The Phenomenology of Spirit: C. Individuality, Reason as lawgiver and Reason as testing laws

In finishing the long chapter on Reason, we should expect to find a transition that shows the reason for the next section on Spirit. Indeed, we find exactly that, just as we found similar transitions between sections at the end of “Consciousness” and “Self-Consciousness.” However, unlike the shift from, for example, Self-consciousness to Reason, the movement from Reason to Spirit has been anticipated for a long while. If we put aside the Preface (which was written last), then before the section on Reason, there was only one mention of Reason [Vernuft] as a moment of consciousness. On the other hand, before the chapter entitled “Spirit,” the word Geist has appeared about a hundred times. As the title The Phenomenology of Spirit suggests, there is something about Spirit that warrants special attention.

Before turning to the specific pages we read for today, I want to spend some time looking at a couple of instances of “Spirit” that have appeared so far and that might shed light on the specific import of today’s reading within the context of a shift from Reason to Spirit.

If we continue to put aside the Preface, the first mention of the term Geist comes from the Introduction, ¶77. The previous paragraph discussed the inadequacy of a conventional science and declared the necessity of Hegel’s phenomenological method, which would be “an exposition of how knowledge makes its appearance” in its various stages. In ¶77 he writes that this exposition is not a science; it should be thought of as “the path of natural consciousness which presses forward to true knowledge; or as the way of the Soul which journeys through the series of its own configurations as though they were the stations appointed for it by its own nature, so that it may purify itself for the life of the Spirit, and achieve finally, through a completed experience of itself, the awareness of what it really is in itself.” In other words, the goal of Hegel’s phenomenological method is to show how naive, uneducated “natural consciousness” comes to bridge the gap between the knowing (as subjective process) and the known (as object).

Fast forward to the chapter on Self-Consciousness and we find another mention of Spirit just before the subchapter on Lordship and Bondage (paragraphs 175-177). In ¶175, Hegel establishes that “Self-consciousness achieves its satisfaction only in another self-consciousness.” In other words, self-consciousness only becomes what it really is in transcending its own specificity. A little further down we read: 

A self-consciousness, in being an object, is just as much ‘I’ as ‘object’. With this, we already have before us the Notion of Spirit. What still lies ahead for consciousness is the experience of what Spirit is–this absolute substance which is the unity of the different independent self-consciousnesses which, in their opposition, enjoy perfect freedom and independence: the “I” that is “We” and the “We” that is “I.” (¶177, page 110)

Putting together these two mentions of Spirit (and there are many more that I overlooked), we get a sense of what Spirit is: it is the unity of consciousness with its object and also of specific consciousness with the universal consciousness. We will soon to the actual section called “Spirit,” so I want to take a few minutes to review the argument so far by focusing on the evolving relationship that natural Consciousness has with its objects in the various moments of development discussed so far.

In Consciousness, the object is always in itself; it is that which is for me but not-I. However, the progressions through Consciousness reveals a constant undoing of this seeming insularity of the object (and the I) until we finally come to the next stage. In Self-consciousness, the object is still at first an external thing, but it is one that Self-consciousness must actively negate in order to produce its “I.” The truth of Self-consciousness comes about when the specific “I” finds itself in another self-consciousness—when the specific “I” gives way to the universal “I.” The relationship of lordship and bondage that results form the mortal battle produces a slave who must not negate the world straight away but instead work on it to produce objects of pleasure for the master.

Reason is a continuation of the slave’s labour in that in Reason, the “I” can put up with the world for the first time—it does not crave the world’s negation. In fact, at this point a new mode of subjectivity comes about: the “pure category” or just “category.” Recall that the pure category is an equivalence of “I” and reality:

the category means this, that self-consciousness and being are the same essence, the same, not through comparison, but in and for themselves [. . . .] But now this category or simple unity of self-consciousness and being possesses difference in itself; for its essence is just this, to be immediately one and selfsame in otherness, or in absolute difference.” (¶235, page 142)

This positive relation of the I to its object results in science or the observation of nature, the discovery of the structure of the world. However, this search in the world is really a search that the “I” has for itself, and that is why we end up with (in Hegel’s case) phrenology, the study of human’s physical characteristics as keys to knowing their non-physical characteristics.

At the end of beginning of the second section on Reason, Hegel announces that we already have Spirit. Nonetheless, even though Spirit is here, it is only in an immediate, uncomprehended way: “In other words, the ethical order exists merely as something given.” (¶354) That is, social norms appear in the thingly form of objects  to be rejected in order for (naive) self-consciousness to assert itself, just as earlier consciousness had set itself against natural givens.

At the beginning of the section we are discussing today (which Mike covered last time), self-consciousness realised the disingenuousness of setting itself up in opposition to a reality which confronts it—the reality here is the ethical substance or social conventions, not natural objects, life, etc that consciousness and self-consciousness busied themselves negating. Self-consciousness, “being now absolutely certain of its reality, no longer seeks only to realize itself as End in an antithesis to the reality which immediately confronts it but, on the contrary, has the category as such for the object of its consciousness” (236, ¶394). It is here that we finally get a theory of action. I stress theory because clearly we had action before—proto-self-consciousness consumes; the slave labours; observing Reason conducts experiments—but this action was not thought through. Now, however, self-consciousness deliberately acts, and in acting, produces itself for itself and for others (in that the product of my labor is an object and so accessible by others).

Finally, die Sache selbst (“heart of the matter” or “matter at hand”) is my labor abstracted from the contingent successes or failures that befall it. Die Sache selbst is at one moment a narcissistic exercise of my ability to act masquerading as a selfless concern with work; at another moment it is my genuine interest in the work, although this genuine interest hides behind the veneer of individual expression—and it’s the same for everyone else. In other words, in pursuing our own private interests, we contribute to a common world of things, but in contributing to the world of things, we express our own individuality. This sounds a lot like Spirit, but we don’t as yet recognise the “I” that is “We” and the “We” that is “I.”

Now we can turn to the readings for today.

b. Reason as lawgiver


Consciousness has overcome a lot of its previous divisions: between individual and universal, between content and form, between certainty and truth, between purpose and reality. Die Sache selbst “is therefore the ethical substance; and consciousness of it is the ethical consciousness.” That is, die Sache selbst is on the object-side and ethical consciousness is on the subject-side. However, “self-consciousness cannot and does not want any more to go beyond this object, for in it, it is in communion with itself: it cannot for it is all being and all power; it does not want to, for it is the self or the will of this self” (¶420). However, from this (co-)identity, self-consciousness divides itself into Massen, a word which Miller translates as “masses,” Pinkard translates as “social spheres,” and in modern German can be translated as “dimensions” (among other things). Whatever word we use, we are looking at the way in which a multitude of determinations arises from a simple, single co-identity. A similar division already happened earlier with the introduction of “the category” (see ¶235, page 142).


These dimensions appear immediately and we cannot ask for their origin; they appear timeless and axiomatic. Reason knows law immediately as what is good and right, and so too it knows the law is valid immediately. That is, it has an original or untaught understanding of laws and their authority. They are, as it were, immediately known and written on the heart. In sense-certainty, we needed to examine what is declared as immediately known, and so here we must ask what these laws are which immediately known. As we will see, whenever we examine them thus, they lose their potency. Two examples suffice to demonstrate the failure of giving laws this way.

424: “Everyone one ought to speak the truth.”

This duty seems clear enough on the surface, but it bears a silent condition which is “if one knows the truth.” Of course, Sound Reason, “which knows immediately what is right and good, will explain that this condition was already so much part and parcel of that universal maxim that this is how it meant that commandment to be understood.” However, in saying that which it does not mean, has not Sound Reason violated its own rule? That is, what it said is different from what it meant, which means it did not speak the truth. We might improve the law by saying “Everyone ought to speak the truth to the extent to which as one knows it,” but the supposed law seems to become more and more contingent because it lets you say whatever you want as long as you don’t know the truth. That is, the law is supposed to be universal, but it reveals itself to be more and more contingent. Eventually, the law basically ends up saying, “Everyone ought to know the truth and then speak it,” but the injunction to “know” is an empty one: “What is demanded is, therefore, really something free of all specific content.” This hollowing out of Sound Reason’s content such that it is left only with a form will be the theme addressed in the next section.

¶425. The second ethical law Hegel examines is “Love thy neighbour as thyself.” This law also bears a silent injunction which is to love intelligently, for a stupid, reckless loving might do more harm than good. Interestingly, Hegel here notes that the silent injunction of “love intelligently” correlates to loving your neighbour the way the state would. Why do we get the state here? As Hegel writes, Intelligent, substantial beneficence is, however, in its richest and most important form the intelligent universal action of the state.” The reason he uses the state can be found earlier, when he writes that

“In a free nation [. . .] Reason is in truth realized. It is a present living Spirit in which the individual not only finds his essential character, i.e. his universal and particular nature, expressed, and present to him in the form of thinghood, but is himself this essence, and also has realised that essential character. The wisest men of antiquity have therefore declared that wisdom virtue consist in living in accordance with the customs of one’s nation. (¶352, page 214)

In other words, Hegel is not thinking of the state as we might think of it as the government as somehow divided from and possibly oppressing the people. Rather, “the state” would seem to be equivalent with “the nation” in Hegel, with both terms designating the customs and mores of a community (more on this later).

At any rate, an individual cannot love his/her neighbour intelligently, or at least cannot know he/she is doing so, and thus the only act of beneficence left is helping someone in an emergency. Again, a supposedly universal law reveals itself to be highly contingent. “In other words, such laws stop short at Ought, they have not actuality; they are not laws, but merely commandments.”

¶426-8. The commandments we are left with find themselves unable to be applied to specific cases. That is, their content has vanished and all that remains are the commandments as form. Sound Reason can posit commandments and determine whether or not they are consistent in their formulation.

c. Reason as testing laws

¶429 In the previous section, we were focused on the object-side of the equation, the ethical substance, to see what laws we could make. We found out the answer is none and that the job or reason is to evaluate commandments for their internal consistency. Now we are working with the universal not as a content or object (something known), but rather as a form or subjective process (the knowing) for its internal consistency: “it is concerned with the commandment simply as commandment.” In Kantian language, this way of thinking about law is analytic, not synthetic.

¶430. But for this very reason, we get nowhere because any content is just as good as any other. Take the example: “Ought it to be an absolute law that there should be property?” Reason as testing laws can only evaluate whether or not this idea contradicts itself. However, both the idea of property (individual disposal of things) and non- or public property (collective dispensation of things) make sense. Moreover, if we try to apply this law to specific cases, it becomes contradictory as when we say in favour of non-property “everyone should have what he needs,” in which case we are no longer talking about property, or we can say “property will be equally distributed,” and so need goes out the window.

¶431. The same problem applies to property if we think of a thing that is for everyone but somehow for me more. My ownership of it contradicts its universal thinghood. Both examples (property and non-property) contain “these two opposed, self-contradictory moments of individuality and universality.” Tautology is useless in deciding laws.

¶432. In both making and testing laws, the “result therefore seems to be that neither specific laws nor a knowledge of them is admissible.” We cannot derive specific laws from reason’s consciousness of itself as the pure category (compare ¶419). Nonetheless, the ethical substance is not dissolved in this casuistry; instead, (1) law giving and law testing in isolation is futile, and (2) the ethical substance appears in consciousness as form.

¶434. These moments of law giving and law testing appear as the busy work of the “honest” consciousness (compare ¶415). Giving specific laws violates the ethical consciousness because the specific law has a contingent content; thus, “[t]o legislate immediately in that way is thus the tyrannical insolence which makes caprice into a law and ethical behaviour into obedience to such caprice.” Likewise, the second moment of testing laws is nothing but an insolence that argues itself into freedom from all law. We get, it seems, a duplication of the law of the heart and “pleasure and necessity.”

¶435-6. Both giving and testing laws is a moment of spiritual reversion because the ethical substance (the immediate sense of right and wrong) is held to be something apart from an individual. But we have gotten past that stage of the individual positing itself against the world, so these antitheses disappear. That is, “[t]he spiritual being thus exists first of all for self-consciousness as law which has an intrinsic being; the universality associated with testing the law, a merely formal, not an essential universality, is now behind us.” (¶436).

The shape of Hegel’s discussion in these sections has been that of the reductio ad absurdum, the argument based on false premises that ends in absurdity, thereby showing the premise to have been false. Hegel does not take this route, which would entail rejecting the idea of Sound Reason or commonsense. Instead, he says the problem was in thinking we could speak the immediate legitimacy of Sound Reason at all. The law is not separate from the one who knows it:

“The law is equally an eternal law which is grounded not in the will of a particular individual, but is valid in and for itself; it is the absolute pure will of all which has the form of immediate being [. . . . It] is the universal ‘I’ of the category, the ‘I’ which is immediately a reality, and the world is only this reality” (¶436).

That does not mean the I believes in the law in an act of faith that leaps across the chasm of unjustifiability; the language of belief still implies separation of the two things. Instead, “Ethical self-consciousness is immediately one with essential being through the universality of its self.” (¶436).

¶437. The laws are thus not something we can inquire into or justify. They are law because they are law; “They are, and nothing more; this is what constitutes the awareness of its relationship to them.” From some brief secondary reading, it seems to me that most scholars agree that these laws are the manners and habits that permeate a society, allowing its members to get along. If these “laws” are ethical substance, then “Ethical disposition consists just in sticking steadfastly to what is right, and abstaining from all attempts to move or shake it.” I follow laws because they are right, and any justification of why the laws are right is pointless and possibly even perilous: “as a soon as I start to test them I have already begun to tread an unethical path.”


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