A Brief Guide to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit

This quote from the preface to Philosophy of Right (1810) is perhaps the most helpful key Hegel gives for understanding his theory of knowledge and philosophy itself, the ultimate form of self-knowledge. This theory of knowledge was first sketched out by Hegel in the earlier Phenomenology of Spirit [the emphasis is mine]:

“[…] One more word about teaching what the world ought to be: philosophy always arrives too late to do any such teaching. As the thought of the world, philosophy appears only in the period after actuality has been achieved and has completed its formative process. The lesson of the concept, which is necessarily taught by history, is that only in the ripeness of actuality does the ideal appear as against the real [and then get built up] into the configuration of an intellectual realm. When philosophy paints its gray in gray, then a configuration of life has grown old, and cannot be rejuvenated, but only understood; the Owl of Minerva takes flight only as the dusk begins to fall.”

This quote shows that for Hegel, the discipline of philosophy in history leads to the overcoming of the (often unconsciously) dialogical and normative reasoning of prior thought (about how we ought to think about the world) in order to grasp what has already resulted from such thinking, i.e., what has become actual as a result of a human(izing) process.

It’s hard to overestimate how important for Hegel is Immanuel Kant’s Critical Philosophy (critique of reason and judgment) following the Enlightenment. Kant’s elaboration of the ‘critical turn’ establishes how reason can and must become self-critical in order to justify itself.

The Phenomenology of Spirit studies various configurations of such thought (Sense-Certainty, Observing Reason, Acting Reason, etc.) and their outcomes. Keep in mind that for each configuration there are three aspects involved:

  1. experience(s);
  2. the notion/theory/ideas/principles/concepts/criteria by which experience and the world are judged at a particular moment (e.g., for Sense-Certainty its paltry criterion of knowledge is “is it sense-data?”);
  3. the world itself/the absolute/reality.

Georg 'Shifty Eyes' Hegel. Portrait by Schlesinger in 1831, the same year Hegel was negated by a cholera outbreak.
Georg 'Shifty Eyes' Hegel. Portrait by Schlesinger in 1831, the same year Hegel was negated by a cholera outbreak.
Hegel analyzes three temporal stages through which each configuration of thought passes: (a) early, (b) middle, and (c) late. In (a) the early, “immediate” stage, experience is satisfied with a merely abstract principle and concept of itself and the world. In (b) the middle, transitional, “mediating”, negating, dialectical stage, experience is acquiring doubts about the adequacy of its criteria because it is encountering aspects of the world and itself which exceed its current concepts. In (c) the late stage “we” — i.e., Hegel and us the readers, the phenomenological observers of the protagonist consciousness — see its failures, its errors, and its dissatisfactions. But we also see its actuality, and the positive results produced in the process. This latter point is what Hegel means by “negation of negation”, to grasp the movement and actuality of the negative judgment, and Aufheben or “sublation”, the negating-but-preserving of prior experience and thought (even if erroneous) in the background of the new thought.

It is helpful to think of this self-correcting process as moving in a circle between practical experience in the world and thought: each time experience — individually and collectively — finds in practice that its ideas or concept of the world is inadequate, it returns to thought. As the process moves forward the circle grows to encompass a richer background of experiences in and of the world itself.

Hegel’s innovation is to see our concepts, especially our norms of rational agency, right, freedom and responsibility, reason-giving — i.e., “spirit” — as resulting from this process. In the Preface to the Phenomenology, Hegel says “the absolute is a result”. By “das absolute Wissen” (absolute knowing or wisdom) Hegel means that this collective process of knowledge itself can be self-comprehended in us, whereby philosophy ‘becomes no longer merely the love of knowing, but [self-]actualized knowing’. This does NOT mean that Hegel claims to know everything in the sense of all the particular facts of the world! The “absolute” here refers to a qualitative rather than quantitative claim about the ultimate character of what knowing is in itself.

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