Home > History, Philosophy > Hegel And The Other: A Study Of The Phenomenology Of Spirit

Hegel And The Other: A Study Of The Phenomenology Of Spirit

State University of New York Press | 2005-08-30 | ISBN: 0791464733 | 318 pages | PDF

 This volume by Philip J. Kain is one of the most accessibly written books on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit available. Avoiding technical jargon without diluting Hegel’s thought, Kain shows the Phenomenology responding to Kant in far more places than are usually recognized. This perspective makes Hegel’s text easier to understand. Kain also argues against the traditional understanding of the absolute and touches on Hegel’s relation to contemporary feminist and postmodern themes.

The Phenomenology, as it proceeds, sets out different forms of consciousness for our examination. It orders them from the simplest to the most complex, from individual consciousness to absolute consciousness, and it tries to move ordinary consciousness along until it finally reaches and accepts the absolute. That is the way the Phenomenology is set out. But that is not the real order of things for Hegel. The absolute is not a last step that comes only at the end. The absolute is primary and total. As we shall see more clearly as we proceed, the absolute is a necessary presupposition for all earlier, lesser, simpler forms of consciousness. After all, nothing is outside the absolute. It may require the whole course of the Phenomenology for ordinary consciousness to become aware of the absolute, but once it does so, it sees that from the very first step of the Phenomenology, in the simplest form of awareness, it never existed outside the absolute.

The Phenomenology does not start with individual consciousness in the way that a Hobbes, Locke, or Kant would, and from there go on to try to deduce the absolute. In Hegel’s view such an individual consciousness radically apart from the absolute is impossible. We only start with such a stance in order to show that it must fail.

Hegel wants to argue that individual consciousness cannot hold up without cultural consciousness and that cannot hold up without absolute or religious consciousness. So Hegel sets out as many forms of consciousness as he can. He lays them out from the simplest to the most complex. Each form of consciousness echoes traditional philosophical views—those of empiricism, or Kant, or Fichte, or Rousseau, or others. Each echoes some position in traditional epistemology, or metaphysics, or ethics, or political theory, or philosophy of religion. And Hegel tries to show that no one of these positions will hold up, avoid contradiction, escape some difficulty or inadequacy, some shortcoming, until we move all the way to the absolute.

The need for the absolute is a need for an adequate paradigm. Each stage of the Phenomenology, we will discover, lacks something. To handle what is missing will require a more complex and inclusive conceptual scheme that will include all that the earlier scheme did plus what it could not. In this way we gain the presuppositions necessary to explain our experience. And to do so adequately, Hegel thinks, will ultimately require a paradigm that includes all reality.

If the absolute includes all of reality, if we cannot avoid it, if we cannot even get outside it, why doesn’t the Phenomenology just start with the absolute right off? In the Philosophy of History, the absolute is there before us from the first pages; whereas, in the Phenomenology we have to wait for more than four hundred pages before we get to the absolute. This is because the task of the Phenomenology is to introduce ordinary consciousness to and to prove the absolute. We cannot start by assuming the existence of this monster— who would believe us? If we want to prove the absolute, we cannot start with it—with a definition, a principle, an intuition, “a shot from a pistol”.

Hegel starts with the most basic sort of awareness, namely, simple sensation. From there he moves step by step through ever more complex forms of experience, and he carefully examines each one of them. He watches each try to explain itself, justify itself, give an adequate account of itself. Each and every one fails to do so and each time we must move on to a more complex form of consciousness—one that tries to account for all that the earlier form did as well as what the earlier form was unable to account for.

If any of these earlier forms of consciousness were actually able to justify itself, hold up, adequately explain experience, and solve all its problems, then Hegel’s project would fail. We would stop there and would need go no further. We would have a philosophical account of experience that did not require the absolute. But for Hegel, each of these stages does fail and we must move on until we reach the absolute. Only the absolute will be able to hold up.

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