YOUTUBE: Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (FOREWORD)

This entry is an analytical overview of the Foreword to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1807).  You can find a link below to the version of the book I will be discussing in this series (1).  Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is a philosophical classic, one of the most important philosophical texts of all time, and according to some philosophers the greatest philosophical text of all time.  The point of the Phenomenology was to bring self-consciousness to a proper philosophical point of view.  Moreover, according to Hegel, once one had read and internalized the contents of the Phenomenology one could then discard of it.  In other words, the point was not to hold on to these contents for all time, but to properly process them (understand them) so that one could then move forward and make deeper and more insightful phenomenological analyses (2):

Phenomenology of Spirit […] is meant to be a forepiece that can be dropped and discarded once the student, through deep immersion in its contents, has advanced through confusions and misunderstanding to the properly philosophical point of view.”

Thus this text is a text focused on training phenomenologists and people who are interested to understand the movement of self-consciousness in history.  So let us try to understand the Phenomenology of Spirit.

In an overview of what this text as a whole attempts to communicate to the reader is:

  • World Spiritual Stages of Mental Progress
  • Sensuous Immediacy to Scientific Philosophy
  • Spiritual Necessity of Absolute Knowing

First, the “World Spiritual Stages of Mental Progress” is elucidated and explored by positing a logical matrix of existential possibilities that past World Spirit had taken in its realization-actualization; the form of World Spirit that had been travelled in his time (the birth of the Modern World), and then the future possibilities of World Spirit given what we know of spiritual becoming thus far.  In exploring this logical matrix he never desired to go “into the future” to discuss a temporal epoch beyond his time but rather sought to delimit the potentiality of spirit given the movement of notional necessity.  Moreover the movement of notional necessity was not understood to mean that spirit could only take one path or that one path was the only true path but that the coming to awareness of absolute necessity existed within a higher order structural space of possibilities, and he was interested in the nature of that space of potential (3):

“while Hegel undoubtedly thought that the sequence of thought-phases described in the Phenomenology — phases experienced by humanity in the past and recapitulated by Hegel in his own thought-adventures […] — was a necessary sequence, he still did not think it the only possible necessary sequence or pathway to Science, and certainly not the pathway to Science that would be taken by men in the future, or that might have been taken in other cultural and historical settings.”

Second, part of this necessary path involved the structural determination of a process that would lead self-consciousness from sensuous immediacy to a scientific philosophy.   This of course can be seen as a reflection of the time in which Hegel lived, given that he lived at a time where the Spirit of Science was the Spirit of the Age.  However, Hegel was looking for a philosophy that could reach a “spiritual objectivity” beyond merely his age of spirit, thus he felt that his dialectic transcended just the particular-contingent age in which he found himself.  Consequently, although Hegel fully acknowledged that self-consciousness existed within an immediate environment that was contingent (you do not pick when and where you are born etc.), this same self-consciousness developed along a trajectory (tended towards a trajectory) that was absolutely necessary (irrespective of time or space).  That necessity was a type of objective knowledge of self where spirit transformed its world into a true being in-itself which reflected its own self.  Towards attaining this absolute knowledge spirit would undergo what, for the dialectician, would be logical stages of development (although they would not be experienced as such for the consciousness in-itself) (4):

“The sequence of phases to be studied in the Phenomenology […] involves a fine blend of the contingently historical and the logically necessary.  Its successive phases bring out what is logically implicit in its earlier phases, in the Hegelian sense of representing throughout an insightful, higher-order comment on previous contents, but they also only bring out a series of implications actually embodied in past history and in Hegel’s own thought-history.”

Thus from the higher-order perspective Hegel believed that all pathways of World Spirit led to Absolute Knowing or Absolute Knowledge (5):

“For on Hegel’s view, all dialectical thought-paths lead to the Absolute Idea and to the knowledge of it which is itself.”

Absolute Knowing was a state of being where there were no more external problems for idealization.  In this state the knowledge of the Spirit was sufficient for the being, or rather generated the necessary being in-itself, for that particular individual spirit.  The image that comes to mind in this dialectic between knowledge and being is a circle that closes in on itself, finds itself in its own origin or cause, but that this closing in on itself is not the end of process or becoming as if the spirit is now done and finished, but rather closes in on itself in the sense that there is a totally different qualitative horizon.  One may think of this state of Absolute Knowing as a logical level that spirit can reach, and once spirit reaches this level we are in a new level of spirit.  This is the path that Hegel’s asks us to contemplate in the Phenomenology of Spirit and asks is to further think how spirit moves to this state of Absolute Knowing.

Hegel necessity-absolute
Absolute Necessity

These two images are central to understanding Hegelian philosophy as a totality.  On the left you see “Hegel’s Necessity”.  In this image we see that all consciousness starts from totally different life positions, and we all start in a mode of disparate sensations (sense, sight, hearing, touch, smell), a type of raw sensual present moment (or “sensual immediacy”).  But as we advance upon our life paths which turn in all types of contingent directions we start to attain an inner coherence, we start to perceive the world in an integrated or unified experiential sense.  In this process from sensual immediacy to unified perception, the notion or the idea of a self-consciousness would eventually reach an understanding of it self that was one with its environment.  This state would allow for the becoming of an Absolute Idea.

Now the image on the right you see “Hegel’s Absolute”.  Hegel’s Absolute is not a static-fixed notion or idea but a back and forth rotary motion between knowledge for-us and being in-itself.  In other words Hegel’s Absolute is a dialectical movement or process of becoming between knowledge on our side of the equation and being on the external side of the equation.  However this external part of the equation is not an externality that we normally think in a first order scientific sense.  If we think of external being in-itself in terms of physics, chemistry, biology or any other science, we are thinking about the world as it exists out there.  Now a first order scientist would develop a certain praxis of knowledge (for us) that is aimed at understanding the principles of motion (the laws, patterns, regularities) that a spiritual consciousness can deduce from observing this externality.

However, on the higher orders, Hegel was well aware that Kant had already developed a philosophy that prevented us from actually logically conceptualizing “being in-itself” in the sense of “physics, chemistry, biology in-itself”.  All of this externality was “noumenal” and off-limits in regards our abstract knowledge structures.  Nonetheless, what Hegel was interested in when contemplating these presuppositions is that “being in-itself” (the idea of our knowledge reaching or understanding “being in-itself”) was something posited internally by spiritual consciousness in history.  In other words, this getting at something true, this getting at being in-itself, for Hegel, was something coming from our spirit.  Thus once one dialectically internalizes nature one reaches this point where the knowledge for-us and being in-itself is something being generated in history by our ideas.  For a higher order science the spirit would logically reach a stage where its knowledge and being would “fall into each other” and spirit would enter an absolute phase of “notional determination” of being itself.

world spirit
Historical becoming

Now here you see a representation between the first order spirit and the higher order spirit.  First order spirit is conceptualized as the historical actors within their life paths of becoming in a loop with contingent sensual immediacy and necessary logical understanding.  In this representation the different coloured life paths (brown, red) capture logical oppositions or differences or polarities (which we will go into great depth about) as spirit develops contradictory logical understandings of universality from its particular contingent sensual life path.  For Hegel this was the irreducible situation for historical actors because they did not have a sophisticated phenomenal knowledge of what they were doing in history, they were just acting on the first order in relation to what they thought was being in-itself.  In other words they did not understand the process as a whole of what was going on between knowledge for-us and being in-itself.

This is where higher order commentary becomes necessary, and this is where the role of a phenomenological analyst becomes crucial.  A phenomenological analysts should be able to go to a meta-level perspective (a bird’s eye view perspective) on the historical actors within a state of Absolute Knowledge which would be atemporal, non-local and unrealized; whereas the historical actors would be irreducibly temporal, local and realized.  In this relation one can view the oppositional determination between different logical universalities (the way they were interaction) and see the way in which differences appear and the way in which they could be mediated.

Universality and Particularity

Now we can move on to a crucial shift that emerges in Hegelian philosophy between the coincidence of universality and particularity.  This is perhaps one of the most important shifts in human thought.  When we usually think about universality, we may think about the universe as a whole regulated by the laws of physics, or we might think about the principles of evolution as universal, they apply everywhere in the universe, all space and time, all matter and energy.  That is a particular first-order scientific understanding the universal.  However, in Hegel’s philosophy everything is seen from the perspective of the becoming of the Idea and the becoming of the Idea in history which is a spiritual process.  That means that there is a strange inversion of the universal where a particular spirit embodies the universal.

Thus, instead of thinking about Isaac Newton’s universality as an abstract “absolute spacetime”, we are asked to think about Isaac Newton himself as a historical spirit embodying universality.  In a Hegelian philosophy we are thus thinking of Newton’s spirit as a historical force and its impact on historical becoming.  In this sense we can understand the historical force as related to the emergence of the physics community or the scientific community as itself a spiritual historical process.  Moreover, this example is but one manifestation of the “Absolute Idea”.  Of course there are other manifestations of the Absolute Idea.  Take James Clark Maxwell, Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking or Ed Witten.  These are particular finite individuals in history who have embodied the universal.  Through embodying the universal they have changed spiritual becoming, they have changed history.

Consequently, for Hegel, the universal is not a first order external objectivity out there but a spiritual objectivity of Absolute Knowing which emerges in history through a notional mediation.  This shift in thinking cannot be understated.  This move of internalizing the universal in a particular has not been fully thought through, but at the same time it is a very powerful idea.

thought phases
Objective Thought Phases

When we fully internalize this principle of the universal internalized through the particular we can approach what Hegel thought of as the higher orders of the dialectical horizon as a whole.  In a phenomenological analysis Hegel invites us to think the phenomenological horizon of thought or a particular thought phase in history as a unified whole.  For example we may think of a political body like the United States of America or the physics community or the Christian religion would be a unified whole.  Any such thought phase would be studied in its own objectivity.  From this analysis we could say that a unified thought whole from a phenomenological analyst perspective would in fact exist in a polarized logical contradiction or opposition because of the first order consciousnesses of the historical actors.

In order to understand the structure of the unified thought whole as internally contradictory or opposing we will deploy the formula A=B.  What this means is that any unified thought whole is structured by “logical side A” and “logical side B”.  Both logical sides are different manifestations of the same thought phase.  For example, you may have logical side A as “liberal, democratic, progressive” and you might have logical side B as “conservative, republican, traditional”.  And these two logical sides both form parts of the whole itself.  However, historical actors will embody as universal one side of the form and see the other side as getting in the way of their logical side, the unity of the whole.  They cannot see that the unity of the whole is a contradiction, a contradiction of identity between the two.

This contradiction of World Spirit, for Hegel, is the notional movement of the World Spirit.  In this movement he would refer to each logical side as a “species of reflection”, that these notional reflections were different manifestations of the Absolute, different forms of revelation of the Absolute to itself.


Now we can go deeper into the mechanics of this process to see how a dialectician may use these processes further to make their own phenomenological analyses.  Here you see the central concept for Hegel: the negation.  As you can see on the bottom left you see the A=B of logical side A or logical side B.  You can use an example from politics, physics or any other thought community to demonstrate the real of logically opposing thought structures.  In politics you could analyze left-right, liberal-conservative as they battle ideologically for the whole of the national body; in physics you could analyze general relativity-quantum mechanics, macro-micro as these abstractions battle ideologically for the whole of the universal body. What a phenomenological analyst would be able to do is go to a higher plane and see the way in which these contradictory identities were manifesting and manufacturing each other, depending on each other, even if the historical actors would have strongly identify with only one side.

However, what a phenomenal analyst would be able to do is go to a meta-level, mediate the two (represented by “C”), and then, it is not that once these meditation is complete you would have a total reconciliation, but if done properly, you would get a totally different thought horizon.  In the political community example you may be able to work towards a totally different political discourse, or in the physics community example you may be able to work towards a totally different physical discourse.  The idea here is that these mechanisms are general and so you can give many different examples for many different fields of human discourse.

This process of going to the meta-level is called the mechanism of negation.  The mechanism of negation negates historical temporal identities as the historical actors are presenting them to you.  Instead of identifying strongly with one side you locate the tension, the difference, the way they are opposing each other, and their necessary relation to the other.  This is what Hegel thought was the job of the analyst.

Formation of Polarity

In this mechanism of negation Hegel was aware that A and B were not symmetrically balanced dualities or polarities.  In other words A and B were not “equal opposites” or “equal polarities”.  For Hegel they were polarized in different directions and realized different notional motions.  This is very important to understand many fields of thought.  For example, Hegel thought “logical position A” emerged first, attempting to differentiate itself and become its own species of reflection.  It attempts to become an existential force on its own which would not need an opposite polarity (i.e. that would not need “B”).

In contrast, B emerges second in a reaction to A and it does not eliminate A it counters A in the opposite direction.  A and B point in different directions, one in a progressive motion, the other in a conservative motion.  We could say that A attempts to introduce the New, the New out of the void or abyss of nothing, and then B in reaction to A attempts to articulate the wisdom of the Old as necessary for stability of the thought phase as a totality.  Thus A and B continue to point in different directions in their tension and antagonism until the field is broken to a higher level which would be C.  Thus the job of the phenomenal analyst is to venture into the territory of C and deduce the tensions between A and B.

sequence of
Sequence of Understanding

Now we can use these logical mechanics to deduce how spirit could get to a state of “Absolute Knowing”.  We do this by trying to understand the sequence or process of the understanding itself.  For Hegel these species of reflection in their own unity were produced by a mechanism of the understanding.  The understanding takes a divided sensual-perceptual aspect and transforms them into an indivisible whole.  Thus going back to reflecting on infantile development, we may start with a multiplicity of disconnected sensations of the world, but you do not have a unified understanding of the world.  An infant does not have an understanding of the world in the way in which Newton, or Einstein, or Darwin had a unified understanding of the world.  Or even in the political sphere, if you are conservative or liberal, or any other species of reflection, you have a certain universal understanding of the world, which is held together by complex notional relations, as well as oppositions.

As we move upwards through logical mechanics we can deduce how these logical species of reflection interact and evolve as knowledge in-themselves.  First we have A and B which are in logical opposition to one another, where A thinks that it has the Absolute Knowledge (“universality”), and B thinks that it has the Absolute Knowledge (“universality”), but they are contradictory.  Thus, A and B cannot logically both have the Absolute Knowledge (“universality”).  Here think about the difference between Christians and Islamic subjects, they both claim Absolute Knowledge, but they are internally contradictory, so logically there has to be some mediation between the two of them with C.  Or take the difference between religion and science, both logical forms may say they have the path to truth or Absolute Knowing, so there has to be some mediation of the two.

If we recall from our discussion on the mechanics of opposition these opposites are never balanced polarities, so in the thought field we have to understand which form is species A and which form is species B so that we can understand which species made the first cut or dividing moment, and which species made the conservative reaction to that dividing moment.  But once this has been accomplished by the phenomenal analyst, we can move to the next level, which is that one can understand that species A or species B is in fact a lack or gap in the individual.  In other words, when species A or B thinks that it embodies universality, thinking that it has an indivisible understanding (holistic understanding), it necessarily produces an excess or lack, because it cannot understand the whole of reality.  Consequently, the other that it thought was in its way, was in fact a repressed dimension inside of it all along, and it has to understand its own contradictory identity.  It has to understand the way in which its understanding is a temporal historical phenomenon.  Then in order to make progress the identity has to challenge its own fundamental presuppositions so that it can reach real Absolute Knowledge.

Now upon reaching the second level the identity can stop focusing so much on the lacking external other (A or B depending on its original position), and the identity can develop a motion in itself where the knowledge one develops in a contingent historical landscape is sufficient for the being in its local context.  This is where the consciousness would reach A as the Absolute.  Then the identity would be coherent and consistent internal to itself and it has “singularized” itself.  Once the consciousness as “singularized” itself the consciousness would be in a higher state of becoming.  To repeat, once a consciousness has reached Absolute Knowing it is not that the consciousness is done becoming, but it has reached a certain closure in the process of spiritual understanding.  Now we can speculate from a new horizon which is still to be explored.  That is why we have the emergence of a post-Hegelian philosophy which tries to go beyond Absolute Knowing.

In the above representation you may also notice that there is an image of the “phenomenal process of understanding”.  It is important to add that there are notional functions which correlate with each level of the logical process towards Absolute Knowing.  On the first level (where A and B are polarized opposites) we have the notional function of “universality”.  A thinks it has the universal understanding, B thinks that it has the universal understanding, but they are both contradictory.  On the second level (where A is internal to B and B is internal to A) we have the level of “specificity” or “individuality”, where you internalize this opposite is inside of you and you are producing it in your self.  The third notional function is singularity, where you become a type of internal rotary motion in your self between knowledge and being which is a pure singularity.  That is the level of the Absolute for Hegel.

Subjectivity and World Spirit

In terms of what Hegel is trying to articulate about the relation between epistemology and ontology, subjectivity and the world, we are thinking of a relation between an internalized abstract universality which concretizes the universal in its particular life history motion via notional determination.  Thus it is not that the universal is out there but rather that we (subjectivity) become universal as a self-active singularity.  In this sense World Spirit in its fully actualized form as far as we can know would be a World Spirit that would be an Agora of Conversation.  From this perspective Absolute Spirit in itself, sure of itself, would be a self-active singularity interacting with other such singularities.  The entire space of discourse would be different, the entire space of understanding would be different.  This is because the Agora of Conversation in the different phases of the becoming of World Spirit were undergoing tensions and antagonisms between A and B via the sequence of the understanding covered above.  But World Spirit between Absolute singularized Spirit would be a qualitatively different phase of spirit.

There are a few critical features of subjectivity in its process of becoming from sensual immediacy to Absolute Knowing via the notional functions of universality, specificity and singularity.  The first thing that subjectivity does in this becoming is distinguish, divide or differentiate itself from otherness.  This can be seen the primordial motion of logical position A, for example.  Here we can think about the way in which young children, teenagers and young adults always try to differentiate themselves from the generation that came before them and from everything else that exists.

Then once spirit has differentiated itself and acquired a new sense of identity which is its own for its own time, then it tries to interpret and control what is in front of it objectively.  This means that it takes the raw immediate sensual experience of its time and it tries to approach it with its own logical understanding.  From this process spirit tries to develop itself objectively.  It tries to become an objective spirit in the world, this could be anything from a philosopher, to a scientist, to a politician, to any of the other many things that a human identity can become.

Finally, self-realization or actualization was not this total letting go of identity in a Buddhist sense, but rather an objectification of oneself, by making one’s own environment one’s own in a radically individuated sense.  In this phase identities are not copying or mimicking what came before them, but rather generating from the raw contingency of the time in which they find themselves generating the New, and objectifying self in a way that has never done before.  It is a coincidence between pure novelty, spirituality, and true objectification.  This is for Hegel the field of history we find our self in.

Fundamental Ontology

For this introductory Foreword we have an interesting and difficult to conceptualize the Absolute Idea in-itself and its realization particular historical individuals.  For Hegel there is a pre-or-proto notional realm of shadows.  This is not a Platonic realm of fully constituted ideas or forms but rather sounds more like a wavefunction, sounds much more like a superposition or non-local, non-temporal, unrealized space of potentiality.  This was the Absolute Idea in-itself, this shadowy realm which precedes sense and natural objects.  Sense experience and natural objects are the objectification of the Absolute Idea in its externality.

However, where Hegel is fully a philosopher of time, history and spirit, is that in order for the Absolute Idea to receive its full realization and truth it has to embody itself in a sensual finite local individual (singularity).  This brings us to the difference between knowledge for-us and being in-itself.  When you fully internalize this dialectic what Hegel thought was that it was through the subject, through the spirit that all of the universal patterns of nature and logic were activated and realized in their contingent history.  Each stage of World Spirit, each becoming of the World Spirit was a detachment and Fall from the Absolute Idea in-itself.  The Absolute Idea in-itself has no embodiment, has no history, has no time.

From that perspective Hegel does not see a phenomenology of individualism along the lines of Kierkegaard and at the same time does not embody a phenomenology of the Absolute Idea along the lines of Fichte or Plato, but rather, conceives of everything as the self-movement of particular individual who embody the Absolute Ideal.  This is the coincidence between the universal and the particular, and may be the central or one of Hegel’s central contributions to philosophy.


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Works Cited:

(1) Hegel, G.W.F.  1979 (1807).  Phenomenology of Spirit.  Translated by A.V. Miller, with Foreword by J.N. Findlay.  Clarendon Press.

(2) ibid. p. v.

(3) ibid. p. v-vi.

(4) ibid. p. vii.

(5) ibid.


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