The German word that is normally translated as “spirit” in English versions of Hegel is Geist, a word that can mean both “spirit” and “mind,” depending on the context. Hegel uses it to refer to the collective consciousness of a society, in the sense that we might speak (following Hegel) of the spirit of the age. In both English and German, spirit can also mean a ghost, and it can be used to refer to religious phenomena as well. Both of these senses are relevant to Hegel’s use of the term because the collective dimension of consciousness—what we might call culture—is similarly intangible and mysterious. Spirit is located neither in objects nor in individual minds, but in a nonmaterial third realm that contains ideas that a whole society has in common.

Spirit does not exist from the earliest moments of human history but is instead a modern phenomenon toward which humanity had to evolve. According to the process outlined in Phenomenology of Spirit, human consciousness starts from a position of trying to grasp objects through sensory inputs and moves on to more sophisticated ways of relating to the external world, until it finally reaches the level of Spirit. At this stage, consciousness understands that individuals are bound to other individuals in a single communal consciousness, or culture. Spirit is the self-consciousness of the community, the whole of which individuals are only a part. As the consciousness of Spirit unfolds and changes, so do the values and actions of the individual parts of which it is made.

Popular pages: Selected Works of G.W.F. Hegel