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Notes on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit

Notes on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit

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 Notes on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit page 1 of 4
Notes on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit
Anindya Bhattacharyya, November 2009
Hegel’s
 Phenomenology of Spirit 
boasts a bizarre and starkly original structure. While Hegel’s philosophical preoccupations are in line with those of his German Idealist precursors – constructinga scientific metaphysics, reconciling ethico-political and scientific reason, emphasising subjectivityas the key to these deadlocks – his
method 
is radically different.Rather than presenting his philosophy in the form of a finished system to be outlined, explicatedand set to work (in the manner of, say, Kant or Fichte), Hegel presents us with a
 Bildungsroman
– anarrative of self-education and development – that traces the mutations and vicissitudes of consciousness from its origins in brute self-certainty (roughly speaking, jabbing your finger atthings and grunting “This!”, “Here!”, “Now!”) to its destiny in divine Absolute Knowledge.This journey takes us through stages, and sub-stages within those stages. Hegel describes this as“the path of the soul as it wanders through the series of ways it takes shape” (
 PS 
, §77) andcompares the stages to “stations” – an allusion to the Stations of the Cross in Christian iconography.We have, it seems, a straightforward tale of linear progress from the base to the holy.A couple of things complicate this picture, however. For starters, while these temporal or historicalmetaphors are perhaps unavoidable, they are by no means fundamental. The movement Hegelspeaks of is a
logical 
one – how one concept necessarily transforms itself into the next. It is thislogical progression of concepts that becomes the basis for Time and History, not vice versa.Secondly, this movement has a cyclical element that at times threatens to eclipse its more obvious progressive aspect. The Absolute is not simply a distant endpoint of knowledge. In a sense
it wasthere from the beginning 
, lurking within the jabbing and grunting of self-certainty as a potentialwaiting to unfold.This tension between a
 step forward 
and a
return to the source
animates the political debates between revolutionary and conservative interpretations of Hegel’s thought. It is a tension capturedin the double meaning of Hegel’s preferred term for dialectical progression:
 Aufhebung 
– whichmeans both “to preserve” and “to annul”.The question remains as to
why
Hegel embarks upon his idiosyncratic but seminal course. My viewis that he is returning to a key political problem of Enlightenment thought: how can the new philosophy of liberating reason be made accessible to all?
 
 Notes on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit page 2 of 4
Kant grapples with this problem but ends up deciding to sacrifice his early populist flamboyance for an austere and desiccated style. The critique of pure reason, he reluctantly concludes, is ultimatelythe concern of experts rather than lay masses (
CPR
, Axviii). A certain elitism, at least in presentation, is therefore unavoidable.Hegel emphatically rejects this conclusion. Any system of knowledge that cannot trace the pathfrom mundane thought to itself is a system that
cannot think its own materialisation
. Its universalityremains “abstract” and to that extent impaired. Consequently a truly scientific metaphysics
must 
 encompass an account of its own development from humble origins. Implicit within all this is acritique of 
utopian
thought that will come to the fore in the hands of Marx and Engels.
Consciousness and Self-Consciousness
The first major dialectical progression to be found in the
 Phenomenology
is the transition fromconsciousness to self-consciousness. As with all such transitions, it involves both a
break 
and a
continuity
– with rival schools of Hegel interpretation tending to stress one over the other.The “analytic” school of interpretation stresses continuity. Consciousness is essentially a subjectrelating to an object; self-consciousness involves that same subject relating to itself. At first glance,then, it seems that self-consciousness is a special case of consciousness in general, in much samethe manner that 2 × 2 is a special case of 2 ×
 x
, doubling in general.Even here, however, a complication arises. Inwood, for instance, notes that the
reflexive
dimensionof self-consciousness is present at the very start within ordinary object-oriented consciousness, inthe form of an “awareness of the discrepancy between itself and its object”. Moreover, this minimalself-awareness acts as the
motor 
of the dialectic, triggering the advance to the next step.An example of such a transition occurs in the opening paragraphs of the dialectic of self-certainty.We start with the immediate certainty of a This, which then splits in two: “This as I” and “This asobject” (
 PS 
, §92). The latter of these proves to be contingent and fleeting, while the former remainsstable. Self-certainty is thus “driven out of the object” and “pushed back into the I” (
 PS 
, §100).This pattern of an object of consciousness being displaced and ultimately sublated by its subjectivesupplement is a leitmotif running throughout the opening chapters of the
 Phenomenology
and beyond. Its ubiquity suggests that far from self-consciousness being a mere form of consciousness,the relationship is the other way round: object-oriented consciousness is but a passing moment of amore general and profound process of self-consciousness.
 
 Notes on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit page 3 of 4
This is the viewpoint adopted by the “existential” school of Hegel interpretation that stresses the
rupture
between self-consciousness and consciousness over any continuity. Hyppolite, for instance,declares the motto of German Idealism to be: “Self-consciousness is the truth of consciousness.”And consciousness leads itself to this truth “by an internal logic of which it is not aware”.This “rupture” diagnosis is given further credence by the radically different style and content of Hegel’s arguments in the chapter on self-consciousness. The epistemological concerns of earlier chapters are replaced by ethical and existential ones. Consciousness turns towards projects rather than objects. The subject of knowledge gives way to the subject of desire.Even on a formal level, the twists and turns of the dialectic of self-consciousness are significantlymore complex than those of consciousness. The subject reflecting upon itself becomes two subjectsfacing each other. This in turn transforms into a “life-and-death struggle” between them. At this point the symmetry breaks down: one subject emerges as master and the other as slave. Thecelebrated “master-slave dialectic” ensues, culminating in the slave’s self-emancipation throughlabour. The journey of consciousness has taken it right up to the threshold of History.
Understanding and Reason
The themes of the chapter on self-consciousness are predominantly intersubjective – the wider natural and social world recedes into the background as the focus shifts to relationships betweenone subject and another, or between a subject and itself.This does not mean, however, that Hegel is uninterested in what we might loosely call scientificcognition of the world, and the section on self-consciousness is bookended by two chapters dealingwith just that problematic. It is preceded by a chapter on “Understanding” (
Verstand 
) and followed by a much larger one entitled “Reason” (
Vernunft 
).Inwood notes that these two terms were introduced into German by Meister Eckhart as translationsof medieval philosophical distinctions.
Vernunft 
referred to ordinary discursive reason, while
Verstand 
was the higher form of intellect that moved beyond the sensible world to grasp things as pure conceptual essence, or idea.By the time of Wolff and Kant, these connotations remained but their priorities were reversed:Understanding’s detachment from the sensory was now seen as a defect rather than a virtue, andthis defect was to be remedied by Reason’s higher synthesis of the sensible and intelligible.Hegel broadly adopts this distinction but recasts it to fit his phenomenological narrative.Understanding’s orientation towards supersensible laws marks it out as the highest form of (object-

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