ABSOLUTE KNOWLEDGE: HEGEL’S PHENOMENOLOGY OF SPIRIT

YOUTUBE: ABSOLUTE KNOWING. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.

This is the final lecture on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. In this lecture we will be covering the final chapter titled “Absolute Knowing”. Absolute Knowing is the culmination and you could say the end point of Hegel’s phenomenological logic, as it relates to the phenomenological drama of the historical process.

In the book Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel takes us through the entire drama of spirit, that is the drama that starts with consciousness, develops into self-consciousness, followed by rationality, spiritual life, religious life, and ultimately, the state of absolute knowing. Hegel tells us that this state of absolute knowing is a symmetry of objective form and subjective thought. Consequently, leading up to absolute knowing, we have a constant asymmetry in the motion and the logic of spiritual development.

Here in the actual state of absolute knowing itself, we have a self-active conceptual universality. That is, spirit’s own motion, own knowing, is the same as universal motion, and universal knowing. This is conceptualized by Hegel as the return of spirit back into itself. In other words, the entire phenomenological drama, is as if there was a falling away from self, an externalization of self, and a return to self, to a true and real self-determination. Thus, there are many small-scale and a large-scale oscillation of spirit between these self-externalization and self-determination motion.

Finally, Hegel takes us through his understanding of where his philosophical understanding is placed in the philosophical history of the absolute itself. This takes us through Descartes, Spinoza’s, Leibniz’s, Kant’s, Fichte’s and Schelling’s understanding of the absolute. Of course, Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel himself comprises the philosophical quartet of German Idealism. Consequently, most philosophy after Hegel is categorized as “post-Hegelian philosophy”, and so, having a complete or total understanding of the phenomenology of spirit is very important for philosophers to situate their work in relation to the on-going philosophical history of the absolute, which we may see further developed in works by Kierkegaard, Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Husserl, and so on and so on, the traditional historical narrative of philosophy.

Starting with natural religion, and adding the final step, that of absolute knowing. It should be said that all of these dialectical notions, processual opposites, between consciousness-self-consciousness, self-consciousness-reason, reason-spirit, spirit-religion, religion-absolute knowing, are the self, Hegel will tell us, as “restless negativity”. This is the spirit’s phenomenological experience as an oscillation between asymmetries, asymmetries between subjective thought and objective form. Consequently, all of its objective picture thought, is a result of a discord, split, or gap, within spirit itself, or negativity. Thus, ultimately the state of absolute knowing is the realization or recognition that the self is this negativity. That is the crucial perspectival shift, between spirit or the phenomenology of consciousness before absolute knowing, and after absolute knowing. That distinction, again, being the distinction between a state of restless negativity in an asymmetrical relation to objective form, and coming to realize that the self is this restless negativity.

788. The Spirit of the revealed religion has not yet surmounted its consciousness as such, or what is the same, its actual self-consciousness is not the object of its consciousness; Spirit itself as a whole, and the self-differentiated moments within it, fall within the sphere of picture-thinking and in the form of objectivity. […] 789. The object is in part immediate being — […] corresponding to the Understanding. It is, as a totality, […] the movement of the universal through determination to individuality, as also the reverse movement from individuality through superseded individuality, or through determination, to the universal. It is, therefore, in accordance with these three determinations that consciousness must know the object as itself. However, this Knowing […] is to be indicated only in its process of coming-to-be, or in the moments […] which belongs to consciousness as such, the moments of the Notion proper or of pure Knowing in the form of shapes of consciousness.

What Hegel is saying here is that, in the asymmetrical motion of spirit, between consciousness and self-consciousness, self-consciousness and reason, reason and spirit, spirit and religion, religion and absolute knowing; spirit is regulated by picture-thinking in the form of objectivity. Of course, the paradox is that what many people call objective materialism, is in fact picture-thinking, and what Hegel would call idealism. Thus, working up to the knowing of the self itself, rather than picture-thinking of the self, is this transition to absolute knowing. All of the moments leading up to this is the coming into being or form of this absolute knowing. Now we will cover all of these stages in their detail, as described throughout the book.

Here in the phenomenological drama we will always be working two opposites. In this representation we have sense-immediacy and abstract understanding. In the middle we will have a negative term, meaning the term that is coming into being. In this representation it is consciousness itself. So there is an oscillation between sense-immediacy and abstract-understanding. You could imagine the coming into being of an infant, where what its consciousness is is a sense-immediacy. In the oscillation with abstract understanding, you have the entity coming to name sense-immediacy, for example, the infant’s early significations (“momma”, “dadda”).

In the next stage we have the formation of rational consciousness between the mapping of material and the mind-in-itself. There is an oscillation here between the consciousness mapping its territory, understanding the universe and the world, from local to global; and then trying to understand the mind in-itself which is doing the mapping. You could say this is movement from the externalization of logic, to the understanding of logic itself, the mind’s own logic. Here we have the coming into being of rational consciousness.

On the next level we have the dynamics between inter-subjectivity and desire for recognition, where deeper self-consciousness forms, a consciousness that can reflect on itself, through the drama of dealing with other subject’s and its own desire to be seen, heard, felt by other subjectivity, and situate itself within the socio-historical order of spirit.

Next we have an oscillation between the hedonism or pleasure of the self, and utilitarian life, what Hegel talks about in the formation of pragmatic enlightenment; Hegel talks a lot about utilitarianism before dialecticizing it, as the ground and the formation of a conflict between family and state life. For hedonism you have a tendency of spirit that is in opposition to family/state life, which matures and cultivates itself in utilitarian life, in service to higher order social structures like the family and state.

Then we have family/state conflict that is coming out of an oscillation of ethical life and higher order social phenomena like family/state orders. There is inherent conflict in these orders, and the ethical determination of spirit, in these oscillations, is the birth of spiritual life proper. Spiritual life thus develops out of ethical conflict between intimate others and public others, where a higher order understanding of spirit is needed to continue the organization.

Then we have the development of an oscillation between deep insight or conscience, and conflict between consciences. In other words, it is one thing for spirit to have a deep understanding of its own conscience, what we might call individual spirituality, and the necessary conflict between difference consciences. The logic of this conflict will produce a beyond of individual conscience, a beyond of individual insight, in the formation of religious life. Religious life is this beyond of any individual. This is in essence what we covered in the last lecture.

Finally, we have a religious beyond of conscience of conflict, in the formation of divine society, where we start to see the birth of what Hegel refers to as absolute knowledge. This absolute knowledge being in some sense the necessary disposition of spirit to enact and manifest concretely the divine society.

Now I will share some direct quotes from Hegel on how he summarizes these different levels of the becoming of absolute knowledge. Starting with rational consciousness:

790. We saw Observing Reason seeking and finding itself in this indifferent thing, i.e. we saw it equally conscious of its action being external to it, as it was conscious of the object only as an immediate object.

To family/state life:

791. The Thing is ‘I’; […] in itself it is nothing; it has meaning only in the relation, only through the ‘I’ and its connection with it. […]Things are simply useful and to be considered only from the standpoint of utility. […] This moment manifested itself for consciousness in […] enlightenment.”

Here you have, going back to rational consciousness, the development of mapping on external matter (indifferent thing), and the mapping of the mind itself, and the way this internal logic is mediating its external object. Then in the emergence of family/state life you have the dialecticization of utilitarianism, what Hegel described in the conflict between family and state life.

To spiritual life:

792. [Consciousness] knows that being is simply and solely pure willing and knowing; anything else has only unessential being, i.e. not intrinsic being, only its empty husk. In the same measure that moral self-consciousness lets determinate being go free from the Self, so too, in its conception of the world it takes it back again into itself.

To religious life:

792. Finally, as conscience, it is no longer this continual alternation of existence being placed in the Self, and vice versa; it knows that its existence as such is the pure certainty of itself. The objective element into which it puts itself forth, when it acts, is nothing other than the Self’s pure knowledge of itself.

All of this to say that Hegel has taken us through the phenomenological drama.

The phenomenological drama is the absolute as a discontinuous series of experienced events, different selves. Again, the formation of consciousness, self-consciousness, rational consciousness, spiritual consciousness, religious consciousness. This is governed by a type of restless negativity. On the other hand, we have the absolute knowledge, which is the absolute as a continuous series of experienced events. In other words, what is experienced in the phenomenological drama as a discontinuous series of events is from the point of view of the absolute knowledge a continuous series of experienced events. This is the major difference between a dialectical consciousness, a consciousness that has gone through the phenomenological drama, and a non-dialectical consciousness, a consciousness that is still experiencing itself as moving through the phenomenological drama. The main distinction here is the self as a restless negativity moving through the phenomenological drama, and the self as negativity as such, which is capable of perceiving and acting within the phenomenological drama, in a different way. Here just summarizing that absolute knowledge sees sense-immediacy to self-active universality as a totality. It is capable of holding this restless negativity in-itself as negativity as such.

793. These are the moments of which the reconciliation of Spirit with its own consciousness proper is composed; by themselves they are single and separate, and it is solely their spiritual unity that constitutes the power of this reconciliation. The last of these moments is […] necessarily this unity itself and, as is evident, it binds them all into itself. The Spirit that, in its existence, is certain of itself, has for the element of existence nothing else but this knowledge of itself; when it declares that what it does it does out of a conviction of duty, this utterance is the validating of its action. […] Here, therefore, actuality as well as immediate existence has for self-consciousness no other significance than that of being a pure knowing […] partly of this purely individual Self, partly of knowledge as universal. In this […] the third moment, the universality or essence, counts only as knowledge […] of ‘I’=‘I’; this individual Self which is immediately a pure knowing or a universal. 

In the phenomenological drama each of the moment’s of spirit are “single and separate”, and the spiritual unity of them is only constituted on that level, whereas on the level of the absolute knowledge, all of these moments are necessarily bound all into itself, that is all into the self itself as negativity. The self comes to see itself as a universal pure knowing, and this is the conclusion of the self or spirit’s own logical development.

The state of absolute knowledge itself. The self comes to see itself as all the essential forms of objectivity, from consciousness to religious consciousness, are identical to the thinking subject. So all stages were necessarily produced by the thinking subject or the self itself. However, the thinking subject itself, and not its picture thinking or externalized objectivity, is the ever-active principle of conceptual universality which is its own self-determining motion, or wheel if you like. The recognition on this level that its conceptual grasp of objects is its externalization of itself, whether on the level of self-consciousness or rational or spiritual or religious consciousness, is always grasping and interacting with itself, always trying to deepen its understanding of itself, ultimately to the level of absolute knowledge.

798. This last shape of Spirit — the Spirit which at the same time gives its complete and true content the form of the Self and thereby realizes its Notion as remaining in its Notion in this realization — this is absolute knowing; it is Spirit that knows itself in the shape of Spirit, or a comprehensive knowing. [/] 799. It has a content which it differentiates from itself; for it is pure negativity or the dividing of itself, it is consciousness. This content is, in its difference, itself the ‘I’, for it is the movement of superseding itself, or the same pure negativity that the ‘I’ is. In it, as differentiated, the ‘I’ is reflected into itself; it is only when the ‘I’ communes with itself in its otherness that the content is comprehended. 

On the level of absolute knowing, the notion are recognized as remaining the same, this is absolute knowing. There is no longer this gap or asymmetry in-itself, which is a restless negativity, because the self has come to see itself as negativity itself, as Hegel is saying, “for it is pure negativity or the dividing of itself”. So everything has been, up to this point, a superseding or overcoming of itself. Hegel’s dialectic of the phenomenological drama is always this overcoming of a gap, overcoming of an asymmetry that gets reconciled on the deepest possible level in the state of absolute knowing, when it comes to see that its communion is with otherness. How he ends: “the ‘I’ communes with itself in its otherness”. I think this is the crucial notion for absolute knowing, the subject of absolute knowing has come to see otherness as itself, it no longer sees this as discordant with itself, or as something to be overcome, necessarily.

Here, to deepen our understanding of absolute knowing, on the left hand side you see a repetition of the previous representation, namely, that all essential forms of objectivity are identical to the thinking subject; that is, objectivity is subjective, in the fullness of the phenomenological drama, and the thinking subject is the self-active conceptual universal; this is taking the objective universal from something externalized by spirit, to something that is a self-determining spirit, since whatever the conceptual grasps as an object is grasping itself.

However, the important part is found on the right hand side, in the distinction between Kant and Hegel. For Kant, the thing-in-itself is something impossible, the thing-in-itself is something external and impossible to grasp on the side of the thinking subject’s conceptual synthesis, what Kant labels as contradictory. What Hegel does is merely shift this notion of the thing-in-itself to nothing different then the thinking subject’s conceptual synthesis. What you get here is a perspectival shift, merely, there is no difference in wording. The thinking subject’s conceptual powers will have contradictions, but for Hegel, these contradictions are leading it to absolute knowing, whereas for Kant, the contradictions are a sign that the entire process is flawed vis-a-vis getting at the thing-in-itself or the truth of reality. You see here that Hegel’s knowledge is really born out of a perspectival shift on Kant’s philosophy, which will be important to keep in mind for the rest of the lecture.

802. For this reason it must be said that nothing is known that is not in experience, or, as it is also expressed, that is now felt to be true, not given as an inwardly revealed eternal verity, as something sacred that is believed, or whatever other expressions have been used. For experience is just this, that the content — which is Spirit — is in itself substance, and therefore an object of consciousness. But this substance which is Spirit is the process in which Spirit becomes what it is in itself; and it is only as this process of reflecting itself into itself that it is in itself truly Spirit. It is in itself the movement which is cognition — the transforming of that in-itself into that which is for itself, of Substance into Subject, of the object of consciousness into an object of self-consciousness, i.e. into an object that is just as much superseded, or into the Notion.

This quote is really going into this perspectival shift, and important distinction vis-a-vis Kant’s philosophy, namely, that the spirit becomes what it is, only in the process of reflecting itself into itself, does it become spirit; and that cognition, is the transformation of substance into subject from the object of consciousness, into the object of self-consciousness. So what Kant places at the level of the noumena, is simply the unfinished mediation of spirit’s own recognition of itself, of spirit’s own deepening understanding of itself, from substance to subject. Where does this external substance come from? Where does this idea of the noumena come from? It is itself part of the notion and the subject’s own projection. That is where the noumena comes from, from the spirit, from the absolute notion.

To summarize these levels, you have the final state of the process, namely, the phenomenological drama, as the state of absolute knowing. That does not mean the phenomenological drama ends, that does not mean that the spirit stops being of a processual nature, it simply means that this discordant asymmetry, this overcoming, this feeling that there is something external-impossible is taken into spirit as itself, and spirit comes to know this as itself. That is absolute knowing.

On the second level we have the subjective “I” and the objective “other”, being the ultimate identity of the opposites, where the I comes to see itself as the other, the I comes. to see itself as otherness, that is not something to be overcome, but merely something to be reflected, since the self itself is pure negativity, as opposed to this restless negativity.

Finally, on the distinction between Kant and Hegel, or phenomena and noumena, we have the understanding from Hegel that the thing-in-itself is on the side of conceptual synthesis and not on the side of impossible externality. This creates all the meaningful difference in relation to the powers of conceptual synthesis, since we no longer get lost in a nihilistic state, where the truth of reality is forever out of our grasp. We find the truth of reality through our conceptual powers, through our capacity for conceptual synthesis, not in identifying with our conceptual synthesis as perfect, but on the contrary, seeing the contradictions in our conceptual synthesis as a clue to understanding the truth in-itself.

Now on the level of the philosophical drama, we get Hegel’s explanation of the major figures of modern philosophical history, and where he situates himself in this philosophical drama, where he situates himself in the deepening of spirit’s own understanding of itself through philosophy. On the bottom left and going up, we start with Descartes “being=thinking” (cogito ergo sum); to Spinoza’s idea that extended being is a single substance (a one expressing a multiplicity of phenomena); then the development of Leibniz who proposes that the single substance is the object of individual spirituality, namely that Leibniz turns this single substance into monads, that every monad is reflecting this single substance; and then finally, we have pragmatic utility, namely, that this single substance reflected by individual monads, is something that should be reflected and engaged pragmatically on utilitarian grounds.

803. When, to begin with, [the actual Self] has thus expressed the immediate unity of Thought and Being [e.g. Descartes], the unity of abstract essence and the Self, abstractly; and when it has expressed the primal Light in a purer form, viz. as unity of extension and being [e.g. Spinoza] — for extension is the simple unity which more nearly resembles pure thought than light does — and in so doing has revived in thought the Substance of the Orient, Spirit at once recoils in horror from the abstract unity, from this self-less substantiality, and against it affirms individuality [e.g. Leibniz]. But only after it has externalized this individuality in the sphere of culture, thereby giving it an existence, and establishing it throughout the whole of existence [e.g. Enlightenment] [.]

In this quote you have the emergence of Descartes thinking of the absolute as “being=thinking”; you have the explanation of Spinoza’s absolute as the “single substance”; you have the development of the individuality of this substance in Leibniz’s monads; and then you have the development of the enlightenment’s pragmatic utilitarianism as establishing this notion in the whole of existence in the sphere of culture. However, this narrative is far from complete, as we have to go again to the level of German Idealism.

On the level of German Idealism, in the representation starting in the bottom left and moving up, we have Kant’s transcendent deduction of rational will, namely enlightenment pragmatism taken to the transcendental (noumena); then you have the development from Fichte of the pure self, where instead of the categories of space and time part of the noumena, you have the pure self that can abolish the flux of time and differentiation of space, since they are nothing but the self itself; you have the development in Schelling that the abyss is more primary than the self, and its capacities, and that the abyss or nothing of the absolute is primary to both being and thought, and you can see how. this undermines all previous notions of the absolute, in relation to Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, and enlightenment pragmatism, Kant and Fichte; and finally, you have Hegel, where the self is this abyssal absolute. This is related to Hegel’s dialectics of the absolute, when it comes to restless negativity, which you can see in all of these philosopher’s understanding of the absolute, to the self as negativity itself, in other words, the self is the abyssal absolute.

803. Only after Spirit has arrived at the thought of utility, and in its absolute freedom has grasped existence as its will, only then does it turn the thought of its inmost depths outwards and enunciate essence as ‘I’ = ‘I’ [e.g. Kant]. But this ‘I’ = ‘I’ is the movement which reflects itself into itself; for since this identity, being absolute negativity, is absolute difference, the self-identity of the ‘I’ stands over against this pure difference which, as pure and at the same time objective to the self-knowing Self, has to be expressed as Time […] [thus] it would now have to be grasped as the unity of Thought and Time [e.g. Fichte]. But the difference left to itself, unresting and unhalting Time, collapses rather within itself; it is the objective repose of extension, while extension is pure identity with itself, the ‘I’ [e.g. Schelling]. In other words, the ‘I’ is not merely the Self, but the identity of the Self with itself; but this identity is complete and immediate oneness with Self, or this Subject is just as much Substance [e.g. Hegel].

You have the description here, from the start of German Idealism, with Kant in the I=I or conceptual synthesis and the noumena; but this conceptual synthesis and noumena needs to be reflected into itself, the deepening of subjectivity with Fichte, with thought and time as a unity, which Kant is not capable of, leaving us with rational antinomies and this monstrosity of the noumena; whereas in Schelling you have the unresting unhalting time which collapses within itself, the abyssal absolute; and then finally, the recognition that this abyssal absolute is the subject, in Hegel.

Finally, we have the deepening of Hegel’s absolute knowledge in different stages, as it relates to this entire philosophical process. From the bottom left and up in the representation, we have the self externalizing itself as a single substance, as we saw in Descartes and Spinoza; then on the level of AK2 we have the single substance gaining consciousness in externalization, as we saw in Leibniz, and enlightenment consciousness; then we have the conscious mediation of substance from inner notional oppositions, as we saw in Kant, Fichte and Schelling; and then we finally have the logical study returning through nature to determine real spirit, itself, as we saw in Hegel’s absolute knowing, and as the self as an absolute abyss.

On the right hand side of the representation, you will see the philosophical drama as a whole, which is first the extruded concept, that is the alienated self as time; and then you have the return of the self to itself, in the conceptual coincidence with itself, the symmetry of subjective thought and objective form, and that is the abolition of time, namely, that in the state of absolute knowing, that the spirit or the self experiences time as abolished. The whole extrusion, extension and externalization of the concept, and the return of the concept to itself, is the entire journey of the self back to itself.

Now here are four final quotes from Phenomenology of Spirit, corresponding to AK1, AK2, AK3, and AK4.

AK1 as “self externalizes as single substance”:

804. That first reflection out of immediacy is the Subject’s differentiation of itself from its substance, or the Notion’s separation of itself from itself[.] [/] The ‘I’ has neither to cling to itself in the form of self-consciousness as against the form of substantiality and objectivity, as if it were afraid of the externalization of itself: the power of Spirit lies rather in remaining the selfsame Spirit in its externalization

AK2 as “single substance gains consciousness in externalization”

807. [The] externalization [of] Spirit displays the process of its becoming Spirit in the form of free contingent happening, intuiting its pure Self as Time outside of it, and equally its Being as Space. This last becoming of Spirit, Nature, is its living immediate Becoming; Nature, the externalized Spirit, is in its existence nothing but this eternal externalization of its continuing existence and the movement which reinstates the Subject.

AK3 as “conscious mediation of substance from inner notional opposition”:

808. But the other side of its Becoming, History, is a conscious, self-mediating process — Spirit emptied out into Time; but this externalization, this kenosis, is equally an externalization of itself; the negative is the negative of itself. This Becoming presents a slow-moving succession of Spirits, a gallery of images, each of which, endowed with all the riches of Spirit, moves thus slowly just because the Self has to penetrate and digest this entire wealth of its substance.

AK4 as “logical study as self return through nature to determine real spirit”:

808. The goal, Absolute Knowing, or Spirit that knows itself as Spirit […] form alike the inwardizing and the Calvary of absolute Spirit, the actuality, truth, and certainty of his throne, without which he would be lifeless and alone. Only “from the chalice of this realm of spirits foams forth for Him his own infinitude.”

That is the final sentence and the final passage of the whole book. The whole point is to work the spirit to absolute knowing.

Here to summarize the final stage of the philosophical drama, you have modern philosophy as Cartesian thought, up to pragmatic utilitarianism, working through Spinoza and Leibniz in the individualization of spiritual substance and the externalization of substance; then you have Kant to Hegel, the whole of German Idealism, as the transcendental will to the abyssal absolute, and the self as negativity itself; and then you have absolute knowing as the entire journey of self externalization as time to self-determination as absolute knowing, which abolishes time.

That, my friends, is the end and the conclusion of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, perhaps one of the most important and essential philosophical texts ever written.

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