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Loyno Hegel's Phenomenology: Self-Consciousness

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J.C. Berendzen

on 28 April 2011

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Transcript of Loyno Hegel's Phenomenology: Self-Consciousness

Unlike the previous sections, the heading here is not one of Hegel's titles--the material to be discussed here comes at the end of "Force and the Understanding."

At the very end of pp 160, though, Hegel makes a crucial transition by introducing the concept of "Infinity." This is the first time where we really get a glimpse into a part of Hegel's ultimate view. Hegel's use of that term (like his use of pretty much any and every term) is somewhat unusual, though it is not entirely separate from its entire meaning. The first instance of something like a definition comes at the beginning of pp 161.

We might first say what Hegel does not mean by "infinity." He is not referring to something like a never-ending linear series (like the common-sense understanding of numerical infinity), nor is he referring to something like a space without boundaries. He is also not referring to the current mathematical conception of infinity (which began to be developed a generation or so after Hegel by people like Cantor and Dedekind).

Rather, he is thinking more of something kind of like an endlessly looping circuit (or perhaps something like what is graphically represented by the infinity sign). The idea here, roughly, is that we do not grasp relations between objects as depending upon some metaphysical substrate which enables the phenomenal relations, nor do we go with the common sense view which takes objects to be "indifferent" to one another. Rather, we are supposed to grasp the relations as being somehow coextensive with the objects related.

After introducing the concept of infinity, Hegel ties it, in 162, to the concept of "Life". This way of talking about life is rooted in a kind of organicism. To understand this point, we can consider a definition of "organicism" given in a late 19th Century edition of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

In 163, Hegel says that "infinity first freely emerges as explanation." What he means by this is that at the stage reached at the end of the discussion of force, infinity is grasped only on the side of the object. Consciousness has not yet grasped its "infinite" or "living" character. But "when infinity is finally an object for consciousness, and consciousness is aware of it as what it is, then consciousness is self-consciousness."

This seems to be the key to the motivation behind the shift from Consciousness to Self-Consciousness, then--at the end of the discussion of consciousness we recognize that the objective world makes up a kind of holistic totality. What has not yet been grasped is the fact that the subject is also an element in that totality. When that is properly grasped, self-consciousness is obtained. Infinity, Life, and the Transition to Self-Consciousness 161. By virtue of infinity, we see that the law has been perfected in itself into necessity, and we see all moments of appearance incorporated into the inner. What is simple in law is infinity, and this means, in terms of how things have turned out, ) What is in-parity-with-itself is, however, the distinction in itself, that is, it is the “like pole” which repels itself from itself, that is, which estranges itself. What was called simple force doubles itself, and by virtue of its infinity is law.

162. This simple infinity, that is, the absolute concept, is to be called the simple essence of life, the soul of the world, the universal bloodstream, which is omnipresent, neither dulled nor interrupted by any distinction, which is to a greater degree itself both every distinction as well as their sublatedness. It is therefore pulsating within itself without setting itself in motion; it is trembling within itself without itself being without agitated. It is
itself parity-with-itself, for the distinctions are tautological; they are distinctions that are none at all. This essence in-parity with-itself relates itself merely to itself. Organicism
“1) a complex structure of interdependent and subordinate elements whose relations and properties are largely determined by their function in the whole and 2) an individual constituted to carry on the activities of life by means of organs separate in function but mutually dependent: a living being”. Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit B: Self-Consciousness IV: Self-Certainty At the end of "Consciousness," we come to realize that the emphasis on the objective was mistaken. The upshot of sense-certainty, perception, and force was that a crucial element of the truth of objectivity can only be grasped by the knowing mind (the subject). The starting point of Self-Consciousness is this realization.

But just as the conceptions of consciousness discussed in the previous chapter each had inherent problems that motivated a move to a higher level, our conception of self-consciousness will have to progress dialectically.

The primary problem with the first conception of self-consciousness is that it does not properly relate to "otherness", i.e. it does not correctly grasp its relation to the objective world (see the mention of the "distinction which...[is] no distinction at all").

For our purposes, though, the most important discussion of this early character of self-consciousness comes in 167, which we are going to examine in depth. Note, in particular, the subtle reference to Kant & Fichte.

Also crucial in this passage is the construal of self-consciousness into two "moments". In 168, just after this initial exposition of the first stage of self-consciousness, Hegel links self-consciousness to a concept that first cropped up at the end of the previous chapter--"Life".

Note that the reference to Life is connected with the object. Note
also two other things:
The object is said to be the "negative" of self-consciousness
The object is said to have "returned into itself"
Both of these points suggest something that is commonly taken to be a (or maybe the) hallmark of idealism--the objective world somehow shares the character of the mental (because Hegel is suggesting that the objective is like self-consciousness).

At this point, though, consciousness takes self-consciousness and the object to be self-sufficent.

Note that the object of desire is said to be "something living." But, the "concept estranges itself into the opposition between self-consciousness and life." The point here is basically that self-consciousness does not at this point realize that it is also a part of "life" and takes there to be a separation.

We might, at this point, recall the things that Schelling says in the Naturphilosophie about "mere reflection" being a "mental disorder." The point is somewhat similar.

This self-sufficiency is elaborated in 169. PP171:

This section presents a very long (and odd, and seemingly somewhat redundant) discussion of Life as on the one hand "durable" and "self-sufficient" shapes (called, at one point, "living things") and on the other hand "the infinity of the distinctions" (also called life as process).

Basically, Hegel is saying that the holistic network can be thought of either in terms of the relata (the objects) or the relations. But part of the reason that the passage sounds redundant (and seems to osscillated between repetitions of these two points) is to show that both have to be understood together. Note, in this regard, the sentence "the whole cycle constitutes life." PP172:

One might wonder why we have to get this really long discussion of Life in the middle of what is supposed to be a discussion of self-consciousness. Well, we start to get the upshot in 172. The crucial thing about this small section is the notion that Life, properly understood, is seen to be a "genus." This immediately leads to...


Self-consciousness, at this stage, wants to see itself as a "simple genus" as well ("in its eyes" it is a "simple essence" and "pure I").

The last sentence here is very important PP174:

The basic points of this short section are:
self-consciousness is the negative of the "self-sufficient moments" (i.e. objects)
Thus it only knows itself insofar as it knows (more specifically, "sublates") objects.
This is why self-consciousness is desire.
As desire, it wants to destroy the objects.

While each of these points can be stated simply, we need to discuss them in much more detail.

PP 175:

Based on the points developed in 174, Hegel makes an argument here that is, in some sense, the whole argument of the self-consciousness chapter made in brief (it will then be fleshed out in much more detail in the following sections). Consumptive desire ends up being unsatisfactory, for a fairly simple reason. Self-consciousness depends on the other in order to know itself. If that is the case, it would obviously be incoherent for it to assert itself by destroying the other, because it would then destroy itself in turn.

So in order to maintain itself, self-consciousness must meet up with an other that it does not destroy through consumptive desire. So it must meet up with something that can stand up to it. Hegel thinks that happens when it meets something that also "effects the negation in itself." We now get the first statement of one of Hegel's most famous views...


The beginning of this section is about the closest thing you will find in Hegel's writing to a quick and clear summation of an argument (it basically sums up 174&175).

At the end of this section, we get more talk of something being a "genus", but this time it is the other self-consciousness. This should sound a little weird--the first self-consciousness takes itself to be a "genus" (a universal) and it meets up with an other version of the same kind of thing that also takes itself to be a genus...but if they are two versions of the same type of thing, then they couldn't each be their own general type, could they?

PP. 177:

The answer to that last question is, of course, "no." The point here is basically that through the confrontation with another self-consciousness the first self-consciousness comes to learn that it is related to something greater (Life, as it turns out). So this section discusses how self-consciousness can only really become what it is through relating to another self-consciousness.

And so we get a pretty huge claim, regarding SPIRIT

178 begins the subsection that is surely the most oft written about and discussed passage in Hegel's corpus, on "Herrschaft und Knechtschaft" (translated by Pinkard as "mastery and servitude", this is most often called "master and slave," though one also hears the older--from the first English translation of the text--"lordship and bondage").

I mentioned above that the argument (that starts more or less in 174) that brings us from subject and object as each self-sufficient to Spirit is a quick version of an argument that is later developed in more detail. Here we start to get that detail, as the so-called "master-slave dialectic" will discuss the development of an assymetrical relationship between self-consciousnesses that works out the issue regarding the one needing the other to become fully what it is. But in 178 Hegel importantly notes (and this is often underplayed--or missed outright--in many readings of Hegel) that this assymetrical relationship is a sort of pathological version of a more primarily symmetrical, reciprocal relationship that Hegel calls RECOGNITION MASTERY AND SERVITUDE This leads to the fairly strong claim that ends this sub-section, that consciousness "steps into the spiritual daylight of the present."

This last point, regarding the reciprocal nature of recognition, is developed in 181-185.

All of the talk of doubling can be confusing, but keep in mind that it is just meant to reinforce the point about the symmetry of the process. The first self-consciousness is "doubled" in the first instance for the reason we have already discussed, i.e. that self-consciousness depends on the recognition of the other. But it is "doubled again" insofar as the same thing can be said for the second self-consiousness as well.

This point about doubling is made reasonably clearly in 183. PP 184:

This is, I think, the most important passage in this opening stretch of the Mastery and Servitude section. It largely repeats the point that has been developed so far, but it introduces the language of "middle" and "extreme" terms. To the left I have attempted to display this point graphically.

From the perspective of one consciousness, the other is the "middle term." But that would, of course, be the case for each of them (making them both middles and extremes). When this point is grasped, something really important happens! OTHER
(Middle term) Self
(Extreme Terms) Beginning End PP 185:

This is a transitional paragraph. Note that he says that the process will first exhibit *disparity*--another way of putting this point is that the process which is in principle reciprocal will initially display a lack of reciprocity. This leads to the "master-slave dialectic" proper.

PP 186:

Consciousness is in the first instance "in parity with itself" because it takes itself (as we have already discussed in the beginning of the self-consciousness chapter) to be absolute. The other, at this point, is a self-consciousness also, but to each other the other is like a object. So at the end of this section self-consciousness is said to not yet reach its truth, because it wants to understand itself as absolute and has not yet grasped the need for recognition. PP 187:

Here we seem to get Hegel at his most outlandish, as this section contains one of his most infamous assertions--that development of self-consciousness...and freedom...and personhood...requires a struggle to the death.

This passage is troubling for a few reasons. First, up to this point the discussion has been pretty solidly dealing with the concerns of theoretical philosophy (primarily epistemology but also perhaps metaphysics)--so why would we now move to talking about fights to the death (what the hell does that have to do with perceiving and conceiving of objects in the world??!!). Furthermore, it is not clear why the argument needs to take this step--why can't we just go right to mutual recognition?

Lets take the latter question first. This is primarily driven by Hegel's starting assumption that self-consciousness starts out as wanting to see itself as absolute--so one way of thinking of this is that it will want to be recognized without recognizing (i.e. it will try as hard as it can to stay absolute).

But why the talk about Death and Freedom, then? Why not just talk about an attempt to recognize without recognizing, and drop the extreme language? There seem to be two most obvious possible answers:
Hegel literally thinks that such a life-and-death struggle is necessary for attaining self-consciousness.
Hegel thinks that he has found a particularly apt way of dramatizing a development that doesn't literally require a struggle to the death.
I think the only plausible answer is the second--but why would this be apt? Well, recall that the objective is construed as "Life"--so taking something apart from life would be "Death" (I have to get you to recognize me, which means I have to get you to engage in a subjective act--so I must get you to not be objective). This would explain why he would also think that one must be willing to put one's life on the line. And the discussion of Freedom would also be apt here, because a common way of thinking about freedom is to think of separating oneself from merely natural processes (so being free requires showing that one can separate from life).

One might then consider the way in which188 seems to suggest that death is not actually a satisfactory aim, and why at the beginning of 189 self-consciousness learns that "life is as essential to it as pure self-consciousness." PP. 189:

The terms "master" and "servant" first show up here. More or less, this can be said to be the first stage where self-consciousness recognizes its dependence on the other, but it still tries to grasp the other as a thing, rather than as another subject. PP. 190:

This section lays out the basic structure of Mastery and Servitude. It is long, but it is necessary to read closely through the whole thing.

The basic upshot, though, is this. Consciousness at this stage (as we have noted repeatedly) knows that it must relate to objects, and knows that there is a kind of special relation with another self-consciousness (i.e. an object that can effect negation within itself). But at this stage self-conscousness still wishes to remain "self-sufficient"--so it attempts to relate to another self-consciousness by dominating that self-consciousness. PP. 191/192:

Here Hegel basically tells us that (primarily from the perspective of the master) that Mastery/Servitude-style recognition is not really full recognition (note the references to it being "one sided"--contrast with "gegenseitig"--and that the object does not correspond to the concept).

The points here are important, but we are going to skip over them a bit to focus on how these points are made with regard to the servant (because Hegel thinks that as far as the dialectical progression goes, the servant is in the better position). PP. 193:

That last point is stated very straightforwardly at the beginning of this section.

But the pretty clear question now is--why? Answering that will take us a long way toward understanding Mastery and Servitude as a whole.

PP. 194:

Here we get an important preliminary point--insofar as the servant relates to the master, the servant relates to an important stage of self-sufficient self-consciousness (which, ironically, the master does not relate to because the master has an impoverished self-relation). Basically, because the servant relates to a self-consciousness which is attempting to freely relate to objects, it has some inkling of what freedom is.

Then, another important point is made--the servant is consumed by Fear.
The fear here is fear of death (which is connected to the mentioned "absolute negativity" and "universal dissolution). But recall the special sense of the term "death" here--what the servant can grasp is absolute separation from the objective--which, to jump ahead a bit, is necessary for attaining a richer, higher-level connection with the objective. Partly, this is because it will grasp its special ability to relate to objects through taking particular perspectives on them (rather than being tied to them in some immediacy).

PP. 195:

Apparently, the servant is helped in moving from that "absolute negativity" toward that higher unity with objects through work.
Important here is the notion that because the servant cannot just directly consume the objects of its labor (because it produces for the master) it learns to more fully grasp its ability to interact with the objective.

Note, and consider, Hegel's claim that "work is desire held in check."

And then at the end of this section he says that work leads to "individuality." Recall the point I tried to make earlier regarding the various positions in basketball (I especially talked about the point guard). There I was trying to show that something could be an individual in the clear sense that it has a role that is particular to it alone, but that such a particular role could depend entirely on how that thing relates to other things. This is basically the point (individuation through relation) Hegel is getting at here.

PP. 196:

Here is, I think, a good example of a section where Hegel's rhetoric gets in the way of making an important, and reasonably clear, point.

The beginning of the section makes a very straightforward point--work enables the servant to develop "a mind of his own." This is basically a way of repeating the "individuality" point.
(Also, this section had a huge influence on Marx. This is a tangent, of course, but I think it is one that might help us understand Hegel.)

The talk about "fear" here is particularly obscure here, I think. But one has to remember the role this term plays in his technical vocabulary. The servant fears "death," and death is removal from "life." Life, is, in this text, the organic totality of the objective world--so death would be complete removal from objectivity (absolute negativity). So the servant is confronted with (in the person of the master) what I previously called a kind of "abyssal" absolute freedom. The servant needs this, because the servant needs to see the value of freedom--BUT the servant also needs "the discipline of service and obedience"--this refers to engaging in work which, as we saw above, leads to true individuality. "Service and obedience" in some sense temper freedom, and leads the servant to realize that finding a place in "life," rather than "death", is the true role of freedom... Marx on Alienated Labor:

In his "1844 Manuscripts," Marx makes the following famous claim:
"the worker is related to the product of labor as to an alien object. For on this premise it is clear that the more the worker spends himself, the more powerful becomes the alien world of objects which he creates over and against himself, the poorer he himself – his inner world – becomes, the less belongs to him as his own...The worker puts his life into the object; but now his life no longer belongs to him but to the object...Whatever the product of his labor is, he is not. Therefore, the greater this product, the less is he himself.

Prima fascie, Marx is here claiming the exact opposite of Hegel. But it is important to note that Marx thinks this happens only certain forms of economic production (most obviously, capitalism), and he thinks that there could be forms of production that do not lead to "estranged" labor. Consider the difference between these two pictures: STOICISM, SKEPTICISM, AND UNHAPPY CONSCIOUSNESS The dialectic of mastery and servitude does not actually end the discussion of self-consciousness. Rather, self-consciousness will develop through three more stages, or "shapes."

The first of these shapes is Stoicism. In Hegel's discussion here, stoicism basically amounts to a form of consciousness that reaches a kind of rationalistic view of the world as ordered and reasonable, and sees itself as fitting in that order.

This might seem a little odd given all the talk about work at the end of Mastery and Servitude (and my reference to Marx might exacerbate this). But we have to remember that Hegel is throughout attempting to describe our *cognition* of the world. The servant, importantly, comes to *think* of itself as fitting into the objective world, and thus moves in the next stage to *thinking* of that interaction as taking place in something like an ordered, harmonious whole.

But such rationalism is, at this point, naive, and belief in such a rational order has not been properly earned by actually thinking through all of the rational connections in the world. This leads consciousness to despair of that order, and to move to Skepticism. In this passage the skeptic is basically someone who comes to believe that rational order in things can't be grasped, so tries to return to pre-rational life in things (this is not a complete return to sense-certainty, though, because consciousness can't turn back the clock of the attaining of self-consciousness, as it were.

The third and final stage of this section is the Unhappy Consciousness. This is basically a stage where consciousness has come to realize that skepticism can't work (basically because it can't turn back the clock of self-consciousness), but can't (like the stoic) see a rational order in the world. So it believes that there is a rational order, but that order is not attainable to consciousness. Hegel associates this view with religion, and Christianity in particular.

Hegel's ultimate aim is to overcome such a state through "reconciliation"--basically getting consciousness to see that there is a rational order in the world, that consciousness is a part of that order, and that the order can be grasped (though not nearly as easily as the stoic would have it).

This motivates the next chapter, which is on Reason. It basically traces out various forms of rationalism that Hegel takes to be more sophisticated than stoicism (for example, Kantian, Fichtean, and Schellingian idealism are discussed there). These views are basically discussed as a way of setting the stage for Hegel's own view. An important question:
Is Hegel describing an historical development? It might seem like the answer is yes, because Stoicism and (ancient) Skepticism both name historical movements that happened more or less in the order listed. Furthermore, insofar as Unhappy Consciousness is tied to Christianity, that would seem to fit with the next historical stage (scholastic metaphysics). Also, Hegel clearly engages in this kind of speculative history of ideas in later works.

My view, though, is that Hegel's main aim is not to present an historical progression but a "logical" or "conceptual" progression--and it is just luck that in this portion of the Phenomenology there is something resembling an actual historical development that matches the conceptual development Hegel is discussing.
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