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Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807) is one of G.W.F. Hegel's most important philosophical works. It is translated as The Phenomenology of Spirit or The Phenomenology of Mind due to the dual meaning in the German word [Geist. The book's working title, which also appeared in the first edition, was Science of the Experience of Consciousness. On its initial publication (see cover image on right), it was identified as Part One of a projected "System of Science", of which the Science of Logic was the second part. A smaller work, titled Philosophy of Spirit (also translated as "Philosophy of Mind"), appears in Hegel's Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, and recounts in briefer and somewhat altered form the major themes of the original Phenomenology.

It formed the basis of Hegel's later philosophy and marked a significant development in German idealism after Kant. Focusing on topics in metaphysics, epistemology, physics, ethics, history, religion, perception, consciousness, and political philosophy, The Phenomenology is where Hegel develops his concepts of dialectic (including the Master-slave dialectic), absolute idealism, ethical life, and Aufhebung. The book had a profound effect in Western philosophy, and "has been praised and blamed for the development of existentialism, communism, fascism, death of God theology, and historicist nihilism."[1]

In The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel takes the readers through the evolution of consciousness. In the work, the mind experiences different stages of consciousness. It begins with the lower levels of consciousness and concludes with the higher levels of consciousness.


The book consists of a Preface (written after the rest was completed), an Introduction, and six major divisions (of greatly varying size): Consciousness, Self-Consciousness, Reason, Spirit, Religion, and Absolute Knowledge. Most of these have further hierarchical subdivisions, and some versions of the book's table of contents also group the last four together as a single section on a level with the first two.

Due to its obscure nature and the many works by Hegel that followed its publication, even the structure or core theme of the book itself remains contested. First, Hegel wrote the book under close time constraints with little chance for revision (individual chapters were sent to the publisher before others were written). Furthermore, according to some readers, Hegel may have changed his conception of the project over the course of the writing. Secondly, the book abounds with both highly technical argument in philosophical language, and concrete examples, either imaginary or historical, of developments by people through different states of consciousness. The relationship between these is disputed: whether Hegel meant to prove claims about the development of world history, or simply used it for illustration; whether or not the more conventionally philosophical passages are meant to address specific historical and philosophical positions; and so forth.

Jean Hyppolite famously interpreted the work as a bildungsroman that follows the progression of its protagonist, Spirit, through the history of consciousness,[2] a characterization that remains prevalent among literary theorists. However, others contest this literary interpretation and instead read the work as a "self-conscious reflective account"[3] that a society must give of itself in order to understand itself and therefore become reflective. Martin Heidegger saw it as the foundation of a larger "System of Science" that Hegel sought to develop,[4] while Alexandre Kojève saw it as akin to a "Platonic Dialogue ... between the great Systems of history."[5] It has also been called "a philosophical rollercoaster ... with no more rhyme or reason for any particular transition than that it struck Hegel that such a transition might be fun or illuminating."[6]

The PrefaceEdit

The Preface to the Phenomenology, all by itself, is considered one of Hegel's major works and a major text in the history of philosophy, because in it he sets out the core of his philosophical method and what distinguishes it from that of any previous philosophy, especially that of his German Idealist predecessors (Kant, Fichte, and Schelling).

Hegel's approach, referred to as the Hegelian method, consists of actually examining consciousness' experience of both itself and of its objects and eliciting the contradictions and dynamic movement that come to light in looking at this experience. Hegel uses the phrase "pure looking at" (reines Zusehen) to describe this method. If consciousness just pays attention to what is actually present in itself and its relation to its objects, it will see that what looks like stable and fixed forms dissolve into a dialectical movement. Thus philosophy, according to Hegel, cannot just set out arguments based on a flow of deductive reasoning. Rather, it must look at actual consciousness, as it really exists.

Hegel also argues strongly against the epistemological emphasis of modern philosophy from Descartes through Kant, which he describes as having to first establish the nature and criteria of knowledge prior to actually knowing anything, because this would imply an infinite regress, a foundationalism that Hegel maintains is self-contradictory and impossible. Rather, he maintains, we must examine actual knowing as it occurs in real knowledge processes. This is why Hegel uses the term "phenomenology". "Phenomenology" comes from the Greek word for "to appear", and the phenomenology of mind is thus the study of how consciousness or mind appears to itself. In Hegel's dynamic system, it is the study of the successive appearances of the mind to itself, because on examination each one dissolves into a later, more comprehensive and integrated form or structure of mind.


Whereas the Preface was written after Hegel completed the Phenomenology, the Introduction was written beforehand. It covers much of the same ground, but from a somewhat different perspective.

In the Introduction, Hegel addresses the seeming paradox that we cannot evaluate our faculty of knowledge in terms of its ability to know the Absolute without first having a criterion for what the Absolute is, one that is superior to our knowledge of the Absolute. Yet, we could only have such a criterion if we already had the improved knowledge that we seek.

To resolve this paradox, Hegel adopts a method whereby the knowing that is characteristic of a particular stage of consciousness is evaluated using the criterion presupposed by consciousness itself. At each stage, consciousness knows something, and at the same time distinguishes the object of that knowledge as different from what it knows. Hegel and his readers will simply "look on" while consciousness compares its actual knowledge of the object—what the object is "for consciousness"—with its criterion for what the object must be "in itself". One would expect that, when consciousness finds that its knowledge does not agree with its object, consciousness would adjust its knowledge to conform to its object. However, in a characteristic reversal, Hegel explains that under his method, the opposite occurs.

As just noted, consciousness' criterion for what the object should be is not supplied externally, rather it is supplied by consciousness itself. Therefore, like its knowledge, the "object" that consciousness distinguishes from its knowledge is really just the object "for consciousness" - it is the object as envisioned by that stage of consciousness. Thus, in attempting to resolve the discord between knowledge and object, consciousness inevitably alters the object as well. In fact, the new "object" for consciousness is developed from consciousness' inadequate knowledge of the previous "object." Thus, what consciousness really does is to modify its "object" to conform to its knowledge. Then the cycle begins anew as consciousness attempts to examine what it knows about this new "object".

The reason for this reversal is that, for Hegel, the separation between consciousness and its object is no more real than consciousness' inadequate knowledge of that object. The knowledge is inadequate only because of that separation. At the end of the process, when the object has been fully "spiritualized" by successive cycles of consciousness' experience, consciousness will fully know the object and at the same time fully recognize that the object is none other than itself.

At each stage of development, Hegel, adds, "we" (Hegel and his readers) see this development of the new object out of the knowledge of the previous one, but the consciousness that we are observing does not. As far as it is concerned, it experiences the dissolution of its knowledge in a mass of contradictions, and the emergence of a new object for knowledge, without understanding how that new object has been born.


Consciousness is divided into three chapters: "Sense-Certainty", "Perception", and "Force and the Understanding."


Self-Consciousness contains a preliminary discussion of Life and Desire, followed by two subsections: "Independent and Dependent Self-Consciousness: Lordship and Bondage" and "Freedom of Self-Consciousness: Stoicism, Skepticism, and the Unhappy Consciousness." Notable is the presence of the discussion of the dialectic of the lord and bondsman.


Reason is divided into three chapters: "Observing Reason," "Actualization of Self-Consciousness," and "Individuality Real In and For Itself."


Spirit is divided into three chapters: "The Ethical Order," "Culture," and "Morality."


Religion is divided into three chapters: "Natural Religion," "Religion in the Form of Art," and "The Revealed Religion."


Arthur Schopenhauer criticized Phenomenology of Spirit as being characteristic of the vacuous verbiage he attributed to Hegel.[7]

Hegelian dialecticEdit

The famous dialectical process of thesis-antithesis-synthesis has been controversially attributed to Hegel.

Whoever looks for the stereotype of the allegedly Hegelian dialectic in Hegel's Phenomenology will not find it. What one does find on looking at the table of contents is a very decided preference for triadic arrangements. ... But these many triads are not presented or deduced by Hegel as so many theses, antitheses, and syntheses. It is not by means of any dialectic of that sort that his thought moves up the ladder to absolute knowledge.

Walter Kaufmann, Hegel: A Reinterpretation, § 37, Anchor Books, 1966

However, that does not mean that Hegel rejected a triadic process. Despite the popular misrepresentation of Hegel's triadic method which denies that Hegel used triads in his writings, Professor Howard Kainz (1996) affirms that there are "thousands of triads" in Hegel's writings.

However, instead of using the famous terminology that originated with Kant and was elaborated by J. G. Fichte, Hegel used an entirely different and more accurate terminology for dialectical (or as Hegel called them, 'speculative') triads.

Hegel used two different sets of terms for his triads, namely, abstract-negative-concrete (especially in his Phenomenology of 1807), as well as, immediate-mediate-concrete (especially in his Science of Logic of 1812), depending on the scope of his argumentation.

When one looks for these terms in his writings, one finds so many occurrences that it may become clear that Hegel employed the Kantian using a different terminology.

Hegel explained his change of terminology. The triad terms, 'abstract-negative-concrete' contain an implicit explanation for the flaws in Kant's terms. The first term, 'thesis,' deserves its anti-thesis simply because it is too abstract. The third term, 'synthesis,' has completed the triad, making it concrete and no longer abstract, by absorbing the negative.

Sometimes Hegel used the terms, immediate-mediate-concrete, to describe his triads. The most abstract concepts are those that present themselves to our consciousness immediately. For example, the notion of Pure Being for Hegel was the most abstract concept of all. The negative of this infinite abstraction would require an entire Encyclopedia, building category by category, dialectically, until it culminated in the category of Absolute Mind or Spirit (since the German word, 'Geist', can mean either 'Mind' or 'Spirit').

See alsoEdit


  1. Pinkard, Terry. Hegel's Phenomenology: the Sociality of Reason. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. 2
  2. Hyppolite, Jean; John Heckman (1979). Genesis and Structure of Hegel's "Phenomenology of Spirit", Samuel Cherniak (trans.), 609, Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press., 11-12
  3. Pinkard, Terry. Hegel's Phenomenology, 9
  4. Heidegger, Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit
  5. Alexander Kojeve, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, ch 1.
  6. Pinkard, Terry. Hegel's Phenomenology: the Sociality of Reason. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. 2
  7. "If, therefore, one is provided with sufficient audacity and is encouraged by the pitiable spirit of the times, one will hold forth somewhat as follows: 'It is not difficult to see that the manner of stating a proposition, of adducing grounds or reasons for it, and likewise of refuting its opposite through grounds or reasons, is not the form in which truth can appear. Truth is the movement of itself within itself', and so on. (Hegel, Preface to the Phenomenology of the Mind, p. lvii, in the complete edition, p.36 [§ 48]) I do not think that it is difficult to see that whoever puts forward anything like this is a shameless charlatan who wants to fool simpletons and observes that he has found his people in the Germans of the nineteenth century." (Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena, Volume 1, "Sketch of a History of the Doctrine of the Ideal and the Real," Appendix, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1974, ISBN 0-19-824508-4)

English translations of The Phenomenology of SpiritEdit

  • Phenomenology of Spirit, translated by A. V. Miller with analysis of the text and foreword by J. N. Findlay (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977) ISBN 0-19-824597-1
  • Phenomenology of Mind, translated by J. B. Baillie (London:Harper & Row, 1967)
  • Hegel's Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, translated with introduction, running commentary and notes by Yirmiyahu Yovel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004) ISBN 0-691-12052-8.
  • Texts and Commentary: Hegel's Preface to His System in a New Translation With Commentary on Facing Pages, and "Who Thinks Abstractly?", translated by Walter Kaufmann (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1977) ISBN 0-268-01069-2.
  • "Introduction", "The Phenomenology of Spirit", translated by Kenley R. Dove, in Martin Heidegger, "Hegel's Concept of Experience" (New York: Harper & Row, 1970)
  • "Sense-Certainty", Chapter I, "The Phenomenology of Spirit", translated by Kenley R. Dove, "The Philosophical Forum", Vol. 32, No 4
  • "Stoicism", Chapter IV, B, "The Phenomenology of Spirit", translated by Kenley R. Dove, "The Philosophical Forum", Vol. 37, No 3
  • "Absolute Knowing", Chapter VIII, "The Phenomenology of Spirit", translated by Kenley R. Dove, "The Philosophical Forum", Vol. 32, No 4
  • Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit: Selections Translated and Annotated by Howard P. Kainz. The Pennsylvania State University Press. ISBN 0-271-01076-2
  • Phenomenology of Spirit selections translated by Andrea Tschemplik and James H. Stam, in Steven M. Cahn, ed., Classics of Western Philosophy (Hackett, 2007).

"Hegel's Phenomenology of Self-consciousness: text and commentary" [A translation of Chapter IV of the Phenomenology, with accompanying essays and a translation of "Hegel's summary of self-consciousness from 'The Phenomenologgy of Spirit' in the Philosophical Propaedeutic"], by Leo Rauch and David Sherman. State University of New York Press, 1999.

Secondary literatureEdit

External linksEdit

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