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Hegel and the "Spirit"

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) is one of the greatest systematic thinkers in the history of Western philosophy. In addition to epitomising German idealist philosophy, Hegel boldly claimed that his own system of philosophy represented a historical culmination of all previous philosophical thought. Hegel's overall encyclopedic system is divided into the science of Logic, the philosophy of Nature, and the philosophy of Spirit. Of most enduring interest are his views on history, society, and the state.

Hegel's principal achievement is his development of a distinctive articulation of idealism," in which the dualisms of, for instance, mind and nature and subject and object are overcome. His philosophy of spirit conceptually integrates psychology, political science, history, art, religion, and philosophy. His account of the master-slave dialectic has been highly influential, especially in 20th-century France. Of special importance is his concept of spirit (Geist: sometimes also translated as "mind") as the historical manifestation of the logical concept and the "sublation" (Aufhebung: integration without elimination or reduction) of seemingly contradictory or opposing factors; examples include the apparent opposition between nature and freedom and between immanence and transcendence. Hegel has been seen in the 20th century as the originator of the thesis, antithesis, synthesis triad; however, as an explicit phrase, it originated from Fichte.

The Phenomenology of Spirit (Die Phänomenologie des Geistes), published in 1807, is Hegel's first major comprehensive philosophical work. This work provides what can be called a "biography of spirit," i.e., an account of the development of consciousness and self-consciousness in the context of some central epistemological, anthropological and cultural themes of human history.

One of the most widely discussed places in the Phenomenology is the chapter on "The Truth of Self-Certainty" which includes a subsection on "Independence and Dependence of Self-Consciousness: Lordship and Bondage." This section treats of the  "master/slave" struggle which is taken by some, especially the Marxian-inspired, as a paradigm of all forms of social conflict, in particular the struggle between social classes. The conflict between master and slave is one in which the historical themes of dominance and obedience, dependence and independence, etc., are philosophically introduced. Although this specific dialectic of struggle occurs only at the earliest stages of self-consciousness, it nonetheless sets up the main problematic for achieving realised self-consciousness – the gaining of self-recognition through mutual recognition with another.

According to Hegel, the relationship between self and otherness is the fundamental defining characteristic of human awareness and activity, being rooted as it is in the emotion of desire for objects as well as in the estrangement from those objects, which is part of the primordial human experience of the world. The otherness that consciousness experiences as a barrier to its goal is the external reality of the natural and social world, which prevents individual consciousness from becoming free and independent. However, that otherness cannot be abolished or destroyed, without destroying oneself, and so ideally there must be reconciliation between self and other such that consciousness can "universalise" itself through the other. The relation between lord and bondsman leads to a sort of provisional, incomplete resolution of the struggle for recognition between distinct consciousnesses. Hegel concludes that only in a realm of ethical life can self-determination be fully self-conscious to the extent that universal freedom is reflected in the life of each individual member of society.

The dialectic of self-determination is, for Hegel, inherent in the very structure of freedom, and is the defining feature of Spirit (Geist). The full actualisation of Spirit in the human community requires the progressive development of individuality which effectively begins with the realisation in self-consciousness of the "truth of self-certainty" and culminates in the shape of a shared common life in an integrated community of love and Reason, based upon the realisation of truths of incarnation, death, resurrection, and forgiveness as grasped in speculative Religion. The articulation Hegel provides in the Phenomenology, however, is very generic and is to be made concrete politically with the working out of a specific conception of the modern nation-state with its particular configuration of social and political institutions.

The history of Spirit is the development through time of its own self-consciousness through the actions of peoples, states, and world historical actors who, while absorbed in their own interests, are nonetheless the unconscious instruments of the work of Spirit. "All actions, including world-historical actions, culminate with individuals as subjects giving actuality to the substantial. They are the living instruments of what is in substance the deed of the world mind and they are therefore directly at one with that deed though it is concealed from them and is not their aim and object," he writes. The actions of great men are produced through their subjective willing and their passion, but the substance of these deeds is actually the accomplishment not of the individual agent but of the World Spirit.

So, Hegel is perhaps best known for his teleological account of history, an account that was later taken over by Marx and “inverted” into a materialist theory of a historical development culminating in communism. Hegel greatly influenced the new perception of history as a process of continuous progress, of evolution that leads to a social and political betterment. His Geist does not imply a transcendental, divine concept, but a socio-historical atmosphere standing above individual achievements, but to which everyone, especially great men, make a contribution.

Zeitgeist (spirit of the time or spirit of the age) is a term also attributed to Hegel, although he never used it. It represents the dominant set of ideals and beliefs that motivate the actions of the members of a society in a particular period in time. Hegel uses the phrase der Geist seiner Zeit (the spirit of his time), as in: "no man can surpass his own time, for the spirit of his time is also his own spirit." He believed that art, for example, reflected, by its very nature, the culture of the time in which it is created.

Main source: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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