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Is the Phenomenology needed or recomended as introduction to Hegels System

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This text was first written by Kai Froeb for the Hegel-Intro list in December 2005. He explained his motivation for this text like this:

Given the relative weight Hegel's 1806/07 book "Phänomenologie des Geistes" (in English: "Phenomenology of Spirit" or "Phenomenology of Mind" (in German, "Geist" means both spirit and mind), in the following text usually abbreviated as "Phenomenology") is given in the Anglo-American and French reception of Hegel, my vote is indeed for lowering the relative importance of the "Phenomenology" in favor of the works of the post-Jena period (which especially include the "Science of Logic" and the "Encyclopedia of Philosophical Science", but also the complete mature system, including the various lectures).

The "Phenomenology of Spirit" is a "ladder". Its main reason for being is a critical one: Philosophy does not start out of the blue, but instead has a given world as its starting point, with given worldviews. So one needs to start with these and examine and criticize them.

Therefore, you will find that also later in his books and lectures, Hegel devotes the significant part of his Forewords to sorting out misconceptions about his subject before he begins discussing his subject (because such misconception can very effectively block your understanding).

Instead of going through the complete "Phenomenology", Hegel later chose to give a shortened critique (and often one more specific to his respective subjects) as a starting point for his lectures and books.

This is insofar appropriate as the contents of his books and lectures are already in themselves an implicit and often also an explicit critique of alternate conceptions and on top, you otherwise would never come to the "real meat", because you would always be occupied with the Preface.

When people read through the "Phenomenology of Spirit" as a Foreword to the later system, as a tool to free their minds from misconceptions, as a precondition to a scientific approach to the complete system, this is very useful.

However, when instead people take the Phenomenology for "the real thing", use it instead of the later system (or even interpret the later system through the perspective of the "Phenomenology") or get stuck in the "Phenomenology" or devote so much time to the "Phenomenology" that they can not spare the adequate time and effort to assimilate the rest of the system, I think a serious reevaluation of the significance of the "Phenomenology" is more than appropriate. I know of many approaches to Hegel based on reading his "Phenomenology", both at university and on the web, which got stuck somewhere in the "Phenomenology", often even in its Preface.

Distinguishing between the Phenomenology and its Preface

When we talk about the Phenomenology, we need to distinguish between its Preface and the Phenomenology (the "ladder") itself.

The Preface of the Phenomenology was written by Hegel in 1807, after the completion of the rest of the Phenomenology in 1806, and was intended to be not only the Preface of the Phenomenology, but the Preface for his complete system. So it has another status than being merely the "Preface" of the Phenomenology.

So when I talk about the Phenomenology in this following text, I usually mean only the Phenomenology without its Preface, except when the context shows that I mean otherwise (e.g., when I later address in this article the differences between Hegel's conceptions of his Jena time and his more mature conceptions in his Heidelberg and Berlin years, which of course apply both to the Preface and to the rest of the book).

Is the Phenomenology required? Philosophy before Hegel

Just from looking at the practice of either previous philosophers, Hegel himself, at the time he developed his conclusions, and Hegel and his school teaching Hegel's Philosophy, there is an overwhelming trace of the contrary:

First of all, of course all Philosophers before Hegel (including his immediate predecessors, Kant, Fichte and Schelling) did not use the Phenomenology, neither to come to their conclusions, nor to teach them.

This is of course trivial, but it means that at least Philosophy before Hegel had means to come to results and teach Philosophy without the "Phenomenology".

Of course, you could argue that Hegel in general and especially his "Phenomenology" is such a revolution in philosophy, that indeed such break with tradition.

However, Hegel did not see himself as someone who performed a radical break with all tradition, but as someone who systematically included ("sublated") all reasonable perspectives from all philosophy before him.

See his famous Preface to his "Lectures about the History of Philosophy", for a well known example. You can also see it from the fact that Hegel included a treatment of the history of thoughts in many of his works, including the "Philosophy of History", "Lectures on Aesthetics", "Lectures about the Philosophy of Religion" and the mentioned "Lectures about the History of Philosophy". He also included such remarks in his "Encyclopedia" (in his "Three Approaches to Objectivity") and it is well known, that his "Science of Logic" is also implicit and explicit referring to the "Lectures about the History of Philosophy". And of course, the "Phenomenology of Spirit" as such, is in most of its parts in itself discussing the various state of minds / spirits before the publication of the "Phenomenology" (so people obviously have come to these states of mind without the "Phenomenology").

So what Hegel does in his "Phenomenology" and his various other discussions of historical developments of philosophical insights is to make this process more explicit and more systematic, but the process itself happened without Hegel's help.

This is no wonder, because what Hegel, the philosophers before him and his students after him (and all mankind) share, is the longing for truth, which is the foundation of all these processes (of all philosophy over the time, of Hegel's exposition of it, as well as of those true students who come to learn from Hegel or other Philosophers before and after him).

So one can say that one valid way to come to Hegel is of course to study systematically Philosophy before Hegel, via Hegel's "Phenomenology", via Hegel's "Lecture about the History of Philosophy" or by studying these older Philosophers directly (at least this later approach will be no substitute for studying Hegel himself, but as Hegel wants to be the sublation of the philosophers before him, such study is a good preparation for him and we are only talking of preparations, of ways of approaching Hegel here. Also, this later approach is obviously the one Hegel took himself).

See also the answer to the next question.

Is the Phenomenology required? Hegel writing the Phenomenology

Also, without allowing such a different approach (beside the Phenomenology), you would have a problem to explain how Hegel himself could write the Phenomenology in the first place (remember that what we want here is to recreate Hegel's own creative spirit/approach, not just to reproduce his works).

So Hegel himself needs to have another approach than the "Phenomenology" for himself to come to his results.

Of course, here you could argue that the process of writing the "Phenomenology of Spirit" was this approach for Hegel.

So in this case, we are driven to the next questions:

  • Did Hegel write anything substantial before writing the "Phenomenology"?
  • Was Hegel finished with his basic insights after he wrote the "Phenomenology"?

Is the "Phenomenology" required? Hegel's works before the "Phenomenology"

From Hegel's major 4 works printed at his life time, Hegel's "Phenomenology of Spirit" is his first book published. So this creates the illusion, that the "Phenomenology" is not only the entrance of Hegel's system for his pupils, but was also this entrance for Hegel himself.

However, even if you limit yourself to the works of the 6 years (1801-1806) of Hegel's Jena period (and there are good reasons to do so, as these works are of different character than the works before and the works of this Jena period are plenty enough in themselves), we first find Hegel's dissertation (containing a long critique of the Newton scholars of his time) and the many articles he wrote in the "Kritisches Journal der Philosophie" ("Critical Journal of Philosophy"), which he edited and wrote together with Schelling (containing famous works of Hegel like "The Difference between the philosophical Systems of Fichte and Schelling" (1801, translated by H.S. Harris and W. Cerf 1977), "Glauben und Wissen" (July 1802, translated as "Faith and Knowledge" by W. Cerf and H.S. Harris 1977), wich is a critique of Kant, Jacobi and Fichte, and Hegel's article "Über die wissenschaftliche Behandlungsarten des Naturrechtes [...]" (November 1802, translated as "Natural Law" by T.M. Knox 1975).

These articles should be well known and were published even at Hegel's time and so are included in all major compilations of Hegel's works (and should, as indicated by the translations given above, also be well known to the English speaking public of today).

But for the sake of the discussion here, even more important is that we find in this period (before Hegel began to write the "Phenomenology") from Hegel at least 3 big drafts of a System (the 1st and 3rd are only covering the topics named "Philosophy of Nature" and "Philosophy of Spirit" in Hegel's later system, the 2nd one is only discussing Logic and "Philosophy of Nature").

There also exist many more manuscripts of Hegel from this time (among them his famous "System der Sittlichkeit" ("System of Ethical Life"), which roughly covers the topics of Hegel's later "Philosophy of Right" / "Objective Spirit"), which he also used to prepare his Lectures in Jena. In Jena, he gave Lectures about his complete System of Philosophy, about Logic and various other subjects (it is not completely clear for today's research which of Hegel's many lectures, announced in the announcements of the university, Hegel really held and which were only announced, but not held). There also exist some more or less extensive student notes of some of these lectures.

(All this can be read, with extensive philological remarks, in the volumes 5-9, covering Hegel's Jena years, of the "Hegel Werke" of the Bochum Hegel Archiv, published at Meiner Verlag, Hamburg)

When one looks at this material (Hegel's Jena manuscripts, lectures and publications before the publication of the "Phenomenology") all together, we see it cover most of the content of the "Phenomenology" already (which also explains how Hegel could write most of the parts of the "Phenomenology" rather fast) and also find many topics of the later System in them as well.

One well known philological Hegel expert (W. Jaeschke) even noted that, would Hegel not have written his "Phenomenology", but only what he wrote before the "Phenomenology" and that what he wrote after the "Phenomenology", we would hardly note any omission.

Parallels between content of the Phenomenology and Hegel's later works

It would be fun to try to parallel the various chapters of the Phenomenology best with his later works and Lectures. One would find that nearly all chapters can be indeed found somewhere in the later system.

This later system, as written down in draft form in Hegel's "Encyclopedia" (1st edition, 1817 in Heidelberg, much expanded and reworked 2nd edition in Hegel's later years in Berlin, 3rd, again a bit reworked and expanded version 1830), contains a part discussing the "Subjective Spirit/Mind" (which itself is the first part of the 3rd part of the "Encyclopedia"). This contains in its middle a chapter named "Phenomenology", where we can find, as one would expect from its name, an abbreviated version of the "Phenomenology of Spirit" (its first sections A up to CC (AA), to be exact).

However, we could also rediscover more parts of the "Phenomenology" in the later system:

  • A II is the topic of the Logic of Essence (2nd part) in the Science of Logic
  • A III can be partly found in the Logic of Essence (2nd part), and partly in the Philosophy of Nature
  • C (BB) - VI - B (the alienated spirit"), part II - on enlightenment- and III - on the French revolution - could be found in Hegel's "Lectures on Philosophy of History" (and his "Lectures on the History of Philosophy")
  • C includes much of the chapter on Morality in Hegel's "Philosophy of Right" / "Objective Spirit", but also includes topics discussed in conjunction with Kant and Schiller in Hegel's "Lectures on the History of Philosophy"
  • CC / VII Religion is of course covered (in much more details) in Hegel's "Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion" etc.

This leads to several interesting observations:

  • most of the topics from the "Phenomenology" are covered in Hegel's later works and Lectures, and usualy in greater details and more precise. However, some of Hegel's descriptions in his "Phenomenology" are more vivid/fresh/poetic (e.g. compare how he describes the enlightenment in the "Phenomenology" and in later works).
  • the sequence of topics in the "Phenomenology" roughly follows the table of content of the "Philosophy of Spirit/Mind" (the 3rd volume of Hegel's later "Encyclopedia"), but it has some places where the sequence is different (however, to be fair, one would need to compare not the Encyclopedia version of the Philosophy of Spirit/Mind, but the Jena versions of his system).
  • some few topics (like the critique of Phrenology, the Science of the scull) can not be found anywhere in the later works, but could mostly be deduced from the later works (when one thinks from the point of view of these later works, how Hegel would have judged such a topic).
  • On the other hand, many topics which Hegel covers in his later works, even in his "Philosophy of Spirit", is missing in the "Phenomenology"
    • e.g. in the 1st part of the "Philosophy of Spirit", the "Subjective Spirit", the topics discussed in its first part ("Anthropology") and its 3rd part ("Psychology") are more or less missing in the "Phenomenology".
    • Another example are Hegel's Lectures (on World History, Aesthetics, Religion and Philosophy), where the "Phenomenology" covers only a fraction of their content, not only because these Lectures consist in print 9 volumes compared to the one volume of the "Phenomenology", so that these could cover much more details, but also because many parts of these Lectures were not relevant to Hegel's "Phenomenology" and because several topics discussed in the Lectures were only added to Hegel's System after he had written the Phenomenology, see the next section).

Changes in Hegel's System and Logic after he wrote the Phenomenology

On the other hand, by reading what Hegel wrote in his Nürnberg period, and his Heidelberg and Berlin period, and comparing it with the Phenomenology, we see many substantial changes in Hegel's conception of his System as such, along with many details of his Logic as well:

  • Hegel's philosophy was constantly evolving, even in his late Berlin years, as comparisons of his Berlin Lectures of different years have shown (as an easy accessible example, also in English translation, see Walter Jaeschke's collection of different Lectures on the Subject of Philosophy of Religion, by the way, a subject that only emerged as such in Berlin).
The foundation of Hegel's system, its method and architecture is in his "Science of Logic". So only after writing down his "Science of Logic" Hegel had the foundation for a more stable System (even during his Nürnberg years his concepts of Logic evolved, and, as we see from comparing of the 1st and the 2nd edition of the "Science of Logic", or from comparing the Encyclopedia Logics of 1827/1830 and the "Science of Logic", even in this fundamental area Hegel kept developing his system until his death). If the "Science of Logic" is the abstract blueprint of the system, the "Encyclopedia" is the real blueprint, and this was only finished 1817 in Heidelberg (and again even this one was changed significantly in Berlin in 1827). So only with the publication of the "Science of Logic" and the "Encyclopedia" Hegel's system became kind of stable.

Many concepts changed after Hegel's "Phenomenology" was published:

  • Many concepts of his Logic evolved only after Hegel's Jena years (it seems that many basic aspects, like the Measurement (3rd part of being), most part of the Logic of Essence (2nd part of Hegel's Logic) and also some general architectural aspects of Hegel's Logic of Concept (3rd part of Hegel's Logic) as well as the overall architecture of the "Science of Logic" were not ready or at least not of the same order and content than the later System, when we judge from Hegel's Jena and early Nürnberg Notes. This also includes that the Jena Hegel (and the early Nürnberg Hegel as well) seems still to have maintained the separation of Logic and Metaphysics.
  • Hegel's knowledge of cultures outside Europe, including China, India, Persia and Egypt (other than from the Bible) mainly evolved during his Berlin years, giving his lectures a broad geographical, (inter)cultural and historical depth.
  • His concept of Philosophy of History also changed due to the encounter with Carl Ritter, together with Humboldt one of the founders of modern Geography and Hegel's colleague in Berlin as worldwide first professor of Geography.
  • Many of Hegel's concepts of Art were changed and broadened due to contact with many artists, art collectors and performers in his Heidelberg and Berlin years, visits to artworks in Holland, Vienna and France, etc. This also included new insights in the romantic art, not present in his Jena years.
  • Hegel's views on Religion changed due to more encounter with many modern Jews in Berlin and the competition with Schleiermacher. Among others, his understanding for the rational in the Christian religion grew deeper, as grew his insight in the various other religions. etcpp.
  • While the concept of a systematic blueprint of his system can be found already in the 3 system drafts of his Jena period, the concept of his system of an Encyclopedia, as a Cycle of Cycle, seems to have emerged only in his Nürnberg period.

Of course, one does not need to exaggerate these differences, many basic concepts of Hegel can indeed be traced at least to his Jena period or even to earlier periods of his life. When one knows what to look for, when one knows the old Hegel, one can explain Hegel's development starting from his youth and how many important ideas emerged in him at early stages.

But it is also undeniable that many discoveries of Hegel, including basic discoveries in his "Science of Logic", important to Hegel at later stage, were still undiscovered when he wrote the "Phenomenology".

So one needs to be very prudent not to confuse the Hegel of the "Phenomenology" with the later Hegel (while there is, as mentioned, also lot of common ground).

However, we are therefore save to judge that the "Phenomenology" is not perfectly fitting with his later system. It is of course most fitting to the version of his system as it was 1806/07 (this is the cause of some of the slight disservice Hegel's "Phenomenology" does, when one takes it 1:1 as an introduction to the mature system of Hegel's later Berlin years).

(That to me is also one of the reasons behind Hegel's later Berlin remarks on the "Phenomenology", where he noted for himself something like, "this is a peculiar work of an early period of mine; let's not change it beyond some minor corrections".

In my interpretation, the reason why Hegel wrote this is that his philosophy had changed so much in these years that making his old work ("Phenomenology of Spirit") completely compatible with his later philosophy would mean a complete rewrite. So Hegel only decided for a reproduction of this historical work, with very slight minor corrections, as everything else would have meant too much work and too many distractions from Hegel's other projects.

Of course, this interpretation is hotly debated, but at this stage it is enough to say that many scholars do share this interpretation - just as there are many scholars who argue against it).

Is the Phenomenology required? Hegel's practice of teaching his Philosophy

If Hegel was convinced that his Phenomenology was absolutely needed for all his students, one would expect him to lecture about this important topic at least once a year in his university years (or, in case he thought it was too easy for him, to let his later pupils and repetitors teach it for him) and to mention this work as a precondition for following his other lectures.

Interestingly enough, this expectation is not met by what really happened.

In Jena, at two different times, Hegel held lectures that came close to an introduction to (his) Philosophy.

The first one, at the beginning of his career, was meant to give the introduction by teaching Logic itself (and it would be worth a post of its own to show that one could indeed successfully argue with Hegel for that role of the Logic). Of course, Hegel had no "Phenomenology" at that time, so it seems unfair to expect him to teach the "Phenomenology" before he wrote it.

And indeed, in his last year at Jena, 1806, when he was in the process of writing and printing the "Phenomenology," he gave a lecture on the "Phenomenology", where he combined the "Phenomenology" and the Logic in the classical way one would expect from Hegel's few remarks on the connection of the "Phenomenology" and his "Science of Logic" in his later works. The "Phenomenology" was written and printed in parts, so the first parts were already available in 1806 before Hegel had finished the later parts and the Preface; that is also one reason why people give 1806/07 as the publishing date for the "Phenomenology" instead of just one or the other of these two years.

(However, from the spare reports on this lecture, we do not know how much of the "Phenomenology" was covered in that lecture. Some aspects, like the availability only of the start of the "Phenomenology" in print at that time and the huge amount of material to cover in that one lecture, make it most reasonable to believe that Hegel only taught a much abbreviated version of his "Phenomenology", may be only the fist 3-4 chapters and may be an abbreviated version of the last chapter, so that he only taught about A I,II,III and DD and omitted most of the rest).

In his Nürnberg years, Hegel came in his teachings (as a professor/teacher in the local Gymnasium, which included teaching Philosophy) two times close to the topics of his Phenomenology (in his later Nürnberg years), however they seem to cover more the stuff of the later chapter called "Phenomenology" in the "Encyclopedia", not the complete "Phenomenology" of 1806/07 (but basically its first 3 chapters).

During his folowing professorship in Heidelberg, Hegel did not teach his "Phenomenology" (see Documents on Hegel's Life, #99, in Hegel's letters, Meiner Verlag Hamburg 1977, vol IV/1, p. 110-11), nor did he in Berlin (see in the same book/volume the document # 103 on page 110-125, by the way, this document also includes the lectures and repetitions of Hegel's assistant von Henning, who also did not teach the "Phenomenology" according to this document)

Instead Hegel gave a more or less long introduction at the beginning of every one of his lectures, where he would sort out basic misconceptions and give a certain overview on his subject and on methodological questions. Out of this (and countless remarks throughout all his texts) it also becomes clear that he usually referred to his "Science of Logic" as the necessary foundation to gain a scientific understanding of his teachings (when you look at the first footnote in the first Preface of the "Science of Logic", you will even find such a remark concerning the "Phenomenology" itself, where he writes that the insight in the method happens in the "Science of Logic").

References Hegel gives to the "Phenomenology" in his later works and lectures

When you look at the references Hegel gives to the "Phenomenology" in his later works and lectures, you first need to be aware of the changes between his Nürnberg years (when he wrote the "Science of Logic") and his later years. I may go into further details discussing all these references in a later article. For now it is enough to say that Hegel indeed uses references to his Phenomenology all over his work, but there are very few indications, especially in his later works, that the study of his Phenomenology is a must for the study of Hegel's Philosophy.