Lecture Notes

Hegel's Doctrine of Spirit

October 19, 1995

The absolute idea, with which the science of logic is concerned, views reality as object. Equally important in Hegel's philosophy is the subjective side, the doctrine of spirit. It is spirit which knows itself in the absolute idea; that is, spirit discovers itself to be the real after an arduous process of development. In phenomenology, the development of spirit is viewed ahistorically, "logically," as it were, as a series of relationships between subject and object. In the philosophy of history, the development of in time is shown to lead to the same end: spirit's self-knowledge.

For our purposes, the three most important phases of the phenomenology of spirit are:

Spirit is the "truth" of the earlier phases. It is the end or telos toward which they move. (This holds for historical movement as well.)

Our readings from the Phenomenology are taken from the phase of self-consciousness, in which the subject seeks to overcome the opposition between subject and object. This attempt to abolish the "otherness of the other" is what Hegel calls desire. In its immediate phase, a subject sees an object as a subject and seeks to overcome its otherness through its destruction: a desire that is reciprocated. There ensues the "life-and-death struggle." The desire to kill the other cannot be fulfilled without the gravest risk to one's self, so willingness to engage in the struggle requires a disregard for one's own life. Merely continuing to exist ("mere absorption in the expanse of life") is no longer the aim of the subject. This allows the possibility of freedom, in that consciousness is engaged "in showing that it is fettered to no determinate existence, that it is not bound at all by the particularity everywhere characteristic of existence as such, and is not tied up with life." Yet this position is reversed when it is recognized that life is necessary for subjectivity. The life-and-death struggle thus ends in an unequal relation of victor to vanquished, of master to servant.

In a sense, the master has overcome the opposition of the servant, in that the servant carries out his will. In this way, the master finds himself in the other. Moreover, the master overcomes his alienation from objects. The servant makes them over according to his will, allowing the master to enjoy them as he wishes. On the side of the servant, the situation is quite different, for the servant loses himself in the master. He is also confronted by the object, on which he must work (since he cannot annihilate it). In the end, however, it is the servant who is able to find himself more profoundly than the master.

The reversal is that the master is the inessential member of the relationship, for he becomes dependent on the servant. (For a humorous illustration, see the "Jeeves" series by P. G. Wodehouse.) But the servant becomes master of the object on which he works and finds himself there. As with the life-and-death struggle, attainment of a higher mode of consciousness requires breaking free from the particularity of life. This is possible because the servant has felt abject fear at the feet of the master, which shakes "the entire content of its natural consciousness." Again, freedom is made possible, this time in the guise of "having a mind of one's own."

What has been attained through work is the shaping of the object according to forms of thought. And it is the elevation of thought or reason as a highest principle which is characteristic of the next phase, Stoicism. The ancient Stoics had sought a release from pain through the suppresion of desire by reason, which they called the "ruling part of the soul." In this way, they could become indifferent to the world. Hegel notes that this movement could take place only in a time of "universal fear and bondage." He also alludes to the fact that Stoicism transcendends the master/servant relation in that two of its greatest writers, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, were emporer and slave, respectively.

The recoginition of self-consciousness that it is rational is a great advance, but here it is only in its immediate, simplest form. The Stoic cannot say what the rational is, what is rational. They claimed that reasonableness is the criterion of truth, but such a criterion is formal and empty. The Skeptics, philosophical critics of the Stoics and others, turned reason against itself. They claimed that the attempt to render the world rational issues only in contradictions, and that judgment should be withheld in all cases. In this way, Hegel says, the Skeptics reject the world to which the Stoics only tried to be indifferent. They have come closer to the overall aim of abolishing "otherness" by arguing against our knowledge of the other.

As we might expect, this process also collapses of its own weight. For no argument can abolish the world. Life must be lived, and the Skeptics recognized this cold fact. Thus they acknowledged practical rules of conduct ("observe the local customs") to which they could give no theoretical justification. Opposition is not overcome after all; it is only swept under the rug.

Self-consciousness thus finds itself in an "unhappy" state. It seeks for the rational, the unchanging, the essential, but cannot find it. It acknowledges the non-rational, changing, inessential world around it, but it cannot understand that world through rational principles. This opposition is brought out in the notion of the Holy Trinity. God the Father is the distant unchanging essence, God the Son is the the essential as embodied in the world, and diverts the attention of self-consciousness from the essential to the historical. Finally, there is the hint of the reconciliation of the unchangeable and the finite in spirit, where self-consciousness recognizes itself. This foreshadows later developments, that the true relation between subject and object is to be found in the spiritual community.

Briefly, the highest forms of spirit are its production of art, religion and philosophy. In art, spirit finds expessions in sensuous forms. In religion, these forms take on a historical dimension, in the story of the salvation of humankind. In philosophy, the reconciliation of opposition takes place through conceptual thinking. Only here is absolute knowledge to be found.

We pass now to the historical dimension, spirit considered in time. As spirit is essentially rational, history is the progress of reason toward a comprehension of itself. Historical progress is described in an Aristotelian way as the passage from potential to actual, from acorn to oak. Hegel identified the rational and the real. Each stage of history is a stage in the realization of rationality.

The realization of the rational is also described as a passage toward greater and greater freedom. Hegel was careful to distinguish between freedom in the world-historical sense and freedom in the individual sense. In history, freedom is the recognition by spirit that the world is itself. It is realized through social institutions which embody rationality. In general, the individual plays only an accidental role in the development of spirit. Through its "cunning," reason exploits the passions of the individual, particularly through the "world-historical individual," such as a Napoleon.

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