Fragments on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit

Below are a few reflections after teaching a module on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit this past week. My natural inclinations draw me to Schelling’s Naturphilosophie, but every time I return to Hegel’s writing after some time apart I start to worry I’ve allowed myself to fall into a caricatured understanding of his trickster-like dialectical method.

I’m reminded of Foucault’s famous admission (Discourse on Language, 235):

…our age, whether through logic or epistemology, whether though Marx or through Nietzsche, is attempting to flee Hegel….But truly to escape Hegel involves an exact appreciation of the price we have to pay to detach ourselves from him.  It assumes that we are aware of the extent to which Hegel, insidiously perhaps, is close to us; it implies a knowledge, in that which permits us to think against Hegel, of that which remains Hegelian.  We have to determine the extent to which our anti-Hegelianism is possibly one of his tricks directed against us, at the end of which he stands, motionless, waiting for us.


Hegel offers something other than a “history of ideas.” Instead, he narrates an evolution of consciousness. A history of ideas usually presupposes that the same sort of self/subject apprehends the same sort of world/object, with the only change occurring when the self employs new ideas to represent the world to itself. In other words, only the conceptual content changes, i.e., what is thought about the world. Left unaccounted for by historians of ideas is the form of thinking, i.e., how experience is constellated in each epoch such that a certain kind of self comes into relation to a certain kind of world. It’s not just the ideas that shift in the course of history; the whole self-world Gestalt transforms itself. Hegel’s account is an evolution of consciousness rather than a history of ideas: the very essence of the way an object appears to a subject dialectically morphs through the course of history, until finally at the end of history, both the essence of the world and the way this essence appears to itself coincide in “Absolute Knowledge.” For Hegel, there is only one Idea: the identity of identity and difference, or the subject-object identity. The so-called “history of ideas” is just Spirit’s tragic comedy of errors, a laborious journey from childish naiveté to the rational recollection of ultimate reality.


Or so Hegel’s story goes. The next module of the course I’m teaching focuses on Schelling’s late philosophy of mythology and revelation. Schelling offered it as an alternative way forward for philosophy after Hegel. 

What do you think?

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