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Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit deals, in part, with the nature of consciousness. More specifically, it examines the so-called division between the subject and object, or the individual and the world. Hegel contends that there is, in fact, no difference between these two things. He argues that consciousness of objects as something external to ourselves is an illusion, and that all consciousness is ultimately of the self. We effectively create the world for ourselves; our capacity to reason is what determines reality for us. The intentionality of our consciousness is such that we do not simply take the world in through our perceptive faculties; instead, we see the external world and its objects as something. For instance, we look at mountains as something to climb and we look at a beautiful sight as something to paint and thus make it into a lasting work of art. We appropriate the world around us and turn the objects we encounter into things that are ours - they make sense and are useful and accessible to us. I will here discuss how Hegel sees self-consciousness and consciousness of the external world as two parts of a whole.

The two parts of this whole find themselves in self-consciousness; that is, the individual consciousness. First, the individual becomes conscious of his own existence - this is basic self awareness. Then, self-consciousness turns outward to the world of objects. It meets myriad objects which it takes upon itself as “this” thing or “that” thing (i.e. the mountain is the thing which is there to be climbed or traversed). Finally, the conscious agent realizes that the world it has been encountering and appropriating into its consciousness is its own activity. Therefore, there is no difference between the subjective consciousness and consciousness of the object. Also, in true dialectical fashion, it consists of three stages: self consciousness (immediate, particular consciousness and knowledge), consciousness of the object (or reason) and absolute consciousness (or understanding). The development from stage to stage ends up being circular; consciousness arrives at its final conclusion (understanding or Spirit) only to find itself where it thought there was something other than it. The famous image of the “veil of illusion” being pulled away from the world to find ourselves behind it all comes from this dialectical development. In chapter III of the Phenomenology, Hegel describes it in this way:

Raised above perception, consciousness exhibits itself closed in a unity with the supersensible world through the mediating term of appearance, though which it gazes into this background (lying behind appearance). The two extremes (of this syllogism), the one, of the pure inner world, the other, that of the inner being gazing into this pure inner world, have now coincided, and just as they, qua extremes, have vanished, so too the middle term, as something other than these extremes, has also vanished. This curtain (of appearance) hanging before the inner world is therefore drawn away, and we have the inner being (the ‘I’) gazing into the inner world - the vision of undifferentiated selfsame being, which repels itself from itself, posits itself as an inner being containing different moments, but for which equally these moments are immediately not different - self-consciousness1
The two “extremes of this syllogism” are, of course, self-consciousness and consciousness of the object. Hegel is saying that as consciousness moves from simply perceiving sense world objects to understanding them, it becomes aware of itself in those objects, and the difference collapses. In the end, there is no difference left, and the rational agent is conscious of itself and the world it moves through. This consciousness is unified, and it moves seamlessly back and forth between contemplating the self and contemplating the outside world. This gap is overcome by activity; merely perceiving the world is simply knowing there to be something other than oneself. It is not until one acts with intention and willing determination that one can move toward true understanding. Thus (to bring back the mountain analogy), to recognize the mountain as something to climb, (as opposed to just recognizing that there is an object external to oneself) involves an intent. It may perhaps be that we identify the mountain this way with the intent of climbing it ourselves, or we may just be recognizing the possibility. In the second case, we are still engaging in an act of determination, which opens up a theoretical possibility for us and makes the mountain something for us.

Of course, the primary tool that consciousness uses to make the journey is reason. Hegel posits reason as the most important faculty that humans possess in arriving at the unity between the self and the world. “Reason is the certainty of consciousness that it is all reality; thus does idealism express its Notion.”2 This, it seems to me, can be taken in two different ways. First, “the certainty of consciousness that it is all reality” resonates with the skeptic’s belief that the subject actually is everything. We can see Fichte’s account of this in Book Two of his The Vocation of Man. For Hegel, this is not acceptable; it throws everything into the side of the subject (including the object) without working toward the appropriate conclusion: the unification of the subject and the object (not just the passing of the object into the subject). The second way of looking at reason as it is described in this passage is that “the certainty of consciousness” has arisen from going through the stages of dialectical development to end up at the understanding that consciousness is consciousness of the object world as well as self-consciousness (pure awareness of the subject). The first interpretation is nothing but skepticism - it is a lopsided view that Hegel finds to be too positive. “The idealism,” he writes, “that does not demonstrate that path but starts off with this assertion is therefore, too, a pure assertion which does not comprehend its own self”3. In other words, it posits the subject as being the seat of all reality, but its manner of doing so causes a dead end to be reached. The second interpretation is more in line with Hegel’s assertion that

self-consciousness is all reality, not merely for itself but in itself, only through becoming this reality, or rather through demonstrating itself to be such. It demonstrates itself to be along the path in which first, in the dialectic movement of ‘meaning’, perceiving and understanding, otherness as an intrinsic being vanishes4

The importance of rational activity comes through loud and clear right here. Self-consciousness must demonstrate, not simply assert and accept the conclusion that it is all reality. A relationship between the subject and object must be fully conceived for understanding to appear; there must be activity, not just assertions.

Two crucial aspects of this relationship are negativity and reciprocity. The original awareness of the self arises from the awareness of a negativity. When one makes the initial discovery that there is something external to it, that resists its touch and inquiry, an opposition is set up. This opposition is the subject - object division. It is a very basic separation, at first based in nothing but the lowest form of sensation. In it, the subject and the object negate one another as a result of their differences and the division between them. Looking at the skeptical formulation, we can only see a negation in the form of total negation: nothing exists save for the subject. In Hegel’s terms, though, negation is a reciprocal thing:

when ... the result is conceived as it is in truth, namely, as a determinate negation, a new form has thereby immediately arisen, and in the negation the transition is made through which the progress through the complete series of forms comes about of itself5

The reciprocity is such that both the subject and the object have content; this content is revealed in the relation between the two terms. They mean something to each other. In other words, the world of objects is something for and to self-consciousness, and self-consciousness is that which opens up the sense world. So, each one needs the other in order to have definition and some sort of certainty.

As the self-conscious individual develops, the opposition also becomes more complex and defined. Desire plays an important role here: the subjective consciousness becomes aware of a certain lack. The individual desires to possess, to conquer, to appropriate. He or she has direction and purpose in the world, and this purpose is oriented toward the world of objects. Simply put, the pursuit of pleasure and satisfaction drives us to engage the world - but in this form, we engage the world as its other. As our other, the world presents objects and experiences that we believe exist prior to us. In this way, we are limited in moving toward Absolute Knowledge, because we are still concerned with immediate desires and necessities; however, we are still moving toward it. It is possible to move beyond this desire and immediacy, which Hegel calls the Unhappy Consciousness.

As we are moving toward a deeper understanding of objects, reciprocity demands that a deeper understanding of ourselves and our own minds must emerge. Eventually, we will come to understand that the world remains nameless and faceless without our being in it. If no rational agents were to exist, the concept of a mountain as something would not exist either. It is precisely the rational agent that brings the world out of the things it encounters and engages; it brings the world out of objects and into itself. Also, says Hegel, in “grasping the thought that the single individual consciousness is in itself Absolute Essence, consciousness has returned into itself.”6 The total premise and end result here is this: that the individual consciousness is unified with and at the bottom of the world it experiences. The realization of this causes the distinctions to collapse and understanding to arise. The way Hegel applies this to world history is fascinating; if a culture made up of myriad outlooks can come to understand the outlooks of many cultures that have existed in history, then Absolute Knowledge can truly be arrived at. This would be a grand unification of mind and world.

Hegel’s ideas are compelling. If we take this argument as it is applied to the individual, we can see it as a possible defeat of Kant’s argument that we can never bridge the gap between the individual and the world. Also, insofar as it deals with individuals making the world their own, we can postulate a proto-existentialist argument here. Hegel only deals with the subject as such, yes, but proposing that an individual’s rational faculties essential define reality can be directed toward that sort of theme. Reading Hegel on this level alone can provide us with interesting ideas, even if we do not entirely agree with his theory of world history.


1-6 are taken from Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit

September 26, 2004: I was just looking this over for the first time in a while, and I just noticed that this essay is pretty WRONG. I can't imagine supporting a Hegelian position now. I mean, I wasn't even a die-hard Hegel fan at that point, but even this ammount of affirmative talk about Hegel is almost unrecognizable to me. It's funny how that happens.

February 13, 2005: Actually, it's not all that wrong. For instance, "If no rational agents were to exist, the concept of a mountain as something would not exist either. It is precisely the rational agent that brings the world out of the things it encounters and engages; it brings the world out of objects and into itself" isn't entirely askew. I would perhaps change my wording slightly here; for instance, I do not think that the world is "in" things and waiting to be brought out as though "things" have hidden secrets. I do, however, think that without humans, concepts as we know them would at least be irrelevant and at most be non-existent. This certainly follows in many writers that I am currently studying, such as Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and someone more contemporary, like Donald Davidson. I do not agree with the notion that Hegel's approach has undermined Kant's, but not because I think there is a gap between subject and object. Rather, I think that Kant advocates a healthy degree of respect for the limits of our certainty; Hegel cannot efface that. Re-reading this writeup also makes me think about looking at the relationship between Hegel and Heidegger. Perhaps I'll do some reading and node it soonish.

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