The Phenomenology of Spirit

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The Phenomenology of Spirit
Phänomenologie des Geistes.jpg
Author Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Original title Phänomenologie des Geistes
Country Germany
Language German
Subject Philosophy
Published 1807
Media type Print

Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807) is Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's most important and widely discussed philosophical work. Hegel's first book, it describes the three-stage dialectical life of Spirit. The title can be translated as either The Phenomenology of Spirit or The Phenomenology of Mind, because the German word Geist has both meanings. 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.

Phenomenology was 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]

Historical context[edit]

Hegel was putting the finishing touches to this book as Napoleon engaged Prussian troops on October 14, 1806, in the Battle of Jena on a plateau outside the city. On the day before the battle, Napoleon entered the city of Jena. Hegel recounted his impressions in a letter to his friend Friedrich Immanuel Niethammer:

I saw the Emperor – this world-soul – riding out of the city on reconnaissance. It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it . . . this extraordinary man, whom it is impossible not to admire.

Pinkard notes that Hegel's comment to Niethammer "is all the more striking since at that point he had already composed the crucial section of the Phenomenology in which he remarked that the Revolution had now officially passed to another land (Germany) that would complete 'in thought' what the Revolution had only partially accomplished in practice."[2]


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,[3] 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"[4] 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,[5] while Alexandre Kojève saw it as akin to a "Platonic Dialogue ... between the great Systems of history."[6] 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."[7]

The Preface[edit]

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.

A quote from the Preface:

Now, because the systematic statement of the mind’s experience embraces merely its ways of appearing, it may well seem that the advance from that to the science of ultimate truth in the form of truth is merely negative; and we might readily be content to dispense with the negative process as something altogether false, and might ask to be taken straight to the truth at once: why meddle with what is false at all? The point formerly raised, that we should have begun with science at once, may be answered here by considering the character of negativity in general regarded as something false. The usual ideas on this subject particularly obstruct the approach to the truth. The consideration of this point will give us an opportunity to speak about mathematical knowledge, which non-philosophical knowledge looks upon as the ideal which philosophy ought to try to attain, but has so far striven in vain to reach. Truth and falsehood as commonly understood belong to those sharply defined ideas which claim a completely fixed nature of their own, one standing in solid isolation on this side, the other on that, without any community between them. Against that view it must be pointed out, that truth is not like stamped coin that is issued ready from the mint and so can be taken up and used. Nor, again, is there something false, any more than there is something evil. Evil and falsehood are indeed not so bad as the devil, for in the form of the devil they get the length of being particular subjects; qua false and evil they are merely universals, though they have a nature of their own with reference to one another. Falsity (that is what we are dealing with here) would be otherness, the negative aspect of the substance, which [substance], qua content of knowledge, is truth. But the substance is itself essentially the negative element, partly as involving distinction and determination of content, partly as being a process of distinguishing pure and simple, i.e. as being self and knowledge in general. Doubtless we can know in a way that is false. To know something falsely means that knowledge is not adequate to, is not on equal terms with, its substance. Yet this very dissimilarity is the process of distinction in general, the essential moment in knowing. It is, in fact, out of this active distinction that its harmonious unity arises, and this identity, when arrived at, is truth. But it is not truth in a sense which would involve the rejection of the discordance, the diversity, like dross from pure metal; nor, again, does truth remain detached from diversity, like a finished article from the instrument that shapes it. Difference itself continues to be an immediate element within truth as such, in the form of the principle of negation, in the form of the activity of Self.


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" (das unglückliche Bewußtsein).[8] 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."

Absolute Knowledge[edit]

Phenomenology’s final chapter is titled “Absolute Knowing” (Miller translation) or “Absolute Knowledge” (Baillie translation, which uses better English). “Absolute” is a philosophical term referring to anything regarded as fundamental to reality. The American Heritage College Dictionary offers this philosophy-based definition: “something regarded as the ultimate basis of all thought and being.”

Hegelian dialectic[edit]

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

Regardless of (ongoing) academic controversy regarding the significance of a unique dialectical method in Hegel's writings, it is true, as Professor Howard Kainz (1996) affirms, that there are "thousands of triads" in Hegel's writings. Importantly, 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').


Arthur Schopenhauer criticized Phenomenology of Spirit as being characteristic of the vacuous verbiage he attributed to Hegel.[9]

Walter Kaufmann, on the question of organisation argued that Hegel's arrangement "over half a century before Darwin published his On the Origin of Species and impressed the idea of evolution on almost everybody's mind" was developmental.[10] The idea is supremely suggestive but in the end, untenable according to Kaufmann: "The idea of arranging all significant points of view in such a single sequence, on a ladder that reaches from the crudest to the most mature, is as dazzling to contemplate as it is mad to try seriously to implement it".[11] While Kaufmann viewed Hegel as right in seeing that the way a view is reached is not necessarily external to the view itself; since on the contrary a knowledge of the development, including the prior positions, through which a human being passed before adopting a position may make all the difference when it comes to comprehending his or her position, some aspects of the conception are still somewhat absurd and some of the details bizarre.[12] Kaufmann also remarks that the very table of contents of the Phenomenology may be said to 'mirror confusion' and that "faults are so easy to find in it that it is not worth while to adduce heaps of them." However, he excuses Hegel since he understands that the author of the Phenomenology "finished the book under an immense strain".[13]


The work is usually abbreviated as PdG (Phänomenologie des Geistes), followed by the pagination or paragraph number of the German original edition. It is also abbreviated as PS (The Phenomenology of Spirit) or as PM (The Phenomenology of Mind), followed by the pagination or paragraph number of the English translation used by each author.

English translations[edit]

  • 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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Pinkard, Terry. Hegel's Phenomenology: the Sociality of Reason. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. 2
  2. ^ Pinkard, Terry (2001). Hegel. A Biography. Cambridge University Press. pp. 228–9. ISBN 978-0-52100-387-2. ISBN 0-52100387-3. 
  3. ^ Hyppolite, Jean; John Heckman (1979). Genesis and Structure of Hegel's "Phenomenology of Spirit". Samuel Cherniak (trans.). Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press. p. 609. ISBN 0-8101-0594-2. , 11-12
  4. ^ Pinkard, Terry. Hegel's Phenomenology, 9
  5. ^ Heidegger, Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit
  6. ^ Alexander Kojeve, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, ch 1.
  7. ^ Pinkard, Terry. Hegel's Phenomenology: the Sociality of Reason. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. 2
  8. ^ Russon, John Edward (2004). Reading Hegel's Phenomenology. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. p. 96. ISBN 978-0-253-21692-2. ISBN 0-25321692-3. 
  9. ^ "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)
  10. ^ Kaufmann, 1966, Hegel A Reinterpretation, p.132
  11. ^ W. Kaufmann, 1966, p.133
  12. ^ W. Kaufmann, 1966, p. 133
  13. ^ W. Kaufmann, 1966, p. 136

Secondary literature[edit]

External links[edit]

Electronic versions of the English translation of Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind are available at:

Detailed audio commentary by an academic: