What Is the Phenomenology About?
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The Introduction to the Phenomenology sets out, with a clarity and accessibility that are remarkable for Hegel, a program for the book, at least as Hegel conceived it when he wrote the Introduction. In this paper I give a detailed reading of the main points in the Introduction. The Introduction provides an answer to the question what the Phenomenology is supposed to teach us. The plan Hegel explains for the work is to describe a progressive series of self-understandings for a human consciousness, starting out in a state of philosophical naiveté about the power of knowing understood in a way that characterizes it as human. The way in which one stage is succeeded by the next will be determined, in a way that Hegel explains, so that once the series has begun, its progressive trajectory will be inexorable. His idea is that the progression will culminate in a complete understanding of what is distinctive about human mindedness.
KeywordsNatural Consciousness Hegel Says Ordinary Animal Limited Items Precursor Shape
What is Hegel’s Phenomenology supposed to teach us? Many things, of course. But I want to focus on a program that is set out in its Introduction , a part of the text that is, as texts in Hegel go, surprisingly accessible—as befits the introduction to a book that is supposed to initiate readers into Hegelian philosophy.
There is a complication about the idea that the Introduction contains a program for the work; I will mention it now and come back to it at the end.
Hegel wrote the Preface to the Phenomenology after he had finished writing the book. But he wrote the rest in order, starting with the Introduction. Under pressure from a deadline, he sent off chunks of what he was writing to the publisher as he finished them, and they were set in type. So earlier chunks were essentially fixed, even if he would have liked to revise them in the light of thoughts that occurred to him later in the process of writing.
Now it is known that at some point in composing the book Hegel changed his mind about its title. When he began writing, he planned a book to be called The Science of the Experience of Consciousness. At some point during the composition, he switched to the title we have, The Phenomenology of Spirit. This change of mind apparently confused the publisher; in some copies of the first edition, there was an attempt to combine the two titles.
Hegel begins the Introduction with this remark (§ 73)1:
The natural supposition is that philosophy should deal with the question what cognition is before engaging in its real business, “the actual cognition of what is in truth.” Over the next few pages, Hegel scornfully rejects this supposition. He urges that it leads to unfruitful doubts about the very possibility of (philosophical) science, and that it merely postpones the real business of philosophy, which is to engage in science itself. Of what we are led into if we make the natural supposition, Hegel says (§ 76):
It is a natural supposition that before philosophy gets to the business itself [die Sache selbst], that is, to the actual cognition of what is in truth, it would first be necessary to come to an agreement about cognition […].
But how is science itself to come on the scene? This leads Hegel into an initial characterization of his plan for the book (still in § 76):
We would be better justified in sparing ourselves the trouble of taking any notice at all of such representations and ways of talking, through which science itself is supposed to be kept at bay, for they constitute only an empty appearance of knowing, which immediately vanishes before science itself when it comes on the scene.
Rather than looking for a prior account of what knowing is, we are to have science itself come on the scene, at first as an appearance, and, through the exposition of knowing as it makes its appearance, we are to display science turning against that character of being an appearance and freeing itself from it.
But in coming on the scene science itself is an appearance; in its coming on the scene it is not yet worked out and extended in its truth. […] [S]cience must free itself from this character of being an appearance; and it can do that only through turning against it. […] For this reason we must here undertake the exposition of knowing as it makes its appearance.
It is not obvious what that might mean, and Hegel at once begins on explaining it. But before I come to that, I want to pause and stress that what he is doing at the beginning of the Introduction is rejecting the natural supposition he begins with. It might seem unquestionable that in philosophy we should concern ourselves with what cognition is before we engage in it. But Hegel makes it clear that he plans to do something completely different. In a way he is about to explain, the book will exemplify a way of embarking on philosophical science without a prior inquiry into what knowing is.
In a detail I have so far ignored, Hegel says that on the natural supposition cognition is conceived as an instrument for bringing what is known within our reach, or a medium through which we achieve access to what is known, and he frames his description of the bad consequences of the natural supposition in terms of those pictures. I want to say something about what Robert Brandom makes of this.2
Brandom describes himself as reading between the lines of the Introduction. He focuses not on the natural supposition but on the conception of knowledge as an instrument or medium in terms of which Hegel frames his description of what we should avoid. And he reads into Hegel’s hostility to those pictures of knowledge a contribution to epistemology, motivated by an objection to something he thinks Hegel finds in much previous philosophy, in particular in Kant . On Brandom’s account, Hegel is attacking conceptions according to which a reality that is a candidate for being known must first be worked into a form it did not antecedently have, a form that matches the form of the thinking that is a candidate for being the knowing of it. It is obvious that an orientation towards the result of such an operation could not count as knowledge of the reality that was originally a candidate for being known, since ex hypothesi that had a different form, which precluded it from being knowable. So the upshot of such conceptions of knowledge is that we cannot know a reality that is independent of us. From this Brandom extracts, on Hegel’s behalf, constraints on an acceptable conception of knowledge, in particular a constraint that is semantical in a broad sense: we must not presuppose an understanding of how thought relates to reality on which reality has a form that is alien to the form of thought. And this opens into taking the Phenomenology to develop a semantics that conforms to that constraint.
I think the reading of Kant that Brandom attributes to Hegel is off key, and I think Hegel is a perceptive reader of Kant. But as I said, the point I want to stress here is that what Hegel is doing in these opening paragraphs of the Introduction is rejecting the natural supposition that philosophy should address the question what cognition is before engaging in cognition. His attack on picturing knowledge as an instrument or medium is only the way he frames that rejection. Reading between Hegel’s lines, Brandom finds a contribution to a kind of philosophical activity whose aim is to establish constraints on an acceptable account of knowledge. But to do that kind of philosophy is to retain the natural supposition and, by Hegel’s lights, postpone the real business of philosophy. In these opening paragraphs of the Introduction, Hegel is rejecting the very idea that in philosophy one should do the kind of thing Brandom finds him doing.3
I quoted Hegel’s initial characterization of his plan for the book, in which he says “we must here undertake the exposition of knowing as it makes its appearance.” As he notes, if the exposition’s topic is knowing only as it makes its appearance, it would be natural to suppose the exposition cannot itself be science. That would make both titles inappropriate: on the face of it with The Science of the Experience of Consciousness, and the suffix in “phenomenology” also carries the implication that a work so titled is a contribution to science.
Hegel will later disarm the appearance that his book is not going to deserve either of its titles. Meanwhile, he says that “from this standpoint” (that is, even if we think the work itself is not science), “it [what the book will set out] can be taken as the path of natural consciousness that presses towards true knowing, or as the path of the soul that journeys through the series of its shapes, as stations laid out for it by its nature, so that it may purify itself into spirit, in that through the complete experience of itself it achieves knowledge of what it is in itself” (§ 77). Science, true knowing, is the goal even if we temporarily assume that the account of the progress towards it is not science.
How are we to understand this idea of “the path of natural consciousness?” Hegel now gives a preliminary explanation of what will happen in “the exposition of knowledge as it makes its appearance.”
The exposition will start by bringing putative knowledge on the scene in the guise of a shape of “natural consciousness.” The shape’s claim to be a shape of knowing consciousness will be unmasked as mere appearance. Hegel will soon explain how the unmasking will happen, and I will come to that. Meanwhile, we learn that when it is unmasked as a mere appearance of knowing, the first shape will be replaced by another candidate, which will be unmasked in its turn. Soon Hegel will begin to explain how the replacement shape is related to the shape it replaces. The process in which one shape of natural consciousness gives way to another will go on until the progress towards true knowing reaches its goal.
For natural consciousness—the subject of the putative modes of knowing that its successive shapes are—this is, as Hegel has so far described it, a path of despair; at each stage, the claim of a shape of natural consciousness to be a shape of knowing consciousness will be shown to be unwarranted.
But even in this preliminary description of the path of natural consciousness, Hegel presupposes that in its succession of stages natural consciousness makes progress towards true knowing. And he offers a first sketch (§ 79) of how the successor shapes are related to their predecessors. The sketch makes room for the idea that the succession is determined, and progressive: “the exposition of non-truthful consciousness in its untruth is not a merely negative movement” (§ 79). At each stage the result of a candidate’s being undone is not an empty void, not a mere nothing, but a determinate negation of the unmasked candidate. (Hegel will explain what this means later.) The way a precursor is undone will determine the character of its successor, the next shape of natural consciousness: that is, the next putative mode of knowing to make its appearance. Thus:
This is a first glimpse of the fact that will enable Hegel to set aside the appearance that the exposition is not itself science: there is a system in what we now have in prospect as a complete series of shapes of natural consciousness. Once set in motion, the succession will go on by its own momentum until we come to a shape that passes muster as truly knowing.
[…] when the result [of the unmasking of a putative mode of knowing] is grasped as it is in truth, as determinate negation, a new form has thereby immediately sprung up, and in the negation the transition has been made through which the progression through the complete series of shapes comes about of its own accord.
To begin on elaborating this sketch, Hegel now explains some conceptual apparatus that he will use in explaining how shapes of consciousness are going to be unmasked as mere appearances of knowing.
He says (§ 80):
I will come back to some of the specifics of this passage, but for the present I want to focus on the remark that “with the individual the beyond is simultaneously posited for it.” With this talk of the beyond, Hegel is beginning to put in place conceptual apparatus in terms of which he will explain how shapes of consciousness come to grief.
That which is limited [beschränkt] to a natural life cannot by its own efforts transcend its immediate existence; but it is driven out of it by something else, and this uprooting is its death. Consciousness, however, is for itself its concept, and thereby is immediately the transcending of the limited item [das Hinausgehen über das Beschränkte], and, since this limited item [dies Beschränkte] belongs to it, of itself. With the individual the beyond is simultaneously posited for it, even if only—as in spatial intuition—spatially related to [neben] the limited item. Thus consciousness suffers this violence, of ruining for itself the limited satisfaction [die beschränkte Befriedigung], at its own hands.
He gives more explanation of this conceptual apparatus a couple of paragraphs later. There are two aspects to the idea of an object for consciousness: first, the object’s being for consciousness, a being that consists in how it is related to the consciousness whose object it is; and, second, the being in itself consciousness attributes to its object, the being consciousness conceives its object as having independently of how it is related to consciousness. The second aspect is what he means by “the beyond” in the passage I have just quoted.
Thus (§ 82):
And again (§ 84):
Consciousness […] distinguishes from itself something to which it relates itself; or, as I will express this: it [the something to which consciousness relates itself] is something for consciousness; and the determined side of this relating, or of the being of something for a consciousness, is [putative] knowing. But from this being for another [that is, for consciousness] we distinguish being in itself; that which is related to [putative] knowing is by the same token distinguished from it and posited as being also outside this relation [or, we might say, beyond it]; the side of this in-itself is called truth.
There is in it [consciousness] one thing for an other, or it has in general the determinedness of the moment of [putative] knowing in itself; at the same time to it [consciousness] this other is not only for it, but also outside this relation [again, we might say beyond it] or in itself: the moment of truth.
Hegel exploits this double character of the idea of an object for consciousness to disarm a difficulty he notes one might have about his sketch of what is going to happen in the book, the exposition of knowledge as it makes its appearance.
If a shape of consciousness is revealed as a mere appearance of knowing, it must be because it fails to meet a standard or criterion. But where does the standard come from? If a shape does not meet a standard imposed on it from outside, why should the shape accept the verdict that it is not what it purports to be? What entitles us to assess a shape by a standard we bring to bear on it?
Hegel responds that the standard by which a shape is assessed is not imposed by us, but internal to the shape. A shape’s moment of (putative) knowing is tested according to whether it conforms to the shape’s own conception of its object’s being in itself, what in § 84 he calls its “moment of truth.” Later I will give an example, not from Hegel, that I hope will illuminate what that means.
It is not just that we do not need to contribute the standard by which a shape is tested. We do not even need to do the testing. Each shape will do that for itself, in an activity we need only observe (§ 85). We will watch as a shape tests itself, finds itself wanting, and bows out, to be replaced by a new shape that is determined, in a way we have yet to consider in detail, by the way its predecessor fails.
The passage I quoted from § 80, which begins on introducing the apparatus Hegel uses to explain the way shapes of consciousness will test themselves, repays a detailed reading, and I am going to spend some time on it.
It begins by contrasting consciousness with what is limited to a natural life. That presumably means ordinary animals, not special in the way Hegel is beginning to mark with the idea of consciousness. Ordinary animals surely have awareness, and their awareness has objects in some appropriate sense. But the being of an object of ordinary animal awareness has only one of those two aspects. The object has being only for the animal, only as it relates to the animal’s awareness: for instance as prey or predator. An ordinary animal does not also conceive an object of its awareness as having being in itself, outside that relation (to echo § 82 and § 84). In the language of § 80, the beyond is not posited.
Consciousness, in contrast, is for itself its concept. I think that means that consciousness is at least implicitly self-conscious. A few paragraphs further on (§ 85), Hegel says “consciousness is on the one hand consciousness of the object and on the other hand consciousness of itself; consciousness of that which is the true for it and consciousness of its knowing of that.” In the body of the text, it will take a while before we have a shape of natural consciousness in whose self-understanding this feature of itself figures explicitly. But even before that, consciousness is at least implicitly in its own conceptual sights; that is characteristic of consciousness as such. And Hegel is suggesting it follows that the idea of an object for consciousness has those two aspects. In consciousness, unlike ordinary animal awareness, the beyond is posited: consciousness conceives its object as having being anyway, outside the relation that constitutes the object’s being for consciousness.
Because consciousness is its own concept, it is immediately the transcending of the limited item. What does that mean?
In Terry Pinkard’s translation, Hegel says consciousness “goes beyond the restriction.” Working with Pinkard’s translation, Robert Pippin takes Hegel to be saying consciousness is always beyond being restricted to any norms, in that it is always ready to withdraw its allegiance to the norms it conceives itself as functioning under, which it conceives as provisional because they are self-imposed.4
What Hegel says consciousness transcends is not the limitation (Pinkard’s “restriction”), but the limited (I supplied the dummy noun “item”); he uses a participial adjective, not a noun formed from the relevant verb. Of course to be limited is to be subject to a limitation; if consciousness transcends something limited, it transcends the limitation to which the limited thing is subject. But what limitation would that be? The obvious answer is the limitation Hegel mentions in the immediate context: not to some set of norms, as in Pippin’s reading, but to a natural life. Consciousness transcends the limitation to a natural life. And in transcending what is limited by being subject to that limitation, it transcends the locus of the natural life to which its possessor would be limited if it were not for the transcendence: that is, a person’s animal body. The limited item belongs to consciousness: that is, for any possessor of consciousness the limited item is that person’s body. That yields a sense in which, as Hegel says, in transcending the limited item consciousness transcends itself.
This provides a straightforward explanation for Hegel’s example of the beyond. A subject of spatial intuition conceives an object she intuits not just as an object of her spatial intuition, but as anyway, independently of being intuited by her, being at a position constituted by its spatial relation to the limited item, her body, or (better) to the position her body in fact occupies. As she conceives the object, it would have been at that position even if it had not been intuited by her. Here being intuited serves as an example of the being of an object for consciousness, and being where it is anyway is the being in itself, outside the relation of being intuited, that a spatially intuiting consciousness attributes to its object.
I have spent some time on this passage. But I want to say more about two things in it that I think are suggestive towards an understanding of the program Hegel is setting out.
The first is the contrast between consciousness and what is limited to a natural life. In an ordinary sense, “consciousness” (or Bewusstsein) can be applied to an ordinary animal’s awareness of things. But Hegel is restricting his use of the term to something that is, as he puts it, for itself its concept and consequently conceives its object as having being in itself, outside how it is related to the subject of consciousness. Consciousness in Hegel’s sense is not something we share with ordinary animals.
However, the limited item is still in the picture. As I put it, a possessor of consciousness is something that would have been limited to a natural life if there had not been the transcendence that consciousness effects. A possessor of consciousness is an animal of a special kind.
Early in the section of his Encyclopedia devoted to spirit (Geist), Hegel says (§ 378) that a philosophy of spirit should aim to recapture the teaching of Aristotle’s books on the soul.
A kind of soul, in Aristotle, is a formally distinctive way of being a living thing. There is a hierarchy of kinds of soul. At a higher level in the hierarchy there are manifestations of life of which some are also found at the immediately lower level, but some are new as we move to the higher level. At the higher level the elements shared with the lower level are present in different forms. Thus for an animal, being the living thing it is includes nutrition and reproduction, which also occur, in different forms, in plant life. And for a rational animal, being the living thing it is includes life functions characteristic of animal life, perception and locomotion, but in different forms in the presence of further manifestations of life not found in the lives of ordinary animals.
The second thing in the passage from § 80 that I want to say more about is Hegel’s example of the beyond, the being in itself that a shape of consciousness attributes to its objects.
An arguably sufficient and perhaps necessary condition for being able to deploy the idea of a perceptible thing existing unperceived is the capacity to work with an idea of space. I make sense of things that are perceptible existing without my perceiving them by conceiving them as outside spatial limits on the reach of my experience. And if I do perceive an object, I conceive it as having an existence that is independent of my perceiving it, because I suppose it would have been where it is, at a position determined by its spatial relation to where I actually am, even if I had been elsewhere than where I am and not placed to perceive it. That is the conception of the being in itself that consciousness attributes to an object of spatial intuition, as it figures in Hegel’s example of the beyond.
P.F. Strawson, in Individuals,5 raises the question whether a purely auditory experience could provide for the idea of objects of experience whose existence is independent of their being experienced. We could answer the question affirmatively if a purely auditory experience could provide for an analogue to the idea of space. But Strawson makes it plausible that a purely auditory experience could not do that.
This could be framed as an instance of the kind of failure of a shape of consciousness that is going to drive the progress of natural consciousness in the Phenomenology. If a consciousness is such that the being for it of its objects is exhausted by their being heard by it, it is not entitled to conceive its objects as having a being in themselves that is independent of their being heard by it. If such a consciousness conceives itself as knowing objects whose being in themselves is independent of their being heard by it, it fails when its moment of putative knowing, the being for it of its objects, is tested by a standard constituted by how it is trying to conceive the being they have in themselves.
Hegel says the experience in which a shape of consciousness comes to grief brings on the scene a new shape with a new object. In explaining this, he gives a bit more specificity to his earlier claim that the negation of a precursor shape is a determinate negation, so that what comes next in the succession of shapes is determined by the failure of what comes before it.
When a shape tests itself and fails, it is revealed that what it conceived as the being in itself of its object was not in fact, but only for it, the being in itself of an object it could take itself to know. As Hegel said earlier, this does not leave us with nothing. The precursor shape is not simply destroyed; it is determinately negated. And he now explains this a bit further. The failure of the precursor shape determines the object for the successor shape: the new object is what has proved to be the being only for consciousness of what the precursor shape took to be the being in itself of its object.
That is abstract; to make it more concrete, we would need to apply it to the transitions in the book, which would not be straightforward. But what I want to bring out here is only this: at least in aspiration, there is a system to how successor shapes will come on the scene, so that once initiated the progress is determined. This is how Hegel sets aside the initial appearance that since the exposition deals with “untruthful consciousness,” it cannot itself be science. It is not just that the narration of the series of shapes describes a progress to science; the narration itself is science, because of the systematic character with which the series will unfold.
Hegel says the emergence of a new shape of consciousness with its new object takes place “for us [as opposed to the consciousness that is being educated to science], as it were behind the back of consciousness” (§ 87). In the body of the book, when a new shape of consciousness comes on the scene, its character is, so far as it is concerned, simply the character of consciousness. It has no conception of how it came to seem, to us witnessing the experience of its precursor, that the next shape of consciousness had to have that character. Hegel speaks of natural consciousness as undergoing education to science, but the successive shapes of consciousness are not stages in the self-understanding of a persisting natural consciousness that is aware of itself as making progress. Only at the end will there be a consciousness that can recall the stages by which the progression led to it. Unlike the testing of the shapes, which they perform themselves, the system in the exposition, and so its character as science, is our contribution (§ 87).
So much for the original title. What about calling the work The Phenomenology of Spirit?
That title can be made out to fit the exposition Hegel describes in the Introduction. One of his descriptions of the goal towards which consciousness is to progress is “that it may purify itself into spirit, in that through the complete experience of itself it achieves knowledge of what it is in itself” (§ 77; I quoted this earlier). Consciousness will reach its goal, a shape in which its object’s being for it conforms to its conception of its object’s being in itself, when it achieves a full understanding of itself as spirit. Seen from this angle, the shapes of consciousness are progressively improving attempts at a self-understanding for spirit. So the progress can be described as the science of how spirit makes its appearance: the phenomenology of spirit.
But part of the text as we have it is hard to square completely with the program of the Introduction, and it is tempting to speculate that a new plan to include material that was not in the original plan accounts for the change of title. In the spirit chapter, the transitions are no longer between mere shapes of consciousness, but between historically actual configurations of human life; Hegel notes the difference at § 441. The idea is evidently that full human self-understanding is possible only in the configuration of communal life that has been achieved in modernity, through a historical development whose outlines he offers.
The transitions from one historically actual form of spirit to another could be described as responses to experiences, self-testings, on the part of successive shapes of consciousness. But these transitions are unlike the transitions from one mere shape of consciousness to another that figure in the earlier chapters: for instance from a shape of consciousness conceiving itself as sense-certainty, so that the being for it of its objects is immediate presence to the senses, to perception, which knows that the presence of objects to it is mediated by concepts. And the program described in the Introduction is an imperfect fit for the transitions in the spirit chapter. For one thing, it is not easy to see them as moves from one understanding of the relation between consciousness and its objects to another. For another, it is not true of those transitions, except accidentally, that they happened behind the backs of the people involved.
As I said, the idea of a phenomenology, a science of the appearing, of spirit can be made out to fit the transitions between mere shapes of consciousness in the earlier chapters. And it also fits these shifts between historically actual forms of spirit. If it occurred to Hegel only while he was writing that an account of historical stages in the progress of spirit to modernity could be part of a description of an education of consciousness to science, that might account for his changing the title to the one we have.
But even if the Introduction is less than successful in introducing the whole of the book Hegel ended up writing, that leaves in place the fact that it sets out a program for the book he was planning to write when he wrote the Introduction. The Introduction does not just get the book going; it says with some specificity what is supposed to happen in it. We should count a reading at least of the earlier chapters a failure if it does not either show how they fit the program described in the Introduction, or explain any divergence from it.
Since this makes it possible to find passages in any text, I cite by the paragraph numbers in Miller’s translation: A. V. Miller, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977). Translations are my own.
See Brandom’s Erkennen und Repräsentieren. Eine Lektüre (zwischen den Zeilen) von Hegels Einleitung in die Phänomenologie, in Brandom (2015, 123–221). This material is projected to figure in Brandom’s forthcoming book on the Phenomenology.
In the Encyclopedia (§ 10), he offers an apt image for what is in effect the natural supposition: it is like the idea that someone who wants to learn to swim should investigate what swimming is before getting into the water.
Pippin (2011, 21–34).
Strawson (1959, Ch. 2).
- Brandom, Robert. 2015. Widererinnerter Idealismus. Berlin: Suhrkamp.Google Scholar
- Pippin, Robert. 2011. Hegel on Self-Consciousness: Desire and Death in the Phenomenology of Spirit. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
- Strawson, Peter F. 1959. Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics. London: Methuen.Google Scholar