Thoughts after spending a year with The Phenomenology of Spirit

As I’ve often mentioned, I’ve spent the last year working through Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit in an independent study with a student who is a committed Marxist and thus very highly motivated to understand Hegel. To weigh in on a recent online controversy, I’m going to say that we shouldn’t ban independent studies, because this has been incredibly rewarding for both of us. I am increasingly committed to doing a reading group on Hegel’s Logic this summer, mainly for the sake of striking when the iron is hot — and because I think I have grasped the inner necessity of the project of the Logic in terms of what Hegel is doing.

I read the Phenomenology as an attempt to cure individualism. We see a variety of attempts by the subject to grasp the world purely individually, punctuated by abortive intersubjective encounters (the master-slave dialectic, most famously). A basso continuo throughout is the recurrence to language — already in “Sense-Certainty,” language is the crucial lever for undermining the pretenses of immediate knowledge (“here,” “now,” “I”), and it comes back at all the most important turning points in the argument. The main narrative culminates in an intersubjective encounter that, through the mediation of language, provides both the beautiful soul and the man of action with access to a dimension that exceeds the individual (both individual moral judgment and individual action and intention), that dimension that Hegel calls Spirit. Finally, the subject has become substance — the bare self-assertion and self-reference of the individual is given its genuine content in the social reality that shapes the subject and confers meaning on the subject’s action.

Once the existence of Spirit has been phenomenologically adduced from the perspective of the subject — through twists and turns that, shall we say, vary in their persuasiveness and apparent necessity — we then turn, in the “Religion” section, to the phenomenology of Spirit, the appearance of Spirit to itself. This section recapitulates the previous development in a certain way — which makes sense, since the overarching thesis governing every development was “it was Spirit all along!” — but from a new perspective. We learn that Spirit first becomes self-aware through the “picture-thinking” (Vorstellung) of religion, paving the way for Hegel’s remarkable interpretation of Greek culture in terms of “religion as art.” Christian theology begins to overcome that mere “picture-thinking,” but Hegel believes we must carry it forward in conceptual form, because only thereby can Spirit become fully conscious of itself. While “picture-thinking” is a necessary and legitimate mode of thought, it necessarily obscures the movement of thought itself, insofar as it presents the object as though it were something foreign to the thought of it. Only the concept (Begriff) allows thought to simultaneously grasp the object and the fact that it’s grasping it.

And that, apparently, is the project of the Logic — a conceptual-discursive account of what religion was trying to do via “picture-thinking.” I’ll believe it when I see it.

10 thoughts on “Thoughts after spending a year with The Phenomenology of Spirit

  1. Having spent a few years laboring over the last sections of “Science of Logic”, I don’t think it’s right to say that the project of the Logic is to give a conceptual-discursive account of what religion accounted for representationally; that’s the aim of the whole system of philosophy, not just the first of its three parts. Once you work through the whole book, you come out of “Science of Logic” still generally ignorant of spirit as spirit, for example — the pure grasp of thought in the Logic isn’t thematized as historical or social in the Logic itself. (Nor do the philosophies of nature or subjective spirit get this thematizing — history and society finally get thematized in objective spirit, the middle third of the “Philosophy of Spirit”, which is where it makes sense for them to show up. That’s where the world-history lectures belong, for example.)

    The significance of the Logic for Hegel’s full system is obscured by the stitched-together character of PhG. Hegel just sort of threw everything he thought he had to say into that book, adding sections at the last minute (and greatly annoying his publisher). By the time he’s re-presenting that material in the Encyclopedia system, it’s not all stuck together anymore — “Phenomenology of Spirit” becomes the title for just abbreviated versions of Consciousness, Self-Consciousness, and two short paragraphs on Reason. The discussion of “Spirit” that follows in the Encyclopedia is just about the knowing/acting subject — sensation, perception, memory, etc. treated in psychological fashion, before the transition to objective spirit. Very different structure, though the content of Consciousness/Self-Consciousness are recognizable as what Hegel was treating under those titles in the early book.

    The obscure arrangement in the book goes along with a serious lack of clarity about what Hegel was supposed to produce next, after PhG — “Science of Logic” claims to be following after PhG in its preface, but I don’t think there’s really any smooth linkage between the two. There’s no reason to become familiar with Hegel’s discussions of religion or Greek tragedy before starting to look at the Logic, for example. The Encyclopedia Logic improves on the Logic’s beginning immensely, by abandoning any role for PhG; starting the system off with the “positions of thought with respect to objectivity” lets it be clear that the topic of the Logic is the concept as such. (The Logic has a “it was the concept all along!” line going through it, like you mention happening with spirit in PhG, but it’s harder to grasp than the parallel line in PhG because it doesn’t start showing up until hundreds of dense pages later, and then is articulated in a discussion of Kant’s B-Deduction.)

    So, if you go through with trying to read WdL in a summer (which sounds like an absurd pace — Houlgate and Pippin both teach it over three semesters, and that’s still a forced march), you should be prepared for a very, very different book than the Phenomenology. If you want to continue leading readings of Hegel, you’re probably better off looking at something more directly on what’s of interest to the group, like the Aesthetics or Religion lectures. The Logic takes a long, long, long time to have its payoffs. The Encyclopedia Logic is at least radically shorter, and has a lot of fun short discussions in the Zusatze, while retaining the basic structure that WdL has (without some of the harder parts — Hegel omitted them so he could actually use the EL to teach from, which even he didn’t do with WdL).

  2. “So is it fair to say that I’m picking up on what Hegel is trying to promise, but he doesn’t really deliver?”

    I think he more or less does deliver on that promise — by the end of the Encyclopedia. The Logic isn’t that ambitious; it leaves work for the Realphilosophie to do.

  3. The “picture thinking” of “Religion” is already critiqued in “Absolute Knowing” (cf. the last and first paragraphs of those chapters, respectively) as what the Science of Logic would call external reflection. In so far as the Phenomenology achieves the overcoming of the division of consciousness and its object by seeing the two as the result of the same activity (Hegel is still riffing on Fichte and Schelling, which he continues to do by critiquing them pretty directly in the Science of Logic while preserving their terminology), it serves as the jumping off point for the Logic, which as Daniel says, really has no bearing on the social ontology of the Phenomenology.

    Ultimately, I think Hegel subordinates the concrete universality of religion to that of theoretical philosophy just because the latter is an external positing. This is the standard view, but it seems justified by the transition from “Religion” to “Absolute Knowing.” I think this may also help explain the transition to the Science of Logic. Hegel felt the Phenomenology provided the ground for that book by already achieving the unity of consciousness and its object. Ardis Collins at Loyola argues that the Phenomenology is a sort of “proof” system necessary to get to the starting point of science in the Logic (almost like the Wittgensteinian ladder.) I think the Logic is essential for elucidating the other aspects of the system by serving as the whole thing’s ontological foundation, and also I think providing the clearest critique and sublating of Schellingian metaphysics. The Phenomenology is what Hegel had to go through to get to a point where he could really put forth his ontology in its purest philosophical dress.

  4. Correction: Hegel subordinates the concrete universality of religion to that of theoretical philosophy b/c the FORMER is an external positing.

  5. I’ve been reading WdL with a group for over two years now. We’re about to finish the Doctrine of Essence, which we’ve found much harder than the Doctrine of Being. On a good day, we can make sense of the text at the level of the paragraph, but even then it’s baffling at the level of the sentence. So, generalisation has always been our (deceptive) friend. There’s the odd sentence that’s remarkably clear and it’s just too tempting to re-interpret everything based on that.

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