The Phenomenology of Spirit

The Phenomenology of Spirit

"Phänomenologie des Geistes" (1807) is one of G.W.F. Hegel's most important philosophical works. Translated as "The Phenomenology of Spirit" or "The Phenomenology of Mind" due to the dual meaning in the German word Geist( note the German sense in the book is spirit not mind ), it formed the basis of Hegel's later philosophy and marked a significant development in German idealism after Kant. Focusing on topics in metaphysics, epistemology, physics, ethics, theory of knowledge, history, religion, perception, consciousness, and political philosophy, the Phenomenology is where Hegel develops his concepts of dialectic (including the Master-slave dialectic), absolute idealism, ethical life, and sublation. The book had a profound effect in Western philosophy (particularly in the development of Marxism), and "has been praised and blamed for the development of existentialism, communism, fascism, death of God theology, and historicist nihilism." [Pinkard, Terry. Hegel's Phenomenology: the Sociality of Reason. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. 2]


Due to its obscure nature and the many works by Hegel that followed its publication, even the structure or core theme of the book itself remains contested. Some interpret the work as a Bildungsroman that follows the progression of its protagonist, Spirit, through the history of consciousness, while others read it as a "self-conscious reflective account" [Pinkard, Terry. Hegel's Phenomenology, 9] that a society must give of itself in order to understand itself and therefore become reflective. Martin Heidegger saw it as the foundation of a larger "System of Science" that Hegel sought to develop [Heidegger, Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit] , while Alexandre Kojève saw it as akin to a "Platonic Dialogue ... between the great Systems of history." [Alexander Kojeve, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, ch 1.] It has even been called "a philosophical rollercoaster ... with no more rhyme or reason for any particular transition than that it struck Hegel that such a transition might be fun or illuminating." [Pinkard, Terry. Hegel's Phenomenology: the Sociality of Reason. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. 2]

The Preface

The Preface to the "Phenomenology", all by itself, is considered one of Hegel's major works and a major text in the history of philosophy, because in it he sets out the core of his philosophical method and what distinguishes it from that of any previous philosophy, especially that of his German Idealist predecessors (Kant, Fichte, and Schelling).

Hegel's approach, referred to as the Hegelian method, consists of actually examining consciousness' experience of both itself and of its objects and eliciting the contradictions and dynamic movement that come to light in looking at this experience. Hegel uses the phrase "pure looking at" ("reines Zusehen") to describe this method. If consciousness just pays attention to what is actually present in itself and its relation to its objects, it will see that what looks like stable and fixed forms dissolve into a dialectical movement. Thus philosophy, according to Hegel, cannot just set out arguments based on a flow of deductive reasoning. Rather, it must look at actual consciousness, as it really exists.

Hegel also argues strongly against the epistemological emphasis of modern philosophy from Descartes through Kant, which he describes as having to first establish the nature and criteria of knowledge prior to actually knowing anything, because this would imply an infinite regress, a foundationalism that Hegel maintains is self-contradictory and impossible. Rather, he maintains, we must examine actual knowing as it occurs in real knowledge processes. This is why Hegel uses the term "phenomenology". "Phenomenology" comes from the Greek word for "to appear", and the phenomenology of mind is thus the study of how consciousness or mind appears to itself. In Hegel's dynamic system, it is the study of the successive appearances of the mind to itself, because on examination each one dissolves into a later, more comprehensive and integrated form or structure of mind.


Whereas the Preface was written after Hegel completed the "Phenomenology", the Introduction was written beforehand. It covers much of the same ground, but from a somewhat different perspective.

In the Introduction, Hegel addresses the seeming paradox that we cannot evaluate our faculty of knowledge in terms of its ability to know the Absolute without first having a criterion for what the Absolute is, one that is superior to our knowledge of the Absolute. Yet, we could only have such a criterion if we already had the improved knowledge that we seek.

To resolve this paradox, Hegel adopts a method whereby the knowing that is characteristic of a particular stage of consciousness is evaluated using the criterion presupposed by consciousness itself. At each stage, consciousness knows something, and at the same time distinguishes the object of that knowledge as different from what it knows. Hegel and his readers will simply "look on" while consciousness compares its actual knowledge of the object --what the object is "for consciousness" -- with its criterion for what the object must be "in itself". One would expect that, when consciousness finds that its knowledge does not agree with its object, consciousness would adjust its knowledge to conform to its object. However, in a characteristic reversal, Hegel explains that under his method, the opposite occurs.

As just noted, consciousness' criterion for what the object should be is not supplied externally, rather it is supplied by consciousness itself. Therefore, like its knowledge, the "object" that consciousness distinguishes from its knowledge is really just the object "for consciousness" - it is the object as envisioned by that stage of consciousness. Thus, in attempting to resolve the discord between knowledge and object, consciousness inevitably alters the object as well. In fact, the new "object" for consciousness is developed from consciousness' inadequate knowledge of the previous "object." Thus, what consciousness really does is to modify its "object" to conform to its knowledge. Then the cycle begins anew as consciousness attempts to examine what it knows about this new "object".

The reason for this reversal is that, for Hegel, the separation between consciousness and its object is no more real than consciousness' inadequate knowledge of that object. The knowledge is inadequate only because of that separation. At the end of the process, when the object has been fully "spiritualized" by successive cycles of consciousness' experience, consciousness will fully know the object and at the same time fully recognize that the object is none other than itself.

At each stage of development, Hegel, adds, "we" (Hegel and his readers) see this development of the new object out of the knowledge of the previous one, but the consciousness that we are observing does not. As far as it is concerned, it experiences the dissolution of its knowledge in a mass of contradictions, and the emergence of a new object for knowledge, without understanding how that new object has been born.


Lordship and Bondage

One of the most influential sections of the book is the discussion of the dialectic of the lord and the bondsman. To become self-conscious every man must engage in a life-death struggle. Although subjugated, the bondsman attains self-consciousness through the formation of nature, prompted by his fear of death.



Arthur Schopenhauer has criticised Phenomenology of Spirit as being characteristic of the vacuous verbiage he attributed to Hegel.

Hegelian dialectic

The famous dialectical process of thesis-antithesis-synthesis has been erroneously attributed to Hegel.

However, that does not mean that Hegel rejected a triadic process. Despite the popular misrepresentation of Hegel's triadic method which denies that Hegel used triads in his writings, Professor Howard Kainz (1996) affirms that there are "thousands of triads" in Hegel's writings.

However, instead of using the famous terminology that originated with Kant and was elaborated by J. G. Fichte, Hegel used an entirely different and more accurate terminology for dialectical (or as Hegel called them, 'speculative') triads.

Hegel used two different sets of terms for his triads, namely, abstract-negative-concrete (especially in his "Phenomenology" of 1807), as well as, immediate-mediate-concrete (especially in his "Science of Logic" of 1812), depending on the scope of his argumentation.

When one looks for these terms in his writings, one finds so many occurrences that it may become clear that Hegel employed the Kantian using a different terminology.

Hegel explained his change of terminology. The triad terms, 'abstract-negative-concrete' contain an implicit explanation for the flaws in Kant's terms. The first term, 'thesis,' deserves its anti-thesis simply because it is too abstract. The third term, 'synthesis,' has completed the triad, making it concrete and no longer abstract, by absorbing the negative.

Sometimes Hegel used the terms, immediate-mediate-concrete, to describe his triads. The most abstract concepts are those that present themselves to our consciousness immediately. For example, the notion of Pure Being for Hegel was the most abstract concept of all. The negative of this infinite abstraction would require an entire Encyclopedia, building category by category, dialectically, until it culminated in the category of Absolute Mind or Spirit (since the German word, 'Geist', can mean either 'Mind' or 'Spirit').


Preface: On Scientific Cognition


A. Consciousness:I. Sense-certainty:II. Perception:III. Force and the Understanding

B. Self-consciousness:IV. The Truth of Self-certainty::A. Independence and dependence of self-consciousness: lordship and bondage.::B. Freedom of self-consciousness: stoicism, scepticism, and the unhappy consciousness.

C. (AA.) Reason:V. The Certainty and Truth of Reason::A. Observing reason::B. The actualization of rational self-consciousness through its own activity. ::C. Individuality which takes itself to be real in and for itself.

(BB.) Spirit:VI. Spirit::A. The true Spirit. The ethical order.::B. Self-alienated Spirit. Culture.::C. Spirit that is certain of itself. Morality.

(CC.) Religion:VII. Religion::A. Natural religion::B. Religion in the form of art.::C. The revealed religion.

(DD.) Absolute Knowing:VIII. Absolute Knowing.


English Translations of "The Phenomenology of Spirit"

*"Phenomenology of Spirit", translated by A. V. Miller with analysis of the text and foreword by J. N. Findlay (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977) ISBN 0-19-824597-1
*"Phenomenology of Mind", translated by J. B. Baillie (London:Harper & Row, 1967)
*"Hegel's Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit", translated with introduction, running commentary and notes by Yirmiyahu Yovel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004) ISBN 0-691-12052-8.
*"Texts and Commentary: Hegel's Preface to His System in a New Translation With Commentary on Facing Pages, and "Who Thinks Abstractly?", translated by Walter Kaufmann (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1977) ISBN 0-268-01069-2.
*"Introduction", "The Phenomenology of Spirit", translated by Kenley R. Dove, in Martin Heidegger, "Hegel's Concept of Experience" (New York: Harper & Row, 1970)
*"Sense-Certainty", Chapter I, "The Phenomenology of Spirit", translated by Kenley R. Dove, "The Philosophical Forum", Vol. 32, No 4
*"Stoicism", Chapter IV, B, "The Phenomenology of Spirit", translated by Kenley R. Dove, "The Philosophical Forum", Vol. 37, No 3
*"Absolute Knowing", Chapter VIII, "The Phenomenology of Spirit", translated by Kenley R. Dove, "The Philosophical Forum", Vol. 32, No 4
*"Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit: Selections Translated and Annotated by Howard P. Kainz". The Pennsylvania State University Press. ISBN 0-271-01076-2

econdary literature

*Heidegger, Martin, 1988. "Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit." Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-32766-0.
*Hyppolite, Jean, 1979. "Genesis and Structure of "Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit." Evanston: Northwestern University Press. ISBN 0-8101-0594-2.
*Kojève, Alexandre. "Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit." ISBN 0-8014-9203-3.
*Russon, John, 2004. "Reading Hegel's Phenomenology". Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-21692-3.
*Taylor, Charles, 1975. "Hegel." Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-29199-2.
*Solomon, Robert C., 1983. "In the Spirit of Hegel." New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-195-03650-6.
*Pippin, Robert B., 1989. "Hegel's Idealism: the Satisfactions of Self-Consciousness." Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989. ISBN 0-521-37923-7.
*Forster, Michael N., 1998. "Hegel's Idea of a Phenomenology of Spirit." University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-25742-8.
*Harris, H. S. "Hegel's Ladder", 2 vols.
*Harris, H. S., 1995. "Hegel: Phenomenology and System." Indianapolis: Hackett. ISBN 0-872-20281-X.
*Kadvany, John, 2001, "Imre Lakatos and the Guises of Reason." Duke University Press. ISBN 0-8223-2659-0.
*Loewenberg, J., 1965. "Hegel's Phenomenology. Dialogues on the Life of Mind". La Salle IL.
*Pinkard, Terry, 1996. "Hegel's Phenomenology: The Sociality of Reason." Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521568340.
*Stern, Robert, 2002. "Hegel and the Phenomenology of Spirit" London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-21788-1 An introduction for students.
*Westphal, Kenneth R., 2003. "Hegel's Epistemology: A Philosophical Introduction to the Phenomenology of Spirit." Indianapolis: Hackett. ISBN 0-87220-645-9.
*Westphal, Merold, 1998. "History and Truth in Hegel’s Phenomenology." Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-21221-9.

External links

Electronic versions of the English translation of Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind are available at:

* University of Idaho: [ The Phenomenology of Mind]
* [ Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind]

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