The Background of German Idealism and The Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit

Some Background to German Idealism and The Preface to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit

People who have even basic familiarity with 19th Century philosophy have heard a variety of claims that are not immediately obvious. For example, “Kant is a major turning point in modern philosophy,” or “Kant is the father of German Idealism,” or “Hegel completes Kant’s project” or–conversely–“Hegel is betraying Kant’s project.” All of these claims are elusive unless one has read both widely and deeply in modern philosophy. Therefore, my goal in the first part of this discussion is to provide some context in which to understand these and similar claims. This summary is necessarily brief and very likely lacking in total accuracy, so I encourage you to jump in whenever you think I’m missing something or getting something wrong.

1: Kant and the Origins of German Idealism

One of the common ways to tell the story of modern philosophy is to locate two different answers to the same question: “What can be known with absolute certainty?”

On the one hand, the tradition of rationalism (what Kant calls dogmatism) answers this question by claiming that there are innate ideas in the human mind, the truth of which ideas is guaranteed by God. This tradition distrusts the information revealed by the senses–among Descartes’s many examples of why we can’t trust our senses is the example of a tower. From a long way off, it looks somewhat round, but when I get closer it’s obviously rectangular. Moreover, philosophers in the rationalist tradition tend to want to throw away all previous ideas about what is true and false and start all over.

On the other hand, the tradition of empiricism answers the question by claiming we only have access to the world via sensory experience. Rather than mistrusting the senses altogether, we have to sort the correct information from the incorrect information. This approach to revealing truth wants to take what we think about the world and scrutinize it piece by piece. In it’s most extreme forms (as in Locke) it claims that humans have no natural ideas and are born as tabula rasa or blank slates that have to be filled with impressions.

Kant’s philosophy is generally regarded as both the synthesis of the best parts of both traditions, as well as the overthrowing of each side’s worst parts. Basically, Kant claims in his Critique of Pure Reason that we humans are naturally predisposed to have knowledge, but that we need actual sensory data in order to activate this capacity. For example, we are hardwired to experience the world via space and time. Likewise, when billiard ball A bumps into ball B, and then ball B moves, our minds are hardwired to see this relationship as a causal one. We do not actually see a cause somewhere on the table, but our minds add it. In this sense, our minds are not simply mirrors of what happens in the world. Rather, our minds in a sense create the things we experience.

However, and this will be crucial for the Idealist tradition, Kant does not claim we totally create the world with our minds. Claiming this would mean endorsing a radical, solipsistic position. Instead, he claims that the world that is out there cannot be experienced directly; instead, it is always mediated by our capacity to understand it. Thus, when I experience this table, I’m not experiencing the table in its purity, but only the table as the mind of Kevin interprets it. In Kant’s terms, I cannot experience “the thing in itself”; however, Kant reasons, there must be a real table–a table in itself– out there that causes my experience of the table.

To be clear, then, everything is actually two things: there is the thing as I experience it in my mind, and there is the real thing out there that causes my experience of it. In other words, according to the Kantian doctrine, the rationalist tradition is right that we have certain innate capacities for experience, but the empiricist is right because our innate capacities are useless until they actually get used to experience something.

Kant’s doctrine of the thing-in-itself seems reasonable enough at first glance, but as one of Kant’s earliest detractors noticed, it does not stand up to scrutiny very well. Friedrich Jacobi (a once well known but now largely forgotten figure) raised this simple question: if the idea of “causation” is something our mind adds to the sensory impressions we get, then how can something outside our minds cause anything? In other words, how can there be a thing-in-itself that causes our ideas of what is in the world? He claimed that Kant’s project, in requiring a thing-in-itself, is inconsistent. In order to make the project consistent, Jacobi claims that Kant must embrace a radical, solipsistic egoism–one that claims that there is nothing outside of me: “A transcendental idealist must have the courage to defend the strongest idealism that was ever taught. He should not shrink from the charge of speculative egoism, because he cannot preserve himself in his system if he wants to avoid this charge.”

Jacobi meant his claim as a kind of reductio ad absurdum. He could not imagine anyone taking seriously this idea of embracing a radical egoism, and so he thought he had shown that Kant’s project was untenable. (It’s worth noting that Jacobi coined the term “nihilism,” and he claimed that all philosophy is nihilist because it goes against faith). The first great German Idealist, J. G. Fichte, agreed with Jacboi’s arguments against Kant, but he read the former’s conclusion in exactly the opposite sense it was intended. Rather than conceding the unfeasibility of Kant’s project, Fichte took seriously the idea that the only way to make it work was to become radically egoistic. In his great unfinished project The Wissenschaftlehre (“The Doctrine of Scientific Knowledge”), he grounded all knowledge on a basic division between the “I” and the “not-I.”

By the time we get to Fichte, ther there are two growing methodological trends worth mentioning: (1) the simplification and consolidation of the basis of a system of though, and (2) the incorporation of everyday, even trivial, modes of thinking into the development of knowledge. First, Kant’s account of knowledge relies on a complicated network of activities and capacities. By contrast, Fichte has streamlined the foundation of the system to just one basic division: The “I” and it’s limit (“not-I”). Second, Kant claimed that many of the unresolvable problems in metaphysics spring from how our brains are wired. Take this problem: is the universe an infinite place without beginning or end, or is it a finite place with spatial and temporal limits? This problem has confounded metaphysics because we have good reasons for thinking both sides are true. To be brief, on the one side, we feel like everything is caused by something, so that whenever we “figure out” when the world started, we can always raise the question of what started that thing which started the world. On the other side, we are predisposed to thinking of everything as having limits, the universe included.

Unfortunately, it would take too long to go into Kant’s discussion. What I want to draw your attention to, however, is Kant’s way of trying to show some continuity between our basic, everyday ways of thinking and the loftiest philosophical concerns. This will become crucial to the German Idealists, who all try to explain knowledge and truth in terms of how they relate to everyday modes of thinking.

2: Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit

Phenomenology means the study of phenomena, so what are phenomena? Kant divides objects into “noumena” and “phenomena.” The “noumena” are the things-in-themselves that we talked about earlier. The “phenomena” are the things as they appear to us. Thus, a “phenomenology” is a study of things that appear, that are present to experience, avoiding discussing anything that is not experienceable. Notice that I say “experience” and not “sensation”–the former word includes more topics than the latter, so that mathematical concepts, for example, can be experienced but not sensed (we cannot see an imaginary number). “Spirit” is the translation of the German word Geist, which is usually translated as “spirit,” “mind,” “psyche,” “intellect,” and so on. The basic point to keep in mind is that it is not spirit in the sense of a New Age spiritualism–that is, it’s not a bunch of vague “feeling” that is somehow in opposition to rationality. Rather, “Geist” is a combination of the intellectual and the emotive.

In the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel’s goal is to give an account of how The Absolute is unfolded. The Absolute is, simply, absolutely everything that there is–it is the being of the universe along with the total knowledge of that being. In principle, Hegel’s project is not merely about trying to explain how humans gain knowledge of the world. However, the development of Spirit described in the book coincides with humanity. That is, the highest state of Spirit’s knowing itself takes place via humans. I’m sure that many of us have heard Carl Sagan’s famous quotation, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” The idea is that everything, including us, is made of the same basic particles, so when we study the universe, we are actually the universe studying itself. This idea is a modern, more scientifically minded Hegelianism.

The Phenomenology will proceed by showing how the universe comes to know itself by proceeding through the stages of this knowing. The most basic, animalistic sensory experience all the way up to the most advanced cultural and religious experience. In this sense, the Phenomenology is often characterized as a Bildungsroman, a novel of formation, in which the main character is The Absolute, like Great Expectations or Batman Begins.

The Preface was the last part of the book Hegel wrote, and as the story goes, he was writing it as Napoleon’s troops were entering his city. This is important to keep in mind because so much of the preface is concerned with talking about a new era or epoch that civilization is entering. Hegel and his contemporaries understood this new era not just in political terms, but also in philosophical terms. That is, it was the ushering in of a new phase of history.

Having given some overview of the project, we can turn to some of the themes in the Preface.

How to Read Philosophy and Prefaces

Hegel begins by noting that a preface typically situates the new book within an intellectual tradition and expresses the author’s aims. Similarly, when readers read the preface, they start to make judgements about the correctness of the work. Both approaches to the text are flawed, according to Hegel, because the preface is only the concept of the work–it is not the work itself. In other words, prefaces merely indicate the fuller work, but do not replace it. When readers attempt to make claims about the correctness of a work based on the preface, they are actually involved in a narcissistic act:

[I]nstead of getting involved in the real issue, this kind of activity is always away beyond it; instead of tarrying with it, and losing itself in it, this kind of knowing is forever grasping at something new; it remains essentially preoccupied with itself instead of being preoccupied with the real issue and surrendering to it. To judge a thing that has substance and solid worth is quite easy, to comprehend it is much harder, and to blend judgement and comprehension in a definitive description is the hardest thing of all (pg. 3 §3)

It is not hard to agree with Hegel that, yes, if you want to understand a book, you should read it all the way through. However, near the end of the Preface he makes some unintuitive claims about what constitutes philosophic competency. The approach to philosophy that will not argue is as bad as the approach to philosophy that takes a set of axioms and makes arguments based on them. “This conceit relies on truths which are taken for granted and which it sees no need to re-examine; it just lays them down, and believes it is entitled to assert them, as well as to judge and pass sentence by appealing to them” (pg 41 [para 67]). In other words, we can’t just claim to know something without explaining it, but neither can we find a set of axioms and base arguments on them. How, then, are we supposed to philosophize?

The Unfolding of Truth over Time and the Absolute as both Subject and Object of Knowledge

Hegel’s alternative to the standard approach to philosophy is to historicize it. Rather than searching for eternally true ideas, Hegel claims that truth is the goal or telos of a thing. The goal of the acorn is to become the tree, so we can say, “The truth of the acorn is the tree.” Hegel is concerned with the successive unfolding of Truth over time. One of the consequences of this approach is the acceptance that any particular stage or moment of knowledge has its own “truth,” even if this same moment seems false in retrospect. Take the analogy of a tree. The acorn is in some sense true–the various molecules that comprise it had as their goal “becoming acorn.” And yet, unknown to the acorn, it had a higher truth, that of sapling, which in turn has the truth of Tree. Thus, the acorn had its own truth, but after it has become a tree, the tree realizes that the “acorn truth” was, in fact, a falsehood. However, it was a necessary falsehood–there is no becoming tree without being acorn first.

“The single individual is incomplete Spirit, a concrete shape in whose whole existence one determinateness predominates, the others being present only in blurred outline. In a Spirit that is more advanced than another, the lower concrete existence has been reduced to an inconspicuous moment; what used to be the important thing is now but a trace; its patten is shrouded to become a mere shadowy outline” (pg16 §28).

In the history of knowledge, a similar process is at work. Hegel claims:

we find that what in former ages engaged the attention of men of mature mind, has been reduced to the level of facts, exercises, and even games for children; and, in the child’s progress through school, we shall recognize the history of the cultural development of the world traced, as it were, in a silhouette. (pg16 §28).

For example, about 4000 years ago, the Pythagorean Theorem was the pinnacle of mathematical thought, pondered by the most accomplished people of the time. Today, it is an exercise taught to children. The Pythagorean theorem is certainly true, but it is not the truth of mathematics.

It starts to become clear now why Hegel insists that argumentation is an inadequate tool for philosophy. Arguments proceed by dissecting ideas and uncovering assumptions in them. These ideas and assumptions are then measured against some standard or doctrine of accepted ‘truths’ or principles. According to Hegel, however, “a so-called basic proposition or principle of philosophy, if true, is also false, just because it is only a principle.” (pg13 §24). The kind of “truth” referred to is blind to its temporal dimension, to its unfolding over time.

From what has been said, we can see that Truth is a dynamic process of interplay between subject and object, between what somebody knows and what is known. But who is this somebody? As we covered earlier, The Phenomenology of Spirit is the biography of Spirit, so Spirit is the subject. What is it that Spirit knows, then? The book is about the unfolding of the Absolute. If the Absolute is everything, though, then that means it is both the subject and object. That is, the Absolute is both Spirit (the knowing) and Substance (what is known). In fact, the Absolute is Spirit, but it does not know that until it becomes Spirit. One more time, go back to the tree and acorn. The tree is the end of the line for the tree-growing process. The acorn, the sapling–these are all stages of the tree’s development, but after it’s fully grown, the tree is done developing. Likewise, Spirit is the end of the line of the Absolute: it is when the Absolute finishes becoming what it is, with each stage along the way. As Spirit, the Absolute knows itself. As Spirit, the Absolute is both subject and object of knowledge. However, it must pass along these stages of incompleteness just as a tree must be first an acorn and a sapling. The truth of the tree is not simply it’s being a tree; it is also the dynamic, temporal unfolding of itself.

Wissenschaft, Begriff (Science and Concept), and the Negative

“That the True is actual only as system, or that Substance is essentially Subject, is expressed in the representation of the Absolute as Spirit–the most sublime Notion” (page 14 §25).

In this sentence, we get a bunch of the keywords so far: True, Substance, Subject, Absolute, and Spirit. The two new words that need sorting out are system and Notion. Hegel (and other German Idealists) use the term Wissenschaft, and translators tend to render it in English as “science” or “system.” The German term comes from Wissen (knowledge) and the particle -schaft, which attaches to a noun and to make a new noun meaning, “The condition of being [that noun].” Compare the English “-ship,” as in “friendship”: the condition of being friends. Wissenschaft in German, then, connotes any condition of being knowledge, or any systematic organization of knowledge. Keep this in mind because whenever the word “science” appears in Hegel, it is tempting to try find a link to white lab coats, mixing chemicals, and measuring the speed of falling objects. Hegel does not mean “science” in this sense. Rather, he means simply the idea of an organized knowing, a system of thought. As we read on, it even becomes clear that “science” in fact means The Phenomenology of Spirit (It’s worth noting that the original title for the book was going to be, “Science of the Experience of Consciousness.”).

According to Hegel, we cannot have immediate access to The Absolute in its fullness. That is, Spirit cannot immediately and impatiently know itself. Just as a tree must pass through the various preparatory stages of its development, so must Spirit pass through its various formative moments. Science, for Hegel, means this attention to the progressive unfolding of the various stages of Spirit: “The Spirit that [. . .] knows itself as Spirit, is Science (pg14 §25).

The second term of this heading is Begriff, which is typically translated as “concept” but which in Hegel studies is often translated as “Notion” (to the annoyance of German-speaking Hegel scholars everywhere). In short, Begriff and “concept” are etymological similar. “Concept” is from the Latin com (“together”) and capere (“take”). Similarly, Begriff is from the root verb greifen (“seize,” compare to the English “grip”). That is, Begriff is both a moment of understanding as well as a moment of seizing or holding together. This German word is closely related to the verb Begreifen, which means “comprehend” or “understand.” Finally, it’s connected to the adjective begreifende, which Miller translates as “speculative.” The point to keep in mind is that Hegel deliberately attempts to play on the meanings of one root, but Miller’s translation largely disperses that meaning throughout various unconnected translations.

By the term “Concept,” Hegel designates two main ideas. One is conceptualization as an activity, or the concept of concepts. We might say in English, “The lion lives in Africa,” meaning not some precise lion, but all lions. Similarly, “concept” in Hegel sometimes means “all concepts.” The other, more particular meaning of concept is trickier. Certainly it does not mean an abstract idea. Rather, “concept” seems to mean something like the index of a being, the pointing at its potential completion. Look at this sentence, for example, “Just as little as a building is finished when its foundation has been laid, so little is the achieved Notion of the whole the whole itself” (pg7 §12). The foundation in some sense refers to the entire building and is a necessary component of it, yet the foundation is insufficient by itself.

Thus, the term “Concept” (or “Notion”) is closely connected to a stage of the development of Science and, by extension, Spirit. Recall that stages of development can be looked at from two opposite directions. On the one hand, a stage is itself in its own fullness, even as the culmination of previous stages. On the other hand, a stage must give way to a later stage and is, in this sense, circumscribed or limited by its own negation. We have to always remember this interplay of what something is in-itself and what something is for-another when reading Hegel. Between these two vantage points is the negative, which Hegel even calls “death.” Go back to the acorn-tree example. On the one hand, the acorn is true as acorn. On the other hand, as tree, the acorn is retrospectively seen to be false. What does the acorn experience at the moment of becoming sapling? Quite simply, it is death, the negation of itself, the dissolution of the acorn:

[T]his is the tremendous power of the negative; it is the energy of though, of the pure ‘I’. Death, if that is what we want to call this non-actuality, is of all things the most dreadful, and to hold fast what is dead requires the greatest strength [. . . .] But the life of Spirit is not the life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation, but rather the life that endures it and maintains itself in it. It wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself. It is this power, not as something positive, which closes its eyes to the negative, as when we say of something that it is nothing or is false, and then, having done with it, turn away and pass on to something else; on the contrary, Spirit is this power only by looking the negative in the face, and tarrying with it. This tarrying with the negative is the magical power that converts it into being. (page 19 §32).


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