Hegel Publishes

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit, published just twenty-six years after Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, sought to complete Kant’s philosophical system. By expanding that system to include human social structures, as well as the history of philosophy, The Phenomenology of Spirit became one of the foundational texts in continental philosophy, one of the two strands of philosophy that define post-Kantian thought.

Summary of Event

In 1781, Immanuel Kant revolutionized philosophy with his publication of Kritik der reinen Vernunft (Critique of Pure Reason, 1838), Critique of Pure Reason (Kant) which asked how knowledge is possible and challenged nearly every philosophical idea that had been established up to that time. The Kantian revolution in philosophy has been compared to the Copernican revolution in cosmology, because just as Nicolaus Copernicus placed a new object—the Sun—at the center of the cosmos, Kant placed a new object—the human mind—at the center of epistemological inquiry. Kant’s “Copernican turn inward” was based on his argument that the way to understand how knowledge is possible is to subject the mind itself to a critical examination. Kant analyzed the structures of the mind that turn experience into knowledge and that therefore determine what knowledge looks like and how it functions. He sought thereby to ground knowledge, that is, to provide it with some measure of objective validity. Phenomenology of Spirit, The (Hegel)
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich
[p]Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich;The Phenomenology of Spirit[Phenomenology of Spirit]
Philosophy;Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel[Hegel]
Kant, Immanuel
[p]Kant, Immanuel;and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel[Hegel]
[kw]Hegel Publishes The Phenomenology of Spirit (Apr., 1807)
[kw]Publishes The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel (Apr., 1807)
[kw]Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel Publishes The (Apr., 1807)
[kw]Spirit, Hegel Publishes The Phenomenology of (Apr., 1807)
Phenomenology of Spirit, The (Hegel)
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich
[p]Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich;The Phenomenology of Spirit[Phenomenology of Spirit]
Philosophy;Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel[Hegel]
Kant, Immanuel
[p]Kant, Immanuel;and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel[Hegel]
[g]Germany;Apr., 1807: Hegel Publishes The Phenomenology of Spirit[0370]
[c]Philosophy;Apr., 1807: Hegel Publishes The Phenomenology of Spirit[0370]
Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von
Fichte, Johann Gottlieb
Niethammer, Friedrich Immanuel
Hinrichs, Hermann Friedrich Wilhelm
Kojève, Alexandre
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques
Berkeley, George

German Idealism German Idealism , which also gave the “I” or the mind pride of place, emerged in the 1790’s, mostly as an attempt to build upon Kant’s critical philosophy and to resolve some of its perceived problems. Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s Grundlage der gesamten Wissenschaftslehre (1794; The Science of Knowledge, 1868) turned Idealism in a subjectivist direction, while Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling’s System des transzendentalen Idealismus (1800; Introduction to Idealism, 1871) tried to synthesize Fichtean subjectivism with German Romanticism to see all reality subsumed in a mystical identity with the absolute. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who would become the most famous of the German Idealists, saw his own work as another attempt to correct and complete Kant’s project using phenomenology, that is, the study of experience.

George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

(Library of Congress)

Even though Schelling and Hegel had been schoolmates at Tübingen and although Schelling was five years younger than Hegel, Schelling considered himself Hegel’s mentor during the late 1790’s and early nineteenth century. Whether Hegel ever considered himself Schelling’s protégé or disciple remains uncertain. Schelling brought Hegel to the University of Jena in January, 1801, and in September Hegel’s first philosophical book appeared: Differenz des Fichte’schen und Schelling’schen Systems der Philosophie (1801; The Difference Between Fichte’s and Schelling’s Systems of Philosophy, 1977). In 1802 and 1803, Hegel and Schelling edited a philosophical journal together. However, Hegel grew dissatisfied with the lack of rigor in Schelling’s Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von thought and began to discern ways to improve it. When Schelling left Jena for Würzburg in 1803, Hegel’s independent thought began in earnest. In 1804, Hegel started working on Die Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807; The Phenomenology of Spirit, 1868; also known as The Phenomenology of Mind, 1910), which would mark his final break with Schelling.

On the same day that Hegel finished writing the book, he saw Napoleon I, whom he called “the world-soul on horseback,” reconnoitering for the Battle of Jena Jena, Battle of (1806) (October 13-14, 1806). As a result of that battle, Hegel was out of a job and impoverished. In March, 1807, he moved to Bamberg to become a newspaper editor. Josef Anton Goebhardt published The Phenomenology of Spirit in April, 1807, in Bamberg and Würzburg with financing guaranteed by Hegel’s best friend, Friedrich Immanuel Niethammer. Niethammer, Friedrich Immanuel

The topic of The Phenomenology of Spirit is Geist, an untranslatable term that can mean either spirit or mind but in German often also suggests culture or intellectual life. Translating the term is complicated by the fact that Hegel argues in his book that Geist is, in fact, everything that exists. The book is primarily a work of epistemology, because it aims to show how Geist comes to know itself, that is, how human consciousness, which is one component of Geist, comes to know itself as human self-consciousness, as well as how it comes to know the physical world of objects. It is crucial that for Hegel, those two processes are one and the same.

Because Geist is constantly in motion toward self-knowledge, empirical knowledge, and absolute knowledge, it is always entering new relationships and assimilating old relationships into its conscious fabric. This process is its growth or development (Entwicklung). It begins for Hegel, as it does for Kant, with the interior of the indivudual human mind, but in Hegel’s analysis the process quickly expands from interior mental life to exterior social life and comes to define the historical changes in society.

Indeed, because the process of Entwicklung defines the entirety of existence, Hegel believes that the movement of Geist toward self-knowledge and self-fulfillment is nothing less than the totality of history. Geist is everything that ever was, and at any given stage it is potentially everything that ever will be. Thus, truth is not static but dynamic: The truth, for Hegel, names the process of coming to understand the truth and not merely the final conclusion. It is achieved at each stage only with gradually received prerequisites, meaning that each step in the process is necessary and none can be skipped. For Hegel, “the actual is rational,” meaning that history is a Logic;and history[History] logical process that makes sense and that evolves in the way it must in order for Geist fully to express and to understand itself. Geist actualizes its potentiality simply by becoming conscious of it, but that raising of consciousness is not easy.

The mechanism of Geist’s evolution is another untranslatable German term, Aufhebung, which is most often rendered in English as either “overcoming” or “sublation,” and which is meant to indicate a process in which the useful aspect of a thing is retained and the useless aspect is left behind. Each stage in the evolution of Geist seeks to attain perfect or absolute knowledge, according to that stage’s own model of perfection. Each model of knowledge contains its own Ma stab (yardstick) by which to measure its own success or failure. According to Hegel, each stage before the ultimate one fails its own test, and it is “sublated” or “overcome” (aufgehoben), transitioning to the next stage.

As the bud becomes the blossom and then the fruit, or as the child grows into the adolescent and then the adult, each new phase is both the same as and different from the last one. Because it retains its identity through its changes, each phase is aufgehoben, simultaneously preserved, canceled, and raised to a higher level. Thus, individuals are preserved in the absolute. By contrast, Hegel satirized Schelling’s Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von absolute identity theory as “the night in which all cows are black,” that is, in which individuals lose their individuality. For Hegel, each individual self-consciousness is an indissoluble unit and a free spirit, even though its being must always be harmonized with other self-consciousnesses and with absolute spirit.

Hegel rejected the respective idealisms of Fichte Fichte, Johann Gottlieb , George Berkeley Berkeley, George , and Kant in favor of a dialectical idealism grounded in solid empirical fact. The dialectic includes logical, historical, psychological, and several other kinds of transitions. The Phenomenology of Spirit criticizes the Enlightenment for its one-sided reliance on cold reason but at the same time criticizes Romanticism for discarding reason in favor of feeling. All aspects of Geist must be present and reconciled if any resulting synthesis is to be valid.

The sections in The Phenomenology of Spirit dealing with political thought and history carried an implicit criticism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Rousseau, Jean-Jacques social contract theory, which Hegel developed further in his later Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts (1821; The Philosophy of Right, 1855). Hegel generally supported the French Revolution French Revolution (1789);and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel[Hegel] but argued that absolute freedom leads ineluctably to terror, as was shown historically from 1792 to 1794. His analysis of Sophocles’ drama AntigonĪ
Antigonē (Sophocles)[Antigone (Sophocles)]
Sophocles (441 b.c.e.; Antigone, 1729) showed that the disagreeing parties in basic existential conflicts between divine law and human law could each be in the right and that such disagreements were permanently and tragically unresolvable.

Hegel savaged the then popular pseudoscience of phrenology for its material reductionism, the reductio ad absurdum of empiricism, but he depicted it as the ashes from which the phoenix of self-conscious Geist emerges. Geist and all its phenomena necessarily appear in time. Everything changes except change itself, since the essence of Geist is to change. Geist can neither annul time nor comprehend itself apart from time. The final stages of Hegel’s dialectic before the achievement of absolute knowing interrelate the three highest manifestations of Geist: art, religion, and philosophy. The content of each is the same, absolute spirit, but art presents it for the senses, religion for the emotions, and philosophy for reason.

Hegel wanted The Phenomenology of Spirit to explain the entire progress of Geist from the most primitive kinds of consciousness to absolute knowledge. For him, each phase of Geist’s evolution related dialectically to every other phase and could not be understood apart from its universal context. This concrete interrelationship of dialectical phases was what Hegel called mediation (Vermittlung). Because truth was only the whole, any partial or isolated truth was demonstrably false in some of its contexts. The adequate concept (Begriff) of any phase necessarily involved its entire mediation. In other words, the truth of Hegel’s book, like the truth of history, was to be found in its entirety, from beginning to end, and not in any of its isolated parts.

Many of Hegel’s interpreters have erred by trying to interpret the whole book in terms of only one of its parts or themes. For example, Hegel’s own student Hermann Friedrich Hinrichs Hinrichs, Hermann Friedrich Wilhelm saw The Phenomenology of Spirit only as the progress of religious consciousness, and the twentieth century French leftist Alexandre Kojève Kojève, Alexandre interpreted it all in terms of the master-slave dialectic, an early phase of Hegel’s psychosocial history. Kojève’s misinterpretation was particularly important, because his lectures influenced many of the most important and influential French thinkers of their generation, all of whom understood Hegel through his warped lens. These thinkers included Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Lacan, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Louis Althusser, and Henry Bataille.


Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit was one of the most original, pivotal, influential, and controversial Western philosophical books of all time. It is notoriously difficult, but that has not detracted from its intellectual appeal. Since its publication, rightists and leftists, libertarian individualists and social progressives, republicans and communists, conservatives and liberals, traditionalists and feminists, Nazis and Zionists, theists and atheists have all, either legitimately or illegitimately, found inspiration in The Phenomenology of Spirit. So many diametrically opposed parties each claiming Hegel as its antecedent does not mean that Hegel’s thought is inconsistent, but rather that it is, as Hegel intended, universally applicable and relevant to the encounter with any worldly or spiritual situation.

Almost all Western philosophy since Kant can be thought of as post-Kantian, in the sense that it continues, modifies, or confronts and rejects Kant’s model. The two major schools of post-Kantian philosophy are analytic philosophy and continental philosophy, and Hegel may be seen as one of the founders of the latter school. Hegel’s most important contribution to philosophy is arguably to be found in his twin assertions that the history of philosophy is itself an integral part of philosophy and that epistemology is inseparable from social philosophy. Hegel argued that it is impossible to ground knowledge in the structure of the individual mind, as Kant had tried to do, because knowledge is an inherently social phenomenon that can be understood only within a social and historical context. Moreover, he argued, because truth is a historical process, rather than a static set of facts, it is not the same in all times and places. Thus, truth must be understood as changing rather than eternal. These two Hegelian insights—that knowledge is social and that truth is historical—arguably form the basis of continental philosophy.

Further Reading

  • Harris, Henry Silton. Hegel’s Development: Night Thoughts, Jena, 1801-1806. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1983. A biographical investigation of the genesis of The Phenomenology of Spirit by one of the world’s greatest Hegel scholars.
  • _______. Hegel’s Ladder: A Commentary on Hegel’s “Phenomenology of Spirit.” 2 vols. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997. A detailed and scrupulous labor of love, thirty-five years in the making.
  • Hegel, G. W. F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A. V. Miller. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1977. The standard English translation but flawed by inconsistent renderings of key terms, failure to recognize some terms as systematic, and frequent paraphrase. Findlay’s paragraph-by-paragraph summaries are the most useful part of the book.
  • Houlgate, Stephen. An Introduction to Hegel: Freedom, Truth, and History. 2d ed. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2005. Includes chapters on various aspects of Hegel’s thought, including his philosophy of logic, religion, aesthetics, phenomenology, nature, and the subjective spirit. Relates Hegel to other thinkers and discusses his relevance to current philosophical debates.
  • Lauer, Quentin. A Reading of Hegel’s “Phenomenology of Spirit.” New York: Fordham University Press, 1982. An idiosyncratic but well-respected interpretation.
  • Loewenberg, Jacob. Hegel’s “Phenomenology”: Dialogues on the Life of Mind. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1965. Still widely esteemed as one of the best commentaries on The Phenomenology of Spirit.
  • Pinkard, Terry. Hegel: A Biography. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000. The standard biography, built on thorough and insightful research.
  • Pippen, Robert B. Hegel’s Idealism: The Satisfactions of Self-Consciousness. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Extremely lucid explication of Hegelian philosophy. A must for those struggling with The Phenomenology of Spirit.
  • Russon, John. Reading Hegel’s “Phenomenology.” Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004. A selective interpretation of particular sections rather than the whole book, loosely tied together by a study of the nature of human experience.
  • Stern, Robert. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Hegel and “The Phenomenology of Spirit.” London: Routledge, 2002. A clear and accessible but not simplistic introduction to one of the most difficult books in Western philosophy.
  • Westphal, Merold. History and Truth in Hegel’s “Phenomenology.” Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998. A brief but solid commentary that emphasizes the interplay between subjectivity and social history.

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