The Phenomenology of Spirit: B. Self Consciousness, (B) Freedom of Self-Consciousness

This will be the reading for Saturday, January 18th’s meeting.  We will meet at 4:00 here.

In this portion of the Phenomenology, we finally see the emergence of something recognizable as a thinking person.  Servile self-consciousness found a measure of independence in fearful work, and through this independence discovered freedom of thought, in which the distinction between master and slave became null.  The master was supposed to be essential, while the slave was inessential; now, the free self-consciousness sees both the essential and inessential within itself.  This freedom passes through three moments.  The initial moment is stoicism, which is the attempt to ignore the world in favor of one’s own detached view on it; eventually, this detached view runs amuck and becomes skepticism, which completely negates the world that stoicism was merely detached from.  The skeptic attempts to purify thought of anything inessential; yet in its complete negation of any determinate position, it constantly vacillates between falling into bullshit fanciful opinions and that higher hope of a purified knowledge.  Skepticism eventually recognizes that it is split between these two poles, and becomes the unhappy consciousness, a position which is anxiously trapped between the knowledge of its own Earthbound particularity and the inaccessibility of an unchangeable beyond.

Freedom of Thought

Self-consciousness gained independence through working on an object, and in reflecting upon this, begins to take itself as an object of work.  The new form of consciousness is a self-fashioned object: “We are in the presence of self-consciousness in a new shape, a consciousness which, as the infinitude of consciousness, or as its own pure movement, is aware of itself as essential being, a being which thinks or is a free consciousness.”  (§197)

This equation of thought and freedom has a very specific meaning.  Hegel makes a distinction between thinking as “picture-thoughts” and thinking as conceptual.  He claims that the distinction between picture-thoughts and concepts is that pictures can be separated from consciousness – we might refer to picture thoughts as representations of the world without any particular connection to one’s own consciousness.  Concepts, however, are always my concepts.  Concepts are always in consciousness.  The independent self-consciousness takes its own being-for-itself as its object; in thinking, the object is its concept in its consciousness – and so it is free.  It is only in communion with itself, not an other.  Freedom of thought is dwelling upon the concept’s in one’s own head.


This freedom of self-consciousness is stoicism, and for it, this sort of naval-gazing conceptual work is the most important thing: “The manifold self-differentiating expanse of life, with all its detail and complexity, is the object on which desire and work operate.  This manifold activity has now contracted into the simple positing of differences in the pure movement of thinking.” (§199)  What is important is not a specific object or a specific life, only the differences posited by thought – i.e., the differences posited by the stoic himself.  Anything that might override the flow of stoic thought is negated, so this free consciousness has a negative attitude towards the master/slave relationship.  The “free” master and slave do not find their truth in the other; this consciousness only wants to be free, “whether on the throne or in chains.”  (§199)  This freedom is an indifferent withdrawal from the bustle of life, a retreat into thought.  As a form of Spirit, stoicism could only appear at a time of fear and bondage, and a time when culture had raised itself to thought (all of which seems like a clear description of the life and times of Emperor Aurelius and the slave Epictetus).

Stoic self-consciousness’s essence is not an other or an abstract I (like it was for consciousness in the previous part), but rather an I that has its differences within itself, as a multitude of thoughts.  Whatever otherness or difference that exist for the stoic is just itself.  Hence, its freedom is only a form of thought; Hegel says it “lacks the fullness of life.”  It is freedom in principle.  The problem with “freedom in principle” is that thinking and individuality need content: concepts of the good and the true.  But in stoicism, concepts are abstract and only have the content self-consciousness gives to them.  So stoicism could never really answer the question what is good and true with anything other than a general “what is reasonable.”  These are uplifting thoughts, but they can never get at any content.  Stoicism is a negation of content, but it is a negation that only goes so far; an independent world continues to exist for it.

Say What You Will About the Tenets of Servile Self-Consciousness, at Least It Was an Ethos!

Skepticism is the realization of what stoicism was in principle: it is actual freedom of thought.  It is the negative-in-itself unleashed on the world; while stoicism insisted that one was only responsible for one’s own head, pushing away the outside world, skepticism goes straight to the point: it negates that outside world.  The world is explicitly inessential for skepticism.  More precisely, abstract thought becomes the concrete annihilation of the manifold [of sense, of perception, of all the things that make up daily life].

Stoicism was opposed to the master/slave relation in principle, because one’s position in life is less important than one’s perspective on it (i.e., the differences one posits).  Again, skepticism goes further.  It actually has a negative attitude towards desire and work.  Desire and work could not completely negate the world, but skepticism can, because it is an infinite thinking for which all the differences in the world are only vanishing magnitudes.  The manifold is only a manifold for self-consciousness, and so inessential.  Basically, all the varied elements of the “actual” world, including all the foregoing moments in the Phenomenology, from sense certainty to the master/slave relationship, become trivial.

The negativity of the dialectic looked to consciousness as something that had consciousness at its mercy; but for skepticism, the continual refinement we have seen through the book so far (e.g., the loss of sense-certainty) is something consciousness does.  Skepticism makes the world disappear, and thinks it does so of its own accord.  It not only makes the “other” disappear, it also makes its relation to the other disappear- i.e., perception.  That making everything disappear is how it secures its freedom, how it creates it and experiences it.  The “determinate element”, the fixed and immutable, disappears.

The skeptic sees the flux that stands opposed to its freedom as given by it [the skeptical self-consciousness].  Its self-certainty is not the result of something alien depositing something in it, or a historical becoming.  Rather, it is an absolute dialectical unrest, a bundle of sense and intellectual representations whose only significance is that they are not the skeptical self-consciousness itself.  That insistence on self-identity on the part of skepticism cashes out as “nothing but a purely causal, confused medley, the dizziness of a perpetually self-engendered disorder.”  (§205)  The skeptical self-consciousness knows this; it even admits to it.  “I’m just a guy,” it says.  It claims itself to be a merely empirical individual and ends up following the world it had apparently negated.  But at the same time, it claims for itself a universality and self-identity, because it considers itself to be the negativity of all “singularity and difference.”

Skeptical self-consciousness constantly vacillates between the self-identity which rises above as self-identical and the animality of contingent-being.  It never brings the two sides together.  It finds its freedom in rising above in one moment, and falls into the inessential that it had allegedly purified from itself the next.  It says the inessential vanishes, but it is consciousness of the inessential.  It proclaims the nullity of the senses, but continues to see and hear.  It scoffs at ethics, but is guided by ethical principles.  Its words and deeds always contradict one another.  It keeps the poles of those contradictions apart, and takes a negative attitude towards them.  Point out identity and it will respond with non-identity.  Point that assertion out, and it will respond with identity.  It is like a pair of children who find all their enjoyment in contradicting one another.

“In skepticism, consciousness truly experiences itself as internally contradictory.” (§206)  Now a new form of consciousness appears which does acknowledge the two contradictory poles.  It knows it is “liberated” and self-bewildering,  Skepticism is one consciousness, and so the two sides must be reconciled.  Stoicism was self-consciousness’s freedom; skepticism pushes that to the end and negates otherness; what was once split into two consciousnesses, master and slave, is pushed into one.  We get a dual being: the unhappy consciousness.

A Quick Sketch of The Unhappy Consciousness

The unhappy consciousness sees both the world and itself as divided between harsh, inessential changeability and a merciful, essential unchangeability.  Put another way, the unhappy consciousness is split between Earthly particularity and Heavenly universality.  This split causes enormous existential pain and anxiety, especially since the unchangeable seems so remote.  The unhappy consciousness moves through three moments, three different attempts to assuage this pain.  First, it rushes headlong into religion: it wants to feel God.  This attempt only discovers a vague beyond, so this consciousness returns to Earth and finds itself in work and enjoyment.  Working and enjoyment end up strengthening its sense of individuality, and do not aid in overcoming the apparent gap, so it discovers asceticism and the mediation of a priest who is supposed to directly know this essential unchangeability.  In each moment, the unhappy consciousness realizes that that universal, essential unchangeability it is searching for is contaminated by particular, inessential changeability, and vice versa.


The key to the unhappy consciousness, however, is that it is confused about this division: it is, in fact, the unity of both sides. “The unhappy consciousness itself is the gazing of one self-consciousness into another, and itself is both, and the unity of both is also its essential nature.” (§207)  Remember that in the master/slave relationship, one could only become the master or the slave if the other’s action made them so.  Here, the unhappy consciousness will come to realize that all of this drama is its own drama, and that it contains both sides within it.  It is the unity of the two, but takes them to be obvious opposites  To it, the divide appears completely unbridgeable, and it identifies itself with the inessential.  So it sets about freeing itself from, or purifying itself of, the inessential (which of course is itself).  Conscious of its nothingness, it attempts to raise itself to the unchangeable, the [universal] – but this is the action of a particular consciousness, so it remains aware of itself as particular.  It is a [universal] still dominated by the [particular].  The interplay of essential and inessential is always present:

 “In this moment, however, consciousness experiences just this emergence of individuality  in the unchangeable, and of the unchangeable in individuality.  Consciousness becomes aware of individuality in general in the unchangeable, and at the same time of its own individuality in the latter.  For the truth of this movement is just the oneness of this dual consciousness.”  (§210)

The unhappy consciousness realizes its nothingness, and tries to shave it off to attain an [absolute]; but that movement towards the universal is an action dominated by the particular.  The two sides repel and attract one another – so we see that one comes out of the other, linked:

 “Now, this experience, it is true, is not its own one-sided movement, for it is itself the unchangeable consciousness, and this, consequently, is at the same time a particular individual consciousness too; and the movement is just as much a movement of the unchangeable consciousness, which makes its appearance in that movement as much as the other.” (§211)


The first step on the path to realizing this unity is not actually thinking but rather devotion – because it does not yet relate to itself as a thinking consciousness.  It focuses on bells and incense; it approaches its object, but not conceptually.  So it is the “inward movement of a pure heart,” but painfully divided – it thinks of itself as a pure individuality recognized by its object, but at the same time, the object is unattainably beyond.  It only feels it; it does not know it.  All it really gets is a reflection of itself; even when it tries to turn this beyond into a concrete person, like Jesus, the unchangeable remains beyond the unhappy consciousness’s grasp:

 “Just as, on the one hand, when striving to find itself in the essence it takes hold only of its own separate existence, so on the other hand it cannot lay hold of the ‘other’ as an individual or as an actual Being.  Where that ‘other’ is sought, it cannot be found, for it is supposed to be just a beyond, something that can not be found.  When sought as a particular individual, it is not a universal individuality in the form of thought, not a Notion, but an individual in the form of an object, or an actual individual; an object of immediate sense-certainty, and for that very reason only something that has already vanished.” (§217)

Consciousness stops looking for unchangeable individuality in an actual existence.  Only then can consciousness find individuality in its real universal form.

Work and Enjoyment 

With that apparent retreat, we now come to the second moment – the consciousness that sees the world in terms of desire and work.  It feels that it is separated from the unchangeable, but that feeling is its own feeling.  It does not quite cotton on to the significance of this, however.   If it did, it would recognize the unity of its two sides, rather than feeling the tension between them.  It actually attempts to defend that tension by nullifying the significance of its work.  It believes the world it works on is a gratuitous gift from beyond.  The world, like consciousness itself, continues to appear to be split.  The unchangeable has ceased to be an object or an actual individual, like Greek Orthodox incense or Jesus, and is now rather a powerful force that gives the world to consciousness to be worked on.  However, this powerful force remains a beyond, so consciousness remains anxious.  It gives all credit to this powerful force – for the world and for its own activities.  It renounces the enjoyment and satisfaction it finds in the world, in order to continue denying unity in favor of a split.

Because the unchangeable side renounces its bodily form, and on the other hand, the particular consciousness gives thanks [that is, it denies itself the satisfaction of independence] and assigns everything important to the beyond, it does get a sense of unity with the beyond.  But the division remains, between individual and universal:

“For though consciousness renounces the show of satisfying its feeling of self, it obtains the actual satisfaction of it: for it has been desire, work and enjoyment; as consciousness it has willed, acted and enjoyed.  Similarly, even its giving of thanks, in which it acknowledges the other extreme as the essential Being and counts itself nothing, is its own act which counterbalances the action of the other extreme, and meets the self-sacrificing beneficence with a like action.” (§222)

The apparent renunciation is not real; it reverses into a real sense of individuality.  Sort of, anyways.  The division between a beyond and a living, willing, performing individual remains – but now an independent individual is split off from the unchangeable.  This is the genesis of the third reconciliation attempt.

Forgive Me, For I Have Sinned

This third relationship between the changeable and the unchangeable begins with a consciousness that has proven its individuality through work.  It is an actual individual, certain of its own existence. Yet, in this actuality, it still feels as though its individuality is divided from the unchangeable. It is still tempted to reduce itself – i.e., work, will, enjoyment – to nothingness.  Work and enjoyment withdraw into particularity, which consciousness wants to reduce to nothingness.  This attempt to reduce its worldly activities to nothingness is the discovery of sin, finding Satan in the most trivial of activities.  In criticizing these activities, consciousness remains attached to them.  It is just “a personality brooding over itself, as wretched as it is impoverished.” (§225)  However, both its wretchedness and the poverty of its actions are linked to its unity with the unchangeable.  Getting rid of that junk is mediated by the thought of the unchangeable: “The mediated relation constitutes the essence of the negative movement in which consciousness turns against its particular individuality, but which, qua relation, is in itself positive and will bring consciousness itself to an awareness of its unity with the Unchangeable.” (§226)

“This mediated relation,” that is, an apparent alienation via sin that actually relies on a relation to the unchangeable, is a syllogism: the unchangeable is related to the inessential, and vice versa, via a conscious being. “This middle term is itself a conscious Being [the mediator], for it is an action which mediates consciousness as such; the content of this action is the extinction of its particular individuality which consciousness is undertaking.” (§227)

The mediator is a priest.  As “an independent extreme,” the particular consciousness projects responsibility onto a priest.  The mediator priest, having a direct connection to the unchangeable, mediates by giving advice.  Consciousness learns to follow orders; its actions are not its own. More specifically, it is the will that consciousness gives up to the priest; this inessential consciousness keeps the objective for itself – that is, its enjoyment and the fruits of its labors.  So it rejects those as well, for three reasons: first, partly because they are reminders of its independence; renouncing them becomes doing what is foreign to it, “a thinking and speaking of what is meaningless to it.”  Second, because they are external possessions – it gives away part of its fruit.  Finally, because they are reminders of its independent enjoyment.

 “Through these moments of surrender, first of its right to decide for itself, then of its property and enjoyment, and finally through the positive moment of practicing what it does not understand, it truly and completely deprives itself of the consciousness of inner and outer freedom, of the actuality in which consciousness exists for itself.” (§229)

It has turned itself into a thing; it has divested itself of its I.  Only this way does the consciousness really manage to think of everything as a gift from above.

So consciousness has nullified will, work and enjoyment, but it has also nullified its misery.  Though relief has been obtained, all of this was the action of “intrinsic being.”  The sacrifice made by the inessential was not one-sided, but contained the action of the other.  Surrounding the will is only negative in one aspect – at the same time, it is positive – that is, “the positing of will as the will of an ‘other,’ and specifically of will, not as a particular, but as a universal will.”  This is taken by consciousness to be the will of the other extreme – so it does become actual as an other – not through the Unhappy consciousness, but through the priest.  It is a universal will, but not consciousness’s own will.  The same with giving up possessions and enjoyment – it is not its own doing: “This unity of objectivity and being-for-self, which lies in the notion of action, and which therefore becomes for consciousness an object – this unity is not the principle of its action, and so too it does not become an object for consciousness, directly and through itself.” (§230)

Rather, it lets the priest express that certainty, but it is an incomplete certainty – its misery is in principle the reverse.  But. . .

 “But for itself, action and its own actual doing remain pitiable, its enjoyment remains pain, and the overcoming of these in a positive sense remains a beyond.  But in this object, in which it finds that its own action and being, as the being of this particular consciousness, are being and action in themselves, there has arisen for consciousness the idea of Reason, of the certainty, in its particular individuality, it has being absolutely in itself, or is all reality.” (§230)

Basically, consciousness comes to realize the process that has been working itself out all along: the inessential and the essential, the changeable and the unchangeable, are always intertwined and dependent upon one another.  Any ideas as to why this new consciousness is called “Reason”?


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