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Hegel’s “Phenomenology of Spirit”

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Before I begin on Hegel, I want to note that Terry Pinkard’s recent translation of this work is a vast improvement over the previous standard translation by A. V. Miller. It is better, more readable, closer to the original, and more consistent, and should be heavily preferred. I do not agree with every choice Pinkard makes – for example, rendering “die Sache selbst” as “the crux of the matter,” his dubious rendering of “Bildung” as “cultural formation,” or his somewhat distracting rendering of “überhaupt” as “full stop” – but when his translation makes a contestable choice, he nearly always calls it out in footnotes, and includes a valuable translation glossary.

Photo of Hegel's grave, Berlin
Hegel’s grave in Berlin, a two-minute walk from my first office in the city

Now on to Hegel.

I have tried to read this book many times before, and have always been blocked by Hegel’s prose, which is atrocious, at times because of the nature of the subject matter, but most often because of his penchant for impenetrable jargon, and most especially, because he very rarely tells you what he’s doing, or what he’s even talking about. For example, when he tells you that the spirit has projected itself back into indeterminacy driven by its newly-adopted ironic stance, it is left entirely to you to figure out that he’s talking about the society of manners that prevailed at the Valois court of France, and never once uses the words “Valois” or “France.” And that is how the book is written.

It is wearisome, and it is my belief that this book is literally incomprehensible without the assistance of commentary – either that, or spend 10 years on it. I myself relied heavily on four commentaries, by Terry Pinkard, J. M. Bernstein, Walter Kaufmann, and Charles Taylor, and availed myself of many additional articles, essays, and references, and I believe that is about what is minimally necessary to have a sense of it. I would warn against using a single commentary, because the more sources you use, the more you understand the various ways that Hegel has been understood, and especially the degree to which every key term and idea in this book has been contested.

I would add that before beginning I had read Plato and Aristotle, Descartes and Spinoza, Kant’s three Critiques, Goethe and Schiller, Fichte and Schelling, Heidegger and Derrida. If, armed with that background, I was incapable of understanding Hegel without considerable assistance, it raises real questions about who exactly he thought he was writing for.

The narrator of Proust’s Remembrance observed that people tend to think that geniuses are like everybody else, only with some additional power or faculty grafted on to their otherwise-normal person, sort of like they have a third arm or eye. In fact, he reflects, people are generally misshapen or even deranged by genius in ways that make them intolerable to other people. I thought of this several times reading Hegel, wondering if it is possible he could have found a better language for his ideas, while remaining who he was.

I dwell on this aspect of the book for two reasons. First, it is a fact of the book that will continually confront any reader who dares to attempt to plumb its depths, and they must be prepared. Second, it is unfortunately part of the book’s negative legacy. Hegel helped inaugurate certain obscure tendencies of style in Germany and France that have haunted philosophy to this day.

So why read it at all, then? For myself, the answer is, I found after long years of trying to avoid it that Hegel remains at the center of many corners of the Great Conversation that I want to be in on, and it increasingly occurred to me as a great hole in my education. And I was not wrong – now that I have read it, I have recognized just how colossal his influence is, and it has turned up in places where I didn’t expect to find it. For example, it seems to me that Nietzsche owes a great debt to Hegel in his historical treatment of philosophy, and readers of Nietzsche may be surprised to find the phrase “God is dead” in the Phenomenology. And Jürgen Habermas, whom I have long thought of as largely a Kantian-type cosmopolitan, I now see as equally influenced by Hegel’s work in his theory of communicative action.

And so I set out to cross the sunless sea of this book, armed with commentaries, about which a word is essential.

As far as I can make out, Hegel interpretation in the last 40 years in the English-speaking world has been primarily divided into two camps, based largely, I would argue, on how they understand the idea of “spirit.” The older camp is dominated by Charles Taylor, and its primary commitment is the belief that the spirit is something “real”, a kind of self-positing collective consciousness that knows itself by virtue of individuals, who are its instruments or means of knowing. Essentially, spirit is a kind of semi-secularized stand-in for deity in a neo-pantheistic or neo-romantic interpretation of culture and the world.

The second camp is often referred to as Neo-Kantian in the literature, though I’m not sure which figures would actually claim that term. It seems to include Terry Pinkard, Robert Pippin, Paul Redding, and J. M. Bernstein, the latter of whom has referred to his own reading of Hegel as “deflationary.” This approach regards spirit not as a kind of super-being, but more like the totality of what human beings do with respect to the intersubjective character of their lives and experience, and particularly how they collectively deliberate about the basis of their own consciousness, intersubjectivity, and sense of meaning through art, philosophy, and religion.

I was surprised to come down rather strongly on the Neo-Kantian side of this issue, although I was initially skeptical. Certainly one advantage that the Neo-Kantians have is that their commentary is much clearer and more useful than that of the Taylor camp. I found Taylor’s classic study of Hegel, for example, to not be very useful or well-written, though one thing I did really admire was Taylor’s insistence on the importance of Herder for situating Hegel’s thought. I think this is quite correct, and that a serious reappraisal of Herder’s value and influence is past-due.

Detail from "Winter Landscape with Tree and Two Wanderers" by Johan Christian Dahl
Winter Landscape with Tree and Two Wanderers (detail), Johan Christian Dahl

Based on my own careful reading of Phenomenology, I believe spirit is in fact something like a faculty – specifically, the faculty that enables and requires human cognition to function intersubjectively. As to the question of its ontological status, in my view, spirit is analogous to a language, which, on one level, it is nothing more than the sum total of practices and capabilities of its actual speakers, but we nonetheless have a strong concept of language as if it had its own autonomous being. It would be hard to conceive of language without that conceit – we want to say, for example, that German verb tenses are easier to learn than English verb tenses, as if German is a “thing,” even if we don’t believe that German is somehow floating around “out there”.

Indeed, as J. M. Bernstein correctly insists, one of the whole points of Hegel’s thought is that we have to jettison any concept of the transcendent, which Hegel continually refers to as a contentless “other-worldly beyond,” and identifies as one of the most destructive bad ideas that has haunted the history of philosophy. Hegel wants to drive us out of the cloud-cuckoo land of the thing-in-itself and back into historical actuality, because the very idea of the transcendent keeps us locked in what he calls the “inverted world,” in which we insanely insist that what is least real is in fact what is most real, and vice versa.

What does this mean? A key example may be found in Kant, who argues that the unknowable thing-in-itself ultimately serves as the basis for all experience. He thereby keeps us forever locked out of any satisfying possibility of getting at the truth, or of knowing the world as it is, because the thing-in-itself is forever unavailable. That is to say, what is most real, or the concrete actuality of our lived experience, is for Kant what is least real, and the most contentless of all possible concepts, the thing-in-itself, is what is actual.

This is the general structure that inevitably falls out of subject-object dualism, and the first half of Hegel’s book is largely focused on criticizing the structure of that dualism, which casts us back again and again into the inverted world and keeps us locked out of the possibility of truth. Hegel defines this problem as the situation of modern philosophy, ever since Descartes argued that epistemology is first philosophy, and that the foundation of philosophy is to understand how we reconstruct a mental image of the world and determine if those reconstructions are correct.

Hegel has two ways of dealing with this problem, and his solution constitutes one of his main contributions to philosophy. The first is to jettison the idea of the self as fundamentally a knower of objects out there in the world, and to replace it with an idea of human beings as actors, who live in a world that is given to them, and who know it not through consciousness of an external world, but through self-consciousness of their own lives. The second is to jettison the idea of subjective atomism and to argue – quite persuasively, I think – that human experience is fundamentally intersubjective; specifically, that all forms of experience are always already permeated by concepts, and that concepts are fundamentally intersubjective in their character.

In my reading, it is this intersubjective faculty that Hegel refers to as spirit, and this book, as we well know, is the phenomenology of spirit. Hegel uses the term “phenomenology” in a rather different way than later phenomenologists like Bergson and Husserl – he uses it to refer to the understanding of knowing as self-consciousness.

This conceptual analysis of self-consciousness is part of Hegel’s program for making philosophy “scientific,” by which he means that spirit will give a full account of itself to itself using concepts. It will turn out in his fascinating chapter on religion that Hegel believes spirit has always attempted to work out an understanding of itself through religion, using images and representations, and that this is in fact what religion is. Religion, however, cannot recognize that this is what it is actually doing. It serves the spirit as a procedure for collectively deliberating about itself – that is, on the very ways that we collectively define our own ultimate sources of authority and value and then take them as binding – but it thinks it is actually discovering a truly-existent transcendent basis for its value and existence, which it calls God or the gods, or what have you.

It is only by preserving the concept that spirit can reflect on the ways in which ultimate values are collectively posited without losing hold of what it is actually doing and becoming confused, and taking the representations for the thing itself, thereby getting lost in the inverted world. Hegel argues, and I agree, that this requires conceptual analysis, and that this very process itself has only recently become possible for human beings. Prior to, say, the 18th century, it was possible to deliberate in sophisticated ways on the nature of the ultimate, but it is only after the Enlightenment that we have been able to deliberate on these matters self-reflectively, instead of doing so from within the closed framework of a particular value system.

The two tasks of Hegel’s book, then, are to explicate the way that spirit comes to know itself, and to trace the evolution of its various historical forms or moments – to consider the various historically-bound shapes of spirit’s self-understanding – in order to see how it is that we have now arrived at the point where we are at last able to do this work self-reflectively for the first time, not only grasping the spirit, but grasping it through concepts, philosophically – or, in Hegel’s language, scientifically – so that the richness of its manifold content can be preserved and known, and not dissolved into some kind of generalalized fuzzy idea of an absolute that contains everything but explains nothing.

Viewed from one perspective, what Hegel is doing is philosophically anticipating what was about to happen in the nineteenth century, and providing an account of it in advance. I think even he would have been surprised by the degree to which the European tradition’s understanding of itself would, in the next 200 years, be taken over by psychology, anthropology, modern historiography, economics, sociology, and so forth – by all of the conceptual disciplines which have taken up the problems historically dealt with by narrative history and religion.

As to its uniqueness – if you believe, as I do, that Hegel is right in saying that Kant towers over Descartes, but nonetheless could be considered a kind of modification of Descartes, Hegel replaces the entire core structure of the problematic in a fundamental way, and in so doing gives us conceptual tools to bring to light various social, historical, and existential phenomena that would be extremely difficult to explicate using a prior framework. When Hegel begins his chapter on spirit half way through the book, we suddenly see the payoff – how easy it is for him to talk about phenomena like social movements, politics, world views, religion, and the history of ideas, which you could address from a strictly Kantian framework only with great difficulty. I think this can be seen by a careful reading of Kant’s Critique of Judgment, where he begins pushing in that direction, and you can feel the whole fabric of his approach straining with the difficulty of managing to provide an account for complex phenomena.

I have seen countless versions of what I would call a perennial philosophy, which says we’re all islands of structured consciousness on a sea of the inchoate absolute. Hegel decidedly does not provide yet another version of that account, because consciousness, for him, is intersubjective, and because the impossibility of fully grasping the ultimate is not because it is transcendent, but because it unfolds historically, over time, and it must be comprehended in its totality of forms, as the sum of its history. This argument is, to my knowledge, wholly new, and an astonishingly creative approach.

This is the shortest account I can give of what Hegel is up to in this book, and I think it suggests something of its novelty. It has been called a Bildungsroman of consciousness-as-such, and not without good reason – it does in fact comprise an attempt to retrace the evolution of consciousness from within, as it were, and to apply a consistent phenomenological frame for explicating its various moments in terms of the larger project.

As much as I loathe Hegel’s style, this is a towering work of creative and philosophical genius, and one of the very greatest works of philosophy I have ever seen. His project and execution are staggeringly original, and terrifically exciting, and he gives an account that is wholly new and extremely productive. It has already deeply shaped my thinking, and I expect it will be one of my primary intellectual reference points for the rest of my life.


Written by Mesocosm

July 10, 2022 at 4:19 am

Posted in Philosophy, Reviews

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