Hegelís Phenomenology of Mind

G.W.F. Hegelís The Phenomenology of Mind (Phänomenologie des Geistes, 1807) is an extensive and wide-ranging investigation of how knowledge is obtained of absolute truth and of how spirit reveals itself as absolute reality. Hegel maintains that knowledge is not separated from, or external to, absolute reality, but that knowledge is itself reality, and that reality is mental and spiritual. For Hegel, reality is rational and logical. Reality is the conceptual totality of absolute mind and spirit. Knowledge reaches its goal when it arrives at the Absolute and when it no longer has to search beyond itself, because in the Absolute it finds itself.

According to Hegel, the Absolute is Spirit, and Spirit is Reality.1 All truth is within the Absolute. The Absolute has self-existence; i.e. it has being-for-itself. The Absolute results from a process of becoming and developing itself.

Hegel declares that the essential reality of that which has being-for-itself is not in an "other." The "other" is not essential to that which has being-for-itself. The essential reality of that which has being-for-itself (Fürsichsein) is self-existence. The Absolute is being in-and-for-itself (Anundfürsichsein), and it is thus an absolute negation of otherness.2

Hegel describes consciousness as developing through "moments" (stages) that include sense-certainty (sinnliche Gewissheit), perception (Wahrnehmung), and understanding (Verstand). Sense-certainty is an experience of the immediacy of sensation, which does not depend on either the subject or object. Perception is an awareness that an object is universal and unconditioned by sensation. Understanding is a recognition that the unconditioned universality (unbedingte Allgemeinheit) of the true object of consciousness transcends sensation and perception.

According to Hegel, the world of appearances is directly perceived, but the world of inherent being is not directly perceived. The "sensible" world is the antithesis of the "supersensible" world. But both worlds are aspects of the same reality.

Mind is absolute substance, and the concept of Mind is found by the self in self-consciousness. Self-consciousness may be in-itself, for-itself, or for-another. The self-consciousness that is in-itself is an object for itself, or for another. The self-consciousness that is for-itself is independent. The self-consciousness that is for-another is dependent.

Hegel likens the relation between independent and dependent self-consciousness to the relation between Lordship and Bondage (Herrschaft und Knechtschaft), or between Master and Slave (Herr und Knecht). The Master is independent of being determined by an "other." The Slave is dependent on being determined by an "other." The consciousness of the "other" is unessential to independent self-consciousness, but the consciousness of the "other" is a determining factor for dependent self-consciousness.

Self-consciousness (Selbstbewusstsein) has otherness (Anderssein) within itself insofar as the self is conscious of what is other than itself. But this "other" is unessential to self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is contradictory when it is conscious of both sameness and otherness. This divided mode of consciousness is called by Hegel the "unhappy consciousness" (das unglückliche Bewusstsein). When unity is not present between independent and dependent self-consciousness, the self is in conflict with itself. This "unhappy consciousness" is conscious of itself as being divided and as not being able to reconcile itself with the "other." On the other hand, the undivided consciousness is a dual self-consciousness that brings unity to the self and the "other."

Consciousness is described by Hegel as being both active and passive. Passivity can be sublated by activity. Activity can be sublated by passivity. According to Hegel, Force (Kraft) is a process that can move consciousness actively or passively. Force proper is the process whereby individual elements of consciousness are assembled into an undivided unity. On the other hand, the expression of Force may disperse individual elements into greater disunity. Force may have moments (stages) of expression or withdrawal.

The interplay of the two opposing moments of Force may be mediated by Understanding, which brings the two opposing moments into a single undivided unity. Thus, Force is the process that moves consciousness to an Understanding that unconditioned universality is the inner being of all things.3

Hegel describes Reason as self-consciousness, and self-consciousness as Reason. Self-consciousness becomes all reality, as the evolving dialectical triad of Intention (the thesis), Perception (the antithesis), and Understanding (the synthesis) demonstrates that otherness is not inherently real.4 Reason belongs to the Absolute, in that Reason is the conscious certainty of being all reality.5 The Absolute is a universal reality that is absolutely conscious of itself.

According to Hegel, all reality is Reason. Whatever is real is rational, and whatever is rational is real. The reality of Reason has a universal necessity. Whatever is irrational cannot have a conscious certainty of its own reality.

Reason is also seen in the unfolding of the World-Spirit (Weltgeist). Reason is aware of itself as spirit and of spirit as real. The World-Spirit determines its own reality as it develops into self-consciousness. Reason is a unity of self and other, of subjectivity and objectivity, of being-for-itself and being-in-itself. Reason is aware of itself as the ethical world (die sinnliche Welt), and it is also a lawgiver for the world of reality.

The separation between the self and the "other," developing when the self becomes its own object and becomes an "other" to itself, is described by Hegel as a factor of negativity. The transcendence of this otherness is the attainment of a unified knowledge of substance as spirit, which is the completion of the Phenomenology of Mind.

Negativity is a process whereby the self maintains itself within itself, determining itself as an inoperative unity.6 Negativity is self-existence in otherness. On the other hand, freedom of self-existence is a capacity to establish relationships with other selves in an operative unity.

Hegel declares that self-consciousness is an essential reality to itself as individual Mind.7 Self-consciousness is aware of itself as essentially real and as expressing its own individuality. Thus, the ethical world establishes the absolute spiritual unity of individuals in their independent reality.8

Hegel argues that, although pure individuality may be the anthithesis of pure universality, the self in its "heart" may feel their immediate unity. The self may realize that self-existence is necessary and universal. Thus, the "law of the heart" (das Gesetz des Herzens) produces a "universal individuality." The World Process (Weltprozess) is, by nature, real and universal, but individuality is the actualization of this universal reality.

Self-existence is a unity of self and existence. Spirit is also this unity, in that it is universal essence and substance. Spirit is self, self-existence, and action. Spirit is the self of self-consciousness, which has sense-certainty, perception, and understanding.

Self-consciousness may renounce its self-existence and thereby establish its own universality. The universality of self-consciousness is also its validity and actuality. Thus, spirit is an ethical actuality. The truth of spirit is actualized in the ethical world. Absolute Spirit is revealed by conscious ethical activity.

Hegel distinguishes between Insight (Einsicht) and Belief (Glauben). Belief is pure consciousness of spirit as the essentially real, while pure insight is the self-consciousness of spirit as the essentially real.9 Hegel contends that pure insight is without content, in that it is a consciousness of the undivided unity of spirit. Belief, on the other hand, has a content, but is without insight into the world of actuality.

Belief and Insight are related to each other in the Phenomenology of Mind. Belief may be an opposing object for pure insight. Belief may be transformed into pure insight. Pure insight is the spirit that tells consciousness that it is essentially rational.10

Hegel declares that enlightenment (Aufklärung) is an expansion or universalization of pure insight. Pure insight is a unity of subjectivity and objectivity, because consciousness becomes aware of itself as a mediating process between subject and object. Pure insight becomes enlightenment, or consciousness of absolute Being.

Hegel explains that sense-certainty is an insight into the nothingness of whatever is beyond sensory experience.11 This nothingness is a negative truth, while sensory experience itself is a positive truth. These two moments of the truth of enlightenment may be followed by a third moment of truth, which reveals that insight transcends itself as particular or finite, and that the facts of sensory experience can be related positively to the Absolute, attaining unity with its ultimate reality. Insight is thus a process of recognizing the contradiction between moments of belief.

Consciousness may have moments (stages or factors) of being-in-itself, being-for-another, and being-for-itself. The transitory nature of these moments may be transcended by the process of pure insight, which reveals the unity of the Absolute as conscious reality.

Consciousness as being-in-itself may become being-for-another, in that it may be an object of perception for another self. The moments of consciousness may take the form of "notions" (concepts) of modes of Being. Being-for-another returns to the mode of being-in-itself when consciousness becomes itself as the essential being of all reality.12

Hegel defines Absolute Freedom as a mode of consciousness that clearly comprehends that essential being and concrete actuality are found in the knowledge that consciousness has of itself.13 Absolute Freedom leads to the opportunity for moral action.

Moral consciousness (moralische Bewusstsein) is a sense of duty as essential reality. Moral consciousness sees itself as realized in the fulfillment of duty (Pflicht). Hegel argues that, insofar as consciousness is rational, it is also moral. Whatever is moral is rational. Moral action is real, insofar as it fulfills duty. According to Hegel, the essence of moral action is pure duty.

Hegel says that Dissemblance (Verstellung) is a separation of the inherent being of moral consciousness from the self, but that Conscience (Gewissen) is a mode of spirit that is certain of itself as absolute truth and objective being.14 Moral consciousness thus becomes concrete moral spirit that does not make an abstract standard out of duty but makes duty an objective reality. Duty is the immanent principle of what is right, and duty is also the knowledge that is required for moral action.

Hegel views Religion as a consciousness of Absolute Being (absolute Wesen). Absolute Being is the self-consciousness of spirit.15 Religion is a consciousness of spirit in its totality. Religion in its determinate forms is an actualization of spirit of a specific character. Hegel says that there are three main forms of Religion: 1) Natural Religion, in which spirit knows itself as its object in a "natural" or immediate shape; 2) Religion in the form of Art, in which the shape that spirit takes is a form of self through the productive activity of consciousness; and 3) Revealed Religion, in which spirit is presented in-and-for-itself as a unity of its actual shape and true form of self.16

Religion is a form of consciousness in which spirit is revealed to itself. Religious consciousness is an awareness of the unity of Being and Thought, of Mind and Spirit.

According to Hegel, absolute knowledge (absolute Wissen) is spirit that gives its content the form of self. When spirit is absolute knowledge, its content is knowledge of the action of self. Absolute knowledge is spirit that realizes its own self-concept of spirit.

Hegelís Phenomenology of Mind is remarkable for the breadth and profundity of its philosophical insight, the range and power of its moral vision, and the unity and depth of its spirituality. For Hegel, spirituality produces the ethical life of the world. Spiritual individualities are unifying forms of the ethical world. The conscious activity by which individual forms of spirit return to the self of spirit is the process by which Absolute Spirit becomes itself and has its reality.


1G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenolgy of Mind, translated by J.B. Baillie, New York: Harper & Row, 1967, p. 86.
2Ibid., p. 174.
3Ibid., p. 185.
4Ibid., p. 274.
5Ibid., p. 276.
6Ibid., p. 318.
7Ibid., p. 381.
8Ibid., p. 375.
9Ibid., p. 556.
10Ibid., p. 558.
11Ibid., p. 577.
12Ibid., p. 600.
13Ibid., p. 600.
14Ibid., p. 644.
15Ibid., p. 685.
16Ibid., p. 694.


G.W.F. Hegel. The Phenomenology of Mind. Translated by J.B. Baillie. New York: Harper & Row, 1967.

Review by Alex Scott

visit my blog

home page