Version: v2, Published online: 2004
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5. The system: Phenomenology of Spirit
The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) is Hegel’s most influential work. It serves as an introduction to his philosophical system by means of a history of the experience of consciousness. The Phenomenology of Spirit represents only one of a number of introductory attempts he made. In the Jena writings and system drafts, a discipline which Hegel calls ‘logic’ assumes this function. This logic is intended to fulfil its introductory function by raising our ‘normal’ thinking, which is characterized by its confinement to irreconcilable oppositions, to the level of ‘speculation’ - Hegel’s term for philosophical thinking. Speculative thought is characterized by the knowledge of the reconcilability of oppositions and of the mechanisms of their coming about. That thinking, which by its insistence on oppositions simultaneously maintains their basic irresolvability, Hegel referred to at this time as ‘reflection’. He regarded the elevation of this thinking to the position of speculation as a destruction of the structures which characterize reflection, and which together constitute the finiteness of reflection. ‘Finiteness’ of reflection or (used by Hegel as a synonym) of the understanding (Verstand) is initially a way of saying that thinking whose oppositions are irreconcilable moves within limits and must thus be regarded as finite. According to Hegel, it is now the task of logic to carry out the destruction of the finiteness of reflection or of the thinking of the understanding, thereby simultaneously leading to the standpoint of speculation or of the thinking of reason. Hegel sees the problem of a logic, which he understands as an introduction to philosophy, to be to carry out this destruction in such a way that not only the limitations of the thinking of the understanding and its preconditions are presented as mistakes and absurdities, but also that during this destructive process those structures become clear which guarantee a reasonable (that is, an intrinsic speculative) insight into the basic structures of reality.
Towards the end of his Jena period, Hegel abandoned the project of developing a logic as an introduction to his system of philosophy, and in its place presented a new discipline which he called the ‘Science of the Experience of Consciousness’ or ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’. The declared goal of this discipline is twofold: on the one hand, it should destroy our supposedly natural picture of the world, and thus also our understanding of ourselves as the more or less consistent holders or subjects of this view, by demonstrating the contradictions which arise in our normal, complex view of the world. And second, it should thereby vindicate his ontological monism by demonstrating that our natural tendency to view the world as consisting of objects something which are both alien and different from us is not tenable. Instead we have to accept that in order to account for the real constitution of the world, and thus of objects and objectivity, we must presuppose, that we and the world represent a structural unity with the essential characteristic of being conscious of itself.
Hegel pursues this dual goal in a complex and ambitious thought-process, which attempts to combine and position within a comprehensive context a wide range of themes - historical, epistemological, psychological, meta-scientifical, ideological-critical, ethical, aesthetical and religio-philosophical. This whole thought-process is based on two convictions which govern Hegel’s entire construction: (1) It is possible to conceive of all epistemic attitudes of a consciousness towards a material world as relations between a subject termed ‘cognition’ (Wissen) and an object termed ‘truth’ (Wahrheit). That which is presented as cognition or truth is in each case determined by the description which the consciousness is able to furnish of its epistemic situation and its object corresponding to this situation. (2) ‘Knowledge’ (Erkenntnis) can only be taken to be that epistemic relation between cognition (subject) and truth (object) in which cognition and truth correspond with each other, which for Hegel is only the case if they are identical. A necessary, though not sufficient, condition for claiming this relationship of identity between cognition and truth is that what is regarded as cognition or as truth respectively is not formulated in a self-contradictory or inconsistent manner. For the Hegel of the Phenomenology of Spirit, and of the writings which were to follow, knowledge in the strict sense is thus really self-knowledge.
In characterizing the various epistemic attitudes of a consciousness to the world in the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel takes as his starting point something which he calls ‘sense certainty’. He uses this term to describe an attitude which assumes that in order to know the true nature of reality we must rely on that which is sensually immediately present to us as a spatiotemporally given single object. Hegel demonstrates the untenability of this attitude by attempting to prove that in such an immediate reference to objects nothing true can be claimed of them. Moreover this immediate approach shows that any attempt to gain knowledge of what an object really is implies at the outset a different attitude towards objects. This attitude is determined by the assumption that what we are really dealing with if we refer to objects in order to know them is not the immediately given object, but the object of perception, which is characterized by Hegel as an entity defined through its qualities. According to Hegel, however, even this attitude is not tenable. Neither the perceiving consciousness nor the object perceived nor the relationship which is believed to exist between the two can be accepted in the manner in which they appear in this constellation: the subject, which aims to perceive the object of perception as that which it really is, can neither formulate a consistent concept of this object nor describe itself in unequivocal terms. The consciousness is thus led to a concept of an object which differentiates between what the object is in itself and what it appears to be. In order to differentiate in this manner, the consciousness must define itself as understanding, to which the inner constitution of the object in itself is disclosed as being constituted by its own laws, that is, by the laws of the understanding. Although, according to Hegel, this interpretation of the objective world through the cognizing subject also produces neither a truthful concept of the cognizing consciousness nor of the object in question, it none the less leads to the enforcement of an attitude according to which consciousness, when referring to an object, is referring to something which it is itself. The realization of this insight - that consciousness, when referring to objects, in reality relates to itself - converts consciousness into self-consciousness.
The various ways in which consciousness deals with itself and the objective manifestations corresponding with these ways as reason and spirit are comprehensively discussed by Hegel in the remainder of his Phenomenology of Spirit. It is in this context that he presents some of his most famous analyses, such as the account of the master-servant relationship, his critique of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, his diagnosis of the strengths and weaknesses of the ancients’ ideas of morality and ethical life and his theory of religion. The conclusion of the Phenomenology of Spirit forms what Hegel calls ‘absolute knowledge’. Hegel characterizes this knowledge also as ‘comprehending knowledge’ (begreifendes Wissen), aiming thereby to highlight two ideas: (1) that this knowledge is only present when the subject of the knowledge knows itself to be identical under every description with the object of that knowledge. Comprehending knowledge therefore only occurs when the self knows itself to be ‘in its otherness with itself’, as Hegel puts it at the end of the Phenomenology of Spirit. He also aims to point out (2) that this type of identity of a subject with an object is that which constitutes the essence of that which he calls the ‘Concept’ (Begriff) of reason. The task of the Science of Logic is to develop this ‘Concept’ of reason in all its logical qualities. The goal of the Phenomenology of Spirit, the discipline which is to provide an introduction to logic, is achieved when it becomes evident to the consciousness that (Hegelian) truth only belongs to the (Hegelian) Concept.
But the Phenomenology of Spirit is not just an introduction to the system. From another point of view, Hegel describes the phenomenological process as ‘self-fulfilling scepticism’. By means of this metaphor he attempts to establish a link to a subject closely connected with his critical assessment of his cultural and political environment, namely that of dichotomy (Entzweiung). For Hegel, the modern age is characterized by the fact that unity has disappeared from people’s lives. The all-embracing unity of life can no longer be experienced, as people are no longer in a position to integrate the various aspects of their understanding of the world in a conflict-free context. So, for example, their moral convictions will force upon them a view of the world in which something like freedom and consequently something like the belief in the possibility to cause events based on free decisions occupies an irrefutable position. This view, based on moral convictions, stands in a conflicting and, finally, aporetic relationship to their scientific view of the world, which commits them to an understanding of the world in which there are no first causes or unconditioned facts, because each cause must itself be interpreted anew as an effect, whose cause can only be seen as determined by previous circumstances. In this view of the world there is apparently no place for freedom. The conflict between various aspects of the understanding of the world, cited here by way of example, is for Hegel by no means singular; instead, it runs like a leitmotif through the modern conceptualizations of all spheres of life. He initially interprets it wholly in the spirit of Rousseau as a product of culture and civilization. This conflict is what separates a human being from itself, so that it continues to be denied a coherent image of the world. As a creature living in dichotomies, the modern person is an example of what Hegel calls the ‘unhappy consciousness’.
Modern consciousness now attempts to solve this conflict by making each in turn of the conflicting views into the dominant attitude of its entire interpretation of the world. In this way, however, it can only achieve a one-sided interpretation of reality, which is just as incapable of doing justice to the true nature of reality as to the need of human consciousness to integrate all aspects of reality into its understanding of the world as a coherent unity. According to Hegel, it is in this situation that the need for philosophy arises. It is philosophy’s task to destroy these one-sided total interpretations of consciousness and in this destruction to lay the foundation for the true complete interpretation of reality. The Phenomenology of Spirit describes this process of destruction and foundation-laying. The consciousness experiences it as a process of permanent destabilization of all the convictions on which it has always based its one-sided interpretations of the world. In this sceptical approach it is forced to doubt everything and to abandon all its supposed certainties. While the phenomenological process thus concedes a philosophical value to scepticism, in Hegel’s understanding it simultaneously overcomes this scepticism by claiming a truth-revealing function for it. It is also Hegel’s intention that the Phenomenology of Spirit should in this respect be understood as a treatise on the cathartic effect of philosophical scepticism.
Two questions have often been raised in connection with Hegel’s conception of the Phenomenology of Spirit as an introduction to his ‘System of Science’, especially his logic. The first is whether Hegel does not assume in advance certain central theses of the discipline to which the Phenomenology of Spirit is intended to provide an introduction. This question draws attention to a methodological problem which originates from Hegel’s assertion that the process of consciousness described in the Phenomenology of Spirit is not guided by any preconditions external to this process. This assertion seems difficult to square with certain manoeuvres which Hegel makes during the course of the Phenomenology of Spirit. The second question is of a more intrinsic nature and concerns the categorical apparatus employed by Hegel in the Phenomenology of Spirit. In this context, in particular his phenomenological conception of negation and identity as well as his concepts of knowledge and of cognition aroused critical interest from the very beginning.
It is difficult to determine exactly how Hegel himself later assessed the success of the Phenomenology of Spirit as an introduction to the point of view which is assumed at the beginning of his Science of Logic. On the one hand, he seems to have allotted it a certain value throughout his entire life, not only as a history of consciousness but also as an introduction. This is shown not only by the fact that he made arrangements for the publication of a second edition of the work immediately before his death, but also by later statements in the various editions of the Science of Logic and the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences. However, it is in precisely these statements that one finds Hegel expressing an increasingly critical attitude towards his project of a phenomenological introduction to the system. In this context it should also be recorded that by 1827 at the latest (that is, from the second edition of the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences) Hegel no longer has recourse to a version of phenomenology as ‘a more detailed introduction, in order to explain and lead to the meaning and the point of view which is here allotted to logic’, but for this purpose uses instead a discussion which deals with three different ‘attitudes of thought to objectivity’.
Horstmann, Rolf-peter. The system: Phenomenology of Spirit. Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1770–1831), 2004, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC036-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/hegel-georg-wilhelm-friedrich-1770-1831/v-2/sections/the-system-phenomenology-of-spirit.
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