Consciousness of Self

YouTube: SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS.  Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.  (Playlist)

Patreon: Exclusive Personal Reflection

Welcome to the fourth lecture covering Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.  In this lecture we are going to be covering the chapter titled “Self-Consciousness”.  Of course this chapter has already presupposed a working through of consciousness.  We worked through consciousness as sensual immediacy to logical necessity.  When we now cover self-consciousness, we take consciousness as an object, and understand the way in which consciousness starts to recognize itself, and come to constitute itself in a realm of other self-consciousness, and then the way consciousness goes through spiritual development in being-for-self.


Consequently, in the first part of this lecture we will be covering the way self-consciousness functions as an active synthetic universal.  Second we will be covering the way self-consciousness is structured formatively in the social realm, between an asymmetrical lord/bondsman relationship.  Third we will be studying the logical dynamics of consciousness spiritual development, however, in the actual spiritual development of self-consciousness, it is not experienced as logical, but through the lens of emotional catastrophe.

synthetic externality

Starting with the first dimension of self-consciousness, in terms of ego as an active synthetic universal.  The ego here is synthesizing the world logically, attempting to structure the world in logical categories that make sense for its historical being.  This is done through the facilities of the intellect, the modes of interpretation that the ego will deploy to make sense of externality, to make sense of the important different categories populating its phenomenal existence.  In categorically synthesizing the different domains of externality, will also develop some pragmatic mastery of understanding these phenomena.  For example, depending on what it is that is necessary determination for the synthetic universal ego, you will not only want to understand externality in categories, but also transform and work with this externality in different ways.  A typical synthetic universal ego like a physicist or biologist appears here.  However, this also applies to other functions, like a teacher, bureaucrat, etc.  Whatever the function is.  You will not only want an interpretation of the phenomena, but also pragmatic mastery:

“166. In the previous modes of certainty what is true for consciousness is something other than itself. But the Notion of this vanishes in the experience of it. What the object immediately was in-itself — mere being in sense-certainty, the concrete thing of perception, and for the Understanding, a Force — proves to be in truth, not this at all; instead, this in-itself turns out to be a mode in which the object is only for an other.”

This quote both is a combination of what we talked about and a foreshadowing of the next slide.  In relation to what we just discussed was the notion of intellectual interpretation of externality.  The certainty and truth of consciousness was operating external to itself, but what Hegel is now foreshadowing, is that this truth and certainty was only for an other.  This means that it was not a truth for the self-consciousness in-itself.

time for pragmatic self analysis

The ego comes to recognize that it has not pragmatically mastered itself.  In other words, intellectual interpretation of external phenomena has not been able to properly interpret and pragmatically master its own ego.  Consequently, even if you are an extremely successful active synthetic ego, like we discussed (e.g. physicist, biologist, etc.), you can be extremely successful in these realms, and yet extremely disappointed with your own self reflection.  That means you do not yet have pragmatic mastery of self.  That is why Hegel says the notion was for an other and the truth and certainty of this notion vanishes.  It vanishes because the ego recognizes that it was not the truth and certainty of itself.

“167. Consciousness, as self-consciousness, henceforth has a double object: one is the immediate object, that of sense-certainty and perception, which however for self-consciousness has the character of a negative; and the second, viz. itself, which is the true essence, and is present in the first instance only as opposed to the first object. In this sphere, self-consciousness exhibits itself as the movement in which this antithesis is removed, and the identity of itself with itself becomes explicit for it.”

That quote captures what I am saying in regards to self-consciousness coming to hold itself as an object, being unimpressed with its own reflection.  The second object has the character of the negative and the self-consciousness wants to work to remove this negativity, start to understand and interpret itself, and develop a self-reflection that it can be proud of, essentially, that it can look itself in the mirror, that it can be confident in as a truth and certainty for itself.  This entire dimension that Hegel dialecticizes is not something really that we build into our intellectual institutions, we don’t build it in to our processes of development, we just leave intellectual development on that first level, where self-consciousness can become unimpressed with itself.

universal inwardness

The self-consciousness here goes into a life and death struggle with itself.  Self-consciousness enters into a negative relationship with this double object and will sacrifice itself for the erasure of this negative self image.  It will start to act in ways to make sure that this negative self image is destroyed or annihilated, so that it can look at itself in the mirror, so to speak.  This is an internal life-and-death struggle.  What that means is that inside of itself, towards the inwardness of things, the self-consciousness would risk it all for the sole center of universality, which is the truth and certainty of self.  This is of course not the ego, but the universal true and certain dimension of being.

“168. What self-consciousness distinguishes from itself as having being, also has in it, in so far as it is posited as being, not merely the character of sense-certainty and perception, but it is being that is reflected into itself, and the object of immediate desire is a living thing. For the in-itself, or the universal result of the relation of the Understanding to the inwardness of things, is the distinguishing of what is not to be distinguished, or the unity of what is distinguished. […] Self-consciousness which is simply for itself and directly characterises its object as a negative element, or is primarily desire, will therefore, on the contrary, learn through experience that the object is independent.”

The first thing is that what the ego really desires is a living thing, which is mastery of self.  If you have only mastered non-conscious, non-living things, then you will ultimately not be approaching the highest level of spiritual development.  That is why people on lower levels of spiritual development will try to control others.  This can happen in sexual relationships, friendships, political level, work, and many other contexts.  What it means is that they don’t have control of their own self, they don’t like their own self-reflection, they don’t like what they see in the mirror.  Instead of doing the hard work of negativity, the hard work of transforming one into something that one can be proud of, one would rather control the other, because they can’t control their own self.  That is why Hegel says what is desired is a living thing.  This desire is no different then the desire for an understanding of the inwardness of things.  This is why on the higher levels of spiritual development the ego will turn inward, instead of projecting externally.  This is first not to be distinguished, meaning you cannot put a signifier on what it is positively, and if it can be distinguished it can only be distinguished as a unity, and of course, the ego is not a unity, it is divided in itself.  Thus negativity is mobilised to be with the unity, this inwardness of universality.  The object as a negative element, this obstacle, is necessary for the emergence of desire in Hegel.  Desire is always signifying a negativity.  You wouldn’t desire something if your present wasn’t a negativity.  Desire emerges in that gap, inside the self.

three levels

So you first have the actively functional categorically synthetic ego that is trying to logically mediate all phenomena, to create a logical set of categories.  Second, the ego comes to recognize that it is disappointed in-itself, its own self-reflection, setting up a double object, an internal split within itself, to try to develop some pragmatic self-mastery.  Third, the ego will develop a life-and-death struggle in-itself, for the universality of the inwardness of things, the universal that it can sense, not in sense certainty or perception, but more a rational universality in-itself, that would be far to call “suprasensible”.

ego in the social matrix

Now we are going to be dealing with self-consciousness on the level of intersubjectivity, or the social level of self-consciousness.  For Hegel this is a domain which is organised by egos, and organised specifically by mechanisms of egoic recognition.  Not only do the egos relate to each other, and need things from each other, but also require a certain mode of recognition from each other, and these different modes of recognition, become again internally divided between two.  In the same way the ego internally fractures into a negativity, the same thing happens on the social level.

“178. Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged. The Notion of this its unity in its duplication embraces many and varied meanings. […] The detailed exposition of the Notion of this spiritual unity in its duplication will present us with the process of Recognition. / 179. Self-consciousness is faced by another self-consciousness; it has come out of itself. This has a twofold significance: first, it has lost itself, for it finds itself as an other being; secondly, in doing so it has superseded the other, for it does not see the other as an essential being, but in the other sees its own self.”

This sets up the social domain for Hegel.  You can see here that self-consciousness, its own identity, is intimately wrapped up, entangled, with other self-consciousnesses.  This is especially important when the ego is still on the first level of external projections of universality, because what it thinks is external phenomena, is in fact dependent on a network of other self-consciousnesses, which are being mediated for different desires for recognition from other self-consciousnesses.  The outside world is not really the point, the point is the desire for recognition from other self-consciousnesses.  That’s why Hegel says this domain sets us up with understanding the process of recognition.

The second thing Hegel is emphasising here is that when self-conscious is dependent on the recognition of other self-consciousnesses, it has essentially lost itself.  This means that self-consciousness does not yet realise that it is divided in-itself and is looking for recognition from other self-consciousnesses, to find itself again.  You will not find yourself in another self-consciousness, that is why Hegel says the ego does not really see the other person, but only their own self in other self-consciousnesses.

Bondsman to Lord

In this social matrix, Hegel identifies that these processes of recognition become divided between a Lord and Bondsman or a Master and Slave.  You might think that is outdated terminology, terminology better suited to the 19th century, but essentially this same dynamic is operating today, and can be more generalised to language that is like a Boss and a Worker, or a Teacher and Student.  What Hegel is trying to get at is some asymmetrical imbalance, a higher and a lower.  Of course we don’t have explicit Masters and Slaves, but essentially that formal social organization, is much more general then those explicit categories.  And of course, Masters and Slaves still exist.

“185. At first, it will exhibit the side of the inequality of the two, or the splitting-up of the middle term into the extremes which, as extremes, are opposed to one another, one being only recognized, the other only recognizing. […] 187. In so far as it is the action of the other, each seeks the death of the other. […] The individual who has not risked his life may well be recognized as a person, but he has not attained to the truth of this recognition as an independent self-consciousness. […] 191. In […] these moments the lord achieves his recognition through another consciousness[.] But for recognition proper the moment is lacking […] one-sided and unequal. / 192. In this recognition the unessential consciousness is for the lord the object, which constitutes the truth of his certainty of himself.”

The social world fractures into two, a splitting up of the middle term, recognition.  On the one side, recognized, on the other side, recognizing.  Of course, the Master is being recognized, and the Slave is the recognizing element.  This asymmetry, each seeking the death of the other, functions unconsciously.  Each unconsciously would seek the death of the other, it is a zero-sum battle.  Both sides do not see themselves winning in this arrangement, neither the Master or the Slave.  The reason why is because it is not true recognition, a form of recognition that is ultimately satisfactory for the truth of universality, or the certainty of self, because it is based on this kind of splitting up, this inequality.  As Hegel says, the recognition proper is lacking because it is one-sided and unequal.  If you are in the Master position you will never really value the recognition of the Slave.  If you are in the Slave position you will never really respect the Master.  This is bound to produce an eternal conflict, this itself needs to be processed.  Its a negativity, in the same way the internal split within the ego needs to be reconciled.

In regard to the Lord specifically, his identity is dependent on the unessential consciousness, the Slave consciousness, which is constituting the truth of his own certainty of self.  That is ultimately not a good foundation for you to ground the truth of the certainty of the self.

Lord to Bondsman

Paradoxically, leading into that, what this means is that the Slave here, in Hegel, is in a superior position, spiritually, to the Master, because they are the ones actually doing the real, essential, true work.  If they can decouple their identity from recognising the Master and really work on their own identity, they have the possibility to develop a true autonomy of self, much more convincingly and much more powerfully than the Master, because the Master is totally dependent on the Slave and the Slave’s work.  This is not a good situation for the Master or the Lord.

“193. The truth of the independent consciousness is accordingly the servile consciousness of the bondsman. This, it is true, appears at first outside of itself and not as the truth of self-consciousness. But just as lordship showed that its essential nature is the reverse of what it wants to be, so too servitude in its consummation will really turn into the opposite of what it immediately is; as a consciousness forced back into itself, it will withdraw into itself and be transformed into a truly independent consciousness. […] 194. But this pure universal movement, this absolute melting-away of everything stable, is the simple, essential nature of self-consciousness, absolute negativity, pure being-for-self, which consequently is implicit in this consciousness. This moment of pure being-for-self is also explicit for the bondsman, for in the lord it exists for him as his object.”

These quotes capture a precise dynamic that is so important to internalize if you are a self-consciousness which is looking for spiritual development and true spiritual progress.  This is grounded in a higher order social dynamic.  What can often happen, is that if you are in these social relations of the Master-Slave, you can become frustrated and disillusioned with reality, as we will get to in future slides.  But you can turn your situation into its opposite, because when you are in this horrible social dynamic, what Hegel says, is that you are forced back into self, and to become a truly independent consciousness through your work.  That is available to you.  It is a spiritual message where you cannot escape the hard work, the looking into self, how difficult it is going to be to achieve true spiritual independence.  It is available to you in this social dynamic.  Hegel thinks this is a universal movement, which will require your old identity, too much clinging to the Master structure in servitude, all that has to melt away.  That will be painful, because your ego will have to melt away, that is why it is absolute negativity.  But what you will find is a pure being for self.  This is the process of true understanding of the inward universality of things, which we alluded to in the first section of the development of the ego.

Inexistent Ideality

Of course, what is missing in intersubjectivity, what is missing on the social order, is equal recognition.  It is fractured asymmetrically between Lord and Bondsman.  The level of absence, the negativity, of the missing egalitarian social order, with equal-mutual recognition and cooperative organization, but the absence of this form, is what opens up the space for real work, and real spiritual growth.  The absence has a positive function in Hegel’s dialectic.

“195. Through work, however, the bondsman becomes conscious of what he truly is. In the moment which corresponds to desire in the lord’s consciousness, it did seem that the aspect of unessential relation to the thing fell to the lot of the bondsman, since in that relation the thing retained its independence. Desire has reserved to itself the pure negating of the object and thereby its unalloyed feeling of self. But this is the reason why this satisfaction is itself only a fleeting one, for it lacks the side of objectivity and permanence. Work, on the other hand, is desire held in check, fleetingness staved off; in other words, work forms and shapes the thing.”

This is crucial because Hegel is flipping this negativity, seeing the positivity emerging from negativity.  This is to say that the Bondsman which first has its identity too closely aligned to the Lords, and thus first perceives that s/he has an unessential relation to the thing, and it is independent of whatever s/he does, on the second motion realises that in the pure negation of the Lord, develops a pure relation to the thing, in work, in the work of its own spiritual self-consciousness.  Hegel creates a dichotomy between work and desire.  In the mode of desire, it is as if you are separated from the thing, but in work you stave off desire, and form the thing-in-itself.  This is important in differentiation from Kant’s philosophy, because for Kant the thing-in-itself is out there, the noumenal, but Hegel is saying that your spiritual work shapes the thing.  It is about our spiritual becoming in history.  It is about our relation to the thing-in-itself.  That is the essential dimension.

relational levels
Social Ego

On the social level, these levels, first there is the Lord’s recognition, which is the lowest level, paradoxically.  It is the biggest paradox of history, that the people on the top are lower than the people on the bottom.  Then you have the Bondsman recognition, which is higher, you have better access to the inwardness of things, and achieving real work.  Then you have the inexistent ideal of the social order, and this inexistent of the ideal, is the negativity required for real self work, and the real creation of the thing.

irrational social world

On the level of spirituality, this picks up where we left off with the inexistent ideal.  In our social world, our ideal of a social world, is far different then the actual social world.  In other words, in our ideal for social harmony, is so different from the reality of intersubjectivity, that we can become extremely disillusioned with reality, we can become extremely pessimistic about the nature of history, human nature, even interacting with others, about giving into social games, about all these dimensions, but this is a part of the spiritual path.  We have to use this negativity to work towards higher levels of self.  But the essential point here is that as the rational ideal would determine, the social reality seems incredibly irrational and impossible.

“197. The consciousness that is forced back into itself becomes, in its formative activity, its own object in the form of the thing it has fashioned, and at the same time sees in the lord a consciousness that exists as a being-for-self. But for the subservient consciousness as such, these two moments — itself as an independent object, and this object as a mode of consciousness, and hence its own essential nature — fall apart.”

What is essential to emphasise here is that of these two moments falling apart creates the inner disturbance with the social world.  We don’t see it in its higher dialectical necessity, we don’t see the positivity in the negativity, that our own self work is an essential determination of the thing.  It is our self work that is being called for, and what is being called for in history.

Stoical Fortress

In this process what tends to happen, Hegel says, is that we first go from recognising the irrationality of the social world, its negativity, and then we go into a stoical or skeptical fortress.  We build an inner temple of virtue and reason and remove all practical commitments from the outside.  Because we don’t see a way in which the social world can be meaningfully participated in, a way for us to externalise our reason, to engage in a  meaningful and knowable world, we retreat into self.  This is a necessary stage, even though it is part of a dialectic.  The tendency of spirit to form a stoical and skeptical stage is a part of the process.

“198. This freedom of self-consciousness when it appeared as conscious manifestation in the history of Spirit has, as we know, been called Stoicism. Its principle is that consciousness is a being that thinks, and that consciousness holds something to be essentially important, or true and good only in so far as it thinks it to be such. […] 199. This consciousness accordingly has a negative attitude towards the lord and bondsman relationship. […] Its aim is to be free, and to maintain that lifeless indifference which steadfastly withdraws from the bustle of existence, alike from being active as passive, into the simple essentiality of thought. […] As a universal form of the World-Spirit, Stoicism could only appear on the scene in a time of universal fear and bondage, but also a time of universal culture which had raised itself to the level of thought.”

To summarise, what Hegel is trying to say here, is that stoicism is a part of the manifestation of World Spirit, a stage of World Spirit that has come to recognize something good and true inside of consciousness, that this good and true inside of consciousness, is something essential related to its own thinking, but that it has not ye realized or recognized how to externalise this good and true into the world.  That is why he says this form of consciousness has a negative relationship to the Lord and Bondsman relation, because it is perceived as irrational and unjust.  It is not perceived to be good and true, but false and bad.  That is why he says it takes a lifeless indifference to the social world, and privileges its own inner freedom over this social world, and thus withdraws from the bustle of existence.  Then he says Stoicism could have only appeared because of universal fear and bondage; in other words, because people are too fearful to act in the world, stoicism is a logical spiritual response.  That is the negative element.  But also stoicism couldn’t have emerged if it didn’t persist in a time of universal culture, that is in a time that had come to recognize something true and good on the level of the universal.

irrational beyond

After this stage Hegel dialectics reveal that there is a stage of an irrational mystical beyond.  In this stage, self-consciousness as an inner fortress cannot hold itself as an inner circular totality, and it must find its ideal cause somewhere outside of itself, but because it can’t see the reason in that possibility being externalized in the social world, it has to project it into a mystical world.  Of course, that could be heaven, it is some after life.

“209. Raising itself out of this consciousness it goes over into the Unchangeable; but this elevation is itself this same consciousness. It is, therefore, directly consciousness of the opposite, viz. of itself as a particular individual. The Unchangeable that enters into consciousness is through this very fact at the same time affected by individuality, and is only present with the latter; individuality, instead of having been extinguished in the consciousness of the Unchangeable, only continues to arise therefrom.”

What he is saying is that because the changing world of appearances is unbearable and irrational, the rational ideal projects itself into the unchangeable, but what Hegel is saying, is that this is just the motion of the same consciousness.  Consciousness is projecting its own rational ideal into the beyond.  When people imagine heaven or God, or some other unchangeable reality that is outside our reality, it is simply the rational ideal externalised and separated from self.

spiritual development

The three levels are again the rational ideal recognizing the social world is not the inner dream or ideal; you have the construction of an inner fortress; and then you have the irrational identification with a mystical beyond, a place where spirit will go after this world, after this life.

phenomenological analysis

Finally, we have the job of the phenomenologist.  The job of the phenomenologist is to logically ascertain the process of the becoming of spirit and to see the reason in it, the logical development of it, from a non-emotional position.  In the process of these transitions they are experienced as emotional catastrophes, but the phenomenologist attempts to derive a logical understanding.

The first is that the transition towards the mystical unattainable beyond, is something that develops in self-consciousness, in relation to the sheer absurdity of the world.  You could say people become nihilistic, or nihilistic about social reality, about human nature, about the meaning of history, the meaning of being a consciousness at all.  That inner despair is about the pure absurdity of existence, the fact that existence seems so absurd from the perspective of the rational ideal.  The rational ideal appears so good and true, and the real seems so bad and false, that you can only wallow in self-abasing mysticism.  That is the logic of this position.  The sheer enormity between the ideal and the real, how absurd it is.

“211. What is set forth here as the mode and relationship of the Unchangeable has appeared as the experience through which the divided self-consciousness passes in its wretchedness. Now, this experience, it is true, is not its own one-sided movement, for it is itself the unchangeable consciousness, and this, consequently, is at the same time a particular individual consciousness too; and the movement is just as much a movement of the unchangeable consciousness, which makes its appearance in that movement as much as the other.”

The relationship the self-consciousness sets up to the unchangeable mystical beyond is something that emerges in the gap between the ideal and the real, what Hegel describes as a “wretchedness”.  But this projection in the gap is a one-sided movement, and so the ultimate confrontation with true self-knowledge is being delayed in the end.

towards the ideal-real

After this self-abasing mysticism, where someone may be confronted with an external catastrophe, or inner catastrophe, where this unchangeable projection has to be confronted as self, this enormous negativity of one’s own truth and certainty.  No matter how absurd or negative or how big this divide is within self, this rational ideal has to come out.  This rational ideal has to be made manifest and actual.  We have to be pushed towards a rational actualization that can be seen and heard in natural social arrangements that are knowable, enjoyable and improvable for all.  That is the mode in which the thing-in-itself and one’s own self-consciousness, and one’s day-to-day of work, and the ideal is one thing.

“213. If at first the mere Notion of the divided consciousness was characterized by the effort to set aside its particular individuality and to become the unchangeable consciousness, its efforts from now on are directed rather to setting aside its relation with the pure formless Unchangeable, and to coming into relation only with the Unchangeable in its embodied or incarnate form. For the oneness of the particular individual with the Unchangeable is henceforth the essence and the object for this consciousness, just as in the mere Notion of it the formless abstract Unchangeable was the essential object; and the relation of this absolute dividedness of the Notion is now what it has to turn away from. The initially external relation to the incarnate Unchangeable as an alien reality has to be transformed into a relation in which it becomes absolutely one with it.”

This unchangeable mystical beyond has to be something embodied and incarnate.  Here you get the idea of Hegel’s Christianity where Jesus’s resurrection was an embodied resurrection.  You cannot keep the transcendent beyond in this transcendent beyond as an abstract formless entity.  It has to be something embodied in this world, it has to be something that we give it a form.  We give this formless unchangeable its form.  That is why Hegel says this unchangeable as an alien reality, have to become absolutely one with it.  In the end, for the phenomenologist, the job is to analyse the logical sequence of this process.  To go from the egoic self-consciousness to the embodied transcendent self-consciousness.  The reason why the phenomenologist is necessary, is because historical forms of self-consciousness do not see the logic of the whole process, and they can get stuck at certain levels.  In order to get unstuck they have to have an emotional transformation inside of themselves.

“214. The movement in which the unessential consciousness strives to attain this oneness is itself threefold in accordance with the threefold relation this consciousness will have with its incarnate beyond: first, as pure consciousness; second, as a particular individual who approaches the actual world in the forms of desire and work; and third, as consciousness that is aware of its own being-for-self. We have now to see how these three modes of being are present and determined in that general relationship.”

The mystical beyond is first a pure consciousness away from it, second it is recognized in its own desire and work, and then third it is held as a being for self.  This is self-consciousnesses knowledge of what is true and certain.  Self-consciousnesses as a being for self.

That is the end of the forth lecture.  If you want to support this work please consider becoming a Patreon.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s