of being taken from general anatomic descriptions of trees, would emerge of necessity from the observation of the growing tree itself. The final description would include every stage of the tree, and would be written in terms specific to the tree.

    This is only an example. Hegel does not intend for his method to be used by biologists. What the philosopher observes is, rather, Mind or Spirit. Here we run into a famous ambiguity, because the German word

    cannot be comfortably translated as either “mind” or “spirit.” The edition I used translates the title as the

    , whereas later translations have called it

    . This ambiguity is not trivial. The nature of mind—how it comes to know itself and the world, how it is related to the material world—is a traditional inquiry in philosophy, whereas spirit is something quasi-religious or mystical in flavor. For my part, I agree with Peter Singer in thinking that we ought to try to use “mind,” since it leaves Hegel’s meaning more open, while using “spirit” pre-judges Hegel’s intent.

    Hegel is an absolute idealist. All reality is mental (or spiritual), and the history of mind consists in its gradual realization of this momentous fact: that mind

    reality. As the famous formula goes, the rational is the real and the real is the rational. Hegel’s project in the

    is to trace the process, using his dialectic method, in which mind passes from ignorance of its true nature to the realization that it comprises the fabric of everything it knows.

    How does this history unfold? Many have described the dialectic process as consisting of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. The problem with this characterization is that Hegel never used those terms; and as we’ve seen he disliked logical formulas. Nevertheless, the description does manage to give a taste of Hegel’s procedure. Mind, he thought, evolved through stages, which he calls “moments.” At each of these moments, mind takes a specific form, in which it attempts to grapple with its reality. However, when mind has an erroneous conception of itself or its reality (which is just mind itself in another guise), it reaches an impasse, where it seems to encounter a contradiction. This contradiction is overcome via a synthesis, where the old conception and its contradiction are accommodated in a wider conception, which will in turn reach its own impasse, and so on until the final stage is reached.

    This sounds momentous and mysterious (and it is), but let me try to illustrate it with a metaphor.

    Imagine a cell awoke one day in the human body. At first, the cell is only aware of itself as a living thing, and therefore considers itself to be the extent of the world. But then the cell notices that it is limited by its environment. It is surrounded by other cells, which restrict its movement and even compete for resources. The cell then learns to define itself negatively, as against its environment. Not only that, but the cell engages in a conflict with its neighbors, fighting for resources and trying to assert its independence and superiority. But this fight is futile. Every time the cell attempts to restrict resources to its neighbors, it simultaneously impedes the flow of blood to itself. Eventually, after much pointless struggle, the cell realizes that it is a part of a larger structure—say, a nerve—and that it is one particular example of a universal type. In other words, the cell recognizes its neighbors as itself and itself as its neighbors. This process then repeats, from nerves to muscles to organs, until the final unity of the human body is understood to consists as one complete whole, an organism which lives and grows, but which nevertheless consists of distinct, co-dependent elements. Once again, Hegel’s model is organic rather than mechanic.

    Just so, the mind awakes in the world and slowly learns to recognize the world as itself, and itself as one cell in the world. The complete unity, the world’s “body,” so to speak, is the Absolute Mind.

    Hegel begins his odyssey of knowledge in the traditional Cartesian starting point, with sense-certainty. We are first aware of sensations—hot, light, rough, sour—and these are immediately present to us, seemingly truth in its naked form. However, when mind tries to articulate this truth, something curious happens. Mind finds that it can only speak in universals, which fail to capture the particularity and the immediacy of its sensations. Mind tries to overcome this by using terms like “This!” or “Here!” or “Now!” But even these will not do, since what is “here” one moment is “there” the next, and what is “this” one moment is “that” the next. In other words, the truth of sense-certainty continually slips away when you try to articulate it.

    The mind then begins to analyze its sensations into perceptions—instead of raw data, we get definite objects in time and space. However, we reach other curious philosophical puzzles here. Why do all the qualities of salt—its size, weight, flavor, color—cohere in one location, persist through time, and reappear regularly? What unites these same qualities in this consistent way? Is it some metaphysical substance that the qualities inhere in? Or is the unity of these qualities just a product of the perceiving mind?

    At this point, it is perhaps understandable why Hegel thought that mind comprises all reality. From a Cartesian perspective—as an ego analyzing its own subjective experience—this is true: everything analyzed is mental. And, as Kant argued, the world’s organization in experience may well be due to the mind’s action upon the world as perceived. Thus true knowledge would indeed require an understanding of how our mind shapes the experience.

    But Hegel’s premiss—that the real is rational and the rational is real—becomes much more difficult to accept once we move into the world of intersubjective reality, when individual minds acknowledge other minds as real and existing in the same universe. For my part, I find it convenient to put the question of the natural world to one side. Hegel had no notion of change in nature; his picture of the world had no Big Bang, and no biological evolution, and in any case he did not like Newtonian physics (he thinks, quite dumbly, that the Law of Attraction is the general form of all laws, and that it doesn’t explain anything about nature) and he was not terribly interested in natural science. Hegel was far more preoccupied with the social world; and it is in this sphere that his ideas seem more sensible.

    In human society, the real is the rational and the rational is the real, in the sense that our beliefs shape our actions, and our actions shape our environments, and our environments in turn shape our beliefs, in a constantly evolving dialogue—the dialectic. The structure of society is thus intimately related to the structure of belief at any given time and place. Let me explain that more fully.

    Hegel makes quite an interesting observation about beliefs. (Well, he doesn’t actually say this, but it’s implied in his approach.) Certain mentalities, even if they can be internally consistent for an individual, reveal contradictions when the individual tries to act out these beliefs. In other words, mentalities reveal their contradictions in action and not in argument. The world created by a mentality may not correspond with the world it “wants” to create; and this in turn leads to a change in mentality, which in turn creates a different social structure, which again might not correspond with the world it is aiming for, and so on until full correspondence is achieved. Some examples will clarify this.

    The classic Hegelian example is the master and the slave. The master tries to reduce the slave to the level of an object, to negate the slave’s perspective entirely. And yet, the master’s identity as master is tied to the slave having a perspective to negate; thus the slave must not be entirely objectified, but must retain some semblance of perspective in order for the situation to exist at all. Meanwhile, the slave is supposed to be a nullity with no perspective, a being entirely directed by the master. But the slave transforms the world with his work, and by this transformation asserts his own perspective. (This notion of the slave having his work “alienated” from him was highly influential, especially on Marx.)

    Hegel then analyzes Stoicism. The Stoic believes that the good resides entirely in his own mental world, while the exterior world is entirely devoid of value. And yet the Stoic recognizes that he has duties in this exterior world, and thus this world has some moral claim on him. Mind reacts to this contradiction by moving to total Skepticism, believing that the world is unreal and entirely devoid of value, recognizing no duties at all. And yet this is a purely negative attitude, a constant denial of something that is persistently there, and this constant mode of denial collapses when the Skeptic goes about acting within this supposedly unreal world. Mind then decides that the world is unreal and devoid of value, including mind itself as parts of the world, but that value exists in a transcendent sphere. This leads us to medieval Christianity and the self-alienated soul, and so on.

    I hope you see by now what I mean by a conception not being able to be acted out without a contradiction. Hegel thought that mind progressed from one stage to another until finally the world was adequate to the concept and vice versa; indeed, at this point the world and the concept would be one, and the real would be rational and the rational real. Thought, action, and world would be woven into one harmonious whole, a seamless fabric of reason.

    I am here analyzing Hegel in a distinctly sociological light, which is easily possible in many sections of the text. However, I think this interpretation would be difficult to justify in other sections, where Hegel seems to be making the metaphysical claim that all reality (not just the social world) is mental and structured by reason. Perhaps one could make the argument on Kantian grounds that our mental apparatus, as it evolves through time, shapes the world we experience in progressively different ways. But this would seem to require a lot more traditional epistemology than I see here in the text.

    In a nutshell, this is what I understand Hegel to be saying. And I have been taking pains to present his ideas (as far as I understand them) in as positive and coherent a light as I can. So what are we to make of all this?

    A swarm of criticisms begin to buzz. The text itself is disorganized and uneven. Hegel spends a great deal of time on seemingly minor subjects, and rushes through major developments. He famously includes a long, tedious section on phrenology (the idea that the shape of the skull reveals a person’s personality), while devoting only a few, very obscure pages to the final section, Absolute Knowledge, which is the entire goal of the development. This latter fact is partially explained by the book’s history. Hegel made a bad deal with his publisher, and had to rush the final sections.

    As for prose, the style of this book is so opaque that it could not have been an accident. Hegel leaves many important terms hazily defined, and never justifies his assumptions nor clarifies his conclusions. Obscurity is beneficial to thinkers in that they can deflect criticism by accusing critics of misunderstanding; and the ambiguity of the text means that it can be variously interpreted depending on the needs of the occasion. I think Hegel did something selfish and intellectually irresponsible by writing this way, and even now we still hear the booming thunder of his unintelligible voice echoed in many modern intellectuals.

    Insofar as I understand Hegel’s argument, I cannot accept it. Although Hegel presents dialectic as a method of reasoning, I failed to be convinced of the necessary progression from one moment to the next. Far from a series of progressive developments, the pattern of the text seemed, rather, to be due entirely to Hegel’s whim.

    Where Hegel is most valuable, I think, is in his emphasis on history, especially on intellectual history. This is something entirely lacking in his predecessors. He is also valuable for his way of seeing mind, action, and society as interconnected; and for his observation that beliefs and mentalities are embodied in social relations.

    In sum, I am left with the somewhat lame conclusion that Hegel’s canonical status is well-deserved, but so is his controversial reputation. He is infuriating, exasperating, and has left a dubious legacy. But his originality is undeniable, his influence is pervasive, and his legacy, good or bad, will always be with us.

  • Benjamin

    This should really be getting both a 1 and a 5.

  • Adam

    GO FUCK YOURSELF, HEGEL.

  • Nathan

    Writing a Review of Hegel's Phenomenology is a fool's errand......

    Here's a famous passage you should always hold in mind when you get to thinking that Hegel's all dry=humourless (spiritless?[!!]) dry-as-bone abstraction.

    Writing a Review of Hegel's Phenomenology is a fool's errand......

    Here's a famous passage you should always hold in mind when you get to thinking that Hegel's all dry=humourless (spiritless?[!!]) dry-as-bone abstraction.

    . I.e., "Pissen", not "Urinieren, the old dusty school=Latin ; Harris commenting, "Academic dog-Latin belongs to the old world of spiritual authority. In the 'daylight of the present' even philosophic science must speak the language of the people." Then his

    (which is not a

    ), "I was amused to discover that the

    [I don't know what this is] calls Findlay's super-professorial use of 'micturition,' for urination,

    . His substitution of 'orgasm' for Hegel's 'generation' [...] is philosophically 'erroneous' also, but it led Alan White to the insightful comment that the 'I=I' of primitive Self-Consciousness is a philosophical orgasm." I think Joyce would've much enjoyed this little passage.....

    ____________________

    Writing a Review of Hegel's Phenomenology is a fool's errand. As the contemporary reviewers probably indicate. So, here's a fun quip ::

    You all know the thing about how Johnson refuted Berkeley ::

    Add to this Hegel's refutations of Physiognomy and Phrenology thusly ::

    Etc. And the refutation of phrenology gets even more violent. Viz.

    Etc. So, the lesson is, should someone tell you that The Phenomenology is about some disembodied spirit, you oughta, well.... please though, don't behave too violently towards them.

    ___________

    Terry Pinkard has newly translated the Phenomenology and is apparently looking for a publisher. Meanwhile he's provided his translation

    , including a bilingual download option, for public use. Thank you, Professor.

  • David M

    12/28/2016 - this books has been weighing heavy on me for a long time. This past week I ended up forcing my way through the last 300+ pages with, I fear, more haste than wisdom. I'm anxious to be done with Hegel for the sake of moving on to Marx.

    Do I have much insight? No, not really. Rumors of the book's barbaric syntax and inhospitable decor turn out to be 100% justified. I normally get a lot of pleasure from reading philosophy, but can't say I found much here.

    Of course personal enjoyment is

    12/28/2016 - this books has been weighing heavy on me for a long time. This past week I ended up forcing my way through the last 300+ pages with, I fear, more haste than wisdom. I'm anxious to be done with Hegel for the sake of moving on to Marx.

    Do I have much insight? No, not really. Rumors of the book's barbaric syntax and inhospitable decor turn out to be 100% justified. I normally get a lot of pleasure from reading philosophy, but can't say I found much here.

    Of course personal enjoyment is a pretty useless criterion when trying to evaluate a book like this.

    I think I'm able to see in what way Hegel represented an advance in philosophy. Consider Descartes with, first, his conception of the subject as an isolated, thinking consciousness and, second, his dualism of substance; Kant would later reproduce both tendencies in his more sophisticated and elaborate form.

    From this we get the scandalous problem of solipsism as well as the strange aporias of mind and matter, the noumenal and the phenomenal.

    Hegel did not exactly solve these problems (they are, sort of by definition, insoluble), but he may have pointed to a way out for philosophy. He did this by bringing in the crucial categories of mediation and totality. He helps us to conceive a matter that is already pregnant with mind (and vice versa), as well as a thinking subject that is not isolated but collective.

    Now, as far as I can tell, he does not really complete this project. The Phenomenology is still far, far too abstract. Which is why it's not enough to simply interpret the book; it needs to actually be

    , to history and to our collective life as human beings. This is where Marx comes in.

    (Although it's also probably true that Hegel can serve as an important corrective to the later tendency of Marx and Engels to try and erect a deterministic science of history; a philosophical engagement with concepts is always important to prevent the calcifications of scientism)

    And while I strongly, strongly recommend Kojeve's classic book on the subject (

    ), I can't accept Hegel's teleology of history. Humanity reconciled to itself through the ruins and monuments of its own alienation... don't fucking count on it.

    *

    This passage may be aimed at Spinoza. In Spinoza's metaphysics, God-the-eternal-substance can be graspsed through pure thought, eternal reason, an inner representation by the thinker. By contrast, with Hegel Spirit is

    , which I take to mean empirical and historical. Moreover, reason itself is historical, and the philosopher must come to know his or her own place in history. No longer shall they withdraw from the world into a realm of pure reason; rather thinking must happen in and through the world and its history.

    However, there does seem to be a massive irony here. Hegel may break down barriers by indicating a space through which history can enter philosophy. And yet his own philosophy, or at least

    , is virtually without content, totally denuded of the world. It's really quite ghastly, to be honest.

    *

    'I got entangled in my own data, and my conclusion directly contradicts the original idea from which I start. Starting from unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism.' - the social theorist in Dostoevsky's

    While he's always rather stingy about naming names, Hegel seems to be accusing Kant of something similar in the section 'Absolute Freedom and Terror' (pp 355-64). The point being that the terror of the French Revolution was the natural culmination or real-world application of Kant's philosophy of pure practical reason.

    For Kant, freedom is entirely unworldly. The will is noumenal, the world phenomenal. The result is a very harsh dualism. The individual conscience is absolute in its demands.

    By contrast, Hegel understands the importance of mediation. Freedom is embodied in institutions and social bonds. In this respect he clearly appears to be an advance over his predecessor. A pure conscience is not going to save the world. For that, some form of collective identity is necessary. However, it seems as though Hegel's understanding of the collective is often such as to simply rehabilitate the existing order. Here is where it may be necessary to turn to Marx in order to theorize a collective subject that is at once emerging, critical, revolutionary.

    *

    The attack on phrenology - on the one hand, this just seems amusing, since after all

    takes that seriously anymore, but then I think Hegel's point is much broader. Phrenology may be an especially absurd example, but its fundamental error is the same as any positivist would-be science of psychology, in assuming that consciousness is a thing that can be neutrally observed.

    Insofar as consciousness acquires a nature, insofar as it aspires to the status of a thing, this is due to its own activity

    consciousness, rather than some determinate objective reality.

    Mediation, mediation, mediation. This is the key to it all

    *

    Never forget,

    (page 117, paragraph 193, paraphrasing somewhat)

    *

    'Thus it is only sense-certainty as a

    which stands firm within itself as

    ...' (pp 62)

    (Compare Merleau-Ponty: It is possible to doubt any particular thing in the world can be doubted but not the world as a whole.)

    The dialectic is already present in the most simple act of perception. And what it the dialectic? Mediation or the work of the negative maybe, the self-exceedingness of consciousness/knowledge. Sense data, claimed as the most concrete basis of knowledge, is really the most abstract as it posits an artificial experience as real.

    Chapter III of 'Consciousness,' 'Force and the Understanding,' this is a bit more opaque to me. Hegel seems to turn from the empirical model of sensation/perception to Newton's nomological physics:

    'The Unification of all laws in

    expresses no other content than just the

    , which is posited in that law in the form of

    .' (pp 91)

    Here too Hegel seeks to show that consciousness can not be kept out. Subjectivity keeps transgressing on objective being.

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