A Scheme for Reading Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit

– By Sam Clevenger

Sam Clevenger is a Ph.D. student in Physical Cultural Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.

As I am currently going through the throes of reading Continental philosophical texts for my comprehensive examinations, I thought it might be beneficial to post for internet posterity the scheme I just used to read Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit.  The structure and outline was drawn from György Lukács’ book The Young Hegel, which I depended on greatly to help decipher Hegel’s writing and meaning.

The reading of Hegel in the context of PCS is more than an exercise in academic “seminar game”, to borrow a phrase from E.P. Thompson.  If the Physical Cultural Studies project is to think of itself as a post-Marxist project, then we must begin not with Capital or The German Ideology, but with the writings from which Marx and Engels drew upon and were responding to.  This was Hegel’s German Idealism, more prominently expressed in The Phenomenology of Spirit.  Marx, in a sense, can be seen as having incorporated the material (indeed, the laboring corporeal) within a dialectical analysis that was originally Hegelian and idealistic.  For us to understand the working of dialectic materialism, and to expand and critique a project deviating from the premises of a dialectical materialism, we must first understand Marx and Engel’s response to Hegel’s originating elucidation of the dialectic in his understanding of the history of the Absolute Spirit.

I hope this scheme will be beneficial not only to PCS students who endeavor to tackle Hegel’s writings, but to those on the internet who have arrived via querying how to read one of Hegel’s most difficult texts.

The reader will find that there is more detail on the first stage of Hegel’s Phenomenology as opposed to the subsequent two stages.  Hopefully, the scheme explains this discrepancy, but regrettably this may also be due to my own inadequacies as a novice reader of Hegel.

Scheme for Reading Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit Through the Lens of György Lukács The Young Hegel

Guiding Points for Reading:

  • Remember: dialectical negation means the production of a more complete philosophical understanding (thesis negates to antithesis to synthesis)
  • Method of book is dependent on bond between the logical deduction of the various categories, their dialectical series, and the historical evolution of man
  • Only Geist (Spirit) as a whole has a real history
    • In this Hegel’s approach flows in the direction of Marx’s historical materialism
  • It is Hegel’s historicism that determines the method and structure of Phenomenology
    • History and system are constantly being separated and joined together again
  • According to Engels: Phenomenology is in parallel with an embryology or paleontology of the mind
    • The development of individual consciousness through its different stages (one can see the stages), in form of abbreviated reproduction of stages through which consciousness of man has passed through the course of history
  • Hegel: providing ordinary consciousness with a “ladder” to ascend to standpoint of philosophy
    • To be understood historically rather than abstractly
    • Man, for Hegel, is in essence an historical animal
  • Phenomenology’s concern: the acquisition by the individual the experience of the species
  • Hegel Quote – “The real is rational, the rational is real” is a dialectical sequence, and can only be understanding in reference to the stages of

Basic Structure of Phenomenology

  • This history is traversed three (dialectical) times:
  • Begins with ordinary consciousness of the individual (subjective Spirit)
    • Phenomenology: Chapters 1 through 5
      • Society manifests to the individual as established datum, independent of of the individual
      • Path is from immediate perception of reality to point of discerned rationality, BUT is NOT YET conscious of it all as HISTORY but a sequence of different human destinies
      • Rationality allows the individual to begin to perceive the real character of society and history as something created by humans together
  • Second stage – History as real, as product of human activity or praxis
    • Phenomenology: Chapter 6
      • At this point, it is still statement of first (subjective) movement through history, recognition is still abstract and empty
      • So, the individual goes through history AGAIN, a repetition, to conceive of real history as a concrete social totality
  • Third stage – Looking back at panorama of history
    • Phenomenology: Chapters 7 and 8
      • A return through history a third time, but now an ordering of these elements of Absolute Truth (phenomenology) into a consciousness of Absolute Reality, of the laws governing the movement of history
    • The dialectic determined the course of history objectively in the first two stages, but becomes now the possession of consciousness as knowledge at the third stage
      • Thus, the historical survey is recapitulated a third time in its entirety
    • But, now, no longer the actual series of events, but mankind’s efforts to comprehend reality (art, religion, philosophy)
  • The image to have in mind to understand this is a spiral
    • Modern civil society is the synthesis to Greek society being dissolved, but it is not a circle, it is at a higher level of consciousness

Details of Stage of Subjective Spirit

  • Evolution of individual consciousness from its lowest form, the merely immediate perception of the world, right up to the highest categories of reason as they appear in individual consciousness
    • Individual consciousness in confrontation (conflict) with the already established, alien world
  • By coming into conflict with the objective world, interacting with it, consciousness gradually ascends to its higher forms
  • Individual consciousness OPPOSED to an unknown objective reality
    • Reality appears fixed and alien because objective reality and individual consciousness have not yet been interacted by determinations and mediated, and crossed threshold of Absolute consciousness
    • Consciousness confronts reality as a whole
  • Practical activity of individual consciousness lies in acquisition of such determinations
  • It is through a process of conflict the individual advances from consciousness to self-consciousness to reason
    • As the process goes, individual transforms objective substance into subject
  • At this stage, it is not the real movement of Spirit in and for itself, but its phenomenal form (a necessary stage grounded in the nature of spirit
  • It can thus be described as a historical movement in “false consciousness”, a suppression of one false consciousness for another, a false consciousness for a false consciousness
    • A point Marx and Engels will take up in their writings
  • The fact that objective categories of society are still at work behind this movement, but are still alien and unknown, the process can still ultimately transform false consciousness into true consciousness as individuals become aware of the social character of their activities and of society as the total product of their activity
  • Mode of Presentation – the reader is constantly made aware of connections between subjective and objective categories
    • These are connections hidden from “configurations of consciousness”
  • Difficulty of presentation – there is a duality in Hegel’s presentation (not dualistic vision of world, but duality to present process of self-consciousness)
    • He’s presenting the configurations of consciousness, he’s showing the independent movement of the objective world from the standpoint of different stages of individual consciousness
  • Point of departure – ALWAYS individual consciousness
  • There is an immediateness here – how configurations of consciousness move immediately and dialectical to a higher, more subjective level of consciousness based solely on that dialectic
  • BUT, this dialectic is, in essence, going on BEHIND the configurations of consciousness
    • There is no equating subjective consciousness with laws of objective reality (Kantian)
    • It is as if the objective categories of reality form a mute, hostile background, never truly comprehended by individual consciousness, but present in themselves
  • IMPORTANT POINT ABOUT METHOD – Relation between individual and species is DIALECTICAL process
    • Individual plays essential role in creation of species, in path to consciousness
    • It is NOT a natural process, but historical
  • The union of individual and species is a process of “externalization”
    • Individual consciousness can only go to higher stage when it comes into tragic conflict with the “externalized” reality (ME – is this where “alienation” comes in?)
  • The famous “master-slave” section is based on this method
  • So, the point of first stage of Phenomenology is to lead individual to threshold of realization of this conflict in order to go beyond it
    • This is a process of transforming external reality from something in itself to something for itself via human praxis and in union with consciousness
  • The various moments of historical development are how particular “configurations of consciousness” witness the disappointment of their aspirations, destruction at the hands of an alien, unknown reality
  • Key Hegel’s “externalization” is the principle that individuals are bound to society by their needs, by their gratification of needs, and by the labor they employ to create the conditions for the gratification of their needs
    • Work/Labor is central in the subject-object relations
  • Hegel is being influenced by Adam Smith here, and sees unity of the individual and social through economic praxis (self-interest is part of the decisive moment to consciousness)

Details of Stage of Objective Spirit (Second Stage)

  • Individual consciousness is now brought to stage where he is in position to understand his own history as history of society in its reality
  • History can now be seen as coherent, rational order
  • The main problem can now be seen as explaining how the dissolution of the society of antiquity came about, and how the contradictory forms of modern civil society are being manifest
  • Immediacy is now the objective relation between classical man and the democratic city-states
  • Dialectic – dissolution of Greek immediacy (ethical life)(this is the thesis), the complex and uneven development of Rome and Middle Ages (antithesis), to the emergence of modern civil society (complete externalization)(synthesis)
  • Greek life was the unmediated, ethical life
    • “Spirit so far as it is the immediate truth, is the ethical life of a nation:–the individual, which is a world.” –Phenomenology, pg. 460
  • It is then through wholly externalizing or estranging itself (through the history of Rome (think law) and the Middle Ages) that the subject recognizes itself in theory and practice to be identical with the substance
    • Thus we arrive at modern capitalist society
  • The essence of capitalism is “externalization” (this is Lukacs’ reading of Phenomenology)
    • Externalization is NOT an external process, impinging on the subject from outside without affecting it
    • In primitive forms it is accomplished unconsciously
    • In higher, disintegrated consciousness, the subject obtains the knowledge of the objective movement causing externalization
  • “Self-consciousness can only come to itself and can only see itself as a part of objective reality in this alienation” (Lukacs, pg. 497)
  • Modern civil, capitalist society is the most externalized, and therefore most progressive form of human development, and best adapted to the Spirit
    • The stage’s paradigm is based on the dialectical movement of individuals accomplishing something of objective use while subjectively pursuing their self-interest

Details of Stage of Absolute Spirit (Third Stage)

  • At this stage, there is not “real history” anymore, because the point is that objective externalization has been reintegrated with the subject in the formation of the Absolute
    • The stage is a retrospective look at the evolution of the Spirit that is not yet at its Absolute
    • An understanding of the deepest laws of history is only being understood as a retrospective survey from the standpoint of their full realization (think of Hegel’s “Owl of Minerva” quote)
  • Because of this internalization & recollection, no new material emerges at this point
  • The focus is mostly on Christianity, which is key
    • Art, religion, and philosophy are the aspects Hegel is studying because of their function in being the vehicles through which individuals are trying to grasp to Absolute
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