Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was born in Stuttgart, Germany in 1770. He was a bright child who excelled at his studies from an early age. At 13, his mother contracted a “bilious fever,” which she transmitted to both Hegel and his father. While she succumbed to the illness, the two men narrowly survived.
As a young man, Hegel went to seminary school and earned a certificate in theology. He spent his life occupying various tutoring and university positions and wrote in his free time. In November of 1831 Hegel died of cholera after an epidemic had broken out earlier that year. Legend has it that he uttered, “and he didn’t understand me!” just before he expired.
Hegel’s last words are fitting given his reputation as a notoriously difficult thinker to understand. Part of the reason for this difficulty is his dialectical approach to philosophy in which knowledge is developed through opposition.
Dialectics is a discursive tradition that dates back at least to Socrates, who approaches his conversations by establishing a topic, then asking his interlocutor to assert some thesis about it, and finally exposing the flaws in that thesis. In The Republic, Plato depicts Socrates discoursing with a character named Cephalon about justice. Cephalon asserts that justice “consists of telling the truth and paying one’s debts.” Socrates counters that it is not just to repay one’s debts if doing so causes harm, such as if someone returned a borrowed weapon to a person who had gone mad. By employing the dialectical method, Socrates reduces his interlocutors to aporia, or confusion by invalidating what they thought they knew. Socrates’ use of the dialectical method typically generated negative knowledge, or knowledge of “what is not.”
Hegel’s dialectic unfolds a bit differently. Its structure is triadic, consisting of three moments commonly represented as thesis → antithesis → synthesis, although Hegel did not use these terms. Instead, he describes it as abstract → negative → concrete.
At the beginning of each dialectic, a proposition is made that seems to offer knowledge. However, upon investigation, the proposition is discovered to possess internal contradictions and is consequently negated. Yet this negation is of a special type, which cancels out but simultaneously preserves the original claim. Hegel calls this phenomenon aufheben, or sublation.
Sublation permits a third moment to emerge in which both the abstract concept and its negation are situated in a new context that allows the two to coexist in a more concrete form. As Hegel puts it, “a new concept but one higher and richer than the preceding.” Hegel’s use of the dialectical method therefore overcomes skepticism and generates positive knowledge, or knowledge of “what is.”
Hegel’s dialectic is most famously applied to his being → nothing → becoming triad. It begins with the concept of being, which denotes existence, or is-ness. This conception, however, is quickly destabilized. By examining pure being (i.e. being without reference to anything else), we realize that it is devoid of any particular content; being, taken in itself, does not tell us what kinds of beings there are, or what they’re like. Being is therefore negated, and passes into its opposite, nothing.
But the concept of nothing is equally problematic. It suggests an absence — in the case of pure being, an absence of any determinate content. Yet nothing’s existence as a concept suggests a presence: by identifying nothing, one acknowledges it as a something.
Having shown these concepts to be insufficient in themselves, Hegel establishes a new context, “becoming,” which incorporates both of them as moments: being and nothing are passed into and out of in the process of becoming.
In his infamous Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel applies his dialectical method to consciousness, tracing its evolution through its various stages.
Hegel alleges that the first stage of consciousness, sense-certainty, experiences objects as “singulars” whose being is conveyed by sensory data. For instance, I see a tree in my field of vision and reckon that it exists.
But Hegel, a la Kant, suggests that our awareness of singulars requires an awareness of general concepts. For example:
• Recognizing a singular object requires the concept of “this-ness.”
• Identifying a singular location requires the concept of “here-ness.”
• Conceiving of a singular time requires the concept of “now-ness.”
The tension in sense-certainty is that these objects unstably represent their concepts. As Hegel says, the “now” is at one time night and at another time not night at all, but day. Similarly, the “here” can be a house or a tree or any number of locations depending on where someone is and what they’re pointing to.
The next stage of consciousness, perception, comes to appreciate these concepts, or “universals,” and how particular objects instantiate them.
It also grapples with the issue of how an object, such as salt, can possess distinct properties — tartness, cubicalness, whiteness — yet cohere as one entity.
To resolve this, Hegel identifies additional concepts that perception grasps hold of, such as the “also,” which allows multiple properties coexist in an object, and the “insofar,” which allows an object’s properties to be distinguished from one another yet contextualized in the object as a One.
How does consciousness conceive of this One? The One is a set of unified properties that stands in opposition to other Ones. It is therefore ostensibly a thing-for-itself, or a thing that excludes all otherness.
Upon further examination, however, all Ones hold certain aspects in common. Firstly, all Ones share the property of unity. Secondly, all Ones share the property of not being another One. These two shared properties suggest that the nature of a One is not wholly separate as initially thought. The distinction between being-for-itself and being-for-another is consequently sublated.
Hegel calls into question more of what we thought we knew. Perception’s rendering of an object’s truth as its universal is shown to be inadequate: just as particulars require universal concepts, so too do universal concepts require particulars. For example, without actual salt, “saltiness” has no reference point and becomes unintelligible. Neither particularity nor universality are thus on their own sufficient ways for consciousness to mentally grasp objects.
In Part A’s final section, Hegel attempts to reconcile this impasse via the “understanding,” which experiences apparent contradictions — singular vs. universal, for-itself vs. for another, one vs. many — as moments within a process that occur “not only alongside each other but…in one unity.”
Hegel calls this process “the mediating middle” and illustrates it using the concept of force. Think of force as Newton’s Third Law: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Hegel draws attention to the fact that while we commonly think of force as consisting of two forces — the “solicitor” and the “solicited” — the reality is that each force occupies both roles at different times: by soliciting and then receiving a push back, the solicitor becomes the solicited; by pushing back, the solicited becomes the solicitor.
We thereby arrive at the understanding stage of consciousness as a unifier of difference. But consciousness still has a long way to go. Understanding has merely set the scene for the next phase of consciousness: self-consciousness. The passage, found in Phenomenology of Spirit’s “Self-Consciousness” chapter, marks a dramatic step in the evolution of Hegel’s protagonist, consciousness.
At Phenomenology of Spirit’s start, consciousness is understood as sense-certainty, or the immediacy of encountering something and reckoning that it’s there.
But how sense-certainty claims to know a singular object — that it is this object, located here, existing now — is not unique to that object; all objects are a this, a here, and a now when encountered by consciousness.
This recognition transitions consciousness to its next phase, perception, which identifies objects as representations of universal qualities.
Recall Hegel’s dialectic: thesis → antithesis → synthesis. In the case of consciousness, the thesis, that consciousness senses singularities, is negated by the antithesis, that consciousness perceives universals.
But this is not the end. Owing to Hegel’s concept of sublation, the original thesis is simultaneously canceled out and preserved. For consciousness, a universal cannot exist without a singular instantiating it. In other words, consciousness cannot conceive of concepts (e.g. this, here, now) without examples of them. Singularity is thus preserved in a new context in which it and universality are synthesized as moments within a single process. Hegel dubs this the third phase of consciousness understanding.
At this point, a new question arises: who is doing the understanding? Consciousness, being aware of this process, wonders who is behind it. It is in this query that consciousness first recognizes itself, both as a subject (i.e. an “I”) and as an object (i.e. a self-consciousness). Hegel views this as “the motionless tautology of I am I.” Nonetheless, in an attempt to unify itself with itself, consciousness undergoes an important development — that of desire.
This desire quickly leads to violence when one self-consciousness encounters another. Each self-consciousness seeks to assert itself in the world and views the other as an obstacle to its subjectivity and freedom. As a result, the two engage in what Hegel calls “a struggle to the death.”
The upshot is that one self-consciousness, fearing death, submits, and is relegated to the position of a slave; the other, having braved death, dominates, and is elevated to the position of master.
Initially, it appears as though the master and the slave have respectively gained and lost their personhood; the master is now a fully independent subject while the slave has become merely one of the master’s objects.
However, certain complications emerge. Firstly, an object cannot recognize a subject, which means that the master lacks external recognition. Secondly, while slavery implies “being for another,” the slave nevertheless experiences his state of enslavement, and therefore retains some degree of subjectivity. Thirdly, and crucially, the slave begins to recognize himself in the goods he produces; it is through his labor that, for example, seeds and soil are made into crops or trees and stone into dwellings. The slave’s being is thus reflected in the world. On the contrary, the master, who undertakes no work but instead relies on the slave, produces nothing for himself, and therefore has no outward confirmation of his being.
Again, Hegel’s dialectic manifests itself. The thesis that the master secures a higher self-consciousness is negated by the antithesis that the slave externalizes himself in the world while the master does not. The synthesis lies in the fact that the slave, despite his formative work, is still a slave, and therefore remains trapped in his objectivity. One may draw the conclusion that, ultimately, neither being can achieve full self-consciousness; for that, a non-hierarchical social relation is needed.
This resultant “unhappy consciousness” and its struggle for recognition is responsible for the development of religion, which allows the unhappy consciousness to comfort itself in its unstable being by embracing the idea that there is an entity — God — that exists as true being for-itself.
Religion is one of many cultural institutions that fosters Geist, or spirit. Geist/spirit is a collective consciousness that causes individuals in a given place and time to share an interpretation of the world. In Hegel’s words, “One approaches the world through a common mind.” According to Hegel, the nature of consciousness is not eternally fixed but rather an evolving phenomena that changes with the current historical and cultural moment (Hegel calls the “organized social whole.”). Society’s customs, norms, beliefs, laws etc. inform everything from how we enjoy art to the way we reason to what we understand as moral.
With regard to the latter, Hegel holds that social life is indispensable as a moral prophylactic. He warns that Enlightenment’s emphasis on individualism turns people away from social being and estranges them from their moral impulses, rendering humanity susceptible to despotism and political terrorism.
But Hegel is optimistic about the ultimate fate of consciousness, which he calls Absolute Knowing. Absolute Knowing is the highest stage of consciousness in which consciousness engages with reality and grasps the objective truth of Geist/Spirit. As a result, consciousness recognizes the underlying unity among ostensibly separate consciousnesses and dissolves its conceptual division between the individual and the collective, thus completing its conceptual journey.