Hegel – Phenomenology and spirit

The Phenomenology of Spirit published in 1807, is based on a precious philosophical intuition: consciousness is not an completed institution, it is constructed, transformed to become other than itself. From this intuition, Hegel traces the epic adventure of the consciousness through its various stages, the evolution of consciousness, from sensitive consciousness to the absolute spirit.

The Phenomenology of Spirit is thus the history of consciousness in the lived world. Hegel’s philosophy is a phenomenology insofar as he looks at the world as it appears to consciousness. This science of phenomena aims to capture the essence of things in the world.

Hagel attempts to describe and define all the dimensions of human experience: knowledge, perception, consciousness and subjectivity, social interactions, culture, history, morality and religion. Through Phenomenology, he will form a closed philosophical system, which aims to cover the whole of human existence, to answer all the questions about man, the world and God.

The method developed by Hegel is that the dialectic of contradictions and exceed via a new phase of the synthesis. This dialectical method will be decisive in the history of philosophy and influence HusserlSartre and especially Marx, who thinks the economic and social history in terms of the Hegelian dialectic.

The Phenomenology of Spirit is structured in two stages:

  • A-historical approach: the adventures of consciousness and the transition to self-awareness.
  • The historical approach: the realization of reason, through the spirit, religion and absolute knowledge.


Hegel attempts to define the nature and conditions of human knowledge in the first three chapters. He argues that the mind does not understand objects in the world, according to Kant, for whom knowledge is not knowledge of “things in themselves”.

While Kant has an individualistic vision of knowledge, Hegel asks a component to collective knowledge. In fact, according to Hegel, there is a tension between the individual act of knowing and the universality of concepts related to this act. The individual act designates a first moment, that of sense-certainty, refers to the attempt of the mind to grasp the nature of a thing. This pulse is hampered by the requirement of universal concepts, ie that different people can understand these concepts. This requirement leads to the second mode of consciousness, perception. With perception, consciousness, in its search for certainty, uses categories of thought, and language.

Consciousness is always pulled in two different directions. Our senses tell us about the world and the categories make sense in the world. The mismatch between the senses and categories creates a sense of uncertainty, frustration leads to skepticism, that is to say, the suspension of judgment. Consciousness is thus placed in a learning process, which is the third and highest form of consciousness.

Hegel moves his analysis of consciousness in general to self-awareness. In the tradition of idealists, Hegel posits that awareness of objects necessarily implies a certain self-consciousness, ie separation between the subject and the perceived object. But Hegel goes further and says that the subjects are also objects to other subjects. Self-awareness is the awareness of another self-consciousness. In other words, one becomes aware of oneself through the eyes of another. This is the famous struggle for recognition. Otherness and pure self-consciousness are involved in a “fight to the death” for recognition.


Hegel describes the “unhappy consciousness”, the result of the negation of the world and the religious consciousness, itself the product of fear of death. Religion, according to Hegel, is often seen as a refuge for the failure of recognition by others subject: turning to a transcendent being (God), you can take comfort in being who exists only in itself, rather than in a struggle for recognition between human beings. This shift to a transcendent being the result of the initial attempt to enter the consciousness of the nature of the object.

Like Kant, Hegel thinks that reason leads consciousness to adapt to particular phenomena universal categories. However, this process is not smooth and there is always an element of uncertainty and imprecision, because objects exist in a range of variations make it difficult to match them to universal categories. Thus, insofar as consciousness is oriented stable categories of thought, it is also aware of a set of standards governing how the phenomena comply with these categories. These rules or laws of thought, do not live in objects, nor the mind, but in a third dimension, “all organized social.”

For each self-consciousness belongs to the collective self-consciousness. The laws of thought, morals and conventions belong to the social life. This set of laws governing the collective consciousness, Hegel called “Spirit.” . The Spirit is the place of ethical, laws and customs. Individuals interpret and act according to the laws and customs individually, but they are in compliance with community spirit. Ethical life has two manifestations. Firstly, it is the foundation of the actions of individuals. Second, it is externalized in the so-called culture and civilization. These two moments of mind ethics or ethical life, are in tension with one another. Enlightenment, for example, is expressed by individualism, but in its most extreme form, individualism leads to despotism and political terrorism.

The next step in the development of consciousness is religion. Religion is essentially a collective spirit conscious of itself, and as such it reflects the expression of a given culture of ethical life and the balance between individual and collective. Hegel describes the different phases in the development of religion, whose reflections are: art, myth and drama. But religion is not the highest stage of consciousness. This area is reserved for absolute knowledge. It is in the absolute knowledge that the mind becomes aware of its limitations and seeks to correct its contradictions and shortcomings to move to a higher level of understanding. Absolute Knowledge is the conscious and critical engagement with reality. It is the view of science and the starting point for philosophical inquiry.

Basically, Hegel, consciousness is complete when it reaches the philosophical stage.


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