Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit

Beginning in 2009 and over about the next four years I was one of a small group of friends who met regularly to read and discuss the Phenomenology of Spirit. My take on this work is that Hegel was trying to answer the following questions:

  • How can we know what we think we know?
  • How can we have some assurance that what we think we know is correct?
  • Are there any limits to what we can know?

1. How can we know what we think we know?

First off, we cannot know “the thing in itself”. Kant showed this in his work. 

Second, in his Preface to the Phenomenology, Hegel says “In my view, which can be justified only by the exposition of the system itself, everything turns on grasping and expressing the True, not only as Substance, but equally as Subject.”1The system he refers to is his System of Science to which the Phenomenology was a starting point.

What we know, then, are mental models of everything. Hegel goes through the various stages from simplest to most complex in developing these models, each stage building on the previous one, as follows (abbreviated):

  • Consciousness
    • Sense-Certainty
    • Perception
    • Force and the Understanding
  • Self-Consciousness
  • Reason
  • Spirit
  • Religion

2. How can we have some assurance that what we think we know is correct?

From the above step, a person develops a mental model. But it is likely to be different from another person’s model of the same reality, because part of the model is always subjective. 

The only way we can develop a common understanding of the True is by people carrying on constant communication with each other. This is why Pinkard’s book on the Phenomenology is subtitled “The Sociality of Reason”.2 There results an adjustment of individual views of the True, leading eventually to what Hegel calls the World-Spirit, containing a sense of correct knowledge at that time. However, the World-Spirit keeps changing, as we know from social history; common beliefs of a hundred years or even fifty years ago have changed.

So we can never be completely certain of our knowledge. At the end of the book, Hegel is saying that history shows the successive shapes of the World-Spirit, and that his “Systematic Science” developed in the book can be used to understand the current and continuing evolution of the World-Spirit.

3. Are there any limits to what we can know?

In Hegel’s view, we can create a web or system of thought that is unlimited; generations can continue to expand this collective knowledge, always subject to the uncertainties discussed above.

1 Paragraph 17 in the Preface, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, translated by A.V. Miller, Oxford University Press, 1977.

2 Hegel’s Phenomenology, The Sociality of Reason, by Terry Pinkard, Cambridge University Press, 1994.