Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831)
Phenomenology of Spirit, Chapters 5 to 8: “Free Concrete Mind” and “Absolute Knowledge”
At the end of chapter 4, Hegel describes the “unhappy consciousness” that arises from individuals having to struggle for recognition from one another to realize themselves as self-conscious subjects. He asserts that various religious institutions and philosophical systems serve as a refuge from the fear and objectification that arise in this struggle. By turning toward a transcendent being (God), one can take comfort in a being that exists purely for itself, rather than in a struggle for recognition between beings, and thus isolate oneself from that struggle. This turn toward a transcendent being follows from the initial attempt of consciousness to grasp the nature of the object. The striving for sense certainty leads to perception and to the social nature of universal concepts.
Hegel’s understanding of the dialectical movement of thought leads him to take issue with the idealist notion of reason. Reason is not, as the Kantian idealists claim, a matter of fitting isolated objects into universal categories. Reason involves a self-conscious ego struggling to assimilate objects while having to fend off their otherness, which it sees as a threat to its existence as a self-conscious being.
Like Kant, Hegel believes that reason leads consciousness to fit particular phenomena into universal categories. However, this process is not smooth and always involves an element of uncertainty and vagueness, since objects exist in a fluid spectrum of variations and do not readily conform to distinct universal categories. Thus, insofar as consciousness is oriented to those stable categories of thought, it is also aware of a set of standards governing how phenomena conform to such categories. These standards, or Laws of Thought, reside neither in the objects nor in the mind but in a third dimension, in the “organized social whole.” When looking at the social dimension, we can see that every individual self-consciousness belongs to one collective self-consciousness, a locus of identity existing outside of every individual in the collective. Laws of thought, morality, and conventions belong to social life. Individual activities and interpretations conform to these laws as having a taken-for-granted existence, as “matters at hand,” and individuals see these common laws not as alien but as emanating from their own selves, as a law of one’s own heart. Hegel calls this dimension of collective consciousness Spirit.
Spirit is the location of the ethical order, the realm of the laws and customs, to which individual consciousnesses assent but that exist outside of individuals in the social being. Individuals interpret and act out laws and customs in an individual way, but they do so in tension with this communal spirit. The ethical communal spirit has two manifestations. First, it is the basis of the deep-seated ethical orientation of individuals, as an object of faith. Second, it has an outward existence as the culture and civilization of a given historical age. These two moments of ethical spirit, or ethical life, are in tension with each other. In modern Enlightenment culture, for example, the external cultural expression of ethical life, or Spirit, is a kind of individualism. An emphasis on education and the acquisition of wealth actually orients consciousness away from the social being and the deep ethical life of which it is a part. In its most extreme negative form, individualism in the modern world finds expression in despotism and political terrorism. When political life is no longer a true expression of common ethical life, factions merely pretending to represent the collective will enforce their rule through terror and the annihilation of opposing factions. In its more positive guise, individualism finds expression in individual rights.
The next stage in the development of consciousness is religion. Religion is essentially a collective Spirit conscious of itself, and as such it reflects a given culture’s expression of ethical life and the balance between individual and collective. There are different phases in the development of religion represented in the various world religions and reflected in art, myth, and drama. But religion is not the highest stage of consciousness. This place is reserved for Absolute Knowledge. Whereas with religion, spirit is conscious of itself in pictorial or poetic form, in the state of Absolute Knowledge, consciousness combines attention to subjective knowledge with attention to objective truth. That is, in absolute knowledge, spirit becomes aware of its limitations and seeks to correct its contradictions and inadequacies by moving to a higher plane of understanding. Absolute Knowledge is self-conscious and critical engagement with reality. It is the standpoint of science and the starting point of philosophical investigation.
The religious connotations of the Hegelian term Spirit have led many to believe that Hegel understands Spirit as a kind of supernatural or divine force guiding human civilization and history. As noted, Spirit is a translation of the German word geist, which can also mean “mind,” and while spirit is reflected in religion, in itself it is actually something more like culture, or the collective mind of a social being. “Ethical life” is an expression of spirit in everyday reality. The ethical encompasses the common understandings, customs, and moral codes of a culture, a supraindividual communal source of interpretation determining how people act, what they believe, and how they relate to the world and to the divine. Hegel says that even reason, which Kant treated as abstract and universal, is deeply embedded in collective culture.
One of Hegel’s most original and influential ideas is that culture is a dynamic force and subject to change. While deeply influenced by Kant and German idealism, Hegel was also close to the Romantic movement that was strong in Germany when he came of age intellectually. German romantic philosophers such as Herder took issue with the image of the human experience that Kant and his students promoted. The Kantians and the rationalists of the Enlightenment sought to establish reason as a universal and unchanging bedrock of knowledge. The romantics thought the Kantians did not fully appreciate the profound differences in human experience from age to age and culture to culture. Hegel came along to fuse the insights of both camps, and the resulting view sees the human mind striving for stable categories of thought and referencing the common interpretations and customs of society to do so. In other words, one approaches the world through a common mind. This common mind operates as a consciousness in and of itself, seeking to understand the world, bumping up against contradictions in the process, sorting through these contradictions, and moving forward. One gets a glimpse here of Hegel’s view of history as the dynamic unfolding of the collective mind or spirit.
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