Hegel’s Introduction to the Phenomenology of Spirit

This is a gloss of Hegel’s Introduction to the Phenomenology of Spirit

Examine a curious phrase that Hegel’s uses in his second sentence in his Introduction.  “A certain uneasiness seems justified.”

Uneasiness is another word for anxiety— anxiety that arises from loss.  A loss?  What loss?  A loss of control, of power, of mastery over something.  For Hegel the PS (Phenomenology of Spirit) is written to confront the loss—this “lack” that doesn’t sit right in your belly (like having eaten spoiled food—“This meatlovers pizza aint loving me back”).

Something’s lost for Hegel.  One’s vision is blurred as the clouds crystallize around you making it difficult to see the horizon.

And it is even more complex than beginning in simple “loss.”  For the “logic of loss” is deeply disturbing.  To be at a loss is to have lost one’s bearings—one’s compass if you will.  To be lost is more than simple to be its direct opposite—to be fully aware of where one is, how they got there and where they’re going etc.).  No, to be at a loss is to not even know you are lost!  Is being so lost that you don’t even have a care that you are in fact, unable to plot yourself down in reference to something else.  You are beyond the very limits of what constitutes “being on the map.” To be lost, in Hegel’s sense is to cancel out being lost as a conscious state of mind.  It is unconscious—and thus negates the very meaning of the term itself.   To be lost thus is to transcend the very meaning of the terms themselves.

Do you see where Hegel begins his Introduction?  It is, if you will the acknowledgement that we are so lost that we must try to figure out how lost we really are.  But how is this even possible?  How does one even begin to identify where they are when they have no bearings by which to start?

Ok, but Hegel tries to begin…but not at the beginning (this is utterly impossible) …rather in the middle he begins.  In the middle of what?  In the middle of philosophy’s crisis (a crisis that is equally a cultural, political, economic, scientific, and theological crisis).  Crisis is the Condition of Possibility (CoP) in which philosophy gives birth to truth.

So Hegel begins to give birth to a truth, but this truth cannot simply be born without the experience of tarrying down the hard road of overcoming loss—and this must begin with the overcoming of a contradiction that you (the reader) didn’t even know you had.  This unconscious contradiction that already inheres within one’s naked and naïve consciousness of the world.  Sure you could ignore this “loss” that hovers in you like a ghost that could easily be dismissed, but ignoring it is only a diversionary tactic that will eventually haunt you all the way to your death-bed.  It is there that it patiently awaits you with open arms and a warm glow.  But in life this “glow” appears not warmly but hidden and cool (hiding just beyond the desk and in the closets in the space between).

For the “natural assumption” in philosophy (that must be dealt with prior to the real meat of the matter is what the heck is “cognition” itself?  What is thought (which presupposes that you are thinking it as you as the question about its very nature)?  In this sense, the question has a circularity to it, does it not?  Does it not require you to employ the very thing that you are using in order to explain what that thing is?    It is a circle—because you need to USE cognition (as a means) by which you accomplish your end goal?  The goal thus is already in the means, and conversely the means is already in the goal itself.

For cognition, Hegel tells us is one of two things:

(a) it is an instrument (like a tool of power) in order to get hold of the Absolute

(b) medium through which one discovers it (cognition)

But here the answer is not immediately clear and this causes some anxiety.  Which way to go?

Hegel questions both (a) and (b) because in both cases “we employ a means which immediately brings about” a distortion because the means turns the ends into itself.  This is for Hegel absurd.  Why should we begin with THIS view of cognition when it only leads us down the road to a deadlock (a deadlock that is circular, as we established above).    Likewise, the Absolute cannot be perverted by the very process of knowing it.  Rather the Absolute would have to already know cognition before cognition tries to “get to it.” “For it is not the refraction of the ray, but the ray itself whereby truth reaches us” (47).

In other words, the journey that unfolds all the way to the End already has within each step the End.  But cognition forgets this.  Moreover, the presence of the End (Absolute) within each step is obscured within the spaces between, or what Freud would later call the “unconscious.”  What Hegel is saying is that Modern philosophy (Descartes, Spinoza, Hume, etc.) and science (Bacon) is driven by the compulsion to impose an idea of cognition “as an instrument” or “as a medium” which “assumes that there is a difference between ourselves and this cognition” (47).[1] Modern philosophy does this because it wants to find a sure footing on which one can be confident to rest ideas (and the hierarchical framework of conceptual knowledge).  But Hegel sees that this “foundation” of knowledge is really a sand pile in the rain.  For these two options “presupposes that the Absolute stands on one side and cognition on the other, independent and separated from it, and yet is something real….” Or “it presupposes that cognition” is sundered from the Absolute and so the process of knowledge begins in cognition being alienated from the Absolute.  In other words, cognition necessarily cannot know the Absolute despite the contradictory impulse to want to know it.  In other words the contradiction of modern philosophy is the drive to avoid epistemological errors instead of desiring truth itself.  So the “natural assumption” of modern philosophy rests on an unnatural artificial break that severs human thinking from truth.

Hegel deconstructs the “natural assumption” on which the practice of philosophy rested from two-hundred years (or more).   And even sees within Modern philosophy a logic of tragedy.   For the logic of tragedy happens when the actor in the plot brings about their own demise because they were unaware of the consequences of their own choices.  In other words, the tragic hero digs their own grave whilst thinking they are laying the road down for their own immortality.  As Hegel put it perfectly himself:  The tragedy of modern philosophy is that they tried to avoid the “fear of error” which “reveals itself rather as a fear of the truth.”

Now this is very odd.  I mean think about this:  Who purposefully avoids the truth in a way that produces all kinds of flashy accruements with pomp and circumstance, with smoke and mirrors to boot?  I mean we all have hang-ups and do weird and strange things (even extraordinary things) in order to avoid doing what we don’t want to do.   And we have an extraordinary capacity to deceive ourselves in thinking we are doing something productive when we’re not accomplishing the task at hand. One is reminded here of really bad Rock bands in Irish pubs that merely turns up the volume in order to mask their severe lack of talent.  In a crude analogy modern philosophy turns up the volume of epistemology in order to cover up the fact that it refuses to do ontology as Hegel says, it “give[s] the impression of working seriously and zealously” (48) when it is really just a tactic of deception.  By contrast Hegel says, “Science must liberate itself from this semblance, and it can do so only by turning against it” (48).

But instead of simply dismissing modern philosophy’s “natural assumptions” willy-nilly Hegel reveals his thinking as truly genealogical in that for him modern philosophy had to reach the deadlock of their own deception in order to press “forward to true knowledge… so that it may purify itself for the life of the Spirit, and achieve finally, through a completed experience of itself, the awareness of what it really is in itself.”  This is a remarkable stance that Hegel has because he not only has contempt for the alienation that modern philosophy (and liberalism) establishes, he also has an uncanny reserve for forgiveness too.  Hegel, if you will “forgives” the hubris nature of modern philosophy because, in fact, the errors committed by philosophy can be seen as a necessary stage that unfolds and even as it can’t help but to reveal a truth deeper than itself.  But here the difference for Hegel is that he sees in error a truth that “mends error” beyond itself.

But what helps Hegel perceive in the presence of the untruth, that which is an absent-truth?  This is one of Hegel’s “tricks” he pulls out of his bag.  His trick is to get to the high-ground so that he can see a more expansive horizon.  Think of the basic military tactic of claiming the high ground so that the enemy is at a great disadvantage like the Union claimed the high-ground of “Big and Little Roundtop” on the left southern flank during the battle of Gettysburg.  Thus, the problem that plagued Modern philosophy was this it thought it had the “high-ground” of the cogito (I think therefore I am), but, in reality this was a like Tolkien’s “ring of power” that literally blinded the philosopher from the “historical perspective.”  The cogito was the philosophical fetish—a symptom that masked its cause (dualism of subject and object) and thus only tragedy could ensue.

Hegel thought can thus be seen as a kind of drug rehab unit that weans you off of the dangers of cogito and trains you to think the “unnatural” logic of the “whole.”  By “whole” Hegel means something akin to a story or a journey whose pilgrim is the character called “Consciousness” and whose terminal point is its own death (which he calls “negation”).  Hegel says, “…the result [of Science] is conceived as it is in truth, namely, as a determinate negation, a new form has thereby immediately arisen, and in the negation [death] the transition is made through which the progress through the complete series of forms comes about of itself” (51).

You see by signing the death-warrant of the cogito one negates it so that “ a new form” alights and the journey of truth continues unfolding.  In effect Hegel’s entire philosophical apparatus is one premised on the Phoenix that dies but arises from its ash-heap.  Yes, so the cliché “we learn from our mistakes” is literally true for Hegel.  Truth is paradoxically revealed in the error of trying to get to it but failing miserably.  This is why there really is no final terminal point in Hegel!  This is because the “progress towards this goal is …unhalting, and short of it no satisfaction is to be found at any of the stations on the way” (51).

“Whatever is confined within the limits of a natural life cannot by its own efforts go beyond its immediate existence; but it is driven beyond it by something else, and this uprooting entails its death.”  But unlike a finite entity that cannot transcend itself (except by birthing its offspring and dying), Consciousness “is explicitly the Notion of itself.  Hence it is something that goes beyond limits, and since these limits are its own, it is something that goes beyond itself.”

So here Hegel simply put together these two:  a singular entity (say a man) and Consciousness.  Now the Man has a different fate than does Consciousness, because the Man is “driven beyond” itself “by something else” (i.e., desire, sex-drive, reproduction etc.), and this drive to become immortal is its own death-keel.  By contrast, Consciousness is able to go beyond itself through its own powers.  It thus “suffers…violence at its own hands” and frustrates its own satisfaction.  Now Consciousness could at this point panic for Hegel and it could “retreat from the truth, and strive to hold on to what it is in danger of losing.  But it can find no peace” (51).  But its own unrest troubles its and arouses its from its slumber (like Hume wakes Kant up).  Consciousness could try to lie down and catch some Zzzzzz but in doing this it “flees from the universal, and seeks only to [sleep with itself]” (52).  It thus risks nothing and will die without returning anew via a resurrected form.

Hegel’s assumption here is that Consciousness “simultaneously distinguishes itself from something, and at the same time relates itself to it, or, as it is said, this something exists for Consciousness; and the determinate aspect of this relating, or of the being of something for a consciousness, is knowing” (52).

This is absolutely key for understanding Hegel.  Here to know something like an object (a tree) one must NOT be the tree, but also NOT be unfamiliar with the tree.  You must be familiar (related) to the tree but not the tree itself.  The tree likewise must be related to consciousness otherwise it is unknowable—for nothing can exist without it being related to consciousness.  In other words, what Hegel is saying here is that for you to know anything at all (like a tree) you must be participating inside of the unfolding of consciousness itself otherwise you could not even think at all.  This further means that the tree and you are part the unfolding of consciousness—which paradoxically unfolds necessarily through you (and the tree) and all other existing objects and subjects.

Later Hegel says that consciousness has a double-nature:  “For consciousness is, on the one hand, consciousness of the object, and on the other, consciousness of itself; consciousness of what for it is the True, and consciousness of its knowledge of the truth” (54).

And this is how consciousness overcomes itself.  “Herewith a new pattern of consciousness comes on the scene as well, for which the essence is something different from what it was at the preceding stage.  It is this fact that guides the entire series of the patterns of consciousness in their necessary sequence.”  But how does this happen exactly?  What is the origination of the “new object” that appears and thus presents itself (like a child dressed for Church presents herself for her mother’s approval) to consciousness?  In this presentation consciousness does not know how this happened—and so it happens “behind the back of consciousness” (56).  But when consciousness “grasps its own essence (of both knowing and not knowing of both relating to otherness and not relating at once), it will signify the nature of absolute knowledge itself” (57).

So Hegel in short begins in a void of unknowing and arises out of it by giving us a formula for consciousness grasping its own essence of presence and absence (of relation and non-relation, of the identity of identity and non-identity) in which case consciousness thus becomes aware of itself.  Thus consciousness is finally self-consciousness!

[1] Italics belong to Hegel

One thought on “Hegel’s Introduction to the Phenomenology of Spirit

  1. Creston this is a very good commentary! I’m reading the Phenomenology as well this term (although we didn’t do the preface), but your comments will help were I to tackle the preface by myself!



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