This page is under construction. It was orginally an Encyclopedia Britannica article. Currently the article is being reshaped as the basis of an improved explanation of the Phenomenology.
The Phenomenology, Hegel's epic voyage of philosophical discovery, was written 1806 (foreword 1807) and published in 1807 during Hegel's final months of teaching at the University of Jena. It has twice been translated in full into English (first by J. Baillee and then by A. Miller).
The Phenomenology as an introduction to Hegel
Many of Hegel's works could serve as an introduciton of his philosophy to the uninitiated, including his lectures on the philosophy of history, the history of philosophy, and religion (all which were technically compiled by his students) and the introduction to his Encyclopedia. None of these are perfect introductions -- the lectures were, of course, collected and edited by Hegel's students, and the introduction the Encyclopedia explains Hegelianism only insofar as it offers an alternative to prominent philosophical schools of Hegel's own time. The Phenomenology of Geist (Spirit/Mind), regarded as an introduction, suffers from a different fault. The Phenomenology is more a prelude than a prelegomena. Hegel could not have intended it as an introduction to his mature philosophy, for the simple reason that when the Phenomenology was written, Hegel had not yet developed his mature philosophy. Instead, the Phenomenology represents the path, the intellectual journey, that leads up to Hegel's philosophy step by step.
The Phenomenology is the picture of the Hegelian philosophy in the making - at the stage before the scaffolding has been removed from the building. The scaffolding, in this case, is the philosophical legacy of the West. The book offers incredibly insight into Hegel's thinking. It exhibits the rise of intelligence as wrought out in historical epochs, national characteristics, forms of culture and faith, and philosophical systems. The overarching theme, how Hegel defines himself in relation to other philosophies, is closely related to the introduction to the Encyclopedia, but it is treated in a very different style. From all periods of the world - from medieval piety and stoical pride, Kant and Sophocles, science and art, religion and philosophy - Hegel gathers in the vineyards of the human spirit the grapes from which he crushes the wine of thought. The mind coming through a thousand phases of mistake and disappointment to a sense and realization of its true position in the universe - such is the drama which is consciously Hegel’s own history, but is represented objectively as the process of spiritual history which the philosopher reproduces in himself. The philosophical method of the Phenomenology stands to that of the Encyclopedia somewhat as the dialogic method of Plato stand to the excursive style of Aristotle. The Phenomenology contains many conclusions expounded in the more mature works - but irregularly and without due proportion. The reader is presented, not with conclusion, but with the self-argumentation that will lead, eventually, to conclusions. Recent issues in philosophy (that is, recent in Hegel's day) also are prominent in the Phenomenology, just as Socrates and his interlocutors spend a fair amount of mental energy on the peculiarities of Athens. The Phenomenology gives no proof of the position which it endorses, but rather gives an account of the experience (Erfahrung) by which consciousness is forced from one position to another till it finds rest in Absolutes Wissen.
Summary of the Phenomenology
The Phenomenology is neither mere psychology, nor logic, not moral philosophy, nor history, but is all of these and a great deal more. It would be difficult to summarize it or distill it into a pithy aphorism without losing all the nuance that makes it interesting. Those who wish to study the Phenomenology benefit more from elaboration than from simplification. Each episode of the phenomenology needs a thousand examples attached to it, to illustrate its inner workings. That said, here is a summary!
In the Phenomenology, Hegel divides the attitudes of consciousness towards reality into the six heads of consciousness, self-consciousness, reason (Vernunft), spirit/mind (Geist), religion and absolute knowledge. The native attitude of consciousness towards existence, the starting point for Hegel's philosophical journey, is reliance on the evidence of the senses; but a little reflection is sufficient to show that the reality attributed to the external world is as much due to intellectual conceptions as to the senses, and that these intellectual conceptions that help define reality elude us when we try to fix them. This consciousness, insecure in its perception of reality, falls back on itself and becomes self-consciousness.
If consciousness cannot detect a permanent object outside it, so self-consciousness cannot find a permanent subject in itself. Self-consciousness may adopt a Stoic position, and assert freedom by holding aloof from the entanglements of real life, or become a skeptic and regard the world as a delusion, or as the "unhappy consciousness" (Unglückliches Bewusstsein), may conceive of itself as eternally failing to reach a sought-after perfection which it imagines to exist. But in this isolation from the world, self-consciousness has closed its gates against the stream of life. The perception of this is reason.
Reason, convinced that the world and the soul are alike rational, observes the external world, mental phenomena, and specially the nervous organism, the meeting ground of body and mind. But Reason finds much in the world recognizing no kindred with itself, and so turning to practical activity seeks in the world the realization of Reason's aims. Either Reason crudely pursues its own pleasures, but necessity counteracts its cravings, or it endeavours to find the world in harmony with the heart, and yet is unwilling to see fine aspirations crystallized by the act of realizing them. Finally, unable to impose upon the world either selfish or humanitarian ends, Reason folds her arms in pharisaic virtue, with the hope that some hidden power will give the victory to righteousness. But the world goes on in its life, heedless of the idealistic demands of virtue. The principle of nature is to live and let live. Reason abandons its efforts to mold the world, and is content to let the aims of individuals work out their results independently, only stepping in to lay down precepts for the cases where individual actions conflict, and to test these precepts by the rules of formal logic.
So far we have seen consciousness on one hand and the real world on the other. The stage of Geist reveals the consciousness no longer as critical and antagonistic but as the indwelling spirit of a community, as no longer isolated from its surroundings but the union of the single and real consciousness with the vital feeling that animates the community. This is the lowest stage of concrete consciousness—life, and not knowledge; the spirit inspires, but does not reflect. It is the age of unconscious morality, when the individual’s life is lost in the society of which he is an organic member. But increasingly culture presents new ideals, and the mind, absorbing the ethical spirit of its environment, gradually emancipates itself from conventions and superstitions. This enlightment ([Aufklärung]) prepares the way for the rule of conscience, for the moral view of the world as subject of a moral law. From the moral world the next step is religion; the moral law gives place to God; but the idea of Godhead, too, as it first appears, is imperfect, and has to pass through the forms of nature-worship and of art before it reaches a full utterance in Christianity. Religion in this shape is the nearest step to the stage of absolute knowledge; and this absolute knowledge—"the spirit knowing itself as spirit"—is not something which leaves these other forms behind but the full comprehension of them as the organic constituents of its empire; “they are the memory and the sepulchre of its history, and at the same time the actuality, truth and certainty of its throne.” Here, according to Hegel, is the field of philosophy.
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e-Text Versions of Hegel's 'Phenomenology of Spirit':
- 'Phenomenology' (English). Trans. J. Baillie, HTML by Carl Mickelsen (without frames).
- 'Phänomenologie des Geistes' (German). German text only, HTML, presented by the German Projekt Gutenberg (without frames).